So, uh I finished, I think. I realize that I’ve posted much of this in various forms already, but this is more or less the finished product.
8,300~ words later…
Traffic In Practice
According to Dr. Andreas Shafer of MIT, since roughly the time roads were invented, humans have been spending close to 15 percent of their lives in transit; moving from point A to point B. Fifteen percent is a lot of time to spend moving, and yet I find that besides a near-universal sense of vague ambivalence about the methods and nature of transit, most people don’t think too hard about why we travel the way we do and why we have these feelings about it.
In the course of my travels, I have been able to engage in a wide variety of transport mechanisms. It is a captivating thing; while you may observe traffic passively, you are always an active participant. From driver to passenger to pedestrian, we are all actively participating in the traffic organism every time we move ourselves. How we can and do travel is a reflection of our selves and our values, whether we realize it or not. What can be said of our time spent in between here and there?
Crowded Bus of The Sky
I booked my ticket to Guatemala with equal parts whimsy and audacity. Chosen for its low cost-of-living, quality Spanish language schools, and because some other friends were considering going as well; I cavalierly bought my ticket and then put off preparation for my trip until the night before leaving. I had a pretty good idea of what to watch out for from the time I’ve spent in Tijuana, a hope that wherever I was going had a bike polo club, a love of cheap/delicious mojitos, and a load of stories about some kind of road agent called a “chicken bus.”
The Wright Bros. never imagined their invention would prove to be a sickening marvel for the 99% of us that can’t afford a first-class seat. How could a time-travelling device, so intensely amazing and interesting, simultaneously be so boring, crowded, and uncomfortable?
This is why I hate it when the airport bar closes early. Maybe it sounds like I’m just some kind of borracho, but as technologically marvelous and romantic as air travel is, flying coach still sucks. I find a few drinks helps me pass the time and more easily fake enthusiasm for the amateur sermon I will inevitably get when I walk one row past the open seat between two cuties and take my rightful place in the window seat next to Grandma and Grandpa Baptist.
The Happiest Murder Capital On Earth
As I stepped off the plane at my destination, I felt the warm breeze pass into my shirt in that tiny open space between the gateway exit and plane entrance. It slithered up my shirt and into my ear. It whispered in my ears, and I listened. I headed straight for the bathroom to put some shorts on and take everything else off. Coming from a Pacific Northwest winter, I felt liberated, as anyone does when they have an opportunity to skip the pants.
Hotel Casa Santorini is a lovely little hostel in Zona 13, Guatemala City. Propertied by a lovely guy named Jorge, it’s a multi-storied affair with lots of character and charm. There are hand built wooden stairs that head up and out to two different balconies with hammocks overlooking this area of the city. The actual room we are to stay in had three comfortable beds, each with their own consistency and warm, brightly colored blankets. This hotel is a reflection of Jorge himself, who took it upon himself to give us a short tour of Zona 13 in his bright yellow 1994 Jeep Renegade.
As he explained on our ride, “There’s not a lot of crime in Zona 13 here near the airport, it’s safe to walk around during the day. There’s a lot of stuff going on usually. Great food, good music at night in Zona 1 and 10, bars and stuff, it’s really not as bad as a lot of people talk about”
My line of questioning for him is primarily about traffic and murder, which has a long, interwoven history together in Guatemala. I asked him about why travel is so dangerous in Guatemala, and why it’s so dangerous to be a driver. As we cruised in between two lanes of a major street and made a left turn from a right lane, he explained that many murders in Guatemala take place over matters of extortion, and most of the extorted are drivers of the chicken buses that travel cross-country, microbuses that travel across town, and freight drivers. The perpetrators of these extortion rings almost always consist of “Maras” which are essentially gangs, but with a bit more of a gnar factor than most gangs in the U.S.
CNBC and MSNBC run specials all the time, hyping up gang warfare and prisons in the Americas. Many of these one or two hour specials focus around what they like to call “The most dangerous gang in America: MS13”
MS13 Stands for Mara Salvatrucha 13, which indeed is the largest organized crime syndicate based out of Central America. And hell, maybe those cable “news” channels are right about how much danger they pose. After all, they’re seemingly organized enough to extort businesses and keep track of books while also committing lots of rather mindless, petty, and cruelly murderous crimes, all while running and ingesting amounts of drugs that would make even the most hardened coke-dealer blush. Did I mention they’re organized in nearly every major North and Central American city?
Despite the dangers, people will always need to move and be happy. Here in Guatemala, they are excellent at both.
Before heading off to Xela, the city which would become our home for the next two and a half months, we headed for the old city, Antigua.
