|by Budget Travel||Mexico and Central America, Local and Public Transportation||1|
For the benefit of those yet to travel by Chicken Bus, allow me to set the scene. These machines start their life as US school buses and, after their North American shelf life has expired, gain a whole new lease of life south of the border. Possibly the ultimate in recycling, these veteran workhorses - which would have been put out to graze long ago - are now loyal servants to umpteen million Latin Americans. It just goes to show that there's still life in the old dogs yet.
After arrival in the land of machetes and banana palms the vehicles undergo a complete face lift. Out with the old and in with the new, the well known yellow exterior soon becomes history when the former ugly duckling finally emerges as a chrome fronted, hand painted, religious billboard on wheels. It's like MTV's 'Pimp My Ride' on LSD-laced steroids.
Excessive chrome, pious stickers, and garish paint schemes are definitely the new yellow and black. And that's just the outside. The interior also undergoes the same radical transformation. Once inside, aesthetics take a back seat among the sacks of rice and beans and functionality now dictates design. Fore and aft spacing between seats remains unchanged, meaning leg space is still barely sufficient for small American children, but on one side the bench seats are replaced with slightly longer versions that now devour half of what used to be the aisle.
As for the rest of the decor, simply throw in two overhead luggage racks to accommodate cardboard boxes containing shopping and the odd armadillo, a TV in a welded cage (usually rendered defunct after the first man-sized pothole), 25 hefty speakers that wouldn't look out of place at a Steppenwolf concert, and a head-shattering air horn powerful enough to strip tooth enamel, and you have yourself one bad-ass Chicken Bus.
But its the guys running the show that really impressed me. Not only the fearless driver, but also his mate - the Chicken Bus Jockey. With the tenacity of an Everest Double Glazing salesman and the physical prowess of a world class 400 meter runner fitted as standard, these chaps are a breed apart. I remember one in particular that had a dangerous habit of squeezing his way down the bus to collect fares, he would then exit the back of the bus when it slowed to an easy rumble, sprint back around as it began to gain pace, and then hurl himself back in through the open door at the front. A routine repeated at least twice hourly. Clearly, this must have proved easier than battling back through a packed bus.
On one occasion, however, the driver sped off a little too early, leaving his amigo behind in a swirling cloud of dust and black fumes. Looking backward through small gaps in the sea of armpits and crotches I could see this maniac, in full sprint with arms flailing, hopelessly trying to close the ever growing distance between him and the bus. The look of sheer desperation on his face reminded me of that scene at the end of the Roger Moore movie The Wild Geese where Richard Harris, while being chased by a lot of rather angry natives, tried in vain to catch up with the plane as it accelerated along the runway. In our case, and in a different and altogether less gory ending, passenger intervention saved the day. One chap eventually piped up to signal the loss, forcing Stan Laurel to reluctantly hit the brakes and pick up a wheezing, and somewhat weary, Senor Hardy.