The truth about South American Buses
Tarde de mate by dhammza
Soundtrack: Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel helped the journey go smoothly.The good times couldn’t last forever. It was the end of our run: K and X continuing to south Ushuaia, and I was heading back to Santiago - to see a concert that I wasn’t even sure would be on because of the earthquake. But I had the ticket and it was expensive, so it was time to return...3000km is a long way to go on a bus. Fortunately the buses here are far different from England. It must be because of their minimal train services - everyone here takes the bus to get from one city to another. And because of the huge demand the market is booming and brimming with choice! Down at the bus station you can see rows and rows of different coloured buses, all operated by different companies, and that leave every 10 or 15 minutes. If you want to get to another city, you’re more likely to be told that the bus is full, than that there is no bus at all. They are also relatively cheap. Considering the distance you are travelling, and how much it would cost elsewhere to cover the same amount of ground, you get a really great deal. I paid in the region of £150 for my 3 day bus-ride back to Santiago, and I was in first class.
There’s another difference with buses in the UK, the quality. Buses here have different classes. In that way they’re really more like aeroplanes. I paid a bit extra to sit in first class because I knew I would be there for a long time, but Jesus, it was worth it! It was less a traditional bus seat and more like huge reclining leather armchair, with room to stretch your legs out, and a footrest. This was the kind of thing you see on the adverts for airlines; not the crowds of people crammed into economy, but the happy comfortable looking passengers in first class who are offered champagne while they laugh light-heartedly with their fellow passengers. For once that was me! We were even served hot food, but it couldn't all be wonderful - it was inedible.
As luck should have it, I was seated next to the only other English person on the whole bus. Her name was Alice, and we chatted and told each other stories of what we had been getting up to so far away from home. Her stories sort of trumped mine - she had spent 10 days climbing Aconcagua, a massive snow-topped mountain, with a team of professional climbers and product testers from The North Face sports company, all because a friend of hers was a professional climber and had told her they needed a helper to build fires and make tea etc. I’d been hiking in the hills around Fitz Roy for three days. Yeah, I was outdone.
She also taught me about something that I had seen everywhere but had not had the chance to properly experience... this drink they call Maté. Its a kind of tea made from a plant they call Hierba Buena (the good herb!), drunk from a gourd through a metal straw which filters out the leaves. The idea is that you use the same leaves and keep drinking and refilling it with water. Its not that nice on the first serving... very bitter, and very hot. But after a few refills the bitterness calms down and it actually becomes very pleasant - a warm herby tea which is supposedly good for troubled stomachs. But seemingly more important than the drink itself is the ritual that surrounds it: Maté is all about sharing. It is made to be drunk in groups, passed round a circle and enjoyed collectively. It is another part of the massive emphasis on social community that is present throughout South America. Even in informal settings, like on the bus, people offer each other maté, they share it and chat, even if they have never met before. It is even normal for people to ask for a small gulp of someone else’s, and it is rude to refuse. Imagine that, but in Europe - you’re drinking tea and someone comes up to you and says “alright mate, could I have a little sip of your tea?” You’d think they were mad!
Alice got off about 24 hours into the journey, and so I spent the rest of the time alternately reading and staring out of the window, wondering where the hell we were and how much further we had to go. For much of the way there was nothing to see out of the window but a bleak and featureless horizon.
I had left the gang on Sunday morning, and it was Tuesday afternoon by the time I reached Mendoza. In 48 hours I hadn’t stood up for longer than 5 minutes when we had stopped to pick up new passengers - in fact I worried I was at risk of having a DVT. I had minimal funds left so I decided not to stay in Mendoza for the night, just to hop back to Santiago as quickly as possible. After a few hours there, in which I spent my remaining Argentine pesos on local wine, I got on another bus, nowhere near as comfortable as the last. We crossed the border at 2am, which I don’t plan to do again (you try answering the questions of immigration officials in Spanish when you’re half asleep!), and I was back in Santiago by 5.
3000 kilometres in 3 days, non-stop. Done.
And I didn’t even get any stick about the Falklands.