“Cierre!” I hear the man yell and I feel a big push from the people behind me as the doors slam shut. Somehow we have all made it inside before the driver has lost his patience and left passengers stranded on the sidewalk, as I have seen happen many times before. All of a sudden, in mere seconds, I am conscious that we are moving at super-sonic speed and I seem to be in perfect position to make this my last ride – smashed up against the front windshield. “Uno veinte” I say to the driver. He grumbles something and I am forced to repeat myself. I am convinced not a single driver has ever understood me on the first try, but part of me also thinks it’s on purpose.
I move forward, gripping the handrail so tight that my knuckles turn white and my fingers go numb. At times I am forced to grasp the handrail with both hands and there are many moments when we go so fast around a bend that I genuinely feel as if we might flip over. If I thought the buses moved fast in Brazil I was kidding myself. I stare in amazement at the people around me who seem not to budge an inch though they hold onto nothing. As locals they are masters of this balancing skill. We reach the next stop and I watch as an old man about to board the bus hoists his frail wife in catapult-style up the steps. The awful beeping noise of the air assist and sixty seconds you curse for slowing your journey down on a New York City bus doesn’t exist here, but somehow the old people just deal. I grow frustrated and nervous when I notice none of the seated young boys offer to get up for the elderly couple.
Minutes later I take my iPod earphones out and realize reggaetone is blaring from the radio. I start to feel a bit like I’m in a discotheque as the bright blue lights that surround the front windshield begin to flash. I don’t understand why everyone seems to know ahead of time what their fare is, why there isn’t a standard one. Some mutter “uno deis” others “uno veinte” and others “uno veinti-cinco” as they board and drop their coveted coins into an electronic machine that then dispenses small tickets. I always say the same thing no matter where I’m going. I guess the one good thing is that either way it only costs you about a quarter to put your life at risk.
I see a boy press a button on the pole at the back door, the only button that exists on the whole bus to notify your stop and yet I hear no sound and see no sign light up. I wonder how he even knows he has requested his stop but also start to worry how I will make it in time to push the button for my stop without colliding with anyone as we continue moving at break-neck speed. When we pull into his stop, making no point to slow down even the slightest bit, the doors unexpectedly fly open and I watch in horror as the boy lowers himself down the steps and off the bus while we are still moving. At the next stop I watch as a group of people exit into blaring traffic, the bus driver making no effort to pull over into the actual stop. I think about how ridiculous the scene would be in New York, and how the passengers would yell and scream about it. But everyone here just goes on their way.
As we continue along the route I start to notice out of the corner of my eye some common motion among the passengers. I look up and realize that people are crossing themselves. I’ve never really understood it but in Argentina when you pass a church, not just a cemetery, you cross yourself – really everyone does and the most common place to see this is on a bus.
When my parents came to visit they kept asking what all the long queues in the streets were about. The strangest thing about riding the bus here is that while everything else Argentine has no organization, boarding the bus does and is taken very seriously. I once told to my coworker that I didn’t understand the point of the lines, how it just creates added confusion because you never knew who was waiting for what bus. She found this puzzling and wondered how people in New York knew in what order to board the bus, something I had never considered.
The art of flagging a bus in Buenos Aires (since the buses don’t automatically stop at each stop) is a whole other beast and in my opinion takes lots of practice. Try flagging a bus plowing along like it’s in a drag race and you’ll see my point. I have found myself more times than I want to admit standing on a corner watching as the fourth bus that I meant to flag down fly right past me.
At the end of the day, I actually find myself laughing a lot about the whole experience. It’s such a part of becoming a Porteña (resident of Buenos Aires), one of many things as a foreigner you first view as so dangerous and then just get used to. I read somewhere that there are more than 400 different bus lines in Buenos Aires, all independently owned (hence the blue flashing disco lights on some). There is also a novel-sized book of bus routes called the “Guia T” that might as well be written in Chinese it’s so confusing. Over the past few months riding the bus every day to work I have not only become an expert Guia-T user but I’m happy to say that I’ve finally earned my resident’s right of passage as a master of Buenos Aires public bus riding.