Paint it a rainbow of colours; decorate it with Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary; deck it out with strings of lights that flash and strobe; equip it with horns that play funny melodies.
In fact, pimp it up any way you like (short, it would seem, of installing a clean exhaust system), but the Guatemalan “chicken bus” is still just a recycled schoolbus long past its prime: old, dirty, smelly, crowded and uncomfortable.
In Guatemala the chicken buses (so-called because regular passengers are known to carry their chickens with them) aren’t really schoolbuses anymore. In fact, they’re used for almost everything else — but that’s all right because where my guide Alice is bringing us is not really a school.
As we stand jammed together in the narrow aisle between over-packed seats, hanging onto the rails of baggage racks, Alice explains why El Plan Infinito, our destination in the small town called Zamora, was necessary and why her non-governmental organization is doing all it can to help it operate and keep it open.
Zamora is a village of about 700 people perched on a hillside not far from the eastern slopes of the Volcano of Water. Most of the village’s inhabitants are children and most of their families are tenant farmers who cultivate the steep fields around Zamora.
Being sharecroppers, they are very cash poor and are paid for their long labours with a portion of the food they produce. Possessing little or no money disadvantages a family’s present and its future. It makes it almost impossible for children to go to school and to advance to gain any higher education.
Adding to their difficulties is the fact that most of Zamora’s residents are of Mayan heritage, which means Spanish is not their mother tongue. Unfortunately — in a situation well-known to aboriginal people all over North America, including to the Innu and Inuit of Labrador — the country’s school system is not set up to accommodate those students who do not speak the official language.
With Guatemala’s school system being basic, at best, that leaves impoverished aboriginal children with almost no hope of advancement. A sharecropper born, a sharecropper you shall die.
El Plan Infinito has not solved these problems, but it has gone some way towards showing some children that there is a wider world outside their poor village and that they have the chance to participate in it. Infinito offers a hundred or so children a few things that their regular schools don’t have, things like swimming lessons, art supplies, musical instruments, computers and even books. It also provides volunteers and staff who are more than willing to take the time and effort necessary to work with the children to teach them the things they need and want to learn.
Infinito has its successes. Alice talks of the time a group of the kids who’d been taking swimming lessons were invited to a big meet, more out of charity than anything else. She says the children were shy about going, since they had only their old shorts as swim trunks and were competing against well-decked-out teams, but none regretted it. Just participating would have helped their self-esteem, but since their enthusiasm carried them to first place, their success brought rewards to the whole village.
Of course, there have been failures, too. Alice speaks of one boy, the son of a sharecropper, whose intelligence and will to learn could have carried him from Zamora to high school and on to university. He was allowed some time in school and at El Plan Infinito, and he excelled at all he did, but it didn’t last. His father eventually pulled him out of class because as long as he was studying he could not be working, and his family needed him in the fields.
Alice still sees him sometimes. He is up there somewhere high above the street, working hard all day and every day, but not earning enough even to pay the small fare demanded of passengers who ride the chicken bus out of Zamora to where they might have a chance of better lives elsewhere.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.