I have this theory about bus stations. Actually, it’s not so much theory as it is an astute and practiced observation. Pick a city or town anywhere in the world. Regardless of this locale’s sophistication, technological advances, cleanliness, environmental efforts, architecture or age, it will will no doubt be home to some troubled people. You’ve got your scallywags, layabouts, hobos, rapscallions, rogues, scoundrels, knaves, cretins—even the occasional blackguard. And if you pay a visit to the local bus station, I can almost promise that you will find each and every one of them, assembled in short order, for all your leering, pickpocketing, mumbling, grain-liquor-in-a-brown-bag needs. For it is the bus station that is the universal meeting spot for the dregs of any given society, no matter how sparkling that society may be. Loogies will dot the soda-slicked floors, empties can be found strewn under benches and in corners. Toilets will be clogged and paperless, with unlock-able doors but for one stall which seems to be permanently occupied by someone making far too little noise.
It’s not that I’m unsympathetic. It’s just that, get away from me. Especially when I’m dying of thirst, dragging a heavy suitcase, duffel bag and purse, it’s 97 degrees outside, and the system for figuring out when and from which of the 45 docks your bus leaves is incomprehensible even to those who speak the native language. This is exactly where we found ourselves trying to exit the city of Mendoza, where we had a one-night stop (and day-long wine tour) before heading to our final destination: The Algodon Wine Estates in San Rafael, 250 kilometers due South.
I’m the first to admit that patience is not necessarily my virtue. So by the time we battled the throngs of sticky, aggressive people (I think I may actually have growled at someone), located the right bus, and boarded the double-decker, I was in truly rare form. We collapsed into our assigned seats directly up front on the top level, took a deep, cleansing breath, and that is when I realized that there was no air conditioning and we were sitting behind a giant, untinted windshield, and heat rises. And that, dear readers, is when I threw a full-on, unabashed, pride-be-damned temper tantrum. I kicked our belongings around on the floor, cried, raged and seethed, banged on the vents to see if I could coax some air out of them, frantically fanned myself with our wilted bus tickets. Matt, ever the adult, calmly collected our things and moved us a few rows back, where we could crack open a window, get out of the sun, and even feel a teeny bit of air trickling out above our heads. Immediately, the bus steward came up and scolded us for switching seats and promptly closed our window. He gave us what sounded like a very disdainful lecture in Spanish, shaking his head and woefully moving blankets around. I looked at him desperately, weakly reached out my arm and in a cracked, hoarse whisper said simply: “agua…por favor…” He sighed, nodded, and thirty minutes later I was presented with a Dixie cup of warm Sprite. Things were looking up. A few minutes after that, he came back upstairs and turned on a little TV hanging from the ceiling in the center aisle, and for the next hour and a half we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of 30-second clips from every music video made in America between 1978 and 1999. Baffling? Yes. Totally rad? You betcha. Meanwhile, our steward came back and asked if we wanted dinner. Dinner? On a bus? Well, no. “Mas agua!” I croaked. “Solemente agua!” He began to speak at length in Spanish, most likely on the virtues of eating three square meals a day, the quality of their dining selections, and the foolhardy, dinner-less path we were about to choose. So we acquiesced and were soon presented with a tray of what was essentially the food equivalent of our in-bus entertainment: a tiny green salad, a slice of vegetable quiche, a sort of yellow-cake-ham-and-cheese roulade, a roll, saltines, soft cheese, and a steaming hot package containing a quarter chicken and plain white rice. We received it with what I’m sure was visible shock, which only increased when he then offered us red or white wine and champagne. Well, yes! But also, mas agua?
As we drove through vineyard-striped countryside in the pitch black of night, I took a slow sip from my Styrofoam cup of battery aci…champagne. I looked over at Matt for a moment, watching him wrestle with a chicken wing, then closed my eyes and let the rhythm of the bumpy road beneath us blend with thumping beats of Snap!’s “I Got the Power.”
Robin Leach, eat your heart out.