I have already written about what it’s like to take the bus in Guatemala, but sometimes when you’re living in a foreign country, you just need to write about an experience twice because it’s so different from what you experience in your home country. Last time was very informational. This time it’ll be a story.
Today, as usual on a Saturday, I took the bus into Antigua. I completed some errands, enjoyed a chai latte in a cafe off of Central Park (especially enjoyable because yesterday was our last day of a three week Daniel Fast). Then, as usual, I went to the grocery store and market. I didn’t have too much that I was carrying home, so instead of splurging and taking an Uber home, I decided to hop on a bus. Just as I got to the busy street behind the market, a bus came by. It didn’t actually have a sign indicating where it was going, but the assistant (the guy who leans out the door and yells the destination) came along behind it pretty soon and said, “Chimaltenango, Parramos!” to those of us waiting at the bus stop.
Now, I was warned away from taking a Chimaltenango bus during my orientation last year. They’re not actually the most convenient bus, because I am not going to Chimaltenango when I get on a bus – my destination is Tizate. But if you catch a Chimal bus and get off about 200 metres before you would on a “regular” bus, you can make it work. The other problem is that Chimal buses are often very full. But it was hot. I was sweaty from walking through a market full of people. I didn’t want to wait for another bus while standing in the full sun. So I got on the bus.
When I got on, I discovered that every seat already had two people sitting in it. I should have just turned around and gotten back off. But I’m living in Guatemala, so it’s time to do things the Guatemalan way, right? Plus, I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for the next bus (it’s not like there’s a schedule!), so I decided to tough it out.
Everyone studiously avoided eye contact with me, because they didn’t want to give me any indication that they would be willing to slide over and make a miniscule amount of room for me to sit with them, three adults in a school bus seat. Now, if I really had done things the Guatemalan way, I would have just chosen a location, asked for them to move in Spanish, and sat down. And they would have squeezed over and I could have sat down. But it was hot and I was very sweaty, and I didn’t really want to enter into other people’s personal space quite that desperately. Most buses are outfitted with overhead racks and railings, so I put my backpack and my shopping bag, both full of my groceries, up on the rack and held onto the railing overhead, balancing myself in the aisle as we bumped down the cobblestone streets of Antigua.
By the time we left Antigua proper and were heading into Jocotenango, the bus stopped and picked up a bunch more people. The assistant came down into the bus and asked people to move back, telling some people beside me to shove over and telling me to sit down. I ended up sitting next to two sweet little old ladies, but the seat across the aisle (I mean… hypothetically across the aisle. I was already sitting in the aisle, pretty much) also had three people in it. Hard to tell if this was an advantage or disadvantage. One obvious drawback was that the third person in that seat and I were sitting pretty much right against each other. On the plus side, it kind of held us in place and I couldn’t really fall off the bus seat.
I’ve been in buses in Canada occasionally at rush hour that got so full that the bus driver basically said, “Sorry, we’re full,” when we stopped at bus stops, and we didn’t pick up more people. That is not the Guatemalan method. You just keep shoving more people into the bus – after all, that’s more money in rides. As we drove down the road, every time we stopped to pick someone up, I cringed internally. Soon every seat had three people in it. Every time someone got on, all of the “third” seat people had to stand up to let them squeeze through to the back of the bus. Still, we picked up more people. Soon there were people standing in the aisle. One of the little old ladies sharing the seat with me got up to leave the bus, and I watched her struggle through the hoards to get to the front. (Again, if you are picturing a Canadian transit bus with wide aisles and lots of people standing up, you are picturing the wrong thing. Remember, this is a school bus. The aisles are barely wide enough to walk down as it is!)
I planned my own exit carefully, getting up with lots of time to spare, grabbing my backpack and grocery bag and excusing my way to the front of the bus so I would make it to the front before I wanted to get off. (Remember, I did NOT want to accidentally miss my stop – the bus was ultimately heading farther away from home!)
With the added bulk of my backpack and grocery bag, it was very difficult to get through people, and by the time the bus actually stopped in San Luis and I had to get off, I still had to get past two more seats. I had trouble squeezing through, and ultimately just had to shove past some people who were standing up, leaning over the other occupants of the seats. Sorry to everyone! By that time, the assistant was already asking me for money, because unlike a regular bus ride, if you’re taking the bus to Chimaltenango, the assistant won’t collect it until later in the ride. Maybe when people get off? I don’t know… I never take the bus all the way to Chimal. But I was like, “Sir, I will give you your money when I successfully get off this bus!” I did have the money ready to hand to him, and passed it over when I finally made it off the bus. Unbelievably, three more people got on the bus at that stop!!!
After being packed in with so many people, getting off the bus was a relief. Of course, then I had the joy of hiking up the 100 metre climb in altitude to get home, and my lungs have not yet made a full recovery from my bout with Covid. I should have just taken the Uber home!
I have learned my lesson – don’t take the Chimal bus. Just wait for a better, less full bus. On the other hand, these are the experiences you don’t often get as a tourist in a country. I really am living the typical Guatemalan experience in many ways!