A letter of admiration to all bus drivers in Latin America

Suchitoto, 28th January 2019

Dear Sirs, (have not seen a single female bus driver here yet!)

I wanted to write to you all to thank you, to express my admiration and to also spread the good word about you by making this letter public on my blog.

After six months’ travelling across both South and Central America, I cannot express how much I think you guys rock. Amazing journeys across Bolivia’s mountain range, North Argentinian vast mountains with steep edges, Peruvian deserts, dry mountains in Chile, the hills and jungles of Colombia, more recently the volcanoes of El Salvador, little cities and villages in each country.

You drive these huge vehicles, you stop and pick up people whenever and wherever they are on your route. You always have a warm friendliness about you as I get on your buses with my luggage. You always have time to answer my questions as I am always unsure if it’s the right bus headed in the right direction. You have never scammed me, always charging me the rate that my foreign counterparts get charged. On average its been about 20p to a pound for each journey. Some of these journeys have been 10hours long, others for much shorter durations.

Some of these vehicles are regular buses. Others are bigger with turnstiles at the entrance. Some are collectivos which are like little vans for about 10-20 people. And some are very colourful Camionetas – chicken buses.

My research tells me the following – Chicken buses are called that because they traditionally are used by local working class people to take their produce from one place to another, at very cheap fares. They are old American school buses that have been sold off for a couple thousand US Dollars after reaching 10years of service. They are then sprayed by bus route owners in multiple colours, and their engines are reworked amazingly to seven speed manual transmissions, air brakes and diesel engines too. The interior is stripped, refurbished and set out to attract big numbers. Bigger seats are installed to fit three adults, roof racks are also added on, and luggage holders inside.

Passengers hop on and off in their numbers. You guys sometimes know a passenger, sometimes not. You often stop on a journey to get given a parcel or a bag of something, I see you  listen to the person on the street and nod in agreement to drop it off later on in the journey wherever instructed. Its like Royal Mail and London Transport have merged – as if!

You guys have no concept of “maximum” number of passengers, they come on the bus in vast numbers, squeeze and crowd up and you have never looked worried – there have been times where my face is squeezed and pressed pretty close to the window!

There is no uniform, many of you wear old trousers or jeans with a short sleeved top. Almost all of you grease your hair thick, combing them for ages to ensure a good appearance. You sit on a driver’s chair that is often made up of 100s of plastic lines from one edge to another. I think someone must have discovered how comfortable these particular chairs are for driving?

The front area of a chicken bus is often covered with stickers from America, often Disney characters but also soccer or music. On every bus front window or door there is also almost always a huge picture of Jesus or some other similar bible pictures with a religious quotation of some sort.

The chicken buses often have lots of colourful illuminations that flash in rhythm with the music that plays. And by music I mean really mega loud blaring reggae music that you guys play for the whole journey. A lot of the time I can see tourists put fingers in their ears wanting to control the volume. Why is it so important to play music so loud?! Possible campaign work for hearing loss charities here 🙂

A great range of vendors come on the bus and sell a range of things; bags of prawn, bags of nuts with lime juice and chilli sauce, plates of rice with chicken, bottles of water and soft drinks, whole big “chandeliers” of sweets and nuts, bags of crisps, plates of chips with ketchup and cheese, remote controls(!). Others stand up and talk incredibly loudly about a product, be it a pen or a needle for example, they rant about the product for ages and then often manage to sell a few. There are also others who drop a product on every person’s lap where possible, then rant and then come and either collect them back or the money for the product. I admire how some of the vendors have cleverly assembled their products on to a long hook which then hangs on the bus’ handle bars.

There are also rappers, I have seen them a few times, they stand right next to you and take it in turns to rap for ages as if it’s a dialogue. Its all in Spanish and I have seen the tips given! Its quite a hoot, and yet I haven’t clue what’s been said! Not exactly like these girls, but hey its a blog and I wanted to share a personal fave!

All of these vendors on the bus don’t raise your eyebrows at all. You just nod in acknowledgement to them as they hop on and often give you a freebie. You don’t look concerned about them at all. All you are focused on is getting from A to B with as many passengers as possible in the shortest amount of time = money!

As for your ayudantes…. they are men too, and they walk from one end to the other, collecting cash from people with a vivid memory as to who has just hopped on. They are always clutching a wad of bank notes, and some of them a bag where specific coins go into particular pockets. At every stop they jump out and shout, really loudly, where the bus is going. They then jump back on usually whilst the bus is moving. Its amazing that I haven’t seen anyone fall off to date!

It amazes me how often the bus stops for passengers. It frustrates me when its like only 15yards from one stop before the next passenger wants to get off or on – just 15yards? Surely they can walk to the previous/next place! But there is no official bus stop in most places, just knowledge of areas where a bus usually drives by.

There have been journeys where I wish you would just drive pass someone who is on the road wanting to get on. Just so many stops, you can imagine the tension on my back pain as the bus halts again and again. I do remember thinking earlier on how wonderful it is that the buses here do not follow any timed schedules, and that people can get on and off when they request to. Research tells me that the reason there are no fixed bus stops is to avoid gang violence robbing buses – gosh!

Filling up the bus with petrol is almost always done on the road via someone with a huge can of petrol rather than a garage, presumably to save money.

I often wonder if you guys own the bus or share with a group? I was not sure how it works, nothing like London transport I know! Later research tells me the Government sells bus routes to highest bidders, and private companies who get the bid then subcontract drivers and their ayudantes. These two guys have to pay the company a daily flat fee for the route and they try and drive the same route as many times a day as possible to make a profit. This is additionally why there is no maximum number of passengers despite safety concerns.

I recognise some of you spend hours driving. One morning I got dropped off at 9am by a volcano, after a slow 1.5-hour journey. When I returned at about 4pm, it was the same driver, which according to my calculations mean you will have probably done the route four times today (with a break for lunch).

If any of my friends ask me whether they should ride public buses in Latin America, my response will be a big resounding YES! Its an adventure, you get to see much more of real life and also its cheap. Of course there are risks but even aeroplanes have crashed or disappeared despite all security measures.

I think you stand in total contrast with British bus drivers, often constrained with so much health and safety rubbish as well as not motivated with their work! See below, that’s how it used to be in Britain 🙂

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Thank you all again! You guys rock!

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