Cama - 155, Semi cama - 140, wrote the man at the ticket office, as he sipped from what looked like a sawn-off thermos flask overflowing with waterlogged dagga.
"Cama ... bueno?" said I in my one-day-old Spanish.
"Si," he managed in between slurps from his hydro-bong, "si."
Encouraged by such an emphatic response, I bought a cama ticket from Puerto Iguazu to Mendoza (Peurto Iguazu to Mendoza is 39 hours). On a roll now, I
pointed at the thermos and asked another question: "Que?"
"Mate." (Slurp.) He wrote it on my ticket.
I had a couple of hours to spare and managed to stagger as far as the wooden shed, which doubled as a baggage deposit. For three pesos I was able to jettison my three fishing rods, my fly-tying kit, my collection of second-hand Russian literature in translation and my rugby boots so that I could go in search of food. This I found in copious quantities and, when I returned to find all of my luggage intact, I was again staggering.
The leather seat was big. It was bigger and more leathery than the seats I had walked past at the front of the bus. I was already congratulating myself on spending the extra 15 pesos. The seat next to mine was soon
occupied. He took his shoes and his socks off. When in Rome I thought, and did the same. At this stage I didn't even notice the multitude of flaps and levers sprouting from my seat: I was too busy looking for my Spanish
Cama - bed. A bit of an exaggeration, I thought to myself, but advertisers are advertisers, wherever you are. The second definition was more confusing. Mate - matt; checkmate; (AM - hierba) maté. I knew that AM
meant Latin American, so I'd just have to find out what hierba was.
But that could wait... there was champagne to drink! Okay, it was sparkling wine, and the glasses were plastic, but the guy who was serving it was wearing a bow-tie. I "chinked" glasses with my neighbour and introduced
myself. His name was Jorge Falco and he worked for an industrial filters company in Brasil. I found all of this out so quickly because he gave me his card. It took another 25 hours and 42 minutes and lots of thumbing through my dictionary for me to discover that he was going to Cordoba to visit his ailing mother. Also, that Che Guevara grew up in a small town outside Cordoba called Carlos Paz (which was recommended by his doctor because of the medicinal qualities of its air). And that mate is a kind of green tea which you drink at just below boiling point (unless you're in Paraguay where you drink it chilled).
In a small town called El Dorado, whose streets were paved with dust, we picked up a young lady called Natalia whom I fear may be the only thing worth mythologising about her town. She sat next to Jorge and she joined us in time for our first glass of whisky. She didn't have a card, and only 15 hours later I eventually work out - while struggling to enjoy a violently sweet coffee and a strange meat-filled dumpling in a run-down truck-stop at 5am - that she was studying law in Cordoba. To be honest, though, it wasn't really her academic career which interested me.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. After the whisky came supper, which was served with wine. And, after supper came, another whisky. Then, there was a complicated ritual of finding shoes and socks and putting them on again to perform ablutions. After that, there was another round of champagne, which nullified the brushing of teeth and meant that shoes had to go back on and the bathroom had to be revisited. Eventually, though, it was time for bed.
I took Jorge's lead, and wrestled with my seat. The partition which had been so irritating while looking for shoes suddenly came into its own and formed a nice little platform. I put my feet up and - with a little too much gusto - pulled the lever which I thought would allow the backrest to tilt.
Instead, the entire seat lurched up and back. The headrest cushioned my impact with the back of the bus, and the overall motion of the transformation performed some kind of chiropractic wizardry on an old rugby
injury. Before I knew it, it was over. I had been taught in half a painful second that when Argentine bus companies say cama they sure as hell mean bed. I was completely horizontal, and my feet weren't even touching the bed
in front of mine.
My memories of that night are vague: I woke up occasionally when we stopped to pick up or drop off passengers and I'll never forget the agricultural police who searched my bags for fruit. Somewhere along the line (in Cordoba, to be exact) Jorge and Natalia were replaced by two female Belgian passengers, although the circumstances of their arrival have been somewhat
idealised by memory.
In fact, everything about that first mythical journey has been idealised by memory. Since then I have made hundreds of bus trips in Argentina and none of them has been quite as perfect as the first. That said, I have never had an accident or a breakdown. I have never been delayed by more than an hour (which when you're travelling for 39 hours isn't much) and I've never
lacked for mate. The only run-ins I've had have been with the air-conditioning - wear warm clothes, no matter how hot it is outside - and I've travelled more than 15 000 kilometres.
Internal travel in Argentina: The amazing quality of the buses in Argentina is one of the reasons for its immense popularity as a budget travel destination. The buses are reliable, comfortable and cheap. And, what's more, they allow you to see the countryside (when you're not sleeping) while you're travelling. Wherever you want to go - whether it be from one suburb of Rosario to another, or from Tierra Del Fuego to Tartagal, there will be a bus that you can take there.
- Argentina is littered with defunct railways. These were built by the British but have been allowed to go to pot ever since Menem's government privatised all state owned companies in the 90s. The line from Mendoza to
Santiago de Chile - a supreme feat of engineering which crosses the Andes - is now rusty and grass-covered, as are many other important routes. With the exception of a few very expensive tourist-oriented steam trains, rail
is not the way to travel in Argentina.
- National airline Aerolineas Argentinas, although not nearly as hard-hit as the railways - was also sold by Menem and it has suffered greatly since the crisis of 2001. The flights are (relatively) reliable and cheap by
international standards but, nowadays almost all flights go through the central hub of Buenos Aires.
- Argentina is such a vast place - more than two-and-a-half times the surface of South Africa - that there's no doubt you'll be taking the odd flight if time is of any importance to you, but make sure you try one of
the long-distance buses.
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