The chicken bus

April 15, 2019 GMT

My friend, Dora, lives in London. She has no need for a car, and many people in Europe and other countries move about handily without them. I wish that were true in Idaho. We live busy lives in the U.S., and outside of big cities it is difficult to travel without a car due to our lack of reliable public transportation.

Cars, new and old, suck money out of our wallets at a brisk clip, and many Americans are hard-pressed to afford the expense. There are numerous reasons why expanding public transportation would be beneficial. Reducing traffic congestion and pollution are obvious ones, but according to the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, it has also been shown that investing monies into increased public transportation creates a net gain in quality jobs over more highway construction.

The Smart Cities newsletter reports even more subtle benefits as public transit commuters walk more which is beneficial to their health (I lose weight when I visit countries with good public transportation).

The Newsletter noted that millennials prefer the freedom and mobility of public transit. There are fewer accidents too when people utilize public transportation. Public commuters are also more productive as they have time to work while they are transported, or in my case you can catch up on needed sleep.

The benefit that really caught my eye in the article is that “...social connections are increased when driving is decreased.” Dora and I can attest to that as we are adventuring together in Guatemala via public transport and, as she would say, “It’s bloody fantastic.” After one ride on a Guatemalan chicken bus we are definitely missing out in the U.S.

We had traveled by bus from San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque near the border of Guatemala. Fresh fruit and delicious treats were offered for sale at virtually every stop along the way. After visiting the spectacular ruins, we rented rustic cabins deep in the Lacondan Maya rain forest. Despite need, neither of us ventured to the loo in the middle of the night; Dora feared the jaguars — me the mosquitoes.

The next morning we crossed the Usumacinta River into Guatemala at Corazol (open-mouthed crocodiles had lounged on the banks the day before). For 100 Mexican pesos (five dollars), a man ferried us across in a small boat.

It was sad seeing the Honduran refugees amassing at the border as a fully loaded boat passed by headed to the Mexican border. Idaho State Journal Columnist Jim Jones is right — we need focused assistance to help alleviate the tremendous problems in their country and other parts of Central America rather than building walls.

After having safely crossed the river, transportation had to be secured to the immigration office a half hour away and then on to Flores 5 hours distant. For 50 Quetzales (about six dollars) we boarded a large bus 100 feet from the river — me, Dora from Hungary, a Canadian citizen from India, a Guatemalan woman, our driver and his assistant.

The bus was starting its route and was essentially empty, but they strapped our backpacks to the top and assured us they would stop somewhere down the road to have our passports stamped.

We began jouncing along on a rough dirt road while the bus driver periodically beeped on his horn to call customers out of the jungle. He even meandered around one eight block town honking at every corner. The driver’s assistant immediately began flirting with the solitary woman while Dora and I conversed with the Canadian.

Within 20 minutes of travel the bus had filled with Guatemalans as they loaded items for the market into and onto the top of the bus. A female passenger plopped a fragrant sack of onions next to me. I looked at Dora and said, “The only thing missing are the chickens.” As if on cue, she pointed towards the roof where chickens began clucking from above. That brought a shared laugh.

The bus was already packed when a group with two women and five boys flagged the driver down. All of them were carrying multiple large plastic containers. They jostled and crammed their way into the aisle while speaking a Mayan dialect.

It was uncomfortably crowded, but after five miles the group with containers piled out. The assistant kindly refused to charge them for the ride, and we realized they were after drinking water. Who knows how they returned home with their heavy load?

Soon after they departed I remembered my passport was in the luggage strapped to the top with the chickens. I explained the problem, and the assistant took time away from the object of his affection to motion me to climb on top to retrieve it for Customs.

At the border station there were many refugees lined up for processing, but the officials waved us to a back door where we were quickly stamped for entry into Guatemala. You could sense the driven desperation in their journey. What else would cause you to uproot your entire life to flee northward with nothing but the clothes on your back to start a new life?

At the next stop a young man and woman were laughing as they boarded the bus; they appeared to be a couple. He had to sit in a separate seat, and she sat next to the woman the assistant had been flirting with. The assistant changed the focus of his attention and started schmoozing the new woman.

The bus ambled along for ten minutes when it stopped for additional customers. The young man stormed off the bus without saying a word to the woman he had boarded with. As he marched away without looking back she laughed and kept batting her eyes at “Don Juan.”

Throughout each stop on this five hour ride Dora and I continued to learn interesting things about Guatemala. We had pleasant exchanges with our fellow passengers, and we mused about the budding and broken romances to which we bore witness (increased social connections indeed). It also struck us how difficult our lives would be if we had to travel five miles one-way whenever we needed potable water.

Many Americans might not enjoy the idea of riding around on chicken buses in the U.S., but we should be looking to the future by creating far more public transportation in America. It’s exists all over the world and offers numerous positive benefits.

Would it not be fun to be able to board trains again in railroad founded Pocatello? America already has a tremendous rail system infrastructure, and given the numerous benefits of public transportation, government support ought to be extended to encourage the development of more passenger routes throughout the United States. Americans used to travel extensively by rail, and we need more of this energy saving and relaxing mode of transportation.

Anyone who has driven on congested freeways heading into busy American cities knows the hassles of traffic jams and the added frustration of trying to find a parking space guaranteed to be pricey.

Our second largest expense in America, after housing, is transportation due to our dependency upon cars. When you factor in the true cost of car ownership, many people would jettison them or reduce their use if more reliable public transportation existed.

Public transit also aids those who can’t drive and is safer than individual driving as the operators are required to obtain extensive specialized training.

According to National Express Transit (July 18, 2017), every dollar invested in public transit generates four dollars of business in return, and the limited public transportation that exists in the U.S. is currently estimated to save 4.2 billion gallons of gas a year.

A smart nation with its eye on the future would be developing more public transportation for its many advantages including the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Due to the numerous benefits, we should all advocate for and support systems of shared transit and public transportation (car pool in rural areas whenever possible). At the end of the day there will be less congestion and cleaner air; and, if you are lucky enough to find yourself on a chicken bus, you might even have a chance at romance.

Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.