Worlds Apart: Night Bus to Salta

by Keith Savage · 39 comments


Argentine Sunset

“I’m going to Tucumán,” says Martín, the man sitting next to me in the double-decker bus’ top row. He is slight of frame with inky black hair, a touch of the Andean blood, so prevalent in Argentina’s northwest provinces, graces his features. We slouch in our comfy cama suite chairs and watch the throng of passengers swirling among the row of buses at Buenos Aires’ Retiro bus terminal. All the seats behind us are empty, but rather than being annoyed that we are forced to sit next to each other I am grateful for his company.

I’d just parted ways with a good friend and been swindled for 30 pesos by a taxi driver who tried to strip me of 45. To say I was not looking forward to an 18-hour bus ride would be perfectly accurate. I was truly on my own and heading to Salta, the destination I chose for my first trip. There comes a time for everyone when the world reveals its other, darker faces. It’s a darkness that can only be perceived by the eyes, not through books or documentaries. I don’t know what could have prepared me for what I saw along the way (and I’m not talking about the two hours of Bon Jovi videos).

*****

Within moments of boarding the bus it was backing out of the station. Lumbering through lanes of traffic heedless of other vehicles, pedestrians, or laws, I witness suddenly destitute neighborhoods with dirt-packed streets. We amble past Aeroparque and through the suburbs as the bus whines and rattles. Martín and I communicate through a combination of Spanglish and pantomiming. I show him photos of my wife, family, and friends, and attempt to describe the northwoods of Wisconsin. I then feel the now common swelling in my sinuses, like a warm breeze before a storm. Martín works as a programmer at a bank in Buenos Aires, and he’s going to Tucumán to visit his sister and her newborn.

We glide through heavy traffic and past a Wal-Mart of all places. Then the city is gone. It is familiar countryside reminiscent of plains that stretch away from major rivers in the United States. About an hour later, we pull off the road into a sketchy dirt parking lot. The bus is loaded with nondescript brown packages from a nondescript building. I wonder about drugs and then shake my head at the silliness of the thought.

It’s full dark when we pull into Rosario, one of Argentina’s largest cities. Beneath the bridges and overpasses rough-and-tumble shanty cities sprout like mushrooms. They’ve been cobbled together with detritus: rotten and decayed wooden boards, rusting corrugated metals, sticks. It’s quarter past ten and a mother directs two children in the placement of a new stick on the roof. Even the dark of night couldn’t help Rosario keep its secrets.

The bus is considerably more packed after picking up passengers in Rosario. Dinner arrives shortly and I’m generally perplexed by the array.

I watch Martín scarf down the greenish custard and then test a nibble. I speedily move on to breadsticks and try to sleep through the Bon Jovi video marathon. The familiar yet alien landscape is blotted out by the night, and only our shared culture of technology, a few pricks of light on the black canvas, remains. I recline the seat 180 degrees and plunge into a fitful sleep.

*****

I awake just after dawn somewhere in northwest Argentina. The landscape has given way to scrub brush, gnarled trees, and haze. Spare tires and shreds of tarp dot the shoulders of the road like kilometer markers. A chicken pecks in the dust. Massive nests hang in the skeletal trees. It’s not beautiful, it just is. Whether by little effort or little success, man has made little dent along this stretch of Argentina.

The ever-present hum of the bus engine doesn’t disguise the sound of hot flesh squeaking on the seats as people shift in their sleep. Someone has done evil in the bathroom below us. We enter the town of Santiago del Estero. I hardly breathe as we cut through its streets. It is a ruin of crumbling buildings and dirt roads choked with trash and the occasional dead dog. The beautiful dawn light is powerless here. In the distance, greasy black smoke roils skyward that I later learn to be burning trash. I think that my virgin eyes have finally fled.

Tucumán is little better. As we enter the province I see a dead horse, abandoned on the side of the road, with a gang of vultures at the buffet. In the city, Martín wishes me good luck and disappears. For the next several hours, I reflect on my posts about authenticity and realize that this is it.

