The “central region,” as the area of Santiago is called, is calido; it’s hot. Hitching out of a big city is already demanding as is, but with a heavy pack made heavier by the fact of departure from where good friends are, and with a sun that seems unseasonably close to the planet, the hitch can be made dampening in more ways than one.
I walked back to the metro station Manuel Montt from Francisco’s place. I had just enough credit on the Bip card for one last ride out of town. Having stayed with Mariela at her place along the main highway south, I knew Rondizonni’s yellow line was the metro line I wanted.
The stations flew by the windows of the train like the fast-forwarding of a tape on play. When the last station was announced, “La Cisterna,” I got off.
Above ground I spent a half hour walking to and from, asking various types of people to direct me to various places. I asked a young woman for the panamerican south. Once I knew where it was, I asked an old man with a cane how I might get to Buin or Paine. I had grown accustomed to learning and retaining the names of small towns just beyond the urban sprawl of big cities as I arrived to them; this way, I was prepared to leave.
I could hitch on the shoulder-less on-ramps of the panamerican, I could walk further out of the city, or I could jump a bus toward Buin. I had looked at Google’s map, and walking out of the urban sprawl to a hitchable area would take several hours. I looked skyward for as long as the sun’s glare would allow, and then decided on the bus to Buin.
I said to the driver, “Sir, could you inform me when we’re in Buin?”
“Headed to Buin?”
“I’m hitchhiking south. Is Buin a decent place to hitch?” I asked. My experiences in other countries speak to the unreliability of a bus driver’s advice; however, I’ve begun to judge a piece of advice more resolutely. In any case, the driver’s response set my mind at ease:
“There’s a gas station I can drop you off. Everyone there is headed south.”
After an hour and a half of streets and roads through southern neighborhoods, we arrived to a road paralleling the highway that, in the States, would probably be called Frontage Road. I climbed off the bus at a Copec station and thanked the driver.
“So, Chael, have you fallen in love with a Chilean girl yet?”
Melanny was a good-looking woman, perhaps encouraged by my solitude and uninhibited thanks to her thick sunglasses behind which she hid. Luis was driving, and she was scrunched in between us. I couldn’t help but steal glances at her enormous breasts that seemed to want to hail attention anyway. Every time Melanny would begin on a subject of anything directly or indirectly related to relationships or sex, which was often, he’d redirect the theme of the conversation to the countryside.
“Look, look at this beautiful wine country,” he’d say. He didn’t like his attractive boss taking interest in some foreign traveler, apparently. I didn’t mind any of it. I was glad to be gone from that Copec, finally having met this dynamic pair after asking forty cars for rides south.
Melanny, despite being older than me, and despite my appearance, was very clearly making passes at me, and Luis was very clearly trying to distract it into nothingness. I humored her by accepting that I’d find her on Facebook, though I would do no such thing.
In fact, this seems a wonderful place for a rant against the social networking site. Facebook is a hijacker of time and human connectivity. Too many people use Facebook in lieu of their own voice. Too many hours are wasted away on something that matters very little. It’s nice to see photos of friends, or to read messages, but when someone is concerned that no one “liked” their shit, it has gotten out of hand. What’s more, I find that Facebook’s “status updates” suck the initiative out of relationships. Instead of writing me, perhaps someone simply waits until I can give a general “hey, everyone, here’s what I’m up to, now I’m not obligated to be a friend to you by writing you personally because I wrote this and you didn’t ‘like’ it, so it’s on you.” In this sense, the whole damn site is like some beastly scapegoat for hoards of users. Also, the idea of posting every little detail about you and about what you are doing dulls the mystery and romanticism of living altogether. That being said, I have Facebook. Though, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I use it.
Melanny and Luis dropped me off at another service center just north of Talca, that large city famed for its surrounding vineyards. As this is the anatomy of a hitch, it should be pointed out that being dropped on the north side of a big city is unfortunate. However, with Chile’s super-fast highways, I planned on hitching from gas station to gas station, and I would have better luck asking for rides from this one north of town than thumbing it just south of town.
After 30 minutes of asking drivers, each time careful to respect their space by standing at a good distance as I spoke with them, a man decided to take me to “the Copec on the other side of Talca.” In fact, he would take me all the way to a Petrobras gas station in Chillan, the next city further south.
“I’m a retired police officer,” he said, “PDI.” PDI was the more advanced division of police, the other being the Carabineros.
“How does it feel to be retired?” I asked.
