After 3 days on a cargo ship and 4 days camping in a hammock in the jungle there was only one logical next step. I flew to Lima and hopped on the next bus…to Buenos Aires. It took 73 hours to get there but by calendar days it took 4. I left lima at 7pm on Saturday and arrived in Buenos Aires Argentina on Tuesday at 8pm. Up until this point my bus experiences had been rather luxurious. The chairs sometimes reclined to a full bed, they provided blankets and pillows and I got three meals a day. Oh, and they play bingo for free fuckin’ bus tickets. Four days of this would be a piece of cake. Then the bus pulled up. From the outside I could still lie to myself, repeating scenes of comfortable bus rides through my mind, telling myself the windows are too tinted to see what the inside REALLY looks like. I boarded. My chair reclined at a whopping 110 degree angle, thus leading to 3 nights of painful slumber with some small, dandruff ridden Peruvian teenager spooning me on my left hand side.
The oldest woman I’ve ever seen in my entire life was on that bus. Thank God I was sitting in the back and she in the front because she had completely lost control of her bladder and spent the next 4 days peeing on herself. Even after the explicit warning given to us by the bus driver to NOT under ANY circumstances take a dump in the bus bathroom, she managed to make a massive mess of it on the FIRST night. I woke up at 6am to a blaring speaker above my head repeating disappointedly in Spanish, “well, unfortunately last night somebody violated the bathroom… we would like to remind you that if you need us to make a special stop, just let us know.” The bathroom was a feat within itself. It was in the back of the bus so if you could manage to keep your balance even just standing in the bathroom, you were one of the lucky few. The toilet seat was heavily spring loaded so to maneuver this contraption I would stand on the seat, cover it in toilet paper, turn around with one of my feet still perched on the seat and simultaneously sit down and pull my foot out from under me. Getting off the toilet also required some ingenuity that consisted of standing up faster than the toilet seat flung back onto its place on the wall as to not get hit on the ass by a nasty plastic donut.
We arrived at the first border crossing late on the second night. Hours before, while one of the bus drivers was walking past me down the aisle he laughed and pointed at me and a Colombian couple saying, “now YOU guys are definitely going to have problems crossing the border.” He told us that we may have to bribe the border officers to let us into Chile. We were both prime drug trafficking targets, I guess. Triple checking my information card I got out of the bus and was herded into an outdoor, caged in area with metal tables. There were about 15 of us in the barred area and 150 standing at the regular border control entrance. All the bags from under the bus were piled on the sidewalk except one, my lone backpack was personally escorted into the cage and put on a table. We lined up outside a door and when it was my turn I was escorted into a room alone with an officer. The series of rapid-fire questioning went from intimidating to bizarre.
“where are you from?”
“how long were you in Peru?”
“a month and a half.”
“How old are you?”
“4..i mean 24.” (Thanks Spanish minor.)
“why were you in peru?”
“what did you do there?”
“I went to Lima, Cusco, Mancora and Iquitos mainly.”
“do you have a boyfriend?”
“what? Uh, no?”
“why doesn’t a pretty girl like you have a boyfriend?”
“uh....I’m too young and free spirited to have a boyfriend?”
he seemed satisfied with my ridiculous answer and, bewildered, I left the room only to be shuffled off to another line, and then pushed into another small room with 2 other girls. We were in a bathroom now, this time with a woman officer. I thought of all the logical reasons I would be standing in a bathroom at border control with a female officer wearing rubber gloves; none of them were appealing. She put my purse on the toilet and sifted through it, she asked me a question that I didn’t understand to which I replied “yes. Wait, WHAT?” realizing this was not a good time to fake my way through a conversation. She asked the rest of the questions in English and let me leave. Is this all for show? What was the point of barricading me in that bathroom? Is this all just to provoke fear? I followed orders to wait in the next line, when I got up to the counter the woman behind the desk held her hand out for my passport and papers. She got out a pen and paper and did some simple math, turned the paper towards me and said, “you’re visa here ran out 7 days ago. You were supposed to leave last week.” I feigned for a second that I didn’t know until I realized she wasn’t going to give me any easy answers. So I cut the bullshit and just said, “soo…I can pay you? “ she agreed and off again I went, corralled back into the caged area outside. This time another male officer unloaded the same series of questions on me as the first, including the part about the boyfriend. But, he also added that I should just stay in Peru to find a nice man to marry. I told him my visa was expired. He took apart my entire backpack, put it all back together, I got back on the bus and off we went.
The Argentinian border crossing was a longer, slower line but there were no private rooms and the man behind the counter didn’t say a word to me. The downfall of this border crossing was that the previously noted, oldest-woman-in-the-world got in line behind me and had NO personal space boundaries. She fully pressed every part of her body against mine. She smelled like piss. I inched toward the person in front of me in hopes to sneak away from her, this was to no avail. My movement forward was her queue to push into me harder, I started moving a little to the left and forward until she had completely pushed me out of line! Then, without missing a beat, she pushed up against the next person.
