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The Bus That Never Arrived

by Benjamin Dangl

2/14/05

The winds changed in Buenos Aires and I decided to set sail for Mendoza, a smaller city in western Argentina, near the border with Chile. A few hours into the ride, the bus's isle became a mini river full of old sandwiches, spilled coffee and soda. I had to place my bags elsewhere so they wouldn't become soaked. My seat was right next to the bathroom in the back of the bus, so it was difficult to sleep as people constantly bumped into me on their way to the bathroom. The profound smell of "el bano" was far from pleasant.

The bus was in horrible shape and broke down throughout the night in the middle of the vast, flat expanse of the countryside. Sometime around 2 am, the air conditioner began to leak. I was soaked in a matter of minutes, but still managed to catch a few hours of sleep. I awoke around dawn to the sound of a group of teenagers in the seats around me yelling and punching each other. Ready for the ride to be over, I began to search on the horizon for the Andes Mountains, the sign that we were approaching Mendoza.

The smell of the bathroom and the moldy, broken air conditioner fermented in the air. Crumbs and candy wrappers floated up and down the river between the seats. Hours and hours passed and still I didn't see the mountains - my beacon of hope in what was becoming an endless ride. The bus broke down three more times until finally in the cloudy distance I made out the dark profile of the Andes.

Fifteen kilometers outside of the city, the bus started to sputter and rattle until the motor stopped roaring and the driver coasted onto the side of the road. It was Sunday and a festival of sorts was going on next to the highway. Dozens of the families in attendance stood on the edge of the fairground pointing and laughing at the feeble bus and its road-weary passengers gazing like captives out the windows.

After a brief inspection of the engine, our driver, with his purple sunglasses on, explained that the bus had died and there was no way to revive it. He called the bus station in Mendoza and they sent another bus to haul us back into the arms of civilization. When that bus arrived it had three inches of water all over the floor. No one, not even the driver could explain it. However, we did make it to Mendoza. The trip normally takes fourteen hours. Our entire ride lasted about twenty hours.

The People’s Bank

There is a bank program in Mendoza which lends money to people who are struggling economically. I went to a poor neighborhood in Mendoza with some people who work with this bank. Within the lending process, five people get together and propose separate projects they would like loans for. This bank, (which is sponsored by the Argentine government), reviews proposals from the group and offers advice on how the projects can be carried out. The loan is based on confidence, and doesn’t require any signatures or paperwork. The people borrowing the money simply give their word to pay it back. Though the loan starts out at roughly one hundred dollars, it has an interest rate of only 2% and can provide an investment opportunity for people who are not eligible for loans from larger banks. The projects in Mendoza often include starting up such projects as small kiosks, bread shops or sewing businesses.

This bank is the opposite of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where development is often imposed from the top-down. In Mendoza, people that live in the neighborhood tell the bank what they need. The I.M.F.'s strategy usually involves sending some recent Harvard graduate to a poor country that he's never been to. After arriving, he tells the government what they need to do to rise out of poverty and lends them billions of dollars to do it. Rather than local infrastructure development, and support for schools and hospitals, the IMF’s policies involve the privatization of natural resources and creating investment opportunities for foreign businesses. These policies often have devastating results in the country and generate a crippling debt.

The Long Walk to the US

One morning I accompanied a friend of mine who was heading into the countryside to teach music to a folk band. The group was made up of people from the area who worked on a vegetable farm. They lived in the desert outside Mendoza, miles away from any town. One of the musicians explained to me that twelve years ago he had traveled to the area with his family from Salta, a city in the north of Argentina.

“There is more work here than in Salta, so we came here,” he explained. He lived in a small community of houses with nine other families who were all related to him. Though the work was harder and had a lower salary than many jobs in the city, he preferred the farm work. “We are good at working with the land, it is what we do best.”

“There is a school down the road and the public bus comes past on the main highway about four times a day,” he explained. Besides that, there was no major transportation. Different groups from the city had arrived to give lessons on agriculture, irrigation and carpentry. My friend had been giving them weekly lessons for over a year.

The homes were crumbling cement structures, and all the families shared one outhouse. The steady wind and vast plains extending to each side of the small collection of homes created a feeling of desolation. Pigs, chickens and rabbits were in separate cages around the yard and as the group began to play music, the goats gathered to watch. As the music class continued, the kids started asking me questions about the US. For the younger ones, it was difficult for them to comprehend that I came from a place that was farther north than Salta, a full day’s bus ride away. “It would take a very long time to walk there,” one of their mothers joked.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org. Click here to read more of his articles.

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