Hello, I’m in Chile, which feels strange for some reason. Two days ago I got on a bus from Salta to Mendoza (19 hours) and then switched to one from Mendoza to Santiago (8 hours). Perhaps it’s because I spent more than a day on buses, but I feel like I left my apartment in Buenos Aires about eight weeks ago. Anyway, the bus:
Why Yes, I Would Like Some Pudding
The bus ROCKED MY WORLD. The bus company, called Andesmar, should hold seminars for Greyhound. (It should be noted here that my last Greyhound experience included sleeping in a bus station in Cleveland during a blizzard with many, many crackheads and an employee who told a woman that there wasn’t “any more f%$ing hot chocolate” for her daughter. Not only were the Andesmar seats comfortable and absurdly cheap, but they served hot food and everyone was nice all the time. At one point one of the Andesmar guys woke me up just to see if I’d like some pudding. Seriously.
The bus is a really odd mix of good and bad, really. I really enjoyed the trip(s), and for this huge trip, I spent next to nothing—maybe about the equivalent of an hour’s worth of freelance pay. Still, it was a very strange experience. So, a quick recap of the pros and cons of South American bus travel before I get into the specifics:
Pro: Big seats with lots of leg room!
Con: I saw what-I-convinced-myself-for-the-sake-of-sanity-was-not-a-cockroach on the empty seat next to me.
Pro: They serve free alcohol.
Con: It’s in very-obviously reused Styrofoam cups.
Pro: There’s a bathroom two feet away.
Con: There’s a bathroom two feet away.
Pro: There are games.
Con: Actually, this was just awesome.
Pro: They serve hot meals!
Con: All meals still include ham.
Pro: The bathroom will have a lock on it 50% of the time, according to my very limited experience.
Con: You have to bring your own toilet paper.
Pro: The bus will either have hand soap or running water.
Con: Not both, apparently (nothing like six hours of wiping your soap-gooed hands with a tissue).
It’s Still Called Bingo In Spanish
In making my bus reservations, I booked the “Executive Suite,” which guarantees seats that recline 180 degrees into full beds, but—alas—they switched the bus at the last minute, so my seat didn’t go all the way back. Still, though, it was big and cozy and there was a pillow and blanket waiting for me when I sat down. The ride out of Salta was lovely. In the first few hours, I saw kids flying kites, wild horses, goats, cowboys (gauchos, here, I guess?), and about a hundred little roadside shrines (with which I have recently become slightly obsessed). This first bus also showed movies, including a terrible action film starring Bruce Willis and some sort of autistic child who yelled a lot, Wedding Crashers, and Marley and Me (which I forced myself to stop watching after an hour, because I think we can all guess how it ends).
In between movies—after our coffee and snack but before dinner—one of the bus employees gave a 10-minute speech from the front of my section. I understood approximately three words of it: “Hello” and “Fun, yes?” As I’ve said before, this trip has taught me that we’re simply given a lot of information in life that we don’t really need. (READ: I don’t understand a lot of things that are said to me, but I have not been kidnapped yet, so that’s nice.) After his little speech, though, the guy started going around to each passenger, asking them a question, and then handing them something. When he got to me, I gathered that he was asking me if I wanted to participate in something, but I didn’t know what.
“I’m sorry,” I said in Spanish. “I didn’t understand all of that.”
“Oh, no problem,” he said, also in Spanish. “Do you know the numbers in Spanish? Uno, dos, tres . . . ?” He sounded like a kindergarten teacher.
“Yes!” I proudly told him. “I can count!”
“Great!” he said. “On this paper, there are many numbers. From the front of the bus, we will call out different numbers. If the number I say is on your paper, you mark it in the square. If you mark every number, you will say . . . “
“BINGO!” I said.
I didn’t win, but it was actually awesome practice with counting (considering, to be honest, I can’t actually count all that well).
Anyway, I ate, I drank, I watched movies, played bingo, and then fell asleep. I had breakfast when I woke up and soon enough I was in Mendoza for my transfer. The second bus was less luxurious (run by a different company, this one based in Chile), but I had a front-row seat next to an empty chair, so that was great. The bus from Salta basically runs all the way down the Andes, so it’s a beautiful ride. From Mendoza to Santiago, the bus goes through the Andes, and it’s even more amazing. I got to see even more gauchos and chickens, and then we just cut right up into the mountains and up and down these crazy, terrifying, winding roads. The two drivers on the second bus switched off, and as one drove, the other sat in a little half-seat next to him controlling the radio and dancing and singing and asking me repeatedly if I had a boyfriend, but in a very non-threatening way. These were the two happiest bus drivers in the history of the world. One of them saw me taking pictures out of the side window and made me sit up front in the little side seat for a better shot, which was great as well. I had two books with me and I read a total of about 30 pages in eight hours—that’s how great the scenery was.
