The church bell struck ten as our bus left San Antonio on the road to Salta. Two nuns cycled by and a boy herded sheep across the road. On the gravel plain dotted with bushes an Indian woman in a broad-brimmed hat of grey felt, bundles at her feet, flagged us down. The ticket-seller loaded the baggage and followed the woman to the back of the bus. He was forty and a man of few words, uneasy in this jesting company, as if some unspoken sadness had beached him in a job better suited to the garrulous, to the bantering gossips beloved of passengers.
On the road ahead a dark figure hailed the bus and clambered aboard. His mouth gaped in a toothless oval and his skull was cased in a cap with Cacharel written in red above the peak. Without a word he tended a fistful of coca leaves to Don Victor, our driver, who pushed a wad into his cheek.
We rose to over four thousand metres at Abra Muñano and dropped down a dizzying switchback of hairpin bends. At each turn the bus slowed almost to a halt as Don Victor twisted the wheels away from the void. When I asked him about the crosses clustered at precipices he called back: ‘Been with the company twenty-five years. I’ve driven this route hundreds of times.’ I smiled but doubted that even his skills would count for much on the day a bolt cleaved or a threadbare tyre split.
The first candelabra cacti appeared, locked in their indecipherable semaphore. Piebald and russet llamas loitered beside the road, which curved down to a watercourse. Two distant figures silhouetted in the sunlight raised their arms in greeting.
A howl erupted from the back of the bus. A slurred voice enquired where we were and cursed at the response. Don Victor stopped the bus and muttered something about winos. The drunk tumbled off with his bags and scratched his head as he contemplated the walk home.
We lunched at El Alfarcito. Among the gold and green vegetation an occasional bush flared orange and beyond a screen of poplars a whitewashed church sprouted two square towers capped by pyramidal red roofs. Three women darted to and fro serving steaming maize and chicken. Pigs foraged in their pen while dogs, roosters and turkeys scrabbled for food in the dirt. Beside the kitchen was the abomination of a caged condor spreading its limp wings beneath the beckoning Andean sky.
The bus lurched into life and set off with new passengers standing among their belongings in the aisle. One kilometre down the road we stopped to pick up a gaggle of schoolchildren who boarded to an echoing ‘Buenos días Don Victor.’ The ticket-seller struggled through the throng collecting fares.
The valley broadened and the hills sank to reveal silvered heights on the horizon. Meadows were burnished by the falling sun; apple and pear trees swayed in a gentle breeze. Seams of mauve, grey and yellow spiralled up a bluff to a summit planted with a bleached cross. Minerals gleamed from myriad hills and then merged across a single escarpment, like transparencies from a child’s colouring book.
On the approach to Salta, Don Victor stopped at the Gendarmería Nacional post for a traffic control. Three gendarmes raised their eyebrows at the thicket of standing passengers, but reproof yielded to smiles, a joke, and they waved us on.
As we drove into town I counted the passengers as they left the bus. On the outskirts I had reached eighty.
Eighteen were children under six. The bus had forty-five seats. The frozen hands of a clock face entered my mind’s eye and I saw the hora fatal tracking a busload of passengers on the road between San Antonio and Salta.
Extracted from David Marsh’s excellent new travel book ‘Last Tango in Buenos Aires‘, also available on Amazon.
Copyright © 2016 David Marsh