Antigua, Guatemala, 4:00am.
Laura and I wait outside Los Amigos hostel. We are waiting for the micro bus shuttle that will take us to a bus station in Guatemala City, were we will board a bus bound for San Salvador, El Salvador. After that its just a short ride to La Libertad on the coast, and one more short ride on a local bus to Tunco. Or at least that’s the plan. We had to get up early, but it meant we would be sitting on a Pacific Coast beach by late afternoon.
We make small talk with a girl who is waiting outside the hostel. The shuttle will be taking her all the way to the Mayan ruins of Copan, just over the Honduran border. As usual, the bus is late. The only traffic on the cobble stone streets of Antigua at that time of day are the micro buses hurrying to pick up their daily load of tourists. They go to all of the hot spots of Guatemala, as well as the airport and bus stations in Guatemala City.
Antigua’s full name is La Antigua Guatemala, or literally, “Antique Guatemala.” It is the old capital of the country. But after earthquakes destroyed the city on a few occasions, the government decided to move the capital about 30 miles east, the current location of Guatemala City. Now the old streets and buildings of Antigua serve as the tourist capital of Guatemala. Why? Because Guatemala City is too dangerous.
The shuttle arrives with two Indian gentlemen already seated in the back. The three of us join them and the shuttle launches down the dark streets stopping at pre-arranged hostels and hotels, picking up travelers until all but one of the 11 passenger seats is filled and the roof is covered with backpacks and suitcases. Then the micro bus exits the old capital on the dark road to Guate City.
After a few minutes of chatting, we learn that we are the only to people on the shuttle going to San Salvador. The rest of the travelers are either going to the airport, or to Copan. Quickly the conversations die down and everyone nods off for the hour drive to our first stop, the airport.
I wake up only long enough to see the luggage of the departing passengers get dropped of the roof of the micro bus. I quickly fall asleep again.
The sun was rising when the driver pulled into a large garage and said, “Aqui es el bus a Salvador.”
Evidently, the garage was one of the many small bus stations located throughout Guate City. We had gone to a similar one a few weeks earlier when we went to Coban, Guatemala. The indoor area is big enough to hold two full size Pullman buses comfortably. Laura and I get our backpacks off the shuttle, while the driver goes inside to buy our tickets. It is 5:40 am and we have 20 minutes before our bus is scheduled to leave. We spend ten minutes sitting on the steps leading into the attached crummy motel and Laura talks to a young Salvadorian girl.
We board the bus at ten to six. There are two private security officers armed with a machine gun and a hand-held metal detector, respectively, checking the passengers for weapons in front of the door of the bus. After they are convinced that my sun glasses are not a threat, I take a seat with Laura in the forth row.
I think of how I am going to fall asleep on the bus and wake up much closer to the beach.
I spend the first ten minutes of the drive sleepily looking out the window, observing the standard morning hustle of a capital city.
I am brought back to reality when the young man behind me quickly walks to the front of the bus, knocking my arm of the aisle-side armrest. I watch him bend down and start talking hurriedly to the driver. After a few seconds of this, another young man on the bus jogs down the aisle from somewhere in the back and pushes the first young man out of the way and starts to yell at the driver. It looked to me like the two men had just realized that they had gotten on the wrong bus and now they wanted to get off. That is why I am not surprised when the bus slowly pulls over to the side of the rode. What I do find strange is that while one of the boys is looking out the front window, directing the driver, the other sticks his hands in the pockets of the man sitting in the first row, pulling out his money and putting it in his backpack.
Just then I feel the bus come to a stop and see the door open. Three men, all in their late twenties to mid thirties board the bus and start to yell at the passengers. I now understand what is going on: our bus has just been hijacked.
“Hide your stuff, we’re getting robbed,” I whisper to Laura, who can not see what is happening because she is sitting in the window seat. We both immediately take our credit cards out of our pockets and shove them down the front of our pants, the same place we keep our secret pockets containing the majority of our cash and our passports. I have only a few seconds to quickly slip my digital camera into my sock before the first hijacker begins to turnout our pockets.
“Baja su manos!” the thug hisses at me as I instinctively raise my hands when he begins to frisk me.
On his first search, the hijacker easily finds the $10 in US currency in one pocket and the 30 quetzales of Guatemalan money in another. I could have hidden them with my credit card, but I thought it would be suspicious if a white tourist had no money on him. In Laura’s purse he quickly finds her digital camera and tosses it into his backpack. He then moves on to the people behind us.
