Awful Modes of Transport for 3 Quetzales, Alex

When the majority of your memories of a particular time-frame revolve around transport it usually goes down as one of those “character building” weeks that you console yourself later with the phrase “Now that it’s over I’m really glad we did it.” In this case, however, while there were more than enough “Now that’s over” moments, they were broken up nicely by some of the most spectacular and relatively untouched natural sites we’ve ever experienced. Which is a damned good thing because it took all of them for us to be positive that the whole rigmarole was worth it.

But first, a little unpleasantness to get out of the way. I’m sure the Gods of Pigskin (and all affiliated cured leather sports) are having another hefty chuckle over scotch and cigars while they discuss what’s up next in their test to see just how masochistic Giants fans can be. At least it was fortunate that the 4 or 5 old San Francisco expats I was watching the game with left in the 3rd quarter, but that makes for a pretty meagre silver lining. For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about – good, you certainly won’t be hearing about it from me.

Next order of business: long travel day #1. Bus from Panajachel (on Lake Atitlan) three hours southeast to Guatemala City, find different bus company office, pawn awful bus station lunch off on Laynni, new bus, four hours northeast to Coban (Central Highlands). Sounds long, but turned out pretty well, with both legs on “1st Class” buses (think of a really dirty and dilapidated 1978 Greyhound bus) which have it all over the chicken buses, mainly because they allow just one person, object or species of livestock per seat.

Unfortunately, Coban was inundated with rain from pretty much the time we arrived until we hastily left the following day, and the Central Plaza, the one area of any Guatemalan town usually guaranteed to be pleasant and/or interesting, was inexplicably blockaded by high fences of rusty sheet metal.

Long travel day #2: once again, not so bad, of course we’re still talking in very relative terms here. Not so bad, meaning three hours instead of the four we expected squeezed three, four and five to a “seat” on a chicken bus through the mountains on a harsh, single-lane dirt path (denoted as a “highway” on maps). We were also able to pass the time watching the new and doting owner of a box of chicks struggle to keep his precious acquisitions from shifting on the rack above him. Lengthwise the rectangular box was slightly too narrow to sit steadily, although exactly how a 15-degree angle was going to further disturb their fuzzy little equilibriums as they bounced through the mountains for three hours was beyond our urban comprehension. Anyway, rather than turning the box so it sat securely across four bars instead of two, or bracing it with some of the plentiful other cargo around it, he chose instead to wriggle his way free of his tightly confined seatmates in order to stand and carefully straighten the box……every 30 seconds or so. At one point I nearly volunteered to carry them myself just to make him sit still.
Meanwhile, the guy next to the aisle where my left ass cheek happened to be hovering (he was dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt and was carrying your average university-type backpack but yet wore nothing on his feet) spent half an hour eating peanuts and carefully corralling all the shells into a neat pile on his lap. When he was done, however, he then frantically swept them in all directions until they covered not only the floor but me and everyone else within peanut-sweeping range.

A brief image that should illustrate one of Laynni’s pet peeves: halfway through the ride we pull over to the side of the road, all the men rush out helter-skelter and line up along the ditch to urinate prison-camp style. In the meantime the women remain primly glued to their seats because, naturally, they can hold it. Must be nice.

Anyway, the weather was much improved in Lanquin when we visited Semuc Champey, a beautiful series of pools and tiny waterfalls that run along a natural bridge above a roaring river. About eight of us swam, frolicked and sang campfire songs for hours on end until the pleasure of it all became too much to bear. OK, so actually we just swam and lazed about for a couple hours, but it was still pretty cool.

That afternoon we rode inner tubes a couple of miles down the river to where we were able to jump out onto the grassy riverfront area of our guesthouse which, upon closer inspection with my bare feet turned out to be entirely covered in cowshit (the grass, not the guesthouse). Then I had to venture downriver a couple hundred yards to make sure Lien made it out all right. She was a Belgian girl who was sharing a semi-dorm room with us in what you might call overflow and who also, despite actually possessing normal-sized arms, paddled from her tube much in the way you would imagine Mr. Dressup’s Casey would with his frightening little stub-arms. The result was just as ineffective as you might expect which meant she had to deal much more closely with all kinds of rocks and overhanging trees and was lucky that she even managed to make her way to the shore before plummeting over the rapids and waterfall a little bit further downstream.

Although we had eventually become somewhat used to our grimy cement-box room (complete with conveniently-located disgusting outhouse-slash-shower nearby) we still had a small shudder-inducing incident the morning we left. We hadn’t been out of bed for 20 seconds when I moved the sheet and discovered this massive hairy spider, at least an inch and a half across, casually relaxing on the pillow. We’ve since made a pact to never speculate on the places that spider may have ventured throughout the night.

Long travel day #3: We were now re-inspired to get back on the road which made our first hour and a half standing in the aisle of the chicken bus much more bearable. The bus, however, ended there so we (us and five others) then located a cargo truck that continued on (with 20 or 30 other people standing in the back with us) for another 45 minutes or so where we were unceremoniously dumped at a rural crossroad. There we spent over an hour lolling about, reading, playing frisbee and giving the tiny store on the corner probably the busiest hour he’d had in months. We nearly ate him right out of “Bandido” chocolate-wafer bars and “Cocktel” cracker-type substances. As the time dragged on with no traffic heading our direction we finally resorted to coercing a delivery truck from a different town into taking us to El Estor for 500 Quetzales (about $100, pretty decent for five hours of work down here). It turned out great, we had the whole back to ourselves (interesting how people subconsciously adjust what it takes to satisfy them) as the truck meandered through barely-inhabited hills and valleys with unbelievable views the entire way. We later met up with a couple guys who had made it to the same crossroad as us only about an hour later, and they ended up spending the night in that very ditch until about 3 am when a bus finally passed by. Good fun was had by all.

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