The Bus That Never Arrived
by Benjamin Dangl
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
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
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.
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