Route: Buenos Aires (Argentina) – Tacna (Peru) [via Chile]
Bus company: Cata Internacional
Cost: 1200 Argentine Pesos
16:40 [19th May] – 00:30 [22nd May] (55:40 hours)
|19-May||16:40||Leave Buenos Aires|
|11:45-12:45||ARG-CHILE Border||(1 hour)|
|21-May||20:20-22:50||CHILE-PERU Border||(2:30 hours)|
The bus arrived 6 minutes before its departure time. My seat was wide and comfortable, lush leather in blue and black. I have my own television, and immediately I have visions of watching a hundred films that haven’t even come out in the cinema, fixing my eyes open with metal pincers and ignoring their red swelling so that I can eek those last few films out before the bus stops.
The seat is on the bottom floor – protected from the screaming children upstairs (in semi-cama) – by a glass screen. I’m at the back next to an empty seat. A strategic decision on my part: South Americans tend to flock towards the front of the bus, like street-sellers to a gringo, and so your best bet for bagging a double seat is to go for the back. I snuggle into the puffy leather, tilt my seat back as far as it goes, knowing that there’s no chance of crushing anyone’s legs – something I have been victim to countless times – and begin the long satisfying process of drawing up my film-watching schedule. Unfortunately I soon find out that I have no control over my tv, except to adjust the volume and turn it on or off. It seems I’ll be at the mercy of the driver’s choices.
We leave at 16:40, stated departure time 16:30. Not bad by Argentine standards.
The first meal, dinner, comes out as the second film begins – flashes of the Rock’s glistening muscles, in a muscle car, doing something violent which involves vein-popping flexing of muscles. Dinner is… deep breath…compose yourself before the shock of the new…could it be? … no, surely not! … jamón y queso! Yes, my final dinner in Argentina is ham and cheese, accompanied by a square piece of bread and an empanada the size of my thumb. There’s some suspicious-looking rolled spongy thing (matambre?) that, after prodding with my plastic knife and checking for signs of life, I nibbled at tentatively before deciding that it just wasn’t worth it.
To my surprise and uncontained delight – in the face of which the waiter seemed rather perplexed – this was just the starter. The main course, wrapped up in tin foil, was stringy onions and soggy potatoes and pleasingly tender beef, best described as superior aeroplane food. So my last dinner in Argentina wasn’t just jamón y queso, it was carne too…
Despite the stifling heat of the bus – South American buses generally turn the air-conditioning on at night, when it’s cold outside – the man in front has only just taken off his thick sheepskin fleece (leaving just a vest and t-shirt and shirt and hoody). He’s the type that speaks extremely loudly on the bus, apparently unaware that his phone call to his mother is not a public happening, and who leans his seat back to its fullest extent after 5 minutes on the bus, in full daylight, goes on to ratchet it up and down several times like a child trying out a new toy, and then settles once again on the bone-crushing full lean.
Quickly I am forced to uncross my legs (like all middle class people with the pretension of being cultured I naturally sit cross-legged), then I must throw them to one side as the terrible spectre of the black leather chairback plummets towards my knees in slow-motion like a mighty falling tree. Adjusting my own seat allows me to sit in some recognisable form, albeit with my legs virtually straight.
In short, the man in front of me is discourteous. I sit on the opposite end of the spectrum, too far up the other end in fact, which is why I cannot possibly entertain the idea of asking the driver to lower the temperature to a more manageable 50˚C, for fear that the turning the air-conditioning knob might cause offence, and why before tilting my chair back I checked with the wall behind that it wouldn’t be made uncomfortable.
We arrived in Mendoza at 5:45am to the sound of money-changing men going through their routine like a muted trumpet farting repeatedly: cambio, cambio, cambio. For some reason they all sold Brazilian Reales, which seemed a bit odd considering we were on the border of Chile and Argentina, a two-day bus ride from Brazil.
Money-changers must all learn The Chant – cambio, cambio, dolares, pesos reales, euros, cambio, cambio – from each other, from the older wiser changers. They learn when young, walking the streets and lingering around the terminals, and then, when the time comes, they must present themselves before a jury of elders and demonstrate their chant. These elders check for the optimum nasality, the appropriate irritation induced in the listener, and the proper speed of delivery so that the listener distinctly hears the word ‘cambio’ and then continues hearing it echoing like a bell long after the money-changer’s chant has died away, and at the same time the listener barely hears the currencies mentioned in between the bookending ‘cambios’ and instead hears whichever currency he desires to hear. Such is the magic of The Chant. If all is well the moneychanger enters the guild and is let loose on the streets with real – and fake – money. The Chant hasn’t changed in so long that no-one thinks about the meaning of the words; indeed, if I’d asked a moneychanger for Brazilian Reales he no doubt would have looked at me, perplexed, before condescendingly reminding me of our situation: in the desert before the mighty Andes heading for Chile.
Remember that Chile likes to think of itself as a Western country, which means that their border control people make a special effort to be pedantic. I had a bag of fruit that I intended to throw away before crossing the border. There were no rubbish bins before the ‘hall of declaration’ so I didn’t get the chance, and I signed a document declaring that I had no fruit. When the lady saw that I did in fact have fruit she looked at me and effectively said “What the fuck? Are you stupid?”. I told her that I was going to throw them away and gave them to her to put in the bin; but instead of throwing them away she weighed them, ripped up my declaration, lectured me about ‘multas’ (fines), and then made me fill out another form.
