Everyone told me that the buses here in Argentina are super nice. I don’t know what kind of luxury I was expecting exactly, but I definitely set my expectations too high. The long distance buses here are nicer than buses in the States, but they are still buses. You can get two kinds of tickets: semi-cama, which means your seat reclines about halfway, and for a little more you can get cama, which means your seat turns into a bed. For my ticket to Mendoza, the only available option was semi-cama. I thought that it would be fine – I’d even save a little money that way. It turned out to be pretty uncomfortable though. The seat does recline quite a bit, and there’s this leg rest thing too, but each part of the seat is the wrong length for my body, so my circulation gets cut off at some point no matter how I try to sit.
To make things worse, during the night the bus got really cold! And there were no blankets. I put on my scarf and extra sweater and wrapped my jacket around my legs, but I was still freezing. Ah. It was a miserable 16 hours…Did I mention it’s like 700 miles from la Villa to Mendoza? I may be on the skinny end of this continent, but I've basically crossed this it now.
There were a few funny parts to the bus ride though. They had TVs on the bus, and they played a variety of entertainment, including an Argentinean movie, Date Night, and a Marc Anthony concert (he’s so ridiculously dramatic!). There was no option to watch TV or not – the volume was controlled by the steward. Sometimes it would be a while before he realized the DVD had finished; we must have listened to the DVD menu loop for Date Night for at least 20 minutes. Another thing we did for entertainment was play Bingo! All those times I played Bingo in Spanish class, I never thought it would actually prepare me for the real world.
When I arrived, I got to experience another kind of bus. If there were a stuffwhitepeoplehate.com, “taking guided tours” would certainly make the list. Exploring a place on your own is much hipper. And cool things seem even cooler when you just stumble upon them and feel like you’ve made a lucky discovery. Plus I like to feel like I’m really experiencing a place when I travel, and being herded along by a chipper guide, holding a flower on an umbrella, reciting a mechanical speech into a crackly microphone is not my idea of an authentic or desirable experience.
Well, my student Edith had considerately arranged a tour of Mendoza for me, which I was planning on canceling. But my walk from the bus station to the hotel (only 17 blocks on the map…but it turns out that’s a long ways) made me realize that it would take an awful lot of walking to just stumble across the cool stuff. Plus I didn’t have much energy to explore. So I decided it might be worth $15 to be driven around to all the best parts of the city.
The tour bus was about 45 minutes late to pick me up, and when I climbed on board, I realized everyone else was probably getting a senior citizen’s discount on this tour. What started off as a bad impression only got worse when I found out this tour was in Spanish only. Perhaps I should have rejoiced at the opportunity to practice listening comprehension, but trying to listen to tour guide talks (which I already dislike in English) seemed like an overly taxing request for my exhausted brain. I spent the first part of the tour wishing I was back in my hotel room sleeping.
But when we got off the bus to see our first statue, I realized I had hit the gold mine for conversation practice! Old people are so sweet and patient. They want to know all about your life and naturally ask their questions a little more slowly. You can slaughter the language up and down, but as long as you say things like “que preciosa!” to pictures of their granddaughters, they’ll compliment your Spanish. Also, they can blame their hearing aids for asking you to repeat something they didn’t understand. And the best part of all – they don’t know a word of English.
In la Villa, people often speak to me in English, even when I try to speak only Spanish. So they think I understand less than I do, and when we speak in Spanish, they usually “help” me by telling me the words instead of giving me enough time to figure out how to say something. But these problems disappeared with my tour group companions. They spoke to me like I understood, and magically, I did (at least, mostly…) Even better, I felt like my tongue was loosed. Not that I suddenly could say things quickly or easily, but a lot of the nervousness that often blocks me from remembering something I do actually know was gone, and I could converse near the level of knowledge I actually have. In linguistics, this is called performance vs. competence – see how I’m growing as a professional on this trip?
In the end, the tour itself was about as lame as I expected. The best part of this area is the mountains that surround it; Mendoza itself is just a big city with a bunch of nice plazas. But I think the confidence I got from talking with these old people for a few hours was worth it.
The next day, I sucked up my pride and got back on the tour bus, this time for a trip to the mountains. I considered taking the regular bus, but the tour cost half of the bus ticket, and it included stops to walk around, take pictures, eat, etc. This tour was actually enjoyable. We spent the whole day driving through the Andes, got to see Aconcagua from afar, and drove up a super steep, windy dirt road to a statue called Cristo el Redentor at 4,000 meters (I don’t really have a good grasp on meters or sea level, but it was high enough that my body felt funny). I didn’t follow the tour guide exactly, but there was a long fight between Argentina and Chile over where the border is, and they finally agreed on where it is now: Jesus’ nose. I’m not sure if this would make sense even if I had understood everything.
Also, on this tour there was a group of 8 middle-aged men who went to high school together. Every four years, they get together and travel somewhere. I know we talk about doing this hypothetically, but guys - let's actually do it! These men were having so much fun. They made me think life can still be full of adventure and friends when I start getting the senior citizen's discount.
I’m about to walk back to the bus station and board my 16-hour ride back home. This time, I have a cama ticket. I’m trying not to set my expectations too high, but I’m sure hoping it’s an improvement.