Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Missed the Last Bus... Again

The six of us scampered down Volcan Tacana on Monday with not many cares in the world.  We’d made it to the summit of the 2nd highest peak in Central America without any serious rain, had enjoyed a sunrise stretching out over Mexico and Guatemala, and now we were heading back to civilization with lighter packs and fuller hearts.  

Sunrise from the summit of Tacana

We enjoyed the sunshine and the views of the valley stretching out below us.  We passed purple, white, and red flowers tucked into the undergrowth.  We remarked on how green everything was, and we loved the way the mist made everything seem more mysterious.  We took our time, taking multiple breaks and walking at a leisurely pace.  

At 12:45, we stopped for a snack break and ate trail mix and gummy candies.  While we were relaxing, I mentioned something about how I’d overheard our guide, Cesar, say that the last bus from the town we were headed for left at 1:00pm.  Suddenly everyone in the group became more alert.   “Really?  Ben, does it really leave at 1:00?  That’s in ten minutes!”  Cesar shrugged and nodded confirmation that he thought our last bus was at 1:00.  “Pero vamos lentos.  Yo puedo caminar más rápido,” he told Ben, as if that explained everything.

Needless to say, even though we started walking faster, we did not make it all the way into town in less than ten minutes. We arrived in Sibinal at 1:07pm and were told by a local that the last bus for the day had left at 1:00.  Cesar went of to speak with a friend of his to find us a pickup truck to give us a ride to the next bus stop.  Ben, meanwhile, began negotiating with a local taxi driver named Walter.  

After a bit of debating, we loaded our 6 packs into the back of a 1980 Station Wagon (1 pack went on the roof), crammed 4 people into the backseat and 3 in the front, and let Walter take us out of the town and to the next bus stop.  

Walter was excited at the commission to drive us.  He immediately engaged Russell, who was sitting next to him in front, in conversation.  It turns out Walter lived in the US for a few years, until he was caught by immigration and deported.  Here in Guate, he is proud of his Station Wagon, which is running remarkably well for a car 33 years old (Although his car is a 1980 model...which would actually make it 35 years old...Math is apparently not Walter’s strong suit).  

As we climbed the winding hill in Walter’s taxi, he swerved from side to side to avoid potholes, and spent more time looking at Russell that at the road it seemed.  He kept up a steady stream of interesting, awkward, and sometimes strange conversation while he drove.  As he did so, the mist and fog closed in, bringing visibility down to almost nothing.  It seemed evident to all of us in the car that our taxi driver had already spent a good portion of the morning celebrating Independence Day with quite a bit of alcohol, and with the swerving, the potholes, the lack of visibility, and the weighed-down ancient car, all of us felt nervous and were extremely relieved to disembark the taxi and wait for the chicken bus that would take us on the next portion of our journey.  

While our first chicken bus ride was uneventful and remarkably uncrowded (Rachel and I had a seat all to ourselves for the entire ride), our second proved more exciting.  

Chicken bus buddies!
September 14th in Guatemala is the day before Independence Day, and it is the day of the antorcha tradition.  Groups of runners carrying torches run from city to city, celebrating freedom and clogging up traffic.  The tradition started in 1959 and is a nod to someone who supposedly ran from one city to the capital to bring news of independence back in 1821.  

At any rate, on the 2nd chicken bus of the day, we encountered antorcha after antorcha, all going in the opposite direction of us.  Because the runners took up an entire lane (and were sometimes accompanied by slow-moving vehicles, parade-style), traffic backed up for miles in the oncoming traffic lane.  Inevitably, people tried to pass the line of cars and found themselves in our lane without a way to merge back into theirs, preventing our bus from moving forward.  It was quite the experience as the passengers on our bus stood, shouting encouragements to our driver and yelling insults out the windows when we passed each offending driver (“Estupido!”  “Learn how to drive!”)  followed by laughter all around.  

We kept wishing we'd have a Tacana bus for our Tacana trip.

Eventually, we made it to San Marcos.  It was about 6:15pm by this time, and we’d been traveling by taxi and bus for the last 5 hours.  We promptly boarded a shared van to take us through town to the area where our next chicken bus would be waiting.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t there.  It seemed we’d missed the last bus.  Again.

Cesar spoke with a shuttle driver who agreed to take us to Xela, but only if we could find more people, as 6 passengers was not worth his time.  A comical conversation ensued between Ben and Cesar.  Cesar’s plan was to wait at the gas station to see if more people showed up to board the shuttle.  Ben proclaimed that this was silly, and anyone wanting to go to Xela would either have taken the last bus or would already have gotten a taxi; no one would wander into the gas station and ask the shuttle driver if he’d be willing to go.  To prove his point, Ben shouted to no one in particular, “Quien quiere ir a Xela?  O, nadie?”  (Who wants to go to Xela?  Oh, no one?”)

