Having never really traveled extensively in Latin America until this latest trip, the transition from Mexico to Guatemala at the border between the cities of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc (named for the last Aztec emperor) and La Mesilla was, if not quite a shock, eye-opening. Although judging a country by its border cities is certainly a mistake (see Tijuana), the squalor and cacophony of Guatemala overwhelmed me immediately as I crossed the ill-guarded border, which separates the two countries with only a flimsy-looking stanchion supporting a yellow-painted metal bar. People crossed the border willy-nilly, and I had to turn back at one point in order to find the immigration office for an entrance stamp. Once there, the immigration official noted that I hadn't gotten an exit stamp from the Mexican side—which was two kilometers away. Trying to look as pitiful as possible (which wasn't too hard considering the heavy bags, tropical climate, and sweat-streaked shirt I was wearing), I asked if we couldn't just handle it there. And for 20 pesos, he gladly stamped my passport. We'll see if there are problems when I return to Mexico without an exit stamp . . .
The main road into La Mesilla is lined with vendors of all sorts hawking their wares and money-changers idly standing with fists full of quetzales (the Guatemalan banknote), hollering out "cambio" to all passersby. With trash strewn all over, it was decidedly more dirty and chaotic than its Mexican equivalent, which was positively staid in comparison. To reach the bus terminal for points further into the interior, one must hop about a motorcycle taxi for a short ride to a parking lot where the chicken buses load and unload their passengers and cargo (which can include anything, including chickens—hence their name).
After negotiating my fare, I climbed aboard as the driver's assistant tied my baggage onto the top of the bus. I was relieved to find the bus only half full, thinking that I'd have plenty of space to stretch my legs for the four-hour journey to Quetzaltenango, my destination. I would quickly realize the error of my presumption.
Chicken buses are just like the school buses I took as a kid. They have bench seats and little padding, and if you are tall like me you have to double your legs up to fit into the seat. At first, I had a bench all to myself, but as the bus stopped at little cities and towns on the way to Quetzaltenango (or Xela), it quickly filled up and I had to share my seat with an old man. Wedged in tight, everyone was thrown into the air as the bus rolled over the endless speed bumps that apparently are required every quarter mile on Guatemalan highways. Throughout the trip, the driver's assistant scurried on the roof of the bus to retrieve or store baggage from passengers that the bus picked up and dropped off along its route. Sometimes the assistant would still be on the bus's roof as the driver sped off, and he would have to climb down from it and let himself in through the back door (which is used as a regular door, not only as an emergency door, as it was in my school days). It's a truly perilous job, and I couldn't help but wonder what happened when a bus would lurch and the assistant would be thrown off of the bus (it's got to have happened in the past, I imagine).
(Days later, I would read in the local Xela paper that there are bandits along these routes who extort money from the drivers in order to allow them through; the prices they charge varies, and the punishments for not paying range from a casual beating to, in some cases, murder. All in all it's a hard job, and at the price I paid for this considerably long journey (40 quetzales, or about five dollars) not particularly rewarding for the risks involved—whether falling off the rooftop or receiving beating or worse.)
Finally we arrived in Quetzaltenango and I removed my knees from behind my ears and stumbled off the bus on deadened legs. Now all I had to do was lug my baggage through a darkened town to find a suitable hotel. Luckily, I had the Lonely Planet guidebook to show me the way. But unfortunately the map left a lot to be desired. (See this article for an explanation of why guidebooks are sometimes less than accurate.) Needless to say, after much grunting and cussing, I found a bed for the night.