Wednesday, July 22, 2015

About buses

This trip I have not had access to my pickup -- well, I've had access to it but the registration was stolen (someone broke the window and took all the papers, and no, I didn't have copies, and yes, I know I should, but that's a lesson for the future) and it's taken longer to get the registration replaced than I thought. so I have been getting around by bus. There are many positive things about bus travel, like not having to worry about maniac drivers (well, I have to worry about them but I don't have to personally exert any effort to avoid them). There's being able to write this blog post on a bus (my smart phone has a wifi access point and so I have been taking advantage of that). There's being able to nap - that is, if one has a seat, isn't being squeezed by 17 other people and their bags, and if you can sleep with music blaring the entire journey. On the luxury buses (I am on one now) you get a guaranteed seat and a reasonably comfortable ride. Or at least theoretically a guaranteed seat: a clerk had apparently sold the seat next to me twice, but there were additional seats on the bus. They also stop at actual rest stops. 

The everyday camionetas (converted school buses) and the microbuses (mini-vans) that travel between smaller towns will sometimes stop out in the country, which allows the men in the bus to get out and pee but doesn't really offer much to women passengers. I once got out and climbed down a slope and behind some bushes to pee, much to the amusement of other passengers (all the other women stayed on the bus), and the driver nearly left without me. The camionetas and microbuses will sometimes stop at the central plaza of one of the towns along the way and the driver will announce a 20 minute rest stop, but that seems quite variable. On my way up to Santa Eulalia the bus stopped in Soloma, the town just before Santa, and I grabbed an ear of freshly grilled corn. However, the "Pullman" buses stop at specific restaurants along the highways that have bathrooms. Pullman refers to the quality of the bus -- some microbuses are also Pullmans (larger, nicer, more comfortable seating, and reerved seating; regular microbuses are often jammed to the gills with several people standing), and I don't quite know how the name got attached. Of course the class and racial composition of the buses are also different.  In part this has to do with the racial geography of the country -- there are not that many white people who live in the rural areas that are only served by microbuses and camionetas. There are some indigenous people who use the nicer buses when they can afford them, but clearly this is a mode of transportation only accessible to those with a certain level of economic security.

I guess I could put on the list of positive points the chance to see cheesy movies. On one trip I saw some ridiculous comedy film about a man who ends up with a baby, accidentally becomes a stunt man, and then fights for custody when the baby's mother turns up eleven years later. On the last trip I saw part of another film about the CIA torturing an American Muslim who has planted bombs. I didn't see all of either film so I can't tell you the name or the actors. 

However, there are some disadvantages to traveling by bus. For one thing, I have to listen to whatever music the driver wants to play. There seems to be an unwritten rule that all buses must have music playing all the time, no matter whether it is 3:00 a.m. or 5:00 p.m.  I took an overnight bus from Huehuetenango to Barillas and thought, naively, I could get some sleep on the bus. Guatemalans obviously are more more talented at sleeping than I am, because on every bus that I have ridden, regardless of how crowded or noisy, no matter how bumpy the road, there have been people sleeping. I'm not quite the Princess of the Princess and the Pea, but I can barely get sleep on a regular bed. I once asked a bus driver to turn the volume down, on that overnight bus ride to Barillas, and he looked at me as though I had asked him to stab his mother. He turned it down imperceptibly -- that is, I did see him touch the dial, although I didn't hear much difference in volume -- probably muttering to himself about prissy foreigners.

Another disadvantage is that I cannot stop for my favorite roadside food. When I go up to northern Huehuetenango, I try to time either the trip up or the trip back so that I can stop at the Comedor los Cuchumatanes, which serves a wonderful estofado (a kind of stew) of lamb. It's always meltingly tender and the tortillas are made of yellow corn, thick and hearty. Then there are the roadside stands, staffed almost exclusively by women, along the Interamerican Highway just north of Chimaltenango, that serve freshly grilled corn. The women stand over small grills, using straw fans both to fan the flames and attract customers. There's the open-air restaurant just north of Tecpan that sells queso Chancol, a Swiss-style cheese made on one farm in Nebaj (of course from the perspective of Ixil people from Nebaj, that is "the finca", which implies a set of historically structured class and racial relations). 

Traveling by bus one is bound by the bus schedule. The last bus out of Barillas that stops in Santa Eulalia leaves at 1:30 p.m.  That's right, I:30 p.m. That means I either have to finish whatever I am doing by noon, or wait until the next day. There are buses at 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., and so forth. But they stop at 1:30 p.m.  

And I cannot make what would be relatively quick side trips but just go in a straight line. So, I have a favorite store in Antigua where I often buy chocolates and coffee as presents for people (coffee definitely for myself). Shade grown, organic, you get the idea. It is one of the places that keeps chocolate for eating (as opposed to chocolate for making hot chocolate) in stock. According to one of my giftees, this is the best chocolate she has eaten. The store is in Antigua, Guatemala, 32 km. from the capital. It's accessible by bus or shuttle, but since I was returning to the capital less than 24 hours before my flight leaves, I would have had to schlep all my bags in a shuttle, ask the shuttle company to watch my bags, and then take a shuttle to the airport. An expense of about $20-$30 for the two shuttles. If I had my car, I could have stopped off in Antigua on the way back to Guatemala City, picked up my gifts and then continued on to the city. It's a short detour by car, but more of an operation by shuttle. So, no delectable 80% cacao chocolate bars this trip.

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