Friday, June 3, 2011

Riding the yellow rooster – chicken bus tales from Central America

What in the world is a chicken bus? This question is answered as soon as you step foot into a Central American country, they are everywhere!

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has
the fanciest chicken bus of all?"
If you are reading this post from the comfort of your home in another part of the world, then please continue reading our "Guide to the chicken buses of Central America" to understand what we have learned in 3 months of wild rides. If you are a fellow traveler you may want to read our guide to get a few déjá-vue moments and chuckles.
A good question for this Blog post would be: "What comes first, the chicken bus or the school bus?" read on for the answer.

Why the name: chicken bus?
It doesn't take a PHD in rocket science to figure out how the chicken bus got its name. Yes, from chickens of course. Chickens are an integral part of the family for many people in rural Central America. Thus, if someone goes on a longer trip, the chicken is brought along for the bus ride together with the kids, grandma and the luggage. But seriously, live chickens are often sold at markets and they are then carried on-board for the ride to market and to their next home (or should we say dinner table?). They may be transported individually in a plastic bag, or carton box with just the head sticking out. Some people use the simpler hold'em on their feet (head down) transportation method – these are probably not the chickens that will be used for future egg supplies but may turn into a tasty chicken noodle soup soon. Several chickens may be transported in woven baskets, although we haven't yet seen a basket full of chickens on a bus.

One technique to
hold your chicken:
hanging by the feet.

To be perfectly honest: it was not until our 38th day in Guatemala that we actually saw a chicken on a bus, it’s not that we didn't try: we took dozens of buses in search of the elusive chicken-bus chicken.
Throughout our 3 months of travels through Central America, we actually only saw three individual chickens on a bus and would you believe it: the lasts encounter with a life chicken was our very last chicken bus ride in Nicaragua, hence truly the last "chicken bus" ride in Central America.
With the rare encounters of chickens, you can argue that the name chicken bus is not really applicable anymore. The local name for the chicken bus is actually camioneta which loosely translates into van or wagon.

It is Gringos that christened the camioneta as a chicken bus. The locals often chuckle when they hear us saying chicken bus or bus pollo (the Gringo Spanish translation).
We did however learn from a Mexican couple that they are called bus guajolote in Mexico, which means turkey bus – Typical North American translation: everything is bigger there, we wonder if US-Americans would call it an Eagle or Ostrich bus ;-)

Where do all these chicken buses hatch?
Chicken buses are easy to identify, they all have that distinct shape of American school buses. In fact they are "retired" school buses from Canada and the United States which are given a second life down here in Central America.

This one is "fresh off the farm"
La Esperanza, Honduras
The US, by law, decommissions a school bus after 150,000 miles or 10 years of service (whichever comes first). Instead of being allowed to retire in a junkyard, they are sold and driven down south where they are remodeled and/or upgraded or just go straight into service as a chicken bus.
They also come in compact versions.
Is that stop sign on the side still working?
La Esperanza, Honduras

Here they are in operation until it either completely falls apart or tumbles down a steep mountain road (whichever comes first).
So if you miss that bus that carted you and your first sweetheart to grade school; then book a flight to Central America and you may find your bus again, even 20+ years later.

This one is near the end of the "road"
León, Nicaragua

The Makeover
The lucky school buses get a makeover before their 2nd life as a chicken bus.
A beauty pageant
Antigua, Guatemala
Especially in Guatemala they are often upgraded to qualify for a feature on MTV's "Pimp my ride". The drivers obviously take pride in driving the nicest bus in town. (It's man's natural urge to show off their driving machine). The degree of the makeover depends largely on the country and even the various regions in a country. In some cases it’s full out cosmetic surgery: facelift, liposuction reduction and pacemaker and new makeup job afterward.

Batman uses chicken buses?
Jinotega, Nicaragua

Guatemala, particularly the area around Antigua and Lake Atitlán, has the fanciest buses.
In Nicaragua, they are often not even repainted and still have the flip-out Stop signs for helping kids cross the street mounted on the sides.
In Honduras, many chicken bus drivers don't even bother to paint over the original words on the exterior of the bus. Don't be surprised when a bus labeled "Cedar Creek Elementary" pulls up on a bus stop in Tegucigalpa.

