Demise of the Red Devil School Bus

Panama School Bus
Converted School Bus
Rainbow Gathering, Washington

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.

This one ain't moving no more...

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…

Building out of old school buses.

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.

The end of the road for thousands of school buses...

The driver of a Panama School BusMiguel 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 Public Transport

Panama School Bus

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.”


One more time...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.

English and American Public Service Vehicles

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.




Los Del Patio, Panama City

Panama City exhibition

Panama City exhibitionIt wasn’t quite our main intention to do an exhibition in Panama City. We were concerned with helping out at a children’s charity for a couple of weeks and then getting the fast boat to Colombia. But when you find a nice place like Los Del Patio… wi-fi, cool place to sit and work, room to store our stuff, friendly to dogs… This place reminded me of Agit in Busan. Anyway, we did it, we got out some pictures and put them on the wall. We even sold one.

Central American Borders and Dogs

American Sedan Tour 2012 Central American borders can get real funky – Central American borders and dogs even more so. Below you’ll see our limited experience of 2012, a snap-shot of what actually happened rather than what you’re told by a thousand different forums and websites. The wealth of information out there in this regard, of course, is undermined by the fact that anything goes really at the border itself –  despite the introduction of computer systems and other attempts at Standardization. How the laws are applied can only be understood after the event.
What really gets me as when you’re sweating away, going from one decrepit office to the next , in the heat and noise of a frontier, the busy looking people and the cops everywhere, there’s always a couple of street dogs wandering around, seemingly oblivious to the fact that where they are wandering around is in fact the division line between two distinct nations; one minute in one country, the next in the other depending on who’s throwing away the chicken bones – the pitiful creatures, half a tail missing and dusty, with no papers, no vaccinations, no $25 validation of said non-existent vaccinations while Vaga, (I imagine equally oblivious) sleeps her deep dog sleep under a fan in the van while I run around on her behalf.

OK, it’s not that bad, I exaggerate. Sure the stray dogs are there making a mockery out of the whole thing but it’s no real hassle. Read on to learn just how easy it is.

First up, I suppose is the British Columbia to Washington border – that is, the Canada to USA border, driving from Vancouver to Seattle. The only concern the border officials had for Vaga was to have her out of the bus so they could have the quickest of poke arounds inside. And from California to Sonora  (USA to Mexico) at Mexicali, the guy just said, in Portuguese, “oh, there’s a dog”. Yeah, he was a Spanish speaking Mexican but he was kind of showing off his knowledge of Portuguese to Dunia; maybe that’s all he knew what to say about dogs, forgetting momentarily that the word “vaccination” is the same in most European languages. Anyway, I don’t think anyone will have too much trouble crossing into Mexico because there weren’t any problems at the other end, crossing out at the very quiet border of El Ceibo, with Guatemala. Well, that was the pattern anyway: From Guatemala to Honduras and at the Honduran side at the Nicaraguan border – no check for our dog at all – not even an acknowledgement of the dog. That was the whole of North America so far without a single pet issue at any border we had crossed – a comfort that got suddenly snatched away as we hit Nicaragua. That border could so easily have been a nightmare.

Crossing borders with dogs, 2012. It was fortunate that the Nicaragua Border Constabulary didn’t notice that we had a right-hand drive vehicle and it was also fortunate that we had a Spanish language health certificate ready for them at the Agricultural Import Office. Both these things could have gone the other way – we only had the health certificate because we randomly remembered to ask for one from the vet back in San Cristobal  de las Casas, Mexico, the time Vaga had pneumonia. Wasn’t so fortunate, the pneumonia, of course, but that’s another story. So, yes, at the Nicaraguan border, coming from Honduras, you’ll need a health certificate in Spanish and a vaccination record and ask for $15. It takes them an hour to type up something on an antiquated typewriter (they have computers but the typewriter’s still better for them). Best you kick-start this process then go and do the vehicle stuff while you’re waiting.  At the other end, of Nicaragua, however, the Nicaraguans didn’t check whether Vaga had been legally imported. Crossing into Costa Rica on the Pan-American Highway was dog-hassle-free.

At that border, then, the Costa Ricans hardly acknowledged Vaga – nor did they on the Caribbean border with Panama, on the road south of the party town of Puerto Viejo. However, now it was the turn for Panamanians to ask for her documents and charge us $15, taking an age to get some kind of email or “Facebook Message” from their headquarters in Panama City – the official was checking them both. That was a particularly dripping wait on that humid, dusty road with heavy trucks going past across that ridiculous bridge they have there.

