Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chile - The longest ride: Bariloche-to-Osorno-to-Santiago-to-La Serena

We got to Osorno three hours late, and I was so exhausted that I couldn't walk. They didn't want to, but it took 30 men to carry me and my lethargy off the bus. AndesMar considered charging me for the extra drama, but I told them I'd bring them bad luck for a century if they tried.

I had a note from Cruz del Sur, the bus waiting for me to finally arrive, that said they would see if they could accommodate me on another bus if I was late (which I was). I expected a battle, so I enlisted all the best and youngest and healthiest and smartest men in Osorno, and I armed them to the hilt with diamond-sharpened pitchforks, atomic hand grenades, and lullaby music that I knew would put the enemy to sleep before I blew them up.

It turned out to not be necessary. I could get on the next bus to Santiago in 45 minutes. The army had come to fight and was furious at the peaceful solution. But I paid them off by buying them all empanadas with two eggs instead of one. It was not long before I was asleep and heading north toward Santiago.

It was 8am and the sun was warm already. I was hungry, but unlike the other passengers on the Bariloche-to-Osorno bus, I didn't change my Argentine pesos to Chilean pesos at the border. In fact, I had no Chilean pesos on me, but that didn't bother me. All I needed to do was find a currency exchange booth (there are plenty of these in Chile because banks don't do currency exchange) and voila! I'd have cash.

But I was struck by one thing when I stepped out of the bus station and onto the street: it was slow, very slow. Cars were hardly on the road and I could count on one hand the number of people walking on the sidewalk. Stores all around me were shuttered with metal gates, and it was quiet. The bustling sounds that I had dodged only a week before had disappeared. Maybe it wasn't 8am. Maybe it was earlier. That didn't seem right, but it didn't matter to me either. All that mattered was that I got two things: cash (for food) and a bus ticket to La Serena.

Part of the problem, however, was that "no cash" doesn't just mean "no food." It also meant no subway ride, and the heavy pack I was lugging around was a friend's that didn't fit me well. The long walk to Estacion Central was made easier by the empty streets, but by a half-hour passed I wished I had made change at the border because I was struggling to move forward with all that weight sitting uncomfortably on my back. Finally, my shoulders ached and begged me to not go any further. My whole body wanted to sit down, so imagine my happiness when I stumbled across a Scotiabanc ATM machine. I'm not much of a fan of Bank of America, but before I left I opened an account with them because I knew I could take cash out of a Scotiabanc ATM without incurring penalties. Cash! Finally!

I reached for my money clip and flipped through the useless foreign cash and other cards from top to bottom before having to start over again at the top. I went to the bottom again and thought to myself, "what the fuck? Where's my ATM card?"


I didn't know where it was. I suspected that while in Bariloche I had left it in one of those ATM machines that asks if you want another transaction after you're done. Well, at least I hoped that was the case. It was the last time I had used it. It didn't seem likely that it was stolen because I had all my other cards and cash on me. Oddly I felt OK about that, but the stress of having lost my card (and, if it was in fact left in the machine with the option to conduct more business, the stress of wondering how much money had been taken out by the first person to come along and recognize that I was open for business) was lost in my desperation of knowing that I couldn't eat until the currency exchange places opened, and that I couldn't take the Metro to Estacion Central, which is where the buses to La Serena were located, and even though I could see the open air where the station was, it seemed still so far away.

I staggered wandered toward the bus station hoping that the currency exchanges would open soon. The sun was pretty high in the sky at this point and the streets were still bare. I was confused. What time did Santiago come alive? I know I had seen it busier than this when I was there during the week - oh crap! That was it. I wasn't in Santiago during the week; it was Sunday! Chile is one of those countries that still shuts down on Sunday. Damn, damn, damn it all and back it again. That meant no banks, no food this early in the morning (Chileans really don't eat breakfast the way Americans do), and a long, long, hungry ride ahead.

All hope was lost until I found a currency exchange that opened at 10am. It was 930am, so I walked to the ticket booths, which are a 15-minute walk from the bus terminal, and bought a ticket to La Serena that left at - GULP! - 10:15am.

I rushed back. If I got to the booth at 10am then I'd have time to exchange my cash and still make the bus. And how I hoped I would make it back to the exchange place in time! The ride to La Serena was going to be seven hours and I doubted they would have free food on board. In fact, I was sure that they'd have these vendors with local foods and drinks (fairly common actually) get on the bus and sell us food during the journey. That was all fine and dandy, but not if I didn't have any cash.

