Before Eric Garner and before the #ICantBreathe movement, there was a college student on a bus that caught fire in Argentina. This is her short story.
I had island fever and I wasn’t even on an island. Studying in Córdoba, Argentina left a lot to the imagination. The real Argentina that had tango, diverse barrios and fancy stores was what I had wanted to see when I signed up for this study abroad semester. So far, my life in Córdoba consisted of going to class in a school bus from 1965, living in between a rabies hospital and high end plastic surgery clinic, and eating a lot of empanadas. And, don’t forget the prison down the street from my host family’s house where I waved occasionally to the prisoners who were looking out the window as I felt we had something in common.
Deciding to take a weekend trip to Buenos Aires by myself (my first trip alone), I went to class one day with a full backpack that included a change of clothes, toiletries, an empanada and extra Kleenex packs just in case the bus ran out of toilet paper. As soon as class was over, I took the two buses to get on the overnight bus to Buenos Aires. When I arrived at the bus terminal, I couldn’t believe how disgustingly dirty it was and my feet were getting cold.
I decided to buy my ida y vuelta ticket in which I got the student discount. That made me feel a little better. After buying the ticket, I went out to the platforms to look for my bus and I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a giant, double decker bus that was so big, I didn’t even know if you could still call it a bus. Once everyone boarded the bus, we had fifteen hours to do whatever we wanted. I fell asleep after watching out the window for a few hours and eating my empanada. I woke up as we were pulling into the bus station in Buenos Aires.
Staying in Buenos Aires was interesting and a bit uneventful. I walked a lot and saw the Old Harrod’s Department store, Florida Street and ate at Telepizza. I was curious about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and watched them for a while wondering more about what happened during the Dirty War. And, I was too fearful to go out at night alone so I stayed in my hotel room.
Returning to the same bus station that greeted me and what looked like the same giant bus, I ran into Elizabeth and some of the other Australian exchange students I knew from Córdoba. We were all on the same bus but by the time we were ready to board, there weren’t enough seats for us to sit together. I sat on the top level of the bus and they sat on the lower level.
It was another night bus and everyone fell asleep fairly quickly. For some reason, I was not able to fall asleep and I was looking out the window for a few hours. Then, I smelled smoke. I thought that this was a non-smoking bus but my experience to date in Córdoba taught me that you can really smoke anywhere including the classroom. I thought I would just pretend I didn’t smell anything.
But, after a few minutes of trying to consciously not smell anything, the smell intensified and I began to see smoke hanging above us. No one was doing anything about it. I got to the point where I put my jacket over my nose to try to filter out the smoke. The smoke kept on coming from somewhere and my mind jumped to the most extreme conclusion: I was going to do die on this giant bus in the middle of la pampa and I wasn’t even having fun.
No, I don’t want to die this way, I told myself and I went down the stairs to the front of the bus and said “No puedo respirar. ¡Hay fuego arriba!” (I can’t breathe. There’s a fire above).
The bus driver immediately started pulling the bus over to the side of the road and the assistant to the bus driver said, “Chica, ¿qué pasó?”
“¡Arriba, hay mucho humo!” (Above, there’s a lot of smoke)
The assistant came up to the top level of the bus and saw all the smoke. By this time, people were coughing and trying to open the windows. I stepped off the bus into the darkness to get air, but the bus driver told me to get back in.
“Oh, you Americans. Always so worried about safety. It was just a little smoke,” said Elizabeth as she greeted me back on the bus.
As I took my seat again, there was an announcement that said there would be no heat for the remainder of the trip. I could breathe a little better knowing I wouldn’t die tonight.
Short story by L.B. Lewis for June 10, 2016. Copyrighted. All rights reserved.