Casa de Seba & Julie
Seba and Julie were our hosts. They drank Escudo beer while Sammy and I savored the home brew they’d gifted us. I felt appreciation for their hospitality, despite the strange silences in between enthusiastic interchanges. I was drunk. Perhaps it was the height. Damn height. Some people look down from heights and feel the desire to jump. Hello! I’m one of those guys.
“Cheers,” we all said, and clanked our bottles together. I sat at a table filled with plates of spaghetti that Sammy and I had prepared. Night air breezes blew across my face and I stared out over the city from the 14th floor. A city night sparkling. Twinkling. A big city night sparkling and twinkling. Welcome to Santiago.
Santiago is a large conglomeration of parks and concrete. Compared to Lima and Bogota it is an oasis of green. The Parque Forestal runs parallel to the Mapocho River for several kilometers, and the San Cristobal hill alongside downtown rises higher than all the skyscrapers.
When Sammy and I arrived we found the Plaza de Armas, on whose Peruvian occupants the Chileans seem often to remark. From there we found the excellent Mapocho train station, a steelwork of European beauty and grandeur. At that point it was housing an Energy Expo, where we found free Wi-Fi, bathrooms, coffee and cookies. Later, we found the cultural center under the Palacio de la Moneda (President’s pad). The day of arrival ended with an underground metro ride with Seba to Plaza Egana, where we were introduced to Julie and their tall building.
Fast-forward several days, and we had thanked our hosts for their kindness (including a ride across town and a trip to the popular Santa Lucia hill, on which the city was founded, and on which you feel like a tourist cow), and debarked alongside a big ole park called O’Higgins, there to find a new host. I’d contacted the Cuartel’s Pame to ask if she knew anyone in Santiago who would put us up. She knew Mariela.
Casa de Mariela
Mariela showed up at the Rondozinni metro station as Sammy and I sat on our packs outside. Her eyes were green, and her hair reddish. She smiled and greeted us reservedly.
Once at her apartment, after rice and hotdogs she took us to the 22nd floor pool and balcony view over the entire city. It reminded me of Sierra’s pool and balcony view over Fort Lauderdale. Speaking of her, how much of Sierra’s 300 do I still have left?
Santiago spread itself to the base of the Andes, whose color looked something like earl gray tea with milk, but it was blurred by the hue of smog. San Cristobal hill rose as a mid-ground backdrop for the towers of the center. It was windy.
Mariela’s reservation melted away during the night, when we bought 2 liters of cheap box wine and let the buzz turn to drunk. We played Uno with her roommate Alejandro, a smiling figure of medium build and curt black hair. And the drunk made me threaten invasion every time I lost. In Lima, Camilo had decided that I could probably call in Predator air strikes from any regular cell phone. “Damn Americans,” he’d said. I like that joke. Lima!
“Yesterday Sammy and I went with our other hosts to Santa Lucia,” I told Mariela.
“I’ve been there. Did you like it?” she asked.
“We ran into a church group of American teenagers. It was surreal.”
“A church group? Why do Americans travel in church groups? What do they do?” she inquired.
“They paint houses and talk about how dangerous everything is,” I said exaggeratingly.
In the days we spent with Mariela, we drank a lot of wine and played a lot of Mortal Kombat on their Xbox 360. One day we walked into town and saw the History Museum. I hadn’t been aware that Chile’s professional army had had the original task of protecting Lima. I also walked around admiring old furniture and silverware, tapestries and tools. Fucking Ford and his assembly line. Fucking commercialism. Things used to be made for the sake of being made, not for the sake of a name.
The museum seemed to highlight the country’s elite. Indeed, the elite here seem to be untouchable, and very elite. When a lesser class began to encroach on their neighborhoods in Providencia, the elite packed up shop and moved closer to the mountains, where they constructed new and elaborate mansions to hide in. So it goes.
We walked to the one part of town that convinced us that we were in Latin America, La Vega market. As elsewhere in Latin America, the capital’s largest marketplace had everything, even “Peruvian goods” shops. We ate in the restaurant area after digging through the hawkers trying to get us to eat at their establishments. Finally I would eat a cheap meal, but at 1100 pesos. Reflecting on the history museum, as I munched on mashed potatoes, I thought: wherever I end up living, I need my floor to have a pleasing sound to it.
