It's like discovering that your grandma has
another life as a secret agent or something.
The humble yellow school bus, the kind we see rumbling through sleepy American suburban streets, the kind you may once have actually ridden yourself — when they're done with their relatively short service ferrying kids to school, after 150,000 miles or so, they're still in excellent shape. So they're sold at auction, and many of them end
up in Guatemala, where
they become las camionetas, the
so-called "chicken buses" in the ad hoc public transit network.
Documentarian Mark Kendall, making
his feature film debut,
followed one such bus
from its auction in Spotsylvania, Va., to Guatemala. His camera is just tagging along
on the journey, and he simply lets his various (human) subjects speak without interruption — the bus itself is a taciturn creature — offering no overt commentary on anything he shows us. And still La Camonieta presents a remarkable portrait in contrasts, and sometimes surprising ones. The guy who spends his life driving back and forth between bus auctions in the U.S. and Guatemala? (He tows his own car behind the newly acquired bus on the return trip.) Turns out he's totally comfortable with the American border guards in Texas, despite the reputation of that contentious crossing for foreigners from South of the Border; it's once he's in Mexico, where the authorities are abusive and downright dangerous, that he fears for his life.
The passion of the men who refurbish these buses is palpable — and infectious. For the bus' new owner, the vehicle is like a member of his family, and not only because it will ensure their economic survival once he puts it into service in his little independent company: a bus that starts out drab and lifeless is transformed not only in form but in spirit as well, almost as if it's imbued with his hopes and dreams. There is serious artistic competition among the guys who bling out these vehicles, with lots of chrome and fancy multicolored paint jobs that show off racing stripes, starbursts and (one touch I loved) birdlike sylphs. This bus is gonna fly!
My first instinct is to call this ultimate recycling, Olympic-level recycling even, of stuff we Americans discard long before they run out their usefulness. And it is that, yes, but even that makes what happens with these buses seem more like a dutiful chore than what it really is. It's really an expression of ultimate joy and defiance, for while running a bus in Guatemala is a well-paid vocation, far better than toiling in agricultural fields or having to emigrate to find a decent job, it's also a deadly one, in which drivers who fail to cooperate with the protection rackets of local organized crime outfits end up dead far too often. Putting a magnificent beast such as the one this bus becomes out on the road seems like it's only asking for trouble. And there it goes anyway. o