Epic four-day bus ride through Argentina: Day 1

So far on my trip I’ve managed to avoid any truly lengthy bus rides – often a hallmark of friends’ travels in South America – but that all changes over the next four days, as I take a series of buses from Buenos Aires all the way to Ushuaia in the far south.

Friday, December 26
21:15 – I hug and kiss goodbye friends from puerto limon one by one, already feeling low and wishing I had a few more days with them. Secretly I also wish for the bus to break or get delayed so I can squeeze one more night in, even though that would wreak havoc on my planned trips. But it’s not meant to be, and I get to the bus station with plenty of time to spare and the bus is where it’s supposed to be and we leave exactly at the time printed on my ticket and before I have time to think about it Buenos Aires is passing sedately by my window seat on the upper floor. I put on some Regina Spektor as we drive through the city and cry a little. I’m sad, but it also feels good to cry… Like a tribute to the depth of my feelings for the people I met and the time I spent in the city. It feels like a fitting conclusion to these seven weeks, and even though I would like to stay, I feel a sense of closure and readiness to move again.

22:57 – I realize that this isn’t a direct bus from buenos aires to Sierra de la ventana – we’re going to be stopping at a number of stations along the way. I sleep well on buses, but tend to wake up every time we stop. Okay, I think, so that’s how this night is going to go.

Saturday, December 27
1:07 – I drift in and out and realize after a while that we’ve been stopped too long for a normal pause to pick up passengers. I see we’re on the side of a road, the bus idling. I join a few passengers milling around outside. “El micro se rompio?” “Si”. Yes, the bus broke down. Maybe I’m not leaving buenos aires tonight after all. I try to sleep but feel nervous that I might miss an announcement or instructions, as I assume the company is going to send a replacement bus later.

2:04 – I fall asleep anyway but wake up when the relief bus arrives. On the way to the new bus I double check with the drivers that our luggage will get transferred over to the new bus. They give me a bored nod, but I don’t actually see my big bag get loaded on to the new bus. It’s probably fine, but I also make a quick mental action plan in case it’s forgotten, and thank myself again for packing all the really important stuff in the daybag I carry with me.

6:00 – alarm. I set it last night when our arrival time was still projected for 6:45. It’s fog and rosy dawn all around us. After a few minutes we’re at a terminal. Is it mine? How do I tell? There are no signs. The other passengers are just as confused as I am, but eventually we work out that Sierra de la ventana is still a couple of hours away. I realize now that I had no way of knowing where to get off since the drivers don’t seem to be announcing the names of the stops. This worries me, but several other passengers are headed the same way, so I figure between all of us we’ll figure it out. I sleep again.

8:30 – I wake up and meditate. Listen to music. Look out the window. This could be northwestern Nevada, near the border with Oregon – rolling, yellow grassy fields with low scrubby bushes and bare rocky hills in the distance. It makes me miss Nevada, and feel grateful that I lived there, and wonder if maybe I want to go back and stay some day.

I think, well this is it! I’m exploring Argentina!

And just as I think this, the bus slows down and pulls off onto the side of the road, stopping to idle. The drivers get out and walk around to the engine. Did they really manage to break a second bus?

8:45. The bus starts up again. Please, I think, no more two hour delays…

8:50 – we pull into a service station. The drivers get out and I see them fill a pathetically small watering can and walk to the back of the engine with it. Lord have mercy.

9:00 – the bus pulls back on to the road.

9:05 – the bus pulls off the side of the road again and we turn around in a dirt driveway, heading back toward the service station. Crap.

9:11 – back at the service station, I see a man who I think was on the bus before. Did we leave without someone and have to go back??

9:15 – apparently, yes. We start down the road to Sierra de la ventana again. 57 kilometers to go. Fingers crossed.

9:25 – the bus pulls off the road again. Emotional roller coaster. Will we ever get there? While we’re stopped I look at the landscape. It reminds me of Lamar valley in Yellowstone. I remember the word for landscape, paisaje, and how I keep confusing it with pasaje, the word for bus ticket, and amuse myself by wondering what they might think if I walked into the bus office and asked to buy the countryside.

9:30 – a door slams somewhere in the bus and we start again.

10:00 – finally, unbelievably, we arrive at Sierra de la ventana. I didn’t need to worry about knowing if it’s the right stop – there are signs everywhere. I’m even able to leave my big bag at the bus office for the day and walk to the tourist office to locate the essentials – coffee, internet, and a bike rental company.

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12:45 – much-needed lunch by a river. Families have their cars parked along the banks in the shade and kids are diving off trees. I chat with a few families in Spanish as they pass my seat and feel grateful for the time I put in practicing in buenos aires. I wouldn’t have been able to strike up a conversation with anyone here two months ago.

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13:45 – ride my rented bike along the river and climb a hill on the other side. If my mind wanders I can easily believe I’m walking up the hill behind the Customink office in Reno. Even the rocks look the same. The only thing missing is sagebrush. I scan the hills for points of pure white and flickers of motion that can indicate the presence of an animal. As I crest a rise in the landscape I see a herd of wild horses grazing about 500 meters away.

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14:25 – realize I’m horribly dehydrated after the hike and bike ride. Drag myself to an ice cream shop run by surly teenagers. Inhale a milkshake. The surly teenagers don’t sell water so I stumble to another heladeria to find some. I begin to feel quite ill so I sit and breathe deeply, guzzling cold water and reading to distract myself. The shop is empty except for me, the quiet tattooed young woman behind the counter, and a Doors greatest hits album filling the silence. I read my copy of the Little Prince in Spanish.

16:49 – it’s too hot to do anything and the shops are closed for siesta, so I lie in the grass of a park called Eva Peron and finish reading The Sun Also Rises. It turns out to be a slightly depressing choice for someone already feeling a little lonely, but Hemingway writes so damn well I can’t stay mad at him. The afternoon is dragging a bit and I have my next bus to catch just before 7. Time for one last wander down to the water before my next bus to Bahia Blanca and on to Puerto Madryn.

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