We had been travelling many hours by bus, nearly 20 hours in a row by the time we reached the border crossing of Mexico and Guatemala. We had no idea what to expect, as this was both mine and the Aussie lads first overland border crossing in Latin America, and it was quite the experience.
We actually nearly went past the Mexican side, as there was nothing obvious about it actually being the border, no barriers or guards, just taxis and people trying to change your money.
We ask one person where the crossing is and they point at a building across the street, which was the Mexican immigration office, which we could have easily missed. We paid our Mexican exit fees (though you could probably get away without doing this if you weren’t going to revisit) and walked over to a nearby taxi. We put our bags in the boot, and there was already a few people in Taxi, before out of nowhere the Taxi driver picks up a huge turkey and starts loading it in to the boot. We are all looking at each other in amusement, until for a second it looks like the taxi driver is going to slam the boot on the turkeys leg. He must be a pro at turkey taxing, as we make it over to the Guatemalan border, and the Turkey is still very much alive with limbs intact as he unloads it from on top of my bag.
The Guate side of the border was a little more as I’d have expected it to be, and had a road block in place with an office to the side. Again, there was no one checking if you entered the office, and we stood around a little confused, until a Guatemalan explained that we should entre via the office door, but again there would be nothing stopping you just walking in to the country.
The immigration office was a small makeshift-looking building with two guys sitting at desks. We enter and one glances up at us, and bangs his fist on his colleagues’ desk, assumedly to let him know that this is his turn. We wait for around five minutes, just standing there while both of them have their eyes glued to their paperwork. Is this a bet? Are they seeing how long they can get us to stand here before we say something? After what feels like nearly ten minutes one eventually gets up and completes the formalities of our passports.
I ask him what I assume is a pretty simple question in Spanish, about where we can change our money. I try re-wording a few times, then failing this I ask him where the nearest bank is, but again nothing. I turn to look at Pat and Dan, I start to even doubt if they speak Spanish in Guatemala. In the end he gives us a map, and mumbles a few things which are entirely incomprehensible and we are set on our way.
The change after you pass through the border is almost instant, the road is not much more than a dirt track, the buildings are much more dilapidated and there is an obvious change in wealth in almost everything. We walk for around 20 minutes until we find the bus station we were looking for. According to our information, we should be able to get a bus to Quetzaltenango (commonly referred to as Xela) before the end of the night. Just as we approach the bus station, a man runs over to us shouting Xela! Xela! Xela!? (a sound we would hear hundreds of times after). Wow – what a spot of luck we thought, as we board our very first ‘chicken bus’.
A chicken bus, assumedly named because you are herded in like chickens, or perhaps because it wouldn’t be strange to see people taking chickens on the bus, is certainly an experience. The views from the bus were amazing, as the sun began to set, illuminating the huge mountain peaks either side of us. We were all experiencing that travel rush that comes and goes, and although we were probably going at around walking pace, we were all grinning to ourselves, just taking in the sheer carnage of the situation – quite unlike anything any of us had experienced.
The buses themselves look like old American-esque school buses, painted over in bright colours, and consist of one driver and one conductor. People jump on and off at random points, and have their luggage thrown down from on top of the bus. Our first journey was quite eventful, luggage fell off of the roof on to the road, and halfway through the journey part of bus caught fire and smoke filled the carriage. This must be a fairly regular occurrence as most people jumped up and started to get off the bus, as we all looked at each other in confusion, before someone was able to fan away the smoke and the bus resumed its journey, to everyone’s amusement.
The conductor advised us at first that it was 80 Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency, commonly referred to as ‘Guats’), but then changed it to 60, which made more sense as it was divisible by 3 people. It also sounded about the right amount of money, so he took our 100 and walked off. I asked the guy a few times about the change over the next half an hour, but he kept saying ‘si, si’ and walking off, so we assumed he would give it to us at the end, or he didn’t have the change at the time.
After about an hour and a half I started to get a little suspicious about if we would make it to Xela that night. The kid in front of me started a conversation, and when I asked how far Xela was, from what I could understand he said it was another 2 hours after we had got to the next town (Huehuetanango), which was still some way off. He seemed to laugh when I said we were going to Xela tonight, and I had this feeling that this bus was terminating at Huehuetanango.
