For those in the know: Lima~Buenos Aires. Date: last week in February.
Four and a half thousand kilometres. Four frontier stamps. Three countries. Ten Spanified Hollywood films. Seven children. Four days: three nights....on a bus. Sounds like an audit for Hell, or at least least a recipe for Purgatory.
I come from a generation that once considered aeroplane flight as a novel and exciting form of travel. The Navigator, from a world that didn't even consider the possibility. Her first flight and her thirtieth birthday coincided with a trip to New York, mine, a fishing trip to Iceland. I can still remember a fourteen year old's thrill, when told of the intending travel plans. Surprise, even consternation, it just wasn't something that our family did. Radical travel was forgoing the annual pilgrimage to the Isle of Arran and instead sailing to the Isle of Tiree.
How things have altered.
Our clutch of cycles have, over time, accrued an un-ecological collection of air-miles; we've become adept at shifting them through airports, sweet-talking officials into accepting them as legitimate baggage. Only now those same airlines are searching for any means to maximise their returns. There's a charge for sports goods. Fair do's. Or it would be, if it wasn't for this very obvious fact: our cycles along with all the kit, weigh considerably less than that behemoth case the previous checking-in passenger couldn't lift onto the scales. Just one of the reasons that bus travel has a place in our South American logistics - there's no weight restrictions. There might be a bit of tooth sucking, but a few pesos always expedites the loading. Another is the truth that there's nothing exciting about being origami'd into a cramped seat, force-fed canned air and sold the lie that, in the unfortunate event of landing on water, you might still be alive to put on a life-vest.
Flying is the the new purgatory.
Especially when there's a viable alternative. But. Seventy-six hours on a bus with all those potential statistical hazards? I was apprehensive; we'd just reconfigured all our body parts, recovered some feeling to my derrière, this after a mere five hour flight south from Miami. This was going to be fifteen times longer.
We need not have worried. At last, we've found a bus company that offers on-line booking, seat choice and pre-boarding luggage check-in. Sounds like an airport? It is, with the additional advantage that they have their own relatively quiet departure depot. Everybody's baggage is weighed, there's an advertised scale, you pay the rate, they then take it off your hands and load it. The handlers don't even bat an eye at our bikes. Gone, those moments of mounting adrenaline, waiting to fight for cycle space in the hold, negotiating the graft that will help facilitate the transaction. At last, a simple and honest system, one that sets the tone for the next few days.
We've pre-booked the best seats on the bus. Top deck, front row. Sitting behind tinted windows that render the short twilight early. Seats with prospects. A hermetically sealed view of dust storms, the silent ribbons of sand, streamering out from the desert and over the road. Of ranked vines ordinarily hidden behind high walls topped in razor wire. In the night time, sweeping around tight bends, seated high over vantages that fall down to known sea cliffs, the imagination intensified by an infinite obsidian darkness in the window's pane. Of elevated perspectives into a shanty shack's back yard and of the adrenal rush from an advancing lorry on the wrong side of the road. A differing, new perspective on an already cycled road.
Seven children: four day journey? Some of them traveling with no male parent. There's a simple piece of advice for Latino border crossings. Try not to join the line if there's a mother and child in front. Immigration officers inspect all documents. Thoroughly. There is only one booth open, and the conductor operates under the maxim: 'women and children first'. Fair enough. We're lined up around the wall, with a grandstand view of the immigration officer's computer screen, as he processes one family group. Thorough. The lawyer's document, with its stamps and fingerprints are scrutinised minutely, repeatedly. Even the paper's quality is checked. The supervisor is called for further verification. It takes time, a lot of time. As we're held on that crossing, in a shadeless sun for four hours. Crossing borders whist actually riding a bike is, by comparison, easy.
I'm not sure what it is about Peruvian kid raising, for you would have been hard put to know they were seven children on board. No gurning, no bickering, no incessant X-box 'blinking'. One youngster plays with his toy cars in the stairwell for hours on end, utterly absorbed, bothering no one. The months old baby gurgles, but never cries.Three others let off steam playing tag in the cavernous customs hall at midnight and then retreat back on board to silence. Either it's chemical coshes, or a natural adaptation for long distance travel. We're all in a form of suspended animation.
For the people-watcher in me, it's a fascinating world. By the end of day two, a community is already starting emerge. Already it's possible to imagine who the leaders would be, were we to be suddenly transported to a desert island. The chattering grandmother, never detached from her clipboard, who I imagine as a retired teacher, now the 'organiser'. She's the one that gathers the drivers' tips. The Argentiños who fights the herd's mentality for bovine lethargy, a 'whipper-in' who chivvies the tardy to get back on the bus after a stop. But it's at the protracted Chilean border that the cooperative spirit materialises. We've all got more baggage than can be easily hauled in one carry, luggage that requires the x-ray belt. A laborious process, as there's an inequation: bus and inquisitive authority are some distance apart. I and the other 'aged persons' are pitied, those fit young men grab our bikes and the other heavy cases and spirit them over the concourse. It should have speeded up the departure, only we had to await yet another arm of officialdom: this time it's the ministry of transport's 'tyre-kicker' with his tyre-iron wandering around tapping the rubber-tyres.
Released from our suspended animation, the torpor of a travel, we navigate a final passage through an x-ray machine and escape into the rush hour of the Argentinian capital. I know I'm back in Argentina; we've only cycled one kilometre and already we've had conversations with a motorbiker, a Chipa seller and a commuting cyclist. All are eager to tell us how dangerous our route is. However, we left Lima in a rush hour only four days ago, by comparison, this is like a village lane. The evening light is low on the river, the wind is on our backs, we gather some street food. There's little ill effect from sitting high in our grand circle seats, watching another world scroll by. Life is good.
Maybe we could try some more long distance 'scheduled' bus journeys; Birmingham~Kashmir?