His outburst did succeed in getting us some information, however.  A man working at the gas station came over, asked if we were headed to Xela, and told us the last bus was leaving at 6:30 and to go see if we could still catch it.  So we backtracked up the road in time to see the chicken bus, packed to the gills with people hanging out the front door, pulling out bound for Xela.  About 15 of us stood behind, unable to board, as the bus attendant told us the last bus would be leaving at 7:00pm, and another man contradicted him saying that that bus was not running that night.

Soon though, a micro van pulled in, and we all piled inside.  Though the capacity of the van should have been around 15, we packed in around 30 people.  We managed to close the doors, and we were off on our way to Xela, finally.  I lucked out on the ride with an actual seat and even a headrest.  Russell was not so lucky, perched on the wheel well beside our seat, two teenage boys practically in his lap.  

At 9:00pm, after 8 hours of travelling, we entered our hotel in Xela and dropped our things with a sigh of relief.  After missing the “last bus” more than once, we’d finally arrived.  

Back in Xela once more

Friday, September 11, 2015

The State of Things

It’s an exciting time to live in Guatemala.  Though I don’t usually follow current events or even attempt to stay up to date on the political scene here in Guate, over the past few months, it’s been impossible not to.  And what has been happening has been simply remarkable. 

Alfombra at our school to celebrate Independence Day

I am still by no means an expert, but I think almost everyone here in the city now has at least a basic understanding of what’s been going on.  I’ll attempt to keep this update accurate and concise. 

To begin, we have to go back a few months, to the spring.  It was at that time that the then-vice president of Guatemala, Roxanna Baldetti, was linked to a corruption scandal.  This news sparked a campaign called RenunciaYa (“Resign Already”) which called for the resignations of both the vice president and the president (who people assumed was involved, though no formal accusations were made).  Baldetti resigned in May, but President Perez Molina did not step down. 

All summer, peaceful protests were held on Saturday afternoons in Zone 1 of Guatemala City, people with signs and chants demanding the president resign.  He did not. 

Things began to come to a head in August.  As the presidential elections grew nearer, evidence came to light implicating the president and the first formal accusation against Perez Molina was made.  Just two weeks before the election, the president gave a speech.  Many thought he would finally announce his resignation, but instead, he proclaimed his innocence and lashed out at the UN group that has been spearheading the corruption investigations. 

The speech sparked a massive uprising.  A protest was planned for August 27th that would shut down the city.  Schools (including mine) cancelled classes for the day, businesses closed, and thousands of citizens took to the streets.  The university students started marching from their campuses, picking up more and more people until they reached the Parque Central in zone 1.  Over 100,000 people gathered that day to demand the president’s resignation.  And remarkably, the entire event remained peaceful.  In this violent country, that fact alone is amazing and wonderful. 

The beginning of the march, in Zone 15

Unfortunately, the protest achieved no visible results—at least not right away.  If the president were to resign, he would lose his immunity and be subject to investigation for corruption charges.  By remaining president, he prolonged his freedom. 

So the government took matters into their own hands.  First the supreme court, and then the congress, voted to strip the president of his immunity.  The final vote in congress was 132 to 0 in favor of renouncing his immunity. 

As soon as Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity, a warrant was put out for his arrest, and he resigned the presidency a few hours later.  And the people of Guatemala rejoiced.

Yet the future of this small country is not yet clear.  Things are moving in a positive direction, but in September 6th’s presidential election, no one on the ballot seemed to be a good choice; most of the candidates are known or suspected to be just as corrupt, if not more so, than the previous administration. 

One candidate in particular, Manuel Baldizon, is known to be bad news.  In the days before the election, lawmakers lobbied to have his party removed from the ballot due to charges of bribery and corruption during his campaign.  The motion was not successful, and Baldizon remained on the ballot.  Yet another civilian campaign was in motion called “No Te Toca Baldizon”  (“It’s not your turn, Baldizon”). 

The fight to keep Baldizon from getting elected was just as fierce as the fight to get Perez Molina to step down.  While everyone I spoke to or heard from in the city was anti-Baldizon, the problem was conveying the message of the candidate’s corruption to the poorer citizens of Guatemala (which is sadly a huge percentage of the country).  It’s hard to convince someone that a person is a poor choice for president when all they know about him is “He gave me a bag of food and necessities,” or, as is rumored (but perhaps not confirmed to be true), “He said he’d give me a job if I voted for him,” or “He said he’d pay us if we voted for him.”    

The morning of September 7th, the day after the vote, Guatemalans were disappointed, but not without hope.  The leader in the presidential race (which will go to a second round of voting between the top two candidates from the first vote) was Jimmy Morales, a comedian who apparently has acknowledged he knows very little about politics but had the charisma and the team to be elected.  Manuel Baldizon and Sandra Torres were (are) neck and neck for 2nd and 3rd place.  Currently, Torres leads by 1.2% (less than 6,000 votes), and Baldizon is claiming the elections were fraudulent and is pushing for a re-vote between him and Torres.  For now, though, it appears that #NoTeToca was successful.  But in the effort to keep Baldizon from the presidency, no one pushed hard enough for the right candidate. 

Guatemala is moving forward, but there is still a long way to go.  

Viva Guate!