Antigua in Guatemala is definitely the place to see the best looking chicken buses. Pimp your ride meets... what is that show about the facelift doctors called again?
Chicken bus "Chop Shop" (Antigua)
source: Annette & Kevin
Antigua was our first stop in Central America and at that time we unfortunately didn't know much about chicken buses. While we took a number of pictures at the terminal, we missed the fact that the country's premier chicken bus "chop shops" are just outside of Antigua. We later learned from fellow travelers Annette and Kevin about these shops. Two of the pictures here we credit to their Blog:

Ready for some makeup?
source: Annette & Kevin
The Antigua chicken bus chop shops give a major overhaul to the retired school buses in order to make them fit for the mountain roads of Guatemala: the bus is shortened, the roof structure reinforced (hopefully not for reasons that involve driving too fast and capsizing on mountain roads), and the exterior is freshly painted with fancy patterns.

Nice interior... not just the seats!
San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala
They also upgrade the interior quite a bit: mounting ample luggage racks, a loud stereo system and replacing the seats with benches that sit 2-4 people – depending on the passenger's body mass index and tolerance of claustrophobia. Consequently, the aisles are very, very narrow. Passenger seated on the aisle seat get the privilege of rubbing shoulders with many of the fellow passenger's bums especially the ones who are unfortunate enough to have to stand.

This one even has a flat screen TV
Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras
Bus drivers that are very proud of their vehicles also invest in chrome trimmings. Some people say that the pimped up buses are the safest. The owner or driver has a vested interest in keeping the bus looking good so he probably has also invested in good brakes too. That way he doesn't end up in an accident hanging off the side of a cliff. We think that also gives the driver a sense of arrogance though and then he exudes dominance over other drivers in his fancy rig with his lead foot and smoke spewing out the back covering them in a cloud of soot.

The driving style
Usually it's not good to generalize, but we have sensed a certain theme in the driving style. Let's see if you can imagine what video game comes to mind?
Roaring through narrow streets
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Right, Grand Theft Auto fans might be able to identify with a chicken bus driver now. Yes, chicken bus drivers have a certain driving finesse akin to the maniac car-jackers in a police chase... Ok ok, not quite that bad, there are no squealing tires. But when a chicken bus is on the move, it moves as fast as it can. Especially the ones in Guatemala with the upgraded engine that gives you a run for your money. A slow vehicle on a winding road that invades the driver's windshield for too long... No problem...
♫ These mufflers are made for speeding,
and that's just what they do... ♫
Granada, Nicaragua
throttle down, one hand on the pull-string that operates the oversized horn, and maybe one eye on the picture of Jesus above the dashboard.
There is nothing wrong with passing on a narrow mountain road just before a sharp turn as long as that horn blast at a deafening decibel level. The good thing about that practice is that not only oncoming vehicles are properly alerted, but also all the passengers :-S. You may want to take that "brace" position now.

Door to door service
In stark contrast to the crazy driving speeds, are the frequent stops. If you want to get on a chicken bus just stand on the roadside and raise your hand. The bus will stop right in front of you. Never mind if someone else is waiting just 20 meters down the road, the bus will stop for both of you – passenger don't need to group together until they board the bus, then they get to "enjoy" each other's company in close proximity.
Stop right here please
Ometepe, Nicaragua
Same if you want to get off at a certain point, just tell the driver or his helper where you want to disembark... No not here, go 5 meters more!

While it's not 100% door to door service, it's at least "On Demand Stopping" anywhere along the chicken buses route. Who needs a proper bus stop anyway?

With all this time wasted for stops, it is no wonder they drive like maniacs – somehow they must make up for all that lost time.

The first class cabin is in the front
The front is the place to be... isn't it?
Matagalpa, Nicaragua
First class on a chicken bus? That's what we also were wondering. We just can't find a difference between the seats in the front and the back. Food and beverage service is also the same... So why in the world is everybody cramming into the first 4-5 rows when there are still empty seats in the back? We have no idea, but are always amused to observe how four people share a seat that really only is big enough for two. Once the seats are full, full, full, that's not the end of stopping to pick up people. Nope...then the tiny walkway in-between gets well utilized; usually with another 2 people standing there. That makes 10 people per row – that's the same as in a 747, which seems to have a slightly wider body than a Blue Bird school bus. We particularly love the "strictly no Standing" signs left from its real school bus day.

