Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Lonely Bus Ride

“When we are willing to stay even a moment
 with uncomfortable fear, 
we gradually learn not to fear it.” 
 -Pema Chodron

I’ve come to Guatemala to learn Spanish.  Three months in Tulum and I had progressed only slightly due to the high volume of English spoken there and a slight laissez-faire attitude I became guilty of.  The common language between the majority of friends I hung out with was English.  So, I felt it was time to go and achieve one of the goals that I set for myself on this adventure.  Time to learn Spanish.  Getting to Guatemala took several days, many buses, and a few friendly strangers.   Allow me to take you on the tale…

It’s raining hard, deep puddles with no boundaries, mud has become rivulets, it braids and twines.  I leave Tulum amidst tears and pouring rain saying goodbye to Ashley and Calai on a Thursday evening.  My bus is late and I don’t mind at all to spend another half hour with ones who are so dear to my heart.  And to hold Calai, his sweet baby freshness making every hard edge on a being smooth, one last time, for who knows when I will see him again.  He could be a toddler even.  Oh, how I want to stay, but I just know, I can feel it like I feel my back needing to crack every time I stand up.  It’s in my bones.  It’s time to go.  I was getting too comfortable in Tulum and I could feel myself becoming complacent with learning Spanish.  It was just too easy to get by speaking English.

I take an uneventful 17-hour overnight bus ride to San Cristobal fighting tears a good portion of the way.  I desperately grasp to the sound of the Caribbean ocean in my head, needing that sound tattooed onto my memory.  I visited San Cristobal five years ago and loved it however, I must admit, I am so sad to be in cold weather, wearing wool socks and seven (no joke) layers on my top half that my sadness overtakes my enjoyment of being here.  But I revel in the fact that a glass of wine cost less than half of what it does in Tulum.  Also, luckily my silly British buddy, Matt, is here to keep me entertained and lift my glum spirits with his jokes and our mutual love of quoting Eddie Izzard. 

Two freezing cold nights in San Cristobal and I board a bus to take me to the town on the border.  Three hours later, I’m in a taxi being ferried to the actual Mexican/Guatemalan border.  There are three people in the backseat and I am smushed in the front seat with a very friendly, older Mexican man whose name I never fully understand.  As I’ve mentioned before in an earlier post, seatbelts in Mexico are more for decoration than actual use.  I say a few silent prayers that the door won’t bust open and I topple out and roll down the steep incline as the taxi climbs high, winding hills en route to Guatemala at top speed.  As I’ve also mentioned in an earlier post, speed limits seem to merely be suggestive.  I feel the need to make small talk with the gentleman whose lap is practically on top of mine because of that precise reason.  For the Spanish I did learn in Tulum, it does nothing to help me converse with this fellow.  However, he seems to like me, or perhaps take pity on me, as he feels it his duty to escort me for the next few hours.  I will forever be grateful for this man. 

We walk into the little building to get our passports stamped only to find the man behind the desk dozing with his head in his arms.  A little clearing of my throat and his head jerks up.  Hola!  The border town, for a small, blond gringa like me, is incredibly intimidating and overwhelming.  People everywhere yelling at you to exchange your pesos to quetzals with them, yelling all other kinds of things of which I can’t understand.  I imagine it’s probably similar to a foreigner from a small village seeing New York City for the first time.  People, vehicles, dogs, trash, useless crap for sale, useful crap for sale, things, shit, everywhere.  Thankfully, my new Mexican buddy ushers me onto a tuk tuk which takes us onto a departing bus.  Here’s the thing, I don’t quite know where I’m going.  I was told by the contact at the San Pedro Spanish school I’ve enrolled in to get off at Los Encuentros and take a bus to Panajachel and then a ferry to San Pedro.  Is Los Encuentros a town, an intersection, a hotel?  I haven’t the foggiest.


The buses here are an experience to be had.  They are called Chicken Buses.  Imagine a pimped out school bus circa 1985 with shiny, colorful decal on the inside and outside boasting a love for God.  People pack in.  It’s like an absurd amount of clothes trying to fit into a tiny suitcase, busting at the zipper.  I’m not sure if I’m on the right bus or not but I keep repeating, “Voy a los Encuentros,” to my friend and he, along with two other women who are now interested in me and where I am going, confirm that I am on the right bus.  The three of them look at me a lot and give me reassuring nods and smiles which I am desperate for at this point.  How long is it going to take to get to Los Encuentros and then how long after that to San Pedro? 

The bus takes off onto the serpentine roads in the mountains in this part of Guatemala.  It’s slow going as the bus frequently stops to pick up and drop off passengers.  It dawns on me that I am not going to make it to San Pedro tonight as it’s already 4 PM and I, at the very least, know San Pedro is many miles and many hours away.  I try to enjoy the stunning view of mountains but I’m too stressed about the fact that I really have no idea where I should go now or where I’m going to sleep tonight or when the next time I’ll be able to use a bathroom might be.  The sun is beginning to set and I’m freezing in a t-shirt and jeans but my warmer clothes are in my backpack on the roof of the bus.  I try to chat with my Mexican buddy but I am having the hardest time understanding him and I’m not sure why.  I know a little Spanish at this point.  Maybe it’s the fatigue or perhaps he is speaking to me in other tenses besides present of which I know very little.

