Colectivaizeishon. Action and effect of taking all the buses in Buenos Aires. (Dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spanish)
This is a book about Buenos Aires and the Argentinized Englishman who woke up one day and decided to take all her buses.
It is not a book about buses. It’s far more boring than that. It is a book about psychogeography, about how we experience, perceive and use the space of a city. It is a book for all those people who have ever wondered “what happens if I just stay on until the end of the line?” It is a book for all those who ever looked at a map of the city they lived in and realised that, in spite of the years, they didn’t know half of their own city.
It is an experiment to turn something functional, ordinary and everyday into something more fun. It is an experiment to see what happens if you take a bus just because, just to see what happens, with no time limits, with no purpose.
It is not a guide book.
It is not a handy bus information pamphlet, and neither seeks nor wants to tell you anything remotely useful about buses.
It is not a travel book.
It’s a chronicle of 300 journeys and the musings and memories and long periods of boredom that these journeys triggered.
It is an exercise in pointlessness, a celebration of being at a loose end, a complete waste of time of a book.
It is a book that anyone can write with a little time, a lot of stoicism, and a whole lot of coins.
On 22 June 1986, at the age of ten, I became aware of a country called Argentina, and her cosmic kites.
On 26 February 1997 I came to Buenos Aires for the first time. The next day, I met my future first Argentine wife.
On 29 January 1999 I came to Buenos Aires thinking of staying a few months, and like so many others, I ended up staying forever, until now.
Some time in 2009, partly as a result of reading The Know-It-All by AJ Jacobs, the New York journalist who read all thirty-three thousand pages of the Encyclopaedia Britanica, and partly as a result of that interminable “what if…?” that plagues writers and other owners of curious minds, I wondered what it would be like to take all the buses in the city of Buenos Aires.
So one winter Wednesday in August I took the 1 from Rivadavia and Rojas in Caballito to Rivadavia and General Paz in Liniers. Then I got off, crossed the road, and took the 1 back to Caballito.
It was pretty boring.
A few days later, I took the 2. That was pretty boring too. There was a swine flu epidemic, the greatest risk of infection through contact with the killer mucous of my fellow public transport users. If you gave me one peso for every time I’ve seen a porteño cover his mouth when coughing in public, I would have one peso.
I took the 4 (the 3 doesn’t exist anymore). I saw two people in Tree Hugger t-shirts hugging a tree outside the Luna Park arena. I saw that there were people with even more pointless quests than mine.
I took the 5. As the bus weaved its way through one of the dodgiest barrios in the city, I began to fear that swine flu was the least of my worries, and that this completely pointless quest was to end in my own tragic murder. The bus turned the corner, and I saw a clown umpiring a Children’s Day sack race. And I realised, not for the last time, that my fear was a tad exaggerated.
I took the 6. I wasted an eternity shivering at the bus stop. My best friend in England had his first child, whilst I stood in grim Villa Soldati for half an hour waiting to take a bus for no good reason. Something was not right. I remembered the words of another friend when I started this project. He said “Don’t get as far as the 7 and then give up”. I took the 7. And then I gave up.
And that would have been that. I went back to my job as a scriptwriter, my other job as a translator, and my attempts to write a novel worthy of publication. A year and a half passed, like the pages of a calendar in a bad film. Then I wrote an article for Argentine daily Clarín, for one of those predictable series about foreigners in Buenos Aires, the kind of article where an exchange student from Texas gushes about the steak and the friendly people and the sensual tango and wishes there wasn’t so much dog shit in the streets and that the taxi drivers would learn to drive.
I used the article to plug Freddiementary, an eternally unpublished book about an Argentine filmmaker who finds Brian May in his wardrobe, mentioning only in passing that I had once tried to take all the buses in Buenos Aires. The public response was pretty big, but everyone ignored my novel and asked me about the bus thing. My second Argentine wife, ever weary of the commercial limitations of most of my writing, suggested that writing a book about taking all the buses in Buenos Aires might actually be a pretty good idea. I really didn’t want to take all the buses in Buenos Aires. My wife made me do it.
So I rethought the bus thing. Buenos Aires is a great sprawling mess of a city, so my quest would only take in the 78 square miles of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, and quietly ignore the dull and dodgy expanse beyond the General Paz ring road known as the Conurbano. I am not Conurbanophobic. Many of my closest friends live in the Conurbano. It was just too big for such a pointless project.
I knew that much of the time I wasted at my first attempt to take all the buses was spent getting to the start of each bus route, so I devised a schedule, an iconic work of art on a par with the London Underground map, connecting the 140 routes. I would take three full lines a day, venturing out twice a week, covering the 140 routes in six glorious months. It was to be a quest full of excitement, fear, awe. It was to be a quest beset by perspiration and tedium.
It was to be a quest called Colectivaizeishon.