The Chicken Bus to Granada, Nicaragua

by Hannah Hughes

A traveler boards a bus to Granada in Nicaragua but is soon deposited in the middle of nowhere, unsure what to do next.

Men swarmed me like I was a piece of bread being thrown into a lake of starving ducks.

“Chica! Where you going?”

“Granada,” I yelled into the crowd, stretching my arms in front of me in an attempt to regain personal space.

The heat amplified as I tried to shove my way through the Nicaraguan people, unsure which way I should be heading. The bus station was packed with street sellers and market stalls and Spanish signs that I couldn’t understand. Motorbikes revved and babies screamed and local music blared from somewhere behind me. The smell of petrol fumes were so overwhelming I was surprised the air wasn’t black.

“Sí, venga!” a young man with a mole on his chin shouted above the racket. Desperate to escape the commotion, I followed him. The man helped me onto the chicken bus, tossing the backpack containing all of my worldly possessions onto the overhead rail. I collapsed into the ripped seat, hair frizzed from the chaos and too exhausted to swat away the fly that had made base camp on my leg.

The poles holding up the overhead rail were decorated in colorful tape, zigzagging from orange to pink to blue. Local sellers strode up and down the aisle as frequently as models on a catwalk, singing garbled Spanish as they went. They sold dried plantain, toffees, marshmallows, plastic bags of brightly colored juice, and one woman even sold fried chicken with rice and sauce sachets. I bought green mango slices from a teenage boy wearing aviator sunglasses, regretting declining his scoop of sugar as I bit into the sourness.

“Granada, Granada!” A man with spiraling hair aggressively screamed whilst banging on my window like he wanted to smash the glass. He motioned for me to follow him. Too overwhelmed to make a decision, I looked around in panic, mouth full of mango, and waited for someone to tell me what to do. People stared back, each expression as blank as the next. A breastfeeding woman in front of me turned and mimicked a chatter mouth with her hand, rolling her eyes simultaneously. A hard tap on my head came from a little boy behind me signaling to draw my curtain over. I hid from the crazy-eyed man.

With no seats left, people squashed in the aisle so tightly that they turned into one collective object, and oxygen became scarce. A chubby man with a thick moustache towered over me — his red bum bag inches from my face — holding a supermarket bag filled with packaged sausages that looked like they contained more plastic than pig. When I glanced up at him, he was already looking down at me; he smiled as we made eye contact and whispered, “Hola.” I shuffled as far away from him as possible.

Then, the chicken bus jolted into action. It sped down the lanes at ultra velocity, zigzagging as it went, apparently not wanting to mow anything down in the process, but also not too concerned if it did. Monster lorries whizzed passed the open window in a blur of color and flying hay. Long beeps of the horn made me thankful I couldn’t see where we were going as I was pretty sure the driver was manically dodging stray dogs, cows, bikes, and children like he was playing Mario Kart and humans’ lives weren’t on the line.

A ten second-long beep made me brace myself for collision, certain I was about to smash head-first into something; everyone else remained calm and composed; barely an eyelid was batted. A horn honk has a variety of meanings in Central America. It can mean hey, here I am; or hey, move out of my way; or my taxi is empty, you can have a ride; or my taxi is full, you can’t have a ride; or do you want to buy whatever I’m selling; or everyone else is beeping, so I will too; or ooh, you’re kind of cute, hi pretty lady; or ooh, you’re not so cute, but hi anyway. There are certain niches that I was not yet accustomed to.

Passengers came and went, came and went. The little boy behind me was replaced by a man who kept coughing so violently down my neck I could feel the moisture. Bum bag man disappeared and on came a young woman who kept resting her backpack on my head. She held a baby on her hip, and I tickled his bare foot, laughed when he smiled, then next thing I knew he was on my lap, pulling my hair and drooling on my freshly washed shorts. A teenage boy in the aisle was managing to balance a huge bowl containing bags of nuts and popcorn on his head. Both his hands held the rail, yet the bowl stayed perfectly balanced as the bus swayed as fluidly as a toy slinky. The bowl’s contents looked like popcorn, but I suddenly received the strongest scent of dried cat food, and I reconsidered.

“Chica,” said a random man with apparent authority. “Venga. Off.” He swiftly gestured at me as I stared back in muted confusion. He grabbed my human-sized backpack from the overhead rail and threw it out of the moving vehicle with about as much care as a toddler petting a cat. “Off,” he repeated, talking slower like I had a brain deficiency.

“I’m going to Granada,” I protested, hysterically showing him that my GPS pinpointed my location to Masaya. I tried to make pleading eye contact with strangers who may sympathize with a foreign girl being abandoned against her will, but only an elderly lady sat across from me seemed to pay any interest. She was holding a bouquet of lilac flowers wrapped in newspaper and smiled sweetly at me as she pointed to the door: “Adiós.”

“You off here,” the random man continued, pointing to the empty dust outside while pushing aside standing passengers to make a clearing for me. My eyes darted, searching for help, a sign, something sturdy to grab onto in case he decided to physically escort me. A younger man standing at the back door nodded in agreement and urged, “Sí, vamos.” Feeling overwhelmed and unwanted, I stood to exit the bus after my backpack and tried to accept that I was being deserted on a dual carriageway in a country with whose civilians I could barely communicate with.

I stumbled off the bus that had no plans to become stationary for exiting passengers and turned back in bewilderment. “But I am going to Granada!”

“Sí, sí,” the man insisted and pointed to the spot where I stood. I looked down at the littered carton of chicken at my feet that apparently represented my historic, colonial destination. “Dónde está Granada…” I tried again, aware that the bus was already speeding away mid-question and while I still had one hundred more.

I stood for a moment trying to process the situation. The area was empty except for a man on a bicycle pulling a trailer of green plantain. Across the road, there were a few metal shacks with chickens clucking in the front yard and a pig on a rope lead. A white dog with a protruding rib cage sniffed around a pile of rubbish bags left on the grass. I could still smell the petrol fumes left behind from the chicken bus.

The sound of tires racing on gravel drew my attention to a side road I hadn’t noticed. A yellow bus came skidding along and entered the dual carriageway.

“Granada, Granada,” a skinny man wearing a baseball cap shouted from the open bus door.

“Sí!” I screamed in relief, wincing at the weight of my boulder backpack as I swung it onto my sweaty back. The bus didn’t stop and the man desperately gestured for me to hurry, unaware of how saint-like his existence was to me at that moment. I made it to the entrance — the weight of my backpack forcing me to run like a slow motion Lego man — and a friendly passenger stood up to pull me inside as I swayed backwards on the steps.

“Gracias,” I thanked as I fell onto the sticky seat as heavily as a bag of bricks entering water. The man with the baseball cap collected fifteen Cordobas from me. “Granada diez minutos,” he said, his crows feet lines deepening as he smiled.

I laid my head back on the top of the seat, still in a daze. A sun-faded sign reading Bienvenidos a Granada! appeared ahead. I relaxed. I didn’t know how the Nicaraguan people had created a functional system in between all that mania, but it worked.

Cover photo credit

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