Travelling for us riff raff
I think it’s safe to assume that the majority of our readers have at some stage, while travelling, taken a bus. Of course this doesn’t apply if you’re one of those rich bastards who are travelling everywhere first class and taking limos from the airport to a 5 star hotel. Actually, that’s a redundant assumption given that we don’t know any rich bastards and in any case we frequently slag them off anyway!
Globally there are hundreds of types of bus but for the purposes of this article I’ll stick to my most recent adventures with those ubiquitous charabancs found in Latin America – chicken buses.
If you’re looking for comfort or convenience look elsewhere. But I absolutely love everything about them.
Any colour you want as long as it’s yellow.
Being imported second hand classic USA school buses in their basic format they are imported in yellow, always yellow. They don’t stay that way for long and either a rapid or progressive paint job transformation ensues. Always with the most impressive vibrant artwork. This artwork commonly extends across the glass of the front windows with just a token aperture for the driver to peer out.
Most of them display religious imagery and texts. One phrase that has always stuck in my head is “Estamos en manos de dios (We are in the hands of God).” I always considered this as being particularly pertinent as we hurtled along at what must have been 950 kph overtaking trucks on blind bends. Even this long-term cynical agnostic clings on to that phrase!
To pee or not to pee!
Whilst I like travelling alone I actually prefer travelling with a companion – on my latest travels I just couldn’t find another gullible sucker. Apart from the obvious advantages of company, conversation and humour there are some prosaic practical considerations. For example; before heading off on the bus it’s important to go to the toilet. Because once started that bus ain’t going to stop for mere comfort breaks for at least three hours – stopping to drop off and pick up passengers is one thing; unscheduled pee stops are definitely not on the itinerary.
In most bus terminals – not so much terminals more exercises in chaos – there is a toilet. Some of these toilets are accessed through a coin-operated turnstile and it’s a logistical nightmare to struggle through them with your luggage. Even the toilets without a turnstile are usually guarded by a woman.
Here I hesitate about what to call these women guards knowing that what I say may possibly determine the destiny of 50% of our readership, women. My fate may well hang in the balance with what I’m about to say. Destiny as in they may well abandon us depending on what I now call that woman guardian. I tried to think of a female equivalent of Stalin or Hitler. I could only think of Attila the Hun. Before committing Attila to print I felt I should investigate her pedigree. I made an amazing discovery. She was a he. For the past 69 years I have genuinely thought Attila was a girls name. REALLY. I mean, it does sound like a feminine name – doesn’t it?
This discovery still didn’t help me finding an analogy for those despotic women toilet guardians? I looked up female dictators and tyrants. The worst I could find was Catherine the Great but she only murdered her victims in the thousands, which makes her into a cuddly kitten compared to her compatriot Stalin who murdered his victims in the millions. It really does seem that women are indeed the nicer, kinder and gentler half of our species.
OK, I think I may have successfully ingratiated myself with female readers so I will give those guardians of toilets the sobriquet of miserable bitches.
OK, now it really is time to pee
So, back to those toilets protected by those gruesome she-devils. You pay your 50 cents and get your 6 sheets of tiny toilet paper (you want more, you pay more!), pass the sign saying “WC recientemente limpiado,” paddle through the puddles of dubious liquid created by the woefully inadequately laid concrete floor and arrive at your allotted cubicle. After you find there is no toilet seat you then realise there is just about room for you and definitely no dry space for your bag. Your luggage has to stand outside the cubicle in one of the puddles soaking up the effluent cocktail. Oh what joy when you finally arrive at your destination and open your bag.
With two people one goes off to pee while the other guards the bags on dry ground.
Another reason for a companion is that when your bus arrives you are faced with the dilemma of safeguarding your luggage versus getting a seat. You establish it is the correct bus and your bag is snatched away from you. You don’t know if it’s by the driver, the conductor or one of the terminal workers. Then you don’t know if it’s going on the roof, in a side locker or rapidly disappearing out the back of the terminal!
When you feel reasonably good about your luggage, because there’s always that nagging doubt you’ve overlooked something, then, and only then, do you look for a seat. With two of you, responsibilities can be divided; one takes care of the luggage, the other finds seats.
A trip from Juigalpa to San Carlos in Nicaragua was exactly a case in point.
Having ensured my backpack was reasonably secure I discovered the bus was seriously overloaded with a jam-packed standing room only. And this for the next 3 hours. Being tall and standing up I couldn’t see out of the window. Funny where your mind goes in times like those. For example, I worked out, as a mental exercise, there were 5.6 tonnes of people on that bus. I also tried to remember which of Newton’s laws of motion was appropriate when an extra 5.6 tonnes of extra mass is added to an object hurtling along at terminal velocity. It helped pass the time.
One item never in short supply on the buses is food. At every stop food traders swarm onto the bus. If you can eat it, on to the bus it goes. Meat, vegetables, fruit, drink, hot, cold cooked, raw; anything goes.
Even when the bus is crammed full with standing room only the vendors still manage to squeeze on. They slowly work their way down the aisle carrying their wares above their heads. Often both hands are used and when a sale is made the prospective client is expected to hold some of the wares to enable the transaction to be completed. Sometimes extra products are even carried on the pedlar’s head!
It really is a fascinating spectacle to watch and hear.
It really is a fascinating spectacle to watch and hear. Nobody complains, neither the ayudante (conductor), driver nor passengers – even during the inevitable crush. It truly is an exercise in patience and stoicism from everybody. Nothing gets dropped or spilled; the vendors juggling their products and money with such practised and experienced dexterity it would humble many a waiter in far less crowded and far more stable scenarios.
It’s not just food that is hawked on the bus. If it fits through the door on it comes. I saw one man carrying on an incredible range of pots and pans. But without doubt the most bizarre items I saw go on a bus was a really comprehensive assortment of full on machetes. This would be inconceivable in most countries, if not illegal, but here it’s perfectly acceptable without the bat of an eyelid.
I make out the experience of traveling by chicken bus to be akin to disorganised chaos verging on mayhem. It is. And I love it.
I got to the end of this tome rather unexpectedly and realised all I’ve talked about are the practicalities and logistics of chicken bus travel. There’s no actual journeys described. OK next time.