Back in June last year, moments after crossing into the US from Canada, we found ourselves at the Annual Rainbow Gathering, looking for somewhere to park among hundreds of retired school buses.
The license plates spoke of their long journeys from every corner of the country to this tribal meeting high up in the volcanoes of Washington State. Some were dusty, muddy and all beaten–up; others were carefully painted and converted – all of them looked loved and cherished, all of them looked like homes. But there was something else: All the buses looked like they came from the same factory – it seemed there were only a few designs and it made me think of an early CzechTek where you’d see fields lined full with hundreds of identical Skodas.
And this is the thing: Impressed as I was to see more hippies, punks and rubber tramps all in one place than in years of going to user-generated and free festivals and teknivals in Europe; it seems that there is an enormous fleet of beautiful, convertible school buses being dumped on the market every year…
Fast, forward to the end of the Pan American Highway (North Section), a few miles beyond Panama City, and I’m wondering just how many of these machines the Americans built? They seem to be everywhere. We even visited a graveyard full of thousands of them; their owners compensated for taking them off the streets to the tune of $30 000… A trend adopted by the Capital cities of Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama to faze them out completely and replace them with the more modern mass-transit style city buses. But, thousands of miles from the States, and as far as you can drive from their original homes without crossing some serious water, the sight of so many machines slowly rotting away in a field didn’t yet prove that the school bus phenomenon was coming to an end. Far from it: For eight months now, through Mexico and Central America, we had battled with hundreds of them on the highways and in the cities, up and down volcanoes and through jungles – in Panama City, we’ve been enjoying the heavily decorated sight of school buses fighting through the traffic day in day out. And here, at the graveyard, were thousands more: That’s city-planners’ optimism for you – there’s just too many of them, surely, to completely replace anytime soon? Surely, even though there are nice new patches of black-top all the way south into Latin America, there are also many thousands of miles more of roads that punish too much for any kind of bus bar the ones from American School Authorities. What we’re hoping is that reports of the demise of the ex-school bus (aka diablos rojos, camioneta, or the chicken bus) have been greatly exaggerated.
Miguel Chavez seems quite shy and jokes that he needs a few minutes sleep before taking his bus out again. Which is kind of funny because we just saw him force his way through some rush-hour traffic, lights flashing, several types of horn blowing, making better time than the taxis that he detests. The rig came to halt in a chorus of engine noise, blasts of air from the brakes and Reggaeton that was thumping loud, less for the benefit of the thirty passengers who all alighted here at the San Felipe Market, and more for Miguel’s own.
We try and open him up a bit by commenting on the artwork that adorns his vehicle – a selection of Warrior Princesses and Wizards peer out from castles and from behind dragons in a display that goes round the front before swirling patterns ending in cartoons at the back. “It cost me $1000,” Miguel said, “and so I’m happy that they suspended the replacement program.” They have? That’s great and we tell him about the graveyard of buses that we saw. “They bought four thousand at $30 000 in two years but now they’ve run out of money and the new buses,” Miguel goes on, “and the compensation isn’t enough these days for me to start a new business – and then the artists like Sergio and Piri don’t get anything.”
Which is true – nor do the legions of mobile-sellers who hop on and off buses all day selling drinks, snacks and stuff. They aren’t allowed on the new, posh, air-conditioned, first-world buses. Nor will the attendants who call out the route at every stop and collect all the fares – kids like Jose, Miguel’s assistant, who‘s just got back with some rice and chicken to refuel the show. Nor, indeed, the self-employed mechanics who keep the buses going, nor the artists who decorate them.
Panama City is a city in transition since independence was gained from USA who handed back control of the canal under the Torrijos-Carter Treaty. With the American soldiers gone, the city has been rebuilding its image: a network of new roads, sky-scrapers, ocean-side recreational areas, the first Metro in Central America, the rejuvenation of the city’s historical quarter – Casco Viejo, a UN Heritage site. Panama City has to attract tourists now, attract investors and money and it has bucked world-wide down-turns in order to achieve that. The plan to replace the School Bus fleet is always going to be a part of the push to modernity and it has attracted a lot of support from the public who are fed up with the noisy, fume-belching, uncomfortable monsters that seem to block every junction and endanger lives in their race to collect passengers. On the other hand, many people will be said to see the loss of color and character on the gray streets of Panama City. Neither Miguel nor Jose can imagine it ever happening. “They will increase the fares from 25 cents to half a Balboa [$0.5] and then everyone will be using the same Metrobus card and they can put the prices up whenever they want,” Miguel says, “and our buses serve the people, we take them to work and home again far from the Centre – the new buses will never go there.”
It’s the story of “development” the world over – never mind whether such and such project is even a good thing or not; change is always going to render some cultural activity into memory, fond or otherwise. The Panama City Bus Fleet in its present guise of imported, independent vehicles has been around for decades. As an American Military base in the tropics is has always been a vibrant party town living on a mix of people from all over the world. By the late sixties, the fleet was almost entirely made up of American School Buses. Their extra power and noise, their dominance and showy attempt to lure passengers onboard earned them the name Diablos Rojos, Red Devils, the name of the religious costume traditional to Panama – introduced centuries ago to beguile or accept the natives into a new Catholicism. Since then, inspired by films, music and the hedonism of tropical life, the buses have remained bright and colorful – blending with Native American and African-Caribbean styles – the beads, feathers, trinkets and pictures arranged around the driver like an Animist Shrine. Bus artwork also features many figures from history, sports personalities and, of course, Jesus and the gang – you get back-drops of cool, cool, idyllic mountain village, fiery, fantasy-land or crazy patterns and designs. On the rear doors, between two enormous, chrome tail-pipe extensions, there might be a picture of the driver’s children.
If all this goes, Panamanians will have lost a very creative part of their heritage – there are artists who will transfer their skills and carrying on working, sure – though some of them like Sergio, Miguel tells us, will refuse to paint anything less mundane or static than a Red Devil. There is also the case of Óscar Melgar, another well-known bus artist, dismantling his work from retired buses and selling it. Pieces are going up in galleries around the gentrified old town for thousands of dollars. While not wanting to de-value this form of art, this may be a little premature – there are still thousands of buses out there, taking their art-show on the roads every day. In the graveyard we saw a few broken, Korean-made buses hidden away – examples of a previous failed attempt to move away from the American School Bus paradigm and evidence that the fleet will endure.
This system they have in the US – the wholesale standardization of school buses that are paid for by authorities – it’s almost like something from a Soviet State. Except for the fact they sell them on in their thousands after a fraction of their working life. I can’t see it ending anytime soon and their resale value should only increase for, as the capital cities try to modernize, the citizens themselves will become more mobilized – and something will have to ferry them into the center of town from their distant barrio clinging to the hillside in the early hours of the morning. Don’t feel the need to rush here and see them before they go… you got a few years yet.