Her: You can’t take fruit through the border.
Me: I know, that’s why I was going to throw this away.
Her: It says it in English too.
Me: It’s badly translated, it actually says you can’t take vegetables through the border.
Her: Just fill out the form.
After the border crossing the road snakes down through snow-blanketed valleys, all the while surrounded by some of the tallest Andean peaks. We are given ample time to contemplate the beauty of these mountains thanks to a line of lorries as long as the road that is doing precisely nothing. Some of the drivers lean against their lorries. Others make hotdogs using the grill that folds out from the box sitting halfway along the trailer part of the lorry. A family get out and throw snowballs at each other. I fall asleep.
When I awake the valley is awash with golden leaves and cypress-like trees protect small farm buildings from the unrelenting wind. Along a river weeping willows shimmer and sparkle with autumnal yellows and greens. We stop for lunch and I eat chicken and rice for 3500 Chilean pesos ($7 US!).
On the border I’d exchanged a few left-over Argentine pesos for Chilean pesos thinking that it’d be impossible to spend them otherwise. This was a mistake. At the restaurant where we stopped they accepted Argentine pesos. For the rest of the trip I’d be carrying around my extra Chilean pesos. I used them once more: to show my friend what the Torres del Paine look like.
We didn’t stop again for over 24 hours. This was understandable, since north of Santiago there isn’t really anywhere to stop – that is, living beings fled this part of Chile a while back leaving behind only sand, sandy hills, sandy humps on which bushes cling like grazing animals, and three electricity wires.
These are the films I’ve watched so far:
The Dictator – how could you make something so awful Sacha Baron-Cohen?
Faster – formulaic but fun revenge romp starring the Rock’s muscles
Blind Side – irritating white people save black people but you’re not allowed to say that it’s message is disconcerting because it won an Oscar
A Good Day to Die Hard – sleep-inducing explosion orgy
Shooter – superior action thriller. Everyone loves snipers.
Iron Man – anything that makes nerdy engineers look cool must be good
Taken – satisfyingly formulaic, shamelessly wooden dialogue: a wonderful film
Broken City – slightly confusing thanks to the pirate audio and sleeping through large chunks
Wall Street 2 – pretty shitty sequel
The Vow – an oddly hipster Channing Tatum harasses a girl who doesn’t know him
Avatar – it’s really long
Lunch is pork and rice, apparently. It’s a bit difficult to tell because I can’t actually cut into the meat with the knife provided. Thankfully the waitress sees my plight and brings me the sharpest knife in the village, allowing me to confirm my suspicion that the rubbery substance on my plate was once a malnourished pig. It costs me a ludicrous 80 Argentine pesos and I try not to think about all the empanadas I could buy for that…
Ten. Ten tasty ones. From the local panaderia. Hmm… ten empanadas.
Back in the bus and the man in front of me is busy trying to remove his scalp. He lies back and scratches furiously, as if being attacked by a thousand ants, and I watch the specks of white floating up like burnt paper then gently falling and finally settling on the chair and my trousers. Thanks.
It takes two and a half hours to get into Peru. We spend most of the time waiting for our bags to be checked. We also suffer at the hands of a mischievous bus driver who tells his fifty-or-so passengers to run straight around our neatly formed line, which his passengers do, grim-facedly gripping their identity cards and papers, and presently create a line parallel to ours which at some point becomes the official line.
The later it gets the more I begin to worry. Before I was hoping that every delay would stretch itself out, calculating that if we were delayed just the right amount then we would arrive in Tacna at around 5am, thereby enabling me to hop straight onto a bus to Arequipa. Unfortunately we’ve now been delayed for just the wrong amount of time, and I calculate that we’ll arrive in Tacna at around 1am: too early to take a bus and too late to book into a hotel. And apparently Tacna is cold. Bugger.
Dinner wastes more time. I order lomo saltado without knowing why: it’s midnight, I’m not really hungry and it’s overpriced. At first I’m by myself, the gringo apart, feeling a bit like the school kid who isn’t allowed to sit at any of the other tables because he can’t whistle, or because he’s got ginger hair, or combed hair, or some other arbitrary reason for exclusion.
Eventually the buxom girl with blonde highlights came and sat with me. Holding conversation wasn’t easy – by that stage I’d worked out that Peruvian small talk deals almost exclusively with the relative cost of things and, knowing nothing about typical prices for lomo saltado in Peru, I had little to offer in this department. At one point I relinquished the tantalising fact of how much shepherd’s pie costs in a typical English pub; but no-one seemed to care.
After much prodding and encouraging I managed to get out of my only friend that she’d lived in La Plata for 6 years working as a nurse and would come back for 3 months every year to see her two boys: four and seven years old. She sends money back to them in Lima, although what she sends back is worth less and less. But even though the Argentine peso is devaluing faster and faster it is still worth her while to stay in Argentina: there they pay 4 times what she would earn in Peru. She dreams of one day leaving Peru without having to leave her boys behind. As we leave the bus terminal she buys a smartphone from a street-seller for $200 US. “I can sell it to a cousin in Lima for twice as much.” I don’t doubt her; border towns are always the best places to buy cheap stuff.
As feared, we arrive at the terminal in Tacna at 00:30. It’s long and dark and quiet. The only place that’s open is a brightly-lit restaurant catering for lost men. The bus to Arequipa doesn’t leave until 4:15am.