Thursday, February 28, 2013

El Caminoneta

The jeepneys of the Philippines are pretty cool, but on this side of the Pacific, we have the camionetas, commonly called Chicken Buses by non-Guatemalans.

Retired American school buses – many transformed into gaudy circus-like vehicles, others, still bright yellow and with US school districts still prominently marked – are the public transport of choice for the masses. You see them chugging through the snarled messes of urban traffic belching black exhaust; you see them barreling down rural highways; you see them in the newspapers with lurid healines describing another hold up.

Loved, reviled, targeted.

It was not my introduction into public transport, Guate Style. That would be the “collectivo,” a pickup truck with benches put into the bed and, often, a metal frame overhead.

In all modes of public transport, it seems that seat capacity and REAL capacity are 2 different things. Here in Guate, real capacity means “how many can you possibly squeeze in?” Every collectivo, combi (van) and camioneta is like a college/high school challenge. If only these people knew about the phone booth or VW Beetle challenge – they’d win every time.
Pack 'em in!

My first collectivo ride was the short distance between Santa Catarina and Panajachel. We’d walked the 5 kms or so in the blazing heat, so I was happy for the ride.

All you need to do is stick your arm out. The next public vehicle to come by will stop and let you on.

Our collectivo was already full. The benches were all taken and people were standing in the bed, holding onto “the cage.” Meaning, it was nowhere near full. We’ve seen collectivos where in order to pack more people, everyone stands. And, although it’s a bit more dangerous, there’s always the bumper to stand on, which was what we did on our way back to Pana.

The other mode of quick local transport is the rather boring tuktuk, a motorcycle taxi. These that are sometimes called “motos”ought to be more colorful!

When it comes to thrills, though, nothing can beat El Caminoneta. 

First, it's super local. 99% of the passengers will be regular, ordinary Guatemalans. Getting on one is easy -- there are attendants who will find YOU, find out where YOU want to go and either pull you onto their vehicle or point you in the right direction. Getting off is a bit more of a challenge. Oftentimes, you'll find yourself on a bus going in your direction but it's up to you to figure out where to get off to change buses.
Inside a typical camioneta.

We've missed our stop as often as not, but everyone is very helpful, so when in doubt, ask another passenger. Study a map before venturing onto a camioneta, check out the crossroads and major towns along the way, then double check with the attendant before boarding.

The attendants are amazing. They are spotters for the drivers, ticket collectors, baggage handlers. They can maneuver their way through a packed bus, collecting fares from new passengers. I've never seen them miss any, nor have I seen them go back to passengers from whom they've already collected.

Vendors also board the bus at major stops to sell ice cream, drinks, snacks (despite the sign in English above the window saying "No Food or Drink",) mini Bibles, newspapers... And on nearly every ride, something crazy happens. For example:

Between Los Encuentros and Chichicastenango, we were giggling and singing along to the loud, sappy music -- a song with the refrain "tu y yo" where some singers sang "yo" while others sang "jo" -- when suddenly the music stops. A guy standing near the front who was playing with the dead squirrel (placed on the rack above, like some sort of morbidly disgusting trophy) gets up and begins a very animated presentation a la snake oil vendor. 

At first, I thought he was an Evangelist -- he kept mentioning Dios -- but then his product came out. A small cylindrical vial which he opens to dump out some translucent jelly, "Super Jaguar Balm." "It works for everything -- headache, arthritis, any kind of dolor. Are you a housewife? Then you know how all that work makes you sore, give you stiff shoulders. Just rub Super Jaguar Balm and it all goes away. But wait! It's not just for muscle pain! Got indigestion? A stomachache? This Miracle Balm works on EVERYTHING. And it's safe for children, too. OK now, everyone wants one, right? It's just 10 little quetzales. Just diez quetzalitos..." 

He started handing the vials out and I was amazed at how many people bought the stuff. Guess it helps to have a very Captive Audience. The whole thing was so entertaining we missed our stop -- it wasn't until we saw a town way behind us and nothing up ahead that we realized what had happened and we had to hop off and onto another bus going back to Chichi.

From Chichi back to Los Encuentros (is this the Crazy Ride segment?) we get on a very packed bus. The seats for 2 school kids are meant for 3 Guatemalans and my butt is perched on the edge of one of the seats near the front (always crowded because Guatemalans want to be the first to disembark, and after one of these Crazy Rides, you understand why.) Big Dog's pack is near the door which remains open for the attendant to peer out, looking out for traffic. And the driver is absolutely insane. He takes curves too fast, passes EVERY SINGLE VEHICLE on this small 2 lane road (with a sheer drop on one side,) honking at oncoming vehicles. And the road is super curvy so everyone is being flung right and left. Trying not to get mashed into the person next to me, I keep a firm eye on Big Dog's pack. I have no idea what I'll do once it does get flung out of the bus. Maybe the attendant will jump out to retrieve it?

And all during this Crazy Ride, there is this Crazy Music playing, like some kind of demented Chaplin-esque soundtrack. It's a fast-tempoed marimba number -- like something you would hear at Disneyland. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, indeed!

Squirrels are scurrying up ahead as the driver guns it some more. The squirrels are too fast. Drats. The driver and attendant exchange glances. I am starting to think the dead squirrel on the other bus really was a trophy!

Plinky-plinky-plinky-plinky... the crazy music continued and we continued to get flung, far right and far left. What a movie that would have made, except we were too busy holding onto the seat in front (and our lives!) to even think of bringing out the camera. I am trying to forget how many times we nearly crashed into oncoming traffic, but we all made it to Los Encuentros without a scratch.

Every time we find a local newspaper, we go through it and I am amazed at how much these buses are targeted by criminals. I guess it's because there is always cash on the buses and this is a country where people go to all lengths just to get a quetzal. Apparently a bus driver is THE most dangerous occupation in Guatemala. That must be why it attracts psychopathic risk takers. The Chichi-Los Encuentros guy definitely fit that bill!

But wait. It's really not just the drivers. The passengers must be a little fond of risk taking, too.

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