The chicken bus I caught at the border was in pretty bad shape. No fancy paint jobs or thumping sound systems like the Chicken Buses in Guatemala. It had its original yellow paint, now dull and flaked, and all the seats were torn wide open with rusty exposed metal.
I bought a piece of fried chicken and tortillas from a lady at the bus stop. She added some shredded cabbage and tied it all up in a plastic bag for $1.50. It felt weird having US Dollars in my pocket again after so long – but that was the official currency of El Salvador.
As the bus bounded down the road, bouncing off potholes, I opened the bag containing my meal and ripped pieces of chicken from the bone with my fingers, using the tortilla as a plate, then wrapped it all up and shoveled it into my mouth. My hands were filthy. I felt like a local.
An hour later, the bus stopped outside of Santa Ana and the driver told me I could catch a bus from here to San Salvador, the capital. I hopped off the bus and watched it drive off. It chugged down the highway, fading into the hazy horizon. I was in the middle of nowhere, literally just on the side of a 2 lane highway, but there was a gas station about 100 yards down the road. I walked over and asked the attendant about the bus to the capital and he pointed about a half mile further down the road where I could see a building on the left side of the highway. There I found a bus waiting, just about to leave. Perfect timing.
An hour and a half later, I was in the Capital City of San Salvador. I couldn’t believe how nice it was. It seemed so clean and organized compared to some of the other Central American capitals I’d been to. At least this part of the city was nice. There were well-paved roads and freeway overpasses with ivy growing on the concrete walls and there were parks and big green lawns in the medians with old, well cared for trees offering shade.
The bus station was not as nice, but bus stations never are. It was loud and large and full of the stink of diesel engines. I shouldered my bag and looked around for some sign or indication of where I could get a bus to the beach. I knew I was only about an hour away, but it was getting late and I didn’t want to be traveling at night. The place was pure chaos, rows and rows of buses and crowds of people and bus barkers, barking their destinations.
Seeing the confusion on my face, one man asked me where i was going.
“Para la Playa,” I said, “El Tunco.”
He told me that I needed to leave the bus station, walk around the corner, and wait on the side of the road for bus number 102. A bit skeptical, I followed his directions and in a few minutes I was flagging down bus 102. This wasn’t your standard Chicken Bus. It was a city bus, much like ones you’d see in LA or New York, but older, and run down. The bus was geared extremely low, and the driver had to shift through 4 gears just to get up enough speed for the city streets. Every start was excruciatingly slow.
When I got on the bus, it was empty, but was we drove through the city, we collected more and more passengers. We stopped many times to let hawkers get on the bus. They all had something to sell, candy, lottery tickets, little bags of peanuts, fresh mangos, bags of water, etc. And they all chanted their wares like strange little songs. The water man singing, “Aguaaguaaguaaguaaaa!” so quickly and slurred together that you almost couldn’t understand the words. The candy man chanting, “Hay caramelo, mentha chicleeeeeets. Hay caramelo, mentha chicleeeeeets.” And women with big baskets of pastries balanced on their heads. All marching slowly down the center aisle of the bus, pushing past standing patrons.
I also witnessed a new type of sales pitch that I think might be unique to El Salvador. A women got on with a box of candy bars, marked with a name like “Tiger Power” or something to that effect. She walked down the isle handing out candy bars to anyone who would take one from her. I declined, sensing there was a catch. She then walked back to the front of the bus, got everyone’s attention, and launched into a very long speech about the health benefits of these Tiger Power chocolate bars, which were loaded with vitamins (and surely snake oil). She then announced that today only you could get a bar at the special promotional price of $1. And she went around collecting money from those who bought her spiel or collecting chocolate bars from people who didn’t want to pay.
She was a pitch-woman for the ages. And I’ve seen similar sales tactics since then in other parts of El Salvador, but I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it elsewhere.
Once outside of the city the road turned into a slow winding decent towards the coast. The breaks squealed and stank the whole way, but the beautiful sunset lit up the sky with soft oranges and pinks. I could smell the salt on the air. I could sense that I was getting close to the ocean.
It was dark by the time I got to my stop. I had been the only gringo on the bus the entire way, and a very kind man had asked my destination and then called for the driver to stop for me when it was time. He pointed into the darkness and said El Tunco was that way. The bus left me standing there, in the dark, and again, what felt like the middle of nowhere. I walked down a dirt path in the night towards nothingness, with all my worldly possessions strapped to my back, hoping to find a shop or restaurant or bar that was open where I could evaluate the extent of my lostness. Out of the darkness emerged a figure walking towards me. I was a bit nervous at first, but when I got closer I could see that it was an older woman.
She confirmed that I was indeed in El Tunco and that the hostel I was looking for was just 2 blocks down the road, and that i didn’t have to be worried – it was small town, and totally secure. I thanked her for the information and soon found my hostel.
The girls I’d come to meet, Nora and Raquel saw me walk in the gate and they immediately jumped up to give me a hug.
“You made it!” said Nora, smiling, “I didn’t think you were coming!”
‘Yeah, it was a long journey..” I said, exhausted.
“Well, would it help you to relax if we poured you a rum and coke?” Raquel asked.
I sighed heavily, dropped my bag on the ground, looked back up at the girls and smiled. “Hell yeah!”
It was exactly what I needed. We all laughed and and hugged again, before we made our way over to the pool, where a small group was sitting with a bottle of rum and a 2 liter of coke. It felt really good to finally be somewhere, in the company of friends and rum.
The next day was spent at the beach with the girls, and then drinking Pilsen beers and listening to a local reggae band. The next morning I was up early to catch a bus out of town. That 5 day visa was burning a hole in my passport and I had to get moving. Nora walked me to the bus stop on the main road.
“Do you know what time the bus comes?” She asked.
I thought for a second.
“No,” I said, “maybe I should try hitchhiking.”
I stuck my thumb out as the first car approached. It was a red pickup truck with a lumber rack on the back. It pulled over immediately.
“Well, that was easy!” I said. I gave Nora a kiss on the cheek, hurled my bags and then myself into the back of the pickup and slapped my hand down on the roof twice to signal that I was ready to go. Clutching the lumber rack with one hand, I watched Nora fade away as we accelerated up the hill.