The chicken buses of Central America

Antigua bus terminal

Antigua chicken buses

Antigua chicken buses

This past month I went on an amazing four-week trip through Central America. I took this chicken bus from Antigua, Guatemala, to Santiago Sacatepequez, an hour’s drive away, for Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1, 2013. Only the biggest cities in Central America seem to have public transportation — in the absence of a transit network, there are chicken buses. These former American school buses have been decommissioned and shipped down south, then painted crazy colours with hilarious Jesus slogans all over them. Usually there are a few homages to Spanish football clubs thrown in as well. The story goes that you can sometimes find chickens in the back, though you’re more likely to find overly confident young men who make kissy noises and utter dirty words in English at you. They’re dirt cheap to ride (it cost me 8 quetzales, or $1 US, for that Antigua–Santiago trip), bumpy, hot, swervy, super crowded and a fun way to see how the locals live.

Somewhere between Antigua and Santiago, someone stole the iPhone from my backpack — probably when I was transferring from Bus A to Bus B. It was my fault for putting it in the front pocket. Oh, well. I consider it the idiot tax that all tourists seem to pay in Central America — something lost, something stolen, something bilked, or simply paying the gringo price. During my tour I heard a few other horror stories — an Irish girl had her passport stolen by the driver; another girl had her pack sliced open and everything taken while it was under her seat. Despite my loss, I’d still recommend going for a ride — just maybe not with all your worldly possessions or for long-haul/cross-border trips. And watch your phone.

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You’re invited! (A post-layoff update)

Getting laid off comes with its own set of anxieties but once I let go of them, it was pretty alright. I’ve got almost a full-time schedule now as a freelance editor; I’m embarking on a four-week trip through Central America on Monday. Most exciting of all, I am putting together a solo photo show in December, at the very awesome 2186 Dundas gallery.

I spent six or seven years shooting pretty much every hardcore show in Toronto — including a few in the living room of my decrepit shared apartment — and the show will be a collection of the best of it. Though I was reluctant to do the show at first, once I started going through my archives I realized 2003-2009 was a vital time for the southern Ontario hardcore scene, with local and touring bands such as Fucked Up, No Warning, Urban Blight, Career Suicide, Trapped Under Ice, Cold World and Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Cro-Mags). Venues have been torn down, turned into condos or grocery stores or yuppie furniture slingers.

The show will run December 5-11 at 2186 Dundas. In addition to the prints on display, there will also be a companion photo zine for sale.

Posted in Music, Narcissism, Nostalgia, Photography, Pop Culture, Shameless Self Promotion, Toronto | Leave a comment

How I learned to stop worrying and love the layoff

I love my job at the Toronto Star. The elevator spiel — that I get paid to look at photos all day — really is the happy truth. Like, I got to make a video about a Lego man who went to space. But the Star, like all newspapers, is struggling. (They posted a 44 per cent plunge in their second quarter earnings, announced yesterday.)

I mentioned that I was getting laid off back in March, but in a unionized workplace there are options for recourse, negotiation and exceptions, so I didn’t want to make a big deal of it until it was set in stone. There were a lot of things up in the air, and one of my 2013 New Years resolution was to be more positive about life — not in a Pollyannish way, but not fixating on the negative.

Four months later, most of those options have fallen back to earth. My last day at the Star is Sept. 6, 2013.

Layoffs are hard things to digest. It challenges my belief, however naive, that the world runs on meritocracy. I believe in unions, yet it was workplace seniority that put me on the list. I’ve signed up for daily email job alerts. There are very few job postings in journalism. Since the Star announced these layoffs, the Globe has issued buyouts and the Sun Media chain has laid off about 300 people. More competition, which is a horribly mean way to think about my/our situation.

Little voices inside my head offer conflicting advice: go back to school! You love food, go work in a kitchen! You should paint for six months! Go travel! You’ve been working non-stop for the last six years! What’re you gonna do, wait another five years until the next layoff? Why the hell would you blow your severance, you need to squirrel your money away! Move to a BRIC country!

Some very morbid, sober thoughts have creeped into my mind. It is not a journalism-specific feeling of doom. (If you are seeking a self-absorbed, sad-sack lamentation written by a 20-something journalist who is prematurely jaded, look elsewhere.) Rather, it is a feeling that our way of life is about to come to an end: the university degree and the white-collar job that traditionally followed it; the family car; the mortgage; raising kids in a nice house where they all have their own bedrooms; the nice clothes; the vacations; the first world. A grand adjustment. A global relocation of wealth.

Expecting these things in the first place is gross entitlement. That’s why I had long ago given up hopes of acquiring half the things on that list. I have no car (okay, a pretty cheap motorcycle), no children, rent a reasonably cheap apartment in Toronto, make a very generous salary, and still cannot fathom how anyone can afford to live with all the above mentioned things. How did my parents do it?

What can I do? Save as much as I can with the paycheques I have left, and cut back on expenses (I really, really miss my organic CSA, and HBO). This isn’t a plea for job leads, though if you have those I would be eternally grateful (you can email me at caniceleung @

It does not help matters to read morbid books such as Chris Hedges’ and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which illustrates how all living things and natural resources are simply commodities to be abused by CEOs (see above video). Or the surreal, absurd observations on urban life in Ben Katchor’s Hand-drying in America (click for full res):

It’s true. Why the fuck are hotel wastebaskets so small?

Last night I watched Detropia, a documentary about everyone’s favourite city that went from unimaginable manufacturing wealth to bankrupt, rusty haven for struggling artists and urban decay pornographers. It happened to them first, and now it’ll happen to the rest of us.

Anyway, I have no answers. Only a quiet despair that I muffle so as to not sound like an alarmist. In keeping with my New Years resolution, I’m trying to look on the bright side.

Posted in Journalism, Materialism, Narcissism, Negativity, Politics, Protests | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

San Diego Zoo, California

Mike and I took a trip to southern California a couple weeks ago. Some photos from the San Diego Zoo:

California 2013
Flamingos, fucking.

California 2013
Tourists, watching flamingos fucking.

California 2013
Asian elephants.

California 2013
Giraffes, big and small.

See more photos on my Flickr page.

Posted in Photography, Travel | 1 Comment

Roncesvalles beauty parlour

Roncesvalles beauty parlour

Beauty parlour on Roncesvalles Avenue, Toronto, May 11, 2013

Posted in Photography, Snapshots, Toronto | Tagged | Leave a comment