Maya ladies in beautiful garments whisk by with bowls of cornmeal on their head. Firecrackers go off even in the nighttime. The capacity of a chicken bus is a fluid concept. Yes, daily life in Guatemala is rather colourful and many things happen that you wouldn’t expect at home. An anthology.
Fried chicken breakfast in Puerto Barrios – like watching a cartoon
I’ve never seen a man eat a fried chicken leg so rapidly as in Puerto Barrios.
Guatemala’s most important port town, Puerto Barrios is a lively place, rough around the edges and with tons of characters. A black man with a shirt saying ‘Bad Bitches and Fine Wine’ drags intensely from a cigarette. Ladies with enormous asses, big enough to park a tray of drinks on them, parade by. Men in pink shirts shout destinations of buses – ‘Morales! Morales!’ – and try to usher potential travellers into worn-out vehicles leaving for Santo Tomás de Castilo and other nearby towns. We are sat at the entrance to the market in a small comedor called Los Pilotos, right in front of the bus stops and between shacks selling pollo y papas. Two of the bus crimps take a break and sit down in front of us. The comedor has only two tables – that’s how I get the front row seat.
According to Lonely Planet, Guatemalan street food might be nutritious and filling, but it will not send your taste buds into ecstasy. It’s true. When the lady of the comedor whacks a portion of refried beans on a plate, it feels almost like – I’m sorry about the lack of poetry in this post – she serves a puddle of diarrhoea. Nevertheless, the men dive in with gusto. They are copybook comical characters – one fat, the other slim. And obviously, when I’m saying that I’ve never seen a man eat a fried chicken leg so rapidly, I’m talking about the Oliver Hardy of the company.
It is almost like I’m watching a cartoon. He takes the piece of meat in his hand, gives it a hurried inspection before sticking it in his mouth. When it comes out again, barely a second later, all the meat is gone, leaving only the bare bone. He tears a corn tortilla in half and uses both pieces as spoons to scoop up refried beans, which he has combined with runny cream cheese and hot sauce into an ever less appetising mixture. He quickly pours half a bottle of Coca-Cola down his throat before ordering another chicken leg.
At the exact moment he’s finally finished his plate, having cleaned it with his sixth corn tortilla, the comedor lady throws another batch of chicken in the boiling oil. Upon hearing the hissing sound, he swiftly raises his head and looks into the direction of the open kitchen, alert like a sharp-eared fox hearing danger.
He leaves without burping.
Nature hike in Cobán – gunshots in the national park
The man walks us to a big map of the national park. He points at the main road that runs up to an administrative building, not very far at all. “Here you can walk. And this” – his finger moves to a body of water on the map – “is a nice pond for you to check out.”
“How about these hiking trails,” I ask. There are four trails marked on the map with different colours, ranging in distance from 1,2 to 7,5 kilometres. Hiking is the reason we have come to this national park.
The man shrugs his shoulders and pulls a nasty face, as if somebody has forced his head into a dung heap. “Oh, there’s too much forest there, too many trees. And here” – he points at another area on the map – “are many mosquitoes. And then over here, it’s all up and down. Better stay away. The trail to the administrative building is much nicer.”
That is weird. Forest trails going up and down, that’s exactly what we are looking for. But the man’s next sentence reveals it all. Some mala gente hide in the bushes – bad guys. We had read that certain isolated trails might not be very safe and that was exactly the reason we asked a national park worker where we could and couldn’t walk. But apparently, it is worse than I could ever imagine. Even the workers are all gathered around the entrance, seemingly busy with occupational therapy. It doesn’t look like they ever venture deep into the forest. Finally, noticing my determination to hike, the man says we could maybe follow the shortest trail, 1,2 kilometres. “That one is safe.”
We walk to the pond and wonder if we can swim. The worker didn’t mention anything about swimming, but the pond surely looks inviting. If we can’t hike all around the park, at least a nice plunge will be a way to feel closer to nature. We are still pondering over our options when a local tourist and his son step out of the bushes. The father holds a small live chicken in his hands, which he probably bought at the nearby market of Cobán. He throws the chicken in the water. A small crocodile sticks its head out of the water, grabs the chicken and swims away like a moving tree trunk on the water, elegantly swishing its tail.
All the time that we are admiring the crocodile in its habitat, we hear sharp and loud noises, something between fireworks and – swallow – gunshots. We haven’t spent much time yet in the country, so we don’t know the Guatemalan fascination for noise pollution. Yes, we know that tuk-tuks sometimes resemble moving discos and that a ride in the chicken bus is seldom passed peacefully. We know that a church in Guatemala is louder than a festival in Europe. But we don’t know yet about the Guatemalans’ love for bombas, firecrackers that they set off to celebrate almost anything – from birth to death and everything in between. Just like corn tortillas, the bombas are served at all times of the day.
Coban is in the midst of a folklore festival, so in hindsight, the plethora of explosions makes perfect sense. But when we are hiking in the national park, we don’t have that vantage point. We can only think about mala gente in the bushes and we wonder which one is the most imminent danger to us, the crocodile or the gunshots. We’ve never hiked 1,2 kilometres as fast as we do that day.
Chicoj – Italian drama in the coffee fields.
You can see from his face that he is a trouble-maker.
