I am the son of a New York City cab driver and a Californian with a convertible. So, buses are not my thing. My last regular experience with buses was as a teenager. In our Brooklyn neighborhood, you needed a bus to get to the #3 IRT subway. When we moved to Long Island, I rode the school bus to Oceanside High. So, the decades old “chicken buses” I rode in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama felt familiar for a good reason: I rode in them forty years ago.
Blue Bird has been making school buses since 1927. Coincidentally, during my travels through Central America, the company was sold to Hennessy Capital for $500 million. You know a Blue Bird by their distinctive design, and in these parts by the English language safety signs in otherwise all espanol buses.
“Chicken buses” were named, as legend goes, by an intrepid “Lonely Planet” writer. I find the term a little condescending. The origin of the name comes from two phenomena: people are packed in like livestock, and sometimes, riders bring along their livestock.
I promised friends and family that I would opt for safe travel and risked breaking that promise my first morning of the trip. My airbnb host Marco offered a list of places to see upon my arrival in Guate (local slang for Guatemala City). I didn’t take my iPad or iPhone as I wanted to sort out the safety issues, so I trusted my instincts to find my way around. No map. No GPS. No web access. Virtually no street signs. And calle 10 or Avenida 6 in Zona 1 were entirely different streets in Zona 9. I quickly got lost, but it was a Saturday, I had no appointments, and I love getting to know a city by wandering.
I jumped on the modest 1 Quetzal (US$0.13) metro light rail after a few hours walk and then looked for a bus back as it started raining. Oddly, the less comfy and more dangerous chicken buses, or camionetas, cost double the metro. In Panama, they are called “diablo rojos,” or “red devils.” As in, they are painted red. And, as in, riding them might be your straight shot to hell.
How dangerous are the buses? Let’s put aside, for the moment, mad speeds and rollicking driving styles, the roiling mass of humanity that fills the vehicles, the frequent breakdowns, the strain on parts built when Nixon was still claiming Watergate was no big deal.
How dangerous? This dangerous. Over 900 Guatemalan bus drivers have been murdered driving these buses for refusing extortion demands by the maras, or local gangs. After the 1954 CIA overthrow of the country’s second democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, a thirty-five year civil war claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, many brutally murdered, sometimes in mass killings. After the civil war ended, many of the government militia entered the narco trafficking and extortion rackets. The genesis of a culture of violence.
The buses are colorful. Not colorful as in, a nice coat of paint, but colorful as in rolling works of art, with intricate designs, sometimes sacred, sometimes profane, sometimes glorifying the driver, sometimes an eye-popping psychedelic theme. The Panamanian buses seem to have more personal themes. The designs are a badge of honor and pride for the owner/drivers.
My effort at poor Spanish brought jeers from the brocha as I boarded. The drivers have a sidekick, part money changer, part master of ceremonies, part barker. The brochas often hang by their fingernails out the open front or rear door of the bus, screaming at people on the street, at fifty miles an hour, promoting the destination and the urgent opportunity to hop aboard. The buses will stop anywhere for a fare, bringing the speeding bundle of loose bolts, worn tires and rickety windows to a screeching stop in seconds on any highway. Other drivers rarely seem to mind. If they do, they lean on their horns. Two things I noticed. The relentless, aggressive use of horns. And the ever present smell of exhaust fumes. Think environmental regulations have not made a difference in New York or LA? Your memory is not serving you well.
The brocha answers my broken Spanish questions in, well, Spanish. I have only a general idea where I’m headed, unsure how to describe it, but I decide to just board and see where I end up. They appear to be going in the general direction of my temporary home. The bus is filling up so I can’t choose seats based on comfort or distance from the front, i.e., extortion shooting avoidance.
In the front, above the windshield, the bus declares it is number 1329. I suspect that more likely means the 1,329th bus in the New York public school system, than any local numbering system.
The seats are badly battered (naugahyde?).The Pull Down For Ventilation sign above us is being ignored, either because of language comprehension or because the escape/ventilation hatch is long broken. I try to write, but my bad handwriting is made unreadable by the bouncing motion and sudden stops. The intense fumes are actually pleasant, in the way glue-sniffing might hold charm for a junkie. The loud, nervous engine grinds gears.
As we go through what-neighborhood-I’m-not-sure, the streets are coming alive. It’s about 4pm on a Saturday. The afternoon sky is growing darker, as it does most days here, making way for a light sprinkle. Another phenomenon– each driver pumps furiously loud music into the bus. If he’s a Pentecostal, with Jesus bumper stickers slapped all over the bus, and violent scenes of crucifixion or the Apocalypse on the exterior, it’s nonstop, upbeat preaching. If he’s a hip hop fan, you might get lurid misogyny in English or Spanish. Mostly, it’s Latino country music, “melting underwear” music as Brazilians call it. I get off on Calle 10, and walk in the direction of Oakland Mall, Guate’s upscale shopping pavilion, asking for directions along the way.
Traveling by bus offers harrowing moments, especially when your Spanish is pathetic, and the bus schedules and locations are confusing. On my last day in Guatemala, I travel from Livingston on the Caribbean side through the country to Guate, and hope to find an all night diner where I can hang out, drink coffee and write, then collapse on the bus for the long ride through El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The “executivo” bus promises wifi and electrical outlets, essential for my long trip. What the bus brochure meant was there was a rumor of wifi and electrical outlets, and please, please, my friend, please don’t count on it. Climbing on a bus for a 12 hour ride with dead batteries and no wifi is far more dangerous to my well being than a ride on a chicken bus.
So, I arrive in Guatemala City, down the road that President Arbenz wanted to build to compete with the United Fruit railroad, and I ask my taxi driver for an all night diner or bar or cafe. “No such thing in Guatemala,” he assures me. So, I reluctantly go the traditionalist route and asked him to take me to a hotel. My Afterparty budget is $60 a day all in, including transport, so if I can’t get away with a night without hotel expense, I ask if there is a hotel under $30. “No problem, poco. poco” he assures me, and even promises to come get me at 5am to take me to the bus station. We pass the Conquistador Hotel on the way, and I ask him to let me pop in for a quote. Too expensive. By the way, why would a hotel think it was attractive to name itself after Spanish soldiers who swept through Guatemala slaughtering and occupying villages in their path? I am discouraged from asking such questions.
Traveling on a tight budget offers its own titillation, trying to stretch dollars to achieve the mission. And, sometimes, extreme deprivation or freak show circumstances provide comic relief. The picture to the right is my room. It had wifi! I got on Facebook and chatted with LiAnne. I showed her the room. The bed, the bars on the door (I had the first floor room by the entrance. Like a honeymoon suite, if on your honeymoon, your partner is a sexual predator). I buy snacks from the receptionist (pimp?) with some (free!!) vile coffee as a sort of exclusive dining experience.
Amazingly, the taxi driver shows up at 5am, knocking on my door like an impatient family member wanting to get to Disneyland. He drops me in the middle of nowhere, a dark empty Guate street. It looks like it MIGHT be a bus station. There are no buses. He asks the security guy. Yup, get out, you’re here.
And there, in front of the station, stand two gringos. One is a vagabond from Los Angeles. And the other is Kevin. Kevin! My Kevin! We met at my hotel (hostel? hovel?) in Livingston and hung out together. I was so happy. Kevin gave me contact information for an ex-Salvadoran guerrilla who has a little hotel on Lake Nicaragua. We talk about war and travel and buses.
The bus station opens and we buy our tickets. No wifi or electricity, but I’m happy for now, as we head off for El Salvador.