The park police offered me a ride in their newer tuk-tuk downhill to the nearby village of El Asintal, where a friend parked his gypsy (illegal) cab, a 5 passenger Toyota sedan, where for the grand total of 5 quetzals (60 cents) and being packed shoulder to shoulder with six passengers, I saved $19.40. And so much for the accuracy of certain guide books: Once back in the sweltering humidity of the less than charming colonial-era city of Retalhuleu, dragging a small wheeled Samsonite and shouldering the briefcase that carries the important stuff, I couldn’t think of a good reason to spend another night in the 30’s vintage Hotel Astor. I was given bad directions by the taxi driver and incomprehensible instructions by two schoolgirls, and as Rick in Casablanca noted, “I was misinformed” as to the whereabouts of the bus terminal.
Two boys in an illegal (unlicensed) tuk-tuk brought me to the line-up of ‘chicken buses’ and dilapidated recycled Greyhounds, and there was one headed for my next major route change, the grimy city called Escuintla (pronounced Ess-Squint-La). I didn’t note the name of the bus line but the seat backs had given up hope a long time ago, the air conditioning consisted of a roof vent and the dreaded full volume videos weren’t an option. The driver revved the engine, ground a few gears and everyone sweated as the bus lurched its way out of Rita-hey-you and off eastward, down the tropical coast of the Pacific side of Guatemala.
There were tall green fields of sugar cane, groves of slender dark-leaved rubber trees and the remnants of bridges washed out from last year’s tropical storms. There were passing contests and stops for more passengers, three of which at different locations were evangelicals quoting Bible verses and offering salvation. One would get off and another would board, almost as if they had quotas and territories to cover. I prayed for a swift arrival at Escuintla.
Again, misdirected as to the location for the buses to Antigua, I sweated and sweltered in the afternoon sun, while standing on the garbage-strewn curb of what passed for a sidewalk. Finally, I was directed by an urchin in a torn Rolling Stones t-shirt to the gaudily painted ‘chicken bus’ with the window sign indicating its destination: my roll-on Samsonite found a temporary home on the buses top-side luggage rack and I found half of a seat by a Gautemalan gentleman. What I hadn’t known was that these buses stop for anyone, anytime and anywhere. Within a mile or a few kilometers on the road to the mountain coolness of Antigua, the bus which was originally configured for forty scholars was now at double capacity and more: three to a seat and the aisles were full. Babies cried, mothers fed them and wizened campesinos smiled. In silence if not prayer, we all sweated copiously as the bus took side trips off the main road and through small villages. We stopped once to add water to the radiator and the gears and clutch weren’t happy with each other. Finally, Alotenango, Ciudad Viejo and then the parking lot of Antigua’s central market: out through the maze of shops and shoppers, dragging the muddy Samsonite, briefcase slung and out to the Avenida Santa Lucia for the last leg of the trip from hell, via a growling and bumpy tuk-tuk ride over the cobblestones and the end of a very long day. Hello to a hot shower and a generous splash of rum on the rocks: home sweet home, indeed.