A massive tourist destination, Antigua (Spanish for “antique”) is heavily trafficked by pedestrians, tuk-tuks, cars, horses, motorcycles, and bicycles. Tourists tend to either amble down the extremely haggard cobblestone streets, or hail a tuk-tuk, which essentially is an enclosed, three-wheeled go-kart with space for two or three people that motors around most every city and moderately sized town in Guatemala.
It takes about an hour to get from Guatemala City to Antigua directly, via a beautiful mountain pass that is comparatively mild by Guatemalan standards. During the drive to Antigua, I ask our driver Pablo about traffic laws. He laughs, points at his horn and says, “This is the law.” He is obviously joking, but only halfway. It’s true though, most laws here are more like guidelines that people don’t necessarily always follow. There aren’t exactly “lanes” on most roads per se, but even when they are people tend to drive in between them. When I asked Jorge in Guatemala City why he’s driving in between two lanes when there is no one around, he can’t give me a reason, and neither can Pablo as he navigates his way around slow-moving buses and cars.
Pablo also explained to me that in order to get pulled over for violating traffic, you either have to be doing something extremely egregious like trying to hit pedestrians or driving the wrong way down the street, or the cop wants to make some money and will pull you over and extort some cash out of you. This, as in many Latin American countries, is very common practice by police, no matter what issue they seem to be involved in. Cops are viewed less as public servants, and more as a private mercenary force to be called upon only when you have a problem you’re willing to pay lots of money to have solved.
Despite all that, this lawlessness seems to serve the population well enough. Despite the other perceived dangers of transit in Guatemala, fatal crashes are not one of them. According to the WHO 2011 Traffic Reports, Guatemala ranked in as the 17th “safest” country for traffic accidents with only 5.2 fatalities per 100,000 people.
When I drive and see people drive in other places, especially the U.S., I see people driving at high speeds, looking straight ahead, often on their cell phones, music blaring, eating, anything besides driving.
In contrast, to be a part of traffic in Guatemala is to be entirely aware of what is going on. It seems dangerous or crazy at first, but because of the danger inherent in driving in this place with it’s twisted, pothole-laden roads, blind corners, lack of lanes and general lawlessness, everyone has developed skills and heightened awareness about the parts they play in traffic. As I see it, this along with improving infrastructure is the reason for such a low fatal accident rate in Guatemala.
Hill Top Zone
Cities in Guatemala (and many other Latin American countries) tend to be divided into “Zonas.” Usually there are between 8 and 13 zonas in a City, and they denote different neighborhoods. The idea is probably closer to NYC and its 5 boroughs than to San Francisco or Seattle’s different neighborhoods. The only real difference being that rather than calling these areas by a name, they have a number instead.
This isn’t necessarily the case everywhere in Latin America. Cities in Mexico, for instance, have many different neighborhoods, all with their own names, and are generally not divided into zonas.
Upon returning to Guatemala City from Antigua, we called up our usual cab (it’s a good idea in the city to have a reliable company) for a ride to Zona 2 for a Critical Mass. If you don’t know much about Critical Mass, it was first organized in San Francisco about 20 years ago as a call for all cyclists to join together in one massive ride as a show of cycling force; to demonstrate how many people ride bikes and make their presence known as an aspect of traffic. I was very excited at the prospect of a Critical Mass group in this city that seems generally unforgiving for cyclists.
Masa Critica in Guatemala, however, is an ecological group; a bit more of a formal organization than other CMs around the world. They have a website and stated goals, as well as a hierarchical structure of leadership. They have a focus on safety, rules for riding in the group, and generally promote a broad idea of ecologically friendly policies that extend beyond cycling as well. It appears to me that they’ve taken the idea of “critical mass” to mean more than a flood of cyclists on the streets, probably more along the rhetorical lines of “a critical mass of hydrocarbons in the atmosphere.”
When we arrive, it’s still early for the ride itself; a recent member and organizer, José, has some time to answer my questions. He explains that most people here are not necessarily commuters, but people that would commute if there was a safe way to do it, and who believe more people should be on bicycles anyway. It’s a quaint gathering, maybe two hundred people, including families. There is nothing like the air of militancy you’d find on the streets of NYC at the height of a mid-summer critical mass ride, but these are baby steps, ones I am happy to see.
After a safety meeting and pep talk, it’s time for them to ride. Everyone mounts their bike and rides around the park roundabout twice before pouring onto the main street towards the city center.
As impossible as it is for me to find a bicycle my size, I was unfortunately unable to participate in the Critical Mass ride. Instead, my travelling companions and I decided it would be best to just head to the bus station and travel to Xela, our prime destination for the remainder of our stay. After a 4 hour nonstop bus ride on a “touring style” bus that we decided on for safety reasons, we crested the final mountains on our journey and saw the city lights of Xela, tucked back in a valley next to the Santa Maria volcano.
