I wrote the following piece after a visit to Guatemala in 2004, and it’s more “creative writing”-y than some of the other things I’ve written.

I think it’s very relevant to healing issues that we are able to let go of control when there’s nothing we can do to change a situation. Buddhists call this principle equanimity. Greeting card writers call this principle “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Alcoholics Anonymous refer to the Serenity Prayer. It’s all the same principle.

I should also mention that this piece can be read as romanticizing of daily life in Guatemala without suitable historic, cultural, or social context. Bear in mind that I was years younger when I wrote this, and that there is much more to Guatemala than dangerous public transit. So, if you can, bear with my younger self as I explore life lessons found in daily experiences.

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I had heard stories about the “chicken buses” typically found in Central American countries.  My mother—who lived in Guatemala for two years—talked about them with a knowing laugh.  Chicken buses:  even the name sounded uncomfortable, the harsh consonants jammed together like people on the bus.  Traveling with livestock was not my idea of a comfortable journey.  But then, how else are people who don’t have cars supposed to carry their chickens across long distances?

My parents decided that a trip to Guatemala was a great, inexpensive summer vacation.  It was where they met, after all.  I was psyched.  I like other countries, and I don’t mind roughing it in terms of showers, accommodations, any of that.  My parents liked to spend summers camping or backpacking, so I was somewhat used to that.  However, the transportation issue was a little different.

It was at this point that my U.S. upbringing came into play.  Despite long car trips without air conditioning, crammed into a 1984 Toyota Tercel with my brother and sister, I did not feel prepared for a similar journey with a bus full of people I didn’t know.

Most Central American drivers are crazy.  They have to be, to survive among the other crazy drivers.  If there are two lanes marked, it actually means that three lanes of cars can travel there.  Stop signs and red lights are actually yield signs.  My dad learned to drive in Honduras, but he’d had to get used to driving in the States in order to keep his license.  After having a taste of his driving—which sometimes reminded me something of a roller coaster with no guard rails on either side—I anticipated much, much worse for Guatemalan chicken bus drivers.  I was right.

Chicken buses are actually quite beautiful. They’re the same version as U.S. school buses.  Maybe they’re actually used U.S. Schoolbuses, except they have my kind of decoration.  Think hippie love vans, only buses.  There were vibrant reds, screaming yellows, and only slightly more subdued blues.  My parents located one headed in the right decoration, and we climbed aboard.
As we pulled out of the streets of Chichicastenango, the driver honked the horn by pulling on an oxtail.  “Solola, Panajachel!” shouted a man leaning precariously out of the door of the bus.  There were no set stops, only those two towns.  Otherwise, people just stuck out there arms, boarded, and paid their three quetzales.  Finding a place to sit was another matter.  Actually, the bus I was on was fairly empty—only two people per seat.

When we cleared the town, we sped up.  A lot.  There was a metal bar in front of me, and I hung on for dear life.  The woman next to me wasn’t fazed a bit.  She sat there as serenely as one can when dripping with sweat, looking dignified in her traditional Guatemalan clothing.  Like the buses, this was brightly colored.  If you were well versed in the area, you could tell which village she was from based on the designs on her clothing.  She settled into her seat, occasionally holding the bar when we went around a particularly perilous curve.  Aside from that, she read.  I tried to look over her shoulder to see what her book was, but I thought I was going to be sick all over her and her papers.

The bus twisted and turned very close to the precipice.  I tried to focus on the view of fields and horses, flowers and volcanoes rising into an unbelievably blue sky.  My eyes kept returning to the fall.  I wondered briefly how many people died on chicken buses when I saw a series of small white crosses by the side of the road.

We approached a large, slow moving truck with the word INFLAMMABLE printed in large letters on the back.  Just as we were going through another series of curvos peligrosos—those dangerous curves your driving instructors warn you about—the driver cursed, put the pedal to the metal, and pulled around the truck.  I held my breath.  I should explain that at this point we were driving on a two lane road, fair game for any oncoming traffic coming around the curve ahead of us.  I realized at this point that they were going to have to identify my charred body by my dental records.  I wondered how long it would take before anyone realized we were missing.

We were still alive.  I was still alive.  I accepted that, if I was going to die on this road, there was nothing I could do about it.  I let out a long, slow breath. I tentatively let go of the bar I had been clutching with white fingernails, and settled back into my seat.  I wasn’t going to let hordes of crazy drivers take this day away from me:  a world so much brighter than Technicolor, volcanoes reaching up to kiss the heavens, and the hum of an engine I hoped would keep running.

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