“It’s good. Though, I have trouble filling my time with things to do. Have you heard of Prufado?”
“It’s an HBO series about police in here Chile,” he informed me. “They hired me as the police consultant to make the actors seem like real cops.”
Later, we talked about how Americans ought not to assume that everyone speaks English. That’s right; if you’re traveling abroad and someone doesn’t understand your English, speaking it slower is disrespectful, unless they’ve given you some kind of hint that they might understand a more paced English.
At the Petrobras I wished the PDI officer well, and with my pack thrown over my shoulder, rubbing the already totally worn shoulder fabric of my age-old shirt even more, I strode into the restaurant part of the service station.
Here’s a predicament. Chile hitching, at least in the south part of the country where the four lane highway is difficult to thumb, means that gas station to gas station is the best way to get to where you’re going. The problem with this is that you’ll find incredibly inflated prices at the stations which are, essentially, oases in the middle of nowhere.
I don’t mind meeting my daily budget, which has held steady at 3 dollars for a long time now, but since the prices of everything at these highway gas stops is tripled, I avoid purchasing anything at all. On the northbound journey with Sammy we bought meals at one Copec. Never again!
The restaurant of the Petrobras was empty except for a waitress counting cash. The tables were each nicely set with silverware and a choice rack of vinegars, oils and salts. I walked up to the woman.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello, I have a very strange question…”
“Go right ahead.”
“Well, I’m hungry, but everything here is far beyond my budget. I was wondering if I could do some kind of work in exchange for a plate of rice, or bread, or anything.”
She looked at me sideways, and slowly shook her head ‘no’. But then, she told me to wait as she asked the bosslady in the back.
A few seconds later an older woman came to the counter and addressed me: “Hi. Well, we don’t have any work for now, but we understand what you all are trying to do.” She looked at the other lady. “What can we prepare for him?” Then she turned to me. “Take a seat anywhere you’d like.”
I smiled as she turned back to the kitchen area. She had referred to me as you all, demonstrating a keen awareness of us travelers. However, I took the moment to speak again with the younger woman.
“Don’t you have anything I can do? I feel a decent amount of shame if I can’t do something in exchange for the plate.”
“Well, the only thing you could do, I suppose, would be to sweep the terrace outside.”
I gladly took up the broom and went to work sweeping, but only 5 minutes passed before she called me in again. She set me up at one of the tables and put a plate of rice—no, it wasn’t just rice! It was seasoned rice, a giant stack of steaming roast beef, and a side salad over which I poured that zesty balsamic vinaigrette. It was a veritable treat, and I dug in, having not eaten since breakfast, and it was already 7pm.
The food sat heavy in my belly, and after dropping the plate off, I took up the broom—but not before the young lady stopped me.
“It’s that, the boss is coming, and if he sees you sweeping it might be troublesome. The food was free, don’t worry about it,” she said.
I thanked her immensely and shouldered my pack. I can’t deny that I felt shameful that I could do so little in exchange for the plate of food. I’ve been given food plenty of times, but never on my own accord. I would later learn that there is a work karma that follows you one way or another—but we’ll get to that.
A trucker took me 25 kilometers down the road to the Copec on the opposite side of Chillan, because the Petrobras had again been northerly located. There, quickly met a guy around my age who agreed to drop me at the exit for the Saltos de Laja some 100 kilometers down the road.
He had bizarre tattoos; they were little random marks all over his arms, as though he’d be sprinkled with them. His eyes were blazing blue and somewhat lunatic. Our conversations were mostly about smoking pot, planting pot or smuggling pot.
“You smoke man?” he asked.
“Hurts my throat. I don’t mind the high sometimes, cookies and brownies I’ll eat now and then,” I replied.
He laughed it off as though it had to be laughed off. Down the road he stopped just after a sign that read “Saltos de Laja.” I thanked him and jumped out.
Now, one thing that is sometimes difficult to do is to force yourself to stop where you know the hitching is going to pick up slowly once you’re back on the road. But it’s always worth it to stop and see that extra something. In this case, it was a waterfall called Laja.
I crossed the highway and began walking down a lonely dirt road. The “dirt” was more like ash in its dry state. I kicked it into the air and the dust settled on my pants as though a static electricity had willed it.
Eventually I came to a main road where there were dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants. I walked past several busloads of people to a bridge. From the middle of the bridge I saw the waterfall a football field away, its mist blowing up into the air. The water ran down through a river-cut gorge and beneath the bridge where I stood. A few boats were tied to a floating dock alongside the canyon wall.
