Playing Chicken,
Central American Style
by Marty McLennan

Marty is cycling from Vancouver to Chilé. He spent the better part of a year making his way as far as Nicaragua; in January 2002 he recommences his tour in Guatemala, and plans another two years on the road.

July 3, 1999
For three decades, Guatemalans didn't die. Some 200,000 disappeared. It wasn't a mysterious Bermuda triangle relocation, giant landslide, or act of God. Rather it was a 30-year blink of CIA-backed Latin American politics that the media labeled civil war. The refugeed indigenous cried holocaust. Whatever you want to call it, three percent of the country was simply missing. And they never came back. The killing ended three years ago, but its shadow is everywhere.

Death still lines the Pan-American Highway. The difference is that these are road kills, and now the remembered get crosses and roadside shrines. The four-legged and winged victims of these wild roadways get the same fate, but no crosses. Just baldheaded vultures that tear their carcasses. Their lingering stench reminds me of my own mortality, especially while I find myself still playing chicken after 28 years, seven months, and some 4,500 road miles.

To survive on this mad highway, I'm using some tricks I learned on Montreal's snowy streets. Grab onto bus bumpers and slide along for a block or two. I don't know why we called it "chicken" back home, because I never saw a chicken near the roads. And here, where chickens seem to be everywhere, along the highway you see putrid belly-up horses and mules and countless petrified dogs. But never a fowled chicken feather. In this roadside life and death game, the chicken is the only champ.

This flightless domestic bird is omnipresent, always speaking the same tongue; back-bawking here and cockadoodling there. I look to poultry as my friend and coach; for in road life, where there are few constants, chickens somehow always come out as survivors. When they talk, I don't understand, but I listen. And when they die, it's gloriously by the sword. A chicken goes out with honor. Say what you want, but in my mind, the chicken is king.

June 14, 1999, Highland Wipeout
Zero to 60 and back to zero all within a split second. Great specs for a sports car, but rather deadly for a marathon cyclist. To make things worse, I'm presently being humped by my bike. I'm basically the meat in a helmet-less, shirtless, sunny-side down sandwich of scratched and bruised bacon over raw asphalt. It's no mystery what hit me. I saw the ferris wheel-colored, diesel-puking bus with its tiny red cotton balls jingling under the "Dios es mi co-piloto" windshield prayer.

I didn't get a good look, but if God were the guy in the doorwell lighting a cigarette, this is what he looks like: short, dark with a wily mustache, plaid shirt, jeans, and a white plastic cowboy hat. I've been to enough churches here to know that if it were God copiloting, He or She wouldn't mind if I tagged a lift. God would have already known that I was a beaten man, having cranked three days up this sluggish StairMaster, up a full vertical mile since Mexico's border without a Guatemalan centavo in my pocket or food in my belly.

When I reached out my hand in a maneuver that seemed so harmless back on the slick Canadian streets -- everything seemed alright. I latched onto the rusted bus ladder cleanly. But God must have turned the music on too loud. And His driver was speeding. By the time I matched the bus' speed, I was upside-down in the air, my feet still in the pedal straps, and my fully loaded bike hovering dangerously above me. For a brief, endless second, all I could hear was the blare of Ranchero music.

Now I hear birds singing. And despite the puddling blood, the swerving traffic, and the 130-pound mass of gear on me, I've attained a Zen-like calm. Free roaming chickens scatter as shiny school busses whirl by. To be honest, it feels great to lie down here on the 110-degree road. Maybe I'll just close my eyes and take a nap.

But something snaps this dangerous reverie. And it's not the high-pitched horns of oncoming traffic nor their screeching swerves that send my bloody, but unbroken limbs onto wobbly feet. No, something else calls me. It's the commanding cluck, cluck of street-side chickens coaching me from the sidelines.

Like a message from God, it's hard to interpret. But I think they're telling me that there's still another few years, and a few miles left in this two-wheeling turkey. Maybe it's not quite my time to disappear.

© Marty McLennan
Bike, October 1999

other stories by M McLennan