Following the Nicaraguan model of making a fuss over getting a pet into the country but not giving it a second glance on exit, Panama failed to look at the dog when we crossed north back into Costa Rica at the Palo Canoas border. But what a laugh, the messy pile of border crossing and duty-free mayhem that that border is. The Costa Ricans asked to see the usual papers and charged us $12 roughly for stamping them with a “Legit” stamp. The filosanitarium officers – they kind of prowl around, keeping their eye-out, but they only really knew we had a dog because I ticked the ‘Animal or Agricultural’ box on the import form that I filled out at the place where you check in your vehicle. That border is so chaotic, especially on the Costa Rican side, that you could slip an entire dog-sled team through there.

Tropical frontier by night.

The other thing about driving in Central America with your pet is the fact that the cops can stop you anywhere and check all your papers. I mean, we didn’t have a problem anywhere with cops trying to look for a reason to bribe us or whatever, but it could kind of obviously happen. They did check coming into Honduras on the road by Costa Garifuna and they were satisfied with the dog papers we had. Carry a health certificate in Spanish and a vaccination record at all times and have those papers properly updated even if you never get to produce them at the frontiers – the fact is, even if you’re in a country without any legalization from the border (because you were never challenged), you might still actually require one although no one will know this for sure and up to date papers should always be sufficient.

This is our experience so far – and you see, no real issues moving around with Vaga in North and Central America. In the States, one bonfire story that we’d been told before we crossed south (in between the tales about beheadings, the corpses of aliens in the desert and the fact that some of the Mexican police wear the same gold ring as some of the gangsters…) was how, at the Honduran-Nicaragua border, I believe, these tropical border cops were getting into a bit of a stressed-out, hectic hoo-hah with my friend and his wife. They had been shouting at each other for ages because they wouldn’t accept my friend’s tiny little daschund type dog. In the end, a character appeared at the window and said he’d take her across the border down through the backwoods, cutting a path through the jungle, for twenty bucks. And my friend went for it; handed his dog over with $10; the other ten once he got through himself and they were reunited. Thing is, I come away thinking that the more porous the border actually is in reality then the harder it is to import export an animal officially – unofficially they cross all the time, in the hands of smugglers or like the wild dogs sniffing around for the next meal. You see, testing that theory, at the other extreme, is a very tight border such as the one between Arizona and Sonora,  with  thousands of miles of barbed wire fences patrolled by a special response team of radar-infrared, mobile scanners and satellite TV-Reality-Show helicopters:  Here, there’s no control over your pet at all. I wonder if it’s the same going north into USA from Mexico – somehow it probably is; I imagine most of the border time is spent on you and yourself and what you are doing…

Unless, maybe one time, after a sudden and prolonged influx of very large hairy hounds, the US Border Police got wise and started checking that no illegal aliens were trying to get through in a dog-suit. ‘Hi, just me and my two dogs here… [Two people on the backseat in cartoon character outfits]. The one on the left is Goofy and this here’s, er, Bugs.’, ‘Gee, is that a daschund? It’s ears are so long. OK, on you go, have a nice day’.

Sorry, I’m drifting off topic.

Anyway, this little anomaly about the toughness of the border and how easy it is to cross with an animal is just an observation. As long as you have a Health Certificate in Spanish (updated every, I don’t know, it was four months for us) and a vaccination record (the European Pet Passport looks the business with all its pages, stickers, stamps  and the little photo of the dog), you’ll be fine at any border. You might have to pay $15 for this and that and hang around while the document gets written out. Maybe you won’t. It’s all good. So far.




Renew Vehicle Papers in Panama City

Panama City

Panama CityHere’s how to renew your 30-day papers for your vehicle in Panama:

Step One:

Go to Suramericana Insurance Office in BellaVista to buy another month’s insurance, You’ll need the policy you received at the border, driving licence, vehicle registration and passport. It costs $15. (Remember to ask the nice man to make three copies of each  plus your new insurance policy for the next step…)


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Step 2:

Go to the Aduana office and renew your permit. This office is a bit crazy – if you’re not careful they’ll have you doing three copies of blank bits of paper. What you do is first go to the counter at the end of the corridor and present your documents (along with the copies). Here the guy will help you write a statement in Spanish which basically says “Hi Panama, I’d like to extend my vehicle permit for another month – I’m a tourist!”. You then take the papers  back to an office nearer the beginning of the corridor (almost opposite the photocopy room). Here the ladies will kind of faff around with your papers for an hour or so, looking for a stapler to staple the two collections together. And then you go back to the first counter and get a blurry stamp on your original import certificate. That’s it!