I look to the front of the bus and see the obvious leader of the hijackers telling the bus driver to drive slower. Then he turns around to tell his crew to hurry up. When he turns, I see the gun. It is an automatic style pistol, light in color. The man holding it has his finger on the trigger and I can see that the exposed hammer is already cocked back.
The situation of trying to control our fear is not helped by the woman across the aisle from me. Her large, dark eyes are darting from one hijacker to the next and her animated face is mouthing prayers while she clutches at her bible. Then she looks at me and starts shaking her head. Whatever illusion of hope I have is sorely diminished when I see the look of terror on her face.
A second thug reaches our row to search us again. I can hear the man with the gun tell him to check the gringos for dollares. The hijacker reaches into my now empty pockets and I tell him in as strong Spanish as I can muster that the other man had already taken all of my dollars. After checking under my butt, he moves on to Laura’s purse and finds the four or five dollars worth of Guatemalan money that the first hijacker had missed.
“Do they have guns?” Laura asks me in a hushed voice once the second man is gone.
“No,” I lie.
After a few minutes the first hijacker to search us returns for a third sweep. Evidently the leader is not happy with the so far small profit from the only two whities on the bus. I can hear him shout orders to search our legs. While the hijacker is still looking at his boss, I quickly remove my camera from my sock and sit on it. The hijacker proceeds to take off my boots and pat down my legs. Luckily he doesn’t find the emergency $100 bill I have hidden under the insole of my right boot. I think he is finished until he suddenly slips one hand behind my back and slides my camera neatly into his backpack.
The gang leader then tells the driver to make a U-turn and head back to the center of the city. After a few blocks, the bus pulls over to the side of the rode and the door opens. All five hijackers, carrying backpacks of stolen money and valuables dash off the bus. The leader is the last one to leave and I can hear him shouting death threats in Spanish and banging his hand on the side of the bus.
The bus begins to move again, but only a few blocks before the driver pulls over and the police are called. The passengers start to talk to each other and ask if everyone is okay. The woman next to me with the wild eyes and the bible asks us if the hijackers stole all of our valuables. We promptly reply that they cleaned us out. Our lies are prompted by our freshly developed mistrust for all persons not us, and because we were not sure if all of the hijackers were gone.
I look around the bus and see people pulling watches out of cup holders, cell phones out of seat cushions, and money out of secret pockets.
After moments of semi-dazed looking around, Laura and I are convinced that there are no more bandits on the bus and I finally let out the only word that could properly express what I was feeling.
Everyone on the bus hears me, and even if they don’t understand English, they know what I shouted and many of them nod in agreement.
Outside, la policia arrive and take the driver’s statement. Laura and I talk to a Mexican who used to live in L.A. and he tells us that the hijackers took 20,000 pesos (~$2,000) and his laptop. All he can do is smoke his cigarette and laugh, raising his arms to the side in the universal, “what can you do?” gesture. Another man, from El Salvador, who speaks English shows us the $20 bill folded and hidden in a business card holder in his wallet.
“This is all I have and the bastards didn’t get it,” he smiles.
Only now, when I feel that the hijackers are truly not coming back, do I tell Laura that I lied to her about the leader having a gun.
“Thanks for not telling me the truth earlier, I would have freaked out,” she replies and we share a big hug.
When the driver is finished with his statement I ask the transit cop on scene if I can have a copy of his report for my insurance. He starts to give me the run around in Spanish and so I ask for just his name and office phone number so that I can contact him later for the report. He then asks me for my name and home phone number. I notice that Bible Lady is standing behind him, listening to our conversation. When she hears the cop ask for my name, she starts to wave her hands wildly, shaking her head and mouthing the word, “NO.” I have heard that Guatemalan police are very corrupt and Bible Lady was scaring the crap out of me.
“Me nombre es John…um…Smith. 319-385-7101,” I tell him (the phone number is for the local time and temperature service in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa).
By 7:00 another bus has shown us to replace the one that we had been riding.
“This bus doesn’t want to work now. It’s nervous,” the English speaker from El Salvador laughs at his own joke and Laura and I join in.
We easily decide that we will not spend the rest of our day on another bus (and that I need a strong drink), so we collect our backpacks and ask the transit cop to get us a safe taxi. The taxi takes us to the Chicken Bus stand on the edge of town and we catch a ride back to Antigua.
Antigua, Guatemala, 9:00am. Exactly five hours after we left our hostel, we enter a bar a few block away for some breakfast and a big glass of cheap whiskey.
San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico - May 2007