I jolted back and forwards, wedged as the third person (or was I fourth?) on the edge of a two-person seat on a Guatemalan chicken bus. The narrow space between the seats was crammed with even more people.
Overhead, Guatemalan pop music played loudly, its rolling bass and trumpet-laden melody providing a stark contrast to the grinding gears, scraping metal, and bouncing wheels of the bus.
Up front, the driver was barely visible in a cracked rear-view mirror. Above it, small blue and red lights flashed, and glittery stickers of the Virgin Mary, Jesus on the cross, and characters from the Simpsons were scattered.
Chicken buses are simply old school buses from the United States – auctioned off after presumably being deemed too old for U.S. schoolchildren and driven down to Guatemala for resale.
Some still wear the School Bus sign and distinct yellow paint job. Most however sport flashy, colourful streaks and waves, complete with murals of Jesus Christ, Bugs Bunny, or simply Las Vegas Showgirls.
That they were once buses for children is obvious from the space between the seats. While perfectly suited for the average Guatemalan, my elongated Australian legs are squashed right up against the seat in front of me and my knees rest against my ears; it’s like riding in a midget economy class.
Thankfully, Antigua’s cobbled roads and frequent speed bumps, which toss passengers from side to side and into the roof and back down again with unforgiving force, provide adequate distraction from the squashed seating.
Their horn is distinctive, like a senile, grumpy truck with a bad throat. As it squeezes its way past other vehicles at high speed, it coughs out a thick black smoke.
For most Guatemalans, this is the most accessible form of transport they have. The name ‘Chicken Bus’ comes from the wild assortment of animals, foodstuffs, and textiles piled on top.
It’s not uncommon to see bodies hanging from the sides, people pushing in despite many hanging on to one another outside the bus. The ayudante goes about collecting fares by climbing over people or making mad dashes outside the bus while it’s still in motion.
It’s wild, exhilarating, uncomfortable, and fun. Though not ideal in terms of safety, it does the job of moving people and bears a distinct Guatemalan cultural flavour; a simple U.S. artefact being transformed into something uniquely Guatemalan. It has certainly put in perspective my complaints about public transport in Australia.