When I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I learned quickly that some things are best left to a professional. Thus, taxis were my preferred mode of transportation. I never drove in Buenos Aires.
My time in Buenos Aires was a magical journey to a culture unfettered by those twin gods of efficiency and sanity which rule in the United States. That such a beautiful city could exist when the spirit of anarchy simmered barely beneath the surface was amazing to me. Of course Buenos Aires was named prior to the invention of the automobile.
I was there on business for seven months in the early ‘80s, near the end of their long stifling dictatorship. The exuberance exhibited by the people was infectious. It seemed no one but me worked hard and everyone rarely slept. One only stopped eating to dance, to meet friends, to eat “parilla,” drink wine, sip a coffee. The mass transit system is world class; these trains ran on time, at least until the dictatorship ended.
The primary diet of the average Argentinean is “parilla,” their style of barbecued beef, the best in the world. Coca cola, coffee and ‘American’ cigarettes follow closely in popularity. I once met a friend at a local café and, arriving on time, was surprised to find him sitting at a table with four empty coke bottles, a coffee and an ashtray filled with half a dozen cigarette butts. He said he was ten minutes early and just “passed the time.”
The Argentinean “waiter” is spectacularly indifferent. He waits to acknowledge you. He waits until you are really hungry to serve you. The restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 9pm. A fast food restaurant in Buenos Aires, is one where, by the time you get your food, you feel you’ve been on a fast. Restaurants in Argentina are designed on the DMV model. But the food is better.
In Argentina, if you haven’t eaten beef in the meal, you haven’t eaten. It truly is the best meat I’ve ever eaten. The hotel I stayed at served beef as its main course nightly for the seven months I stayed there. Everyone cheered that night the maître‘d stated that we were serving “Escallopes,” until we realized that the dish was scalloped beef, not seafood. Even the “vegetarians” I knew there ate beef. It was okay because the cows ate grass.
Buenos Aires is said to have more psychologists per capita than anywhere in the world, even Vienna. But I’m told they are all starving because, for the price of a cup of coffee, literally, you can spend the day discussing your troubles at the local café or pub. That’s where all the psychologists hang out. Everyone is very sympathetic. If you ever need cheap advice, buy an Argentinean a coffee.
The traffic there is legendary. According to the American ex-patriots I knew, the freeways were so snarled because “they forgot to put arrows on the lane markers.” Lane markers are only a suggestion and are never taken seriously. If a car can fit between two others, “Presto! A new lane!” To escape freeway gridlock I saw some drivers charge up the embankment, uprooting small trees to find a surface street unclogged by smoke spewing Citroens and Renaults. Left turn lanes are unknown. Three right turns are saner than attempting one left turn into oncoming traffic.
Jaywalking is an invitation to suicide. Running the bulls at Pamplona is safer. In Buenos Aires the pedestrian never has the right of way. Even the sidewalks are not a safe haven. A pedestrian hit by a “collectivo” while standing at the curb doesn’t evoke surprise. They should have known better. They should have seen the bus coming. The buses are painted ornately, each route having its own unique style. The sting of death is diminished considerably being run down by a circus wagon.
Residential streets are unpredictable. Often, in neighborhoods with palatial homes, the streets would be unpaved wallows that Americans would only brave with a four-wheel drive. Yet those stalwart Citroens carefully pick their way through the puddles and ruts. Those little cars made of corrugated tin look like miniature Quonset huts on wheels.
Stop signs are little understood relics. No driver worth his machismo would submit to a brightly colored sign. It isn’t his mother. “Non!” Rather, at each intersection a modern reenactment of the medieval joust plays out with armor on wheels and horsepower under the hood. The polite but impatient “rolling stop” known as the “California Roll” in Los Angeles, would be sneered at as effete in Buenos Aires.
The most an Argentinean driver expects or gives on approaching a stop sign is a slight tap on the brakes; the automotive equivalent of a slight nod. This ensures the brakes are still operative, should they actually be needed and is never interpreted as a genuine effort to slow down. Proof being, an aggressive gunning of the throttle always follows that brake tap lest anyone doubt their resolve. Any hesitation is rewarded with a flurry of horns from outraged drivers en route to a vital cup of coffee.
After the junta lost their grip on the country, even stopping at a red light, in some neighborhoods was an invitation to be robbed. Clean streets are one thing but free enterprise will out.
It was into this maelstrom that I made my daily commute. The cab drivers were… survivors. Eking a living from those streets for twelve or more hours per day takes steely nerves. Everyone drives aggressively and these drivers are pros at gaining ground and holding it; sometimes inches at a time. These men have the best reaction times in the world. They always drive faster, stop quicker and see opportunity better than anyone else on the road.
It was not enough to gain ground but also to keep anyone else from making better headway. The analogy of being a passenger on a bumper car ride is not a stretch. The drivers I rode with were excellent and we never got into an accident. The cab driver is the modern day gaucho and equivalent to the cowboy of the American West. Those squeals and impacts I heard were always behind us. But even with confidence in the driver, I always spent the ride watching every move, anticipating every maneuver.
The day I left Buenos Aires, en route to the airport I had the best ride ever. This driver kept a moderate speed. He didn’t cut people off and always signaled his intentions. He left several car lengths in front of him. It was a long ride to the airport and I actually dozed at times. I felt so confident of my security in this man’s car. I couldn’t believe my luck at getting this driver, a man who ensured my ease and comfort. Yes, it was all a myth that every driver in Buenos Aires was either crazy or incompetent. My driver was world-class and could drive anywhere with grace and professionalism. He didn’t pretend interest in light conversation. My driver was all business and watched the road intently. My driver was the best.
When we arrived at the airport he pulled up to the guard shack and gate. The car purred quietly. He spoke to the guard. The guard pressed a button and the gate arm rose, allowing entry. We sat there.
The guard spoke to my driver. My driver was waiting for the gate. The guard pointed to the gate arm, already up.
Then my eyes were opened. When my driver squinted and leaned forward attempting to see the gate, I realized he was nearly blind. The world seemed to stand still.
He thanked the guard and eased forward. We made it safely, the last hundred yards to the terminal. I paid him, tipped him well, and gratefully got out of that death trap. I almost kissed the ground.
That last hour, my driver, a blind man, had chauffeured me through Buenos Aires traffic. But safely! It was the most relaxing ride of my whole trip.
Years later, in one of those filler news items in the L.A. Times, I read of a taxi driver in Buenos Aires arrested for driving while blind. Arrested? They should give him a medal. His condition should be mandatory for cab drivers there.
Or is it?
I felt glad that the old man had made it that long. I salute him. Long may he ride.