I marinated in ideas for escaping Buenos Aires for days. Three cities called me –Punta del Este, Mar del Plata and Rosario – each within four hours’ travel without a plane.
Uruguay is a near-by country – only three hours by boat – from Buenos Aires. Montevideo’s the Buenos Aires of Uruguay – Uruguay’s main city – and another 130 km from there is Punta del Este: a holiday destination for the filthy rich. I planned my travel that morning for Punta Del Este: I booked my hotel; I ordered my boat ticket; I jumped in a taxi.
The trip to the Buenos Aires’ boat ramp from my barrier – Palermo – is normally 20 minutes by car.
‘Today could be 45,’ my taxi driver said.
The lunchtime traffic was dense.
‘I’m going to Montevideo,’ I told my driver.
‘Es lindo.’ he said.
If I tell him I’m going to Punta del Este I’ll blow my cover; he’ll think I’m rich.
My suitcase sat in the trunk of the taxi.
‘Soy de Entre Rios,’ the driver said. ‘Go visit there.’
I sat in the back. On the rear of the driver’s seat was a small taxi license with a passport-sized photo. The name ‘Hernan Rodrigues’ was printed next to it.
That looks like him.
‘Soy del interior,’ said Hernan.
In Argentina ‘interior’ refers to locations outside a main city.
‘I’m from the interior of Australia,’ I replied.
Horns blared. Bus drivers forced their way into tiny spaces. Then our horn replied.
‘You’re working in a war zone,’ I said.
‘Que Baludo!’ said Hernan, as he waved his hands at a bus driver. ‘He pays nothing if he smashes me.’
I wasn’t sure why. There were painted lines, though vehicles didn’t follow them.
I sat inhaling petrol fumes.
‘Rosario es lindo también,’ Hernan said.
That’d be right.
‘Enserio?’ I said.
‘Si, es famoso por Argentina’s pretty women.’
I’ve heard that before.
I sat quiet for the next fifteen seconds. My Spanish wasn’t the clearest – very present tense. Kind of how Tarzan spoke to Jane – ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ – only in Spanish: ‘Yo Gaston, vos Jane.’
I wasn’t sure how to tell Hernan I now wanted to go to Rosario. I felt insecure that I considered changing my mind.
‘Amigo, lets go to the main bus terminal,’ I said.
‘What you doing there?’ Hernan said, holding his hand with the pads of his five fingers touching as though holding a sandwich near his mouth, but there was no sandwich. ‘There are no boats there.’
‘I’m not going to Montevideo anymore. The pretty girls are in Rosario,’ I told him. ‘So, I’m going there.’
Forty-five minutes passed.
‘Forty-eight pesos,’ Hernan said – about six dollars. So, I handed him a 100 peso bill. In return, Hernan gave me a 50 peso note.
I shone it to the sunlight looking for a reflecting head; without the head it’s as good as a piece of paper – fake. Sure enough, no head, a common occurrence from a friendly driver. I handed the 50 back to Hernan. He returned an official 50 bill in a flash. He seemed sure I’d knock back the fake bill. There was no apology, just a look that said: that’s just how it is.
My double-decker bus rocked side to side as we passed a sign outside Buenos Aires: ‘Rosario 298 km.’
I can handle that.
The highway was flat. It was a Tuesday. There were mainly trucks on the road. My seat was upstairs in the bus; up higher than the neighboring trucks.
Fields of level farms – ‘campos’ to the Argentines – were the view for most of the journey. There were well-nourished cattle – ‘vacas’ – not unlike the vacas I’d seen in the paddocks back in Australia. Even the feed was green, with a dry yellow tinge, just like the sunburned Australian grass. Vacas are part of Argentinean culture and the beef ‘asados’ – Argentinean barbeques – play a major part in Argentinean social events. Argentina has the second largest beef consumption rate in the world. The average Argentinean eats 55 kg of meat per year. Argentina is also the third largest exporter of beef behind Australia and their own neighbors in Brazil.
Occasionally, we passed small cottages on farms. All similar, roughly slapped together, with weathered material. Many cottages stood desolate in paddocks with piles of rusted second-hand metal – possibly once for sale.
After two hours the bus stopped at a service station.
‘Bienvenido a San Nicolás.’
‘Sit at a window near the luggage compartment,’ I recalled a close friend saying. He was Argentinean.