We arrived at Xela at 8:30 PM in Zone 4 to a more or less deserted street, certainly nothing like the busy station choked in exhaust we left from. Wary at first of catching just any cab, we were informed that there are no real problems with kidnapper cabs in Xela, that any one will do. After waiting for 30 minutes or so, we hail the first available cab.
Many cabs in Xela are beat in one way or another, but this is the Deluxe Edition Xela Special. One headlight, no mirrors at all, 2 doors don’t open, chunks of seat foam are missing, dog hair everywhere, cigarette burns in every surface. One “window” is just a bag stretched over gaping hole and taped (poorly). We show our cab driver the address and ask if he knows where we’re going. He tells us he does, and we are not so much whisked away as dragged along by the internal-combustion equivalent of a malnourished and abrasive burro.
Immediately, it is clear that he in fact does not know where we are going. In the first sixty seconds, he stops in the middle of an intersection to ask another driver, “Maestro, tu conosces la avenida quince y diagonal doce?” The other cabbie gives our driver some directions, and when our driver turns to face me and give a half exasperated grin, I notice his eyes are barely open. Ten minutes later, after passing the same tienda at least three times, we wind up at a completely different hostel than the one we reserved. We thank him, get out with our bags, and give him 40Q, or about $4.35.
The next day we arrived at the school and as I walked the streets, I realized that there actually is quite a cycling population here. The streets are incredibly narrow, as the city has been around since the days of Spanish colonization, and the roads are beat up from years of abuse and earthquakes. Somehow, people still manage to make their way around the winding stone traps that make up the calles and avenidas of old town Xela.
After a few days at my language school, one of my teachers took me to a hip joint nearby by the name of Café Tilde. Between the Nicaraguan hip-hop and freshly painted lids on sale, I’m happy to find such a killer spot so close to me. Doesn’t hurt that there’s also a couple of really cute girls kicking it there when I walk in, one of whom rode there on her bike. Naturally I go talk to her to find out the ræl dæl with bikes in Xela. Leslie was her name, and she happily explained to me who cycles, who doesn’t, and why.
Broadly speaking, there are three main demographics of cyclists in Guatemala. The first and largest demographic consists of people that are viewed by the non-cycling population as what I’ve dubbed the “Broke As Hell” set.
Let me put it this way: It’s really cheap to get into a microbus, one of the many minivans that drive around the city, diligently ferrying people to and fro. From one side of the city to another, it cost the four of us a total of five quetzales, or roughly sixty-five cents. Because of this, people who ride a bike are often viewed as people who are too broke even to ride in a microbus. Of course this is ridiculous, I see plenty of people riding wearing suits and carrying what must be important documents in an important briefcase while riding fairly crap bikes, but this is the general perception of most people on a bike, except for the obviously rich second demographic.
This group is fairly well known around cities worldwide. “The Road/Mountain Warrior.” You’ve seen the type, wearing a full spandex kit and three hundred dollar sunglasses, astride a two thousand dollar piece of carbon. Yes, they exist here too. I’m told that, very generally, the mountain bikers tend to be rich people of European ancestry, while the road cyclists here are the rich Indigenas (indigenous Mayans).
The third and youngest demographic is “The Progressive Cyclist.” As reflected by the Masa Critica group, there is indeed a burgeoning group of people who do in fact ride their bike despite dangers both real and perceived, because it’s cheap, fast, healthy, easy, and of course, more fun.
After a couple of weeks getting acquainted in Xela, some friends and I decided that a trip to Lake Atitlan was a worthy venture. In particular, a town called San Pedro sounded like a good vacation spot. Having taken mostly private shuttles, taxis, and one tour bus, we thought it time to integrate ourselves more fully with our neighbors, so we decided to take the oft-spoken of Chicken Bus.
Getting to the bus depot was in and of itself a very interesting experience. It is interesting that Guatemalans would view the bicycle as the lowest form of transportation considering the method we used to get to the bus depot: The Microbus.
Throughout Xela, tiny little vans called “microbuses” ferry the populace to and fro in a spectacularly cramped fashion. These little vans often have 4 or even 5 rows of seats that fill up completely, leaving any remaining passengers to huddle together, hunched over inside the van until there is not even space enough for that. Two men work this racket; one drives and the other hangs out the side of the open side door, clamoring for customers, alerting all around to the destinations involved on their venture. When our van became “full,” people just grabbed the handle and hung on the side as the microbus faithfully chugged up the hillside at a glacial pace. Eventually we arrived at the market and walked a short distance through the market to the Chicken Bus Depot adjacent.