We walked along the Mapocho River forested park, that serene area that encircles the giant San Cristobal hill. I glanced up at the statue of the Virgin Mary. There’s usually a Jesus. Always a Jesus, glaring down at the people who put him there. You’d think he’d be mad at people if ever there were a Second Coming. “Hey, assholes, I had a bad experience on a hill. Why the hell is my statue on hills all over the place, are you guys deliberately trying to make me suffer the memory or what??”
A Frenchy Reunion
Sammy and I got off the metro at the Manuel Montt station. From there, we followed our friend’s instructions to his house, where we sat outside awaiting his return.
I’ve been traveling since August 2009. I graduated college, and immediately hit the road. My junior year in college I lived in France. Francisco became my best friend there, and he was Chilean. Ever since I entered Mexico, Chile had always been the purported destination, to see my friend. After over two years, I had finally arrived.
Francisco and Ale, his girlfriend and friend of ours, came walking down the street. It had been nearly 4 years since we saw each other in France. We all greeted each other in French and with great joyous hugs. All of us seemed to stutter in our French, it having been quite a spell since last any of us had used it. Francisco and Ale were surprised to find that Sammy and I spoke Spanish fluently.
We found their humble apartment on the second floor, and sat on the terrace to a grand reunion of beer, laughter and reminiscence. It was decidedly surreal to be with our friends after such a long time.
A day later, our friend Monika showed up. Monika was our German friend who also lived in Poitiers, France with us. When she had learned that I was closing in on Chile, the planning began, and she purchased a ticket to arrive in Santiago around the time Sammy and I would be returning from the south.
The grand reunion became all the grander. Sammy, me, Francisco, Ale and Monika were once again together, and although we had each gained new experiences in our own ways, we remarked that little had actually changed. Monika was now a doctor, but she was the same Monika we loved from Poitiers. Francisco found a new interest in natural therapeutic treatments, and I had been vagabonding for the past couple of years.
The night disintegrated into merry festivities; wine, rum and beer all found current in our blood, and the world decided to spin. There is really little I can write here to justify the reunion, except that after years apart, to be once again together… well, we were up until 6 in the morning.
Sammy and I returned hung over the next day to Mariela’s, where we were still being hosted. Sammy disappeared into the city to see all the sights, and I stayed at the apartment chatting with Felipe, Mariela’s younger brother. He goes to the University of Chile, one of the better establishments in the country. He recounted to me the trials of entry, and that to get the beca that he needed in order to afford university, his parents had divorced and he had applied for the scholarship as son to a single mother. So it goes.
We played Mortal Kombat, and when everyone returned to the house later on, it was more wine.
The next day Sammy and I packed our bags and walked to the Rondozinni metro station. Sammy would continue onward to Argentina, while I would stay behind to deal with passport business. We swiped the Bip metro card and went to look at the station map.
“Damn, I can’t remember which station I have to go to,” he said.
I laughed, “Man, you gotta write stuff down.”
“Well, you go on ahead, and I’ll figure this out.”
We shook hands and said farewell. After all this time, our parallel traveling was coming to an end. Super San Pedro in Lima, sneaking into Incan ruins, drinking heavily in Juliaca, Valparaiso and Valdivia, a calming stint on the Gran Isla de Chiloe, and a final reunion with friends in Santiago marked a 4-month long sting of welcome encounters.
I turned and descended the stairs to the platform below. The doors of the train closed, and it rolled me away, perhaps into Sammy’s memory, who knows.
Casa de Francisco & Ale
After a final night at Mariela’s place I relocated to Francisco’s, where I’d bunk up with Monika and jest that we were finally sleeping together. Her skipping mannerisms were delightful and made me want to bug her all the more when she would react to the joke. (That’s right, Monika!)
If good hospitality was already one thing that I’d remarked was exceptional in Chile, Francisco and Ale took my assumption to the next level; they were marvelous. Of course, we were far from being strangers, and they wanted to treat their old friends the best they could. Despite the fact that they work, they made time for us. And despite the fact that my friends all had jobs, they accommodated my despicable budget for the duration of my stay.
