The View from a Chicken Bus

This is an exciting day! My essay, The View from a Chicken Bus, was published today in Sky Island Journal, an online magazine!!!

The View from a Chicken Bus

Meg Ounsworth Steere

The chicken bus dives and weaves along the tight switchbacks, sandwiched between lushly green, undulating volcanic cliffs to one side and a vast, deep cavern open to the expansive lake below on the other. The retired yellow school bus migrated from the United States to rural Guatemala. Here it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a chicken bus, a form of public transit.

Outside the dirty bus window, an overwhelming cacophony for the senses unfolds – the scenic natural beauty; the chaotic, crowded, narrow road; scents of cooking, burning wood, exhaust; sounds of honking, birds chirping, dogs yapping. Overloaded motorbikes swerve in and out of traffic carrying 2, 3, 4 people. Small 1990s pickup trucks, their beds full of standing riders, scream downhill inches away.

In the smallest openings on the roadside, tourists stop for pictures of waterfalls or the lake and volcanoes. Opportunistic market stands pop-up, their purveyors – women in their village’s colorful and ornately woven dress – mixing, patting, and baking tortillas, frijoles warming and ready to sell.

The bus is crowded, the air stale and warm. It winds its way up from the rural, lakeside villages to the hillsides around Sololá. Passengers, mainly rural Mayans, call to the driver for stops along the way. The men wear tattered jeans; t-shirts or lightweight button downs; a cowboy or baseball hat; work boots. The women are dressed in traditional Mayan clothing – a short-sleeved cotton blouse with brightly colored geometric designs; a thick belt; a calf-length skirt embellished with a colorful, embroidered band; simple pumps, flats, or sandals.

One passenger stands out from the rest as she calls to the driver to stop near the entrance to a large, modern school. The driver and other passengers look on, mystified about this place and this teenage girl, both standing out uniquely in the Sololá landscape: unusual, unfamiliar, a vision for what could be, but also a strange curiosity and maybe something to fear.

The girl walks the uneven, rocky dirt path along the road toward the school gates, clearly uncomfortable that the eyes of every passenger, neighbor, and bystander are boring into her back, their questions, doubts, and hopes piling up on her small shoulders. She sidesteps sewer water trickling down the road, brushes the dust off her shoes, and turns onto the paved drive to the school entrance.

In rural Guatemala, it is rare for anyone to complete more than sixth grade. Most families are generationally poor, stagnated and mired in a life of day-to-day survival by the impacts of racism, gender inequality, insufficient education or health care, and limited economic opportunities beyond what they already know – farming. The harvests have become less reliable with unpredictable and more volatile weather. Being Mayan comes with traditions and cultural norms, and also a history of marginalization and subjugation. During the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, 93% of those killed were indigenous. About 50% of the general population, but 79% of the indigenous population, lives below the poverty line.

In rural Guatemala, the standard architecture features single- or two-story buildings, with concrete siding. The rusted and battered tin roofs are supported by gnarled, roughly hewn wood beams. The colorful exterior paint, if not the concrete itself, is chipped and worn. Buildings are stacked up the hillsides, one on top of the other, seemingly supporting each other as they claw into the mountainside, grasping to hold on. Roads vary from dirt paths cut into the hillsides to cobblestones or pocked asphalt.

Each year survival here becomes more difficult. Out of sheer desperation and hopelessness, some attempt to migrate north, leaving Guatemala and their history and families. For many, the prospect of leaving all that is familiar, walking all those miles towards an antagonistic and uncertain future, doesn’t seem like a much better option than staying and trying to carry on. Something fundamental must change for survival to be tenable here.

Enter this school and this unique girl. The sign on the school’s brick wall proclaims “MAIA, mujer empoderada…un impacto infinito” (empowered woman…infinite impact). Empowered, indigenous, poor, rural Guatemalan girls. I can’t help but stare and wonder. Historically girls here have been taught to be quiet; that making eye contact is disrespectful; that they don’t need an education. On average, women in Guatemala, especially Mayan women, only complete 3.5 years of school. Narrow options and limited health information result in Guatemala’s top ranking for the highest fertility rate and youngest population in all of Latin America.

How valuable is this young girl, full of talent, courage, and a desire to succeed? How powerful is the concept that by providing educational opportunity and modern learning tools, alongside mentorship and support for the students and their families, real, systemic change could trickle down and spread roots generationally? How courageous must these girls and their families be?

Every day these families make a conscious choice not to shrink back. Every day they bravely face the ingrained, negative messages that say that girls don’t matter; that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. These girls must sense their differentness, an isolating notion that can seep in and slowly ebb away at their drive and their souls if they let it. Their path is long and challenging. It takes the power of a sprinter and the endurance of a marathoner. They face the academic and emotional challenges of any middle or high schooler, but also the burden of being the first to break the status quo, push the boundaries of cultural norms, and change the narrative for themselves, their families, and their country.

The dense clouds overhead release suddenly, the splattering rain interrupting my reverie and fogging the view. The bus driver pulls the door handle, hinges squeaking, and the bus roars into gear. Through the rain-streaked window I see the girl cover her head and rush to catch up with her classmates. Together they pass through the school gates, a small but determined caravan of hope.

Click here to see the full issue: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-9-summer2019/

 

 

 

 

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