Picture this: you’re in a school bus that’s painted garish colours, crammed in on all sides by other people and their purchases. There’s music blasting on a radio, and the driver seems to be driving like he’s making up for lost time, speeding around curves and over speed bumps and potholes alike. The driver is honking his horn as if it’s the only thing keeping the bus running, and his coworker is leaning out the door bellowing the name of a city at anyone, whether they look like they care or not.
Where is this chaotic scene taking place? Guatemala, of course! You’re riding a chicken bus to get from one place to another, just like any other Guatemalan who doesn’t have a car or a moto.
Once a school bus has lived out its life in North America, it’s driven down to Central America where it gets to live a second life. It typically has some work done – I’ve heard that most buses get a manual transmission put into them, although I haven’t paid enough attention to know whether or not that’s true. Buses also get racks put overhead – key, because a lot of people riding the bus have a lot of stuff with them. They generally get a metal railing installed on the ceiling the length of the aisle. This is important because the bus will often start driving as soon as everyone is on, not once everyone is in their seat, and it’s helpful to be able to hang on while you head to your seat or while you get up to move to the front in advance of where you want to disembark. Additionally, some buses seem to have new seats installed – the seats are wider, meaning you can squeeze a third person in (and I do mean squeeze – have you been on a bus in a while?), although this means really squeezing your way down the aisle. And the seats are then also installed closer together, a key factor in being able to fit more people in your bus and maximize your income if you’re running the bus (although it makes it difficult for a taller-than-the-average-Guatemalan Canadian woman to fit her legs into the space comfortably. Especially given the bumps over potholes and speed bumps – sometimes the kneecaps take quite a beating!)
And, if you’ve ever seen any photos of a chicken bus in Guatemala, you know that the other drastic change to the bus is decorating the outside. Red, white, yellow, green, blue – buses are painted vibrant colour combinations. They can also then have fancy chrome added or sometimes decals added to the windshield (enough that sometimes one wonders how well the driver can really see the road!) The colours matter when you have an adult population with a relatively low literacy rate – even though the bus will say what route it is taking, that doesn’t matter much if people can’t read the sign. So the colours also indicate where the bus will go, and this way people know which bus to take.
These chicken buses are the equivalent of public transit in North America, with a few key differences. Have you ridden a city bus lately? Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you know that they have route maps and schedules. And if you wanted or needed to ride one, you would check ahead of time to see where the stops are that you need in order to get on and in order to get off. And then you would check to see what time the bus would come by, and you would be at the stop a couple of minutes before the bus’s scheduled time, expecting it to arrive at that time.
Meanwhile here in Guatemala, if buses have schedules, I sure don’t know what they are. And you can’t look up a bus time on Google Maps like you can in Canada. You just head to some location on the bus route, and you wait for your bus to come by. We’re actually fortunate that from home, a couple of buses come by and all head through Jocotenango (church location) and into Antigua (nearest city, where we generally do our grocery shopping). Once in a while we’ll come down the hill and just miss a bus and have to wait a while (like 20 minutes has been our longest wait time so far), but other times, it’s a short five minute wait. Today I crossed the highway just as a bus rounded the corner, so I hopped on and was in town in record time.
Buses have some sort of standard stops, but you can also wait anywhere along the bus’s route and hop on, and you can also get off anywhere along the route – just go up and ask the driver to stop and let you off.
Why are they called chicken buses? There are a couple of different stories to explain this name. Some say it’s because passengers are crammed in like chickens. My preferred story is actually that people take whatever they have to sell in the market with them, including live chickens.
Besides the bus driver, there’s another staff person on the bus who stands in the doorway and yells the destination at people. Once in a while, he comes down the aisle and collects bus fare from people. These people have the most excellent memory for who has paid and who has not yet. I think I would be awful at that job, but every person I’ve seen has been so good at their job.
I also have to say, given the picture that I painted early of people all crammed in, that perhaps the pandemic has been good for creating space on the bus, especially for a Canadian who likes her personal space. Capacity limits are technically in place (I say technically because I really don’t know how seriously drivers take them. I’ve never seen anyone turned away!) and temperature checks are done at the door of the bus (again – I’ve never actually seen someone read the thermometer, but it technically gets pointed at everyone!), but ridership also just seems to be down. I don’t mind having the additional breathing space and being able to get a seat. It also makes it feel much safer – much less worry over pickpocketing or theft when you can see everyone and not have people packed in close to you for long periods of time.
Despite all my description here, I kind of think that you need to ride a chicken bus to really know what it’s like. I know that some of my friends and readers have done just that. From your experiences, what did I miss in my depiction here?
Additionally, I don’t have too many pictures of buses, and I don’t have any really excellent ones. I also don’t have enough to capture the wide variety of bus colour. If you’d like to get some better visuals, do a Google image search for Guatemala chicken bus and enjoy!