Halfway through the trip we stopped at customs and border control, which was an odd and slightly uncomfortable experience. There’s snow everywhere (we’re way the hell up in the mountains) and everyone gets off the bus, and then they take all of the luggage out and you stand in a line for about an hour to have them look through your papers and whatnot, and then they open up all of the luggage and have dogs sniff them. There was one very thug-looking guy on my bus and they literally took out and shook every single thing in his suitcase. He kept getting angrier and angrier—or at least I think he did. His face looked angry.
I Said I Loved You But I Lied
After customs, when I’d been on the bus for about 25 hours, I hit something of a wall and started getting really antsy. This was approximately the time when the drivers switched from Latin pop to, apparently, a mixed tape I made at age 12. We heard “Eternal Flame,” “More than Words,” and then “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” by Brian Adams. After a few songs, the guys switched to American music with video, at which time I was forced to watch Michael Bolton sing “I Said I Loved You But I Lied,” with his hair blowing in a mountain breeze, and denim shirt half-unbuttoned.
It was also around this time that the thug who had his luggage searched started to get antsy as well. He started hanging over the driver’s shoulder and speaking really quietly to the two bus employees. This kept up for a long time—long enough for me to come up with several theories as to what was going on:
1. He was a drug smuggler and these bus drivers were in on it.
2. He was also sick of hearing Rockette.
3. He was mad I’d gotten to sit up front and he didn’t.
4. He wanted to drive.
As it turns out, I think he was just kind of a lonely guy. Before I knew it, he had gone to his seat and returned with a bag of things he’d bought while on vacation in Mendoza (he was speaking at a normal level now) and took each one out to show the drivers—a sweater for his sister, a bottle of wine, and a big coffee thermos. “It was only 8 pesos!” he told them, with the exact same tone my mother uses when she finds high thread-count sheets on sale at Marshall’s. He was kind of adorable.
Eventually, after driving through very sad neighborhoods on the outskirts of Santiago (that looked like they may or may not have been used for one of the early scenes in Slumdog Millionare), we pulled into the Santiago bus station.
They do not mess around at the bus station. Taxi drivers are elbowing beggars out of the way to get to you the second you step off the bus. Some of the taxi drivers go so far as to just pick up your luggage and motion you to follow them to the car, without any dialogue at all. I did need a taxi, but at this point I had no Chilean money, so I just kind of grabbed my pack and took off inside the bus station. Luckily, there was an exchange counter right there and I was easily able to switch my Argentinean pesos to Chilean pesos, although I have no idea whether I was given the correct amount. Chilean money has CRA-ZY huge denominations. As an example, I currently have 72,000 Chilean pesos in my wallet. This is either 40 cents or $1,400. Or $150. Something like that. Anyway, it’s not an easy conversion. I was talking to a woman at my hotel in Salta before I left and she said she’d had a lot of trouble with the money here, but that, as a very rough guideline, you can think of it like this: Forget everything after the comma in Chilean pesos, and then multiply the thousands column by two to get American dollars. So, if you have 26,692 pesos, you have about $5. I know—it doesn’t sound that confusing, but when someone is shouting huge numbers at you in Spanish, it becomes something similar to calculus in my brain, totally impossible.
Something Between Expensive and Truly Expensive
I switched my money and caught a cab easily to my hotel, which is lovely and in a really cute neighborhood called Providencia. (It appears on the map to be a separate city from Santiago, but I’m not sure that this is right, considering I walked to downtown Santiago today.) After checking in, I took the longest shower in the world, then had some pumpkin soup and a significant amount of wine to shake the bus feeling off of me before passing out.
All day today, I explored Santiago, and I have to say, I don’t love it. It’s interesting, and it’s got some very cool architecture and whatnot, but it just doesn’t seem to do it for me the way that Buenos Aires did. This could be for a number of the following reasons, or any combination thereof:
1. I’ve only been here a day, and it might be one of those cities that has to grow on you. Unfortunately, I’m leaving tomorrow night, so it seems unlikely that this will happen.
2. Chile is expensive. Not, like, truly expensive, but way more expensive than Argentina. Today I paid $16 for lunch. Granted, it was really amazing fish, and in a touristy area, but still, that’s about three times what I’d spend on a good lunch in Buenos Aires (and, honestly, more than I would allow myself to spend on lunch in DC).
