Scenes From a Bus Ride

Arequipa to Puno, Perú
September 2006

As the bus pulls away, a tall man from Arequipa stands in the aisle and points out where the bathroom is located. Dressed in a white shirt with black prints, he begins an evangelical oration in a booming voice, hands out a free book on the life of Pope Juan Pablo II, and tells how “papa” should be made a saint. Then, he touts books for purchase and a complete map of Perú.

The man goes on loudly, as if it is of ultimate importance. Some listen, but most ignore him. I’ve never been so glad to not speak Spanish well. I wish someone would throw him off the bus. About an hour into the trip, on the far outskirts of the Arequipa region, he bruskly takes back the “papa” books from those who haven’t bought anything and disembarks.

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Planes, Trains, Etc.

When it comes to transportation, know your options in advance, but play it by ear when you get there. A lot depends on the type and quality of the infrastructure. If there are good, fast, affordable trains, take a train. If you are covering a long distance, check into budget flights. In some countries, a local flight doesn’t cost much.

If there are no trains, and flying isn’t an option, take the bus — but take the best bus possible. In South America, air-conditioned, long-haul buses are comfortable and comparable to trains, making them popular among locals. On the other hand, the Central American chicken bus is like riding a rickety U.S. school bus for several hours with all the locals — and everything they can carry — while the loudest Latin party music blares in your head.

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Highlights: Argentina and Uruguay

November 2011

“Tell me about your trip,” our friend Allison says. “How did it go?”

The scene is a second-floor sushi restaurant near downtown Orlando, looking out across the road at a block building shared by a bridal store and a mixed martial arts dojo. It is our usual place, Karimé and mine, where we began to plot this adventure. Now three days later, she and I sit with Allison, just in town from Oakland on business. Allison peppers us with questions: “Where did you go? How did the two of you get along?”

In Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg tells tales over bitters at his private London club. “What adventures did you have, old boy?” his listeners would ask. “What marvels did you see?”

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Salvaging

Buenos Aires, Argentina
November 2011

The best laid plans have failed. Now what? Thanksgiving dinner at the Estancia. Way too much beef, chorizo, and wine in one of the most expensive restaurants in the microcentro. After the bus trip, we owed it to ourselves. In the evening, our quest for the elusive Buenos Aires pizza goes unrequited. Lousy late-night empanadas give way to exhaustion.

We do what we can. Black Friday morning we plunge into the tourist traps in colorful la Boca. The hotel manager gave us strict instructions on how to get there by bus and warnings about straying too far from the beaten path, but it’s certainly less dangerous than getting maced at an American Walmart during the after-Thanksgiving doorbuster sale.

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Karimé

Argentina
November 2011

When I announced last December that I was going to Argentina on my next trip, Karimé insisted on coming along. “If you go to Argentina without me, I will disown you,” she told me. “You’ll be dead to me.”

For nearly one year, we prepared and plotted. I bought her a book she barely read. We consulted friends who had been there. “Tres Fronteras Iguazú,” her Puerto Rican friends told her. Our friend Dorcas recommended Uruguay. Raquel said Mendoza definitely, for the wine. We held meetings, bought very expensive plane tickets, consulted travel agents who were no help at all.

It’s been the hardest trip I’ve taken thus far. I don’t tell her that.Karimé is one of my closest friends. If our friendship survives this trip, it will be great. She is four-foot-ten and Puerto Rican, permanently twenty-seven — well, when we met several years ago, she was twenty-five. She’s carrying the biggest, fire-engine-red, rolling suitcase I can imagine to store all her hair products. She has to lug that thing up several flights of stairs at every hotel. I keep waiting for her to snap, but so far, she’s been a trooper. She survived the shared room in Montevideo. The soaking rain at Iguazú. The overnight bus.

It’s been the hardest trip I’ve taken thus far. I don’t tell her that. She’s sunk every penny she has into this trip. I wanted something better for her.

Argentina Is My Waterloo

Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
November 2011

“Can’t touch this,” Karimé says. “When did parachute pants come back?”

She’s pointing at a young, blonde, German woman who is wearing the billowy, patterned pants young, artsy girls have brought back from places like Madras. “It would make sense if it was a skirt,” Karimé says. “But this? Not even MC Hammer would touch this.”

We are standing in an absurd crowd that is bum-rushing the boarding gate at the Puerto Iguazú bus station. It is a crowd of people we’ve been seeing all day. This afternoon at the airport waiting for the flight that ultimately was cancelled, same as all the flights that were cancelled today, that were cancelled yesterday.

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Lo de Juan

Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
November 2011

The bald man at Lo de Juan approaches us at our usual table in the corner, looking out on the street at the top of the hill descending into the center of town. He takes our drink order: wine for Karimé, a short beer for me. “Empanadas,” Karimé tells him. “I just want empanadas.”

It’s early evening, our second night in Puerto Iguazú. Our skins still feel waterlogged from sloshing around in the day-long monsoon at the falls, culminating in our dowsing in a boat underneath the torrential cascades. Only a long, hot shower — okay, a relatively long, mostly lukewarm shower — is giving me any life. My rain-soaked clothes and shoes are in a soggy pile in the back corner of the bathroom at the hotel. I’m in my last dry shirt and pair of pants, wearing dress shoes with no socks. Across the table, Karimé’s eyes are bleary, her hair tied up, her expression sort of bewildered when I expected dead-dog tired or pissed-off.

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