The Chicken Bus, Part 5: Crossing El Salvador

This Chicken  Bus had a sweet turnstile!

This Chicken Bus had a sweet turnstile!

Continued from part 4.

I hitched a ride from the beach at El Tunco, up the hill towards San Salvador. At some point along the way, my driver pulled over and told me where I could catch the bus to the capital. I hopped out of the bed of the truck, shook hands with the driver, and stood on the dirt shoulder as he sped away.

I was pretty happy with how easy it had been to catch that first ride, and I started the day full of optimism and confident that I’d easily make it past the Honduras border by nightfall. First I had to catch the bus to San Salvador, and then it was less than 150 miles to the border town of El Amatillo, where I could cross the Rio Goascoran into Honduras. Easy peasy, right?

I sat on the side of the road, watching the sun rise on the horizon, feeling the day getting hotter as the clock ticked towards noon. Each time I heard an engine rumble in the distance, I squinted expectantly at the horizon, hoping it was my bus. And each time, I was greeted instead with a plume of dusty wind as trucks and cars and motorbikes zipped past me. I had plenty of water, and my spirits were still high, but I knew that bus needed to come soon. Finally it did.

It was, of course, an old american school bus, sitting on heavy duty suspension with giant tires. The words, En Dios confiamos were painted across the side. In God we trust. I grabbed the railing and hoisted myself into the behemoth, backpack slung over my shoulder, squeezing through the doors that were originally made for children going to and from school.

I checked with the driver that the bus was headed to the capital. After a brief exchange, we decided that if I was heading towards Honduras, I needed to catch the bus to San Vicente, and that meant going to another bus station on the other side of the city – he said he’d let me know where to change. I always trust the bus divers in Central America – they know where they are going and they seem to genuinely want to help the lost gringo, especially if you can joke with them in Spanish a bit.

half an hour later, we were passing the central bus station in El Salvador, and driving once again through the nice part of San Salvador. There were fast food restaurants, parks, hotels, and big shopping centers. Soon we crossed into an older section of town. There was a market going on and the narrow streets were made even more narrow, with locals setting up stalls and laying down sheets to display their wares on the sidewalk. The people and things and chaos spilled off the sidewalk and onto the street, where the giant bus crawled slowly through the crowd, narrowly dodging street dogs and children and old ladies balancing baskets on their heads.

The driver signaled me to change buses, shouting, “Atras!” which means behind. I thought he meant that we’d just passed the bus stop I needed, but he explained that the bus I needed was actually directly behind us. At the next stop light, I hopped off the bus into the chaos of the street, shouting gracias over my shoulder. I walked 10 paces back and hopped on the bus behind us. A few minutes later I was dropped at the “bus stop” for San Vicente, which was actually a busy intersection with no buses to be seen.

An old man sensed my confusion and offered to lead me to where the buses were. “Ven aquí, Ven aquí,” he kept saying, “come with me,” as he grabbed my arm and started to drag me down the street. The El Salvadorian people were relentlessly helpful in this way. They were some of the kindest locals I’d met in all my time in Central America, even in a big city like San Salvador. Simple kindness and willingness to help strangers is a rare thing in the modern world, but in El Salvador, that spirit was alive and well. It was touching.

My elderly companion led me down the street and to a highway overpass. We climbed the stairs to the chain-link caged concrete overpass, which was flanked with beggars and vendors. There was a man with twisted, skinny legs, begging for money with a dirty, outstretched hand. There were men and women selling second hand clothing, hung from the chain-link fencing on makeshift metal hangers. My guide led me through the gauntlet and down the other side to an asphalt lot that was miraculously full of buses. The old man pointed to one, indicating that it was the bus I needed.

The lot was alive with activity, and I found a kid selling bags of bread rolls, filled with chicken and cheese. I bought a bag of three, some chips, and a coke and boarded the bus.

This bus was nice. Or at least it once had been nice. It was an old tour bus. The kind of thing you’d imagine old people ride when they go on those organized tours. But of course, this one was in relative disrepair. The fabric on most seats was torn and faded, and some seats were stuck in permanent recline. Still, it was a step up from the standard chicken bus, and i gratefully stowed my bags and settled into my seat.

