This is a re-vamped, expanded version of an article I originally wrote for the Buenos Aires Herald in 2001. It makes me a bit wistful. I’m generally forgiving about technological change and modernization and try my best to embrace it but I truly miss those old buses, the colectivos, of Buenos Aires.
Sadly, they are all got pushed out of service. Occasionally, you see one of the old-style Mercedes buses working as the liveried repair truck of one of transport lines, tasked with rescuing one of the newer vehicles when they break down. This attests to the mechanics’ love of those old beasts: they choose them over some new-fangled vehicle. Other times you have some romantic (like the owner of the specimen in the photo that accompanies this piece) who lovingly restores an old unit and proudly toodles around for parades or as an extra in a films.
On my very first day in Buenos Aires I rode the 59 line down Las Heras to Plaza San Martin to pick up pesos at American Express. I used Travelers Checks in those days. Under the colored interior lights and beveled mirrors I learned how many children the driver had and how much he loved his wife through the ornate fileteado signs dedicated to them. I also re-lived the saga of how he had purchased his own vehicle through the slogans touting hard work and sacrifice enshrined on the walls.
In those days the drivers were as gruff as they are today but through the customization of their colectivos you could glimpse their interior life, the one they otherwise hid behind a scowl.
I miss those beautiful old palaces on wheels.
The squat, smoke-spewing, horn-blaring, pedestrian-churning colectivo is as much a part of Buenos Aires as tango and a good deal more useful if you’re trying to get back home at three in the morning after wearing your feet out at a milonga.
And the surly colectivo driver at the wheel is an essential part of the experience. As a regular rider, one comes to expect, if not welcome, disrespect. Anything less is perturbing. If he – only recently have women become colectiveros — actually slows down long enough for you to get both feet on the first step or doesn’t rev the engine impatiently while an elderly lady struggles up the stairs, my heart swells with gratitude and bonhomie toward my fellow man.
The colectivo driver’s outlook is distinctly “US versus THEM.” There are those inside the bus and those outside. Those on the outside must avoid the colectivo at all costs and never interfere with its forward movement; to do so is to risk life and limb. The colectivero’s preferred weapon for close combat is the air horn which he uses to blast his way through traffic. A colectivero’s eyes are specially adapted to see through pedestrians. Indeed, most have evolved to the point where they don’t even see them at all. Never mind that pedestrians are potential passengers. Such subtleties are beside the point.
However, those on the inside of a colectivo aren’t treated much better, especially if you are having trouble paying. In the old days, you might unknowingly try to pay with one of those counterfeit coins that were circulating. Bud luck for you – especially if you had a long line of passengers trying to get onto the bus behind you. At this point the driver turns his attention from the scoundrels outside to the scoundrels inside, namely you. He must get up from his seat and whack the machine. (It’s an obvious act of sublimation.) Of course, the mistreatment of passengers is justified as they were just moments before fraternizing with those most despised creatures: pedestrians!
Occasionally, the driver’s girlfriend will be on board. This is a rare opportunity to actually observe a colectivero hold a conversation without growling. The girlfriend, as stunned as you are, stands behind his seat for the entire ride, just in case.
Still, at a late hour, a stocky colectivo barreling down the street with its bold, back-lit number and color-coded paint job is the most welcome sight there is in the city. Once inside this rolling refuge, the driver’s whimsical display of colored lights, quilted vinyl, beveled-glass mirrors and filigreed slogans welcomes you – even if the driver doesn’t.
A little surliness is a small price to pay to be allowed into such a fabulous kingdom.