My fears were recognized when we arrived in to Huehue, and everyone departed. We got off and spoke to a friendly old man, who advised that there were no more buses to Xela tonight, and we asked how much the fare should have been, and he said 60 for all of us. Having spent 6 weeks in Mexico and avoided being shafted, we had managed 6 hours in Guatemala and had already been marooned in an unknown city – and to top it off he still hadn’t given us our change.
The conductor was offloading the luggage from the roof, and we asked again about the change, this time more assertively and he gave us an extra 20Q without too much commotion. This was still 20Q short, and he reluctantly handed it over after asking once again. We had only changed up a minimal amount of Pesos to Guats at the border, for fear of being ripped off by the people selling change in the street, but seeing no banks or any other option, we changed just enough to get us to Xela (supposedly) and luckily a bit in reserve.
By this time it is well in to the night, and we are in city which we have absolutely no idea about. It certainly didn’t look like the sort of place to have a hostel, as we looked around a little bewildered. We saw the humorous, adventurous and yet potentially dangerous side of being marooned in a city at night time we knew nothing about, and which on the surface looked far from the safest place in the world. We were very much aware that we were outsiders, in one of the poorest places I had personally ever visited.
Akin to George Best turning up for an AA meeting, we were met by inquisitive stares by everyone we passed (though not necessarily bad stares). We had very little Guats left, as we took stock of the various buildings listing ‘hotel’ outside. Before we set off in one of their directions, we were seized by an old man who asked us if we needed accommodation. He looked trusting, and well, we frankly didn’t have any other ideas, so we asked how much, and if it was close. He replied that it was 15 Guats each (just over a quid), and so after a quick chat we decided to follow him.
If I was on my own, I perhaps would have declined and opted to find my own place, however as there was 3 of us, I felt pretty confident that it would work out okay. We walked for a few minutes, and it started to get a little darker, as we ventured down a few smaller streets. I was starting to think if it was any further we would decline and go back, so I asked if it was much further, and he pointed at an ominous looking square block building we were approaching.
It was at least a ‘hotel’ and we hadn’t been jumped yet, so things weren’t looking so bad. We were shown our rooms, which consisted of a prison cell esque room, with two beds in one, and a single on in another. Dan got the single bed, which at first looked like the best deal, but the room smelt strongly of a slow and painful lung-related death. The hotel seemed fairly busy, and there was an entire family living in one of the rooms next to ours, again no bigger then a couple of metres wide, but everyone was equally friendly and apparently surprised at our arrival.
Our savior from the bus station, also took us out and showed us a nearby restaurant (the front of someones house) where we spent the remaining Guats we had on a beer and food. It was at this point, sat down with a beer in hand with food on the way, that we felt truly safe and saved. We had a bed for the night, and at the present time, all of our limbs. We scoffed the food down, returned to the room to finish drinking some Mezcal we had carried on the journey, to numb the feeling of the bed and help us to sleep. A baby cried in the room next to us, as I drifted off to sleep in this entirely different world.
It was an early rise in the morning, hastened by the wail of what sounded like dying pigs outside our room. Peering out of the side of the building, we watched below as a some sort of Pig market was in full swing. The family next to our room were awake, and again we exchanged Holas. While we watched the city from the hotel, a boy of around 10 years old from the family came and stood next to us, with a little trepidation. His younger sister watched us nervously halfway behind the door, almost as if she had dared him to speak with us.
Pat & I engaged him in conversation, and with our limited Spanish we found out his name was Santos. His slight nervousness at talking, combined with our limited Spanish made conversation quite difficult, but there was something about the boy that really resonated with me. He had a solemn sort of politeness about him, and something a bit deeper I find hard to explain. I was really intrigued in his life, and wandered how long he had stayed here, what his living situation was like, did he go to school? All questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask him, half in not wanting to insult him, but also perhaps I didn’t really want to know the answers.
The one time I saw his complexion change was when I asked him if he liked football. His polite frown turned to a smile, and in that moment I saw what I love so much about football. The power to bring people together, to enjoy playing the game and forget about any troubles for that time you are on the pitch. A type of escapism, mixed with hope and optimistic dreams.
We spent the morning changing up some more money in to Guats, and I kept an eye out for a football to buy for Santos, but no luck. We returned to the hotel, and met the family briefly again as we were on our way out. Again, the temptation to offer them money returned. A football is a gift, but is offering them money an insulting gesture? I wish I’d have tried harder to find a football for Santos. This thought, and others like this played on my mind as we made our way out of the prison hotel and on to the next chicken bus destined for Xela. Guatemala – a different world entirely.