We were never really that fond of each other. But we’ve been doing so much together lately. We’ve been to all sorts of places. Last year we had an adventure across Morocco. We’ve been from New York to Canada. Now in Central America we’ve been up mountains, through jungles and down to the coast in Panama, then in Costa Rica. Part of the adventure is the journey. That’s why I’ve now come to love busses. They add adventure. You never quite know what to expect or where you’re going to end up. Like this last trip.
I was taking the bus from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, stopping at the capital San Jose for a couple days. It was a modern comfortable bus. Unfortunately I wasn’t expecting a long line up at the ticket office. I got a ticket but it was stamped “EN PIE” (standing only). It was a four to five hour journey. Must have been some no shows but avoiding eye contact with the driver who regularly went up and down the bus randomly checking everyone else’s ticket, I managed to snag a seat for the whole trip.
San Jose was one of those tick off places. Though the walking tour guide clearly felt we should stay longer. Next stop, another four hour bus ride to Montiverde. It’s a small mountain village in the north central region of Costa Rica. It’s renowned for its famous Cloud Forest with walking trails through the jungle and of course in the clouds. Plus heaps of wildlife species. So they say. Must have been their day off as I didn’t see any. The jungle walk was great. But back in the village it was blowing a gale. I don’t like wind. So I was happy to move on after just one night.
The destination in this journey was the Pacific coast in the next country up in Nicaragua. And that’s where this bus journey brought home the efficiency of this otherwise outwardly appearing chaotic system.
From the best available information, the first requirement was to take the 6am bus from the mountain village down to the coast. But don’t go all the way. When the bus crosses the main trans American highway get off. It’s about a ninety minute ride on an unsealed bumpy road down the mountain. So along with other like minded travellers, that’s what you do. When the bus stops you get off. You then find yourself on the side of the main highway in the middle of no where, thinking, now what? The next stage however is to look for a bus that’s heading your direction, north or south. Amazingly, twenty minutes later a fancy large Nica bus pulls up. This bus now provides near plush comfort as it heads north. Several hours later, we are at the border. Waiting around at the border, the locals offer some clues how to get to our beachside destination. A half hour further north, now in Nicaragua, the bus pulls over. Once again we’re on the side of the road thinking, now what. As the bus takes off, it reveals on the other side of the road, a Chook Bus.
A chook bus is actually known in Latin America as a Chicken Bus. (Chook is the Aussie Strine translation for chicken). A chook bus refers to the fact these buses are often crammed with passengers not unlike a truck load of chooks. And that I can vouch for. As the bus fills, it’s game on. The aim of the game is then to see how many human chooks can be crammed in through the back door of the bus.
The chook bus is typically an old retired yellow school bus from North America. You get a sense there’s a real lot of pride operating these classic machines. That is if the number of times the driver blasts the air horn at every slight opportunity is any indication. Back in Panama City, running a chook bus is taken to a new level. It’s there where you find these old relics looking more like a graffiti machine on wheels, kitted out with a mandatory set of massive dual chromie exhaust stacks jutting up the back.
A chook bus generally works with a team of at least two people. There’s the driver. You can see his passion for the job by his personalised cabin space. With tassles and little decorations around the dash panel and a look on the driver that has a glow of pride and status about him and his chook bus. Then there’s the side kick guy. He’s clearly subordinate to the driver. He glances at the driver with a look of awe and respect. The side kick controls the door. He will then jump out the door, even before the bus comes to a halt, yelling out to announce their destination. This is not done with the almost near death like slow movement you find in your typical bus employee back home. No. This is more like the hyperactive passion of someone on speed. Some one who loves their job.
So back on the highway. There we were stranded on the side of the highway for the second time. With the bus just back on the highway, our sinking feeling of now what, is suddenly interrupted. This is where the magic happens.
There’s loud yelling from the old yellow chook bus across the road. We realise they are yelling at us. And gesturing at us to get on board. What the? “How do they know where we want to go?” I ask my final leg fellow travellers.
I can confirm the reason for the name, chook bus. The bus was chocker block full. Not just seats but every available standing room space. But chook bus people clearly like a challenge. Like those Guiness book of record challenges as to how many people you can cram into a vehicle. We were about to enter one of these records. The bus obviously had a time schedule to meet. Our backpacks were literally thrown onto the roof. There were already bodies crammed up against the back door. But the chook bus people could obviously see available air pockets we could not.
It’s all about the journey. Bums in faces, armpits and all, we were on our way for the final leg.
Welcome to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.