Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Navigating Retiro

While I generally regard Argentine long-distance bus services highly, it's hard to say the same about Buenos Aires's superannuated bus terminal at Retiro. In the first place, access is awkward--when I took a cab from my Palermo apartment around 9 a.m. yesterday, half the 20-minute trip was spent negotiating the perpetual bottleneck in the last few blocks to the terminal. Of course, there are city buses, but they leave you beyond comfortable walking distance if you have baggage; the Subte, meanwhile, requires changing trains (baggage, again, can be a problem).

On the other hand, I showed up at the Nueva Chevallier ticket counter and learned that a bus for San Antonio de Areco, the gaucho capital of Buenos Aires province, was due to leave in ten minutes--no waiting, or so I thought. I paid my 21 pesos (US$7) for the two-hour trip, and headed for the departure bay.

Retiro is old and worn, but that's really where the problems start. It's also congested, both with buses and people. According to Chevallier's staff, the bus would arrive somewhere between Dársena (Platform) 25 and Dársena 36, and would display a sign for Río Cuarto (or Río IV), its ultimate destination, in the window. Buses normally don't pull in until just a couple minutes before their departure time, a fact which has always caused me anxiety.

The most modern buses have digital readouts so it's relatively easy to figure out their destinations, at least when the drivers bother to flip the switch on or to change them. Some just scribble the destination on a scrap of paper, in unreadably light pencil, and tape it to the window. As buses are pulling in and out all the time, you have to scramble back and forth the 50 or so meters between the extremes of your designated platforms, dodging others who are doing the same thing or else standing and blocking the way, to find out if your bus has actually arrived.

In fact, a loudspeaker announces the arrival and departure of all buses, but the rumble of idling diesels makes it difficult to hear. Even when it's audible, it's often unintelligible--I speak Spanish well, and my wife is a native speaker, but even she finds the sound quality so poor that it's almost impossible to decipher what's being said. If your Spanish is marginal, it's hopeless.

I've never missed a bus at Retiro, but this time I was concerned. After half an hour, the Río Cuarto bus hadn't shown and I worried that, in pacing back and forth, I might somehow have missed it. Keeping one eye on the platforms, I re-entered the building and approached the Chevallier counter, where they assured me it was about to arrive. It another 15 minutes it did, and we boarded, about 45 minutes behind schedule. Then, settling into my seat, I read the paper as we headed west to Areco; en route, highway construction delayed us further, so arrival time was an hour and a half behind schedule.

That, though, was atypical and won't deter me from taking buses in Argentina. I hope, though, that someday city authorities manage to undo the Retiro bottleneck.

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