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01.12.2008

Rosario

The best bus ride in my life was in Argentina. I needed to cross Patagonia, from Trelew to the town of Esquel in the foothills of the Andes, on an overnight bus over gravel roads. My only point of reference was a backbreaking Greyhound bus trip across the United States taken when I was nine years old, and I was ready for the worst.

Instead I found myself in bus heaven. The seats were giant mattresses spaced so far apart that the seat back in front of me was shrouded in a blue haze. They didn't just recline flat - I'm pretty sure they reclined past flat. I felt like the pajamaed man on one of those late night commercials targeted at seniors, perched on a thick armchair that slowly unbends into a comfortable bed as he presses a button on a hand controller. Except that the commercials never showed a steward coming around to serve the man a steak dinner. A few seconds with the armrest and I had un-reclined; another moment and the armrest itself had transformed, like an autobot, into a lap tray. Soon I was eating hot beef in the dark, looking out the window at the arbitrary set of four stars I thought was Southern Cross, trying to get the Crosby, Stills and Nash song out of my head.

When I had finished the steak, the same steward floated by to find out what I would like to drink. ¿Whisky? Right away, sir!

It was a Platonic bus trip that I would never quite repeat. On later buses the seat might only tilt to one hundred seventy seven degrees, or the air conditioning would be on too high, or there would be a limp ham croissant instead of steak. But even though I have never re-summited this peak of transportation bliss, bus travel in Argentina remains better than anywhere else I've been. And with each new trip comes the hope that I will eat reclining steak again.

Buses serving Buenos Aires leave from a bus terminal in Retiro, a long snake of a building hidden behind three train stations. Everyone with a van and a dream has set up shop here. Downstairs, where the buses pull in, the hall is packed with kiosks, snack courts, and the giant striped plastic suitcases that signal long-distance travel in the Second World. People in the waiting areas sit watching little LCD screens showing Los Simpsons.

Rosario is a city 300km northwest of Buenos Aires, up the coffee-colored Paraná river. The bus ride is steak-free, of course, but otherwise quite comfortable, a straight shot across a giant lawn. The most amazing thing about Rosario is that you can spend the day there without ever seeing a Che Guevara t-shirt, maté gourd, poster or tattoo. Given that Rosario is his birthplace, this shows an unusual restraint, and makes the city instantly lovable.

Rosario's other claim to fame is the amazing Monument to the Argentine Flag near the river, which looks like it was built by someone who forgot to uncheck the extras on the monument order form:

Monument Options Obelisk
Reflecting Pool
Eternal Flame
Colonnade
Urn
Cannons
Staircase
Bridge
Memorial Wall
Ceremonial Plaques
Marble Statuary With "Emerging From Chaos" Rodin Effect
Viewing Tower
Eagles

The monument also appears to be made out of that special monument-grade concrete, pioneered by the nations of the Eastern Bloc, that is guaranteed to get instantly dirty and develop mysterious black vertical stripes.

What makes this immensity especially wonderful is the fact that Argentina has such a gentle, feel-good flag, a flag that does not bloodstain well and is completely incompatible with any kind of martial tradition. You could easily be excused for thinking it had been designed by gay hippies.

"We're going to have a field of ivory white, with two bold stripes of sky blue along the top and bottom. That way, when the sun shines through it, it will look just like the summer sky!"

"Ooh, I love it - but what if we put Mr. Sun right on the flag itself!"

"FABULOUS"

And yet the Nuremberg-class monument doesn't give an inch. The eternal flame burns, bored military guards rove around, a tiny gift shop controls access to the observation deck. And just when you think the monument can't get any better, they turn the lights on:

The rest of Rosario completely ignores the monument and is instead a leafy, pretty city full of plane trees. Their branches thwack against the roof of the bus as it meanders in from the highway, zigzagging through the outer neighborhoods to let passengers off at a variety of unscheduled stops. Students of South American urban planning will be shocked to learn that the city is laid out on a grid, with a pleasant mix of old buildings and glitzy little pedestrian shopping arcades around a kind of central park. The streets are full of cafés and tired dogs sleeping the day away so they can go barking after taxis once the sun has gone down.

There is apparently a string of these cities all the way up the Paraná, places in no way remarkable but very pleasant to be in. Siting them was a haphazard process - settlers would get off the boat, lay out a street grid, and then see if the local Indians came and massacred anyone. If they did, they moved the city a few dozen kilometers up or downriver and tried again.

In the evenings, some kind of cooling breeze comes off the water and it is a good time to walk and eat ice cream. Two and a half pesos at any supermarket buys a bottle of "Dark Eyes" dulce de leche liqueur, which looks like Paraná river water but tastes like a caramel sundae. People eat early in this provincial town - ten thirty or so - so by midnight there is the feeling of having the city mostly to yourself, which given the massive migration to Mar del Plata and the Patagonian vacationlands may not be far from the truth. The dogs start to wake up and make trial runs at the remaining cars. You can see a pillar of light on the horizon, in the direction of the flag memorial. For hundreds of miles in every direction, cows are grazing in the dark, waiting to become steak. Rosario is a wonderful place to be.

If you enjoyed this post, send me to Antarctica! I'm soliciting contributions to cover the cost of a six-week voyage to the Ross Sea in early 2016.

Read all about it on this Kickstarter page.

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