It is 7:40 pm in Buenos Aires. A warm, spring evening blankets Palermo neighborhood as the dusk slowly sets over this bustling city. I am waiting in a cue at a bus stop, lined up with few other people, counting the coins in my hand for the exact fare of “uno con veinte cinco”. One twenty five. We wait for about ten minutes while craning our necks to look for our bus coming down this crowded avenue. Finally it comes, number 141. It will take me to Flores, another neighborhood where I am supposed to meet my wife and her family for dinner.
For anyone who wants to get to know any given city intimately, there is no better way than to take a ride on a public bus. And if it happens to be Buenos Aires, what a ride it is!
A big, red whale pulls up frantically to the curb, stopping on a dime, its breaks squeaking, its doors already open like a big mouth ready to swallow the awaiting passengers. There is no time for niceties or questions for the driver. You get in, you pay, shut up and hold on for a ride. I nervously confirm the rate in my rusty Spanish. The driver half-nods in the affirmative, having pity on the gringo, and I get my ticket from a dispenser. Following the unspoken yet self-evident etiquette of bus riding I move towards the back to find my place to hold on. Few moments later, after the last soul enters the door the driver shifts into gear and with a roar we take off. This isn’t a bus ride for the faint of heart or for those afflicted with arthritic joints. Each stop at a red light is a spasmodic jerk testing your balance and the ability to grip the holding bars. You can sometimes tell a first-timer, usually a foreigner, holding onto dear life with anxious look in his or her eyes trying hard to keep vertical. The local veterans on the other hand can even read a book without holding on. They seem to have mastered another level of kinesthetic awareness and agility necessary for staying upright.
I love the approach to the next stop. As the driver slows down rapidly you can feel the G force compressing you and as the door opens while still in motion, you get a feeling as if he wants to throw the passengers off the bus rather than let them peacefully get off. Then, there is traffic maneuvering. Now, that is the skill to admire my friends! The porteno bus driver is a mix of a reflex genius and a racecar driver who might as well be on a methamphetamine high. And yet he is so attuned to his machine and the surroundings as if he had eyes around his head and his body fused with the steering wheel, the breaks and the gas pedal. Imagine the precision and the finesse of this monster zooming between other cars, buses and taxis, passing them within an inch of space, taking sharp corners while evading bicyclists and pedestrians crossing the street. And the streets themselves represent an embodiment of an organized chaos. Everything seems to be moving in an unstoppable and powerful flow and yet nobody gets hit, no one collides. You hardly ever see an accident.
Finally, some 25 minutes later my ride comes to an end. I am entranced in this journey. Hypnotized by the motion, the lights and the sounds. I oscillate between the awe of this manic performance and the anxiety of anticipating a disaster. We have arrived at Plaza Flores. I look at the driver to see if he had the same exhilarating experience as I did, my heart racing as if I just finished a rollercoaster ride. And all this excitement for just 1.25 pesos! What a deal!
But the driver, well, he just yawns, looking around bored. For him it’s just another night at work driving the streets of his city.