The magic school bus situation in Guatemala

They are a total phenomenon.

I will do my very best to describe just how special these things are but know already before I've begun that there is just no way for me to capture the full glory of these mechanical wonders of the world.

These refurbished Blue Bird school buses are the preferred method of travel by Guatemalans. They are fun, scary, fast, loud, extremely intimidating, and mandatorily manned by a team of two: a chauffeur and his helper. Always bright colors on the exterior and the party on the inside consistently matches the outside.

Fun fact: these buses come from Canadian and American school districts. Many district policies state that when a bus reaches the 10-year mark and has over 240000Km in mileage, the vehicle is sold off at auction. Depending on the bus's condition, they usually sell for anywhere between $1500 and $3000USD. They are purchased, then driven down to Guatemala to be completely pimped out with paint, accessories, and loads of chrome.

So you want to go somewhere. Let's say the capital city from our town of San Juan La Laguna. In a car, that's 4 hours, in a chicken bus, 3. That's because these special buses are somehow capable of going at least 1.25 faster than any other vehicle while still managing to stop in every town at least 2-3 times to upload and offload passengers.

Learning the routes as best as possible before getting onboard has been crucial for traveling for our family. The helper's job is to get as many people on board as humanly possible, even if it includes lying about where they go! The more I ride these unique unicorns, the more I realize that a "we go there" from the helper could mean "we don't go there, but we'll take you somewhere else and you can get onto a different bus to get to where you want to go once you arrive at where you don't want to be. It may take you an extra 2-3 hours but I don't care, get on." You can always expect a cranked radio blasting ranchero, salsa, or merengue music to take your mind off the gnarly twists and turns while these whales gracefully maneuver through the tight switchbacks that go up and down the mountains.

Foreigners call them "chicken buses" since you are likely to find all kinds of wild cargo: chickens, dogs, massive funeral flower arrangements, bookshelves, etc. People here aren't afraid to use this public transit to transport anything.

Bus stops or terminals are 100% not needed. You can flag one of these chicken buses down at any point of the highway with a wave. In fact, if you are even standing near the road, the helper who always rides standing in the open doorway will yell at you and try to convince you to go wherever the bus is going. Once you are on the bus, you can always count on an adventure, white knuckles, and many things that feel like heart attacks but aren't.

The last bus I rode was from Guatemala City back here to San Juan; during that ride, at one point, I counted 88 people on our 18 seat school bus. That's three people per seat with an utterly packed-out aisle. COVID? What COVID? Social distancing? What's that? In a country riddled with poverty, not getting to work, waiting longer, or bus owners not taking advantage and filling their buses is just not an option. The threat of malnutrition is far more significant and tangible than COVID in a place like this, and the priorities show in the actions taken.

Interestingly, when writing this, Guatemala remains at 60th on the COVID table just below South Korea and far below America and Canada, with no (actual) social distancing enforced. They still have those sticker marker thingies on the floor everywhere and even on the chicken buses, but they are just for decoration. Even when the bus is that packed, vendors will still get on board and sell anything: literally. Over 20 vendors hopped on and off that same bus and made their way through to sell their goods. These vendors will sell items like meat-filled tortillas, doughnuts, cookies, pies, fruit, and candy but will also stand in front of the bus and yell out a sales pitch for things like pain relief medication or cell phone selfie-sticks. They will give each passenger the product to hold onto and collect either the money or the merchandise back. This method is especially effective when dealing with potential children clients when selling candy.

I don't want to stop talking about the vendors yet.

I will give a specific example of a typical speech before distributing the products. Note: I am not exaggerating in the slightest.

"Dear passengers of this blessed bus,

On this special day, I come before you as a man, friend, and fellow citizen of this beautiful country looking for the opportunity of making an honest living. Thanks to people like you, I have employment and no longer have to dedicate my time to life as a gangster, robbing, or delinquency. Today the product I am bringing you are delicious strawberry marshmallow cookies with a scrumptious topping of shredded coconut to help change the current flavor of your mouth. These cookies are a product of Guatemala. I will be distributing them to each and every one of you so that you may check the expiry date and verify that they are good and will be of good health for your consumption" ...the shpeal goes on for another 5 minutes. Product distribution occurs on the seller's way towards the back of the bus, and then the money and cookies are recollected on his or her's way out. This. Over and over and over for the duration of the ride. The only thing that changes is the product, and once in a while, they aren't selling a product at all, they're selling salvation.

That's right. The business of preaching on the busses of Guatemala is thriving right now, with highly theatrical preachers also getting their crack at passenger's wallets by preaching for about 20 minutes, laying hands on the driver and praying for the bus, and then proceeding to "take an offering." These preachers maybe, just MAYBE, could be capitalizing on the fact that these passengers' lives are flashing before their eyes several times throughout the trip. Either way, prayers for safety are never a bad thing when the veil between life and death is as cellophane-see-through-thin as when on these buses. I have been "that guy" so often to yell at the driver to stop texting or using the phone while driving a stickshift school bus full of people down a busy mountain highway at 130km+ per hour. (I've had other passengers thank me for doing so, which was reassuring that I'm... not crazy??) Funny enough, the last time I did so, I regretted it as the helper also started to get mad at the chauffeur for using his phone. Perhaps it's an ongoing issue between them, but it did make things worse because they began to punch at one another...while continuing the route.

So why do they go so fast?

Since only so many pedestrians can be passengers, it becomes a race to harvest them. Although every bus starts on a schedule, anything goes after that initial start time. By evening the result of this is a chrome road hog derby where their jockeys race one another (many times neck and neck) towards the main hubs where passengers tend to congregate.

Well, I hope I have been able to transport you all into this insane form of transport enough to get the gest of it. If not, come join me for my next trip into the city. Who needs roller coasters when you can ride a chicken bus?


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