Yes indeed, “Chicken Bus” is a strange moniker. It has nothing to do with the spectacular paint jobs and custom modifications done to them. Flames are painted everywhere there is an open space, stylized old west font convey the final destination of its route, and every bit of trim is chromed so hard it hurts your teeth. It also has nothing to do with the intestinal fortitude of either passenger or driver. Especially driver, though that does seem like an appropriate joke; it does seem like the drivers of these things play an awful lot of chicken with each other on the road. No, until you board one, the question just sits, burning in your lobes, insignificant though it may be. It is just a name after all.
Regardless, the first time you see a full on 6 person family board one with what seems to be all of their worldly possessions (including of course, a couple of chickens), you realize not just the reason for the name, but also the infamy of the experience.
I’ll go over these aspects one at a time, to examine their import in greater detail.
The Chicken Bus is cheap. For a mere 10Q (~ $1.20), our bus took us from the Xela Market to Panajachel, a 90km trip. Even for a population that often lives on under $80 per month, this is cheap enough to be quite affordable, considering the distance traveled.
The Chicken Bus is fast-as-hell. I can’t emphasize this enough. I am a very mellow passenger, able to withstand crazy drivers and high speeds that would make your average “street racer’s” stomach turn. The highways in Guatemala often have a posted speed limit of 80-95kph. The pilots of these buses have clearly developed an ever-growing tolerance to adrenaline. When their ship is functioning at maximum potential, most of these crazy bastards will tear around these roads at speeds in excess of 130-140 kph with a full busload of people. Maybe after I get bored with wing suit base-jumping I’ll consider a career as a Chicken Bus driver.
The Chicken Bus goes just about everywhere in the country, often at great personal risk to pilot, passenger, and passerby equally. Yes, and I mean everywhere. As a matter of fact, in the process of leaving Xela itself, we drove in our lane, in between lanes, over a median, in an oncoming lane, on the sidewalk, down the tiniest of streets, and down treacherous winding gravel paths. We then proceeded to repeat this process in every single little pueblo we came across, all at speeds near those mentioned above.
Despite the attitude of the bus itself and “Do a barrel roll” driving style of the pilot, these buses are very helpful and necessary to the population. There are bus stops in the most unlikely of places along the highways, even up at 8,000 feet where there might be only a few Mayan families working on a couple of farms. All told, we stop at 12 tiny roadside stations and 5 pueblos.
As well as the obvious dangers mentioned above, there is also the danger of getting boarded and robbed by one or more of the Maras, and the fact that about once a week, a bus will go off a cliff or over the high side. In some of the more dangerous routes, murders, robberies and kidnappings of drivers could even be called commonplace. Drivers risk their lives in literally every fashion possible. It takes a lot of sand to drive the Quetzal routes; the most dangerous routes in Guatemala, even all of Central America.
In spite of all that, it remains the most popular way in Guatemala to get from city to town to pueblo and back. I spent plenty of time on Chicken Buses in my time there, and only truly felt fear as we careened around hairpin turns in the mountains with no guardrail.
I witnessed no less than thirteen close calls in a matter of the two hours I rode that first bus, including one spectacular event where we had to squeeze up so tight next to another chromed beast that I could have easily wiped the sweat that was pouring so profusely from the pilot’s brow. I can’t blame him.
I can only imagine what sort of famous close calls and infamous murders have become legend in the backs of dingy cantinas and on the CB airwaves over the years that these brave Guatemalans have been riding in this rodeo.
Once we arrived in Panajachel, it was a short walk to the dock to catch a comparatively relaxing boat ride across to San Pedro. It’s rough up at the bow on the choppy waters of that late Saturday afternoon. We enjoy it though, and mosey on into the first bar we see off the boat. The boat ride cost us another 15Q apiece. Maybe if our Spanish was better, or we were locals, or if we had haggled we could have gotten 10, but who cares?
We took a shuttle back to Xela after the weekend, because we wanted to stick around in San Pedro a little later than we’d have to leave to catch the last chicken bus from Panajachel. Upon our return, I vowed to redouble my efforts to find a bike to ride.
Asbel Rodas Ochoa
In Spanish, “La Esperanza” means “The Hope.” For what it’s worth, that seems to be more than just a name to some, as a few of the weekend warrior types I spoke with told me of their aspirations to win the races that are held in that little pueblo, just a twenty minute bus ride outside of Xela.
Of course, they’re going to have to do more than train on the weekends to ride with the big boys. Being a professional at anything requires a lot more dedication than what some hobby cyclist dentist can afford to spare.
When I first started asking about cycling in Guatemala, a few people told me that if I were to find a quality bike shop, it would probably be in La Esperanza. I made plans to take a day off and visit in search of a quality bike to ride. When I told my Spanish teacher for that week about my pilgrimage, he told me to go ask another teacher, Alma, about it.
As it turns out, Alma has a whole family of professional cyclists, including two of the more famous cyclists in Guatemala. She promised to take me to her pueblo and hang out with them.
