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Riding on a Chicken Bus

For any backpacker travelling Central America, there will come a point in your travels where you participate in the age old rite of passage called the Chicken Bus. Don't be fooled by the name. There are not any actual chickens on the bus, the name is derived due to the chicken coup nature by which passengers are crammed on to the bus. It's highly probable that you will finish a trip having had a total stranger; sit in your lap, smack their elbow into your head or scrape their moist pungent armpit along your face. Despite the crammed quarters, food stall salesmen will squeeze their way through the narrow people filled aisle with their oversize buckets of tortillas, empanadas, juice bags and on occasion....belts, torches and hammocks.

While their presence compounds the already cramped conditions, the food they travel with brings a pleasant aroma that cuts through the ever present scent of body sweat, petrol fumes and torn leather. These buses, which are decommissioned US school buses, get purchased cheap by Central American businessmen, registered as public vehicles and put almost immediately to work.

Each bus has a driver and ticket conductor. Just like the luxury level of the buses, the quality of the conductor varies between all the American nations. Guatemala is renowned for their technicolor and superbly reconditioned buses, while Nicaragua on the other hand uses duct tape as a staple bonding adhesive to prevent the bus from collapsing in a heap. All of the buses have budget air conditioning which takes the form of an open window.

To say that the trips are adventure is an understatement. Each bus journey will introduce you to an adventure that you could never have imagined. In contrast to the outwardly appearance of chaos on the bus, there is a rule system. A charismatic conductor i met on my first chicken bus from the boarder of Mexico into Belize gave me the low down. Rules: 1. Once you get your seat....don't move for anyone or anything! 2. Don't move! 3. Always stay seated. He was pretty clear.....under no circumstances do you leave your seat. Even if the person is old, or disabled, or not stand up. Even if your bladder is about to burst...remain in your seat. Reason being is that once you even think of moving, a stealthy ninja will slide into your seat before you can say 'is this my stop?'.

Basically travelling on a chicken bus is an opportunity to go against every good manner that your mother has drilled into you your entire life. I found this difficult. As a frequent user of public transport, i have a compulsive need to stand up for my elders, the weak or disabled. But as the saying goes, when in as the romans do. And trust me...these Central American folk certainly do!

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