Ask the pilot

Where are Men Without Hats when you need them? The pilot ponders the deep questions on the way to Buenos Aires.

By Patrick Smith

Published January 28, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

If travel broadens the mind, the flying part, if nothing else, plays havoc with your moods and tastes. The excitement of traversing oceans and continents is prone to affecting your preferences and weakening your defenses. The only place I'll eat peppers, for instance, is on an airplane.

And this is how, for example, I came to appreciate the Don McLean song "American Pie" after despising it since childhood. On the way to Greece in 1992, McLean's classic was a featured cut on the plane's entertainment system. Chilled out in a Club Class semi-sleeper, headphones at max volume, suddenly I was ordering "whiskey and rye" while tapping my foot in a sort of faux-nostalgic bliss. Hey, this song's pretty cool.

Boredom, too, has something to do with it. We're a captive audience for hours at a time, and the geniuses who compile those onboard audio programs needn't get too wrapped up in their playlists. Sure, why not pair the Cocteau Twins with Kenny G and call it "Inflight Atmospherics"? I mean, what else are people gonna listen to? Everybody's got an iPod anyway.

Except me. And this time, somewhere over the Amazon basin at 37,000 feet, Dave Wakeling is hosting Channel 10's "Eighties With an Accent," a nauseating mishmash of the lamest possible hits of 20 years ago. Not even campy bad -- where are Men Without Hats or those "99 Luft Balloons" when you need them? -- just insipid, meant-to-be-taken-seriously bad.

I'm trying to lighten up with a glass of wine, but it's not working. Not even Don McLean could save this mess, and no amount of travel-induced adrenaline will ever cause me to enjoy the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," arguably the most horrifying song ever recorded.

It's aggravating, and I'd expect better from Dave Wakeling. Possibly you remember Dave and his early '80s ska-poppers, the English Beat, responsible for a handful of decent releases. I've always felt a certain fondness for the Beat, namely due to the band's 1982 album, "Special Beat Service," the cover of which depicts Dave and his mates descending the stairs of a British Airways VC-10. (That's the Vickers VC-10, a '60s-era jetliner conspicuous for having four aft-mounted engines, similar to the Russian Il-62.)

Still to come on Channel 10, the in-seat magazine tells me, is the Clash. Fantastic, I'm thinking. What I'd give to hear "Safe European Home" or maybe "Silicone on Sapphire." Alas -- and surely you smelled this coming -- prepare to hear Mick Jones shouting: "Dar-ling you've got to let me kno-ooow. Should I stay or ..."

Bad enough in 1983. Ten times worse in 2005 through a 60-cent plastic headset.

We're descending over the Pampas now, and fortunately Paul Weller is on hand to save us. Amid all of this sad droning garbage is none other than the Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight." Where did that come from? It's a terrific song that will stick with me for the next four days, keeping the gruesome choruses of "Combat Rock" and Annie Lennox at bay.

Twelve hours later, Weller is still in my head -- the sweet lyrical glue of his voice singing, "Mister Jones got run down ..." -- while I'm lost at rush hour in the Buenos Aires subway.

Overall I'm disappointed in Buenos Aires, but the city's rapid-transit system, the first in South America, is fast, cheap and groovy. The old electric carriages of the A line, running between Plaza de Mayo and Primera Junta, are wood-panel relics with slat benches and doors opened by hand. These beautiful antiques are well kept and provide a quieter, smoother ride than my own subway's newest equipment. I'm in no way a railroad aficionado, but the old cars are so charming I double back for a second ride.

Many of the platforms feature elaborate tile mosaics. Coming out of Independencia station in the bohemian San Telmo neighborhood, the tilework is a geometric arabesque that looks straight from one of the more splendid mosques of Fez. A less than accidental nod, it turns out, for the design is framed with inlaid squares of Arabic script.

As for the rest of Buenos Aires, how much the city lives up to its billing as the Paris of the South depends how you see it. I suppose it resembles a rundown version of Paris, though a run-up version of Mexico City is probably more accurate. You get the impression it would have been a grand metropolis two or three decades ago, with its long boulevards, fashionable shops and elegant buildings.

I know almost nothing about architecture, but Buenos Aires must be on any architecture buff's short list of must-sees, if only for the novelty: a distinctively, almost stubbornly European city in the middle of Latin America. I'm tempted to call it "stunning," but that's a word that implies a measure of new, bright and gleaming. Buenos Aires, for all its neoclassical monuments, carved facades and filigrees, does not gleam. It exists gloomily beneath a layer of grime and neglect, which at this point, depending on the neighborhood, treads the precarious ridge between old-word charm and dilapidation. A certain state of post-colonial disrepair would be ordinary in lesser-developed countries, but from a supposed world-class center of sophistication I expected more. So it goes in Argentina after years of corrupt governments, hyperinflation and economic free-fall. I was amazed at the numbers of homeless people wandering around B.A.'s busiest commercial zones. Not merely individuals, mind you, but whole families, sleeping on heaps of refuse and rummaging through dumpsters adjacent to chic clothing shops and banks.

Despite having few skyscrapers, Buenos Aires is an extremely vertical city in the sense that the streets and avenues are sided by unbroken rows of apartments and high-rises. A typical block is less a sequence of buildings than a single, unified structure, partitioned only through the differing fanciness of the balconies, gables and pillars. All this concrete and hemmed-in space helps to create a near perfect echo chamber, and so every B.A. street becomes an ear-shattering orchestra of public buses, trucks and motorbikes.

Buenos Aires is also home to the world's most narrow sidewalks. For pedestrians jostling to pass, there's scant margin for error lest you be clipped in the back by a speeding, fume-spewing bus. And if, after a day's walking, one's pant legs are blackened with soot, he or she may thank the city's roaring fleet of metrovias, whose exhaust stacks are aimed thigh-high and directly at the sidewalks. It all acts as a kind of forced pedecide, evidenced by the 400 or so residents run over and killed every year.

