I took my first chicken bus a few days ago in Nicaragua. After taking a quick tour of a cigar factory in Esteli (unfortunately not my favorite, Padron) in the morning, I asked the people that did my tour where I could get a bus to Leon. They checked on their computer, pointed to one of the two bus stations in town on my map, and told me the bus left at 3 that afternoon. I had been riding on the nice, big, air conditioned (overly so) buses up till then, and assumed, since they looked up the schedule on the computer and told me there were only two buses a day to Leon that this was another one of those buses.
Au contraire, mon ami.
Got to the bus station around 1:30 or so and started looking for the ticket agent. Not a ticket agent in sight. Hundred or so people sitting around waiting for buses, mostly locals, on benches underneath a covered part of the parking lot, which appeared to be the “terminal”. A few buses were parked there under signs that signified which towns they were headed to. I hopped into some little food shack at the station and choked down a pretty poor meal of fried chicken and rice and when I asked the people in there about the bus to Leon in my pigeon Spanish, they pointed to one of the buses parked outside (under a sign for Managua, of course).
I got on the bus, which, unlike the nicely painted chicken buses I took pictures of in Antigua, was just a plain old school bus, still painted its original yellow. There were a couple other gringos, actually a gringo and a gringa, sitting on one of the benches and asked them if this was the bus to Leon. They assured me that it was and I prepared for my first chicken bus experience of the trip.
So here are some things about chicken buses: they literally are old school buses — I have no idea how thousands of these buses made it down to Central America, but they are everywhere. No air-conditioning, obviously. Sometimes a few of the windows will open up, but if you remember your old school bus, that just means an opening of about 1 foot by 2 feet — don’t want those kids falling out of the bus. They all have welded on a luggage rack that covers almost the entire roof — if the bus is crowded, you are supposed to give your backpack for a guy up there to tie down for you. I really don’t trust that process very much, but in this case, our bus was mercifully not very crowded, so I just put my pack in the seat next to me. The suspension, and roads for that matter, usually leave a lot to be desired. And normally, the bus will stop and pick up anyone flagging it down from the side of the road — but this bus actually didn’t make many stops at all.
In short, it is an experience. Not like I want to take them all the time, but every once in a while, it quickly brings you down to earth.
The ride was supposed to take about two and a half hours. I spent most of it talking to the gringa, a really cool girl from New Mexico (Tina). She was on a long Latin American tour. Luckily it wasn’t overly hot, so the ride wasn’t too bad at all. The bus wasn’t very crowded at all, which was even better.
Although the trip wasn’t that long in miles, probably 150-200 miles or so, it was long in duration, about 5 hours or so. There were a couple amusing notes from the trip. First, as usual for Nicaragua, the road was under construction. Every once in a while, the bus driver would pull off the road to some side road, cut out of the surrounding forest, that ran next to the road that was being repaved or whatever. What was amusing was that not all the traffic would divert to these side roads — so that we’d be driving alongside the main road for a quarter mile or so and some other bus or car or whatever would be whipping on down the regular road, dodging construction equipment or potholes or whatever. Quite amusing.
More interesting was the transmission on our bus. About half the way through the trip, a loud squealing noise started coming from the front of the bus when we were in first or second gear. After a bit more time went by, the squealing seemed to expand to third gear as well. Tina turned to me and wondered aloud whether we’d be able to hitch a ride on another bus or car when, not if, this one broke down.
A few more miles down the road, the driver pulled the bus off the road. We were pretty sure this was the end of the road on this particular bus. The driver and his assistant, then got out some tools and a container of what we assumed was transmission fluid, opened up the hood and got to work. Considering they were prepared for this, it was obvious this was a reoccuring problem. And I’m no mechanic, but I don’t think transmission fluid is the long-term solution to this problem. We were back on the road in about 20 minutes. . . and the squealing didn’t start up again for at least 30 minutes after that.
We made it fine — quite late, but fine — and had a good laugh over beers about the folks that were destined to be on that bus when the make-shift repairs didn’t work. Then we realized that we were jinxing ourselves with bad travel karma.
At least when it happens to me, I will be able to the point that I screwed up my karma.
|From Chicken Buses|
I wish our bus would have been this cool looking.