I walked back to the shops and found the entrance. It was free, so I followed the footpath up and around a few hills until arriving at the base of the falls. A few people stood around, some of them wet from standing in the path of the showering mist. The falls formed a semi-circle that created a draft wind. The water was obviously low, which allowed one to walk along the rock nearly to the falls themselves.
After admiring the sight for a while, I climbed a set of stairs, stared at the water a while yet, and then walked away into the woods. It was 9:30 in the evening, and the sun was finally deciding to sink. I found a tranquil wood wherein to pitch tent. I set up camp on a bed of dried pine needles, the forest floor relatively bare of intrusive bush or weed.
By this time I was quite hungry, but having been unwilling to spend at the touristy shops, I was foodless. But then, I remembered that Ale had handed me 3 chocolate granola bars. I ate, and then slept pleasantly satisfied. Thanks Ale.
In the morning, after drawing the falls, I began walking back down the dirt road from where I’d come. I stopped at a restaurant where two large earthen ovens stood out front. Inside I asked how much the bread cost. 200 pesos. I asked a guy if I could help with something in exchange for the bread. When after he’d disappeared into the back, his mother emerged and I made the same request. There was no work to be done.
“One piece of bread then, please,” I said, handing her 200 pesos.
Instead, without saying so much as a word, she gave me two pieces of bread and wouldn’t accept the pesos.
As I continued down the road, kicking dust into the air once more and now eating fresh, warm pieces of round bread, I thought how kind these people were, and I thought how unfortunate that I couldn’t do something in exchange.
Back on the highway I found my prediction to be utterly true. I waited two hours with my thumb stuck out, and few if any of the drivers even glanced my way. When hitching, sometimes it’s a good idea to walk. In fact, I’ve been picked up more times walking than standing still. It gives drivers some kind of assurance that you’re independently trying to get there, and that you don’t necessarily need them to do it. They can also see your pack clearly.
I walked and I walked under the clear sky. I had lathed up in sunscreen so as not to go lobster. There were no houses, nor any sign of service centers anywhere. I remarked two things as I walked:
- Buses are always broken down
- ”Crystal” beer semis never take me
A few kilometers down the road I came to a bridge that spanned the length of the Salto de Laja’s downstream river. The deep clear green water was flowing about 60 feet below me. The banks were large rocks or smoothly-carved cliffs, a sight that proved attractive enough for me to descend.
I had worked up quite a sweat, so I stripped down and jumped into the cool water just beneath the highway. The passing cars’ echoes were deep percussions that ricocheted off the cliffs and concrete pillars. It was a lovely spot.
On the scramble back up the steep hill to the road, I noticed blackberry bushes crowding the land. They had yet to flower; a shame, since it reminded me of the very beginning of this journey. I had left Eugene on the i5 northbound (Oregon is one of the only states where you can hitch on the interstate highways). During all the days of hitching in Oregon, I mostly subsisted on the blackberries that grew in the millions alongside every road.
Apparently, the fruit would begin to flower in January here in Chile.
I began walking once more, and about an hour later my thumb yielded a ride in a red sedan (which, of all the colors of sedans, red gives me the greatest creeps after the attempted robbery Toinon and I experienced in Nicaragua).
The man drove me a few kilometers south and let me out at a weigh station where “every trucker has to stop.” He was right, but to my surprise and disappointment, they closed the weigh station as soon as the red sedan drove off.
And so it was more walking. Are you understanding now that gas stations are much better than a four lane highway for us hitchers? Whatever, the waterfall was worth the trouble, and I’d eventually get to where I was going (rule # something).
I was also stuck under the sun, and it beat down on my newly-unprotected skin with a fury. Sweat formed at my temples and under my arms. The pack felt as if it had been absorbing weight. Eventually I came to the first highway entrance to Los Angeles, the next city south of Chillan.
I stopped at the on-ramp, despite there being no traffic to speak of. My thumb once again stuck out at the highway, I sat on my pack.
Finally, in every sense of the word, I was picked up. A truck with a trailer about half that of a full rig pulled over. I declined throwing my pack into the back and inside set it on my lap in between the two Luises. The smaller of the two was driving. After the usual back-and-forth chatter, Little Luis revealed his demeanor with a few words:
“Chael, lots of nice gringas in your country?”
“Aw man,” he said. “Some women, you can’t fill ‘em up—they just want more and more!”
The conversation hovered around this topic for most of the time, and each of Little Luis’ remarks was accompanied by the quintessential hand gestures that outlined the curves of a woman’s body.
