Friday, January 16, 2009

On the road again

Leroy picked me up on monday the 12th at midnight. If you're looking for a pleasant, traffic-free trip to Newark that's a great time to go. With a 5:30 am departure there wasn't much choice if we were to leave some margin for problems. None occur and at a little before 3:00am I'm on the curb with my luggage. The terminal is a pretty sleepy place at this hour but it's not long before friendly, smiling Guatemaltecas begin to arrive. The typical traveler has at least 4 or 5 huge duffels for carrying North America's bounties back to the family. One gal has two cart loads and dutifully heaves the heavy nylon bags on and off the scales so Continental can tally the fare.

Wasn't sure we'd get airborne with all the luggage and a full passenger compartment but all went smoothly and by 8:30 local time I was dashing through George Bush International Airport in Houston with just enough time to make an honorary pit stop and catch the second leg. Once again Continental did their job and by 12:30 local (same as Houston time) we were on the ground in Guatemala City. It's thrilling and a bit unnerving to watch the mountains grow as the plane loses altitude, then the mountain tops disappear out the plane's windows and we continue to descend. Customs, immigration and baggage are a piece of cake in a beautiful modern airport.

Guate, as the citizens call their capital city, is a huge sprawling place. The downtown area has a fair share of high rises but most of the architecture consists of one or two story buildings built of concrete and block reinforced to withstand the not so occaisional earthquake. Cement gives way to tin and wood as you move away from the city center. Combined with outlying towns which have grown and intermingled over the years the capital area is home to nearly three million inhabitants.

Gangs are a problem and there are private security guards toting factory sawn-off shotguns at almost every business of any size. They smile and nod at my buenas tardes but they're still pretty scary looking dudes. A great deal of the gang violence centers around the transportation of drugs to feed our big appetites in the good old USA. Demand and supply, we demand and they kill each other for the privilege of being our supplier. Not just Guatemala but many countries from the US border to Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, and the Caribbean struggle with violent crime. The countries that don't produce still have illicit traffic running through their borders giving narcotrafficantes an opportunity to earn a better than average living in countries with limited opportunities. How's that war on drugs going, Mr. Nixon?

Maybe its time to legalize it, regulate it, license it, and tax it because it isn't going away. The money generated by the taxes would pale in comparison to the savings in tax dollars currently spent trying to eradicate the problem not to mention the time freed up for law enforcement to chase crooks rather than kids smoking pot. But I digress.

From the airport it's a Mazda Protege 5-speed taxi to the first class bus station. Q70 (70 quetzales, the local currency) or about nine bucks buys passage on an older, slightly threadbare Mercedes bus with restroom and in-route movies (broken of course, although the driver-piloto en espanol-gave it a valiant effort trying to start it several times as he muscled us through the crazy traffic. It's an express run which lessens the chance of being waylaid by highwaymen after dark. A very real problem. There are lots of uncontrolled intersections, drivers darting in and out of unmarked lanes, pedestrians, bicyclists, moto-scooters, and more. The rule is, use your horn, hit the gas and go, and count on the other guy not wanting to wreck his ride.

Lots of familiar names mix with the unrecognizable. American fast food is well represented. Citibank is here and apparently Sherwin Williams truly does cover the earth. American car companies too, although with a very different product line (maybe a Daihatsu or Daewoo micro mini cargo van sporting a Chevrolet bow tie for instance). Very cool chinese forward control duallys narrow enough to navigate many of the smaller streets and still haul a couple ton. No NTSA or EPA rules here. A large percentage of the fleet are diesels and the air is thick with their exhaust.

The bus climbs up and up eventually escaping the suburbs and moving into a countryside cultivated in tiny patchwork plots. All but the very steepest hillsides are terraced and productive. Dogs run loose everywhere apparently breeding at will. Two carefully come down the narrow median as we pass the remains of a third who wasn't as cautious. Our ride continues on CA-1, the pan-american highway, which is being widened and is under heavy construction in many places. Looking out my passenger side window there's no shoulder, no guardrail, and a several hundred foot drop. I experience a brief death-row conversion but the driver is a pro and we wind our way on tenaciously clinging to the sides of mountains that make West Virginia look flat.

About three hours into the ride our piloto who, in a crisp white uniform, looks every bit as professional as he drives, pulls into a roadside restaurant where another bus is just leaving.
Beautiful, clean, and of attractive and robust wooden construction, Rapi-Comida (literally quick food en espanol) is set up as a cafeteria type operation. A tasty tostada with fresh guacamole, a chicken burrito and a 20 oz water set me back Q20 ($2.60). Mucho Gusto!

Back on the bus, gus. Another hour of passing slow moving vehicles on blind corners and dodging the same from the other direction and we enter Quetzaltenango through an ornate gateway called the rotunda. Grab a cab at the station and take a short ride to the historic center of the city where the kind folks at Casa Dona Mercedes have a nice room waiting with private bath, comfy bed and nearly hot water. The street noise is typically annoying but earplugs save the day and at $22 bucks its a pleasure after a long day on the road.

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