A Day of Buses

I was on the streets of Quetzaltenango before first light. The air was crisp and refreshing, the city quiet in its early morning slumber. There was no one up to light fireworks, or honk horns. The walk up past the market, usually heaped with people and goods, was empty and expansive. A few men dragged loads on dollies down the middle of the deserted calles. When I hit the main thoroughfare, I climbed into the first camioneta to pass by, already filled with the first wave of morning commuters. I was offloaded a block away from the buses, packed on a wide section of road substituting as a terminal, and sauntered through the dirty bowels of the terminal market. When I emerged from under the tarped canopy of the market alley, the sky was picking up its first hint at day; pulling on its deep indigo pre-dawn shawl. I was escorted to my first bus of the day, destined for San Marcos, and was underwhelmed by the lack of flair the chicken buses exude in the dark of night. Their cloak of color and chrome meant for the bright Guatemalan sun. On the bus I stuffed my tailbone into the back of the bench seat and wedged my knees against the seat in front of me, my uncomfortable position for the day. Even at 6:30 in the morning the buses will roll through the first section of streets at less than a crawl. They never pick up more passengers, so I am perplexed by the routine. Once the left hand turn is made and we aim for the edge of town, the pedal is pressed, and the gears grinded. The bus leans through the roundabout at the edge of town and pulls onto the curb to fill out its boarding. When we are wedged three deep to a bench we depart. Fog blankets much of the mountainsides, and a glint of frost is exposed by the morning sun as it sweeps across the valleys of fields. With my hood pulled up I am happy, it is a beautiful morning.

The bus navigates the narrow streets leading through San Marcos with the assistant directing traffic on the roads and gauging clearances from surrounding cars, curbs, and power-poles. They know the space their bus occupies much better that I know the size of my bike. I switch to bus number 2 a few seconds before it pulls out of the terminal. Timing always seems to be close, but in reality, they wait for all the arriving buses in order to swap changing passengers. It is a remarkably efficient system clouded in a swarm of chaotic activity. Out of San Marcos we immediately begin our descent to the sweltering lowlands. The cool crisp air is being exchanged for heat and tepidity. Three to a seat.

I am given the empty front seat of the camioneta. We are slowly cruising the roads out of Malacatan urging pedestrians to change their destinations for the Mexican border. A school parade is blocking our path. The children dressed up in costumes for Carnival walking down the middle of the road with the parents by their side. We honk, hoot, and holler. At the edge of town is a young girl, high-school age, and I catch the young aid tell the driver that she has his heart. My spanish is now letting me eavesdrop. Yet, the crafty lad took me for more Quetzals than I should have parted with, so my spanish is still limited.

At the border town of El Carmen, I am graciously allowed to leave Guatemala (for $1.30 or Q10). I cheat and don’t even bother going to Mexico, instead I walk across the street and into an air-conditioned hotel restaurant. The Nescafe and huevos rancheros are nearly good enough to make the 5 hour morning journey worth it, almost. Another cup of brown water with a slight taste of coffee and a Mexican soap opera on TV burn away just enough time for me to happily decide to go back to Guatemala. Being a nobody in between borders isn’t nearly as good as being a somebody somewhere. My new passport has only seen stamps from Mexico and Guatemala. He deposits another directly next to my exit stamp 30 minutes previous. I am supposed to stay out of the country for a full 3 days before a new visa is allowed; he does not mention this. For Q10 I am allowed back into Guatemala.

Again I am offered the front seat of the camioneta as I rewind my mornings motions. El Carmen to Malacatan with my arm out the front passenger window. I notice trees with leaves the goldest yellow I have seen outside of a Colorado Aspen. Not all of them, just a few, and it is winter, but hot; I am confused. A crowded bus back to San Marcos. Initially, we are all compressed in a hot mass, sweaty arms sticking together; uncomfortable intimacy without a shared word. People disembark the bus, and we climb back up. Windows are closed and the air returns to breathable. A crowded bus back to Xela, home. I have a Coke as a treat for enduring the 7 buses it took to renew my visa; 90 more days between Mexico and Costa Rica. I hold onto the bottle until after the bus reaches Xela and throw it in a trash bin. Maybe next time I will do as they do and throw it out the bus window.

There are two sides to every place; this time the buses crowd the streets, squeezing out air and replacing it with exhaust. Chrome shines in the hot afternoon sun, and the hulking buses proudly show off their colors. People are running, luggage swinging behind them. I start walking home, the wind stirred dust and exhaust making my eyes water. The streets are familiar, even the potholes are familiar. I see friendly faces and am happy to be back. I go to Yoga and try to flush out the tension of the days buses. A good conversation finishes off my night. No-one truly knows what will happen next, but no-one is more excited to find out than I am.

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