This is not the first time I have noted that Guatemala is the land where old school buses from the U.S. come to die. But I have to say that they certainly live out colorful lives before they pass on to that Great Terminal in the Sky.
There was a line of buses blocking our turn onto Calle Roosevelt yesterday as we went to the office. The buses inched past as they disgorged passengers. And there she was, third in line, a converted school bus with the name Jenifer in large letters down the side.
It is not unusual for buses here to have names. Esmeralda seems to pop more often than expected; either that, or one distinctive bus gets around a lot. They may have names like “La Izalqueña”—“The Girl from Izalco.” There are variants on terms of endearment, like “Mi Chiquita” or “Mi Dulcita”—“My Little One” or “My Little Sweetie.” A lot of the buses bear slogans: “A Gift from God,” “Jesus Is My Lord,” or “God Is My Guide.” The way these buses are driven, we can only hope that the latter is true.
Jenifer was a particularly good example of restoration. While some of the buses that come here retain their original yellow and black, complete with “Franklin County School District” down the side, many others get a makeover. Jenifer had a nicely done green, red, and yellow paint job with chrome pieces on the wheel hubs. Some buses have paint jobs that almost look like murals, along with a whole lot of chrome, big air horns, and occasionally mean-looking chrome hub pieces that remind me of the chariot wheel knives in Ben Hur.
There is a hierarchy of buses in Guatemala City. There are a few large, green new buses that run the routs to downtown and back. You can ride them for one quetzal—about twelve and a half cents U.S. There are guards on the platforms and the buses are clean and I would feel safe riding them. There are blue and white intra-urban buses that are older, more crowded, and more problematic. Then there are the red buses, many of them Mercedes—old, decaying hulks. The diesels often spill out toxic black clouds that make you hang back so you can see the pedestrians that may be scurrying across the street behind them. People are packed in so tightly that it’s hard to exit. There will probably be people on the lowest step hanging out the door by one handhold. The security adviser for our mission area said that if you ride on one of the red buses you can plan on being robbed. One of the missionaries who served with us here called the red buses “zombie vehicles”—the walking dead of buses, held together by who-knows-what.
That’s the scary part.
The fascinating part is watching life go by when you’re stopped waiting to get onto Roosevelt and passengers begin to pile out of the buses. There may be people in business dress striding down the street to the office, students with mochilas—backpacks—on their shoulders, or a woman in Mayan typical dress with a basket or bag of goods to sell on the street corner. Knots of pedestrians wait at the edge of the street to dash and weave through the traffic because there is no crosswalk. At the curb, another woman in typical dress, having sold all of her homemade food for the day, loads her empty basket and folding table into one of the taxis that hangs around at the bus stops.
For all of them, this is normal, day-to-day life.
For us, it is an interesting cultural experience, one of the indicators that we’re not in Kansas anymore—even if the lettering on the bus says “Wichita Schools.”