The chicken breads were terrible and flavorless and I longed for a good El Salvadorian Pupusa. The food, none the less, got me through the ride, and I eventually found myself at a very busy bus stop. I asked for the bus to the border and I was directed to an empty parking spot that was crowded with people waiting around the edges.

It was like the scene from Fight Club where two men are fighting and everyone else is packed in and sweaty and jockeying for position, yelling and gesturing. Only there was no fight here, just the empty parking space of an eventual bus. But the level of intensity was just as high. Live chickens were being calmed under the arms of old ladies, families were huddled around boxes of goods, and everyone surged forward, trying to be at the front of the line without falling off the curb and into the parking space.

I’ve been to some crazy bus stations before, but this one was insane! It was incredibly hot out that day, and it didn’t help matters that I had to stand pressed against about 100 other sweaty people. I had to get on that bus. My pasport was still a ticking time bomb, and I knew that in order to make it to the Costa Rica border in time, I had hit Honduras today.

When the bus finally did pull up, a collective groan spread through the crowd. It wasn’t a chicken bus. It was a much smaller shuttle bus – like the kind that takes you from the airport to the car rental place where we were picked up by RCS of London. There was no rack on top for luggage, which meant we had to load ourselves and our things onto the bus and make everyone fit. This situation was just like the mistake that my list of 5 factors when hiring a truck  tells to avoid. There’s a sort of no-man-left-behind type of thinking when it comes to buses in Central America. And that doesn’t just apply to men, it also includes women, children, the elderly, live animals, giant sacks of rice and beans, and endless boxes.

This road is in Death Valley, but that's pretty much what this stretch of country in El Salvador looked like. Photo via Wikimedia, by Jon Rawlinson.

This road is in Death Valley, but that’s pretty much what this stretch of country in El Salvador looked like. Photo via Wikimedia, by Jon Rawlinson.

Miraculously, we made it all work. It’s astonishing just how many people and how much stuff you can fit into such a small space with a little bit of collective will. My backpack was wedged into an overhead rack, hanging halfway out of it’s too-small space, and tied to the bars to prevent it from escaping and landing on the head of an elderly sitter directly below it. I was stuck halfway into a seat for two that had 3 people and a child in it, and I was forced to stand with my legs spread apart to accommodate a box on the ground, while leaning backwards to accommodate a rather large woman with a rather large bag in front of me.

It was hot, incredibly uncomfortable, and I had no idea how long the ride was to get to the border. But we were all in it together, and that made it seem tolerable. As the bus churned and wheezed towards its destination, all we could do was laugh about how unbearably, suffocatingly crowded it was. That’s one lesson I learned from my time living and traveling in Central America: No matter how bad it gets, people stick together. Friendship circles and family units are strong in this part of the world. And yeah, even strangers on an overcrowded bus work together to make an uncomfortable ride a little more bearable.

We drove towards the border, dropping off passengers along the way until, about an hour in, the bus reached a more acceptable level of discomfort. By the end of the journey, I even got a seat! The last stop was in a small town, about 15 minutes from the border. The driver told me that if I waited until the crowd cleared, he’d drive me the rest of the way to the border. It was just me, the driver, and the money collector. I waited with them, but instead of going straight to the border, we ended up cruising around town in the bus and making a couple stops at businesses and houses and the money man would run inside for a minute. It was really weird, but I didn’t ask any questions. After that arduous, and exhausting journey, I was incredibly happy to have a seat to myself, and to stretch my legs out into the isle. The windows were open, and the breeze cooled my sweat-soaked body.

The Frontera, finally in sight!

The Frontera, finally in sight!

Eventually, we did make it to the frontera (the border). I went through the usual rigmarole of getting stamped and having the border agents look at me disapprovingly because of the overstay stamp in my passport.

It was just before sunset when I finally trudged across the bridge, spanning the Rio Goascoran, and entered Honduras. The day’s journey had only been about 150 miles, but it took over 10 hours and sapped all my energy. It had been one of the hardest days of travel I’ve ever had. But I couldn’t let the exhaustion get to me just yet — It would be dark soon, and I was in El Amatillo, and I knew I’d have to stay the night in what I would soon discover is the worst border town I’ve ever been to.

Continued at Part 6: A Night in El Amatillo.


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