“Who’s freakin’ bag is this leaking on me?!?!” Seriously? I’m sweltering from the jungle heat and the peppery chili-scented breath creeping down the side of my neck, and a cold shower was about all that I could dream for at this point. But a sticky Kool-Aid shower was not on my wish list. That was about the breaking point for me, where my temper began to snap like the Titanic right after it went ass up in the middle of the Atlantic. “Get me off of this f***ing thing!”
Let me set the stage for you here. I’m an independent traveler. By “independent”, I mean I don’t book organized tours, don’t use travel agents and never have any means of luxury transportation waiting for me when I travel (unless I’m getting escorted by the authorities across the Bolivian border). I adhere to the core principles of Gonzo journalism wherever I go (without all the drugs). If you want to truly know your subject, you need to embed yourself into their lifestyle and live like they do. (I’m still trying to score that gig with Hugh Hefner). Furthermore, I love to get off the beaten track and “travel like a local”, per se. It’s more of a “keep it real” experience that I’m after, and there’s no better way to “keep it real” than riding the buses in so-called “3rd world” Latin America.
So I’m in a little pueblo named Copan Ruinas in western Honduras. I’m trying to get to the mighty ruins of Tikal, Guatemala. The trip should be about a 7-hr bus ride they tell me. No worries. I’m pretty pooped from touring the sights of Copan so I’ll probably knock out once I’m on the bus and get semi-comfortable (assuming the longer route buses are a bit more comfy than the rickety ones that just hop between the local towns). I wasn’t too concerned. I’ve done it before. Got my ticket, ready to roll.
I expected the bus to be late, and it was. That’s typical. Bus schedules are like weather forecasts to Eskimos in these parts of the world. They don’t really matter. What I didn’t expect was a clunky, 70’s-style retired school bus straight from the junkyard of Sanford and Son’s that would show up over-flowing with Guatemalans and Hondurans, looking like the last stop at a refugee camp (similar to the opening scene from Scarface). To make it worse, only about 3 people got off and about 10 people got on. I was one of those “lucky” 10. Forget about “standing-room only”, this was more like “arms and legs out the window – room only”! What the hell!? This is unacceptable! I had my paid ticket in hand and a room reservation in Tikal, so there was no way I was missing this bus, even if I did have to ride with my head out the window, Ace Ventura style. “If you have a ticket, come on”, ordered the driver. Oh, Jesus.
After squeezing my slender frame through a crowd of sweaty rancheros and ponytailed natives, I made my way aboard. I had nowhere to go really but to stand in the center of the bus. I was a foot taller than anyone on that bus so I had a panoramic view of the misery on everyone’s face as they curiously watched this gringo getting the “local experience” he so ambitiously desired. The first 45 minutes of the trip had me standing in the aisle, weaving and swaying alongside all of the other unfortunate riders of this rickety roller coaster on 4 wheels. I was clinging to the seat beside me so tightly to keep my balance that I damn nearly ripped it off the floor.
Less than an hour in, the driver decides to pull over at a rest stop to grab some lunch and take a little siesta. Siesta my ass! Keep this hunk o’ junk in motion buddy. If we stop, we may never get it going again. We need some air up in here too, it’s blistering! I just saw an iguana walking around with a cantina! In the meantime, “Act One” of what would be a series of characters providing our in-transit entertainment that day would make his way on board. I don’t know if this is routine down here or what, but this dude walks on the bus in full-on Barnum & Bailey clown wardrobe, pink wig and all, and commands everyone’s attention while he starts blabbering about who knows what. All I could make out was that he wanted some donations. Donations? For what Bozo?? You don’t even have any tricks! Listen, I’m all for helping those in need, but usually a guy dressed like a clown has some tricks up his striped sleeve. Juggle some tamales, set your mouth on fire, do some hocus pocus and make a few more empty seats magically appear…don’t just stand there with a poorly painted sad face and a shabby looking wig and expect my sympathy when I’m standing on this hot ass bus with half of Guatemala trying to get across the border. Where’s that bus driver damnit? I didn’t pay for any lackluster clown entertainment with no a/c while our driver decides to take an afternoon nap. This is bulls**t.
Finally, the driver comes back and Chewy the Clown heads off, his painted facial expression of dejection unchanged due to the fact that he didn’t earn many tips that day. Next time bring some balloons or a trick pony aboard, fool. We proceed.
I’m still standing in the middle of the bus, 80 minutes in. My legs are starting to cramp due to a full day of Mayan jungle trekking the day before. I decide to join some of the locals and take a seat on the floor in the middle of the aisle. It was funky and dirty, but I was desperate for some relief. Not even 20 minutes from our last stop, the bus halts again. No one is leaving. Enter “Act Two: The face cream specialist”. Now who the hell is this guy? He comes aboard with his palate of skin care products, creams and herbal remedies, giving us this pitch straight out of an infomercial sponsored by Cheech and Chong. He then proceeds to pass samples around the bus and asks people to try it out. No cream is gonna stick to anyone’s face in this blistering heat. Why don’t you try selling something useful, like an air-conditioning unit? Perhaps a family pack of Gatorade? This is ridiculous. Where the hell is that driver off to this time? He just had a damn siesta, how the hell can he be outside stretching his legs? We only went 10 miles! This whole “authentic experience” stuff was beginning to seem like a really bad idea.
