I Love Me Some Chickenbuses
I’ve found that taking public transportation while traveling abroad is one of the more interesting experiences you’ll find. Not only is it a ton cheaper, but getting out of the comfortable, air-conditioned, bubble of the tourist coach bus gives you a totally different perspective of the country.
These so called “chicken buses”, aptly named because some actually do transport chickens and other live animals, provide a brief glimpse into a random cross section of people who actually live and work in that country. And during that ride, a bit of their culture rubs off on you. After all, how can it not when you’re literally sitting on top of someone for hours?
Traveling through Southeast Asia and South America, I had quite a few experiences of riding jankety rickshaws, cramped collectivos, hanging off the back of trucks, and scrunched into old, beaten-down tour buses. I guess they were “chicken buses-esque” but they weren’t the real deal. The classic chicken bus I’ve always envisioned is the old converted yellow American school bus, stacked to the brim with people and goods, rolling through a dusty town with a guy hanging out the front door hawking for even more passengers.
Although I saw a few of them in South America and Honduras, it wasn’t until my latest trip to Guatemala and Belize that I finally rode one. Thinking back, the last time I stepped foot on a school bus was back in senior year of high school. No, I was not riding it to school; I was coming back from a track meet. To see one and get on so many years later was a bit of a trip.
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We had just left Caye Caulker and were at the Belize City bus stop waiting for a bus to take us to either Punto Gordo or St. Ignacio. You would think that the central bus stop in the largest city in Belize would be somewhat organized but… this was Central America. It was an absolute riot. Schedules were shot because it was the day after Christmas, officials didn’t know what was going on or plainly didn’t care, and bus drivers were equally clueless. Every time a bus pulled up, people rushed forward in a frenzied mob to a) see where the bus was going and b) if it was the right destination, scramble on to get a seat.
We sat there, a bit dumbfounded by the flurry of activity and patiently waited for our buses to come. Finally, a bus for St. Ignacio arrived. The mob wretched forward and we were soon surrounded by big Belizean men and women and trust me, the women are big. Seeing no possible way to get through the front, we raced to the back where some guy had transformed the emergency back door into a regular entrance. No big deal, that’s just how they do it down here. We clambered in, piled our luggage to the roof and squeezed into whatever nook or cranny we could squeeze in. A few minutes of jostling later, our bus began to pull out.
But a commotion quickly ran through the length of the bus. Apparently we were on the wrong one and had to get off. Having struggled to get where we were, we pretty much refused to leave. “God damn, are we going to be in a Mexican standoff with the officials?” We thought we had the upper hand until officials straight-up closed the exit gate of the bus terminal. We admitted defeat. Luckily, they had found an replacement bus so the scramble was on again. Knowing the game now, we sprinted down and over to the new bus and settled in. As we pulled out of the station, we found out that the bus we were previously on was headed to the prison for visitations, a Belizean Boxer Day tradition. I suppose it would’ve made for quite the interesting experience but… maybe another time.
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If you’ve ever ridden or seen a Central American chicken bus, you’ll realize how much care and effort their owners put into them. Imagine a tricked-out rice rocket… now multiply that by 30x and you have your typical chicken bus. Although they retain the basic structure and seating arrangement of our old school buses, that’s about it. Owners pour their souls into souping up their buses with custom paint jobs (flashy chrome/aluminum are pretty popular), stickers and decals on the windows, roof racks, little Jesus figurines (almost a given), and custom sound systems.
One of the more hilarious, and surreal, moments I’ve experienced was on a chicken bus to Lake Atitlan from Antigua. The driver had cranked the radio and we were jamming to a slew of songs in Spanish, none of which I could understand and all of which sounded similar when, out of nowhere, “I Gotta Feeling” comes blasting on. I looked around and all the gringos started bobbing their heads, myself included, while all the Guatemalans carried on, business as usual. Sadly, my hopes for a “Top 40″ hits were dashed when the next song came on in Spanish.
Another time, we had just arrived in Guatemala City and were on our way to Antigua. I had bought these little flat taco things with veggies and meat stacked on top. The overnight ride had made everything soggy and I was planning on throwing them out. I looked across the aisle and saw a little girl and her grandmother. Instead of tossing the food, I decided to give it to them. Not sure what the reaction would be to the semi-smashed up food, I was a bit apprehensive. But when I motioned to the girl, her eyes lit up. Her grandmother noticed, took the food and gently wrapped it up in some cloth. Then they both looked back and gave me the biggest smiles.
They say a smile can break any language barrier. You know what? They’re damn right.
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Ahhhh… chicken buses…
Sometimes I wish we had these wild and wacky rides here in the States. Whether it’s a mad dash, a musical quirk or a moment of cross-culture understanding, chicken buses are almost always an adventure.
Take one next time, you may end up a little more cultured.
With a good story to boot.