The next day, we crammed into a microbus and paid 3Q to get to the pueblo of La Esperanza, about seven or eight miles away. Once we made it to the central park of the town, we hoofed it a short ways to Asbel’s house, a small apartment with little natural light and a hand-built shelf holding a variety of trophies and medals over what in the U.S. would be considered a high-end road bike with mid-high-range componentry (it was a 2009 Scott Addict with a full Ultegra group). When we walked in, he was sitting at the table and got up to greet his aunt and I very warmly.
Asbel Ochoa is one of four brothers, all competitive cyclists. He and his older brother, Manuel, are the only pros so far, but only because of their age; Asbel is twenty-five, and Manuel is twenty-nine. The other brothers are nineteen and sixteen, respectively. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to meet with Manuel because he was busy in Costa Rica claiming another gold medal, as I would find out the next day.
Introduced to cycling at age eleven by his uncle, a competitive amateur cyclist, he quickly developed a passion for it. By sixteen, Asbel was competing, mostly for sponsorship opportunities. By age twenty-one, he was a fully sponsored professional.
For a country such as Guatemala, with such a high occurrence of poverty and a lack of resources directed towards infrastructure in general, as well as what could even be construed as a cultural aversion towards cycling; the performance of cyclists in international competition is quite impressive. The Guatemalan national team wins more races (though most of them are non-UCI) than any other country in Central America, and has one of the most successful teams in all of Latin America.
Asbel was more than happy to discuss how he felt about cycling, which, with the exception of his professional status, is about the same as most of the upper class cycling population here. By and large, he likes the idea of more people riding bikes, and though he does it primarily for sport, he will ride for transportation either in the absence of a car (one of which he is an owner) or if he’s going somewhere close enough to make driving unnecessary. He told me that most drivers don’t respect cyclists on the roads and for that, it is dangerous to ride. Still, he loves the activity and finds times and places to ride and train with his team.
As we waxed philosophic on cycling culture, he revealed a bit of key information. He said, “Most of the cyclists here are very poor and don’t really think too much about what they’re riding. They need it to get around, but when it breaks, they throw it away and get another crap bike unless they get a motorcycle. I see it all the time. If people felt that their bike was reliable, I think that maybe more people would do it. Of course it’s dangerous out there, but I’ve ridden in the U.S. too, and it’s just as dangerous. Really, even more so because the cars go faster. I have a race in New Mexico soon and the way I see people drive there… phew.”
Fortunately for him, he has the luxury of riding where he wants on a nice bike, eschewing it when he feels it’s necessary. Most Guatemalan cyclists just don’t have that option.
Asbel and Alma took me to the bike shop down the road. The last stretch of pavement to get there included a spot on a highway, one of the few around where people can really open up the throttle. There was no shoulder, we were pressed up against the concrete barrier as autos exploded past. Approaching us from the opposite side were three little girls. They looked like they were coming from school. The oldest, maybe eight years old, was walking the other two down the road, and when we met in the middle, we had to awkwardly wait for five or six semi-trucks to play chicken with us before we could pass. I hear pedestrians get hit around ten times a week here.
When we made it to the bike shop, I was thrilled to see some cartridge bottom brackets and a robin’s egg Surly Cross-Check hanging from the ceiling. There were used Dura-Ace cranks, a small selection of used jerseys, a couple of cheap cassette wheels, some brakes, and even some new-old stock Campy brakes and brifters. Hell, it was all even reasonably priced. The dented cross-check frame was set at 800Q, or about $120, and even though their stock was tiny, that seemed to be exactly the kind shop Xela needs to get some serious cycling mojo.
A week after my visit to Asbel, I read in the paper that Manuel, Asbel’s Olympic competitor of a brother, had been hit by a car while out on a training ride. He was rushed to the hospital and even though he got scraped up pretty badly and will have to recuperate for a few months, he is expected to make a full recovery.
I can’t help but wonder: If he had to ride in traffic every day, would he have made the moves he did and crash? Is it really that much more dangerous out here? Would he have been hit anyway?
As my quest for an appropriate bicycle pressed on more casually than before, I found myself in the presence of a man named Colin. A U.S. expatriate of eighteen years, as well as an avid cyclist, Colin has owned a bookstore/bike rental joint in Xela for the fifteen of those years, and has been consistently cycling in and around every city throughout that time. I sat down to ask him some questions and discovered his unique inside/outside perspective on biking in Guatemala.
