We had been chewing on coca leaves for a good hour now, which left everything in a foggy haze of hilarity. I looked across at my travel buddies; Henrika, her face just about concealing a mad laughter, was holding the headrest of the seat in front of her, as if it would help the van keep its balance as our driver took on the hairpin bends of the mountainous road in his stride, like a bull fighter, turning and flicking the steering wheel in the last possible moment before the impact.
Next to her, Johannes, his tall, broad frame folded neatly on the sea with no room to spare, wore a slightly lopsided smile, as if challenging the reality of the situation. We were in a van which was hurtling down a mountain without an engine.
I looked incredulously at the piece of paper the travel agent had just handed me. His white shirt was loose on his bony body and he wore his thin moustache with a sad conviction which made had me trust him. The only words on the ticket were Buenos Aires and Salta –the origin and destination cities- plus my name and passport number, hand-written! No bus company names, no seat numbers, nor anything else to make it look even slightly legitimate. Seeing my hesitation, he smiled and spat out some rapid-fire Spanish at me. I skilfully dodged everything he said, and stretching my Spanish to its limits, mumbled out the words ´Esta bien?´
He nodded emphatically and repeated the price of the ticket; 750 Argentinian pesos, just over half the normal fare of 1300 to 1400 you would pay elsewhere. So I handed him the cash and walked out of his cramped, dark office holding my home-made ticket.
Insider Tips: The agency I visited was one of the few located at Misiones 32 (near Plaza 25 de Mayo), Buenos Aires.
We were on our way from the city of Purmamarca (altitude of 2324 meters/7624 feet) to visit Salinas Grandes salt flats (al. 4140 m/13582 f). We must have climbed at least a thousand meters on the meandering road which snakes its way up the mountains when the van’s engine started coughing out ominous black clouds of smoke. At first it seemed like a joke gone bad. The driver pulled over and we all piled out, taking in the stunning views of the green hills.
Then it turned into an even worse joke when the driver called us back onto the van, pulled a casual U-turn and with a little push from his assistant, we were gliding down the road back toward Purmamarca.
Why did we not wait for a replacement vehicle? Nobody knew the answer. Simon did have another answer for us though; ´More coca leaves?´ he offered with a cheeky grin. We took a few leaves each, stacked them in the corner of our cheeks and stared at the land outside whizzing past.
The next day, I crouched through the small opening that had been cut out of the shop’s steel shutter and found the agent waiting for me. He led me on a mazy path through the Buenos Aires’ stuffy afternoon heat which ended at a sidewalk where two dozen or so other people were gathered, their luggage and over-stuffed sacks scattered all around them.
He told me to wait there for my bus. Just before he left, the agent beckoned an old man and asked him to keep an eye on me. The old man hauled a gigantic stack of clothes wrapped tightly in plastic to an empty spot next to me and sat on it like an old king on his throne. He had deeply tanned, leathery skin which stretched every time he smiled, closing his eyes into a tight slit and opening up his entire face.
For the next 45 minutes, the old man bombarded me with questions to which I randomly responded with either si or no. When a police officer walked past us, the old man asked me to hide m ticket. He put his forefinger on his lips, conveying that we were doing something that was not exactly in accordance with the law. Considering the price I had paid, I expected a dilapidated skeleton of a bus. But the bus that pulled over was…
We eventually made it back to the tour company’s office back in town. The driver got off, marched nonchalantly to the office and was back a few minutes later with the keys to another van. That was just how it worked in Northern Argentina; you dealt with whatever shit the world threw at like it was nobody’s business. Ten minutes later, we were back on the road, heading up the mountain with balls of coca leaves in our cheeks.
It was probably one of the most comfortable buses I had caught in South America. I was the only non-Argentinian on the bus. And judging by the way the other passengers regarded me, I could tell few foreigners had ever found out about this little transport bargain. I was a clown/celebrity. When a tout jumped on board selling mode-made sandwiches, the whole bus pointed at me. The tout, who spoke some English, roasted me about where I was from and how I had found out about this bus, then made the whole bus crack up with what I could only assume was some shady translations of my replies.
The old man tried to offer me some support, but occasionally could not help but join in and laugh, patting me on the shoulder for reassurance.
He and I began to teach each other words in our respective languages. By next morning, we were discussing such paramount matters as the latest corruption scandals and the political incompetence of government ministers over our cups of coffee. At least that’s what I thought we were talking about. To his credit, he just rolled with it.
That bus was a peephole to a world which I had suspected existed in parallel to the opulent, splendid Buenos Aires. A world of old men, students and single mums who worked and lived in the big city and had found a way around the expensive bus fares to visit their families once every few months. A world where a stranger was not a common sight, but warmly accepted. In many ways, it was the exact opposite of my experience in the Argentinian capital city.
And for that reason alone, I will never forget that bus. Or that old man whose name I never got, for that matter.