The conversations swayed all over the place. It was an interesting crossroads of time that brought my personal changes to the fore, and I realized how different my life was unfolding from the norm. The “norm”, that is, being an all-encompassing term to include anyone who has steady work and is sedentary.
The United States Embassy
I should feel lucky that the European Union exists; otherwise, my passport would have run out of stampable visa pages long, long ago. Alas, one of my tasks while in Santiago was to get new visa pages. I had made the decision when Evo Morales had denied me the Bolivian visa at the consulate in Arica. Anyway, the ten stampable spaces in my passport would be barely enough to deal with the multiple border crossings that I’d have to make in Patagonia, if eventually I did make it that far south.
So, I made an appointment on the US Embassy in Santiago’s website for the 9th of December. It would cost 82 dollars to insert new pages.
The embassy was located in a financial district that skirted the Mapocho. It was a large granite structure walled all around and accessible via an iron gate engraved with the country’s emblem. A United States embassy would surely be the best place to run to in the case of a zombie invasion.
I waited in line. The wait took about an hour and a half just to get in the front door. Once in and passed the security checkpoint where they took my water and knife, I found myself walking toward the main consulate building on the premises. At that moment I realized why passports and pages cost so much. Judging by the impeccable state of the grounds, I estimated that roughly 95 percent of embassy budgets go toward gardening.
The consulate entryway was a large cylindrical rotunda with an emerald domed roof. There were a number of ways to choose from, each of them blocked by a 100 pound golden blast door.
“This way sir,” one of the attendants directed me. He was Chilean. In fact, the security guards were also Chilean. I would soon learn that there were no Americans working there, unless I was being linguistically discriminatory.
The main hall towered to an arched ceiling above. Various patriotic symbols adorned the walls, which themselves displayed intricate ornamentation. At least it was prettier than the Bolivian consulate.
However, the whole length of the hall was crowded with chairs filled with people waiting to speak with someone behind a bullet-proof pane. I wonder if aliens marvel at human scenes. I walked to the end of the hall and took a seat at the “U.S. Citizen Services” section. I glanced at the prices listed for various things. 82 dollars for new passport pages. 135 dollars for a new passport. The irony of 450 dollars to renounce your U.S. Citizenship tickled my gag reflex.
Eventually my number was called to window 11. If my ear did not deceive me, the woman behind the window was also Chilean. Although I had nothing against the practice of giving work to locals, I felt somewhat betrayed that I could not plead my case to a compatriot. But what was my case? I handed my passport and forms through the slot.
“You want new pages?” she asked.
She glanced through the booklet of visa stamps that was my international identification. Then she said: “The problem is that this passport is no longer valid.”
My chest pounded hard as it seemed to skip a beat. “Excuse me?”
She flicked the booklet. “This passport is damaged, so you’ll have to get a new one.”
“Um. Impossible. I’m leaving Santiago for the south in 3 days, and I’m not coming back.”
She looked at me and then disappeared to consult a colleague. When she returned she said, “ok we can add one insert of new pages labeled a-x. But the next time you need passport services, you’ll have to get a new one altogether.”
I leaned in close to the window and began a spiel I’d worked on in case they denied me a second insert. I explained that I needed two, that I hitchhike, that I travel with limited funds and this was a large expense, that I’m going to be crossing many borders presently, etc. etc. etc. Shameless? Not in the least. This is the bureaucratic world, and whenever I’m forced to deal with it, despite it being our unfortunate reality, I’m going to milk it for everything it’s worth. I even tried to convince her to give me the old limit of 3 inserts per passport. I explained that my passport was from 2004, before the limit of inserts was lowered to 2 in 2008, and that that means it ought to be given the full 3. Surprisingly, she whispered that she wanted to help, but that my passport was simply too old and degraded to survive a third insert. At least, though, she agreed to a second. For all you people out there, remember these two things:
- The 82 dollars pays for TWO inserts, so insist on the both of them.
- A new passport has the FREE option of 50 pages instead of 25. Get them.
I left my passport with them. Instead of 24 hours, they told me to return in 5 days. Alas, I’d be staying in Santiago for much more time than my original idea of 4 days.
