May 14, 2007

Buenos Aires by bus


If you decide to cross the Argentine pampas by night, it’s probably not the best idea to choose the first second-story seat on the double-decker bus. I learned this recently. The seventeen-hour ride from Bariloche to Buenos Aires started at noon.

“But the views will be incredible,” my friend insisted, when I bought the ticket via internet.

Sure enough. The road curved with the river under rock outcrops. Tawny mountains sighed into foothills, into plains where the fallen leaves of poplars sprayed the dead ground with yellow. Our miniature TVs showed high school girls calculating cruel punishments for one another. But with headsets they were easy enough to ignore.

The road is skinny. We wobbled and sped but when changing into the incoming lane to pass semis laden with double loads, we seemed to merely creep.

Still, there is something about the surprise of changing landscapes that lends to reflection. We remember what we have inadvertently forgotten. We plot, relax, observe, worry about old decisions, and think up solutions. It’s one of the few moments when life seems clear and purposeful, like the neat line of road ahead. It is an ideal state, worth repeating frequently, if only the bathrooms weren’t so bad.

There would be no sleeping. Cell phones rang. A soundless movie played. People chatted. The assistant shuttered our windows with curtains, so we couldn’t see the terrors of the road (it was easy enough to feel us swerve). I regretted declining the post-dinner whiskey or champagne (surely to buffer our nerves from the crosswinds).

Whenever we tittered, fear took over. I remembered a café conversation I had overheard in Chile. Bus drivers said the safest place to sit on the bus was behind the driver, since his instincts—to avoid a head-on, for instance—were to save his own skin. Obviously, you didn’t want to be in front (for the head-ons) or the back (for the rear-ending). Left middle.

Were there more bus accidents than, say, mountain climbing accidents? I wondered where I stood statistically. A few years back, Argentina suffered numerous fatalities when a bus crossing the pampas took what was almost the only curve too fast. It was all over the press. Regardless, a few weeks later, the same situation repeated in the same place. It was almost as if Argentina was competing with Italy to be the worst drivers in the world.

The only thing left to do was to shut my eyes and accept my fate.

Buenos Aires’ Retiro Station is dark at 6:30 am. Commuters are few. The city sleeps much later than its northern counterparts. I tumbled off the bus and hopped into a remise (a private taxi). The radio blared with today’s news: somewhere narco-traffickers had highjacked a plane, the capital’s air traffic control was using manual guidance for all take-offs. There were calls for investigation into a supposed near-air collision the previous week. My driver gunned down Avenida Libertador, downshifting at the red lights, but not stopping. There was no traffic anyways. “Look,” he said, on Marcelo T. Alvear. Two cars had collided and sat crumpled at the side of the road. Game over, I thought.

When I arrived to my friend’s apartment, he greeted me in his bathrobe. I asked if he wanted today’s paper. I could run down and get it.

“For what? In this country, whatever it is, it’s better not to know.”

1 comment:

Jack said...

Hello! I am enjoying your blog. I once endured a 45-hour bus ride from Las Leñas (near Malargue) to El Calafate. Saw the sunset twice and the sunrise twice from the bus! Fortunately I had a plane ticket back.