chicken bus 1Ever since my days teaching history in Brooklyn I’ve had certain passions. Three are relevant today. First, I passionately love bars. Real bars. Dive bars. Old man bars. Gin joints. Roadhouses. Bars. Second, I passionately love railing against idiot hippies who wander into my bar; and third, I passionately love slinging a bit of historical perspective as I toss a few shots of tequila across the hardwood. It is a rare night when I can enjoy all those passions at once.

Before I start on this rant, let’s get one thing clear; when I rail against hippies, I’m not railing against the long haired rocker, old 60s radical, Weatherman kind of Hippie. Those guys have balls. Rather, I’m talking about the hippie in its current and most common incarnation — the 20-something trustafarian bum floating around the globe like a lazy turd in a plugged bowl.

No one with the ability to discern shit from cupcakes thinks the dreadlocked kid playing didgeridoo has more talent than time on his hands. White boys playing Redemption Song are, almost to a one, fully ignorant of the mental slavery they labor under day in and night out. Succinctly put, nearly all hippies are irredeemably boring, even the ones with amazing racks and the ability to give you a hard on at 15 paces in their tie-dyed summer skirts.

Occasionally you do meet the slam-poet with something meaningful to say, or the latter day Motorcycle Diarist with a story worth telling. But, by and large hippies are the court jesters and gumball jugglers of Empire.

Recently a group of them showed up at Café No Sé and, after a short while, got a fist full of the Surly Bartender.

It was a Monday night when Che-Cee and the Sunshine Band wafted in, picked up one of the house guitars and proceeded to play tunes from the itinerant idiot’s songbook — Ben Harper and Jack Johnson were both attempted and hooted down by our regulars. One of our normally quieter clients actually took the banned song list from the wall and slapped it onto the table in front of them.

There was a brief, pro forma, protest over this — but after a few declarations that this scene was “harshing their mellow” they stopped singing and kept drinking.

For the moment, I held my tongue.

One of the hippie girls did have the heavenly rack, and with the hope that her sexual standards were on par with her concern for hygiene, a few of the lads that habituate the Café decided to chance the arm. They pulled up chairs and commenced flirting.

The standard introductory travel babble ensued. The hippies were from Seattle, Berlin, Darwin, London, and Boston. They were traveling for 1 year, 5 weeks, 6 months, “who knows dude,” and “until the money runs out.”  They liked Dali, Escher, Dali, Escher and Dali. And, no, they really shouldn’t ask me again to turn down the Social Distortion, Rancid, Johnny Cash mix I’m playing to help drown out their conversation.

But, blaring Johnny Cash aside, I was able to hear enough of their banter to make out that they had just come down from Mexico, by way of the highlands, and as they recounted their latest adventure on a Chicken Bus from Xela my brains began to boil.

According to Alpha-Hippie — identifiable by his odor — the five of them were piled in the back of the bus, high as kites, and “really digging the journey.”  From the sounds of it, it was standard camioneta fare – with the driver careening dangerously down the highway, taking curves at wheel-skittering speeds, and a 14-year-old kid hanging out the front door hooting him on to greater and greater velocities like he were the harpooner on Ahab’s whaling skiff.

King Hippie laughed as he said that towards the front of the bus were some mid 40s American volunteer types, scared out of their wits, who started to curse the driver and demand that he slow down.

Pathetically and predictably, the hippies in the back took the opportunity to flaunt both their arrogance and their ignorance by shouting the oldies down, arguing, I guess, that driving like a fucking sociopath is part of the “cultural heritage of Guatemala.”  The Hippies said that to ask the driver to slow down was “cultural imperialism” of the worst kind. How dare they? Fascists.

That sent the Surly Bartender over the top. This, in essence, is what I screamed at them:

Listen up, you hacky-sacked pack of jackasses!  Hurling an ancient school bus from the United States down a poorly constructed highway at Mach II is not a manifestation of an ancient Mayan tradition. It is the logical and predictable consequence of the “free market” taken to its extreme.

They bobbled their furry heads towards the bar, and their glassy eyes indicated that I’d lost them already. I suppose it isn’t their fault. From the looks of their newly purchased hemp clothing and the pile of 80 gig iPods in the middle of their table it was fair to assume these kids were overly pampered, overly privileged, overly educated and overly protected. How could I expect them to think at all?

But for you, my far brighter and less stoned reader, let’s consider the historical and economic context surrounding the chicken busses of Guatemala. There are reasons these fuckers drive so fast, but they’ve got nothing to do with the Jaguar King.

Ahem . . .  Allow me . . .

Let’s start with the decade between 1944 and 1954 and the governments of Presidents Arévalo and Arbenz. During this “Guatemalan Spring” the two leaders attempted to create a society that actually took care of all Guatemalans, regardless of race, class, or wealth. Under these two progressive presidents a quiet revolution toward meaningful democracy grew like a rose from the shitpile that Guatemalans had been forced to live in by North American business interests and corrupt local officials for nearly a century.

This window of opportunity was possible because the government of Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington had previously decided to allow its Latin America neighbors to manage their own economies for a change. This “Good Neighbor Policy” was a serious departure from the “Gunboat Diplomacy” of his predecessors.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the term gunboat diplomacy meant that if a Latin American nation did something that the United States didn’t like, Washington would send down the navy to blow the hell out of their coastal cities. Nice.

