Tall Matt's Travels

Matt - Sun Jan 14, 2007 @ 08:43AM
Comments: 3

I've read the bus trips through Central and South America are where half of your weird stories will be born.  I'm only about 10 days in, and I'd say that's got a pretty good chance of being true. I boarded the bus to Guatemala City at the Belize City water taxi station with about 18 others.  It was quite the cast, comprised of 3 girls from Norway, an American couple serving southern Guatemala in the Peace Corps, a couple from Belize and their young baby, another couple from Belize (friends of the parents), a European couple I recognized from my bus trip from Cancun to Chetumal (small world), an American chick with what appeared to be her British boyfriend (at least for the past few hours), a bus driver with a penchant for pulling over unexpectedly to fertilize the side of the road and a few assorted others.   The bus wasn't very big - a little smaller than a shuttle bus used at an airport, but slightly larger than a minivan.  Of course, with that many people on board, all our luggage went on top.  Hope it doesn't rain.

Our trip out of Belize City was scenic - dirty back streets, a couple of un-maintained cemeteries and the city dump.  I made a strategic error in my seating choice, picking one directly over the back left wheel well.  Stupid on two counts: leg room and the assumption this vehicle had shocks.  I did have the seat to myself though (as my legs angled out into the aisle), and controlled the window - a definite plus.  

We hit the Guatemalan border about 2 hours later.  Now exiting/entering a nation over land is quite a bit different than via air.  You have two stops to make: the immigration checkpoint for the current country, and the immigration/customs office of your destination country.  When we got to the Belize checkpoint, I had stupidly forgotten about the possibilities of exit fees.  And, just my luck, it freakin' cost $37.50 Belize dollars (a little over $18 US) to get out of the country.  This was especially distressing since all I had left was about $10 BZE.  Fortunately, where there is opportunity, there too are people to take advantage of it.  This time in the form of "money changers".  Essentially, there are a whole bunch of random dudes hanging out by the border with stacks of both country's currency.  They circle tour busses (and any other vehicle for that matter) yelling "Cambio, cambio" , meaning "change, change".  Now, of course there is an agreed upon exchange rate in the world for every nation's currency.  However, if you  think you're getting that from these guys, you're crazy.  I had a few US $ left, but didn't really want to burn them here, so I ended up exchanging about 300 pesos for about $40 BZE.  Which, if you do the math (pesos are about 10 to 1 USD and Belize Dollars are 2 to one USD), means I pretty much took it up the backside sideways,  but what are you going to do?  I had to have the money, and what, I'm going to argue with them in Spanish?  Whatever.  

Every now and then, my nievety rears it's head - for whatever reason, I had it in my mind that a country's border crossing area would be a relatively nice place.  You know, to make an impression on the other country, and to travelers entering your country.  Yeah - not so much. Once you get out of the nice, calm enclosed Belize immigration center, you walk outside about 200 yards over dirt road to the Guatemalan immigration counter with the Cambio guys swarming you the whole way.  There are little shanty's all over selling snacks and chips and home-made food.  The Guatemalan official's counter is set up like an outside drive through.  You wait in line on the dirt road and step up to the counter.  They checked my passport, and then asked for 10 Quetzales.  Shite!  What's a Quetzale?  Damn. Don't have that either.  Fortunately, a really nice Canadian lady on our bus handed me a 10 Q note (roughly $1.25).  I thanked her and offered to pay her in whatever I had, but she politely declined.  Thanks again.

After about 15 minutes, we all got back on board our little bus, and started off.  And, further shooting my "impress the visitors" theory to hell, we were now rolling around on a really rocky dirt road.  Apparently the Guatemalan government isn't too worried about impressing anyone from Belize. We were on these rocky, muddy curvy roads for about an hour. It was amazing.  When we stopped for the crossing, I saw they had put a tarp over all our luggage, but it was way to small, far from water tight, and was only covering the top of the pile.  If your bag was toward the front or on the bottom of the pile - yeah.  Anyway, we had to go slow as he started fish-tailing if we went over about 40.  It was a strange sensation.  All of us inside kind of looked at each other and smiled nervously.  We were avoiding car-sized pot-holes, dodging other cars coming the same way -  and it just got more and more muddy as we went.  And the sun was going down.

And it started raining.

About 60 minutes after the border, we came around a curve to find a flat bed tractor-trailer stopped with his hazard lights on.  Ahead of him was a big tour bus/coach trying to get up a hill.  The hill wasn't all that big - probably about 100-200 feet elevation at about a 20 degree grade, but the track was really muddy.  The big bus was just fighting it.  He'd roll it back down, get a bit of a start, then try it again - always getting about 1/3 of the way up, then have the back end get loose on him.  So, the sun went down, it's frickin pitch black out, and we were stopped in a POS bus/van on a muddy road in the middle of Guatemala.  It actually made me smile.  I love this.  Anyway, we were there for about 25 minutes or so.  5 or 6 cars had backed up behind us, with all the drivers getting out and walking up to the semi to talk about the situation.  We all started to contemplate the possibilities here.  Would we spend the night on the bus here?  Go back?  Go back where?  