Sammy and Tony
This is going to get confusing if I don’t set things straight right now. I know two Sammys. Sammy Oregon Sammy, who had recently just left for Argentina, and Sammy Cincinnati Sammy who I had met in Medellin, Colombia, and who had stayed with me and my family in Chicago back in December. Cincinnati Sammy had caught up to me in Santiago.
In fact, while Oregon Sammy was still in town, we had gone with Monika to the hostel where Cincinnati Sammy was working. I found Cin Sammy as tall as ever and smiling. We greeted hello. I hadn’t seen him since at the house in the hills of Medellin back in February. He had wwoofed his way through Ecuador, and buzzed through Peru to arrive in Santiago just two weeks before me.
“Man, it’s good to see you again man,” he said.
“Yea, you got down here fast! How did you find this job?”
“Couchsurfing man, someone posted that they needed workers here.” His manner of speech was curt and somewhat suppressed, which made him an interesting character in my book. This book.
“Ah, right on. Yea, I got your message about that. I just talked to your bosslady but she said since I’d only be here for a week I couldn’t work,” I said. I had planned on working at the hostel with Cin Sammy, but it was a no-go. I would eventually go to Francisco’s to bunk with Monika.
I asked: “what have you been up to here?”
“Man, I’ve been just hangin. Santiago has been good to me in terms of girls man.”
“Yea, three. But anyway, bro. I’ve been playing guitar in buses, makin enough for food and beer for the day.” Cin Sammy always calculated in the cost of beer. “Been going around with Tony. You know Tony, the guy who travels with Patrick.”
I must have had a quizzical look on my face, because Cin Sammy then went into an explanation. In fact, when I’d posted an “emergency couch” request on the website when Oregon Sammy and I were still looking for a place to crash, Tony had responded to me that he hitchhikes too and would like to meet up. I had sent him a response back that I recognized him, that I knew him from the Patrick’s postings.
Cin Sammy explained: “Man I posted on the Santiago CS group that I was looking for folks to busk with, and Tony responded. He’s a classical pianist. When we were playing one day, he explained about how he was traveling around with a guy named Patrick. When he told me some of that guy’s stories, I was like ‘dude I’ve heard that story before, my friend Chael told me it’. I said, ‘Tony, man, you know Chael?’ And he said yea, from the emergency couch request.”
“Man, small world. So you’ve been hangin with Tony?” I asked.
“Yea man, he’s coming over now.”
When he showed up, I saw that Tony acted far beyond his 20 or 21 years. He wore pilot aviators and carried a melodica. He was part Chilean and part Taiwanese, and spoke English in a concise way, and Chinese and Spanish fluently.
Later, Oregon Sammy would tell me how strange it must feel to have all these friends and virtual friends show up at the same time. The world is filled with coincidences, I would agree. Soon later Oregon Sammy continued onward to Buenos Aires.
Then I relocated to Francisco and Ale’s place. One day, when they had gone off to work, Monika and I made our way to a park near Los Condes, where a Couchsurfing barbeque was going to take place. We bought a Becker bottle of beer.
We walked to a bus and hopped aboard. My card didn’t have enough money on it so I didn’t bother swiping it. We got out in front of La Reina Park. The meeting page had said the park would cost 500 pesos. Being disinclined to pay just to enter a field, I suggested to Monika we hop the high fence. That we did, getting somewhat dirty in the process of climbing a concrete telephone pole to reach the fence.
We found the group of couchsurfers. Unlike the CS meeting Oregon Sammy and I attended in Cusco, this was an interesting group. There was food everywhere, wine and beer, and plenty of smiling people. Tony was there, and we chatted about hitching and travel, ethics and strategies. Meanwhile we munched on meats that they were passing around. He dazzled the group, which he insisted he did not know well, with some classical piano playing on his melodica. Everyone chanted his name “Tony – Tony – Tony!”
There was one Chilean girl there who seemed to take an interest in me. We talked about risqué themes, with more than a little help from the wine. Whether because of the timing, or because I simply wanted nothing to do with any other girl, it wasn’t to be.
