Nobody on board but us chickens

The first surprise about my chicken bus is that there aren't any chickens on it. Guatemalan chicken buses don't carry too many of their namesakes, apparently.

The only livestock on board today is of the human kind and there's no shortage of that. They're crammed onto every spare inch of pleather seating and then some in the aisles, chattering in native tongues, swaying to get out of the way of the fruit/pastry/peanuts

/chicken/pizza sellers hawking their wares down the same aisles everyone else is trying to claim as their own.

The second surprise about my chicken bus is it's not really a bus. In the physical sense, it is; it was once an American school bus but has been resurrected with Guatemalan engineering and a glorious riot of red and green paint. But in the sense that it behaves how we Westerners know buses are supposed to behave, it definitely is not.

I'm forced onto it just beyond the Mexican border, told it is going in my general direction, if not where I really want to go. "Xela?" I ask.

"You change Reyu," someone yells as they throw my backpack onto the roof.

Great. What's Reyu?

From there, we make a tortuous journey to ... nowhere. It soon becomes obvious we aren't leaving until more passengers turn up. A lot more. Half an hour later, we hit half-capacity and it's off to Reyu. Or something like that.

We have to make a few stops along the way. Actually, we have to make about 100 stops along the way. Guatemalan chicken buses might drive as if they brake for no man but in reality, they will brake and stop for any man, woman or child who can scrape together the $1 an hour to ride in one, regardless of where they happen to be standing. Just wave and it'll stop.

Guatemalan chicken buses seem to operate with a staff of three. There's the driver, whose job is to take cliff-hugging turns at the highest speed physically possible. There's a seemingly superfluous supervisor, who may or may not be just a mate of the driver. And then there's a ticket collector and jack of all trades, whom on my bus I dub the "Man-Child".

The Man-Child is a serious little chap whose age could be anywhere between 13 and 25. I have no idea. But he does his job with pride. It's he who throws my bag onto the roof and yells something about Reyu. It's he who collects my 100-quetzal note and writes me a little "IOU" for 80 quetzals. "No change," he shrugs.

It's he whom I can see walking through the crowds at every stop we make, sliding crumpled quetzals into the hands of random people and yelling out our destination.

Back home, I'm thinking, none of this would happen. The bus would have picked me up, I would have paid my fare and I'd be there by now. That's how things work. But what's the point of travelling if you expect everything to be the same as home?

The Man-Child also has another important function, it turns out: mechanic. It's important because our chicken bus has broken down about six times in the two hours I've been on it so far.

First, there was an oil change, performed admirably by the Man-Child and observed admirably by the driver and superfluous supervisor.

Then there was the purchase of, and installation of, a new battery during a brief pause in Coatepeque. This, again, seemed to be performed by the Man-Child, who'd stripped down to jeans and a singlet and was observed by the driver and the superfluous supervisor.

Another half-hour down the road and it was the changing of a tyre. This time, outside help was needed. A mechanic was called. Even the Man-Child has his limits.

Then our merry chicken bus is on its way again, Guatemalan pop music blaring from the speakers, the fruit sellers all having jumped off when it looked as though we were going to break 25km/h and a few heads hanging out of the bus windows to check on the smoke that seemed to be coming from the engine.

Ten minutes later and our gradual climb up a mountain becomes more and more gradual, until we eventually ease to a disappointed halt in the middle of nowhere. Man-Child, driver and superfluous supervisor whip themselves back into action, banging bits of engine with wrenches, pouring black liquid into other bits and softly cursing in native tongues.

Someone comes on board selling coconuts. Someone else just begs. Everyone stares at the gringo.

And then, with a puff of smoke and a bored cough from the engine, we are back on the move.

About five hours into our two-hour journey, we finally pull into a dusty, crowded marketplace in the middle of a dusty, crowded town.

I search out the Man-Child.



He clambers onto the roof, throws down my backpack, clambers down, hands me my change of 80 quetzals, pats me on the shoulder and breaks into his first smile of the day. "Hasta luego amigo!"

See you later. Much later, I figure, going by the schedule of Guatemalan chicken buses.

Read Ben Groundwater's column every Sunday in the Sun-Herald.