Four Chicken Buses and a Pickpocket

I can take no credit for this. Minutes after we’d decided to head to Lago de Atitlan, Tim was online, booking something as a belated Valentine’s Day surprise. Once we got to the lake, I was blown away by the natural beauty and, more so, by amazing Casa del Mundo, a sprawling stone hotel and restaurant, built organically into the hillside. This was to be our home for the next two nights.

But first, we had to get there.

Chicken Buses

Over taking the expensive tourist shuttles, we began our journey to Panajachel, on the edge of Lago de Atitlan, on chicken bus. Our guidebook made it sound quick, easy, and simple: take a bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango and then catch an onward bus to Pana. We hopped on the first bus from Antigua with no problems, and our packs were shoved unceremoniously behind the back seats. The rest of people’s luggage was kept up top, among the cage that had been fastened to the old school bus’ roof. Chicken buses get their name from the assortment of goods that are transported on them including, quite frequently, chickens (both alive and dead). We watched the (organised?) chaos with interest as the bus began its journey. This was a far cry from public transport in Mexico, which had seemed hectic at the time. The back door of the bus was constantly being flung open as people climbed aboard or hopped off; the man working at the back continually flying up and down the ladders to deposit or retrieve goods, often while the bus was still careening down the road. Despite the crush of people and things, it all seemed to happen at a remarkable pace, though I wouldn’t say efficient, as the bus would stop every 10 metres if it were asked. We learned through the course of the day as well, that the destinations of the buses were always a bit of a gamble. Everyone will tell you the bus you are boarding is going to take you where you want to go. But then you will inevitably be dumped off at a dusty town halfway to your destination, needing to begin the entire process all over again.

As we neared our destination, I re-checked the name of the town we were looking for. A man seated beside me asked where we were going, and said he would let us know when we needed to get off. He also mentioned that we better be pretty quick getting off and grabbing our gear. This was understandable, as we’d seen the way the bus began rolling after brief stops, as people were still clambering aboard. As our stuff was in the back of the bus, he said we should go out that way, and we began clambering over the bits of timber that currently blocked the aisle to get closer to the door. Once we stopped, there was a jostling of bodies as people tried to get themselves and their stuff out. I wrestled with our packs stuck behind the seats as Tim fought his way out through the crowd of people. Once we had both packs out, Tim jumped down from the bus as it began to pull away. His hands slapped his sides – his pockets – as he landed, and I could tell something was wrong before he even opened his mouth. “I think I’ve been pick-pocketed!” Sure enough, one of his zippered shorts pockets lay open; his wallet, gone. And then he was off, running after the bus, in the off-chance he had left his wallet on the seat or that he would somehow discover it.

A few minutes later, he was back. No luck, as – in hindsight – we figured there wouldn’t be. We were both a little riled up after the incident. It had been clear, now, that the whole guise of helpful citizen on a bus had been a set-up to get us squished amongst the throngs at the back of the bus, stressed about getting off fast enough, and distracted enough to not notice some quick finger work. Thankfully, we’d been in the diligent habit of keeping the vast majority of our valuables – passports, most of the cash and cards – in a money belt and the wallet had only held about 200Q and one bank card. This card was the most annoying part of the whole incident, and we went straight to an internet cafe to call the bank to have it reported stolen and cancelled. Always carry a backup card when travelling.

With that, we just got on with it and got on three more chicken buses before we finally got off at Pana. A bit more subdued, a bit more suspicious, I was more angry about the principle of the incident than the actual stuff we had lost. Since we’d been travelling, we’d run into countless friendly and helpful people without who (or if we had decided not to trust or listen to them), we wouldn’t have had many of the great experiences we’d been privileged to have, would have missed many a bus, and would have spent countless hours lost. I simply don’t like it when people do bad things and I want to believe that when people are friendly or helpful, they have the best intentions at heart. Unfortunately, this is simply not always the case. Most pickpocketing or petty theft in these parts is committed under a ruse of helpfulness. As annoying as it was, our losses were quite minimal. It may have been the perfect wake-up call to remind us that, despite having been travelling for quite some time already, we’re not in Mexico anymore and we need to keep on our toes.

Once we arrived near the docks at Pana, we avoided the people who try to sell you private boat trips across the lake and headed to the public water taxi. After refusing to pay more than 20Q per person for the ride (at our hotel’s advice) we all finally agreed upon a price and waited a few minutes for a couple more people to arrive. The hazy weather haunting Antigua was present here too, and you couldn’t even see across the lake. We got on our way, making a couple of stops to pick people up or drop people off at docks and towns along the way. Soon, we arrived at Casa del Mundo. The beautiful complex looked engrained into the hillside, more as if the builders had uncovered something that had always been there than constructed it from scratch. We unloaded at the dock, where we were greeted by a cheerful staff member who hauled my pack up the hundred steps or so to reception. As we settled in, the beauty of the place and the serenity of the setting began to overshadow our rough day and we began to enjoy all of the pleasures Casa del Mundo had to offer.

Water Taxi

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