I was so used to this conversation that I could have it without paying much attention. Instead I looked around the cab. A golden Chinese ornament and red tassels hung from the rearview mirror. Beneath it, there was a small bear sticky holding a Chilean flag.
“—…and Argentinian girls, man they might not have much up there, but behind…” he bit his knuckles and crunched his eyebrows together, “damn!”
I guessed he was about 50 years old. The other, larger Luis was balding but I knew he was 29 from his companion’s outbursts about his thin hair. “29 and already a booby! It’s the work, he’s a bull!”
Eventually we went down the road in silence. They were kind and offered me a cup of cold coke, a refreshing thing after such a long walk.
Alas, the work karma was about to catch up to me. Work karma, you ask? Yes, the karma that exists when things come your way freely—the karma that tests your capacities for labor!
“We’re gonna go pick up some leña, ready for a bit of exercise?” Luis glared at me with a smile.
We drove off the highway at a small commune. Passing a few houses on the dirt road, and driving across the train track that lead all the way to Puerto Montt, we arrived at a farmhouse. Here, we hopped out of the car, and big Luis and I jumped into the trailer. It was essentially empty except for a few cartons of fruit we had to rearrange.
Then began the loading of 7 foot long and 10 inch thick logs. Little Luis and 3 other men shouldered the cargo and handed it off to us to stack in the trailer. In very little time, my muscles began to pulsate. I rarely use my arms in such capacity, but I wasn’t about to betray my secret and look useless.
2 and a half hours later, the beads of sweat ran down all parts of my body, making me feel damp throughout. We had loaded hundreds of these beasty logs into the truck from two different houses. That is, when I thought we’d finished and let out a sigh of relief, we had actually only depleted one source of wood.
During the loading the townsfolk had watched, and were probably remarking on my presence (though, the southern country accent is lost on me). So, I stubbornly shelved any complaints I might have had of being thirsty, or having not eaten since the bread some 6 hours previous, or of having muscles that were crying mercy. In fact, I took the bulk of the workload, kicking big Luis out of the shrinking space in the trailer and handling the logs myself.
When the two and a half hours were up, I was covered in dirt and dust, sweat and hidden pain, and my hands were filled with new bloody holes. We splashed our faces with water, got in the cab and drove off. The truck must have gained a ton, but it was unnoticeable.
Back down the highway we stopped at a service station where Little Luis bought me a sandwich and a cold soda. I ate and drank. Work karma. Though, the amount of work would easily pay for two meals and a few pieces of bread.
“Thanks for helping out Chael. It was some good pega, wasn’t it?” said Luis as they dropped me at a Copec service station just north of Temuco, the next large city south.
“It was fun,” I said for lack of adjectives. And the Luises drove off.
I was standing in the middle of the highway, staring across at the large service center, the muscles in my body almost begging to be allowed to detach and fall to the ground, while my eyes felt heavy and my stomach was rumbling for more food in addition to the small ham sandwich the Luises had bought me. At least, though, I was at the largest of Copecs, complete with that TV room, a restaurant, showers and Wi-Fi.
I walked through the door, and looking down I took note once more of the state of my clothes; disgusting. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw offended looks; perhaps my stench could reach across the room. I went straight up to the counter.
The lady looked at me. It’s always ladies working inside, and the men attendants working outside filling tanks. I asked for some kind of work in exchange for something to eat. She told me they couldn’t offer me work. I hardly expected it, either.
Instead, I walked into the bathroom area. “Showers – 500 pesos.” I went into the shower area and took a cold one with my shirt and underwear on. I still had a bar of soap, thankfully, and took to scrubbing like a maniac. 30 minutes later I reemerged with a fresh shirt and clean face.
To my surprise the ladies behind the counter motioned me over, but not to charge me for the shower—no. Instead, they handed me a tray filled with a large chicken soup (cazuela), bread and a cup of coke. Alas, I thought to myself, the work karma continues. I didn’t mind accepting food that comes from a corporation like Copec, but the true heart in all this came down to the women who wanted to help. Perhaps they felt the same way about Copec, anyway.
I finished the meal and thanked the women as graciously as I could. I opted not to whip out my computer to use the Wi-Fi, as the irony of a seemingly penniless traveler with a laptop might be too great. Though, I had made sure to explain that I had a budget that Copec’s prices didn’t fit into, not that I was penniless.
