Monday, March 1, 2010

An Introduction to the Chicken Buses

I've been waiting (excitedly) for a while to write this blog. I wanted to make sure I had good enough photos, because I decided on day #1 in this country that this topic definitely deserved its very own blog post. So here you have it, Guatemala's favorite mode of transportation -- the chicken buses!

The chicken buses (or camionetas) are the most popular way to get around in Guatemala. They run from city to city all throughout the country, and they will literally let you on or off wherever you want. Literally, wherever. "I want to get off at the yellow restaurant across from the field." "Ok." And if you stand on the side of the road and stick your hand out, any bus will stop for you.

All the buses are old school buses donated from the United States. They've been painted in out-of-control colors on the outside, and the insides are decorated with paintings, posters, booming sound systems, tattoo-like art and religious icons. It's quite a sight to see.

You also don't get your own seat on a camioneta. No way, José. You fit as many people as possible onto the bus. That means there are a minimum of three people to a seat, and more like five. (Remember, these are standard school bus seats -- not so large.) I have quickly lost any necessity for personal space, because there definitely isn't much of that when you're squished in between a woman with her baby wrapped up on her back and another woman carrying her 20-pound bag of fruits and vegetables for sale.

Each chicken bus team consists of a driver and an assistant. The assistant screams the camioneta's destination out the door of the speeding bus at people who are standing on the side of the road, trying to convince them to take his bus. He climbs up on top of the bus (again, while speeding down the road) to adjust people's backpacks, suitcases, and market goods that are strapped to the top, and he somehow climbs back into the bus without dying. It's nuts!

More chicken bus etiquette: You sit down first and pay later. You squeeze your way into a seat, and then after five minutes or so, the bus assistant comes around to take your money. He magically remembers who has paid and who hasn't. And you better know how much to pay in advance (by asking friends or local Guatemalans), or you will get ripped off. It's guaranteed.

There are also tons of well-known places to change buses in Guatemala. Chimal (the town nearby us) is a major place to change buses, and so is a spot a few hours away along the highway known as Los Encuentros. You literally hop off the bus onto the side of the road (no fancy terminals or signs or anything here, we are talking side of the highway), tell the first random person where you are trying to go, and they'll direct you to another bus. It's sort of a zoo, but it actually works really well! And while they will always rip you off on the bus fee because you are a foreigner, people here are SO helpful when it comes to getting you on the right bus. It's great!

So there you have it, an intro to the chicken buses. Yes, at first, you're absolutely scared for your life, but just get used to it. We take the buses all the time, and so now we don't even think twice when we climb into the bus through the back emergency door, sit six people to a seat, and thank God we didn't puke during all the hairpin turns. No big deal.

What an adventure. :)

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