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Protect and track a laptop

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime Protect and track a laptop –  last week, in this beautiful city we had a laptop stolen from our truck: not only were we stupid enough to leave the door open and unguarded for, like, 20 seconds – stupid enough to have been lulled into a false sense of security in a parking lot that should have been patrolled by the police – we now feel extra stupid because it is only now that we have been googling ‘how to track a stolen laptop’ and discovering all the kinds of software and services out there that can be installed on a machine  (BEFORE it goes missing) to dramatically increase the odds of recovery. I have to say that we are slightly miffed about this: we have been reading a ton of travel blogs and overlanding websites, searching for information about crossing the Darien Gap; how to get a dog into South Korea; where to camp for free in California and Wi-Fi hot-spots in Mexico. You know all that boring crap. NOT ONCE did I come across a report about protecting your laptop with software that lets you capture images of the thieves and their flippin’ facebook profiles… Why? I don’t know – too brain-dead to look closely, I guess – that’s the way I feel right now – but the info IS out there: I found it – after the event. Arrrgggghhhh. Why didn’t anyone tell us before?

You know, we all have computers; every single overlanding crew I have met has at least one – and every goddamn thief out there knows this when they see a foreign vehicle parked up… So, some advice on how to protect your traveling laptop and how to get it back if it’s stolen:

  1. Software solutions: Prey is free to set up and use (you can pay $5 to get a better service once your device is stolen). It works like this: you download and install some software and then set up an online account. Basically the software remains hidden on your computer (tablet or smartphone) and regularly sends information about how your computer is being used to a server somewhere. This means that you can get images from your webcam of the thief sitting in front of your stolen laptop, screen-grabs of the websites they are using and information about where they are. You can even send messages to them and activate a police siren noise. We so want to see a picture of the low-life using our laptop and activate pop-ups that say they will rot in hell if they don’t hand it in to the cops. It’s not a perfect system: the thief needs to log on for a start and you still need to do some investigation to figure out how to get the machine back of course. And, of course, if they reformat everything then the tracking software is gone. But read this to understand the joys of this simple and free service – the story of one guy recovering his computer – you’ll be in stitches (even if you wish, like us, that we were as clever as him).
  2. Deeper tracking solutions: There are other, more professional services out there that will write the tracking software into the hardware on your computer and they will initiate investigations on your behalf conducted by ex-law enforcement personnel. They recover (they say) 75% of lost equipment and can remotely brick the rest so that no one can use your stolen laptop ever again.
  3. Disguise your machine: design a laptop sticker that makes it look like a road atlas or cookbook or something. OK, you should be hiding your precious equipment whenever you’re not using it but there will always be a time when you’re in a hurry and you forget to stash it away (at the exact time when you forget to close the door for 20 seconds, at the exact time when your normally patrolled parking lot has no police anywhere to be seen…).
  4. Decoy: Have one useless, broken but shiny silver laptop or camera somewhere in your truck, on view to a thief in a hurry who might only have the time to grab just one of your possessions – make sure he grabs the crap one.
  5. Record all your serial numbers and MAC addresses; take photographs of your equipment – especially secret identifying marks – and upload the lot to your email account. The cops might recover your stolen goods months after they were stolen, years after you have returned home: give them every chance to return it all to you. A MAC address is a unique identifying code that every laptop has: it gets passed onto the router when the machine goes online. If you are using the same Wi-Fi connection, you’ll be able to ‘see’ your laptop: Not incredibly helpful but we’re hoping that because here in Panama City there is a city-wide free Wi-Fi service (‘Internet Para Todos’), the authorities can see whenever our stolen laptop accesses that network…
  6. If the worse happens, look for your machine in the markets and pawn shops of the nearest big city. Check the local second-hand buy-and sell websites. Once, many moons ago, my van was broken into in Rome and a camera went missing. The police said forget about it but a few days later we spotted the thing in the flea-market and got it back. Miracles DO happen – wish us luck as we sweat ourselves out on the hunt around the dodgy parts of Panama City: because we FAILED to do any of the above points, this is our only chance…
Watch out for thieves when using your laptop in public...
Watch out for thieves when using your laptop in public...