Rushing for those popular front seats
Jinotega, Nicaragua
So while the locals are having a "communal moment" in first class, we have plenty space in the rear of the cabin. In Singapore, this crowding is called "kiasu". We don't know the Spanish word for that, but are happy to sit back in economy class – with the spacious seats. But do note: it's a much rougher ride sitting behind the back wheels as the shock absorbers don't really exist, so maybe locals are sensitive to bumps? Anyway, the next time that you board a chicken bus trip, we suggest economy, first class is just too posh (or should we say too push?)

The Ayudante
Every chicken bus has at least one. Ayudante (helper) – his job description must be pages long. And we are sure that there are so many applicants applying for this job that there must be a process to narrow down the selection. Like in the old days when being a stewardess was an über selective process. There might even be an Ayudante boot camp somewhere to train and weed out the unworthy candidates.
Always look good: Ayudante getting
a shoe shine in-between the chicken runs
Nebaj, Guatemala
So now we've got the worthy Ayudante, what is his actual job? It starts at the bus terminal with touting (attracting) passengers to the bus by shouting the destination at the loudest possible level – good voice is necessary. As soon as he's got a passenger on the 'hook' he becomes the porter and either lifts the luggage up to the roof rack or carries it into the bus. He also then needs to find space for items on the bus so being able to squeeze luggage into cramped overhead carriers is essential. This procedure repeats until the driver is satisfied and decides that it's time to drive off. Note a schedule is only tentative, buses leave when full, that can be 10 minutes early or an hour late.

That luggage needs some safety ropes
Gracias, Honduras
Just before the bus takes off, the Ayudante climbs to the roof securing the luggage to the roof rack... remember the driving style? Anything that is not firmly tied down with ropes will become heaven-sent presents for the people that live alongside the road.

Once on the move, he is hanging out the folding door at the front of the bus, continuing to shout out the name of the location, helping new passengers to yank their luggage to the roof or in the school bus emergency back door where of course there is space since no one likes the back seats. The bus driver doesn't wait about; the bus is already on the move again. The Ayudante ties the new luggage down and climbs down the rear outside-ladder of the bus then swings into the cabin through the door in the back... Did you know that Hollywood stuntmen are trained on Central American chicken buses?

The Ayudante is expecting some
bad weather today.
Granada, Nicaragua
If the driver is hungry or thirsty, it is the Ayudante's job to serve him. He jumps out of the bus buys drinks and snacks and gives it to the bus captain. Strange they don't seem to buy from the food vendors that frequently come on the bus. But more about those merchants later on.

Once the driver is nourished, it's time to collect the fare from the passengers. That is especially for Gringos an interesting experience. See the separate Gringo fare section later in this Blog post.
It's amazing to observe how well the Ayudante is able to keep track of the person and where they boarded... and as new people board and get squished into the crowds, who hasn't paid yet. (The fare on a chicken bus is based on the distance traveled). We tried to confuse them frequently by shifting seats mid-way. The Ayudante always remember that we've already paid. But alas, we are usually the only gringos on the bus. Perhaps if it was a bus full of gringo, then we're sure he'd have some problems... since don't all gringos look alike?

Scratching bugs off the windshield,
another of the Ayudante's chores?
Antigua, Guatemala
It's of course also the Ayudante's job to help people getting off the bus, getting the luggage off the roof and paying any road tolls, showing documentation at police checks and/or paying off corrupt cops. And there are many police check points, especially in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Who in the world wants a job like that? It's definitely a tough job and the pay is probably low, unless he get a cut of the revenue? It didn't take us long to figure out what the Ayudante's true job motivation is... Girls, of course!

These guys are THE biggest Gigolos in a culture that is already very macho. You will never find an Ayudante that isn’t well groomed, wearing fancy clothes (jeans), and who doesn't have at least an ounce of hair gel on top his well coiffed head. At any free moment, they take a seat next to the young girls on the bus and start flirting shamelessly. Sometimes very affectionately helping the girls board and somehow finding them a good seat. Some of the girls blush, but in general, they seem to like the special attention. I wonder what keeps an Ayudante more fit, his job or his after work activities? We've been told that the pretty girls often get a good discount on the fare too.