3. My body is in severe temperature confusion and, as such, I’m exhausted. Yesterday, I was standing in a foot of snow at customs in the Andes, and today it’s 75 in Santiago. (It really is lovely walking weather, though, and this means I can finally ditch the jacket I despise because I’ve been wearing it every day for two months. I’m actually considering lighting every article of clothing I have on fire upon my return, if anyone’s interested in helping. I am so sick of these five outfits, I could scream.)
4. It’s the last three days of my trip, and I’m kind of just beat.
5. Lastly, I think I might be holding a grudge against Santiago because I got scammed first thing this morning. It was (mostly) my fault, but still frustrating. I left the hotel and started heading downtown around 9:30, and stopped halfway there to walk around the Cerro Santa Lucia, a really beautiful park built around the grounds of an old palace. Walkways wind all the way up this hill, around fountains and gardens and eventually, at the top, you can see a 360-degree view of the city, including the Andes if it’s clear (and today it was, which was awesome). Anyway, I was walking around, taking pictures, and the two cups of coffee I’d had with breakfast had me nearly wetting my pants. It should be noted that in South America, you have to pay to use the bathroom almost everywhere—the bus station, some restaurants, parks, museums, you get the picture. So I find the bathroom and I’m digging around in my wallet for a few Chilean pesos. I find them and hand them to one of the two guys standing by the bathroom and he starts chatting to me, and—as I am accustomed to—a minute or two in he’s going too fast and I can’t understand him. I say so, and he just starts talking in English, then calls his friend over and says, “She’s a gringa!” to which his friend replies, very seriously, that “that term is not nice, but it’s okay in Mexico” (?). Anyway, they’re nice enough guys, if a little dirty and old, and they start talking about traveling and things I should do in Santiago. I was speaking in Spanish and they started teasing me because they said it was obvious I learned in Argentina, and they think it’s a funny accent. (More than likely, it was funnier that I only know 14 words after studying Spanish for a month, but whatever.) Then they tell me they’re students, which I don’t actually believe, considering they both looked about 40. But we’re chatting and the one guy is a writer and I told him that I write also and he shows me on the map where Pablo Neruda’s house is, which was nice, because I couldn’t find it. Then they start this spiel about how they’re selling these little poetry packets to fund their schooling, blah blah blah and he says they’re $10,000 pesos. “It’s $6, in American money,” the short one says. And I love the arts, right? And even though I’m pretty sure these two are full of $hit about being in school, I figure, “Hey, they probably need the $6 more than I do,” so I pull out the money and give it to him. As I’m doing it, I’m thinking, “Is this $6? If I take the comma and move it two spaces . . . and then I divide . . . or no, wait, I think I multiply . . . if it’s 10, then . . .” and then I realize that I’m standing in the middle of a park with these two guys and my hand is in my wallet and I think, “huh, this is a very stupid move.” So, I hand over the money, and take my wrinkled scrap of paper with a poem on it and I start to walk away, but the short guys keeps walking with me, and starts telling me that I should let him show me around the city, and we should have dinner, and I’m very pretty, and he can show me all of these great places . . . So after telling him “no thanks” about forty times, I just kind of walk away, and I think, “wow, that was kind of painful,” and I start down the stairs and I leave the grounds and walk into this other park right next door and as I stop to pull out my map, I see both of the guys bounding down two different sets of stairs toward me. They want to talk some more, they say, and really, I should let them show me around. This goes on for a few minutes and I leave and then—boom—in front of the Catedral Metropolitana, there they are again. Luckily, this being an uber-Catholic nation and all, they had the sense not to accost me while I “prayed” inside. The kicker, of course, is that sitting in the 300-year old pew, I realized that 10,000 pesos is a little more than $20, not $6. Shockingly, they were gone when I came out full of Chilean-peso-fueled fury.
Anyway, so all of that said, Santiago is still very pretty, and I lucked out that it was so clear today and I could see the mountains behind the city and all. After the (amazing) cathedral, I went to the Plaza de Armas, to a pre-Colombian art museum, then to the Mercado Central—the absolutely chaotic and disgusting and wonderful fish market inside this crazy old steel building from the 1800s. I had some tasty fish, and then made the trek back home(ish). My feet are killing me, so I’m going to go somewhere close-by for dinner and wine in a bit.
My apologies on this way-way-way too long blog, but my brain is still, perhaps, foggy from the altitude and I can’t seem to cut or abridge. I fly home tomorrow night, so I’ll see (most of) you soon!