The year is 1970. You’re a tired yellow school bus nearing retirement after a decade of service carting American kids back and forth. One day you get a bold tap on the side mirror. You’re going south to start a new, more colourful kind of life.
And so was born the ‘Chicken Bus’.
Decommissioned American school buses, revived and made-over, plying every inch of Nicaragua’s roads (and most of Central America’s) with passengers packed in like, well, chickens, carrying just about anything from huge sacks of coffee and baskets of melons to (you may have guessed) chickens.
For this pair of travellers these bus rides felt like a novelty – hours in uncomfortable chairs designed for children, an endless bombardment of sounds and a constant and unapologetic invasion of personal space. Above all they were the source of much amusement and an insight into how many Nicaraguans live their day-to-day lives.
Putting convenience as a top priority, bus terminals often fall somewhere in the vicinity of a town’s market where everything from fruit, vegetables and fried snacks are found alongside belts, wallets and home wares. Because when better to buy a double bed mattress or a week’s worth of groceries than right before getting on a 7-hour bus trip across the country?
At markets in Nicaragua any inkling of being a restrained salesperson goes out the window. It is an all out war of voices where they seem to believe whoever yells the loudest is most likely to convince the customer to make a purchase, no matter how unnecessary the item may be. Why yes, that pink sparkly bra IS exactly what I needed before boarding the bus.
And it seems everyone wants a piece of the action.
Ice-cream men weave between stalls and buses ringing the high-pitched bells on their freezers, bus drivers and attendants sing loud unmelodious tunes of “Managua, Managua, Managua” and teenagers walk around aimlessly with reggaeton blaring from their Nokias as if desperate to contribute in some way to the discordant symphony.
At one point we managed to attract the attention of three insistent ice-cream vendors who were in no way deterred by our polite refusals. They surrounded us, twinkles in their eyes, all loudly and persistently jangling their bells, trying to ‘persuade’ us (or annoy us to the extreme) into buying an ice cream. For an hour we sat in this ridiculous scene sliding between laughter at the insanity of it all and frustration that we could not just be left in peace. Needless to say they wore us down. Eventually.
The buses themselves are often painted in anything but their original yellow and decked out with speakers for the sole purpose of playing 80’s love ballads. The original horns sound a choo choo to signal their arrival.
Lets not forget that these are school buses, designed for American children circa 1970. The seats are small, the legroom limited and our journeys were often spent with knees up around our ears or across the isles at our own peril.
We soon learnt that the concept of personal space is not given much consideration here. It was not uncommon to have a man resting his large belly on our shoulders, a busty lady on the verge of installing herself firmly on our laps and a small child holding onto our legs almost simultaneously. Voluptuous bosoms and bottoms regularly swept by within an inch of our faces and if our feet strayed even for a second into the isles they were likely trodden on by the constant stream of passengers. Three fully-grown adults were routinely squeezed into seats designed for two fifth graders, while children were loaded onto their parent’s laps regardless of age or size.
Every village brought a new onslaught of vendors; tortillas with cheese, soft drink, hot chips, tarts, corn cake, fried chicken. What would begin as a subdued sales pitch outside the windows of the bus soon became an involved runway show down the isle displaying every product under the sun, once again employing the theory that ‘if I yell loud enough someone WILL buy something’. There were watches, belts, wallets, shoes, vitamins, razors, candy, throat lozenges, pens and, strange of all, medication, always accompanied by a speech (with visual aids) by various ‘qualified’ personnel.
When we learnt to tune out the incessant calls for “rosquilla, quesillo and gaseosa”, we started to notice that every single lady selling these goods in the country has managed to perfect the exact tone and pitch as one another in which to yell. Listen out for it.
These were often the most entertaining moments spent on board the chicken buses. Ironically though, as attuned as we were to their wily sales techniques, we never failed to buy something. Hello, pineapple tarts. Persistence and yelling at the top of your voice clearly pays off (as does having really good smelling fried goods).
Our time squeezed into impossibly small seats, bags on laps, ears being blasted, as we wound our way through tiny villages and mountainous countryside, was some of our most authentic. Some moments were so hilariously bizarre that we couldn’t help but laugh out loud, other times so frustrating we wanted to scream.
But, if nothing else, bus rides in Nicaragua were never dull.