We could have spent a few extra dollars to ride in comfort from the Belizean border back to the Guatemalan town of Flores. All the transportation peddlers who followed us from the immigration counter couldn’t understand when we said we preferred the public transportation because it was more fun. They shook their heads and waved us off, giving up the fight when they had other gringos in their sights.
We were the first to the public shuttle just a few blocks away, thankfully, so that we could have our choice of seats before the onslaught of crowding began. We handed off our heavy backpacks and crawled in. Pete took the seat directly behind the driver and I asked right away if I could ride up in the very front – prime real estate that would alleviate my concern of claustrophobia and provide direct access to a window. Within fifteen minutes we were over-capacity (quite typically), and on our way.
Shortly out of town, a family of seven flagged the shuttle bus down, it didn’t surprise me at all when we stopped and opened the side door. In they piled, filling up every empty inch left in the back. A young boy was lifted over top of others and placed on a tiny ledge, a space intended for bags and feet, not bottoms.
I shifted over to the hard plastic middle seat and cozied up to the driver as a lady carrying two layers to a quinceañera cake carefully settled in beside me, the third layer disappeared somewhere in the crowded back. The driver thanked me three times for moving over, as if he was in disbelief that I was willing to do my part to help distribute his load.
“Perfecto,” I said as the sweet smell of the cake frosting hit my nose, “Tengo hambre.” I have hunger. They all found that quite amusing, coming from the gringa.
I had no room to turn and count, but there must have been two dozen people in the back, with design for only fourteen. Two men actually hung out of the open side-door as we barreled down the highway. The mood, even though it was hot and humid, was quite jovial, each laughing at the others jokes about being gordo (fat), even though both were anything but. Their well-honed grin-and-bear-it attitude was getting quite a work-out.
The driver suddenly shouted at the men and they both quickly ducked and crouched inside, cramping themselves in impossible positions in order to shut the door. We were soon upon a military checkpoint, which apparently is the only spot where traffic rules apply. As soon as we were through, the door flew back open and they were again hanging on for dear life.
We came to an unpaved section and our driver slowed considerably to avoid the giant potholes made worse by the last few days of heavy rain. He motioned to other vehicles behind us to pass and one chose to do so at a heady speed, raising a wave of mud up and through the driver’s window. I quickly raised my arm in defense of the white and pink cake still sitting to my right, taking the brunt of the splatter on my arm and dress. Miraculously, the cake was left unscathed, but it still elicited comments from the carrier about adding a new flavour.
Behind me, a baby girl laid restless on her mother’s lap, right beside Pete. The mother shifted herself and began breastfeeding. Pete quickly turned to look out the window in respect, knowing well that it is fully accepted here, but he couldn’t help but feel shy. One row back, two kids play “spot the cow”, yelling vaca when the forest broke and fields came back into view.
We stopped to let a few off and pick up others. The driver carefully dodged young chicks as they pecked carelessly near the edge of the road, and a pig that decided his best route was along the solid orange line down the middle of the pavement. We passed several horses tethered to random fence poles, charged with cleaning the ditches around them.
After two hours in our confined quarters, we disembarked, stretched, and waited as our bags were untied and hoisted down from the roof of the bus. The driver again thanked me as we left, and I thanked him for the safe arrival, and silently for the experience. There may have been more comfortable rides available, but there couldn’t have been a better (or more entertaining!) way to spend our afternoon.