It would be nice if I had a picture of a chicken bus, wouldn’t it? Yeah, about that… All I can tell you is that no chickens were harmed in the making of the chicken buses.
I actually have no idea why they’re called chicken buses; although they are indeed buses, they do not resemble nor contain chickens in any apparent form or fashion. Maybe the passengers are the chickens.
Let me tell you about the difference between buses in different countries. In Panama, they have smallish van things that, while packed to capacity, tend to be air-conditioned. In Costa Rica, long-distance buses resemble charter buses or public buses in the U.S., although they are rarely air-conditioned. This is what I rode in to Peñas Blancas, the border town between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
–If I can make a note here, the border crossing is ridiculously complicated and confusing. You have to have your passport checked and pay border taxes at at least four locations, and there’s no obvious signage or path. Beware of anyone who walks you through it, because at the end, they’ll ask for some exorbitant tip. Also, don’t let anyone sell you the customs papers–you can get those for free. On the bright side, the exchange rate is generally reasonable from the changers who have visible authorization badges. Just be aware of the official exchange rate, and it will be obvious when posers are trying to cheat you.
Lessons learned in Day 1 of the Nicaraguan adventures.
In Costa Rica, I had learned to generally trust taxi drivers. I could ask for directions or if it was possible to walk to my destination in San Jose, and they would usually tell me how far it was so I could decide if I wanted to take a taxi or not. There’s also an official María, or taxi meter, that ensures a standardized and reasonable rate.
I learned quickly that Nicaraguan taxistas have no such qualms. They will charge you whatever they think you’re stupid enough to accept and insist you need a taxi to a destination that’s a block away.
They got me at the border, because I didn’t realize the old school bus that was about to leave was, in fact, a chicken bus. It wasn’t until two or three days later that I identified my first chicken bus, with the help of some other travelers. It was a retired school bus painted crazy colors and honking wildly as it ambled down the road. Unfortunately I got swindled by a taxi driver on the border and didn’t get to experience this awesomeness until later.
At one point, I and a couple of other foreigners I found myself temporarily traveling with were exchanging stories of how taxi drivers tried to convince us we couldn’t take the much cheaper chicken buses.
“One told me buses don’t run on Sundays.”
“Yeah, I know! Or afternoons, apparently.”
“They told me the bus wouldn’t leave for three more hours, but when I made them take me to the station anyway, it turned out one was about to leave.”
“Do these buses even have a set schedule, or do they just go when they’re full?”
“A taxi driver once tried to tell me the chicken bus was full. That’s ridiculous. A chicken bus is never full.”
We all laughed at that because it’s so true. I coincidentally ended up traveling with an Australian guy from Isla de Ometepe to San Juan del Sur, a multi-bus route. One of the buses we got on was already jammed with people, sitting and standing. We thought it was a miracle they fit us in the bus, but little did we know, the miracles had yet to end. They crammed so many people on after us that we ended up standing halfway down the bus. At one point, my friend made a joke that they were going to start putting small children in the overhead racks. A few minutes later, they started clearing a space, and we looked at each other in shock, convinced that they were about to throw a nearby little boy up there. (They didn’t).
It was an interesting ride, balancing in a moving bus up close and personal with a bunch of strangers, but seeing as it cost one or two dollars as opposed to 35, I wasn’t complaining.
In San Juan del Sur, a purely tourist town, the taxi drivers stepped up their game. As I would stroll through the town, day or night, I would turn a corner and hear, “¿Taxi, linda? ¿A dónde vas?” As a friend said, you could be getting out of the water at the beach, dripping wet in your swim trunks, and have a taxi driver run up to you. Or you would open the fridge and a man would jump out, “¿Taxi?” “Nah man, I just wanted a beer, thanks though!” This may be an exaggeration, but just barely.
One of my more sobering moments came on the bus ride to Granada. By this time, I was savvy enough to not be fooled by the Nicaraguan cheat-the-tourist shenanigans–or so I thought.
In the hectic crowd-shuffling confusion of getting on the bus at the station, a man came up and put his hand on my backpack, asking in rapid-fire Spanish if I was going to Granada. I nodded my assent, and he jerked the pack off my back. A local bystander commented that he almost took my arm with it and laughed. I flashed him a polite smile and jostled my way onto the bus. It wasn’t until about an hour into the ride that I realized I hadn’t watched the man put the backpack on top of the bus, and he could have just as easily continued shouldering his way through the crowd, no one saying a word to me, because the “rich” gringa can always buy another pack, ¿verdad?
I spent the rest of the trip letting go of my emotional ties to things. Luckily, I was already in the habit of keeping my necessaries with me in a smaller bag, so I wouldn’t be trapped in Nicaragua waiting on the slow process of getting a new passport like one of the other girls I had met. Really the most valuable thing in my backpack was the backpack itself. I just hoped my favorite pair of jeans would fit some other girl who needed them just as well as they fit me, and that my mom and sister wouldn’t be too bummed when I didn’t come back with the t-shirts I had bought them.
Incredibly, when I arrived in Granada, my backpack did turn up on top of the bus, and I was ecstatic because it meant I didn’t have to head straight back to Costa Rica so I would have toothpaste and stuff. The experience did show me, though, that I’m not as dependent on or attached to my stuff as I thought. It’s only stuff, after all.