March 15, 2024

Magic Bus


A good traveller must be able to get from Point A to Point B. I have always thought of myself as a good traveller--safe, courteous, savvy. I may not know the language of my destination (like Spanish), but I know enough to ask directions, buy a bus ticket, or ride the subway. Perhaps not as spontaneous or adventurous as Chatwin, but less careful than Bishop. I think I'm a rather quiet traveller, at least when I'm alone. I prefer watching quietly, from a particular corner.

I didn't really want to learn too much about Buenos Aires or Argentina before I left. I knew about as much as someone from my background could know about The Disappeared. I hadn't seen Evita starring Madonna but I knew the presidential palace was pink, in reference to the days when they washed such buildings in bovine blood. I had plotted on my guidebook maps, the locations of galleries and gay bars, Katie's hotel and school, but I purposefully avoided looking at photos of the most famous streets; looking at photos of where you'll be staying spoils the journey there. Thus was Athens, when viewed from the Acropolis, able to explode all of me imaginings of it and scatter all expectations to the farthest corners of the horizon, where the city itself disappeared in distant walls of smog.


Here is a photo of the last residence of Jorge Luis Borges. Borges spent the last years of his life behind one of these shuttered windows, on the corner of Maipu and M.T. Alvear (and just a block or so from Katie's hotel). I'm glad I didn't see a photo of this building before I visited. Instead, I only learned that it was there--represented by a black dot on my guidebook map. Had I seen it before, I would have been disappointed, perhaps a little depressed. But I had time to imagine the facade and so when I actually confronted the plain white face and shuttered windows, the effect was the particular kind of alchemy we travel to experience. And then to have spent hours and hours of Ave. Florida trying to replace shorts and shirts that had been stolen, walking up and down on the tiny white tiles, dodging folks handing out fliers and tango dancers and the endless crowds that pushed me back and forth until I had to do everything in my power not to put my cigarette out on their bare shoulders, only to learn that it was Borges's favorite street which he delighted in walking down, every morning, in his last years of blindess, from the apartment in Maipu to the library on Viamonte.

Air travel has many drawbacks for me. It's too quick and too detached from its points of departure and arrival. While there is a particular pleasure in getting on a plane at night in the dark and below zero weather of a northern hemisphere winter only to deplane twelve hours later onto the baking hot tarmac of a summer morning surrounded by palm trees, there's no sense of achievement, no connection to the in-between.

Bus travel, while slower, stays grounded to the lands in between, as empty as they may be. The pilot may tell us that our plane is 1,500 miles from Buenos Aires, but the view outside the window will never change. It will remain depopulated, only ever offering clouds or topography.

I had the opportunity to take overnight buses across the width of Argentina, from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, in the foothills of the Andes, and back. I may not have know very much about Buenos Aires before arriving, but I did research the bus system, and it was one of the things that excited me the most. The various classes of buses--from regular uncomfortable seating to high-class travel in which your seats fold out into beds at night. The main bus station in Buenos Aires is The Retiro, a transportation hub down the hill from Katie's hotel. Train station and bus station exist side by side between a jumbled mass of trashy bars and kioskos and newspaper stands, stinking foodmarts and cheap dollar stores selling luggage and trinkets. It was edgy--rough and dirty, jostling, shady and stinking of garbage at all hours of the night. The bus station itself had over a hundred "gates" at which buses were arriving constantly, all day and all night, for all points in Argentina and the rest of South America. My bus ride to Mendoza was in a semi-cama bus, not as comfortable as a cama bus (the one in which the chairs almost fully reclined). I caught it at nine pm for the fourteen hour bus ride to Mendoza. A large woman with a newborn baby took the seat next to me.

One the return I upgraded to a cama bus, and had a front-row seat to myself on the top deck of the bus, above the driver. 180 degrees of landscape--the low Pampas ground, a view taken up mostly by sky, and Orion cartwheeling. It was an uncanny view--reminding me of Canada or Western Minnesota, with something not quite right. The checkpoints set up by the army, the triumphal arches we drove under welcoming us into a new province, the families carrying baskets of medialunas that tried to flag down the bus so they could shop around their pastries. We'd pass through dusty anonymous towns, stray dogs lapping at puddles, immense showrooms of farming equipment, the occasional bar opening onto the street and spilling patrons and tables out into the dust. The beat-up Ford trucks circa 1960 full of freshly-picked grapes, waiting patiently at the closed gates of a local bodega. We were served a meal--it came cold, covered in shrink wrap. Some cold rice, a salami sandwich, a processed bun, and a strange jello that tasted like pumpkin. Then, an escalope and potatoes, hot, that tasted like machine parts and made me gag. A tiny thimble of communion wine. The movie was Starsky and Hutch. The entire ride was marvelous.

When I was young--between 7 and 12 years old--our family would take AMTRAK out west, to visit my uncle in Seattle and my grandma in Sacramento. My dad had fought in the Korean War as a paratrooper, but now he was afraid of flying and so we had to take the three day train trip from Duluth to Seattle instead of a five hour flight.

We always got sleeping compartments, and, without revealing my motive, I'd always finagle the bottom berth, which allowed one to lay flush against the wide picture window. I never failed to wake up near Spokane, and press my almost-naked body against the cool glass. This was done in secret--my body motionless against the window and my eyes wide-wide-awake, drinking in the empty dark town as the rest of my family snored away. Cities at night, from the train window, were always beautiful and mysterious (who is sleeping in the dark house right now? Why is this man driving around town at three in the morning?). I wouldn't be able to sleep after Spokane, staying awake for town after town as the train slid through back yards. Eventually, dawn would come and the streets of these towns would turn pinkish and washed out like a 70s film, losing their mystique.

It has to do with sight. Not really something new to look at--I still look forward to the bus ride from Duluth to Minneapolis, which I have taken scores of times--but something filmic. A purgatory in which the ocular takes over, flooding the brain.

The modernist notion that Life Is a Journey, ubi sunt, a journey toward death and the afterlife, a death drive, has given way to a conception of journeys as suspended animation--a train, bus, car, terminal as a non-space (à la Marc Augé).

I left for Mendoza on day ten of my vacation, after Buenos Aires had sufficiently ground me down, given me a sunburn and a cough, stung my eyes with diesel fumes. I left it for the meditative state of the bus: infantile, fixed as it is--uncritically--on the delight of perpetual motion. The scenes give way too quickly to fully comprehend, freeing the eye from the responsibility it accrues when one stays in a place long enough to see the same poor boy from the suburban slums juggling at the same intersection day after day, begging for change. When the bourgeois sign up for their package holidays and scripted bus trips to cathedrals and weeks spent in the Caribbean on a floating mall, it is this they are escaping, which, let's face it, nobody wants.

Posted by jason at 10:31 PM | Comments (0)