“This bus leaves at 10:30 am, and this one at 11:30 am,” the huddle of drivers explained to me in Spanish as I picked the 10:30 chicken bus and climbed on board. Drat, I had thought to myself, I was sure there was one that left at 10:00 am. Now I would have to spend an additional 45 minutes on this beautiful beast of a bus.
Chicken buses in Guatemala are cultural art forms. They look as if a group of street artists from California, got together with a bunch of chrome-addicts from the fifties, and a group of 80’s chicks gone crazy with their Bedazzlers. They are gorgeous and colorful and cheerful and imposing.
From the outside that is. Once you climb the stairs and find your seat, you discover what you knew all along – that this really is just an American school bus given a new lease on life. It is both an expression of the artistic soul, and the ultimate in reduce-reuse-recycle.
If I had any doubts on the subject, a school bus that was new to the crowd rolled up. It had not had time to become baptized and “born again” as a Guatemalan chicken bus, and so it still had “Shelby County Schools” painted in black block print on its marigold yellow side. I was pretty sure I had seen that bus before.
For that matter, I may very well have seen the bus I was sitting in before. For all I knew this was “West Chester 108,” the bus I had ridden throughout middle school and the beginning of high school.
I considered the fact that I was actually choosing to ride a school bus – a vehicle that had once been a terror to me.
When I was in high school, I was stuck riding the bus long after the rest of the kids in my class had cars of their own. It seemed like everyone but me had a car, whether it was decrepit cast off from a grandparent or a sparkling new Sweet 16 present. Sure, anyone could get a car, and if your parents did not buy you one, surely you could work and afford your own. That is if you did not also have to use that money to buy your school clothes while maintaining a high enough average to ensure the scholarships you not only wanted, but realistically needed to attend college.
So I rode that bus, West Chester 108… until that is, I was rescued. Her name was Lauren, and she was an old friend from church who had come to my school several years after I had started there in first grade. We led different lives, and ran in different crowds to some extent. But regardless of what may happen when I was out of her sight, nobody was going to bully me when she could do anything about it.
After hearing that some kids on the bus were picking on me, she declared that she was going to drive me to school. I was “on her way” broadly speaking… but not exactly. I am sure I added a good fifteen minutes to her commute. But every day, she would coming driving up my bumpy old driveway, and every day she would bring me back to my source. After classes, and after track practice, and after hockey games, home we would go together. I knew that with all that I went through as a “scholarship kid”, there was someone pretty cool who thought I was pretty special and who always had my back. When she knew I was having a hard week missing my boyfriend, who had graduated and gone to Georgia for college, she left some flowers at my locker like he would have done. She even got all her friends to vote me in for a Senior Superlative – “Best Eyes” – an assessment that the people of San Pedro seem to affirm at a fairly constant rate.
A good fifteen years after she started driving me, and just six months ago in our current story, I had heard of another friend who was tired of riding the bus. I was on Eleuthera at the time, and was seeing pretty persistent posts online from one of my close friends about the trials and tribulations of using public transportation to get to work. I knew that I would not have much use for my car this year, being out of the country so much. So, I thought about what Lauren would have done: I sent her a message telling her to go and get my car from my sister in DC.
You see, I finally had a car, a beautiful red one too. Very sacramental. Although, I had been told by other pastors, not ideal for funerals. Being somewhat concerned that they made their automobile choices based on what looks good in a cemetery, I responded that I did not plan to spend much of my life there. I bought the car during a brief period of years in my life when I thought that I would be “normal.” This was the same period of time in which – with illusions of normality – I had bought a beautiful dining room table, a big heavy slab of environmentally conscious mango wood; with the dream that someday my grandchildren would make crafts upon its old worn wood surface.
So now, while I live and learn in Guatemala, my friend drives my beautiful red Esperanza to work instead of taking the bus. Why? Because once upon a time someone very kind and loving taught me that if you have got an empty seat, you should fill it with someone who needs it.
Lauren taught me that love does not just “say,” love also “does.”
She is a beautiful example of God’s abundance.
Fifteen years later, in Guatemala, the vibrantly colorful buses feel different than the ones I used to avoid. Part endurance test, and part carnival, they are the most popular way to get around the country. Which is why I actually choose to ride the bus here, much to my friend Delia’s chagrin.
Today, enroute from Xela to San Pedro, I was learning a whole new meaning to the word “abundance,” and a whole new definition to “empty seats” as we packed into them. First it was one person to a seat; then it was two; then it was three full grown adults; then a child on a lap, or perhaps an actual chicken, would bring the count to four. The aisles would fill until it felt the bus could hold no more, and then more would squeeze into it.
It began to feel as if the bus was a living thing. When we stopped at a town, you could feel it breath a deep sigh of relief and relax for a moment as a torrent of people poured out. But almost as quickly you could feel it draw its breath back in sharply as it saw the incoming hordes, and loosen its belt in preparation to contain them all.
For, you see, just as in Lauren’s car, there was always room for more. No matter how many people were squeezed into the bus, there was not a chance that someone was going to be told that it was full. There is no such thing as a full chicken bus. If you beg to differ, then you can get off and find another way to get to where you are going.
And a chicken bus is packed to the brim with people of every kind and color and background. Extraños (foreign aliens) looking for a cheap way to get around the country. City dwelling Ladinos in designer jeans headed to the lake for the weekend. Mayan women in ropa typica, heading home from the market and traveling with babies strapped to their backs. Old men grumbling about the seating arrangements, and small children staring wide eyed at all the different people surrounding them. Everyone mixed together – crammed together in one big noisy, laughing, pushing, shifting heap; talking to each other, helping each other, even enduring each other.
As it says in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 13, “The kingdom of God is like a chicken bus…”
Okay, maybe it does not say that… but don’t you think it should?