Criminals and Omnibus’s

Posted in Buenos Aires at 5:16 pm by Jackson Lee

Last night was my first close shave with the underbelly of South America. Everything happened while I was waiting for the 11:50pm omnibus (long distance bus) to Cordoba.

Argentina is not known for having a highly efficient transportation system. The British empire made a token effort at building a railway (with the help of some of my Asian brethren) network during colonial times – but this has since fallen into disrepaire and isn’t functioning well (one train from Buenos Aires takes 42 hours while the bus service to the same destination takes half that time).

Planes, while functional, are more expensive per kilometer compared to other parts of the world. So long distance buses are the default travel method for most South Americas and backpackers. Journeys of 10 hours are considered normal while some people, I have met, have braved 40 hours+ odysseys.

The service and comfort of the high-grade buses of the Argentine, however, is parallel with what is provided on business class while flying(the buses are double decker), so long trips aren’t as spine crushing as first thought. The main bus station in Buenos Aires is a major gateway for transportation in Argentina. Its big, busy and somewhat dangerous partly because it borders with one of Buenos Aires slums.

I arrived at the Retiro bus terminal fully knowing that I looked like a fresh faced backpacker. I found a seat amongst the crowds and decided to people watch while waiting. An hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a guy sit down in the row of seats to my right, behind some elderly travelers. Moments later he got up and moved to sit closer to me, on my side of the elderly travelers – strange, I thought – better keep an eye on this clown.

On my left was a pay phone. I then noticed a women approach the phone, pick it up and noisily (in Spanish that I didn’t understand) start talking. This was strange as she was being louder than I would expect in the environment. Was she trying to distract me?

I looked around, my large backpack was between my legs while my smaller day pack (which had my laptop) was on the seat next to me (on my right) while the strange guy was two seats further down. Out of the very corner of my left eye I noticed another man pass by and suddenly something flashed out of his hand. I looked around – he was pointing at the ground at a $2 peso note (which I knew wasn’t there a second ago). He was speaking to me (I didn’t understand him) and gesturing if the $2 pesos was mine, while the women on the phone had turned our way and had also become involved.

In the brief moment it took for all this to unfold, I realized what was happening. The two people on my left were trying to distract my attention from the guy on my right who would quickly take my day pack. The $2 peso note was placed behind and below me which was the exact position I would look which as not to have eyes on my day pack. The women and the man were in a position to argue with one another (and me) about the $2 peso note to give the getaway man plenty of time. If I had not seen the note come out of his hand, I might have been drawn into the trap.

All this happened in moments. Acting calmly, I grabbed both of my bags,  stood up and took a few steps towards the middle of the hall. Once there  I turned slightly to see what was happening behind me. The gang of three had realised that they had been spotted and were darting off away from me. No one else blinked an eye and probably hadn’t noticed what had just happened.

Phef. You’ll be happy to know the rest of the bus trip went safely.

I will be visiting a travel store in Cordoba to buy a chain to lock my bags together (and closed) very soon. I’ll also brush up on my karate chops and menacing facial gestures in the next few days. Every adventure has its up and downs and I will remember this moment one as an up.