I stand on the side of the road waiting for the bus. The of smell unidentifiable food being cooked, hangs in the air. It smells amazing. But whatever it is, it probably isn’t vegetarian. My stomach gurgles, protesting my decision to postpone breakfast.
A bus pulls up a few feet from where I’m standing. It’s bloated with passengers. I consider, and then re-consider whether or not I want to get on. What do I say? Do I hand the driver the money first? Can I negotiate? Will I be able to hold on to my bag or do I have to put it on top. I’ve heard stories of things going missing on these buses. Gahhh! I should have asked Alex more questions about the bus before I left. My hesitation leaves me stranded as the bus quickly drives off, in no mood to wait on the flaky American.
“Amigo!” yells a voice from behind me.
I turn around, looking for the voice. A red taxi has pulled up on a side road entering the strip mall behind me.
“Where you go!?”, shouts the driver over the loud traffic.
“Antigua!” I yell back.
He nods his head and waves his hands for me to come closer.
I walk over. I’ve already told myself that no matter what, I’m taking a taxi rather than ride the bus.
“How much?” I ask the driver.
He tells me a number in Spanish, but my Spanish number comprehension is worse than my overall Spanish comprehension (which is, in itself, atrocious). I pull out a piece of paper and write “$ ?”. He smiles and writes “300”. I exaggerate an un-approving face and write “100”.
The battle has begun…
He does a similar facial move and writes “250”. I stare at the paper. Then at him.”150″, I scribble down. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing. I’m simply writing numbers that are lower than the ones he gives me. I’m not even sure what the exchange rate for US dollars and quetzales are. He looks at me one more time from the cozy confines of his air conditioned car and writes “175”. The sun is shining in my face. I’m hungry. I want to get to Antigua, so I take it. I hope I haven’t been screwed. I should really learn the exchange rate. He emerges from the car and grabs my luggage. He is shorter than me. Black hair, a black and white striped shirt and jeans. He can’t be more than 35.
A vintage, blue Volkswagen bug pulls up behind him. The driver honks his horn, making it clear that the taxi driver’s car is blocking a portion of the entrance. The taxi driver seems to be un-phased as he puts my luggage in the trunk. I quickly get into the back. With the exception of a semi saggy ceiling,the grey interior of the car is clean and well-kept. I don’t see a meter. I really hope he doesn’t screw me.
“Marine” he says as he points to himself. ”Y Tu?”
“Josh” I reply.
“De donde eres?”
I know the phrase, but can’t recall what it means.
“I’m sorry. No hablas Espaniol”.
He looks at me from his rear-view mirror… “Where you from?”
Oh yes. That’s right. “Estadus Unidos” I butcher the pronunciation. “En Missouri… Saint Louis… San Louis, Missouri.”
Should I say “Saint” or “San”? I think to myself. I don’t know.
“Ahhh, ok” he says. He nods his head as if he knows what state and city I’m talking about, but I doubt that he actually does.
Marine whizzes through traffic like a kid playing a video game. He keeps a calm demeanor as he cuts off motorcycles, cars, buses and trucks. I cringe as he weaves in and out of traffic with little or no regard for the yellow lines. This seems to be the standard mode of operation for most of the cars on the road, though. The yellow paint acts more like an arbitrary marker; a polite suggestion rather than an actual, physical line created with the intention of providing order and safety for the vehicles and pedestrians who venture out into these roads. He continues to remain calm.
It’s been twenty minutes since we’ve left the city. The open road is less stressful than it was back in town. Marine still makes me wince as he passes other vehicles on the one-lane road.
We slow down as we run into traffic. The slow-down becomes a dead stop. Marine is silent. We sit for 10 minutes in a congested pool of vehicles. After a few minutes, cars begin to shut off their engines.
This might take a while.
Marine utters something in Spanish, points to the cars and trucks and smiles. I just nod my head. I have no idea what he said, but I’m guessing he’s talking about the traffic. I smile back and shrug in an “eh, what are you gonna do about it” fashion. “No problema, I say, hoping that makes sense. He laughs and nods his head. I’m guessing this isn’t the first time he’s had to deal to deal with this type of situation.
