South America 2012-2013: Death Bus To Córdoba, Argentina

Okay, fine, "death bus" is way overstating the case. One needs only to look at neighboring Bolivia for a reality check. In any event, too, the price differentials available when I buy my one-way ticket to Córdoba aren't all that varied. 750 pesos gets you a regular seat, 800 a somewhat more executive and spacious one, and 850 for really exactly the same thing - but on a bus consisting *only* of said seats. It also takes two hours fewer, the obvious benefit of being a non-stop. I happily plunk down for the two hour savings, NOT the promised attendant that should cater to my every desire (as I'm told).

The sleek behemoth pulls into the station almost precisely at the prescribed 2 p.m., then we pay a man (seemingly not an employee of the bus company) to stuff our bags with "care" for a tip that really is given as insurance against revenge. To the latter action I loathe the change taking place in Argentina - this used to always be free, expected in paying for the bus ticket in the first place. Anyway, we board our vessel quickly and the shiny beast rolls out.

Almost immediately, our attendant(/stewardess/waitress?) comes over the intercom system for a one and only time over the next twenty-two hours: "Welcome aboard, our driver is Juan Gonzales (maybe), etc." Then, in a firmer voice: "The bathroom is for liquids, not solids. I repeat, for liquids NOT solids." Granted, this comes in Spanish, but I'm guessing even the possible one or two aboard who might not speak the language get the message. Then again, maybe that's why the night buses always leave around or after lunch into the night.

Next comes twenty-two hours of pure joy, naturally. Well, perhaps I overstate the case again: First come the Argentine rock videos, for instance. Then it's Mission Impossible #XXX, typically bloody onboard entertainment to surely entertain the young kids behind me with their sea of blood. Sigh. Fortunately, the view out the window is stunning, a promising contrast to having to wonder how much long the public at large should be able to stomach Tom Cruise. Blech.

Indeed, the vista afuera proffers a crystalline river that cuts through majestic assemblies of rock as we follow its route. Not far below us it wends about the random island it forms, allows beaches to serve as pullouts for any rafters (a number are visible), and begs ever more settings for vacation houses. Above, meanwhile, isolated massifs glare down at us with pride.

This goes on for hours, or at least it does as best as I can tell. I pass out, waking to a continuance of said beautiful landscape that I take to evidently be the tale for the entirety of a mission decidedly chosen not to be accepted. Not much later, however, the terrain changes to an ever-bleaker wasteland only broken by the presence of what I take to be a resevoir for some time in the distance. Maybe this is more hopefully described as range country. I don't know: all I see is a scrubland that stretches to eternity, now with any bluffs removed to a distance. There IS a line of green (trees) that evidently is where the river has gone. Hell, maybe it's a gaucho oasis. We fly on by.

Now we are following a fence that never ends, something to hem in an unending dry swamp of sharp-edged bushes from the road and, well, more sharp-edged bushes on the other side. I'm unavoidably saddened by this, but I've scribbled plenty about this now-ubiquitous phenomenon in the wilderness before. Same goes with the fact that there is a steady trickle of garbage that similarly never ends. This is mostly an array of ragged plastic bags, each hanging on for their dear inanimate lives to the bushes and the fence. Unfortunately, there is a just-as-regular supply of plastic bottles, broken glass, and chunks of rubber or metal that make for a rather not much more diverse mix. Has this stuff just been blowing forever down the road? Is it ever picked up or, even better, increasingly prevented against?

Such detritus pales, however, to my interest in the random clusters of houses I see. Some groupings might even go so far as to have a town's name. Piedra de Aguila is the only one I remember as such, but that's back where the pretty and the rock formations are up close and personal. The other examples of such brave attempts at settlement make less sense - especially from the perspective of a gleaming bus sliding past them as our attendant serves drinks. No, for every house being built it seems that another one or four is falling into decay. In fact, many appear to have been merely started before wising up. All seem shamefully naked and exposed to us fast-flying voyeurs.

Then again, it's always hard to tell in Latin America, where rebar is left sticking out of practically every wall for possible future expansion. Such evidence betrays my puzzlement as to why anyone ever moves to such places. Once there, is everyone merely just waiting for the first chance to move away? When we twice roar past a pretty girl with a bag at the side of the road, long bangs soon to be blowing in our dust, I can't help but guess at the answer.

Day gets toward evening, and once again I see we've entered the grandiose terminal of Neuquen - the shining citadel to transport in the middle of nowhere. I'm guessing it's a crossroads thing between Mendoza, Bariloche, Cordoba, and Buenos Aires [it is]. Whatever the case, we pick up our evening's food - a foil-wrapped entree harkening to the worst days of airline food, previously and latterly accompanied by an otherwise steady fare of highly-packaged odes to getting sugar into every item possible to ingest - and are on our way.

Again we suffer the exact same Argentine rock videos, I'm assuming a personal selection of our head-nodding attendant. Following this descent into rock, rap, and reggaetone with a dollop of video cheese, apparently the flick "Taken 2" is to be our evening's fare. Great - another violent stream of shootings and blood squirts to obviously ease us into gentle slumber. The kids behind me are wide-eyed in amazement yet again, taking in all the carnage available from the five screens hanging from the ceiling. I'm not sure if they shake because of the bus's trajectory or what's happening on them.

Darkness shortly robs us of our exterior views, of course. We are reduced to a sprinkling of lights in the distance that don't make for much to determine heads or tails of. I resign myself to squirming for the night in the comfort allowed by Premium Cama, waking in a daze to a changed landscape now with only a few hours to go. I now see farmer's fields of green to the horizon - so much for watching the Pampas fly by, as we've already cut through them - a house thrown in here and there to manage them, plus some gentle hills in the distance. We receive our final morsels of cookies, bars, and further treats to assure us the daily recommended Argentine intake of sugar, then settle in for The Three Stooges. Then we try the first twenty minutes again, before opting for Moneyball since the probably-illegal copy starts sticking. Good enough - and we ALMOST even finish the movie. Córdoba!
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