Entry #062: Friday, February 21, 2014 (Santiago, Chile)

Hola from Chile! Yep, I'm in a new country now, just for the next week. That said, I've only been here for a couple of hours, and so the fact that the title has it listed as the location of this blog entry is a bit disingenuous. But regardless, I'm here, and I'm here with a big bruise on my side. No, no, I didn't get into any fights. But I won't tell you what the bruise is from; you'll have to read on and guess where it came from in these last three days. Ready, go!

So we start with Wednesday. Truth be told, I was a little hesitant to mention even talk about Wednesday at all, because it may have been one of the most nothing days I've had on this entire trip. Which is not to say it was a bad day - I've said multiple times before that having days off can be good - but there's not too much of note to speak of. But still, I've never let any level of boringness or tedium discourage me from wiriting about one of my days, so I'll just hammer through it. I woke up and had breakfast - some cereal, fruit salad, and juice - and then went back to my room. I studied the map of Mendoza I had been given the day before, and tried to see if there was anything interesting looking that I hadn't gone to before. There wasn't. I then took the sheet of activities that I could book through the hostel. There were actually a number going on that day. Unfortunately, they all left at or before 9:30, and I was checking at, like, 9:40 or something. The only exception was a half-day wine tour, which would leave sometime after 2pm, so I kept that in mind. Otherwise, I just messed around for a good long while. Nothing productive - I didn't have Internet in my room to do any future planning or anything - just stuff. Watching videos, playing games, and junk like that. I did do some cleanup and maintenance on my laptop; I guess that could count as productive. But really, nothing worth writing in a blog about. (Ignore the fact that I just did.)

When lunchtime came around, I left and looked for someplace to eat. I eventually found my way at that vegetarian restaurant that I had seen closed the evening before. This time, it was open. (I can only guess that they were in one of their siestas when I originally saw it - yes, that happens here - or else they don't like getting money from dinner patrons.) It turned out to be a buffet style place, where you could either pay 55 pesos per kilogram, or 65 pesos for Tenedor Libre (all-you-can-eat or, literally, "free fork"). I wasn't sure I could eat a full kg of food, but I played it safe and went for the all-in option. I then got a couple little vegetarian dishes, but mostly stuck to eating salad and broccoli and beets and tomatoes and other stuff I hadn't had in a while. It was really refreshing. I then probably made good on my all-you-can-eat status with the fruit options for dessert. On the whole, it was quite good for what for me was under $7. Afterwards, I walked around town for a bit, going inside some stores, and seeing if I could find anything interesting out of the blue. Nope, still a really boring city. Well, there was one glimmer of hope, which was an arcade. I've mentioned before how I love finding arcades in different places, so I decided to give it a shot and see if there were any games I would want to play in there. To my dismay, it was a little under half "win-a-prize" machines, a little under half sit-down racing games, and an old Time Crisis 2 cabinet, which was unfortunately going a little wonky. So really, nothing really worth my time or...pesos? I'm not really sure what denomination of coins would be used here.

I went back to the hostel, and continued chilling out. I considered doing the wine tour, but decided against it, just because, really, how many times can I play the card of "Andrew doesn't like alcohol, let's go on a wine tour, hyuk hyuk" before it runs out of steam. I mean, in South Africa, that was also a biking tour. Here would just be me being shuttled from place to place, tasting wine with people who are probably into it unironically. I'm not sure it would have really felt worthwhile. Also, and I really didn't think about this at the time, since I was having this internal debate at, like, 1:45, it was probably already too late to sign up. Instead, I just continued doing what I was doing all day, which wasn't much. When I grew weary of not doing much, I decided to go out to dinner. After debating several options, I eventually decided on "The Monkey", an unfortunately-named cafe and restaurant. I chose them mainly because one of their specials was bife de chorizo, a side, and a drink, for 90 pesos. I know I kind of said I was done with meat in Argentina, but bife de chorizo was the meat that all the guides say you need to get in Argentina. Also, the image on the sign didn't have any cream sauce. So I sat down on a low outside table (which was nice except for the guy smoking two tables over, the fumes drifting my way) and ordered the meat, a salad, and a Fanta (I think it was either that or Coke). I waited for a good while, watching the world walk by, when I was finally served. The first thing I noticed was that the meat was huge. Like, it was the kind of steak you'd pay $15-20 for back home. The second thing I noticed was that it was served with fries. I sent it back, and shortly afterward, the fries were replaced with lettuce and tomato...and a beetle. At first, I thought the beetle may have flown in when I wasn't looking, but a tiny piece of his abdomen was missing, as though a sharp, careless knife had sliced through. I felt really bad for the little guy, so I picked him up and put him somewhere safe. (For the record, while I did check each bite for stray beetle pieces, I happily ate the salad.) As for the steak, I won't lie, it was really good. It's as though meat doesn't need any sort of cream sauce. Shocking.

