Saturday, April 20, 2013

Central: My 2013 Central America Bus Trip (Part 1)


Our mid-sized Embraer jet lands in Guatemala City at noon. It was a brief, one-hour flight from our connection in Mexico City. It seems everyone else on the plane was in their 30s or 40s, on business, and were private school classmates or members of the same country club. Everyone knew everyone else. I did not feel like I belonged, at all.

Through customs, we are greeted by a sad band of five men playing ironically cheerful "ethnic" music. The xylophone player was really talented, but none of them seemed to be enjoying their jobs. The posters on the walls tout the various sights and activities Guatemala has to offer. There is a smattering of ads for cell phone service and a disturbing number of ads warning travelers that the smuggling of drugs or money is not worth it.

Before I leave the airport, I exchange some money. While looking for my passport at home, I came across 75(!) euros in a drawer. I exchange the euros for quetzales. It is more cash than I need for the brief time I am spending in the country.

As a cup-is-half-empty kind of guy, I begin bus trips fearing the worst case scenario. In that scenario, I have food poisoning, my bus crashes, and I have been beaten and robbed. And so, unfortunately, with great paranoia, I step out of the airport terminal.

I cannot find the hotel shuttle van that is supposed to pick me up. I look in the unlit parking garage. I go up and down in the tiny parking garage elevator. I am convinced that I am going to get robbed. I clearly look lost and vulnerable to all the "regulars" there. Nothing happens to me, of course.

I finally find my shuttle van. It is probably the same Mercedes van that I used in my 2008 trip to Guatemala. It has definitely aged. There is damage on nearly every body panel. One of the rear view mirrors is held with masking tape.

As we cruise to the hotel, I take a deep breath and smell the traffic. The air is dirty, but the town feels safer and less menacing than during my last visit. I only see one little Indian girl sitting on the sidewalk, begging. And I only see one shotgun-wielding security guard, standing in front of a bank.

Coincidentally, my college professor and thesis advisor is also in town on the very same day. My focus in school was agrarian reform in Guatemala before the 1954 U.S.-backed coup. Professor Beatriz Manz is an anthropologist who studied Guatemalan indigenous groups during the civil war and documented torture, executions, and forced migrations. This afternoon, she is testifying as an expert witness in the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. She is testifying for the prosecution.

With the marathon bus trip about to start, I treat myself to a fancy meal at Kacao in the upscale Zona Viva neighborhood. I start with a couple of forgettable empanadas. The highlight, and probably the best thing I had during my trip, is the entree-- the kack ick. It's a traditional Mayan turkey stew with roasted tomatoes and peppers.

The view out my hotel room window (Guatemala City is not particularly breathtaking):

The next day, Orlando the cab driver picks me up in his Kia station wagon. We talk about family. When he tells me he has a 21 year old daughter, a 20 year old son, and a granddaughter, I am shocked. Orlando, at 40, is just two years older than me. He tells me that he is the breadwinner and his wife does not have to work, which he is very proud of. The economy, he believes, is improving, but there is still a lot of poverty. When he drops me off at the bus station and I shake his hand, I realize that his right hand is lame. It's non-functional. How was he able to shift gears that whole time?

As I sit in the bus station lounge, I learn that there is a significant complication.


Janine Kozanda said...

You can't just stop here... we have to know the rest! Seriously Jim you are a wonderful writer. :)
Can't wait for the next installment.

Chris Morgan said...

Great intro, looking forward to the rest. Please tell me there's a Phaeton at the Darién Gap

Maxichamp said...

@Janine: Part 2 is tomorrow.

Maxichamp said...

@Chris: No Phaetons. But I did see an Audi S8 V10 in Guatemala City. It was awesome.