In a Truck with Dozens
John Major Jenkins
In Guatemala, March 2001

The truck careened confidently down the mountainside, carrying at least 35 hardy and foolish souls onward to their respective destinies. And I was one of these many, several dozen wayfaring travelers on a mountain road in western Guatemala, heading to the border. A lopsided vehicle of uncertain insurability over-laded with humanity: among global gypsies this scene now has achieved an almost archetypal status, the primary reference being the infamous Central American chicken bus. The variant I had the privilege of participating in involved a small Toyota pick-up truck with an improvised cast-iron frame bolted in place to cage in as many paying customers as possible. Jim and I had no choice. After leaving the ancient ruins of Abaj Takalik, a series of misadventures required that we jump aboard this unlikely taxi. Along with many other stranded travelers, most of them Maya Indians and mestizos, we were actually happy when, an hour after our bus broke down, this little shuttle service arrived. So we jumped in without hesitation. For, in Guatemala, to hesitate in situations like this is to declare your disinterest in being alive.

Well, I had experienced this archetypal scene of low-budget body-crunching travel many times before, on other journeys which now, as I neared my 37th birthday, seemed almost like a distant, previous life. I guess the archetype can be defined as "an intimate appointment determined by fate for transport through dangerous territory to foreign shores." Or, perhaps, it's "an orgy with strangers while juggling grenades on a merry-go-round." Impatiently, not wanting to lose a place, I quickly wedged myself toward the front of the truck's bed, where I could reach two railings on each side—the "arms outstretched, martyred gringo" effect. Meanwhile, more and more people of all ages and descriptions kept piling in, filling up every nook and cranny until it seemed ludicrous to expect that more could be accommodated. My friend Jim mocked my strategy of placing myself into the cornucopia early by waiting at the roadside, smoking a cigarette. When everyone was ensconced according to a hierarchy of positional self-image that Hieronymous Bosch might have dreamt up, Jim simply stood on the back bumper, smiled, and yelled out "Vamanos!" (Let's go!).

A Mayan family tried to get comfortable in front of me, and I squirmed in readjustment to give the young mother room to whip out a boob to feed her crying babe. The father looked 30-ish, and he began playing a little hide-and-seek game with their 3-year-old. An old woman on my right hung tightly to the rail and absently watched the tropical scenery roll by. Up ahead, six campesinos stood roadside, all holding bags of various sizes, waiting. Oh my God, No! Yes, we slowed and came to a stop, me not believing that we hadn't already exceeded twofold some code of sanity and safety. They began cramming in the back—although one guy simply jumped on the roof of the cab. The driver's boy-helper facilitated the inevitable compression of bodies, shouting, "pase adelante!" (move to the back). Now, the bed of this little pickup had roughly the dimensions of a queen-sized mattress. Granted, most of us were vertical, which reduced our bed-contact surface area to perhaps eight square inches each, but what was occurring was simply not possible. This was beyond known physics. A mile up the road we stopped again and two women jumped aboard. That's when I decided to count. Thirty-seven humans of all ages, shapes, and sizes.

Throughout all this comic implausibility, I became aware of a dimly distant, but constant—how did I register it… it was… cheeping. Yes, cheeping was occurring on the fringes of my awareness. A very delicate, quiet and plaintive cry, incongruous with the gear-slamming, shouting, and engine roaring that invaded most of my ear-space. Cheeping. Other distractions caught my attention: a cow we almost ran over, a flat-bed truck piled high with twigs that roared around us. But this cheeping persisted and by its very subtlety captured my attention. I listened carefully, looking around. Where was that coming from? Not more than two feet from my beating heart, there was a little box held tightly by the old woman on my right—I hadn't noticed it before—but that's where the little cheepers were kept. Two, maybe three little chics were wondering what the hell was going on in the world. They were making their own amazing journey, from their home, taken deep into strange territory, kidnapped by the old Mayan woman. They would grow and be fed, and would live out their lives according to some karmic plan known only to the Lord of Chickens. And to contemplate what brought them and me to be sharing this same comic, cosmic carnival, I think would rattle even the Buddha's meditations. At my moment of realization, the old woman broke away from her distantly gazing revery and looked right at me. It so caught me by surprise, as if she had been reading my mind all along, that I couldn't deny or hide my whimsical imaginings. So, without breaking my train of thought, I smiled. She smiled back, naturally, and in that smile a confidence was exchanged as we shared a moment that would reverberate through space for all time. Without a word, we became friends.

— — — —

We rolled onward, arrived at the main coastal highway, and paid our thirty cents for the ride. It had taken 45 minutes but it seemed like hours. The scenery and the ride was not altogether unpleasant. Guatemala's western highlands drop off steeply near the Pacific ocean, and the sticky heat of tropical lowlands was in full force. From this point it would be fairly painless to jump aboard a bus that would in most cases be going right to the border town of Tecun Uman. Izapa was now only hours away. . .