The bus was packed solid, stoic, crammed-together humanity reaching down to the front steps the second-class bus careening round the bend, the never-ending bends, of Guatemalas Western Highlands. The skinny young man in jeans and tee shirt (Center Grove Lassies League on the front, an ad for a contractor in Greenwood, Indiana on the back) vaulted up the back of the front-row seat; his feet on the seatback, his rear end propped against the side of the bus, he extended his arms, a wad of quetzales in his left hand, collected fares with his right hand from everyone within reach, sitting and standing, and then proceeded on to the seatback in the next row (seated passengers ducking) and continued collecting fares, the most important of the many tasks of the ayudante.
The sparse middle class may drive a car or take the rare first-class bus, aging imitation of Greyhound; the tourists may hop on a travel agencys van or an oversized tour bus; but just folks, mostly indígenas, the women and occasional men among them in riotously colorful traje típico, babies slung on backs, baskets of produce balanced on heads, these folks get around, crammed three to a bench-like row (not counting babies and young children), in recycled American schoolbuses, the yellow exterior generally transformed into riotous reds and greens, the rack added to the top piled high with huge baskets encased in hemp mesh, occasionally joined by the backpack or suitcase of an independent-minded traveler, a radio inserted up front to provide blaring distraction from the discomfort of the journey.
Riding one trip from the Mexican border to Huehuetenango, the first destination that can be called a city, it occurred to me that the purpose of the bus for the vast majority of its riders was not to transport them from the border to Huehue but to get them from some ill-defined spot in between the side of the highway, though a path might be visible that might lead to a village somewhere off in the distance to another ill-defined spot in between. These impromptu stops require the ayudante to jump off, crawl up to the top with the loads that wont fit in the front by the driver, hop down, perhaps shunning the ladder at the back and using the front-row window as a rung between roof and doorway, then shout, ¡Hay lugares! ¡Hay lugares! ¡Atrás, por favor! in an attempt to create a little breathing space in the front, collect fares from the passengers who have just boarded, and then, a little further down the highway, spring down again and retrieve the loads of those getting off, jumping back on after the bus has started moving. Driving a bus may be a sedentary occupation, but being an ayudante requires the agility and fearlessness of an acrobat.
In some settings, passenger recruitment is the ayudantes most important function. Leaving the Friday market at San Francisco el Alto, the countrys largest native market the sides of the hill a compressed swarm of people buying and selling, the Municipalidad strung with vivid skirt-lengths, cows, pigs, and sheep changing hands on the uppermost plateau I refused a bus that was almost full, knowing that the only way to achieve relative comfort was to clamber into an almost-empty bus, then sit for fifteen minutes until it became maximally profitable by being maximally crammed with passengers. I noticed that there seemed to be not one ayudante but several, screaming, ¡Xela! ¡Xela! (as Quetzaltenango, my home base at the time, is universally known), gesturing grandiosely, grabbing bundles, hustling like circus barkers until we pulled out, when, sitting in my treasured front seat, I saw the real ayudante slip a couple of quetzals to the others. One of the others looked suspiciously like a gringo - his skin was tanned to the proper shade of brown, but his hair was too fine to make a convincing Guatemalan; the following day, leaving the Saturday market at Totonicapán, I spied the same man, standing on the top of a bus, rearranging loads. Apparently being ayudantes ayudante is an itinerant occupation.
The recruitment function is not regulated by rules on truth in advertising. Leaving Antigua once for Lake Atitlán, which requires walking past the favored spot for the buses to Guatemala City to search out the buses to Chimaltenango at the back of the lot - la terminal in Guatemala is never a building, always a parking lot - I was waylaid by an ayudante who assured me that the most direct route to the Lake (west of Antigua) was to go via Guatemala City (to the east). I politely replied that Id rather go the way I knew and walked on past. During my first few trips to Antigua, the atmosphere of the whole area surrounding the terminal and the adjoining market was defined by an ayudante who seemed to be a permanent crier, with a rhythmic baritone chant of ¡Guate, Guate, Guate-maaa-la! referring not to the country but to its capital. On another trip I changed buses at Los Encuentros, a bleak high-altitude crossroads with a menacing army base looming above it, confirmed with both the driver and the ayudante of a bus marked Xela that it was in fact going to Xela, only to be informed at Cuatro Caminos, the next crossroads, that I would have to get off and take another bus, over there by the gasolinera.
The second-class bus as petty capitalism -- most bus lines consist of but a few vehicles going to one destination -- is frequently the scene of even pettier capitalism. Waiting in Xela one trip for the bus to Huehue to fill up, we passengers were successively regaled by people selling ice cream, sodas, and rolls, followed by a magazine salesman and then by one with an elaborate spiel for a booklet on folk medicine. At crossroads stops, passengers descending and boarding have to compete for space with swarms of vendors of food and drink, whose livelihoods depend on travelers needing refreshment.
The subsistence economy of the highlands requires cheap transport of produce and artesanía from its origin to the markets, native and tourist, where goods can be transformed into cash. Private transport in this context consists of walking, often for hours, a heavy load on ones head or hanging down ones back from a strap around the forehead, until the highway emerges, clinging to the side of the mountain, and the second-class bus, minimum comfort but maximum kilometers per quetzal, looms into view, the ayudante beckoning.