About 10 minutes of contemplation and a conversation with a couple locals, our driver decided to go for it.  He threw it into low gear and swung around the semi.  We all looked at each other with wide eyes. He got a a little speed, passed the exhausted tour bus, and then floored it.  We all held on.  First 50 yards, no problem.  The next 50, all good. We all started nervously laughing - we just might make it!  Then he let of the gas.  What the f&$#? We collectively sucked in all the air in the cabin. The bus slowed down, almost to a stop; but he made a good recovery - didn't spin the wheels, and pulled it through.  As soon as we hit the top of the hill we were all relieved and started to smile - then I looked out my window - wait, the hill keeps on going up and to the left.  We couldn't see the rest of it!  Oh Shit!

Anxiety crashed down on us again, and we started urging the driver on.  We wished for the engine to be stronger than it probably was, and for the tires to be not as bald as they probably were.  Up and around the first curve, then another.  Though it was probably about half a mile all said and done, it might as well have been Pike's Peak.  About 60 seconds later, we hit the crest - for real this time.  The whole cabin burst into applause.  The driver had a huge smile on his face.  It was a freakin' relief.  We all relaxed a little as we were heading down hill.  Then, of course, we drove for about another 100 yards, then hit pavement.  Are you kidding me?

Travel was faster now - kind of. The pavement must have been about 2 inches thick, as it was riddled with pot-holes, and was warped and bulging in other places.  He'd get it up to 60-65 for a few seconds, then just  slam (and I mean foot through the floorboard, face-in-the-seat-in-front-of-you Slam) on the brakes, crank it stunt car style to the left or right to avoid a pot hole or a cow, then floor it again (and yeah, apparently either cows run wild around here, or Guatemalan fences suck).

We pulled into a town just outside Flores where after some nervous confusion on my part figured out I was supposed to get off here for my night-bus to Guatemala City.  I got some cash out of the ATM at the station, and waited with a few others at the gate.  I started talking to the couple from the Peace Corps.  Derrick and Tessa.  Great people.  Really friendly, and knowledgeable about Guatemala.  Maybe a little too knowledgeable.  They were telling me stuff they learned in Peace Corps orientation about crime rates, murder rates and corruption that made me more than a bit nervous.   However, I found they were heading toward Antigua as well, and asked if I could tag along.  We were unfortunately on different night busses, but headed to the same station in Guatemala City, so we agreed to wait for each other there.  I got on my bus - this time a really nice double decker job where people go on top, luggage below.  I again ended up in seat #1, this time right above the driver.  Nothing but the glass separating me from the road.  It was pretty cool, but again, not a lot of leg room. No one was next to me though, so no worries.

An hour in, it was hard to get comfortable.  I tried to stretch out, then curl up, and vice-versa.  This stuff just isn't built for me.  Finding room for feet and legs and elbows and shoulders is a freakin chore.  About 2:30 a.m. I was curled up, moved to stretch out, and felt someone beside me.  WTF?  An overweight lady was sitting in the seat directly to my right, taking up a good bit of my personal space.  I of course gave a cursory check to my wallet and my bag.  I thought about pulling the painfully inconvenienced 'get off me' move, but you know what, it's 2:30 in the morning on a night bus to Guatemala City.  Screw it.  I just went back to sleep.  Besides, it was only bad when we made hard right turns.

We pulled into Guate around 5:30 or so. And let me tell you - if there's one place on earth you don't want to be at night alone, it's in downtown Guatemala City.  Watching it pass by on the 'big screen' was downright disturbing. It was one of the scariest places I've ever seen. Plus I had Derrick's Guatemala facts bouncing around in my head.  Buildings were run down, trash everywhere, bars on every window, a few people gathered in groups in alleys, etc. We finally pulled into the sketchy bus station where I saw Derrick and Tessa - apparently their bus (which left a half hour after mine) got there first.  They waited on me (I told you they were cool), and we shared a cab to a newer part of the city where we grab some local busses to Antigua.  As we got into the cab, the sun was coming up.  It's amazing what friendly faces and the sun can do for your psyche after a long night. 

Comments: 3


1. Mary   |   Mon Jan 22, 2007 @ 02:01PM

O.K. then. Back to the tour-company drawing board!

2. Karen Bellinghausen   |   Mon Jan 22, 2007 @ 02:18PM

You realize your story is an ad for American Express travelers checks waiting to happen, right? In fact, I think I've seen it. Silly American gets to immigration check-point ... has no cash ... ends up spending the night curled up on a steam grate with a guy named Rico. :-)

3. Vicki   |   Mon Jan 22, 2007 @ 03:46PM

I'm not going to read any more of this until you get to a country where your sole transportation is walking or subway. And unless you've been getting a lot more action than I believe possible, it's "buses," not "busses."

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