In any case, I decided to try for one last ride to start fresh from a southern gas station the next day. I succeeded in arriving to Loncoche an hour down the road with a quiet couple who were on their way to Valdivia. These names shouldn’t matter to you—that they’re further south is the important part.
That night I set up my tent in the back of this new Copec station, and used the Wi-Fi from inside my tent for the first time. In fact, I even had the luck to find my sister online, and chatted with her on Skype. Skyping from a tent at a southern Chile gas station…
I woke several times to the sounds of big rig engines igniting, the truckers keen to get going early. I wasn’t. Instead I slept until 10 am. When I woke, the parking lot was empty of trucks. The concrete seemed to gleam under the sun. The last time I came south it had been raining constantly. So it goes.
Tent took down, back packed up, shouldered, and walking to the front to begin asking for rides. Unfortunately, it was Sunday. In the anatomy of a Chilean hitch, a key point to take away is that Sunday is no fun for hitching. One should always follow the rule that yes, you’ll eventually get to where you’re going, but Sunday is slow. Every car is either filled with families, or the cars aren’t even there because everyone is with their families. Truckers travel, but many are simply awaiting cargo.
I was hungry again, and again I was stuck in a Copec station. There was no restaurant here, but there were hot dogs. When I asked the attendants for work, they directed me to the office on the other side of the pumps. There, the office folks gave me blank stares, but told me to go back to the shop.
Again, there was no work for me. Something about Santiago watching them on the security cameras. However, they gave me a hot dog anyway. It would have cost 3 dollars where hotdogs in towns cost one dollar. This time I resolved myself to the free dog and didn’t bother insisting on work.
After 4 hours of walking back and forth from thumbing on the highway to asking newly arrived cars in the gas station, during which time I came up with a new Pedro idea—stick your head in a bush—I finally landed a ride to an hour down the road. Everyone else had been heading to Valdivia, which would be a large detour out of my way.
The couple dropped me at a Terpel gas station. The day was already in its second half, and somehow the high sun spilt that secret. I spent time with the attendants at the Terpel, who told me of French bicyclists and Peruvians. I thought back to the bicyclists I knew. There was the Frenchman I met in the Peruvian Andes, sure, but my fondest memory of bicycle travelers was of the German couple. From La Paz, Mexico, to Mazatlan, we shared a ride on a sailboat across the Sea of Cortez. They had arrived at the Tierra del Fuego while I was still futzing around Mesoamerica.
I spent a few more hours at the Terpel, but no one I spoke with seemed to be going my way. After being refused by a salmon-hauling rig, I was about to create a new generalization that salmon haulers never pick up travelers; but alas, then I met Juan.
You might be thinking that I’m forgetting the names of my rides since they’re all so generic, but I assure you that everyone is named Luis, Juan or Jose.
Juan was hauling big colorful plastic boxes of dead salmon to Puerto Montt, there to get packaged in ice.
“Hey, I’m going to Puerto Montt too!” I exclaimed.
Juan had glasses and frizzled black hair—he was like a fatter, older and darker Franco (Franco of Lima fame). He was full of energy and laughs. He taught me phrases like “mas loca que cabra de cerro”, and would say random things like, “I’d love to meet Demi Moore.” His goatee formed into a sharp, pointed moustache, which made everything he say somehow ridiculous and clever:
“Sandra Bullock… ella es más desordenada que los cumpleaños de mono!/Sandra Bullock is crazier than a monkey’s birthday!”
4 hours disappeared like nothing. I hopped out of the rig and wished Juan well. He had stopped just 10 kilometers short of Gloria’s house, passed Puerto Montt. A slow Sunday ended well with one last ride thumbed from the side of the road—indeed, here the road was back to being two-lane.
The pick-up truck drove off, having left me in front of Gloria’s property. I walked down the gravel road and was greeted by the two dogs Bruno and Pela, who had followed me all those weeks back. They jumped on me with glee and barked hellos. Gloria and her elder sister Teresa, in whose house I had slept, came out calling my name.
“Chael! You’re back!”
They expected me, and made me feel once again welcome. I hugged and kissed them hello, and, having somehow sensed my hunger, instantly invited me in for a meal.
By the end of the day, which came swiftly, I’d recounted my travels in Chiloe and Santiago. They spoke and gossiped and spoke over each other, almost like a vocal harmony. Before retiring to a fluffy bed, I agreed to be the gardener for the week. I turned to call it a night.
“Oh Chael, one more thing,” Gloria said.
I looked at her.
“Will you stay for Christmas?” She smiled and folded her hands.
I smiled too.