Great Gigolos start
practicing early
Ometepe, Nicaragua
These guys are definitely not working as an Ayudante because they love the job, but the "fringe benefits" seem to be pretty good. Oh, and of course most Ayudantes's are in their early twenties. Something tells us that once they are married they have to find another job – or risk a divorce. We met the youngest Ayudante – maybe 10 years old – in Ometepe/Nicaragua and you bet, he was hitting on the girls just like his older brother. Actually, the driver seemed to be about 18, Later on the journey, a man (about 40) boarded and took the wheel. Then the driver became the Ayudante. So clearly this is the training program and perhaps they are all from the same family. Or the driver was out partying too hard the night before (It was Saturday night!) and didn't make it back in time? Go figure.

Only once did we see a female Ayudante, and it turned out that she was the drivers wife... is she, by chance, checking on him?

Food and beverage services
We already established that the driver is frequently hungry and thirsty and that the Ayudante is the "gofer" to get him his nourishments. But what about the passengers? The driver will not stop if a passenger is hungry or thirsty. This is not Asia, where buses stop every two hours or so at a roadside restaurant.

Cookie salesman:
"Would you like a taste?"
Peña Blanca, Honduras
In Central America, food and drinks are served on the fly. When the bus stops at a busy area in town, or at a major junction, then loads of food sellers enter the bus and try their luck. Some of these "food wallahs" stay outside the bus and lift their baskets of goodies up to the windows. You can buy pretty much anything: from fresh fruit, complete fried chicken meals, tamales, to pastry, cookies, ice cream and chewing gum. Even things to bring home and give your wife: a bag of onions or tomatoes perhaps.
Onions, tomatoes anyone?
Sébaco, Nicaragua
The drink selection is more limited: cold water in small plastic bags, coke, sprite, and gatorade. Strange nobody served hot drinks, why? A missing option, perhaps we should suggest this to someone. Coffee is plentiful and thermoses are abundant. A good business opportunity which in India generates many jobs!

Fried chicken lunch, still hot!
Sébaco, Nicaragua
The ice cream and drink sellers are especially successful; on a hot day nearly every passenger buys cold drinks or ice cream.

Sometimes we felt really sorry for these food wallahs, the way they have to squeeze through the packed-full aisles of buses is nothing for people who are claustrophic. The female food wallahs appear to be eating their own leftovers for dinner as they are very "built" as well. Does that mean that the skinny ones sell the better tasting food?
She can barely squeeze between the seats
La Ceiba, Honduras
Patrick actually has changed his preference from an aisle seat to a Window seat after he had several close encounters with very voluptuous female wallahs.

What we could never figure out why the Ayudante and bus drivers don't buy from the foeed wallahs? We have two theories: their stuff is too expensive, or the food tastes bad. We actually would have thought that the driver would get a free taster from them in exchange for the free bus ride that was often about 5-10 km, but we never saw this happen.

Food recycling
With all that eating and drinking one would expect that the well proven combination of food and winding roads would do its magic... But the folks here in Central America are surprisingly resistant to motion sickness – especially the Guatemalans are tough cookies. The regurgitation sounds that we have gotten so accustomed to in Vietnam and Cambodia were entirely missing. No black plastic bags hanging from the luggage racks, no pale faces and especially no bad smells.
Don't drink too much little girl
a winding road lays ahead!
Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Hondurans are occasionally filling the little bags (which are yellow there). Why in the world do we write about this? Well in Asia we've gotten so used to idea that half the bus is recycling food as soon as the road has a few twists and turns that we almost expect the familiar sounds and odors that go along with the food recycling.

And secondly we will warn you not to take a chicken bus if you get car sick easily. The various sudden motions and forces on your body are definitely a couple levels tougher than what you are used to from home. We are so glad that both of us are fairly resistant... But we also don't stuff our stomachs with heavy foods before or during a bus ride.

Money Matters
The clock works against the chicken bus drivers, time is literally money!
The fare that passengers pay is based on distance, however very often the driver has to pay rent for his bus on a daily basis.

