Thursday, July 5, 2012

In which I have another bus ride from hell

The next morning I was well enough to leave Salta. Jeff had left the day before for Bolivia. I was now on my own.

I traipsed down to the bus station and bought a ticket on the ironically-named Veloz del Norte. I hadn’t recovered enough to realize that the ticket agent was lying when he assured me that yes, the bus did have air conditioning. I thought I was being so savvy to know to ask that question. Ha. I was no match for nefarious ticket agents working on commission. My guidebook said that the trip to Formosa (on the border with Paraguay) took twelve hours. The ticket agent told me it took twenty-one. I was not thrilled but decided that the guidebook must have a typo. I bought a newspaper, a bottle of water and a bag of crackers and climbed on the bus.

At 8:00 a.m., it didn’t matter much that the air conditioning wasn’t turned on (I assumed that’s why it wasn’t working) but the day got hot quickly. I tried to open my window and discovered it was jammed shut. Opening it wouldn’t have made much difference, considering we were puttering along at 15 mph, with a passenger pickup thrown in every 20 minutes. Once we left the paved road, we slowed further. On a road made of sand and full of potholes, you can’t go very fast.

By now it was really hot -- around 95 degrees -- and the seat next to me had been filled by a middle-aged, pot-bellied, toothless man who bought a beer at every stop. At first I was amazed at the apparent size of his bladder, but then realized that despite the two liters of water I had consumed in the past three hours, I had no bathroom needs. I was sweating everything out. (Good thing, too. The toilet on the bus could not be locked from the inside. With all the jolting the bus was doing, the door flew open at will.)

When we stopped for driver breaks, everyone climbed slowly out of the bus. We jostled listlessly for the few shady spots to be found and stood still, hoping for a stray breeze. But the air never moved. The sun blazed and dried the flat, empty terrain even more. There were no signs of vegetable life. Everything was brown and dusty.

Eight hours into the trip, I mustered the energy to confront the bus driver. “Hey,” I said. “Why don’t you turn on the air conditioning?”

“There is no air conditioning on this bus,” he sniffed.

“Yes, there is,” I insisted. “I asked the ticket seller.”

The driver looked at me as if I were crazy. “Why would he tell you that?” he asked. “This is servicio común. Everyone knows there is no air conditioning on servicio común.”

“Well, I didn’t know that,” I argued. “And I asked specifically.”

“There is no air conditioning,” he told me flatly, then turned away. Highly annoyed but lethargic, I dragged myself back to my seat and dug out my ticket. On the ticket was printed “aire condicionado.” Triumphantly, I returned to the driver and waved the ticket in his face. Unfortunately, we still didn’t get any air conditioning.

The trip dragged on. My seat partner continued to drink and I envied him his inebriation. A slow drunk might not be such a bad way to suffer through this trip.

At hour 12, the boy two seats ahead of me started to play with a squealing toy gun, waving it around and making horrible noises with it. I looked around in disbelief at the other passengers as they failed to exhibit the appropriate amount (that is, any) of annoyance with the child. His parents did nothing to stop him. Desperation forced me to take matters into my own hands. I stood, leaned forward, and waited for him to turn my way. When he did, I snatched the gun away and sat. “HEY!” he protested. I was unmoved. I’m sure that the other passengers must have been applauding me, the Savior of the Peace, in their minds.

I heard English behind me. I turned and saw a couple who were obviously American. They were talking about Chile and I could bear to eavesdrop no longer; I had to throw in my two cents.

“Are you a Peace Corps volunteer?” they asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “How did you know?” I was really surprised.

“Because we’ve been traveling in South America for two months and the only Americans we’ve seen -- and there have been hardly any -- have been Peace Corps volunteers.”

I was relieved it wasn’t something about my clothes that had given me away. Don’t all South American women wear khaki skirts and tennis shoes? (I found what they said to be true as I traveled. Europeans, Israelis, Japanese and Australians come to South America, but Americans don’t. I didn’t start to see American tourists until I got to Costa Rica.)

At hour 14, after someone had thrown up two seats behind me and the attendant refused to clean it up, I met Lars, a Danish nurse who was on his way to Brazil. He regaled me with his tales of Brazil: he’d been robbed at knife point there by a gang of small boys who’d left him nothing but his underwear.

Then he gave me the depressing news. “Did you know,” he confided, “that there is a tourist class bus with air conditioning and videos that makes this trip in only 12 hours?” Just what I wanted to hear.

All I want to do is sleep,” I told him.

"I have some good sleeping pills!” he volunteered. I took the pills, which didn’t help me to sleep (I was distracted when a rod cracked loose from the ceiling and fell onto my seatmate) but did help me not to care so much about my sweaty, dusty discomfort.

Twenty-three and a half hours after we left Salta, we arrived in Formosa. I immediately boarded a bus to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, and arrived at the border three hours later. The Argentine authorities inspected my passport, then handed it to some Paraguayans.

“Do I have to show my passport on the Paraguay side now?” I asked.

“No,” the Paraguayan soldier answered me. “We check them over here because we don’t have any computers. Argentina lets us use theirs.”