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Taking Your Life In Your Hands on Buses in El Salvador

Sly Stallone Salvadorian look-alike causes sheer havoc driving a bus in El Salvador. Sounds like fun.

It’s fair to say that I don’t like rush hour. Back home, I’ll do almost anything to avoid those two hours at the end of the day, when three quarters of the city all try heading in the same direction, at the same time. Rush hour in San Salvador takes this practice to a new level. Standing on the edge of the curb, shopping bags in hand, I just don’t know where to look first. There’s too much going on.

The sun is about to set over a wash of brightly coloured buses, scrambling motorcycles, dogs, vegetable stalls, boom boxes, dirty water, cars, and throngs of people speaking incessantly. We know that one of the hundreds of buses slinging past will get us to our hostel; it’s only a matter of finding out which one it is and where it’s leaving from. Although the buses have numbers painted on them, many buses feature the same number and they’re all going in different directions.

My girlfriend spares us the search mission; she suggests we find the street where we got off and flag a bus down from there. We dive into the fray and find ourselves lost within seconds. We’ve probably gone miles since this morning and in the semi gloom of dusk I have no idea where we came from. We move in semi circles for twenty minutes before finding a street that we may have passed earlier. We decide to take the risk and choose a bus from here; if nothing else, we’ll get to see San Salvador’s dodgier streets by night. And knows who we might meet? We find a bus chugging contently against the back of an ESSO service station and hop on, paying the Sylvester-Stallone-looking driver.

He smokes a cigarette and seems more interested in his phone than in taking us anywhere. Since we’re the first two on the bus, we grab a seat right at the front. There’s more legroom and we also get a wide screen view through the windscreen.

Twenty minutes later, the now full bus lurches and we head straight back into the fray we’ve just left.

I can see beyond the city where the stark, green mountains are in direct contrast to the cacophony of cars, buses, bikes and people around me. Markets dominate the centre of San Salvador; they creep in from the side of the road until there’s more market than road. The thousands of people smoking, shouting and shopping swallow up our bus. We’re trapped in the middle of an intersection, wedged between three other buses all travelling the in the same direction, all trying to get through first. We hear church bells, mixed with a shuddering dose of Reggaeton music coming from makeshift speakers in the stalls. Several opportunistic San Salvadorians have managed to find their way into the cracks separating the buses. One wants to sell little bundles of chicken and tortillas. Another tries to squeeze his bike in, without success.

The interior of our bus is decked in the colours of the Real Madrid football team. I’ve heard stories of San Salvadorian fanaticism for this club and for its famous rival, Barcelona. Downtown, you can get any sort of paraphernalia you wish, including team strips and stickers. I’ve even heard that the buses decorated in this way, organize to race each other through San Salvador’s dodgier side streets in order to prove the merits of their adopted club (not to mention their unquestionably talented driving abilities.)

Sounds too crazy to be true. However…

The change in the Stallone is instant, one minute heavy lidded and scowling, the next, wild and shouting. He was on his mobile phone a moment ago. I realize that the race could well be a reality and wish that I had a seatbelt to strap in.

Stallone throws the screaming bus into second and fights toward a bus in front of us, parting men, woman, bikes and other vehicles, neatly as we pass. Surely we’ve run over some one? We draw even with the opposition bus, and thanks to our better driver, we pull ahead. Our driver gabbles something in Spanish, it sounds like rapid gunfire. Picking up passengers no longer seems to be a priority; Stallone wants to put some distance between ‘Barcelona’ and us. We approach a T-section and he throws the whole thing sideways. The entire front of the bus is about to fall off. Our ‘wide screen view’ allows us the detail of every centimetre between us and passing traffic. The bus swerves to the outside lane to avoid a stationary car. There’s a bang. We’ve hit something. I’m almost relieved, as I know he’ll stop now, but no, a quick glance in the rearview mirror assures the driver that whatever we hit will live without his aid. We slide into a narrow alley, perhaps in avoidance and then we continue.

We’re stuck behind a lumber truck and Stallone’s pissed off. He loses patience and swings our bus into the opposite lane. We hit speed and pass the truck. At the same time an expensive looking orange sports car pulls out of another street. Surely it has as little business being in this part of town as we have being in its lane? No matter, the bus locks up and we skid towards the car, coming to rest a full twenty centimetres from its bumper. A withered Mayan lady hurries over to sell us some tortillas and chilli. Another lady stands on the corner, waving plastic bags filled with soft drink. On this occasion, I’m not a taker, since we’re pretty much crapping our pants already without the aid of dodgy street fare.

The bus breaks back into the main drag. The orange car incident cost us our lead and Stallone focuses on getting it back. Despite this, we find time to stop and pick up some factory workers. We’re off again before the last two passengers can get on, and when I look back I can see them smiling and waving. They obviously know what the hell is going on.

There’s a traffic jam brewing ahead, buses, cars and numerous mopeds are gunning for space around one of San Salvador’s enormous roundabouts. ‘Barcelona’ is well stuck and we’re going to be joining it, right from the back. It seems that the race will finally be canned as the inevitability of bad roadways affects everybody.

But this isn’t good enough for Stallone; after a quick appraisal, we once again find ourselves swinging to the opposite lane…. Only this time, the results are spectacular. Straight up the wrong side, across three lanes of oncoming traffic, over the top of the roundabout, and through to the other side. What a victory. Enough for Stallone to let the bus idle while he pumps his fist at ‘Barcelona.’ Then we resume at a normal pace, pausing meekly whenever we reach a bus parada. I’m still not certain that we’re heading to the right suburb but where ever we are seems nice enough.

‘Yeah, yeah.’ I say to my girlfriend. ‘That was nothing.’

All in the day of an intrepid traveller. Now I’m ready to savor the mountain views while enjoying a plate of beans and a bottle of Bravha.

Stallone’s mobile phone rings again. It’s a pulsing reggaeton track, which reverberates throughout the cabin. Perhaps I should have heard the tone in his voice as he shouts down the line but I’m blissfully unaware. So it’s not until the bus finds second again that I realize that the beer will have to wait. Another race is about to begin…

Joss Berrett

Joss Berrett is a lazy writer and traveller who is still scared of flying.