Looking back it seems a bit random that my first bus journey in South America was also my longest (not counting the one in Bolivia which ended up taking a week because the road was washed away). But I guess I couldn’t have had a better introduction to my new home…
CAMA – 155; SEMI CAMA – 140, wrote the man at the ticket office, as he sipped from what looked like a sawn-off thermos flask overflowing with waterlogged marijuana.
“Cama...bueno?” said I in my one-day-old Spanish.
“Si,” he slurped, “Si.”
Encouraged by such an emphatic response, I pulled 125 pesos from my wallet and bought a cama ticket from Puerto Iguazu to Mendoza. On a roll now, I pointed at the thermos and asked another question:
“Mate.” Slurp. He wrote it on my ticket.
I had a couple of hours to spare, and I managed to stagger as far as a wooden shed, which by the looks of things was a baggage deposit. For three pesos, I was able to jettison my three fishing rods, my fly-tying kit, my collection of second-hand Russian Literature in translation, my rugby boots, and everything else that comprised my luggage; and go in search of food.
When I got back I was fat and happy and the bus was about to depart. The seat was big and leather. Bigger and more leathery than the seats I had walked past at the front of the bus. I was already congratulating myself on spending the extra 15 pesos. The seat next to mine was soon occupied. He took his shoes and his socks off. When in Rome, I thought, and did the same. At this stage I didn’t even notice the multitude of flaps and levers sprouting from my seat: I was too busy looking for my Spanish dictionary. Cama – bed. A bit of an exaggeration, I thought to myself, but advertisers are advertisers, wherever you are. The second definition was more confusing. Mate – matt; checkmate; (AM – hierba) maté. I knew that AM meant Latin American, so I’d just have to find out what hierba was.
But that could wait...there was champagne to drink! Okay, it was sparkling wine, and the glasses were plastic, but the guy who was serving it was wearing a bow-tie, which has got to count for something. I chinked glasses with my neighbour and introduced myself. His name was Jorge Falco and he worked for an industrial filters company in Brasil. I found all of this out so quickly because he gave me his card.
It took another 25 hours and 42 minutes and lots of thumbing through my dictionary to discover that he was going to Cordoba to visit his ailing mother; that Che Guevara grew up in a small town outside Cordoba called Carlos Paz; and that mate is a kind of green tea which you drink at just below boiling point, unless you’re in Paraguay where you drink it chilled.
In a small town called El Dorado, whose streets were paved with dust, we picked up a young lady called Natalia who I fear may be the only thing worth mythologising about her hometown. She sat next to Jorge and she joined us in time for our first glass of whisky. She didn’t have a card, and it took me the best part of 15 hours to eventually work out – whilst struggling to enjoy a violently sweet coffee and a strange meat-filled dumpling in a rundown truck-stop at 5am – that she was studying law in Cordoba. To be honest, though, it wasn’t really her academic career which interested me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: after the whisky came dinner, which was served with wine; and after supper came another whisky; and then a complicated ritual of finding shoes and socks and putting them on again and going to perform ablutions; and after that another round of champagne, which nullified the brushing of teeth and meant that shoes had to go back on and the ‘bathroom’ had to be revisited.
Eventually, though, it was time for bed. I took Jorge’s lead, and wrestled with my seat: the partition which had been so irritating whilst looking for shoes suddenly came into its own and formed a nice little platform. I put my feet up and – with a little too much gusto – pulled the lever which I thought would allow the backrest to tilt. Instead the entire seat lurched up and back. The headrest cushioned my impact with the back of the bus, and the overall motion of the transformation performed some kind of chiropractic wizardry on an old rugby injury.
Before I knew it, it was over. I had been taught in half a painful second that when Argentine bus companies say cama they sure as hell mean bed. I was completely horizontal, and my feet weren’t even touching the bed in front of mine.
My memories of that night are vague: I woke up occasionally when we stopped to pick-up or drop-off passengers; and I’ll never forget the agricultural police who searched my bags for fruit. Somewhere along the line Jorge and Natalia were replaced by a pair of Belgians with whom I would end up exploring Mendoza for a few days. Soon, the time came for them to leave, but I would stay. Three more years to be exact.
Since then I’ve made hundreds of bus trips in just about every country in South America, but none of them have ever been quite as special as that first one. I’ve travelled close to 15,000 miles. I’ve won on-board bingo (once) and I’ve watched enough Beach Boys videos to last a lifetime. I’ve been pickpocketed once (but it was my fault) and I’ve learnt that although air-conditioning isn’t always your friend, no air-conditioning is always worse.
Credit to Hannah Webb for all the photos used in this blog.