 After about three hours we arrive into a dusty parking lot with many other chicken buses and dusk settling on the horizon’s shoulders.  My three bus friends point to the next bus I’m supposed to get on that will take me to Los Encentros. I say goodbye to them (secretly wishing one of the women would invite me home and take care of me as I feel lost and afraid).  Another guy takes my backpack off the roof of the bus and waves me away when I try to take it.  He carries it over to the other bus for me, brings it inside the bus and sets it on a seat.  When I say I’m really trying to get to San Pedro he says it’s not possible tonight so I should go to Xela instead and head to San Pedro tomorrow.  He tells me Xela is another hour after Los Encuentros, which is a four way intersection.  Probably not an ideal place to spend the night.  I thank him and sit down in the bus.  

It’s getting darker now, the bus isn’t on which leads me to believe it may be awhile before we leave.  I am completely freaked out.  The guy told me that it takes two more hours to get to Xela, but I have no idea what town I’m in at the moment.  I feel really, really alone.  I am hungry and exhausted.  I’m shaking I’m so scared because I just don’t know where the hell I am.  I just don’t know, I just don’t know, I just don’t know.  All the guide books you read tell you to never be a female alone at night in Guatemala.  And here I am in a parking lot in god knows what town, completely alone.  No one knows I’m here since I don’t know where “here” is.  The fear encircles me like the darkness encircling the dirt parking lot and I want to cry.  How badly I want to transport myself back to the tropical warm arms of Tulum, back to my love affair with my bike (which I named “Choncito,” which means "piglet," which is now in Ashley’s possession), back to something familiar. 

About an hour goes by and the bus finally revs up and we are off.  It’s nighttime now.  Every second thought in my head is a prayer for safety.  Every third thought is how much I wish I had a traveling companion.  Every fourth thought is how badly I need to pee and how damn hungry I am.  There’s a part of me that simply reverts back to being a child and I think to myself, “I just want my mom.”  I take it upon myself to talk with the young guy sharing a seat with me and my backpack.  Partly because I feel as though I just need an ally, and partly because the road is so twisty that half the time we are majorly in each other’s personal space, sitting like lovers do when they can’t stand to be physically apart.   He’s friendly and chatty and wishes me good luck on my journey when he gets off the bus an hour later.  Around 9 PM, we descend upon Xela. 

Just by sheer chance, several weeks earlier, someone who was leaving Hostal Chalupa gave me a Lonely Planet book for Central America.  I almost left it at the hostel and then at the last minute decided to take it with me.  I am so thankful for that foresight as I find a hostel in Xela listed in the book that I am hoping will have a free bed for me.  I am the last person on the bus when it pulls into a dirt lot, hardly lit and no one else around.  Again, I’m shaky, nervous.  What if the bus pulls away and leaves me here alone in the dark? 

There are two guys working on the bus.  The actual bus driver and then the guy who collects the money from passengers.  The latter is the same guy who suggested I go to Xela instead of Los Encentros.  I timidly ask in Spanish if there are any taxis around.  This is the moment when I realize people in Guatemala are really, really friendly.  Both of them whip out their cell phones and start calling taxis for me.  Dónde vas?  Where are you going?  Black Cat Hostel.  I pick this one out from Lonely Planet for the silly reason that I love cats and need anything at this point to bring me comfort even if it is just the name of a hostel sharing the name of an animal I adore.  All smiles and cheer from both guys, "Esta en el camino (He is on his way)."  And they all know of this Black Cat Hostel.  Up pulls the taxi driver also all smiles and friendly greetings and into the car I go.  I chat with the taxi driver, maybe he won’t charge me as much if I make small talk.  He is so excited to hear this is my first night in Guatemala and that I am learning Spanish and welcome to Xela!  9:30 PM and there is one last bed available at Black Cat Hostel.  I run to the bathroom first, want so badly to email my family and tell them I am safe but am so exhausted and spent I crawl into the top bunk and fall fast asleep.   

In the morning I realize something about the day before.  I am always on my soap box about getting out of your comfort zone, doing things that scare you, flinging yourself out of the nest.  Traveling from Mexico to Guatemala was just that.  Let me be frank, I was scared shitless.  Perhaps because I was literally traveling into the unknown in many ways, I was leaving my cozy little tropical nest in Tulum and I am a female traveling alone.  It’s scary, daunting and intimidating.  However, I did it and I survived and I’m fine.  And every Guatemalan that I spoke with that day was so friendly and helpful, they looked at me and smiled and were enthused to hear I came to their country to learn Spanish.  Later that morning I took the last chicken bus to San Pedro.  And now I’m here living with a host family and making leaps and bounds with my Spanish.  I miss Tulum but instead of trying to just get it out of my system, as I complained to Ashley the other day, she suggested instead reflecting on all the happiness it brought me.  Reflect on the immense laughter I shared with certain friends there and appreciate those moments as something to bring me comfort always.  Leaving is never easy, fear is even worse, but it is all necessary.  The moments when everything seems impossible, like drawing a fine line in the sand and hoping the ocean doesn’t claim it, are the moments you grow immensely and learn to trust yourself.  In the end, you’ve come out the other side a better and stronger you.

“Fear and trembling accompany growing up 
and letting go takes courage.”  Pema Chodron

Last night in Tulum with my little sweet pea.

San Pedro, Guatemala- this is the view from my language school

Flor de Maiz Spanish Language School- stunning views to learn Spanish by


  1. Love. Love. Love. Well done, lady. We send protective and urging vibes your way. Enjoy. You begin your life.

  2. you did it! i would have peed my pants, i think :)

  3. Ah thanks Molz!! Yeah, haven't been that scared in a looong time. Methinks life is beginning and widening and calling my name ;-) Miss you!

  4. YOU DID IT! You're stronger than you know.