The currency exchange booth came into view at 9:58am. No one was in line. Good. If I was lucky then they'd be open a couple of minutes early. But then I noticed that the light inside the booth was dark. Shit. No one was inside. OK, that's fine. Maybe they were setting up in back. Maybe there were rules about opening early. Maybe I had a chance. I waited and watched my watch tick past 10. Then it was 10:02, and I didn't know how far of a walk it was from the booth to the bus terminal. Then it was 10:05 and then it was 10:10. Whoever it was who was supposed work on Sunday had failed me. I rushed to the terminal and found it was farther away than I assumed. I was out of breath, but I checked my bags and got on the bus just before it pulled out.

Vendors came on the bus as expected, and as expected I waived them off. It was noon before I felt the rumble in my stomach hit me for the first time. I counted back to when I last ate and it was in Bariloche way back at around 2pm the previous day. There were only five hours left until La Serena. "I can hold off," I convinced myself, but who was I kidding? Even when I got to La Serena I was going to have to find a place that was open on Sunday that accepted credit cards. Suddenly Monday morning, a whole 40+ hours after I had last eaten, was the next possible time to eat. And then it hit me again; not the hunger, but the realization that hostels don't take credit cards. "Fuck," I said to myself. "It's an expensive hotel or a night on the beach." Despite the fact that I was wide awake and well rested from all the sitting, sleeping, and napping since I first got on a bus in Bariloche, sleeping now seemed vital when I envisioned myself curled up with my bag under a quiet tree. Nighttime suddenly became awake time because I didn't want to get mugged in Spanish when I all I spoke was English.

My fortune changed when the bus pulled into a pit stop built specifically for long-distance buses to stop and give their passengers a chance to stretch their legs and get some food. The food court was modern, too, with flat panel TV screens airing the latest music videos and there was an electronic food sign, too. Yes! This was good. They certainly had to accept credit cards. There was no way they didn't, except there was a way, and they didn't, and I nearly collapsed from a complete lack of hope when I remembered that I saw an Esso station right next door. Esso. Esso. Esso...EXON! "Fuck yeah, they've got chips at least and there's no way they don't take cards."

I asked the bus driver how long we'd be at the stop. He gave me an answer and I pretended to understand. Then I bolted around the corner toward the gas station. They had the Visa/MasterCard sign on the door. I was in luck. I went inside and picked up a bag of Doritos and a bag of M&Ms (thank God they had M&Ms because those dumb Rocklets aren't a very good substitution). I turned around to see if they had fruit, and when I did I noticed that they had a grill. HOT FOOD! YES!!!!!

The steak, tomato, and avocado sandwich shot to the top of my list. There was a bit of confusion on what I was ordered, but I was happy when the woman behind the counter finally understood me. But I still had no clue how long the bus would be at the stop. At the worst I had a good view of the exit, so I would see the bus pulling out of the pit stop. But I didn't want to have to run and hope they'd see me running. I wanted to get back in time.

The woman behind the counter was polite, but the grill had yet to be turned on. Then it was and I was happy, but then I realized that it needed to be warmed up. Then it was happy and I felt good hearing the steak strips sizzling on the hot metal. But where were my fries? Why weren't they cooked yet? Maybe they were already cooked and just sitting in a warm location. Nope. I then saw the woman take out the frozen fries and dump them in the frier. "Fuck man, fuck! Get the lead out!"

Five minutes passed by. The steak was done but the fries weren't. Then they had to heat the bread. That took longer than I hoped, and despite the fact that I swore I said I wanted everything on it, she asked me for each individual item. Then the fries were done, and she asked me something I didn't understand. "What? I don't understand." I looked at my watch, she asked again, I shook my head, she asked again, I pointed to my watch and then toward the bus station, and then she moved everything from an eat-in plate to a take-out package. I went to take the food when she pointed to the register. "Oh yeah," I muttered, "I gotta pay first."

Thankfully the cashier knew what I had ordered. I paid and ran out nodding my head and smiling as the cook said something that I didn't understand. The only buses that had left the station at this point weren't mine. So long as I ran up the exit road then I stood a chance of not getting left behind. I hit the exit road, ran up it, turned the corner of the pit stop building and saw my bus pulling back. "WHOA!" I yelled waving my arms. The bus stopped, the door opened, I got on, I sat in my seat, and I ate for the first time since the day before.


  1. Hey greg, sounds like your travels are quite interesting. Keep up the good work on the blogosphere!!!!

  2. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for reading. Yeah, there will be more. You might find this blog more interesting than my climbing one (see the links on the right), but the climbing one has WAY more content.

    Anyway, hope all is well.


  3. Your such an adventurous person, keep up the good work on your blog.

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