“I’m so glad we went for the better bus. How about you?” I asked Krista, relieved that we wouldn’t be on a chicken bus for our 8-hour ride to San Miguel, El Salvador.
“Absolutely. I’m sure it was worth the extra money we spent,” she said, sipping her café con leche and finishing her breakfast at the Café de la Revolución in Leon, Nicaragua, where we’d just spent the night.
The taxi pulled up, and we crammed our bags into the trunk and got inside with two other travelers. Minutes later, we were at the bus station, a place that appeared and felt chaotic to us but made sense to those who were part of the system. There were no signs or any indication of which bus was going where and when—just small signs in the front window of each bus, with the name of the destination. The challenge? Figuring out if the bus was coming or going.
“There’s your bus,” the taxi driver said, looking pleased that he’d spotted it so quickly in the madness of a busy weekday.
“That’s it?” I asked, incredulously. “It doesn’t look like it looked in the brochure back at the travel agency.” It was yellow and looked like an old school bus. (Note: It probably was one.)
Disappointed and feeling betrayed by the handsome Nicaraguan 30 something who’d assured us that the bus was “de lujo” (luxurious), we trudged ahead with out bags, boarding the bus, which was bright yellow, with an interior that was tackily decorated with various religious and Hispanic icons.
“It’s a chicken bus, isn’t it?” I asked Krista, rhetorically. She knew and I knew, but neither of us really wanted to know.
“Technically, yes,” she said, wiping the sweat off her freckled nose. “But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not the worst one.” True, it was better than a school bus and slightly better than Greyhound, and there were no chickens or other livestock out in the open or in burlap sacks. So, in the hierarchy of chicken buses, this was a decent one—and something to be happy about.
I found an unbroken seat, one that seemed stable, and claimed my spot. Krista did the same. And soon, the other passengers were bringing their stuff onto the bus and getting settled. Minutes later, the bus took off.
It was around 10:30 am. We would be crossing 2 borders (Nicaragua-Honduras, Honduras-El Salvador) and arriving in a city called San Miguel in El Salvador at around 6 pm, mas o menos (more or less). Would we arrive in time—that is, before dark? We were hoping that we would, but not feeling entirely confident, as we heard the rattling of the bus through the Merengue that was blaring through the speakers….
I began to relax. Sure, the ride was a little too fast and the bumps were a bit bumpy, but the driver, a cross between Mario Andretti and an older DJ, put on some fantastic Cumbia that made me want to dance. I considered it, but figured I’d get bruised if I tried. See, we were traveling quite fast on roads that aren´t meant for such travel….with consistent stop-and-go breaking. On many occasions, we actually passed the chicken buses–quite a feat, considering how fast they tend to go.
“This is going to be a bit of a hell ride, huh?” I said to Krista. And we both laughed. We’d been on several together and survived. Somehow, we knew this one would perhaps be the ultimate.
A Man With a Mission
“Hi, I’m Vicente,” a handsome 20-something Nicaraguan man said to me. His smile was bright and his bags, extremely light. “I’m going to Mexico.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Me, too….eventually. We’re going to El Salvador and Guatemala first.”
“Well, I’m not on vacation. I’m crossing the border with the coyotes and then going to Colorado. I was there a few years ago and got deported. Now, I’m going back. I have a girl there who I’m going to marry.”
“Oh, I see. How did you meet her?”
“Actually, I haven’t.
“No, but she’s going to marry me. It’s part of the plan.”
Chicky Bus Booty Call
Not far from Vicente was a heavyset Guatemalan Woman wearing a red t-shirt that was 2 sizes too small and some loose jeans.
“Where are you going?”
“A mi casa (home)…to Guatemala City.”
“No way,” I said, doing a quick calculation in my head. Her ride would last about 18 hours.
“Yes, that’s what I’m doing. This is the cheapest way for me to go.”
She turned and put her hand the knee of a male passenger, looking at him suggestively. He was missing a couple of teeth, but that didn’t seem to bother her. Soon, they were sitting closer. Did they know each other, I wondered? They hadn’t boarded the bus at the same time, as I recalled, but they would, by the end of the night, become intimate friends, I figured. The 18 hour-ride would fly by, I was sure. For her, anyway.
“I speak English,” one man, wearing a Goofy t-shirt said to me, smiling.
“I no know that much.”
“OK…I see. How about Spanish then?”
This man, who seemed relatively normal, explained that he’d traveled to the U.S. a few times. He was involved with some sort of religious organization.
“Here, take one of these,” he said, handing me a pamphlet. I was relieved to see that it wasn’t Jehovah’s Witness literature, but instead some sort of pseudo missionary volunteer info.I smiled and said thanks, then reached for my iPod, thanking God that I’d charged it up back at the Internet café in Leon. The $60 I’d spent on this Apple product was about to pay for itself…
A Whole Lotta Love
Just as Robert Plant began to sing “Whole Lotta Love,” the bus came to a screeching halt for no apparent reason. The back doors swung open, and some men came on, bringing with them large boxes. What was this, I wondered, smelling something very familiar. Sure enough, it was shampoo…Pantene, to be specific.
They piled the boxes higher and higher, and soon, they were near me, blocking my ability to stand up and leave my seat. I began to feel really claustrophobic.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you not stack them right here?”
Another man, missing a few teeth, gave me a “Who do you think you are?” sort of look. I gave him my best, “I’m ignoring your look and that question it implies” sort of look.
I repeated the question, this time in a bitchy tone.
He spoke to another man, also loading up boxes, and then they took away some of the boxes near me.
In their place? Large green garbage bags of something that appeared to be heavy, based on how they were being dragged around.
“What do you think is in there?” I asked Krista.
“Who the hell knows…contraband?” We both laughed.
An hour later, just minutes from the border with Honduras, the bus stopped abruptly once again. Officials in khaki, holding rifles, boarded the bus and made everyone get off. What the hell was going on, I wondered… What was in those bags? Would Vicente survive this checkpoint? And would we make it to El Salvador before dark?
Click here to read Chicky Bus-Part 2.
Chicky Bus Video
Here’s one of two Chicky Bus videos, which take you along for the ride. It’s a little bumpy, but fun. Hope you enjoy it!