Where we left off last time: our shuttle from Copan, Honduras, to the surf hamlet of El Tunco, El Salvador, is cancelled. The Saturday night dance party in the town square is a little bit subdued, compared to the events of Friday. And now, the thrilling conclusion, aka perhaps the worst day of the trip.
It all goes wrong when, for the first time in my life, I find a store that sells Night Train. Night Train the subject of the Guns’n’Roses song. Night Train the bum wine that I didn’t think even existed anymore. Night Train that is described as follows on bumwine.com:
I think we all know where this story is going. I purchase a bottle of Night Train. I drink a bottle of Night Train. It’s one of those moments where the can-do bravado of travel, that desire to experience all the world has to offer, obscures the fact that something is an objectively bad decision. But it was done, the night proceeds as normal, and I wake up the next day, not really too much the worse for wear.
For the time being.
The trip from Copan to El Tunco should have been about 4 or 5 hours, tops, in the direct tourist shuttle. By chicken bus it was going to be much, much, longer. First of all, it wasn’t like there was just one bus. We had to take separate vans or buses for each of these legs:
1. Copan to the Guatemala border.
2. Border to Chiquimula, which is actually going out of our way
3. Chiquimula to the El Salvador border, backtracking some.
4. Border to Metapan.
5. Metapan to Santa Ana.
6. Santa Ana to San Salvador.
7. San Salvador to La Libertad.
8. La Libertad to El Tunco.
As it turns out we don’t even come close to making it the whole way in one day. Delays in finding our next bus, waiting for it to fill up, or navigating the border crossings eat up way more time than anticipated. And as much as the tourist shuttle could be crowded, they feel like stretch limos compared to the chicken bus. Although I’ve mentioned chicken buses in the blog before, I don’t think I’ve described them in any detail. I was waiting for this post.
The chicken bus is a gaudily ornamented mode of transportation, with polychromatic designs running down the length of its flanks, and its appointed route permanently painted onto its windshield, but you have seen the chicken bus before. It is the yellow school bus of your youth – exiled to central America and pressed into a second career in public transit. The driver can’t be bothered to multitask, so each bus has a conductor of sorts leaning out the open door, yelling out the destination and collecting fares. As for comfort, it’s minimal. As I said, it’s an old school bus, so the seats are generally still designed for kids. That works fine for the average Honduran, but it’s not really great for somebody at 6’2″. There’s not really room on the small racks above the seats for a large backpack, but some buses won’t let you buy another fare for your bag, so you might end up getting squashed in more with your bag on your lap, and a seatmate (or 2) with whatever they’re carrying – which could be anything, including the eponymous chickens. Yes, I saw a chicken on a chicken bus.
In addition to passengers, cargo, and fare collectors, you’ve got vendors going up and down the narrow aisle incessantly, selling fruits, or bags of nuts, or water, or my favorite, homemade juice in plastic bags. These snackmongers are incapable of letting two seconds pass without reminding you of what it is they’re selling, which is nice for the blind or those with short-term memory less who forgot what the person holding the basket of avocados is selling on this, their fifth trip up the aisle in the last three minutes. Perhaps I’d be more forgiving if it was only the voices of these entrepreneurs disrupting the tranquility of the bus ride, but almost every chicken bus comes equipped with massive speakers, front and back, which the driver has wired up to play his favorite local pop hits, at volumes ranging from “loud” to “so goddamn loud” to “jesus christ I have earplugs in now and that’s only made it seem regularly loud.” And of course there is no such thing as air conditioning on these buses, and while the daytime highs in Guatemala was usually in the mid 70s, as I head south, 80s and 90s become more common.
So this is the situation I found myself in, deeply uncomfortable, crammed into a small seat with my pack on top of me, unable to get any kind of meaningful rest with all the noise, and the rising heat compounding whatever toxins the Night Train had left in my body. With each passing hour I feel worse, until we arrive at the border crossing into El Salvador. The available bathroom would perhaps described as somewhere between rural gas station and …well I mean, look, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a bathroom at a central American border crossing. I vomit there.
There’s that post-vomit window of euphoria that gets me through customs but I go back to feeling only slightly less miserable for our next buses, all the way to Santa Ana. Once we arrive there, Jason and Julia get some food but I can’t process much, yet, except a little bit of fruit. By the time they’re done eating, we realize there’s little chance of getting to El Tunco by nightfall, and the conventional wisdom is that chicken buses are no place to be after dark. Time to find lodging.
In so many cities around the world, the area around the bus terminal is one of the crappier parts of town, and the area around the Santa Ana terminal is one of the crappiest I come across in the entire four month voyage. The terminal bleeds seamlessly into a market area and by this part of the day, the streets are more or less covered in garbage. Every step is an attempt not to step in some discarded chicken innards or rotting fruit, and instead aiming for the less soggy parts of cardboard boxes that have been ripped up and tossed around.
By the time we check into our lodging – a blocky motel-type affair built around a parking lot with a massive Mordoresque black gate, it’s 9 pm, and my appetite is finally starting to return. Unfortunately it’s Sunday, and everything in the city closes at, you guessed it, 9pm. Like really everything. I had some raisins in my bag, and the hotel lobby had a bag of chips available, so that was dinner. I went to bed in a room which sort of reminded me of the hotel room inside the monolith that Dave Bowman ends up in at the end of 2001, except imagine the Salvadorean motel version of that room.
The next day I feel fine and it’s time to push on to the coast. Despite an early start at the bus terminal – which could really be mistaken for an abandoned scrap metal warehouse – it takes us a long time to wander around the adjoining streets (there’s not enough doors for all the routes, so your bus could be randomly parked on a streetside several blocks away) to board the bus to San Salvador. From there it’s short slide down to the cacophonous seaside surf capital of La Libertad, and before long we’re on our way to El Tunco and my first chance to see the Pacific Ocean on this trip.