San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Chicken Bus: Bumpy & Loud, But Never Dull

MASATEPE – As I climbed aboard, I immediately decided that this was my favorite “chicken bus” ever.

The entire interior was painted turquoise, and the seats were an absurd tone of bright red – like a prostitute’s lipstick. Completely risqué. They almost matched the curtains, which were an unnatural shade of scarlet.

Trying to locate a seat despite the visual overload, I found one behind a woman who I later discovered was on a four-day, crosscountry mission – which had included a 12-hour boat ride across the gargantuan Lake Cocibolca – to deliver a cooler full of cheese. Extraordinarily, the bus driver wasn’t blasting reggeaton music as I’ve come to expect on buses.

Instead, the music was turned down to allow the man who was looking uncomfortably at everybody from the front of the bus to speak to us. He was a local preacher, and this crammed, dusty busload of sweaty travelers was his rolling pulpit.

The bus pulled out of Masaya and headed for the Pueblos Blancos – a cluster of charming artisan towns south of Managua, tucked into a rolling hillside brushed by a cool breeze.

We drove past yard after yard filled with gleaming freshly stained wooden tables and chairs. The furniture was all lined up facing the highway and the ceaseless parade of chicken busses that lumber past.

Earlier, when the previous tenants of my rented Granada home told me they were coming over to take all their furniture back, I decided it was time to go furniture shopping. I asked around and learned it was easy to find quality furniture for good prices along the highways between the Pueblos Blancos – particularly in the area of Masatepe.

I have never liked furniture shopping, and figured that without a car it was going to be an even less enjoyable experience. But my house was empty, and sitting around on the floor is also not my idea of a good time.

The only option I could think of was to set out on a chicken bus and hope things worked out for the best. I figured I could always toss my furniture on top of the bus, like everyone else does with their bulky luggage.

The chicken buses are not exactly the kings of comfort when it comes to Central American travel – and you may find yourself sharing a two-child seat with several grown men – but at least it wouldn’t be a dull ride.

Indeed it wasn’t.

Every time we stopped, the bus priest had to shuffle back and forth to compete for solicitation space with various vendors who hopped on and sprinted up and down the aisles selling a variety of food products from baskets and plastic bags.

Vigoron! Vigoron!” One kid hollered, dangling greasy plastic bags of pork rinds and yucca in the face of each impervious bus-goer.

As the sermon came to its end, the cheese crusader told me we’d reached Masatepe. I stepped off the bus into a noticeably cooler climate than the sweltering one I’d left in Granada. It looked like a one-road town. But it was much more.

Lucky for me, there was a Saturday market. I grabbed a bag full of oranges and spent the late morning in the shade, decompressing from the bus ride before hunting for furniture.

Roaming around town in search of the perfect rocking chair, I passed two boys leading an ox-driven trailer loaded with wood.

As I passed each of the colonial-style homes, I realized where all the wood was headed: Inside many of the homes are small workshops where the local carpenters toil away on new furniture.

I came to a store with two rocking chairs that I fancied. I began to bargain, since the chairs rocked a bit crooked, but the bus to Granada was already lumbering down the street toward me, so I had to negotiate quickly. We scrambled to agree on a price – $40 for the two – and I made a frantic money exchange as the bus pulled up, with the bus-fare collector waving and yelling for us to hurry.

We threw the rocking chairs on top of the bus without the driver even stopping. It’s amazing how the bus can be so slow, yet so rushed at the same time.

When I arrived back in Granada, I tried carrying the two chairs – a very awkward challenge – back to my house, but it was too much to try to coordinate in the afternoon heat.

Luckily, a kind man offered to help and I tipped him with the change I had in my pocket.

I have a friend who says nothing’s worth doing unless it’s a pain in the ass. I suppose it’s his way of saying he likes a challenge.

I placed the rocking chairs in front of my garden. Still sweating, I sat, crossed my legs and leaned back, thinking: if you’re going to get a pain in the ass – which I can attest to after a bumpy, hour-long bus ride – you might as well have a place to rest it when the day is over.


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