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Central America’s ‘Chicken Busses’

Last week I went on a jolly up to Lancashire. Despite being wonderful part of England, even the Red Rose County has its thorn – it’s a wretched 6 hour drive from my Devon home. So if, like me, you have the driving aptitude of a Norwegian salmon and the reactions of a 3 toed sloth, you do what I do, you go by bus. Being stuck in one seat for several hours with little more to do than vie for central armrest supremacy might sound like purgatory to some, but it does provide endless opportunity to read, to scratch, and, best of all, to daydream. Before we pulled in to Bolton bus station I was thinking back to my recent trip through Central America and, in particular, the Latino equivalent of our Luxury Coach Network ­ the ever faithful Chicken Bus.

For the benefit of those yet to travel by Chicken bus, allow me to set the scene. These machines start their life as a US school bus and, after the 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 – that 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 facelift. 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. Although still possible to negotiate this central walkway, now the width of Sellotape, it does pose the odd problem for ungainly westerners wielding 20 Kilos of badly packed rucksack.

Having boarded the bus, swift passage must be made to secure an empty seat, as they don’t stay empty for long. Unfortunately, quick manoeuvres plus small spaces equals skinned knees. You may not know this, but customised Chicken Bus seats remove more kneecaps in a single day than the IRA do in a full year. Bulkhead and ceiling spaces at the front of the bus don’t stay empty for long either. Empty space means room for stickers, and Chicken Bus Jockeys simply love these things. In general, stickers consist of religious messages interspersed with Real Madrid and Barcelona FC Logos. God is the Light, Beckham is God, Jesus Loves Me, and I Love Him, too.

As for the rest of the décor, 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 it’s 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, Señor Hardy.

A Chicken Bus journey will almost guarantee entertainment in some form or another, and anxiety and exhilaration in equal measure. Forget Alton Towers and Disneyland for cheap thrills, these machines offer greater kicks for even less. And, after surviving a five hour trip hosting numerous up close and personals with oncoming traffic, you’ll believe that Jesus must really love you too.

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