If you are planning on doing much traveling in Central America, you are going to take some long bus or van rides. It just comes with the territory. What is amazing about most of these trips though is how few actual miles you cover for the amount of time you spend.
San Cristobal, in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, is about 500 miles from Antigua, Guatemala. The van ride took 12 hours. And that was over some pretty good roads, compared to what I am about to experience in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The bus ride cost the equivalent of $30 U.S. dollars.
The van picked me up outside my hotel room at 6 a.m. – if you are traveling down here, you are also going to have to get used to some early departures, my van from Antigua to Copan, Honduras leaves at 4 a.m. The driver drove around town and picked up the remainder of the passengers from other hostels and hotels and we were on the road by 7 or so. The van was a fifteen-passenger van, and we managed thirteen passengers, a driver and luggage in back.
A small aside here, as I am want to do. A few years back, I handled a personal injury case of a college age kid that was taking an overnight van trip from northwest Arkansas to Colorado, to go skiing with his church group. In the middle of the night, the driver fell asleep, the van flipped over, two people ended up dying and my client was pretty severely injured (but luckily had a full recovery). In researching his case, I came across a whole series of lawsuits in the U.S. about the inherent unreliability of fifteen passenger vans (my client was actually in a smaller van, so the research didn’t apply to his case). Suffice it to say that these large, fifteen passenger vans are quite unstable, top heavy, and prone to fishtail out of control and flip over at an alarming rate. As I recall, they now don’t sell these types of vans in the States to schools and such, because of all the injuries, deaths and lawsuits.
There are many times it is a blessing to have the variety of knowledge that I possess, as a result of my legal education and law career. In this case, I’d rather not have known that I was riding in a van that isn’t sold in the U.S. for safety reasons.
One hour outside of San Cristobal, nine of the thirteen passengers were sound asleep. It is odd that no matter where you are, being a passenger in a vehicle almost always makes one sleepy. One of the two girls in the front seats was awake reading, one girl was knitting in my row, one guy in the far back row was awake listening to his iPod, and I was awake watching the hills of southern Mexico roll by, with my iPod on of course – how travel was manageable before that miraculous invention is beyond me. Everyone else was sound asleep.
And I hope you don’t mind, but I think I shall take a different format for this particular blog and just relay some things I saw and experienced on this route, without making any effort to tie them up neatly in some logical pattern:
• The girl in the middle front seat next to the driver was Japanese. She had spent a year in Seattle learning English and was going back to the Guatemalan town of Xela to continue her Spanish studies, where she had about five months left, after finishing seven already. At one of the stops she told me all of that and when I mentioned that she’d been sleeping almost the entire time, she said she didn’t get back to her hostel until about 4 a.m. before the 6:30 departure.
The way she slept is the same way as most of us all do, when you are in seats that don’t recline. Her head would start nodding lower and lower and lower, then to the left, and then as low as it can physically go. She was out. As the van bumped along and turned this way and that, her head would slowly nod slightly up and down and left and right for twenty or thirty minutes or more. Then at some point, her head would bounce quickly back up to its normal position as she jolted awake. And then slowly nod lower and lower to start the process again. Over and over.
• A white girl in the row behind me had full-blown dreadlocks, down to the middle of her back, braided throughout with little beads and such. She was from Scotland and we talked over coffee at a pit stop later that morning about my golf trip there and how friendly the Scots are. She’d spent three months in Copper Canyon in northern Mexico, which I’d looked into in planning the initial stages of my trip – a place certainly on my to-do list when I get back.
She told a few of us awake in the van sometime that morning a story about breaking her arm badly in Ghana a few years ago. She was riding a bike and got hit by a car and then run over by the front tires of a truck, which then stopped before the back tires ran her over also. Some of the locals pulled her out from under the van (a painful experience she’d like to forget) and took her to the local hospital, where she stayed for four days before flying home – to have the arm re-broken and reset in Glasgow.
While she was an interesting sort, I just couldn’t get over the juxtaposition of her appearance and her accent. Somehow the Scottish accent on a white woman with dreadlocks just doesn’t go together.
For that matter, lets just go with – no dreadlocks on white people – I’ve seen the look on both black women and men, and it can look pretty good, but I’ve yet to see a white person that can pull it off.
• The two girls sitting on my bench were both from Spain. The girl next to me slept quite a lot on the trip. As we drove down the hills from San Cristobal to the Mexican-Guatemalan border, which is at a much lower elevation, the van snaked its way left and right, down and down. She was like a sack of flour and on every right turn the van took, she would tilt to the left, up against my shoulder, then back to the right as the van turned the other direction. Given the winding nature of the road, she swayed left and right rather rhythmically, almost like a human metronome.
• We drove past by scores of ramshackle little villages, made up of concrete cinderblock houses, almost all capped with plastic, corrugated roofs. Smoke rose from a number of them, as you realized that wood was their only source of both heat and of fires for cooking. Even on the main road, there were speed bumps every so often, so that the van would have to slow to a crawl to just ease over them. The houses were all in the valleys, while forested hills overlooked them. Well, mostly forested hills – some had barren patches, where they had clear-cut the trees. Those looked like someone with a beard had someone with a straightedge razor just do one swipe down the side of his face.
As we turned one corner, off in the distance on one of the hills, I saw a lone solitary, perfectly formed tree, placed upon the top of the ridge overlooking its brethren down below, so that its silhouette stood out beautifully against the light blue sky with two wispy clouds hanging off stilly to its right. It has the look of the tree that was in charge of the whole valley. The jefe.
I wished I had some artistic talent at that point – it deserved to be painted.
• There is a hope that with the production of volume and time, that there will be improvement in my quality of writing and powers of observation.
• There are small fields of corn in almost every open space available. Now, in the middle of the winter, the corn stalks all stand empty and dead – a lifeless dull, light shade of brown – the color of weathered paper. They are completely withered and parched, only standing upright at all out of habit, ready to be plowed under to soon start the cycle anew.
There is something quite peaceful about movement overland. A feeling you don’t get by flying – the feeling that you are actually seeing the world – chewing up the miles slowly. Truly traveling. Quite peaceful.