Thursday, 24 January 2013

on the buses...

a much needed glass in hand of a merlot/malbec/cab-sauv blend from Fin del Mundo ("End of the World") winery, it is a locally-produced wine from here in Neuquen, the gateway to patagonia. dark-fruit character with medium-full body, medium tannins, and medium-plus acidity, it is exactly what i need after what has been a harrowing 3 days of busing in south america.

for the record, long distance bus travel in most south american countries is among the best organised, most comfortable busing experiences one can have. hard benches, crammed aisles, and roof-tops piled with luggage and livestock are nary to be found. instead, lengthy leg room, wide seats that recline to near horizontal, and "in-bus" services that include meals and coffee on long trips with rotating movies or, in one case some years ago, a rousing game of bingo (the prize was a bottle of wine), are the norm. in short, air canada and westjet could learn a thing or two from spending just 7 hours on a chilean "tur-bus" or argentine "andesmar."

despite the oxymoronic luxury bus travel experience, i've recently come to understand that certain ettiquette is required. this goes beyond the general confusion of trying to negotiate any of santiago's main bus terminals (you'd think "main" and "terminal" would be one place, but again, that's an oxymoron); a multitude of vendors calling out destinations, or one company with several booths depending on destination. instead, i am refering to on-board behaviour: what may seem like a good deed to one culture may not seem so to another and likewise, what seems like a pain is actually perfectly normal.

take for example boarding a bus. it has been my general observation that south american cultures are very respectful of the elderly or parents with small children. for example, one napping young man on the santiago metro got whacked in the knee with a water bottle from a middle-aged woman to wake up and give his seat for an elderly woman (i was further away, so missed on this social prompting). he seemed embarrassed he didn't automatically do so, and was very apologetic to the women and eagerly gave up his seat. in another situation in argentina, where bank lines of more than half-an-hour are perfectly commonplace, a woman with an infant was immediately escorted to the front of the line by staff and no one thought anything of it.

you'd think, therefore, that when lining up to board the bus with other polite-minded chileans, one should allow passengers-who-may-need-assistance-with-boarding without a moment's thought. well, you'd think wrong. if said person is a man with cans and borderline senile, apparently women still have the right to go first, and don't stand in their way if you know what's good for you.

and what happens when, despite a language barrier, you feel terrible for the hobbling octogenarian and make way for him and his bags, supporting his back as he negociates the steep, narrow steps to his seat? you get yelled at for holding up the line, that's what happens. redemption can only be found when other observant passengers yell back to the impatient matriarchs in equally sharp language to mind their manners.

the elderly aside, what of passengers traveling with small children, forced to sit on their knees for 10-long hours in a fully-booked bus? and, as mentioned above, foreign backpackers with little regard for beyond themselves recline their chairs to the maximum, thus taking up precious space? first, as a parent, you disregard it and accept it as the way things are. (this is in complete contrast to the generally accepted airline caveat that "all incidents begin with reclining seats"). but, as a gentleman, when a seat becomes available, you offer to move so the mum and son can stretch out for a well-deserved rest. instead, after this happens a second time, the mum gets yelled at by above-mentioned impatient matriarchs to know her place, respect her seat, and stop telling people to move. what ensues is a borderline catfight and said gentleman imploring he was just trying to be as caballero as possible. (30-minutes of reassurances "you've done nothing wrong" ensue).

finally, punctuality is not something i'd expect much of a developing country, but the bus schedules here are relatively accurate. thus, passengers are used to arriving at an expected time, give or take minor incidents along the way. this could be construction, an accident, or maybe, just maybe, the only canadian on the bus completely unaware that, say, argentina implemented a law last week that requires canadians (americans and australians too) to pay a "reciprocity fee" (i.e. "revenge visa" for charging south americans similar fees), and the only way to pay is on credit card over the internet but, for arguement's sake, you're at a rural border crossing with very limited internet access? and let's just say that this process takes well more than an hour, thus delaying the entire bus-load, forced to sit in the middle of nowhere on a hot morning and watch "transponder 2". given the earlier reactions, you'd expect the worst. instead, you're greeted with smiles from everyone, delighted that in the end, you are alright.

notes to self when managing wine tour bookings for this year. oh yes, i suppose you don't know about that either? but again, that's another story...

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