Hurry, we need to get moving!
Jinotega, Nicaragua
In Guatemala a renting a chicken bus for a day costs about 800 Quetzales (100USD) add the Ayudante's pay (or percentage?) to that and you can calculate that his fixed costs are about 900Q, and this does not include the diesel yet. The fares are very low, the 90 minutes, 37 km. (23 miles) journey from Panajachel to Chichicastenango costs 10 Quetzales (1.20$) you do the math, the driver needs 90 passengers just to cover his fixed cost, excluding diesel, which is expensive here similar to prices in Europe. And children generally don't need to pay, so the family of five that just got on the bus only pays two fares.

No wonder that these guys drive like maniacs. Some of them don't even fully stop the bus and force passengers to jump off the bus while it's on the move. Every minute that the bus is not moving costs money. We wonder if budget airlines executives got their fast turnaround inspiration from the chicken bus drivers here in Central America? Let's just hope that Michael O'Leary from Ryanair hasn't been in Central America yet, otherwise get ready to board your next flight while the plane taxis to the runway.

Gringo Fare
Foreigners (Gringos) are an easy opportunity for chicken bus personnel to improve their low income without much effort. In Guatemala, foreigners are charged 25-50% more for chicken buses; in some cases even double. And what service do they get for this premium price? Nothing, nada! They don't get more space to sit; sometimes not even getting a seat at all. The locals know the system much better and it seems that the Ayudante has pre-selected the front (premium) seats with bags for VIPs – and cute girls. The locals send their armies of kids ahead to squeeze inside to reserve seats as the kids are faster and more agile than backpackers with their gear.
Chicken bus in Antigua.
Watch out as they like to overcharge.
Antigua, Guatemala
The Gringo fare is also not an extra charge for your backpack: many locals travel with more stuff than a backpacker does. Probably it's just a common mindset that foreigners are rich and therefore should pay more.

Here some tips to avoid being overcharged:
Always have plenty of small money available before entering a chicken bus. Otherwise, you are guaranteed to overpay. It's the same everywhere in the world; they always claim not to have any change.
Immediately ask the locals what the fare should be or observe what they pay to the Ayudante – chances are, if everybody pays with a 10 Quetzales bill that the fare is 10Q or less.
That may sound trivial, but trust me the Ayudante will tell you that it's 15Q with a perfectly straight face.

Best plan is to hand him the correct fare and be ready to haggle hard and insist that this is "El precio normal". Of course you can save yourself the trouble and just pay more, it's only a few bucks anyway.... Right! But if they can get away easily with a few bucks more, they will up the "gringo surcharge" as long as they don't get a heavy objection. Fast-forward a few years and the foreigner price will be 3-5 times the normal fare – for the same cramped seat that you share with 3 locals.

It's important to remember that overcharging is ripping people off. So tourists who overpay are rewarding bad behavior. You don't charge foreigners more in your home country, do you?
Need a ride? Searching for easy Gringo prey
Antigua, Guatemala
Yes, it takes a bit more effort to ascertain the correct price, but most locals are more than happy to tell tourist the correct price. As a matter of fact, they also like to interact with foreigners so you can start up a nice conversation where both the tourist and local share a few moments of conversation. At least for us, it's only a few moments as our Spanish is only at that level. On a side note: Julane has a practice of refusing to buy from someone who initially quotes an outlandish amount for an item, preferring to start the bargaining "game" with vendors whose starting price is not more than 50%. Rewarding more fair and honest folks is important.

In Honduras, the Ayudantes are generally honest. Most of the time they charge the local price and give back the correct change, especially you appear to be waiting for change. Generally you won't ever have to ask for it. But it's still good to ask a local what the fare is, before paying with a big bill – big being 100 Lempira ($5.40). Forget paying with even larger bills unless you pre-pay at a ticket booth.

In Nicaragua, prices are posted somewhere in the vehicle, and change is given honestly and without hesitation. If you don't get your change right away, just wait and the Ayudante will bring it later as most likely he just needs to collect some more fares to get some smaller bills and coins.

