A nearly empty lot begins to rouse with rising dust as a diesel engine mumbles to life in the distance. With the dust, smoke wafts from the barbecue of a vendor who grills breakfast meat for impending herds of commuters heading in and out of Antigua. An engine’s exhaust sighs somewhere, breaking an unspoken contract of silence. The city wakes itself not with roosters, but with chickens.
Chicken buses, that is.
Dubbed “chicken buses” by foreigners, the brightly colored buses in Guatemala are famous for shuttling locals between villages, towns and cities. From the village of San Miguel Dueñas to the town of Antigua, from Antigua to Guatemala City.
The buses, or camionetas, which are unique to Guatemala, line the streets and highways. Some locals call them burras, or donkeys. Their names painted on the side indicate the family that runs the bus line.
The buses that roll into the terminal kicking the dust awake make the sun seem lazy, hiding behind the hills around Antigua that still have not woken from their misty stupor. A bus helper, an ayudante, in a white T-Shirt hangs out the door of a red and white bus labelled with sleek, dual-tone blue letters: La Primorosa. “The Primrose.”
The names painted on the side indicate the family that runs the bus line. Other bus lines often paint their buses similarly to the larger, better known lines, in hopes to divert the customer base. Drivers call the off-brand buses “photocopies.” The paint can be misleading, but the names on the sides make the difference.
As the bus swings into the terminal, the ayudante jumps from his post to run alongside until the vehicle lurches to a stop. He reaches up and the first passenger hands her basket to him. He holds it with one arm and helps her down with the other.
By the time he hands the woman her basket and makes sure it is securely balanced upon her head, the next passenger has almost unboarded. The ayudante steps back for the young man climbing out of the bus, but remains close by. His sharp eyes already fix on the next passenger, evaluating his luggage, hands patient and ready.
Once the last passenger steps off, their feet and luggage secure, the ayudante finally steps away from his post. He evaluates the terminal and wanders in a circumference around the bus. The bus engine turns off and silence settles for a moment before the ayudante’s voice cuts through the dusty air:
“Guate-MA-la, Guate-MA-la, Guate-MA-la!”
At bus stations in Guatemala, there is no map, and no apparent schedule. Buses leave when they fill up, and in order to get anywhere riders have to know where they are going ahead of time--that includes any connections.
Another voice echoes from across the terminal: “Dueñas, Dueñas, Dueñas!” More buses file into the terminal, falling in behind one another in crooked order like the cobblestones of Antigua.
The red Orellaña pulls up next to the green Esmeralda, and two ayudantes jump out. One stands at the front of the bus, one pops out of the rear to help passengers down from the higher step. A man gets off the bus and waits behind it until the ayudantes climb the ladder at the rear to retrieve his luggage from the roof—a large white sack of grain.
The first helper lowers it to his companion who balances it timorously atop his head, and climbs back down the ladder. Minutes later, they pass tables up to each other for a boarding passenger, tying them to the roof with a few feet of green twine.
Guatemalan bus drivers face as many dangers as any occupation in the country. The gangs that control different areas take percentages of the drivers’ earnings, and if the drivers choose not to pay, or pay too little, gang members often kill them.
“Guate, Guate, Guate!” More buses roll into the terminal, depositing passengers potentially making connections. The ayudantes advertise the bus destinations with the means accessible: their voices.
The dawn chorus of Guatemala consists of grackles and ayudantes.