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Standing on a street corner in downtown Guatemala City is refreshingly foreign—the language, the clothing, the open air markets, the fast-moving, brightly colored…
…U.S. school buses?
I must be mistaken, I thought, watching one of these beasts barrel down the road for the first time. They look like any old fashioned yellow school bus from the United States, but with a serious makeover.
They’re painted with bright colors and route names, and some are further adorned with decals of the driver’s choosing. They fly around the streets of Guatemala with a conductor hanging out the door yelling the name of a destination.
Goodness knows I do love public transport.
I’ve become acquainted with these buses—or “chicken buses,” as they’re known around here—through a few different experiences and would like to pass on my findings to any other travelers in need of a ride. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Some Retired School Buses Head South
Yes, my suspicions were confirmed. When I boarded my first chicken bus, I noted the brown pleather seats, the stubborn double-paned sliding windows and the sign (in English) next to a broken security camera that reads, “Your Child’s Safety is Our Business!”
Guatemala is in fact crawling with born-again school buses.
When a school bus retires in the U.S., it may be exported. If it’s lucky, it comes here to Guatemala for a new, exciting life as a chicken bus.
2. Don’t Underestimate the Carrying Capacity and Racing Potential of School Buses
During their second life, school buses really get a chance strut their stuff. A chicken bus on a popular route carries three adults to a seat, adults standing in the aisle way and a roof full of cargo.
This alone is impressive for a retired automobile, but chicken buses take it a step further: they bear this load while passing cars, swerving around sharp curves and ascending the impressive mountains of the Guatemalan landscape.
I don’t remember my school bus doing any of those things on our class trip to the zoo…but then again, we didn’t have the added grab bars on the ceiling and each bench seat to clutch for dear life.
3. It’s Called a Chicken Bus for a Reason
Yes, I rode the bus with chickens. A bus in Guatemala carries an eclectic mix of commuters, from business professionals to agriculturalists. It’s not uncommon to ride next to an animal or a basket of mangoes.
Chicken’s make amiable seat buddies, actually. I rode 30 minutes before realizing I was sitting in front of one. Eventually, she called attention to herself with a loud squawk, but her owner re-adjusted his grip, put her back on his lap, and she rode along comfy and quiet for the rest of the ride.
All are welcome on the bus. Sales people pass through the aisles during stops with plantain chips, tamales, soda, sweets and more. I also witnessed quite a few sales pitches in which someone rode from one location to another while preaching about a miracle vitamin or treatment for hair loss. Other people boarded just to preach, as in, “bus evangelism.”
4. Don’t Mess with a Bus on the Move
If you’re only acquainted with the docile yellow version of the school bus—the kind that puts out a little stop sign and waits for children to cross the road—you may be in for a rude awakening.
Chicken buses wait for no pedestrian, with the exception of the coveted few looking to board the bus. For a customer, a chicken bus will stop on a dime in whatever traffic condition.
But if you’re not one of the commuting hopefuls with an outstretched arm, best let the bus pass before you try crossing the road.
Weighing the Options….
Pro: Chicken buses run almost anywhere in this country, and barring any major breakdowns, they get there fast.
Con: There are no seatbelts. Also, there have (unfortunately) been several hold-ups on chicken buses.
Pro: Endless concession options brought right to your seat.
Con: Endless sales pitches and the occasional Hellfire-and-brimstone sermon are also brought right to your seat.
Pro: Minimizing environmental impact of fossil fuel by maximizing carrying capacity of the vehicle, consequently tightens the proximity of you to your fellow passengers, increasing the opportunity for new friendships.
Con: Not the most comfortable ride.
Pro: You get to ride with chickens.
Con: Maybe that’s not your thing.
The choice is yours!
And next time you see that unassuming yellow school bus coasting through your neighborhood, don’t be fooled. It’s not as docile as it lets on.
About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.