Travel: The Unique Opportunity That is a Van Ride

by Abigail Malik

photo by A. Malik

In the van waiting to catch the ferry on the way to Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Van rides have meant something special to me ever since returning from a 10-day backpacking trip in Guatemala where so many of my hours there were spent crisscrossing the country in vans with travelers from around the world. The Israeli grandfather wildly snapping pictures, screaming madly at the radio during a soccer match, being gently scolded by the driver for exiting the van during a very short ferry ride – he’s a small piece of my van crew that’s such a strong part of my travel experience in Guatemala.

Even pickup trucks played a vital role in traversing the country, particularly in my attempt to successfully complete the last leg of an eight-hour trip from the Tikal ruins to Semuc Champey, a Guatemalan national park located in an isolated, hard-to-reach area near the small town of Lanquín. Nestled in the valley of a jungle, turquoise freshwater-filled pools have been etched atop a natural bridge of limestone, under which rushes the Río Cahabón. It’s an Eden, and in order to trek the narrow, bumpy path from Lanquín to El Portal, the hostel at the edge of the park, I stood up in the back of a pick-up truck. My body jostled against a dozen others, gripping the truck bed’s side metal bars for dear life (or at least to keep my teeth in my head) as six kilometers (almost four miles) felt like six years.

For me, now, van rides are opportunities. Is there a shuttle involved in this trip? I’m in. Can we take the bus? Yes, we should. Want me to climb in the back of your pick-up truck? Well, let’s talk first.

Even the shuttle van at the car mechanic is an adventure waiting to be had with travelers from around the world. One morning, months later, back in Kentucky and at 8 a.m., I hopped into the backseat beside a young woman with long blonde hair. We exchanged good mornings. Her father, gray-headed and likely in his mid-60s, sat up front next to our driver, Kim. Less than a minute later, we picked up another passenger.

“The last time I was in a van,” I said as I scooted to the middle seat, “I was in Guatemala. It didn’t have such nice seatbelts.” The man turned around in his seat, and he was smiling. We began to discuss Guatemala, a country of which he is quite fond.

“Did you go to Chichicastango?” he asked, referring to the well-known market that brings nearly the entire country together for buying and selling handmade goods and homegrown foods. It was, I had to tell him, the one thing on the travel to-do list that went unaccomplished. The market is open Thursdays and Sundays only, and we couldn’t sync our travels to make it either day. He said I should visit Oaxaca, Mexico, and this time to make sure and visit the market.

“Where are you originally from?” Driver Kim asked him, after he began to speak and we heard his soft accent.

Originally from Munich, Germany, he lived in Caracas, Venezuela, for several years. Eventually, he ended up in Chicago, where, he tells us, many German immigrants, including his family, landed when they came to America. He currently lives in San Francisco, and his daughter, the lovely wide-eyed blonde who has now moved behind me to make more room – the passengers keep coming, just like in Guatemala! – is doing clinical rotations in physical therapy at a university here.

Before she arrived in Kentucky – she is very fond of horses, she told me, which is why she chose to come here – she lived in Portland, Maine. Driver Kim, we learn, used to live in Portland, Oregon, and for the rest of the trip, I remain confused as to which Portland is being discussed at any time, except for when they’re talking about weather.

Portland-in-Maine and her father traveled to Kentucky together. He first drove from San Francisco to Maine, taking ten days to enjoy the more-than-3,000-mile trip across America. The two of them then traveled from Maine to Kentucky. It’s no wonder they were at the car mechanic.

We all gave our two cents about the value of the adventures of car travel and segued into high-speed rail daydreaming. All three of my van mates, come to find out, have lived in the San Francisco area of California – “It really is a small world, isn’t it?” Portland-in-Maine kept saying – and so they spent some time trading what California cities they’ve traveled to and from by rail.

“Well, you know, high-speed rail in Europe is how they get around,” Portland-in-Maine’s father said, and Driver Kim’s eyes lit up in the rear view mirror.

“My daughter, the worldly one, lived in Madrid for a year, and she traveled to 14 countries in that one year! Using the train, of course,” she said as she turned right into the parking lot of my work. Driver Kim, of course, visited “the worldly one” in Madrid. “I took 1,700 pictures of doors.” We all laughed because we knew she probably wasn’t exaggerating.

As the van stopped and I got out, I looked at each member of my tiny new van crew. “Thank you so much for the lovely morning.” They returned the sentiment, and as I walked away, I turned around and waved at Portland-in-Maine’s father. He smiled and eagerly waved back. I will definitely get to the market the next time I travel anywhere.