Sunday, July 3, 2011

Driving in Bs As

First, let us speak of taxis. They are ubiquitous in Bs As, moreso than in any other city I’ve seen with the exception of NYC (and I’ve made every effort to block out my memories of not-beloved NYC, so I can’t really make the comparison with any confidence). They are cheap and very convenient. I take them all the time.

But what really distinguishes the cabs in this city is the controlled insanity with which they are driven by their taxistas. Driving in a Porteno cab can be terrifying for foreigners (or at least those of us from the EEUU) in that the drivers absolutely, positively no sense that it is necessary to given neighboring vehicles a buffer zone any larger than what is minimally, barely necessary not to hit them. They will drive up exactly behind a car in front, squeeze into any possible space left between two cars, and do it all at pace and while honking constantly but not aggressively.

(This is also an interesting feature of driving. Cabs and cars and buses here honk all the time, but it does not seem to mean the same that it does in the US, where a single brief honk can set off a horrific road-rage slaughter. Rather, honking here seems to be a basically polite but firm way of saying, “Hey now, hurry up and/or move there, fine fellow,” and because it is not the same act of apocalyptic rudeness that it is in the EEUU, it’s done more common. If you want my opinion (which I’ll presume you do), I prefer the Argentine approach to honking. Not that it would be possible to replicate in the US, for obvious reasons related to the difficulty of changing social norms and also perhaps to Americans’ annoying sense of delicate emotional entitledeness.)

Anyway. Taxis here are good and fun and all, but what I really love are the buses, or as they’re locally called, “colectivos” (which means, a Brazilian guy explained to me, simply any collection of things, which didn’t really do much to illuminate the meaning of the term as applied to buses). Bus travel has never been my thing, as I usually prefer subway or trams with fixed, easily understood tracks. And when I first got here, I’d choose to walk for like miles rather than take a bus that went along exactly the same route.

The aforementioned reluctance was partly because of the initially confusing nature of bus fare usage, which requires one to tell the driver exactly what street you want to be let off at, whereupon he gives you whatever fare applies. I found a way around this, though, by simply telling the bus driver the max fare (one peso veinte centavos), thus obviating the need to have a complex discussion about my destination. (The max fare is 1.20, but even a short trip costs like 1.10, so the difference is so trivial that it’s not really worth bothering over. We’re literally talking about pennies.)

But after I took a few of them, I figured out the drill for the fare (including getting a SUBE card, which allows one to just debit a charge electronically, as opposed to paying with monedas (coins), which is still done but takes FOREVER for each passenger and has interesting implications that I’ll describe more below), and really got into the idea of the colectivos. These buses are colorful, again literally—they are often painted in bright colors indicating the number of the line and, helpfully, the name of the destination(s). Inside, there are often curtains over the windows, and in older buses, even images of the Virgin Mary with prayers for automotive safety.

Said prayers are really quite necessary because of the cavalier way that the buses stop and start. Because the lines of passengers are often long and the process for paying fares can be protracted, hurrying colectivistas often start driving while people (e.g., self) are still standing on the steps of the bus waiting to enter, and in one even as a passenger (e.g., self) was on the final step leaning out of the bus. Much the same is true of stops, which when dinged last only long enough to let the requisite number of passengers off, so that the colectivo doesn’t really stop entirely and one must jump out onto Puerreydon or Azcuenaga or Sta Fe or wherever, in motion.

It’s really quite exciting. Driving in LA, for all its many charms, is going to seem quite tame by comparison.