Ode to the Guatemalan Bus

They’re colorful, noisy, smelly. Their clouds of smoke leave interesting tastes in your mouth. May you never be touched by one that’s moving, but climb on and you’ll feel them from your bottom up. They may well be the most photographed of all Guatemala’s wonders.

Guatemala chicken bus

photo by Julio Hurtado Lobos

More pictures of our chicken buses must be taken each year than of sparkling blue Lake Atitlán, towering temples of Tikal or street kids playing around fountains in La Antigua Guatemala.

Those school-bus-yellow Blue Birds coming in convoy down through Mexico from School District # Whatever or Unified Schools of Someplace, El Norte, become transformed into artistic metal sculptures once they reach Guatemalan workshops along the Pan-American Highway.

Twenty used buses at a time are parked at these conversion shops, with welders adding roof racks and rear ladders, heavier springs and shocks, and maybe a few extra seats when possible.

Then comes the artistry: painting dull yellow-with-black sides with more imaginative colors and designs. The old lettering isn’t sanded off, just painted over.

Part of the traveler’s challenge is to try to read what text is underneath the bright new paint: “RURAL SCHOOL DISTRICT OF …” or “… TOWNSHIP SCHOOLS” peeping through the rich colors. In back, “EMERGENCY EXIT” usually remains over the door, with “… BUS” often there, “SCHOOL” gone but “BUS” clear in case someone isn’t sure what they are.

Guatemala chicken bus

photo by Omar de Leon

The rest of the bus gets marvelously artistic treatment, with sweeping feathers, floral garlands and stirring mottos added in multi-primary colors. Some artists add chrome touches and blinking lights around license plates, on hood ornaments or around mirrors.

The bus route, from-to and return-to, is neatly printed across the top, with the bus company’s name, maybe a few words of blessings, and perhaps a fond name for the particular vehicle, added on the sides to complete the decorations.

Used school buses are plenty sturdy, with strong frames and heavy axles. The diesel engines were plenty sturdy too, a hundred-or-two thousand miles ago. Drive shaft and exhaust system? Not quite so sturdy. Thus your other three senses are assaulted.

After seeing the colors and feeling the bounce, smell the thick black exhaust, taste the rich diesel fumes and hear the music of worn pipes and grinding gears. Might as well breathe it all in, and pretend the smoke is full of minerals.

REVUE article “Sensuous Guatemala” by Ken Veronda

Guatemalan bus

To learn more about the conversion of U.S. school buses once they arrive in Guatemala, read The Birth of a Camioneta (public bus).

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