The Journal  

27 December 2005

La Ciudad de Guatemala

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


La Ciudad de Guatemala , Guatemala

December 9-11

We climbed away from Lago Atitlán and into a thick fog that shrouded the mountain tops and blew across the road in front of us like snow. Throughout our trip, despite the warnings of others, we had found drivers south of the border to be both courteous and reasonable. But Guatemalan bus drivers win the road warrior award. Local public transportation in the country consists of brightly decorated “chicken buses.” Most are old school buses that can barely pull their own weight when fully loaded and negotiating a mountain road. But on the Pan-American highway heading towards the Guatemalan capital we encounter “super chicken buses,” machines that look like a school bus, but have the front end of an International. They have ample power to pass us on uphill grades and they do it whether the path is clear or not. The buses operate with a “spotter,” who hangs out the door and waves other traffic out of the way. They pass whenever they want to and everyone else is expected to give way. On the way to Guatemala City , we see a police truck pull off the road to avoid an oncoming bus.

  Indigenous people from the highlands around Lake Atitlan were out as we left Panajáchel.

  Transportation for many people was standing in the crated bed of a truck that carried passengers from town to town.

  A man has sacks of carrots he is trying to sell by the road.

  People around Lake Atitlán.

  Buses crowd around a stop while passengers quickly load their luggage on the roof and in the isles.

About 40 miles out of Panajáchel, I noticed the Guzzi's speedometer wasn't working. We pulled into a gas station, where I discovered that the plastic bevel drive housing had cracked. I used electrical tape for a quick fix and after a test lap around the parking lot, we were on our way.

I always feel a little exposed and insecure sitting dead still on a highway in stopped traffic, a feeling compounded when you're sitting on a foggy highway surrounded by vehicles without brake lights and suicidal super chicken buses. So when traffic on the Pan-American ground to a halt for construction, I began to thread my way through the parked cars to avoid becoming a bumper sandwich. Nearly safe at the front of the line, my left saddlebag clipped the back of a truck and sent us tumbling.

After a month of trouble free riding, it was our second spill in less than three days, an idiotic decision causing an accident on good pavement in stopped traffic. Once again, we were barely moving, so both motorcycle and riders escape injury. The truck's driver claimed that we'd broken the taillight on a vehicle that had lived such a hard life that it was impossible to tell. He demanded that we pay him the equivalent of five U.S. dollars. My hand was reaching for my wallet to get us out of what was quickly turning into a sticky situation when other drivers got out of their cars and told us not to pay. One whipped out a cell phone and offered to call the police. The driver of the truck became angry, scuffling and shouting with some of the bystanders before driving off. After thanking the people, who for some reason saw the need to stop and help two strangers far from home, we left in a hurry. Although I'd lost all confidence in myself, Holly somehow had enough left in me to get back on the motorcycle. We managed the last 30 miles into Guatemala City drama free.

The environment in Guatemala City , the largest city in Central America with a population of over two million, is what I had expected to find in Mexico City , with packed and busy streets that stay vibrant late into the night. The armed presence is even stronger than the Mexican capital. Police carry AK-47s and Uzis, and stores and hotels are guarded by shotgun and revolver carrying private security. Machetes are a fashion accessory and we saw men dressed in sport jackets, with a tooled leather sheath sticking out from their coat tails.

We spent time in the central market, where the crafts were the same as at the lake and the vendors less willing to haggle. But the food was delicious and we sampled cookies and bought food for an early breakfast the next morning.

  Sitting quietly at his cart a man peels fruit to sell in the center of Guatemala City.

  A woman puts her cat on display to earn money on the streets.

  Copies of DVD movies, CDs and video games hang for sale at almost any corner.

  A rainbow breaks out after a storm at the market.

  We wait outside a bank to use the ATM as a girl waits on her mother from inside.

  The Guatemalan flag whips in the wind as a storm leaves the city.

All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus