Esther Mannaerts smiles at me from across the table.
She laughs. “That’s why we called it the Benni Bus! No one can pronounce ‘Gemoedelijkheidsbus!’”
Esther, 24, and her partner Thomas van Sante, 27, are originally from Utrecht in the Netherlands. These days they’re travelling around Central America and Mexico – slowly. Like thousands of other travellers, they’re staying in a hostel. But there is one big difference. Their hostel has wheels and it moves. Meet the Benni Bus – a mobile hostel.
CONCEIVED IN A BAR
After graduating university, Esther and Thomas hopped on a plane and headed to Panama with the idea of backpacking around Central and South America. By the time they got to Ecuador, they realized they wanted to do things differently and, like many great ideas, the idea for the Benni Bus was born in a bar.
Their concept was simple: by building a mobile hostel, they’d be able to meet new people and, by travelling together, they’d create a small, if temporary, community. Even better: the fees collected from guests would cover their travel expenses.
Thomas hopped on the internet and started researching school bus conversions. That they weren’t the first people to come up with the idea of converting an old bus into a home definitely helped speed the process.
But there was a wrinkle.
“We concluded pretty quickly that we had to go to the United States to buy a bus,” explains Esther.
They flew to San Antonio, Texas, primarily because they had friends there who were willing to help with the project. A place to stay, a shop and tools were all made available.
The couple searched Craigslist and, $3,300 later, they had a bus – a 1990 Blue Bird, originally from Michigan. The conversion process got underway with Thomas taking care of the mechanical systems and Esther looking after the design. After about two months of work, the Benni Bus was ready.
The front half of the bus is the living area. There are comfy seats and a fully equipped kitchen. The middle of the bus is the dorm area with bunk beds (sleeping 6) and the back of the bus is a private bedroom reserved for Esther and Thomas. There is even a shower.
Because old school buses are used extensively as public transportation in Central America, spare parts and experienced mechanics are easy to find. Fuel isn’t an issue as the bus can run on diesel or vegetable oil.
GOOD TO GO
The trip began. Esther and Thomas travelled through Mexico and Belize. In northern Guatemala they filled the bus with travellers for the first time. At that point they knew the idea was going to work.
Treating the Benni Bus as a business, they figured that if guests paid $10 a night, it would cover the cost of fuel, maintenance, food and Esther and Thomas’ expenses.
Things were rolling along when disaster struck in Guatemala. The motor died, threatening to bring an abrupt end to the adventure. Out of the blue, the couple received a sudden windfall that saved the day. They bought a new engine and gearbox and hit the road again.
“From the moment we started driving in Guatemala and then down to Panama and back up, we had expenses,” she says. “But then we did really well, so we broke even.”
Esther admits that there were some stressful times on the road, mostly in remote areas where they couldn’t find people to join them. But, she adds, by sticking to more popular routes, the right people come to you.
“There was only one instance where someone was asked to leave.”
Most of their guests (Bennies) are in their 20s and 30s. There have been older travellers, most notably the couple’s parents, who flew over from Europe to try the Benni Bus experience. They loved it.
Another important part of the Benni Bus concept is slow travel without time limits.
“Sometimes you find the most beautiful spot in the world and you decide to just stay for a while.”
To their surprise, the couple found that crossing international borders was easy. If an official was acting shady, they simply found another official. The roads were also a pleasant surprise. Most major routes in Central America are in good condition.
However, there was one particularly challenging road in Guatemala. They found themselves on a single lane mountain road that not only had heavy truck traffic, but large rocks jutting out of the mountainside. It took four hours to cover 40 km.
Other than regular maintenance, like replacing brake pads, Esther and Thomas didn’t have any further trouble with the bus.
All good things must come to an end, and after nearly a year on the Benni Bus, Esther and Thomas are getting ready to return to “real” life. They’re planning on selling the Benni Bus and going back to the Netherlands so Esther can resume school.
They’re proud of their achievement. More than 100 people have travelled with the couple on the Benni Bus and they’ve seen most of Central America. They’ve made new friends and experienced new things, which is what travel is all about.
So what does Benni Bus mean? Nothing. It’s just easy to say. And Gemoedelijkheidsbus? Esther says there’s no direct English translation, but the Dutch term refers to a positive atmosphere.
“You know, it’s like ‘no worries, everything’s cool.’”