Colectivaizeishon. (n.) The action and effect of taking all the buses (colectivos) in Buenos Aires.
In 1982, AJ Jacobs Sr of New York set out to read the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica. He gave up somewhere around Borneo.
Twenty years later his son (predictable American son’s name coming up) AJ Jacobs Jr, decided he was going to finish what his daddy started. You may like to think of the Jacobs family as a more peaceful, scholarly version of the Bush family. Jacobs Junior succeeded where Jacobs Senior had seen fit not to bother, and in one year read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. All 44 million words of it. To give you some idea of how many words 44 million is, it’s the equivalent of reading the King James Bible, new and old testaments, 55 times. Or Roald Dahl’s The Twits 1,600 times, which would be more fun but less enlightening, arguably.
AJ Jacobs Jr wrote about his humble quest to become the smartest man in the world in The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World. I read the book in 2007 and liked it so much that I read it again in 2008 and once again for luck in 2009. Then I tried to come up with my own personal Everest.
My Collins English-Spanish dictionary is a splendid and trusted doorstop that I bought with the money from my first translation job. I’ve used so much that the hardback cover came off during a particularly gruelling translation frenzy in 2006. I started reading it from page 1, telling anyone who would listen that I was going to memorise everything in it. I gave up around abayuncar. Abayuncar is something to do with tying up cattle, I forget now. My failure to get past page three of the dictionary was a great personal tragedy, primarily because I had a great title for the book: No Dust Jacket Required. For younger readers, that’s a pun on the name of a Phil Collins album.
I thought of walking every single street in the ‘Guía T’ map book of Buenos Aires, from Acasusso to Zuviría. I counted the streets. There are about 2,160 of them, and at least one is ten kilometres long. Five streets are, strictly speaking, motorways. Many more are streets that you would only walk down if you were very poor or very highly in need of some crack.
I started writing a novel called Encyclopaedia Argentina. It was rubbish.
Then I thought about the buses of Buenos Aires. Smoke-spewing death traps driven by speeding psychotics these buses may be, nobody’s arguing with that, but they also have a lot of character. Character in the way that Twiglets and a 1980s Ford Cortina have character, in that they’re shit but there’s still that something about them. Unlike the uniform red buses of London, Buenos Aires buses are run by various small companies, so each line has its own special livery, from the seventies’ retro of the 39 to the pretty red rose on the side of the 65, from the all-green Libyan tribute that is the 70 to the classic orangeness of line 60.
And the bus companies have cool names like the ‘The Neighbourly Slaughter’ and ‘The New Metropolis’ and ‘Argentine Antarctic Company’. Although, to be honest only those three companies have cool names, all the other companies have dull names like ‘Western Transport’, and ‘Line 10’, which operates line 10, and ‘Line 213’, which operates line 53, obviously.
So a couple of years ago I thought to myself: “What if I took all the buses in Buenos Aires and wrote a book about it while simultaneously crowbarring in various unrelated anecdotes, history nuggets and questionable jokes which otherwise individually would struggle to find a coherent home?” Not my exact words, but the sentiment was pretty much that.
This sentiment, I quickly discovered, was a foolhardy sentiment. There are about 143 different bus routes in the city of Buenos Aires, each taking two to four hours to go from one end of the route to the other and back again, unless some major thoroughfare has been closed off because of a protest, in which case it’s anything up to seven hours. And yes, that thing you see in the distance is indeed a small group of men with big flags and a minor grievance. Thus my free time would be spent over the coming year.
So one wintry Wednesday in 2009, I took the Number 1 from Primera Junta, 60 blocks along Av. Rivadavia, got off at Liniers and got back on the same bus going in the opposite direction.
It was pretty boring.
A few days later, I took the 2. That was pretty boring too, as was the 4. The 5 was pretty exciting because it went through one particularly shanty-tastic part of the city, but the 6 was a soul-destroying return to dullness. I remembered the wise counsel of a friend at the start of this odyssey, who said “Don’t get up to the number 7 and give up.” I took the number 7, and gave up.
Two years passed. I wrote a novel about a filmmaker who finds Brian May in his wardrobe and tried to plug it in an article in Argentine daily Clarín, for one of these predictably dull series on foreigners who live in Buenos Aires. The kind where some exchange student from Texas says she loves the beef and the people and the tango but wishes there wasn’t so much shit on the sidewalk. I plugged away at Freddiementary and mentioned only briefly my attempt at taking all the buses. Clarín ran with the headline ‘The Brit who wants to take all the buses in Buenos Aires’. The president has to put up with this sort of thing all the time.
But the response was pretty good and I realised that while there was a very small market for fantasy novels about Brian May, there is a considerably larger market for witty bus-based discourse. So on 21st September 2011, I started all over again. At the time of writing (7th January 2012) I’ve taken 60 of the 143 bus routes. You can read about my adventures, if sitting on buses for anything up to twelve hours a day is your idea of adventure, on a twice-weekly basis here in the Argentine Independent.