Our interview reinforced the notion that cycling tends to be a very proletariat form of transportation, viewed as “basically on par with walking.” I asked him his take on popular cycling and the growth of biking as a form of transportation. He told me, “There has been no great general interest or public interest in riding. I guess I would say over the past 18 years, you see more people riding in groups doing high-end bicycle group/club riding. If anything, at the lower end maybe there’s less of that. As people try to move up the social/class ladder, the bicycle is the first thing to go. Ultimately you know, the population here grows, so I guess in absolute terms there are more bicycles floating around these days. It’s kind of sad for me to see that bread and butter bicyclist trade in their utility wheels for some crappy Chinese motorcycle.”
As he helped a customer, I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of what Asbel had mentioned to me a few weeks earlier. I asked him, “Do you think more people would ride if they thought the bikes they were riding were more reliable?”
To which he replied, “You know, It’s interesting that the market doesn’t really provide anything like that. You have the very bottom of the barrel bicycle and then it seems like there’s this huge step to the next bicycle you can buy. You can get one for like 80-100 dollars and then the next one is 500 dollars. That good utility bicycle in the 200 dollar range has disappeared from the market here. Would more people be interested in riding? I don’t think so. I think the great majority of people, excluding the prestiged elite crowd, ride not because they want to ride but because they have to. What people really want here are motorcycles. You can see the interest exploding. Everyone and their grandma are riding around on a low-displacement motorcycle here.”
Of course, he had also told me that he didn’t know of any “Progressive Cyclist” demographics that Leslie had mentioned to me; she seemed to be more socially in touch than Colin did. When I asked what else he gets up to, he replied, “This book store takes up all my time. When I’m not doing this, I’m raising my kids.”
Change In Their Pockets
In an informal poll I conducted over the course of the first few weeks I spent in Xela, the attitude most people tend to hold about cycling consists of caution and apprehension. The gist of it seems to be, “It’s dangerous because of cars, and even though it’s good and healthy for people to do it, they wouldn’t want to do it themselves because they’ll die.” They are right about cars; many of the streets are nightmarishly narrow and relatively lawless. There is little respect for cyclists who don’t move quickly, but the city infrastructure does makes it easy to keep up with and even overtake cars with only a modicum of practice on the bike.
Amplifying both the real and perceived danger factors is the fact that the great majority of those people who ride do so without lights of any kind, and tend to ride slowly and unassertively. None of these things are great hurdles to cross in and of themselves, and in fact would take only a bit of public awareness and market actions to make these streets safer and more bike friendly.
There is no reason why cars need to continue their dominance here. Economics and infrastructure indicate that cycling is the best option for transit in many cities and pueblos I’ve been to and through in this country. Even much public transportation doesn’t quite make the “best-of” cut because of the European-style narrow streets.
The biggest obstacle to making this happen is cultural. Perceptions of cycling and the associated dangers would have to change in order for cycling to be a viable activity here. Obviously this is true of most places in the west, but it seems to be happening extremely slowly in Guatemala. Most of the people I spoke with about their idea of cycling included the certainty that tens of cyclists die every day in their city.
Let’s Do The Time Warp Again
Guatemalans are, by and large, very social people. They like to talk to each other and catch up in the street or on the bus, and whether that is a byproduct of spending so much time together in mass transit, or vice versa, is a question worth pondering. But the transportation culture in Guatemala, especially of mass transit, is very important to the social dynamics of the people and general feelings they have about their fellow Guatemaltecos. People here enjoy their time in transit more or less to the same degree anyone else does, it’s just that they have less options that involve isolation.
We tend to know transit in a purgatorial sense. It is, literally, a time warp. A time out of time, during which we tend to either think heavily, or not, depending on how our day/week/month has been. Often, in the U.S., we like to listen to music in our isolated cars, or put headphones in on the subway. That doesn’t happen so much in Guatemala. I generally looked forward to travelling in Guatemala as a chance to get to speak with some new people and also to observe, and then to close my eyes and rest as well. Nearly everyone I spoke with expressed the same sentiment.
The Long Road to Champerico
I was nodding off on the latest and certainly most crowded chicken bus ride I’d taken yet. Pressed on all sides by other passengers, I had finally gotten comfortable enough; leaning on the guy to my left with the weird nose mole while crunching one leg to my chest and my other stuck between a hip and what might have been someone’s boob, to let the teeth-rattling bus ride down what I guess some people might call a “road” jar me to sleep.
When we’d first arrived on the bus, it was already at capacity: Three fully-grown adults sitting on and sometimes even a kid or two under every tiny bench seat. Bus courtesy here dictates that when you get on a crowded bus, you move to the back so other people don’t have to crawl past you to sit down or, whatever. However, they will have to climb over and crawl past all manner of characters in order to do that; the people on the inside aisle seats are already one cheek off the chair and using each other for support while you use the monkey bars overhead to slim yourself down as much as possible.
