Things move more slowly in Latin America.
We tended to believe this. That is, until we were urged to inhale a three-course meal in ten minutes, courtesy of our first long-distance bus trip in Argentina.
It all began when our bus – double-decker, shiny, and uber-modern — pulled into what looked like a bus depot around 9:30 PM. We were a few hours into an overnight trip from Puerto Iguazu to Buenos Aires.
The bus attendant poked his head into the upper deck where we were seated and mumbled in fine Argentine Spanish, “We are going to [whah, whah, whah] in 10 minutes.” (Earlier that day we were taking great pride in our Spanish language skills after coming to the aid of several travelers who couldn’t speak Spanish. Travel irony is so cruel.)
We figured our bus was just collecting more passengers. Then the woman seated next to us got up; we assumed she was headed to the bathroom. But why did she need to? After all, there was a perfectly clean bathroom on board.
As we pondered this, the bus became silent. We turned around and noticed the seats behind us were empty. From our front window seats, we peered out onto the pavement; a crowd milled at the doors of what looked like a cafeteria. A sign outside read “For Crucero del Norte passengers in transit only.”
“Wow, this is strange. Are they eating dinner in there? Maybe we should go down and ask the attendant.”
Our bus tickets included dinner, but we expected to be served at our seats.
Concerned that we might be missing our meal, we got up and headed downstairs. Everyone on the bottom deck had also vanished. The bus was completely empty – no driver, no attendant – and the side door was wide open.
The crowds outside had thinned. As we tentatively considered entering the cafeteria, a uniformed waiter approached us and indicated we were to sit, “Now.” No proof of bus tickets was required to enter. We imagined poor college students skulking around the corner, waiting for buses to arrive so they could sneak in for a free meal.
Inside the cafeteria, passengers from multiple buses were seated 100 in a row, making the scene vaguely reminiscent of a Texas-style outdoor barbecue.
The 10-Minute Speed Dinner
9:35 PM - A waiter zipped by carrying a basket of empanadas. One to a plate. Our first course, apparently.
9:38 PM - Another waiter rushed his way through with a cartload of quiches topped with marinara sauce and sided with vegetable risotto. He breezed around corners and through narrow table spaces, the napkins dangling from his pockets flapping in his wake.
Give him scrubs and he was ready for the emergency room. Why the rush? Were his quiches in danger of expiring?
Like magic, our main courses appeared before us.
9:41 PM – The drink man was pouring soda. Noticing a wine bottle on the drinks table at the front of the room, we asked, “Is wine possible?”
As the waiter poured our wine, the man at our table took our cue and directed the waiter to his glass: “Vino.”
His wife gave him a roll of the eyes and tee-totaling “tsk.”
We smiled and toasted them — he with his wine, she with her cola. This had become positively civilized.
9:43 PM – Civilization was short-lived. The waiters made their final round – a la roller derby line change – with generous bowls of strawberry ice cream.
No sooner had the waiters finished dishing ice cream at our table than empty spoons hit the tables and the masses headed for the door.
9:45 PM – We hesitated, hoping to let our meal settle, but our bus attendant poked his head through the door two or three times. He looked right past us, but we figured this a clue that we should leave.
Two final hasty gulps of wine.
Not Standing Out, Not Fitting In
When we returned to the bus, the driver and attendants seemed to be laughing — likely at us. They didn’t say a word, however. Everyone was on board; all the people who had vanished had reappeared. The woman next to us explained, “We’ve been waiting for you. The attendant was looking for you.”
Good to know. The information you need – always offered ex post facto.
We realized then that for the first time in Latin America we were not seen as two gringos — just two passengers, two ordinary people. This explained why the attendant failed to recognize us during his search. We no longer stood out.
The Correct Dinner Hour
About an hour later, the attendant made his rounds and served dinner on the airplane trays we had been expecting all along. We received our wine and champagne (in oddly reversed order), but were not given the option to eat.
Only then did we realize that dinner in the cafeteria was not the plan for us. Rather, the cafeteria was reserved for the next class of bus service down (buses in Argentina are divided into three classes of service).
We had eaten at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Argentina appears “easy.” It is, particularly when compared to the overnight Paraguayan river boats and Bolivian mountain buses of our recent past. But just when we thought we could tune out because of the comfort of familiarity, we became “those tourists” who failed to comprehend the routine.
As the woman next to us poked through her soggy vegetables and dried cake, it occurred to us that our mistake worked to our benefit — at least this time. Our freshly cooked meal and ice cream — although hastily served and consumed — looked the edible alternative.
Sometimes mistakes have a silver lining.
Help us enjoy a slow eating experience in Buenos Aires: Please send us your suggestions (via comments below, Twitter, Facebook, email) for your favorite Buenos Aires food and restaurants. We will be staying in Buenos Aires for at least a month and would love to hear your recommendations for the best parilla/steak, alfajores, ice cream, pastries, coffee, pizza, empanadas, sushi, wine, home-made pasta, and anything else you may think we may enjoy.
For those of you on Twitter, please tag your suggestions with #buenosaireseats so that they are collected in one place for everyone’s benefit.