Tony and I walked 40 minutes back to the metro station. At Baquedano station we got off and walked through Plaza Italia to Sammy’s hostel, Footsteps. An Australian gave us some beer, but I only stayed a little while before deciding to walk back to Francisco’s.
Francisco and Ale, if I haven’t made it duly clear, are excellent hosts and cooks. One day I summited San Cristobal with Francisco, discussing the past and future. He treated me to a mote con huesillo sweet drink, made with peach, lots of sugar and oats. The city was below us. It was vibrating with life under the colors of the late sun. I realized then that Santiago is the kind of place that can trap an unvigilant traveler like me. But it’s expensive, and it’s not my end. And anyway, a book costs 30 dollars—and why? Because the government taxes them incredibly. Books! If it’s an elite in charge, they know how to keep their fellow man down.
I hung out with Tony and Sammy again, along with a German girl Sammy winked at me over. I had waited for them at another metro station. There was a woman playing “Silent Night” on a Bolivian flute. Oh yea I almost forgot about Christmas. Oregon Sammy and I had celebrated Thanksgiving a day late in the house on Chiloe. We ate mashed potatoes, drank Escudo and played Rummy. I wondered where I’d be for Christmas this year.
As I waited for Tony and Sammy and German girl, I walked into a ferreteria (hardware store). Looking at the man-tools, I day dreamed about an old goal of mine; to be a car technician. I used to sup-up my old man’s car, and in high school shop class I was known as the welder. I found a welder. I also found a drill press, blow torches, plasma cutters, pressure guns, vises, propane generators, table saws, giant wrenches, threaders, grinders, sets of pliers, jacks, etc. Not surprisingly, the prices were much higher than in a Home Depot back home.
That night was the last I spent with Cin Sammy. I showed them how to cook curry chicken, we humored Tony by playing Magic, and then Tony and I left. Who knows when I’ll see Sammy again. I hate saying goodbye to Sammys. It sucks.
I said goodbye to Tony too, leaving him in the train with a nod of the possibility to rendezvous in Venezuela one day. Alas, the road is a curvy thing.
Monika returned to us at Francisco’s after having gone on a quick tour of Southern Chile. How interesting it is to think of my own journey as something condensed in comparison to longer-term travelers. Though, I haven’t met any of them yet.
Francisco plopped a bag next to me one morning. “A gift,” he’d said. Inside I found a pair of shoes. They had a flat wicker sole and light black fabric. “They’re called alpargatas,” he’d said. After a moment’s hesitation (as I always get when I have to consider new items adding weight to my pack), I realized that the gift was not only generous, but extraordinarily thoughtful.
“You tromp around in those boots all the time. With these you can get to a place, relax—take a breath of fresh air—enjoy comfort,” Francisco suggested as he acted out facial expressions of comfort.
“Man, thanks a lot. Sorry I hesitated, I always do that. I actually just lost my sandals—“
“—Yes I know, that’s why I got you these. They’re ‘traditional’, but really I think they’re Arabic, only in Chile from the 80s on.”
“Well thanks, Francisco,” I said.
A few days later we said goodbye to Monika, unsure when the next reunion would take place. She left and we stayed. It’s always one way or the other.
On another day I recuperated my passport, an unpleasant sight with its two bundles of paper each labeled a-x stuffed in among the other pages. The passport expires in 2014, so I wondered how necessary the second insert actually was.
My plan of a few days in Santiago had transformed into 2 weeks. It served as proof that even when I decide to limit myself, the road has its way. The way of the road, as it were.
However, the day finally came when I had packed my bags. I had one last breakfast with Francisco (Ale and Francisco prepare a lovely breakfast each morning with artisanal bread, marmalade, tea or coffee, cheese, butter, avocado, tomato, nuts and honey). I had already farewelled Ale when she went to work early in the morning. Now, hauling the backpack to my shoulders, I embraced my friend.
“Goodbye,” Francisco said.
“Until next time,” I replied, and left out the door.
And so began a new journey, southbound once more. My destination was 24 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, back to Gloria and Teresa’s place. With my timing, it was possible that I might be there for Christmas, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. It would take at least three days to get there.
Step number one… get out of Santiago.