28 Hours on a Bus in PatagoniaBuenos Aires, Spring 2009
A few weeks ago I traveled to Bariloche and Calafate in Southern Argentina for IES spring break. My friend Carina and I flew to Bariloche, spent a few days there hiking and relaxing, then bussed 1400 KM (800 miles) down south to Calafate, a little tourist town that serves as the gateway to Glacier National Park. While both places were beautiful, nearly as memorable was the bus ride between the two.
We boarded the bus in Bariloche at noon, settling into the two best seats: the first row on the top level, with nothing but a huge window in front. Oddly, there was only one other passenger on the whole double-decker bus (tip: visiting Patagonia in the chilly off-season has its advantages), so we had the place to ourselves. As we left the quaint streets of Bariloche behind, I was already starting to miss it. Bariloche was my favorite of the Argentine towns I’ve visited so far. It’s small enough to be homey, but not boring; its economy is based on tourism, yet it didn’t feel fake, and the sunrises over the lake were so spectacular that we woke early every morning just to stare out the window of our hostel in awe. The bittersweet thing about traveling is that the more places you fall in love with, the more you have to leave.
The narrow two-lane road—“highway” seems too generous a term, though I guess that’s technically what it was—carried us into the mountains: big majestic peaks saturated with jewel-toned fall colors, aglow with amber and gold and chestnut, all paired with placid lakes so blue it almost hurt to look at them.
All this natural splendor was, hilariously, accompanied by some of the cheesiest music videos the 1980s had to offer. It’s common on buses here to show homemade music videos collections on the overhead TVs. My personal favorite was Jon Bon Jovi’s “In a Blaze of Glory,” in which, in case you’re not familiar with this true gem of musical history, Bon Jovi performs—shirtless, long-haired, dripping with sheer testosterone—on the edge of a canyon while a drive-in movie theater (also improbably placed on the rim of the canyon) goes down in flames. Carina made the best of things by pointing out that for the rest of our lives, whenever we hear that awful song, we’ll think of gorgeous Patagonia.
After the music videos ended, we were treated to one of those puerile Adam Sandler comedies (he has really gone downhill since Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore, which, while puerile, had their moments). Usually on busses here I really enjoy watching the movies because they are both dubbed and subtitled in Spanish, but clearly by two different translators, making it fun and educational to see the different expressions the translators chose. But this one was just too awful, so I threw my jacket over the screen and gazed out at the landscape. It was fascinating to watch it change: first big mountains and lakes, then smaller mountains and shrubs. We occasionally passed people crouched by the side of the road picking Calafate berries, which are used in jams and sweets. The legend is that if you eat something containing them, you’ll return to the South some day. Other than the berry-pickers, we would pass another car maybe every hour or two, allowing the bus to drive on the wrong side of the road, avoiding potholes, for long stretches.
I’ve never been able to read in a car or bus without getting nauseous, so I spent a lot of time just staring out the window and listening to music and podcasts. It struck me as the kind of situation in which I should be doing a lot of deep, existential thinking, but I couldn’t really come up with anything. Mainly I spent a lot of time silently panicking about what I should do after college, like any good English major does. I was kind of hoping going to Argentina would somehow endow me with a grand life purpose, but I don’t know that it really has. But hey, my Spanish is a lot better, so that’s got to be worth something.
We stopped for dinner at a tiny restaurant in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Carina and I had a pizza at one table while the bus driver and attendant ate at another. They left the bus engine running for the entire hour we were stopped—why? Back on the bus, the attendant let us choose a movie from his personal pirated DVD collection. Almost every disc was marked with his comment that it was “MUY BUENA.” We chose Babel and it was really riveting, although I would really like to read a critical analysis of its racial/socio-economic messages (everything works out well in the end for the rich white characters). Then there was nothing to do but sit in the darkness and wait for sleep.
We awoke in the morning to a wildly different landscape: the steppe, cold plains with lots of shrubs and guanacos, which are like miniature llamas. After another few hours, and a switch to another bus, we finally arrived in Calafate, ready to go see some glaciers. Overall, it wasn’t bad, though I hope it was the longest bus ride of my life.
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