A cursory critique, perhaps, but much of any city's true character and livability are manifest in raw infrastructural tangibles. I'll judge B.A. first by its levels of noise and congestion, secondly by the guidebook standards of tango lessons, nightlife and art museums.

Thus the best thing about Buenos Aires, maybe, is its proximity to Montevideo, the surprisingly green, clean and otherwise pleasant capital of Uruguay, 125 miles to the southeast across the Rio de la Plata.

Some joke of Montevideo as a suburb of B.A., and an undistinguished, boring one at that. Which is less than fair, and I maintain that if Montevideo were able to spruce up its historic Ciudad Vieja -- the old colonial core of crumbling facades -- it would be one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Like B.A. it's a tarnished and neglected town, in fact strikingly more so in parts, but with a population of 1.3 million, roughly a tenth of the megalopolis on the other side of the river, it's also easier paced, quieter and generally more agreeable.

Pilot Report:

Pluna flight PU 152, Buenos Aires to Montevideo
Class: economy
Length of flight: 25 minutes
Fare: $60

Buenos Aires has two airports. Longer hauls land at Ezeiza (EZE), about 35 kilometers away, while the in-town facility, used for domestic routes and Uruguay flights, is Aeroparque Jorge Newbury -- or just Aeroparque -- along the river just north of the city center. Aerolineas Argentinas, the Argentine flag carrier, along with Uruguay's Pluna, run an air bridge service connecting their respective capitals. Today I'm riding with Pluna because the competition is sold out.

CX-BON, a Boeing 737, looks positively resplendent in the midday sun. The jet is immaculate inside and out. Even the reverser buckets are burnished to a mirrored shine. This is an ancient, dash 200 model, manufactured in 1982 and previously in use with the Dutch airline Transavia (here you can see it in prior livery.) Not that you'd know it. Almost a quarter-century old, the plane looks, sounds and smells factory fresh. The first-class cabin seats are outfitted in crisp white and navy. The plush cloth seats, vacuumed carpeting and unscuffed bulkheads put comparable U.S. digs to shame. Out back, it's the standard three-by-three arrangement in modest, if equally clean decor.

I'm betting very few of you ever heard the name Pluna before, but the company, now partnered with Brazilian carrier Varig, traces its origins to 1936. A tiny fleet of seven flies to a scattering of destinations in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. A single Boeing 767 crosses the Atlantic to Madrid.

Aeroparque to Montevideo takes about 25 minutes. Officially it's 45, but don't believe it. Or maybe the crew was hot-dogging a bit on this clear afternoon. It did seem a hasty descent. I take it these guys are more than familiar with the tricks and quirks of this easy shuttle -- the way I once knew Boston to Portland, Maine.

Check-in and boarding: A-
(Short, orderly queue and reasonable, no-nonsense security.)

Punctuality: A+
(Departure exactly on time; arrival 15 minutes early.)

Aircraft cleanliness and decor: B+
(As described. Old and proud.)

Food and service: B-
(Staff make bilingual announcements, then give out drinks in skinny plastic cups. Not much, but you wouldn't get anything on a Stateside flight of equal duration.)

The central terminal at Montevideo's Aeropuerto Internacional del Carrasco is a neat, attractive structure of chrome and glass. The airport grounds and interior spaces are impeccably groomed, simple to navigate, and completely unostentatious. One peculiarity of Carrasco -- and EZE too -- and a new twist on the relentless airport shopping experience, is an immigration hall that dumps passengers smack into the middle of a store. To reach the gates, one first navigates a maze of duty-free goods, which seem to include everything -- from local wine to tennis rackets -- except those items you might actually desire during a flight. Like a magazine, newspaper or bottle of water.

Carrasco is served by American and United Airlines, making Montevideo second only to Melbourne, Australia, as the most southerly destination in the world visited by any U.S. carrier.

From Montevideo, a two and a half hour bus trip carries you to the former Portuguese port of Colonia, a tourist town whose cobblestoned, UNESCO-ordained Barrio Histórico features a lighthouse and 17th century church, allegedly the oldest in Uruguay. A company called Buquebus runs both fast and slow ferries between Colonia and Buenos Aires. The expensive ferry takes an hour; the cheap one three hours.

Anxious to indulge in every major form of transport, and desperately low on pesos, I'm slow-boating it back to B.A. aboard the Eladia Isabel, an enormous, 150-meter ferry with space for 1,200 people.

I've never seen a ferry -- indeed any vessel or vehicle -- quite like this one. The entire ship is done up in a hideous, worn-out Vegas chintz. Passengers step from the gangway into what appears to be the lobby of the world's ugliest hotel -- an atrium of threadbare carpet, dirty mirrored glass, gilded columns and an ersatz marble stairway. There's a sweet, gamy odor in the air, traceable to an onboard mall hawking jewelry and fragrances, while from somewhere overhead booms a frightening, incessant alarm. Ring-ring-ring; ping-ping-ping; whoop-whoop. Holy shit we're sinking, and we haven't even left the dock. Except no, the racket is from a video game arcade set against the starboard wall.

Seating is fore and aft in skewed rows of what appear to be garage sale Barcaloungers. The chairs are the size and shape of old-style airplane seats -- like something from an Aerolineas Argentinas DC-4, maybe, circa 1947. They are covered in the most uncomfortable fabric ever invented -- a scruffy, stiff material best described as plasterized denim.

I take a window seat, port side, and for three hours the view and the odor are unchanging -- the tea-colored chop of the Rio de la Plata and the hazy, windblown stink of diesel fuel and cheap perfume.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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