Finding the right bus
As a rule of thumb: if you are a Gringo, the bus will find you (we must have a natural perfume that has the scent of extra cash). As soon as a Gringo gets within 20 meters (65ft) of a chicken bus, he will be spotted by the Ayudante. If you are at a bus terminal, the Ayudantes are competing for you.
The line up... just look at the signs
to find the right bus
Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Sometimes a "bus guide" may approach you to show you to the correct bus... Beware these guys get paid a "referral fee" by the Ayudante. So they may be more inclined to show you to the bus that pays him more for his service. You most likely won't be shown to the bus that will be leaving next. And the Ayudante will of course want to reclaim that "referral fee" back... Bottom line you pay more and may arrive later!

Of course this is worst in Guatemala where Gringos on chicken buses are holy cash cows. In Nicaragua, for instance, we have not seen any of these bus guides. There they actually have proper terminals with ramps and schedules, even information booths!

No, this bus does not drive to
"East Lycoming" (Pennsylvania) 
Managua, Nicaragua
The other alternative to falling prey to "guides" or overly eager Ayudantes is to look by yourself at the signs on the bus. Even the basic ones (with the original Cedar Creek Elementary markings) will show the name of their destination above the windshield where once upon a time the words School Bus indicated the buses purpose before its re-incarnation into a chicken bus.
This sign is of course a low tech, permanent sign. Thus it will say the names of the origin and destination towns and maybe also a few major town in-between this chicken run.

Sounds confusing? Not really: It only gets confusing when the town names are abbreviated. Again Guatemala gets our votes for being the most unique in this aspect. Many Guatemalan towns have long indigenous Mayan names; these names are abbreviated in the spoken and written form.
Here some easy examples:
- Guatemala City  →  Guate
Where in the world is Xela?
Panajachel, Guatemala
- Panajachel  →  Pana
- Chichicastenango  →  ChiChi
- Huehuetenango  →  HueHue

It gets a bit more difficult:
- Quiché  →  Santa Cruz del Quiché

And these are flat out impossible to figure out:
- 4Cam  →  Quatro Caminos
- Xela  →  Quetzaltenango

The Breakdowns
Imagine how many thousands of miles some of these chicken buses must have under their hoods. It is no surprise that they occasionally go on strike and break down. If you are lucky, you can get out; get your money back; and take the next one that is coming along the road. This seems to only work for the chicken bus world as our private bus breakdowns weren't so simple.
Our first breakdown, luckily we
could switch buses after 20 min.
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Our first chicken bus breakdown incident was when we were on the way to Chichicastenano when the driver abruptly stopped at the crest of a mountain, jumped out, and popped open the hood. For the next 20 minutes, the only thing that we could see of our driver and the Ayudante were their feet sticking up in the air, their heads were deeply immersed in the engine compartment. Occasionally, one of them would come back into the cabin grab a tool like a wrench, hammer, etc. About 25 minutes into the roadside repairs, the locals (one after the other) got off the bus, but not because the driver or conductor had informed any of the passengers of the severity of the bus’s injury. We guess they just had enough of waiting and decided to flag down the next chicken bus. All locals got some money back, so we also walked up with outstretched palms... Bingo! We got just enough money to pay for the fare from the breakdown point to Chichicastenango.

Not so lucky this time: a 45 min
wait in the baking sun.
Tela, Honduras
We were not so lucky with the other times when we had a breakdown. Unfortunately it was also in very hot climates and we had to wait in a bus that had turned into a toaster oven. Ironically both of these breakdowns were regular buses that are supposed to be 1-2 classes higher in comfort (and certainly in price).
Thus, our conclusion: chicken buses are more reliable than private buses!

We never got bored on a chicken bus, even the longer trips always offered some form of entertainment to keep us busy. Some of the entertainment options are: watching the beautiful landscape, observing what is going on in the bus, keeping an eye on your backpack that is on the roof/luggage compartment/overhead racks. And of course talking to the friendly locals – particularly fun (or ludicrous) when we speak Spanish like a 3 year old.
Always something to watch
Estelí, Nicaragua

Our favorite form of entertainment is the traveling salesman. These are basically people – mostly men – that get on the bus at various major stops. They wait until the bus is out of town (often appearing to be regular passengers) and then stand up to give a sales talk about a particular product. We wrote about some of them in our previous Blogs. Here a short extract from one of them:

…this guy gets up from the seat across from us and starts talking to all the passengers in a really friendly manner (aka. sales-pitch tone). He first pulled out a bundle of what looked like fresh rosemary and explained all the health properties of this herb. Then he reached into his bag again and brought out an onion, then a custard apple, etc…always explaining the health benefits of each. Finally after the 10 minutes lead in, he pulled out some small packets with a "magic" powder that probably included all the herbs and veggies. Then he hands one to each willing bus passenger to inspect and read the print on the package while he patiently sits down again.

