Monday, April 28, 2008

Bus Scare

Illustrations by the author

This being my first experience in a foreign country, one mistake was to think in terms of how things work in the USA. Up to now, I was giddy and gliding along enjoying the cheap rooms, cheap food, and extremely cheap transportation.

About transportation, does any blog mention how unbelievably, damn cheap the trains are? The above ground train from any station to any part of the city costs only .65 centavos, which is what, .22 cents in the US? It is barely worth the effort of adding the costs together.

However one should never fully trust the colectivo system in Buenos Aires. People have described the buses as dangerous, the driving of them that is, but that´s not the real problem--they are complex, complicated, and changing. All those one way streets in town means that the scenery will be different on the way back because they won´t use the same streets and then you need to get off nearby where you started from, but without an automated street announcer, it´s a guess as to which street is closest to the destination.

I get on the number 86 because that bus originally took me from the airport to the city center three days ago, and how unsafe can it be? Yes, this is night and I want to visit Rivadavia park, near 5000 Rivadavia, but so what? Anyway I have taken this bus before and know where it goes.

The 86 was heading down Rivadavia, then turned off onto a dark street with few lights and no people outside. It was 9pm, so that was kind of weird. I trusted that the bus driver knew what was happening.

The bus would turn left and turn right, heading down still more dark streets, and this didn´t feel like the airport route which I vividly remember as anyone´s first sighting of a foreign country in daytime is.

Some concern hit me because of not wanting to just exit onto dark streets with no people around and what else could I do? Even if I asked the driver where we were going, I likely couldn't translate the answer. So I said nothing and hoped we would see the city again. Unfortunately this didn´t happen.

Soon looking out the window showed fields as far as the eye could see, and at night the eye has limitations on distance. But it was totally blank except for a few pinpoints of light. My thinking now was: the trip away from the airport had somewhat flat scenery too, so maybe I can get off at the airport. It is only like 11pm now, so the airport would have people, right?´

Eventually the driver turned to me and asked me where I was going or wanted to go. All I said was "5000 Rivadavia" which he reacted to with disbelief. Now his language was making a show, and I pretended to listen and understand everything. One of the last things you want is someone yelling at you in a foreign language. Not only are bus drivers cranky here, but Argentina has a reputation for people disappearing, maybe people who make trouble on busses too. All this loud question and answer attracted a middle aged guy in a windbreaker jacket who approached to join in.

The guy talking with the driver kept trading sentences, and I heard the driver say in exasperation, "look, he said five, zero zero zero. He can´t even say "Cinco Mil Rivadavia, crazy Norte Americano", but the guy was much kinder when he said to me. "Hello, you must get off at the next stop with me." I just nodded because it was better to be directed than simply jump off the bus in the middle of nowhere. "you want to go to 5000 Rivadavia, yes? First we get off here."

Once we got off, the step was into a surreal scene of wandering animals, mothers holding infants, guys lining up under a bridge like going to work and smokey, burning piles of grass in any direction you looked. The lights would pierce through the smoke occasionally. How could all this be happening this close to midnight on a Sunday? All I thought about was ´boy you are really in South America now´.
I followed the man over and away from the bus. We stopped and he said, "don´t worry I am with the police" and pushed a badge into my face still in a black leather holder.
Then lifting up his shirt showed that a small handgun was being held by his belt, which he should not have done. I thought, ´my god, this is it. It ends here in South America...´ The smoke curled around my nostrils and I looked around for some sign of help. "It is very dangerous out here", and patted his gun once.

He ordered me to follow him and we crossd to the other side. "Wait, you wait here, right?" he told me. Visions of his friends driving up to kidnap me occupied my thoughts. After all there is even a name for these type of robberies, called Express Robbery, where they take you to the ATM for a complete withdrawl at gunpoint.

However soon enough another #86 coming from the other direction and people reacted normally by rousing themselvess to get on board. The guy told the driver something about taking "this muchacho" back to the city centre and opened a path for me to get on this bus. By now I felt he was really a cop who helped out a desperately lost Americano get back to the comfortable enviorns of the expected city life.

"Okay, you can get on now. Go back to Rivadavia from here. Good luck." I wanted to ask him, but where are you going. Are you coming too? which would have been unnecessary, so all I could do was choke out several "muchas gracias´s" in a row.
Again the driver seemed put out at being inconvenienced by a lost, lame, non-bilingual traveler huffed when I asked him a travel question.

The return trip was still really long, first seeing blankness like space itself outside the window, then followed by dark streets devoid of people or even dogs to
give a hint at the north-south-east-west of things. Feeling worried like during the outboard trip, I asked about the direction to the city centre, and the bus driver's response was something along the line of "sit down and shut up" in an exasperated tone. Being escorted by a cop counted for nothing among Buenos Aires bus drivers, certainly the ones I met tonight.

Just sitting still as ordered, the scene outside the window filled with businesses, and some people now occupied the corners. Another turn and the worst questions were answered by the sign that announced 3500 Rivadavia. I jumped off the bus at that point.

Asking several people waiting for a bus eventually got me on the #26 heading to the Obelisk, which I didn't want to believe fully until I finally saw that tall, marvelous structure looming ahead out of the darkness. The McDonalds was still open and filled with people, so I entered it hoping my nerves would do well with a capuccino. Only then could I feel that the bus adventure was really over.

After this I had the sense to take the colectivos during the day and to make the habit of jumping off once it turned any corner at all--which is stupid, but not having a map of the bus system, a Guia T, this was the only response. But not since have I under-estimated the sheer day-wrecking ability of the bus system here. After that I learned the pleasures of taking the subway because you rarely interact with the drivers and destinations are rather hard to change without notice.

Later I found out that there is a beautifully thought out computer model of the bus system, the Compu-map, that explodes out the routes of every bus in red, elegant zig zags. There are at least five different #86 busses with shorter and longer routes. One of the #86 lines crosses deeply into the county south of Capital Federal.

Days later I am armed with the Guia T, and ready to take Colectivos again; at least this was my attitude, but adjustment to them is not easy, and even three months later, I avoid taking them at night.

Illustrations by the author


Lucas.- said...

WAW! Quite an experience, eh?! Thanks God you're still alive...

Give us some updates!

You're a very brave guy. It's great to know the are people like you still around.

The best of the best!

Holly said...

My God! Gladly I can't say I've had a similar experience in Argentina... Pretty crazy, but I loved reading all about it!

Thanks for the comment on my Blog and yeah, Argentineans are quite passionate people. That I can say by personal experience...