I’ve previously travelled by bus into Mexico and there was pleasantly surprised both by the spacious seats and video entertainment of its premier class service, and by bus terminals that rivaled many U.S. airports in size.  This still left me unprepared for the scope and quality of bus service in Argentina.  (For the record, this overnight trip of around 600 miles with two meals costs approximately US$80.)

The B.A. Omnibus Terminal sits downtown very near the railroad’s Retiro Station and is a city unto itself.  When I arrive around 6:30PM for my 7:45 departure the crowds in the pre-boarding areas are heavy but orderly.  Dozens of shops, snack bars, and restaurants are doing a brisk business, and waiting passengers watch pay-per-view video at chairside kiosks. Outbound schedules for each departure lounge flicker across giant reader-boards, and arrivals and departures for the entire terminal appear on video screens everywhere.  The volume is awesome.  Just to display all current departures the screens must refresh three times. Upcoming departures are added and old ones retired every three or four minutes and only about 20 minutes pass between each new posting, so this is not a travel choice for the inattentive!

Through the lounge windows I see big tourist-sized busses parked side-by-side in angled rows as far as the eye can see in either direction.  If the crowd inside is heavy, the crowd in the boarding area outside can only be described as a quiet riot.  Out there is not a single unoccupied foot of pavement and processions of people making their way to each departing bus move like currents through the vast human ocean.  It is only possible to advance by pressing against those around you, and yet even here is the same Argentine civility I have experienced throughout my visit; voices are rarely raised and there is no shoving.

I check my larger bag with the curbside porter, tip him, and board.  There are two levels and my assigned seat is on the upper.  At the top of the stairs I do a double-take:  A broad aisle separates leather seats so wide that there are only three per row.  Every other row has been extracted to allow the seats to fully recline and leg rests to rise fully horizontal.  Large video monitors are scattered about and music videos are already playing as we await departure.

The bus pulls out of the station precisely on schedule, joining a throng of 20 or 30 others also outbound and passing a similar number inbound as it makes its way through downtown traffic toward the autopista.  A uniformed steward rises to make announcements, and then to pass the time spent in city traffic he distributes cards for what turns out to be a game of bingo.  He calls out the numbers in his best TV game show host tradition and the winning passenger is awarded a bottle of wine.  He passes through the cabin to take hot beverage orders for breakfast:  coffee, café con leche, hot chocolate, or cappuccino.

Once we’re on the autopista he serves dinner, first a cold plate and then a hot entrée and wine with refills.  Afterwards he cues up an English language movie with Spanish subtitles and sometime around 11 it’s lights out as we make our way through the very last of the suburbs.  Past my window roll the neon signs of motor hotels and Argentina’s ubiquitous parrilladas; I can almost smell the aroma of grilling beef through the glass.  Passengers around me have already pulled their curtains and from somewhere ahead I hear a gentle snore. I kick my seat into a prone position, tuck a fat pillow under my head, pull up a blanket, and nod off to the hum of the engine and spinning wheels.

I awaken from a satisfying sleep in darkness broken only by the line of streetlights stretching endlessly down the autopista median and small patches of light spaced in farmhouse-and-outbuilding clusters against the silhouette of a dead-level horizon.  As we move they are unblinking as they can be only on a treeless plain and I know that we are now crossing the Pampas.  From time to time we pass an ornamented gate and arch bearing the name of an estancia or a billboard picturing heavy farm machinery.  On rare occasion we pass through a toll booth. Near most exits are villages and many boast a light manufacturing facility; even in the darkness it is clear that there is economic substance here.  I doze off.

When I awaken the sunrise has already come and gone, but the sun is obscured by magnificently ominous, low-hanging clouds that run from horizon to horizon.  They’re not formed in bursts and billows, but in layered shades of gray and white that swoop and swirl like sand-painted snowdrifts.

The passengers are beginning to stir and soft American pop-rock drips through the speakers above.  The steward serves juice and pastries and hot beverages.  Outside the ceiling is lifting and the clouds brightening.  The grasslands have burst into sage broken by occasional stands of trees and truck farm patches.  The farmhouses have become more modest, the toll booths have vanished, and the highway has narrowed from four lanes to two.  Trucks and busses.  Trucks and busses.

The first, small vineyard appears.  An hour or so ahead lies Mendoza, and beyond it the Andes.

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