After a grand total of 20 hours, we pull through the mountains and into Salta. It is high on the hog compared to Santiago del Estero and Tucumán. Part of me wishes that I could have slept through the trip, that I had flown instead, but another part knows that the bitter pills are usually the ones that make us grow. Travel is not always glamorous. The places we see are not always designed to make us feel comfortable. This was another world, a place where life is lived very differently from my own.

And I appreciated what I had. And I grew a new fondness for Blaze of Glory.

Out of respect, I chose not to photograph the more devastating areas and sights of this trip.

This post is an entry for the Language Learning Blog Contest being hosted by Pimsleur Approach.


Lisa E @chickybusNo Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 10:11 AM

Great post! I enjoyed it for many reasons, including the fantastic use of description and the fact that you wrote about the less-pleasant aspects of this sort of experience. I’ve also done some very long bus trips through these types of areas and can relate.

Even though there can be some rough moments, you do experience the reality of that country, its culture and life there. Being truly on your own makes it even more real. And to me, that’s what travel is about.

I admire you for taking this trip (vs flying) and really love the approach you took when writing about it…you made it real for me and for other readers, I’m sure!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:41 AM

Hi Lisa. I really didn’t know what to expect with this ride other than that it would be very long. Unfortunately there were some hard lessons along the way. Glad I was able to convey the experience so vividly.

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WanderingTraderNo Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 10:22 AM

You didn’t have any wine or liquor? I am ashamed!! You know we always gave the guys a tip to charge our laptops in the back! lol Great post

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:44 AM

I should have accepted the champagne (that’s all the offered) and gotten refills.

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Kelly @ TravelBugJuiceNo Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 10:59 AM

You describe this perfectly and I remember it so well!! Want to know what’s even worse than Tucuman? Jujuy!! Hands down, the WORST bus station I’ve ever been to in Argentina. The city is terrifying, and like most, the bus station is in an awful part of town. Salta is heaven in comparison.

I’m glad you had experiences like this, because despite the fact that B.A and Rosario are big bustling cities, Argentina is still struggling with growing into the country it could and probably one day will be. It’s not all glamourous, and you will find this particularly more to be true the more you travel around the north. The closer you get to Bolivia, too, the worse the buses get, the worse the roads get and the more frequent the random ‘checks’ by the policia will be.

Enjoy those bus meals while you can, boy!! Argentina has the BEST buses in South America, and you won’t get fed anywhere else. Where else are you heading?? Love that I can live vicariously through you!!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 11:00 AM

Hi Kelly, thanks for the insight. I’m staying in Salta for the next roughly three weeks before heading back to Buenos Aires for a few nights. Then I fly home and this trip will be in the books. I have seven more one month trips to look forward to over the next two years! Destinations in mind, but not selected.

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KyleNo Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 11:08 AM

You’re a wonderful writer, the descriptions in this post had me completely absorbed in your world!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:49 AM

Thanks Kyle, glad it had an effect on you. It sure had one on me.

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@_thetraveller_No Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 12:12 PM

CAMA Executivo oh how I miss you! haha…

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:52 AM

Really? It was alright, but not sure it was worth it. ‘Course, I have nothing to compare it to, either. I bet each bus has a different style of cama suite.

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Tim KubichekNo Gravatar November 17, 2010 at 2:56 PM

Great post! It’s amazing how full of life I feel after reading your posts. Live it buddy!

- Kub

PS: Love the “good friend” reference. I now consider myself famous.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:53 AM

Actually, I was talking about Marcello… :P

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EliseNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 9:52 AM

As always Kieth, I enjoy reading your descriptive posts. I felt as if I was on the bus with you! My favourite part -to quote you is -
‘Travel is not always glamorous. The places we see are not always designed to make us feel comfortable. This was another world, a place where life is lived very differently from my own’.
I think this is so true, and sometimes we just need to accept there will be things we don’t like or want to see, but a few months down the track we will be greatful and appreciative for the experience.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:58 AM

Yes, these are the growth experiences that make travel so valuable in the long run. It can be hard in the moment to accept them, and they are not fun to look back on, but some part of you grows as a result.