A kid gets out of a car next ours and walks to the side of the road. He begins to relive himself.
“Man”, I think. “Do that in the US, and you’re getting indecent exposure for sure”.
I roll down the window. Why is it so cool outside? I thought Guatemala was going to be hot? The majority of vehicles are stuck in the road, yet those on bicycle, scooter, motorcycle and foot pass us with ease as they maneuver in and out of the parked cars.
I am envious.
Marine gets out of the car and makes a phone call. It is dead quiet. Amazing. No honking. No yelling. Silence. Peace. This is odd. People begin exiting their vehicles to stretch their legs or take their kids for walks around the area, making small talk with other drivers. Nobody seems angry. Everyone seems to accept the situation they are in.
Vendors selling ice cream and snacks begin showing up.
“Where did these guys come from!?” I wonder as they make their way through the crowd of vehicles.
I take a nap.
I wake up. How long have I been sleeping? Marine is talking with a lady outside our vehicle. She has curly hair and a long-sleeved blue shirt. She appears to be in her 40’s. He looks over at me and makes eye contact for a second then turns his head back to the woman. Does he know what’s going on? Why won’t he tell me? My stomach rumbles… hard this time. Skipping breakfast was a terrible idea. The lady leaves and Marine returns to his phone.
A group of young boys with backpacks, possibly school kids, pass by on foot. Behind them walk women in colorful, traditional dress transporting various bags on their heads. Marine reaches into the car and turns on the radio. He finds a futbol match and turns the volume up. Other cars have done the same. Some have put on music. The air is crisp, noticeably cleaner than the air in the city. The temperature is dropping.
“frio” Marine says as he grabs his jacket.
“Muy frio” he says again, this time rubbing his shoulders in a “I’m cold” gesture.
“Yes. Uhhh… Si si” I reply.
Other people also begin to put on jackets and hats as they continue to socialize. I really can’t believe how cool the temperature here is.
“GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAALL!!!!”, yells the announcer on the radio. Nobody seems to care.
Something has changed. It is suddenly quieter than before. Some of the music has been turned down. Everyone seems to be looking in the same direction. I look out the window on the other side of the car towards the opposite side of the road. A security detail in black riot-gear solemnly walks in a straight, solitary line in the direction of the traffic jam’s origin.
My imagination begins to run wild…
“Marine, por que no move? Por que policeman” I point in the direction of the traffic.
“Protestino” He says, or at least, something along those lines.
I shake my head. I don’t understand.
Then it clicks in my head. “OH, Protest!”
I am fascinated, but I don’t know what this means for us. The security force is now out of my visual range. The music levels return to their previous volume and everyone begins to socialize again. I re-position myself, stretch out, and make myself as comfortable as I can.
Within 15-20 minutes a cloud of black smog erupts from a bus in front of us, filling the open window and my unfortunate lungs. The other cars in the area begin to do the same. Marine hops in the car and starts the engine. Traffic is moving. I’m ready to go.
After a few miles, we enter a small town. I see police directing traffic. I begin taking photos. Marine constantly glances back at me through the rear-view mirror. I don’t think he likes me taking all of these pictures of police.
To the side of the street are a group of women in traditional dress. Marine points to them. *“Protestinas” (or something like that). “Indigenous rights”, he continues.
As Marine talks, I begin to take more photos. After a few snaps, Marine’s tone changes.
“Amigo…”, he says sharply. He begins speaking very quickly.
I don’t know exactly what he is saying, but his harsh tone and the fact that he is waving his hand up and down in a “cease and desist” manner tells me I probably shouldn’t take anymore photos. I put my camera down. Marine eases up.
We soon pass through the town. The rest of the ride is uneventful. It isn’t too long before we entered Antigua.
* In Guatemala there exists a tense and sometimes deadly relationship between the indigenous people of Guatemala and the current government. As a non-native and first-time visitor to Guatemala, I know embarrassingly little on the subject. For more information about this, you can click here.