We lost 4 people at the Argentinian border. For one reason or another they were not allowed in and we left them curbside as we bumbled off into the Argentine distance.
On our way into Argentina one of the bus drivers took time out of his day to walk down the aisles handing out pills…he didn’t tell anyone what they were for until he was asked. They were pills for altitude sickness, he said. I am so sure you cannot just take one altitude sickness pill it is ridiculous.
We drove for hours, maybe an entire day through Argentina without seeing anything except vast expanses of desert. When we did reach a town we were immediately pulled over by the Argentinian police. They helped themselves to the baggage area under the bus and began opening things. We all crowded around the windows to call out descriptions of the bags they were searching: “who has the Winnie the pooh bag?! They’re opening a Winnie The Pooh bag!” they tossed the contents onto the dirty edge of the highway as the owner looked on helplessly. Everyone on the bus looked concerned, even my new 4 year old best friend Angie kept squishing her face up against the window saying “la policia hacen cosas malas. Estan muy malas.” (“the police do bad things. They are very bad”). The Peruvian stance on police is clear, they are not to be trusted. But it was when they required everyone to leave the bus when I saw faces really drop. We stood outside the bus for a while waiting to be allowed back on. One man was making a deal with the officers while they filtered through his luggage. They were separating his things under the blind assumption that he was going to Argentina to sell them. In the end he got to keep half of his things, the police loaded up the other half into their car. When we finally were allowed back on everybody ran to their things, unpacking objects and counting money. Several people called to me, “check to make sure nothing is missing! Check all of your stuff!” I guess a common tactic is to empty the bus and steal the passenger’s valuables. Checking to make sure all my things were still in my bag Angie strode by shaking a snack box where she had hidden her altitude sickness pill, sing-songing about all of her new bus friends and how bad the police were.
By the time I got off the bus in Buenos Aires my entire bag and its contents were soaked in somebody’s spilled bottle of juice, my feet were swollen twice their normal size and I was ready for anything Buenos Aires could throw at me.
I stroke of massive good luck must have put us all at the same place at the same time. At the America Del Sur hostel in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires I met an incredible group of people. The group gained and lost awesome people over the two weeks I spent there and each person I met contributed to an amazing experience. We ate too much meat, we drank too much liquor and it was faaabulous. We staked out the local places to eat: Hugo made us incredible empanadas, Jose made us fantastic ravioli and some guy down the street made the biggest meatballs I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Think: grapefruit.
I became accustomed to buying my liter of “vodka” for $3 at the local supermarket. I say “vodka” because I was informed later by our friendly receptionist Nacho (while he poured himself an entire glass of it), “how can you DRINK this stuff? Its not even vodka! Its just watered down rubbing alcohol!” That was around the same time that he found a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and we shared a small glass of that as well.
My timing for being in Buenos Aires was perfect. We were in the Plaza Del Mayo on the night of the presidential election for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s inaugural speech. The night was pure latin American chaos and exuberance. The parades of people with M80 mortars, fireworks and drums blocked streets from all sides of the Plaza. We walked down the middle of a main avenue as people dressed in costumes paraded around celebrating the election. Her speech was positively received by the people with a great passion, booing and cheering at appropriate times. Every once in a while they would begin chanting “Hijo de puta! Hijo de puta!” although I missed who they were referring to… When the Argentinian people feel passionate enough about something to form large groups it gets intense. The celebration looks like a mix between the most ridiculous party you’ve ever seen and Armageddon.
We were also present in Buenos Aires for the conviction of Alfredo Astiz, also known as the “blond angel of death”. He was a lieutenant at the torture center where so many innocent lives were imprisoned and executed. After 30 years this is a small amount of justice for the families of “los desaparecidos” (‘the disappeared’), but a justice none the less. We went to the Plaza de Mayo for the first gathering of the Madres de los desaparecidos (mothers of ‘The Disappeared’) after he was convicted and sentenced, it was an emotional site to see all the families gathered with picket signs of photos of their lost children. They gather and march there every Thursday, but this Thursday had even more significance. Alfredo Astiz and 17 other men had been punished for their crimes, this Thursday was their moment to celebrate this small justice that had been served.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, but as all big cities are, it is not without its faults. Two guys I met, on separate occasions, were lulled into a bar with the promise of free admission later only to be trapped inside and robbed. Another friend was standing outside the hostel and blindsided by some random guy who, out of nowhere, decked him a couple of times in the face. Having no forewarning, and with his hands in his pockets, there was nothing he could have done. They guy ran off, stealing nothing, and left my friend with two different sized pupils for a week.
Now, I’ve moved south to a small town called El Calafate, a few hundred miles from the southernmost tip of South America. As soon as I stepped off the plane I felt like I was breathing for the first time in my life. The air is crisp and clean and the scenery is beautiful. We are very close to a few glaciers, one of which I got to visit. Amazing, beautiful, incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever seen..
I’m working here in El Calafate for a month as a receptionist / arts and crafts extraordinaire at a hostel owned by a woman named Natalia who is wonderful, accommodating in every way and absolutely hilarious! It’s gonna be a good month.