At the end of the coffee tour, we sample a freshly brewed cup of heaven. Alvaro, the guide, ushers us into a small open-air café area under a roof. An older bald-headed European-looking is already seated at one of the tables, nonchalantly, a grumpy expression on his face. Anete hypothesises that he is the white owner of the plantation, the slave master who rakes up the money that the Mayan workers of the community make for him. But I know that he is part of the Italian group that arrived by bus at the exact same moment when we walked in. The scarf gives him away, a pastel-coloured piece of silk wrapped tightly around the man’s neck in a manner that only Italian middle-aged men can wear silk pastel-coloured scarves.
After a while, the rest of the Italian group trickles in – one by one, some in raincoats, others still wearing helmets from a ziplining adventure. Some debate ensues about the way their coffee will be served, the choices being espresso and Americano. “I don’t want Americano, I want Guatemalan,” cackles one of the older ladies. A younger compatriot has to explain to her that all the coffee is Guatemalan and that Americano is a type of coffee drink.
All the while, the scarfed man has been eyeing the burgeoning debate about which style to favour. He is like a volcano gaining momentum, slowly growing in size until the pressure gets so big that eruption is inevitable. And then, kaboom! The man starts to argue with the rest of the group, at first dimmed (insofar as Italians can argue with a handbrake on), but soon standing up and shouting and making inane hand gestures. One second later, literally 20 people rage at each other, yelling, pulling hair and raising fists. I don’t know if this still constitutes as a ‘normal’ Italian conversation. It is like the most dramatic live theatre I’ve ever seen, played right in front of my eyes. In the midst of the outcry, Alvaro serves coffee with a deadpan face, as if he witnesses an Italian war of words on a regular basis.
Having lived in Italy, Anete understands that the old man hasn’t participated, supposedly in the ziplining, and that he feels left out. “We’re like a family”, he screams. “We should do everything together.” Others bawl that he’s the only one making a problem and that maybe he shouldn’t join group trips if they made him feel uncomfortable. I wonder if I will ever join a group trip and play the role of the grumpy old man. Because, let’s face it: every group travel should have a grumpy old man. Or will I still be riding around in chicken buses when I’m old and grey?
“BASTA!” roars the oldest of ladies in the group, stands up and holds her hands up like a boxing referee after a knock-out. 20 voices fade away as quickly as they had appeared. Peace returns and half of the group light cigarettes to get rid of the build-up stress. The peacemaking lady locks arms with the grumpy man and together they go for a coffee field walk and a talk from senior to senior. Another older man, an Italian with eyes as bright blue as the Adriatic Sea, comes to us to apologise for the scene. Not necessary, we don’t mind — one doesn’t get to witness Italian drama in Guatemala every day.
Health bus hawkers in Guatemala City
The consumption of soft drinks in Guatemala is baffling. Gaseosas are everywhere and everyone drinks them. The whole country, from babies to wrinkled ladies in pretty Mayan garments and old men with cowboy hats. It’s not uncommon to see locals wash their breakfast of eggs, refried beans, cream cheese and fried plantains away with big gulps from half litre glass Coca-Cola bottles. In the mountains around Lanquin, I saw how foresters bought 3.3-litre mammoth bottles of cola. Not to share them with their logging buddies but to drink by themselves instead of water. Even pharmacies sell the whole array of sugary soft drinks, as well as candies and packs of chips (one pharmacy even boasted a taco station).
That all just to say that public health awareness is not on the same level as in Europe. But things are changing. That’s, at least, what I gather from a short bus ride through Guatemala City.
Bus rides are always an experience in this country. We’re not using the shuttle buses that ferry foreigners from one destination to another in a state of perfect ignorance of their environment. They are multiple times more expensive than the chicken buses. In case you wonder where that name comes from — yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to transport livestock in these buses. Boarding a chicken bus is like entering a human version of the game Tetris. You are the little cube and you have to fit wherever there is a hole. Like I said, it’s quite the experience.
Guatemala is not a rich country. Just to give you an idea: remittances sent from the USA form the biggest contributor to the GDP. People are working hard to make an extra buck here and there. Wherever people get on buses, Guatemalans sell cold drinks and snacks to the passengers, just to make a measly quetzal profit.
But in Guatemala City, hawkers are not only selling cold drinks and snacks.
We are simply passing by, on the way from the wondrous cloud forests near Purulha to the gracious old colonial capital of Antigua. But we have to change buses in Guatemala City, a concrete jungle of 3 million people, and that means crossing the city from one end to the other. And thus, we get on a bus.
A paunchy man in a blue shirt gets onto the same bus. He posts himself in the front, next to the driver. He opens a folder with plasticised papers and starts showing drawings of distraught organs. Now, my Spanish is really lousy. But the man has a way of talking, slow and loud and pronounced, that makes me understand the gist of it. He talks about the dangers of soft drinks. About how much sugar and fat we consume, how many gaseosas we pour down our gullets when we should be drinking agua pura. (Tellingly, a soft drink is also an ‘agua’ in Spanish, a water). “A healthy person drinks 2 to 3 litres of agua pura a day,” the health nut preaches, “Millions of us are destroying their bodies with junk.” He talks about cancer and diabetes, overweight and early death.
I’m wondering who the guy is. A representative from the Ministry of Health? A concerned citizen with a mission to get his compatriots on the right track? An agent from an international health NGO?
None of the above. The man is an ordinary charlatan. He opens his backpack and pulls a couple of little sachets out, a mysterious wonder medicine from India. “This bag,” he announces, “contains more vitamins than carrots and more calcium than milk.”
Mix the contents of one sachet with a glass of water, he claims, and all your health problems will disappear like snow in the bright Guatemalan sun. In other words: keep drinking lots of Coca-Cola, folks. All will be fine, as long as you give me your money. Baby steps, Guatemala, baby steps.