When you find an acceptable place to be, you try to find an appropriate way to cuddle up to these complete strangers in a way that won’t injure you. Most Guatemalans are under 5’10”. I’m 6’2”, so it’s not easy to cram into an aisle seat on a bus designed for children under fourteen. Oddly enough, the more people who get on the bus after I make space for myself, the more comfortable the ride is.
I shouldn’t have even had enough time to sleep. We were told the ride would only be an hour and a half, and that’s what I was trying not to think about as I drifted off, four and a half hours later. Of course, I never made it to dreamland; our bus threw a rod in the engine and we had to make our way to a gas station where we would get picked up by a replacement bus in another hour.
It is probably a good thing that I never actually got to sleep; aside from the worry over theft on and off the bus, it had also gotten dark by the time we got to sleepy little Champerico and we’d never been there before to know what our stop looked like. Luckily, it’s hard to miss once you get there.
The first thing I noticed as our bus lumbered down the lone strip of asphalt that comprises Champerico, is the overwhelming number of pedicabs. They call them Tricicletas instead of pedicabs, but the result is the same and everyone seems to either have or be in use of one. They come in two varieties, one to carry people, and the other to carry anything else. In this sleepy little town, it’s an easy way to make some money.
We arrived and got into one of the tricicletas to head to whatever hotel had some rooms. A man named Wilson was our pilot. Wilson was raised in Champerico and had recently been deported back here after living in Tacoma for four years. After we acquainted ourselves, he gave me the lowdown on this gig.
“Yeah, I like it just fine. It’s a healthy way to make some money. There are a few people in town who make them and those people rent them out for 30Q a day. Anything we make over that we can keep.” He went on to explain that Champerico is the only place in Guatemala you’ll find these things, and they’re famous for it.
Built from what is probably an old used bike frame, the builders add in an extra top tube that inclines down from where the seat tube and top tube meet, in order to create more stability on the cart section. They appear to be made cheaply, but that’s what the market ordered. This is a beach town, and there’s lots of sand, dust, and salt in the air. Anything built to high quality specifications probably wouldn’t be worth it. The tricycles are all single speeds, which is fine for the flat landscape of the beach. Interestingly, they lack a handlebar, with the entire front cargo area serving as a steering mechanism. The driver sits behind on one wheel while the cargo is up front on two wheels; the opposite setup of almost every other pedicab.
For carting our asses up and down the strip, we gave him 30Q, approximately 4 times what the average fare comes out to. Wilson pedaled off into the hot Saturday night, trying to make it back to the U.S., one fare at a time.
As I walked down the strip the next day, looking for a place to eat, a man hollered something at me as the lady next to him emphatically greeted us with a terrifyingly nice, “Salvatrucha!” I don’t know what the significance is as a greeting, but as mentioned, Mara Salvatrucha is one of the most notorious and violent gangs all over the western hemisphere (and maybe even further), with its origins in Central America. The man had his shirt off and had maybe three or four tattoos on his torso; they looked like a crack-addled Edward Scissorhands had taken up stick-and-poke work.
No one, not my host family, my friends, nor my teachers at the school, told me that the gangs run Champerico. They’re everywhere. Mara Salvatrucha is the premier gang in that weird, dirty little beach town, and they specialize in extortion, of course. They exact a tax upon every regular transport into and out of that place.
I saw the same tattoos on another man who came up to me while I was eating and demanded that I buy him a soda. Of course I did, dude had scars all over his face.
After a couple of weird days on the coast, we caught the bus back to Xela. As the bus filled up and people started crowd surfing, I wished I hadn’t drank so much water in the hot, tropical coast sun. I hope I never have to pee in a bottle surrounded by so many complete strangers again. After the deed was done, with the helpful cover of my friend and my beneficial position on the outside of the seat, I guarded the bottle that, thanks to my wonderful hydration habits, looked like any other bottle of water.
After everyone departed the bus in Reu, I kicked the bottle down a few seats behind me so no one would realize it belonged to the only person left on the bus. When we reached Xela, and were the last ones stepping off, a man with a broom and dustpan finished the last pitiful drops of his water and stepped onto the bus to begin his work.
I can only hope that I don’t have to be as sorry as I feel about that.
José Guadalupe Mul Robles
For the majority of my time spent in Xela, I chose to live in with a family a few blocks from my school. The head of the Family Robles is José, a taxi driver of forty-two years, entirely spent in Xela. He regaled me with all sorts of interesting stories, from muggers on Christmas to the major earthquake in 1976 during his night shift, to police corruption and shit-talk about chicken bus drivers. He is an interesting man who enjoys his work, though he describes it as “uncertain,” and even though he has managed to work out an upper middle class existence for himself by virtue of owning his car and avoiding debts to others, he explained that most taxistas are not so lucky.