Just before Quatro Caminos, he collected either the unsold bags or the money, with about a quarter of the people actually buying his health potion. Shortly after, in San Francisco, another salesman entered the bus. He was selling a little booklet with facts about Guatemala: Capitals of the provinces, Mayan languages, Statistics, etc... It was kind of an Encyclopedia and Atlas combined (for teenagers who are reading this: that's the Wikipedia before the Internet age arrived). He was fun to listen to: we could practice our Spanish and learn a bit more about Guatemala. His Spanish was very clear and we could actually understand quite a bit. He was also quite successful selling at least to a third of all passengers.

Some of the more unusual encounters with traveling salesmen (a name that is a stretch in this case) are the ones that just want your money without selling any tangible good. This was the case with a man who boarded the bus in Morales (Guatemala). He stood up as soon as we left the town and started preaching... for 20 minutes he was citing the bible and at the end even singing a gospel!

He was dressed more like a business man than a priest, so we weren’t sure if he is for real or just a devoted Christian trying to convince the people on the bus to join his particular church. But then he walked up the aisle and started collecting money. Maybe he is collecting to build his own church? Almost everyone gave him some cash and was given a big hug by the preacher in exchange... now that is something unusual!

We’ve seen on another instance a young man citing the bible in a bus, but he didn’t collect any money, he probably was just a good Christian – or an apprentice preacher in training.

On our last chicken bus ride in Central America (one of the very few that actually deserve that name: we had a chicken on board), a man with an accordion boards at a random stop. This poor guy managed to squeeze on and find enough space to play his huge accordion on one of the more crowded buses just before Managua. The most amazing part was that he was blind! He had a hard time standing, playing, singing and keeping his balance. It was a huge effort for him as a blind man never knowing how crowded buses are and when they will stop. We have no idea how he does it as he was alone without someone to help him. He was working very hard to make a living and not just begging for money– something that we admire.

"Music makes the people come together, Music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel" are the lyrics of a popular Madonna song... that must be the motivation behind building huge stereo systems into the chicken buses. Probably the drivers hope that very loud music "... makes the people come together" and that the mix between American classic hits and Mariachi style Spanish songs is mixing the "bourgeoisie and the rebel". In other words, they must hope that their loud music attracts both Gringos and locals, although I would not call the locals rebels, which applies more to the few Gringos that use the chicken buses. And nobody can be called a bourgeoisie when taking a chicken bus

The music is mostly at maximum volume unless the driver or his Ayudante want to make a phone call, then they turn it down in order to actually hear the phone. But as soon as their call is over, the amplifier is cranked back up to maximum decibel levels. If a passanger needs to make a phone call, he has either to wait until the driver is on a call as well, or just hold a monologue with the person on the line – no way that a normal human being could hear the person on the other line.

While some of the music was quite nice to listen too and helped to cancel out the noise of the broken mufflers, it was a struggle too. Especially for Patrick, who can’t stand high levels of noise. Both of us must have suffered minor hearing loss during the countless hours of chicken bus disco. Hey, what did you say!?!

If you are traveling through Central America, you must try a chicken bus... at least 2-3 times. After the first time, you might say "never again". That’s fine, just take a minibus next time and then see which one you prefer.

This guide to the chicken buses of Central America is written rather sarcastic or cheeky... see it as our tribute to an invaluable experience. For us the chicken buses formed an important foundation of our experience as travelers in Central America, something that we would not want to have missed. Sometimes they are the only available transport and sometimes there may be more comfortable options when you travel between tourist areas, but think of what you will be missing in local flavor (sabor) when you only travel in a bus full Gringos.

We hardly ever had other Gringos travel with us on the chicken buses and that made the experience even more rewarding as we were truly immersed in the local culture. The local people were friendly and receptive. Perhaps we were to them as much of an exotic experience, as the chicken bus was to us. In management talk, this is a perfect win-win synergy.