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SuzyNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:32 AM

Great description of your ride. I felt I was right there with you. It reminded me of looking out the bus window through Sicily. It is amazing how simple it can be, but how telling a bus ride can be.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 10:55 AM

I enjoy that aspect of travel because I have little else to do but ponder and observe.

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CandiceNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 2:09 PM

Hahaha, oh the joys of bus travel. Super jealous you’er staying with Leigh, btw. Say hi to them for me!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 3:31 PM

But wait, they just said hi to you for me! What the hell? :)

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LeighNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 3:26 PM

Fantastic description of your bus trip and now I know what’s in store for me. I have three long bus rides planned around the country beginning in early January including one from Tucuman south to Mendoza. I think I’ll bring my own food on board. I shall look forward to further posts on Salta.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Leigh, good idea on the food part. But accept the champagne or whiskey they offer you. I failed to do that and I regretted it. Good luck on your bus trips!

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SpencerNo Gravatar November 18, 2010 at 11:37 PM

I hear so many great reports about Argentina as a travel destination. I am definitely going to have to go there one day.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 9:27 AM

Hi Spencer, it’s funny that you should respond that way to this post :)

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ClaireNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 7:51 AM

Bus travel always provides a glimpse of life as it truly is in many countries. Sounds like Argentina is no exception.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 9:25 AM

It’s true and, ultimately, important to see.

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LauraNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 10:51 AM

What a beautiful narrative you’ve written! You’ve brought me back to the busride I took from Retiro to Mendoza last year. I remember feeling a little guilty looking down on the slums of BsAs perched high on the full cama seat and sipping the free wine. I especially liked your line, “it’s not beautiful; it just is.” Travel isn’t always about superlatives.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 8:10 PM

Thanks Laura. It was hard to look on the down-on-their-luck neighborhoods and towns. For me, looking more than anything else makes it real. In that respect, I’m glad to be free of that ignorance.

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Ted NelsonNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 10:59 AM

Great descriptive writing. Reading your post sent me back in a time warp five years ago to an all night bus trip in Vietnam and/or the Philippines. Different countries, but a very similar experience.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 19, 2010 at 8:47 PM

Hey Ted, I imagine this feeling I had is pretty common among travelers going to less-developed countries. Very cool that this post brought those memories back for you.

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AndiNo Gravatar November 20, 2010 at 4:01 PM

Beautiful writing as always! Curious, why did you chose to take a bus instead of fly? Flights are so cheap w/i Argie.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 20, 2010 at 4:33 PM

Thanks Andi. Everyone told me how amazing the buses are, and I figured I get a sense for the countryside too.

I am, however, flying back to Buenos Aires. :)

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Lauren QuinnNo Gravatar November 23, 2010 at 11:19 AM

You got dinner on the bus?! That’s some high-class shhhht.

I have a kind of perverse love for the weird space long-distance bus rides put you in. This totally evokes the feeling.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 23, 2010 at 11:27 AM

The word “dinner,” used to describe the pictured item, would be a liberal use of the word. Long-distance travel definitely puts me in a weird head space where I often come up with some of my best material.

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Argento WineNo Gravatar November 25, 2010 at 5:11 AM

Really great article, Keith, and so well written. Makes for a really compelling story. You might also like to check out Vicky Baker’s recent post about travelling by bus in Argentina, including some YouTube videos, on our blog: http://www.therealargentina.com/bingo-bus-travel-in-argentina/

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 25, 2010 at 9:20 AM

Thanks, I read your blog and I’ve also read Vicky’s work elsewhere like Going Local Travel (I think?). I appreciate the compliment and the link!

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Ryan FullerNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 1:36 PM

Great post. Can SO relate to your experience on that bus. I’m impressed that you were actually able to sleep!

Hope that you enjoy your time in Salta! If you like wine, try to find a Malbec called Tukma… it’s fantastic and pretty inexpensive. We could never find it in BA, but loved it when we were in Salta.

Look forward to reading about where your NOA travels lead you.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 1:47 PM

Thanks Ryan, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for Tukma. It’s a good point – not sure how I managed to sleep – not typically my forté. Maybe we were drugged as I read on another blogger’s post about South American buses…

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