Unfortunately for Guatemala (and El Salvador, and Honduras, and Nicaragua, and Chile, and Argentina, and Brazil, and Bolivia, and Colombia, and Panama, and Uruguay, and Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, and Mexico) the Good Neighbor Policy was as good as dead the moment FDR’s head bounced off the Oval Office floor.

By 1954 the United States was getting back to its more traditional Bad Neighbor Policy. Of course, the U.S. didn’t call it that. Rather, presidents from Truman to Bush would claim that they had to bring freedom to Latin Americans when they were suffering under monstrous dictators or dangerous ideologies (even if those same people had elected the leaders and supported those ideologies. If you think the world has changed, have a chat with Hugo Chavez.)

In 1954, the United States launched an assault on Guatemala when the Arbenz government had the cajones to nationalize a small percentage of uncultivated land controlled by the American owned United Fruit Company.

Even though this action didn’t hurt anyone — the land wasn’t being used, and United Fruit was paid handsomely, the very act of property nationalization scared the shit out of the guys in the suits. The natives were getting restless, and maybe, the bankers and businessmen thought, it would be best to nip this experiment in social democracy in its chapin bud.

Gunboats were passé by 1954. Instead, to turn back this tide of economic nationalism, the American Central Intelligence Agency instigated Operation: PBSUCCESS.

It was true to its name, and within a year, a coup had removed Arbenz from office. Of course, lots of people in Guatemala wanted companies like United Fruit to give up uncultivated land, and they resented the intervention in their internal politics by the big boys up North. So, Arbenz or no Arbenz, the struggle for Guatemala continued, horribly, for another 40 years. The intervention, intentionally or not, created the conditions that started a civil war which raged for decades. Over 300,000 civilians would die and the democratic culture of our host nation would be crippled as effectively as if it had been shot through the kneecaps.

300,000 dead might seem terrible, but the sacred right to private property was protected. God Bless the Defenders of the Market!  And, thus, do we live today in a world with, amongst other things, Chicken Bus Drivers from Hell.

The Chicken Bus system of Guatemala is as free and unfettered a market as one might find anywhere in the world. It is what the shills of corporate globalization champion. It is the tell-tale stain on the bed linens after a neoliberal wet dream.

Consider its nature:  In the Guatemalan Chicken Bus market there are several major companies competing for a limited number of passengers. Moreover, each company has multiple busses plying the same routes. Thus, a chicken bus driver — essentially a sub-contractor — must compete viciously for each rider. The good news from the customer’s perspective is a relatively cheap fare, but that’s the only good news.

When you are straddling a goat and have someone else’s elbow actually inside your sinus cavity it may not seem so, but there is a limit to the number of people who can fit on a Chicken Bus. Thus, there is a maximum take for each driver on each route (assuming a standard distribution of passengers riding short-haul along each route.)

So, in order to maximize profits, the driver of each bus has only one variable he can control — speed.

The more times he passes a vehicle in front of him the more runs he will complete in a given day. And, since there is no regulation in this market, he must compete aggressively or die.

A driver who doesn’t take chances rounding blind corners at speed, or who puts money into his brakes, will get blown off the economic road. His bus will likely make it to its destination safely, but the driver will be out of business faster than you can holler “Guate, ‘Guate, ‘Guate!!!”

A solution to this problem would be to regulate the camioneta industry by writing and enforcing laws that exact real penalties on both the drivers and the company owners for each unnecessary death or injury. Something like that would surely have been done by a government in the Arbenz tradition, had it been allowed to make policy. Unfortunately, an interventionist government conflicted with the needs of the boys from United Fruit and their economic allies in country. The people who die in chicken bus crashes every day aren’t intentional victims of those decisions made half a century ago, but once you pass 300,000 bodies, whose counting anymore, anyway?

It’s possible that market regulation will someday be put into effect in the Guatemalan Chicken Bus industry, but then again, I suppose it’s also possible that pigs will fly out of my ass next time I roller skate.

This problem, which is not academic to those of us who have lost friends in camioneta accidents, isn’t likely to go away, but it’s got fuck all to do with Guatemalan cultural identity. To crib a line:  It’s the economy, stupid.

  1. Great rant Mike, laughed like a bastard, me just waiting to go to work, would really like to talk to you about Syria ….I am in baseball mode while waiting for the next shit hole to materialize …wasn’t even upset when the Tigers whooped the Sox last night…Detroit needs some good news…Peace Brother if it is possible!!!

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    Great post. I think Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” would be of interest to you. Cheers, Michael.

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About the Author

Michael Tallon, Editor-in-Chief, head writer and delivery boy, of La Cuadra Magazine, expatriated from the States 11 years ago. After spending a year in Antigua gasbagging about wanting to start an English Language magazine, he hit the road and wandered about South America, India and Nepal before finding himself sipping tea in Darjeeling and realizing that maybe it was time to head home and pick up the career path. That ill-fated adventure in New York lasted about 6 weeks before he headed back to Antigua, Guatemala, where John Rexer had actually started the magazine in his absence.

After a few months, Mike took over the magazine and has been going slowly broke since. On that note, Mike would like to invite advertisers, readers and potential patrons to send him free money.