For some reason, we still love Panama City. Kind of. Hell, I would still be more worried about robbery in my hometown of London, UK. I suppose we’re lucky that there was no violence involved, that they just took the laptop,  that we didn’t lose anything more than a handful of photos because we back everything up regularly and we’re confident that the thief has no access to secret, confidential information because we keep all that stuff on an encrypted cloud somewhere. Back-ups and clouds are things everyone should be doing anyway since your machine could fail for any number of reasons. But I would like to repeat two points: (a) we are kicking ourselves for our stupidity and (b) take a long, serious look at those services mentioned above: protect your traveling laptop – track your stolen laptop.




Vacation Skies

vacation skies: moon halo with added chem-trail

vacation skies: moon halo with added chem-trail

Going on vacation generally means two things for us time-poor city-dwellers:  firstly, we’re somewhere where you can actually see the skies away from the usual light pollution and cluttered horizon and, secondly, you have the chance to lay back, drink in hand, relax and stare up at the stars; below are a few ideas for things to watch out for:

Meteor Storms

Hundreds of shooting stars every minute; that’s hundreds of wishes, right? One of those desires should always be the hope that as Earth crashes through the debris of space, one of those lumps of rock isn’t big enough to make it down to the surface and cause some serious damage. That’s what happened in 1908 in Siberia, the resulting explosion devastated a large section of wilderness – it’s thought that the Tunguska impact was caused by a piece of debris from Comet Encke; meteor storms generally have a parent comet that produces the stream of rocks and ice that hit Earth many times a year. The visibility (and awesomeness) of a particular meteor storm varies from year to year – in part due to how bright the moon is at the time. In 2011 nearly all the major storms occurred when the moon was full but in the next two weeks the Perseid meteor storm should have the skies to themselves as the moon is currently waning. August 12th is the night you should be out watching for this shower of shooting stars – in 2009, up to 160 stars were counted. The Perseids have been observed for thousands of years – they are the debris of the Swift-Tuttle comet, strung out on its 190 year orbit around the sun. This will be one of the more memorable showers this year but there are others – see the earthsky website.

Light pillars, sun dogs and halos

Ever seen a sun dog before?Generally these are more visible in colder climates as they are due to effects of ice-crystals on the light from the sun or moon. A sun pillar is a vertical shaft of light extending upward or downward from the sun. Usually seen during sunrise or sunset, sun pillars form when sunlight reflects off the surfaces of falling ice crystals associated with thin, high-level clouds. Halos can often be seen around the sun and moon and these are truly spectacular, filling up a good proportion of the sky. These are actually quite common – we saw a halo around the moon as few nights ago on a tropical night in Panama. Sometimes around the circumference of the halo, you can see ‘false suns’ or sun dogs – if you’re lucky enough to see something like this, three yellow suns hanging in a blue sky,over a landscape far from home, you might wonder if you’re actually still on planet Earth.

The Green Flash

You might have never even heard of this – or thought it was some fantastical event only visible to crystal-botherers or stoned surfers with water on the brain. Some people think this event was much more common hundreds of years ago, before man-made pollution and the volcanic eruptions of the eighteenth century. But it does, indeed, still happen, every day, somewhere on the planet – if you spend time in the right place watching the sunset, you have a good chance of seeing it too.

Ever heard of the green flash?

The Green Flash is the name given to a range of events which all describe the sun turning green or sending a green ray of light into the sky, just as it sets beyond the horizon. Basically, it is like a mirage – the light from the sun passes through warm air but what’s most important for a successful sighting is that the horizon is far off and flat; looking out over the ocean is the prime situation. The sea should be warm and the atmosphere as clear as can be. The only time I saw one was looking west from the east coast of India on a day that was clear of the usual haze. You’ll find everything you need to know about green flashes here. A green flash can also be blue (much rarer) – the rising or setting moon can also give a red flash (rarer still…).

The Night Sky

Incredible, isn’t it? The same, beautiful display of light that mankind has been gazing up at for all of time. Except, of course, now we have artificial satellites and iridium flares to watch out for these days. There are two things you might want to acquire before you go on vacation – a pair of binoculars and a Star Map for your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Binoculars are much more user friendly than a telescope because you have a wider field of view – their magnification should still be strong enough to see the moons of Jupiter and far-off distant nebulae and you’ll be gazing at the beauty of the full moon for hours – the night sky away from modern cities and other sources of light pollution is awesome to observe just with the naked eye and with a simple pair of binoculars it gets a whole level better… And don’t forget to get a program or app that lets you make sense of what you see. Star gazing software has really revolutionized the activities of the amateur, casual observer: they can be set to your specific location and be able to alert you to astronomical events, reveal the position of planets and show you how to find your star-sign.