Although it may be a flattering gesture, several complications arise when a Guatemalan women underestimates the size of your bottom. Not only is it impractical, but it can also cause severe discomfort. Guatemalan buses are notorious for being cramped, dangerous and colourful. Chicken buses, so called either for the fact that people are crammed in like poultry or because locals often bring their livestock on as hand luggage, are certainly an experience. Guatemala’s winding, mountainous roads don’t particularly help matters, but at least it looks nice if you’re lucky enough to have an undisturbed view out of the window.
One trait that all chicken bus drivers seem to share is an innate desire to play with the lives of their passengers. Reaching inexplicable speeds and overtaking uphill on blind corners are elementary ways of practising this hobby, but the drivers are far more creative than that. They accelerate into speed bumps, throwing passengers into the air as if trying to split their heads open on the ceiling. They take sharp corners as fast as possible, precariously leaving the door wide open. I am certain that any elderly women in the first couple of rows are only a lapse in concentration and a sweaty palm away from going overboard.
Of course, ‘health and safety’ is not a phrase that appears in a Guatemalan’s vocabulary. After all, closing doors, giving everyone a seat and, god forbid, seat belts would only impede business. Luckily, the fun extends to foreigners as well. On one journey, there was simply no room in the bus, so we were invited to clamber up and nestle ourselves among the bags on the roof. To be fair, the view is better from up there and it’s a wonderful excuse for an early morning beer. We were asked to come down before the police saw us though, because, oddly enough, tourists on the roof is apparently where they draw the line.
Guatemalans love making a sale, so they’ll always find a way to make space and overcharge a foreigner. Even when the bus is full to bursting, people will squeeze through and attempt to sell goods. In fairness, the little bags of fruit and drinks are a pretty tempting mid-bus snack, but there was one bloke trying to flog vegetable slicers for five quetzals (about 50p). In his defence, it did look rather good and he even did a nifty little demonstration, leaving a trail of carrot shavings in his wake. Part of me was tempted to buy one, but I refrained. However, the next time I encounter a poorly stocked utensils cupboard in a hostel kitchen, that opportunistic chopper will no doubt spring to mind.
Among the playful fun, the chicken buses do have a slightly darker side. Tourists are understandably targeted and many lose phones or wallets to petty thieves with knives who slice rucksacks open when the buses are particularly full and see what they can pilfer. All you can do is keep your wits about you and hope. But by and large, the chicken bus is a fun and economical way of getting around. They are colourful, entertaining and quite frankly bonkers. And if you’re searching for cultural immersion, then finding yourself wedged between four generations of a Guatemalan family and their livestock will probably to do the trick.