Finally, we get going again, and after 2 hours aboard the circus on wheels, a few older ladies sitting close to me spontaneously decide to ask the driver to let them off up ahead. I think they were just gonna walk the next 200 miles rather than deal with this madness. I saw an opportunity here. Two small individual seats near the back were about to become wide open and no one was initially chomping at the bit to grab them. I know, as a gentleman, I’m supposed to give up any free seats to the elderly or to a mother and her children, but I wasn’t exactly in a “giving” mood at this point. I was more in a Steve Martin from The Jerk sort of mood, if you know what I’m sayin’, so of course I snatched one of those seats as soon as the Guatemalan Golden Girls got up. We still had 5 hours to go in this nightmare…I’m no dummy. Ahhhh, yes…how I had missed the comforts and legroom of…an airplane restroom. What the…? Was this bus designed for people with no legs? I know I have long gams, but if your body is anything beyond a torso with arms on this thing you’re gonna have a hard time getting comfortable. I’m sitting there with my legs straddling the seat in front of me like a cowboy mounted on a bull. This is borderline sexual assault on the girl sitting in front of me. She could have used my knees as arm rests. (Now I take back all the shit I ever said about Delta airlines.) But, to be honest, I was just happy to be off the floor and next to a window that barely opened, providing a teaser of warm outside air to cool my melting skin.
The timing might have been a little premature for the old ladies to get off the bus, as “Act Three” would take the stage shortly after their departure. I call this guy “The Anti-Gas Vendor”. He comes on the bus selling his gastritis pills and anti-bloating medication. Is this even legal? There was actually a few people on the bus who took interest and bought some of this stuff. Where was the damn snow cone vendor when you need him?? Maybe if they cut back on those Merciless Chili Peppers of Quetzalacatenango (also known as the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper) they wouldn’t need these pills. Those are the hottest things ever ripped from the Earth. I’m assuming those chilis were the real cause of the extinction of the Mayan Empire. There’s no remedy for that fuego burning in your head and gut. Legend has it that they were grown deep in the jungle by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum. Makes perfect sense to me. Moving on.
The final act in this Twilight Zone marathon was “the preacher”. Look, I’m an ex- Christian (who also happens to be an ex-sailor, so please excuse the foul language). I’m not gonna say anything bad about a guy trying to spread the good word to the masses…and being that half of the country’s population was on this bus, I understand that it was an opportune moment for him to get the word out. The one gripe I have with this one was his method for doing so, under the circumstances. He prayed for all of us, which I had already done several times up until this point. I prayed for some seats, air, elbow room, water, no more clowns, a functioning toilet, a new driver…and of course, for our safety. Amen. He then proceeds to go straight up ‘gospel church on Sunday’ style and breaks into some songs. No one is in the mood for praise and worship at this moment, c’mon brother. (But if you’re offering communion, I can sure use a shot of some of that juice right now.) Then he asks if anyone is in need of a personal prayer and blessing. Well duh, we all are at this point! (Forgive me “Lord”.) Of course, the one person who raises their hand is sitting right next to me near the very back of the bus, so the preacher decides to crawl across several bodies that were still sitting (or laying) on the floor to reach his prayer subject. Now was that really necessary? I’m pretty sure the “Lord” is gracious and able enough to carry that prayer the full length of the bus without having to disturb the poor people who are sleeping on a dirty, gum-caked floor, desperately awaiting their turn for a seat in this rolling inferno machine. So, he leapfrogged to the back of the bus, placed his hands upon the woman next to me and granted her prayer request with a passionate delivery (spit flying out of his mouth and everything). Great, now I have to pray for a napkin too, thanks. After 1o minutes of receiving prayer and saliva, I sure hope the woman was feeling blessed.
Through all of this, I was miraculously able to maintain my composure and attitude. I actually managed to get some brief shut eye at one point, aided by the soothing cadence of a loose muffler scraping along the highway. Throughout my interrupted sleep, I would enjoy the sounds of chickens yelping and babies crying over the next several hours. I just had to stay calm and convince myself that I was dreaming of eating KFC at a day care. I don’t know how long I was out, but when I awoke, I didn’t have quite the same calm demeanor as I had maintained for the first part of this trip. I kept feeling these drops of fluid land on my shoulder and arm. Drip. There’s another one. Drip. There’s another. What in the chicken shit is that? I looked up and noticed that somebody’s bag in the unsealed storage compartment overhead was about to burst with some sort of oozing liquid goop. I wasn’t sure if that was rooster blood or hot sauce. It was red and sticky like molassas, and it was steadily dripping onto my forearm and t-shirt. (Unfortunately, that napkin prayer hadn’t been answered yet.) Man, I’m like really pissed off by now. I’m quite over the whole “authentic experience” thing at this point. It’s hotter than a hog pen in Houston, these babies won’t stop crying, the muffler is still scraping, I’m having nightmares of being bloated from a lack of gastritis supplements and being attacked by talentless clowns, and now…above all…I’m getting a mother f***ing bloody Kool-Aid shower! And that, my friends, is about the exact point when I lost it and shouted out, “Get me off of this f***ing thing!!”
I still had 3 hours to go. Needless to say, by the time we reached the ruins, I was ruined.
That was the worst bus ride of my life.
Disclaimer: No Hondurans or Guatemalans were attacked or harmed during this journey. I’m truly a big fan of both countries and their wonderful people. I’ll just explore the option of flying next time.