It is around 9:45, and I am perched on the edge of a bus seat, two fellow passengers to my left and three to my right. Thushan and I are on a “chicken bus”—an exciting term for what actually amounts to a yellow school bus that occasionally also transports live chicken, but even then, usually on the roof—headed to Guatemala City from Panajachel, a lake town that has volcanoes like New Zealand has sheep.
Late for our connecting bus to El Salvador, we’re somewhere in the mountains north of the city and it’s foggy, or maybe cloudy. Either way, there is about three feet of visibility, and our driver decides to pull one of the usual bus driver moves here: passing in a no passing zone. Even under normal conditions, this can be quite nerve wracking, given that it’s usually done at unsafe speeds on mountain cliffs, but I generally give them the benefit of the doubt since they act like they know what they are doing. In this case, however, I truly think I might die.
I glance back at Thushan, who has moved from one row behind me to the very middle of the bus. In a discussion about dangerous bus rides a few days before, he had argued that the best safety strategy was to position yourself with as many human bodies between you and the most likely impact sites, the front and the back, thus giving you the most padding should an accident occur. The glance he shoots back at me is one of sincere concern.
I count the rows. I was in row four, which didn’t leave very much human padding. As we continued to lurch ahead through the ever-thickening cloud, even some of the local passengers were beginning to look worried (or perhaps awe inspired?) by the brazen disregard for death that our driver was exhibiting. Things got quiet.
Then, sounds from the radio enter my conscience. The clunky beat, which has at this point forever been seared into my head thanks entirely to repetition, is unmistakable: Umbrella. And today I’m in luck, because it’s the remix, which means both Jay-Z and Chris Brown join Rihanna in her ode to…keeping dry. It was as if the song gods had felt my discomfort, put their heads together, and, with the limited power they possessed, came up with this song as an offering to me as I awaited death on this bus.
Jay-Z utters his final line—“Little Miss Sunshine, Rihanna where you at…”—and I am thinking the same. A little sunshine would at least mean avoiding a deadly freefall off the side of this mountain. The song seems to be spurring the driver on and I begin to recalculate the logistics of a move to the middle. It would require scraping my way past three rows of passengers and convincing two currently comfy riders to squeeze in to give me a spot.
Umbrella fades right into the Sean Kinston hit “Beautiful Girls,” an appropriately morbid tune thanks to the chorus, in which he cries out “suicidal” several times, seemingly urging the bus driver on. Without forgetting the direness of the situation, I manage a smile as the bus attempts and fails, for the second time, to pass another bus uphill in the wrong lane.
One of the joys of travel is the constant mixture of the familiar with the unfamiliar. Cultures all give and take from each other in different ways, and to witness these mixtures is both entertaining and kind of mind-blowing. In this case, as a native of the United States traveling in Central America, scraps of culture from our homeland can be found everywhere. Former yellow school buses from the U.S. transport rural peasants through the mountains of Guatemala, still sporting their Bluebird brand insignias. In San Salvador, we would come across a Mister Donut, a former American donut giant that now operates mainly in Asia. In parts of Mexico, teens don Metallica and Slipknot shirts, as metal music has become a popular symbol of rebellion.
But as these American icons move to other places, they become just as much theirs as they are or once were ours. Mister Donut is as foreign to me as any other restaurant chain in San Salvador, but to locals, it is the place to go for good coffee and a pastry. Just as a Mexican might laugh at what we call “Mexican food,” my first metal concert in Mexico was rather amusing, but unbeknown to me, Mexicans had long ago taken American metal as a starting point and turned it into their own unique idea.
As my thoughts return to the present, I realize we have come to a stop. Perhaps today will not be the day I die riding in a vehicle that used to transport me to school in first grade. Perhaps, like the bus drivers of my youth who always placed the safety of the children first, this driver will discover an inner stillness and settle down. We entrust him with our lives, so he must me taking our well being into account. Right?
There is construction up ahead and a long line of cars, trucks and buses has formed, but instead of waiting in line, our driver thinks ahead: he pulls into the wrong lane, cutting the entire line until we are right at the front. It’s a dirty move, and the bus driver sitting to our right gives a look that says, “Go ahead and try it.”
As the traffic attendant wearily gives the go ahead, the race is on. Our driver quickly pops the bus from first to second to third gear, wielding the shifter like this is Formula 1, but to no avail. Too much cargo is our downfall as we fade behind our competitor, but we never give up the chase. We barrel headlong all the way into Guatemala City arriving early, which is a first for our Central America travels. Sure, I would have liked a bit less of the drama, but missing the connecting bus would have been disastrous, so for his efforts I was grateful.
As I drift off to sleep on our next ride, a plush charter bus, the trip fades from my mind. Another school bus ride to add to the memory banks, just as I remember them, just like first grade.