As he tells it, most taxi drivers who don’t own their cars have to pay around three to five hundred quetzales per day to rent their cars. Often, they don’t even make that much in a day and wind up in debt, or will have to work up to a twenty hour day in order to make enough. Many days, those drivers won’t even walk away with a hundred quetzales in their pocket, equivalent to about $7.50. However, because he owns his car, he comes home with between a hundred to over a thousand quetzales in a night.
The clientele that utilize taxis in Guatemala tend to be people from outside of the towns they visit. They tend to be middle class people who either don’t own a car or don’t own a reliable enough car to drive long distances across the beat-ass roads that connect Guatemalan cities and towns. Thankfully, José has never been regularly extorted by one of the maras, as some of the taxistas in outlying towns have, though he did express feelings that the municipal government was basically extorting taxistas in Xela through their exponentially more expensive permits for parking and tolls for commercial drivers.
Slow Cars, Greasy Hands
As far as the cars that people drive in Guatemala, there is a common joke that Guatemala is the trash bin for all cars in the U.S. In many ways, it’s true. The U.S. has comparatively stringent emissions standards; standards that are not always easy to meet once an old car begins to break down.
When this happens, Guatemalans will go to junkyards in the U.S., buy salvage titled vehicles, drive or tow them to Guatemala, paint them, fix them, and sell them again at a high price. Everywhere in Guatemala, you’ll find at least three mechanics or junkyards on nearly every block. Jorge told me “a good mechanic is rarer and more prized than an honest politician.”
All that said, even if their car is a 100% certifiable piece-of-shit, there’s always a way to make it trudge on. Always.
The second time I took a microbus out to La Esperanza, we were seventeen people in the van, slogging our way up a moderate hill. I might have missed it if we were going faster, but as we climbed our way up, I glanced out of the window and witnessed the most amazing display of beat-ass, Macgyver-ass, desperate-ass ingenuity I’ve ever seen. There was a red Nissan with no doors and no hood with one driver and a passenger sitting on the windshield pouring gasoline directly into the carburetor, just barely keeping up with us on the shoulder.
No one else thought twice about it. All I could do was chuckle with the other passengers and look on in admiration.
The government in Guatemala has one of the highest levels of corruption in the world. With 80 percent of the population living deep in poverty while a few people get rich from their toil, the custom is to generally take as much advantage as possible in situations such as travel. For me, this usually took the form of paying significantly more for services. Any time a foreigner travels, they are at risk of being taken advantage of, and often there is nothing they can do about it.
In some instances, getting on one of the chicken buses means paying 20Q per person where a Guatemalan would pay 5Q. Because you pay only after the bus is moving and you’ve found your seat, you aren’t left with the option of getting on a different bus, so you can only either pay the requested amount or get off the bus.
As well, taxistas typically charge pretty exorbitant rates for their service, but that fee is negotiated before the ride. Many people visiting for their first time are under the impression that they must pay whatever the taxi is demanding, but the only way to get a fair price is to haggle. On a ride from Guatemala City to Antigua, we were offered 160Q between three of us because it was a slow day and we hemmed and hawed about it for a few minutes. However, the next time we needed to make that trip, the driver started out with 300Q, or about 35 dollars. I stood firm at 200, and he eventually caved, but that price is still well above what any Guatemalan would pay if Guatemalans actually took taxis between Guatemala City and Antigua.
This is all to say that I was utilizing these methods at whim and under temporary circumstances. As an outsider, the view available to me is incomplete. Things would look much different if I needed to take the same bus every day at the same time with the same people, or if I had access to a motorcycle or car, or if I had a family to travel with. Those are the circumstances under which most Guatemalans travel, and that is bound to affect how they feel about their methods of transport. I’m sure if I knew the bus driver personally after riding with him every day, I’d feel better about asking him to stop at a gas station when he could so I didn’t have to pee in a bottle. Hell, I’d probably feel better peeing in a bottle if I knew all the passengers around me from taking the bus regularly.
On the one hand, I don’t like to get taken advantage of. I know what a service should cost by and large, and paying more than that is an insult and a sign that my contractor doesn’t respect me. It also reinforces stereotypes about travellers and acquiescing to that isn’t doing anyone else any favors.
On the other hand though, I am a privileged white U.S. citizen who came to Guatemala of my own accord, and sitting around haggling with someone who is working hard, living in comparative poverty, and struggling to make ends meet over what to me amounts to a couple of dollars or less, just feels wrong. There is a fine line to tread between not getting marked as a chump, and being a stingy rich white person. Really, aren’t there enough stingy white people roaming about?
Ultimately though, the question of how one feels about their movement is personal and often hard to pin down. There is certainly ambivalence about it, and perspective usually passes through the cultural lens first. The traffic in Guatemala is an obvious solution to the universal problem of transit. It could be different, and maybe someday it will be. For now, it is sufficient.