A person exited the bus. There was now just the one passenger on the bus.
‘Donde estamos?’ I asked him.
‘We’re 60 km from Rosario,’ he replied. ‘There is a small town not far from here.’
We did a U-turn, then exited the petrol station. We passed small homes – garage-sized chests – each with identically fitted water drums to their roofs. Each drum had two pipes the size of garden hoses feeding down into the homes.
After another half an hour we stopped at traffic lights.
‘Rosario (centro),’ was printed in white on a green sign.
I observed five men sitting on the road’s median strip. They handed a battered coke bottle containing light brown fluid to one another. Each man took a swig from the bottle then shared a smile. Their feet were shoeless, with dark dirt embedded deep in the skin.
I hadn’t seen a shantytown since we left the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but they began to appear now.
One man stood up, then walked to a bucket and grabbed a wet sponge. He approached our bus’s windshield, but was soon sent back to sit with his friends.
The cost of my bus ride to here was 35 dollars – 13.2% of Argentina’s population had a disposable income of less than this per week. Inside, the bus was air-conditioned with leather reclining chairs. There was a self-serve coffee machine a couple of meters from my seat. The bus service was privately owned.
As we advanced closer to Rosario’s center more men appeared with buckets at streetlights.
At Rosario bus terminal, a frail Argentinean man – about 60 years old – kept a spotless public bathroom. He was the bathroom assistant. I entered his office with my suitcase on wheels to find him seated behind a small wooden desk.
‘Que tal?’ he said.
‘Bien, y vos?’ I replied.
He gave a slight head nod. I passed to a cubicle then left my suitcase at its entrance. As I peed I kept one eye on my suitcase and one eye on my water pistol. Then, two teenage males entered the bathroom.
‘Hola chicos,’ the old man said.
Through the sound of my four-hour-awaited travel fountain hitting the base of the toilet bowl I heard the boys reply, ‘Hola Ramon.’ They spoke with respect. They’d met this old man before.
I rolled my suitcase to Ramon’s desk then left two pesos – ten cents – for his good work. Ramon’s bathroom presence gave a sense of security. It also ensured the wheels of my suitcase weren’t covered in uric acid.
‘Papel?’ Ramon said.
I noticed a selection of chewing gums. ‘Si, señor.’ He handed me a thread of paper towel. There were also deodorants near a small tray of Argentinean banknotes.
Outside the bathroom’s entrance was a rank of ten black taxis with yellow roofs. A driver stepped out of a taxi, then popped his trunk. He eagerly lent down to grab my bag.
‘Cuidado,’ I said. ‘It’s very heavy.’
We lifted the suitcase together. Then I hurried to the back seat of the car only to find another man had opened my door. As I sat in the car – my window was down – the man’s cupped hand stretched through the window.
‘Un momento,’ I told the driver. I’d already drained my pockets to help Ramon. A frail white and blue stained two-peso bill came out of my pocket. I placed it in the cupped hand.
‘El centro,’ I told the driver.
‘Bueno,’ he replied as we drove out of the terminal.
‘De donde sos?’ the driver asked.
He flexed both of his arms at the wrists, along with his elbows, like a game of charades. ‘Kangaroo,’ he said.
‘Yeh, mate, Kangaroo.’
My hotel was near the Parana River. As we got closer to the river, the buildings became nicer, with a European style.
‘Chicas lindas aca,’ my driver said.
That’s why I’m here.
‘Enserio?’ I replied.
We drove under trees arched over streets. The streets were full of shadows cast on to streets formed by charcoal bricks.
The taxi arrived in the business centre of Rosario. ‘Twenty-five pesos,’ my driver said.
I paid this, then waited.
The driver popped the trunk then looked back to me with his engine still running. ‘You getting out?’ he said. He sat with both hands on the steering wheel.
‘Turn the engine off,’ I said.
He didn’t reply.
‘Can you help me with my bag?’ the driver looked at me like I was a lazy. It was awkward. I opened my door slightly. He remained with both hands firm on the wheel. I looked out of his windshield.
No traffic. I clean drive-off.
‘I’m not getting out.’
‘What?’ the driver said. He looked confused.
‘If I get out and you drive off, where does that leave me?’
He gave a slight smile, with a look like Argentina is crime free. Then, we exited the taxi together.
By Gaston Cavalleri. For more of his travel writing see www.desdesouthamerica.com.
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