When I got back to the hostel, I decided to drop off my dirty clothes to be laundered (for 30 pesos, why not), and then signed up for an activity for the next day. I definitely didn't want to be spending another full day in this town, so I had weighed my options, and had two that interested me. One was a full-day trek, and the other was a trek, rappel, and rafting trip. I decided on the latter because of all the stuff I've done, I've never actually gone rafting. Also, the full-day trek started at 7am. Screw that noise! The thing was, I didn't have enough cash to pay for the trip, so I had to use my credit card, meaning that what would have cost me about $38 was now costing me $50. Yes, that's how much of a cheapskate I am. But looking back on it, I would have never found a rafting trip in New Zealand for $50 or less, so I guess it's just all about perspective. I then went back to my room, and actually did something productive by filtering through my Buenos Aires photos (keeping up-to-date on photo filtering is actually a good policy, I've found). I then messed around a bit before going to bed.

Now, Thursday was an entirely different ballgame than Wednesday. Except for the beginning, where I had breakfast; that was pretty much the same. Cereal, fruit, juice. But then after that, I just waited. I was supposed to be picked up at 9:15 for the days activities, so I just sat around in the dining room area until I heard my name called. I almost missed it, though, because my name wasn't called. "Andres" was called for. When I made the realization, I went up and met up with the driver. "Andres?" He asked. "Andrew," I corrected. Now, I am 100% fully aware that Andres is the Spanish form of Andrew. However, not only do I not understand how they came to have that name, as the booking was made under Andrew, but I also don't really appreciate it. It reminds me of a Season 2 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the android Data is checking in with a racist doctor, who calls him "Dah-ta" instead of this correct "Day-ta". When he corrects her, she asks him why it makes a difference. "One is my name," he replies, "The other is not." That's exactly how I felt in this situation. I would never call a guy named Miguel "Michael" just because he was in an English-speaking country, y'know. And I should note, I actually wouldn't have been writing about this if it just happened once. But it happened about six times on this outing, occasionally with people I had already corrected.

Anyway, I got in the van, and after picking up a few more people around town, we started making our way to the location. And it was a long drive. The thing about Mendoza I've found is that it's a central location, but there's nothing to do in it. Everything you'd want to do when visiting Mendoza is well outside of Mendoza. So, we ended up driving more a little more than an hour, through vast open landscape which made me feel much more comfortable than the city did. Really, this kind of rocky landscape with hills in the background is actually what I had imagined Mendoza to be when I had decided to stay there. (To say I did no research on the subject would be an understatement.) On the way, I was trying to figure out how many people in the van were not native Spanish speakers. As it turned out, most were, with only a few exceptions from Germany and Iceland. When we finally arrived by the river, we were dropped off, and immediately some initial instructions began. I was doing my damnedest to figure out what the guide was saying, and could maybe make out about half of it. Thankfully, there was another guide named Taylor, who came from Sacramento and could thus speak perfect English. After getting told the very basics, it was time to wait for the other groups to come in on other buses. And wait we did (I'd later discover this to be a thing). I walked around the area appreciated the scenery, took some pictures, and spoke with the German guy, who was also by himself.

Eventually, everyone had arrived, and the rafting was ready to go. Oh, but wait, it wasn't time to do rafting yet, as I had trekking and rappelling to do first. (And I was happy to discover this, because I really wouldn't have wanted to do those things after rafting.) I put on my rappelling gear, and saw that we had a group of about a dozen people. Of those, the only other English-speakers were a couple from Norway named Andres and Ida. Funnily enough, though, the guide only addressed the two of them in English; he spoke to me in Spanish. I suppose I hadn't myself adequately enough that he assumed I was a native speaker, which is weird to me. Anyhoo, once everyone was geared up, we got going. The trekking was quite fun, as it was a very rough-and-tumble path, full of rocks of all sizes, some of which required using all four appendages. There was also no shortage of cactus about, meaning you had to watch every step carefully. (I never got pricked, but one miserable-looking girl definitely did.) It was a very good baptism-by-fire for my new shoes. We eventually made our way to a viewpoint, had a look around, and then continued downward. This was where the fun began. I'm not sure if it was because of the really inadequate shoes they were wearing, or because they weren't used to doing outdoorsy stuff, but a number of the group - I hesitate to mentioned that they were mostly girls - were having major issues with this portion of the trek. I was able to make it down without issue, but I kept seeing folks slip on the gravel and fall onto their butts. One three separate occasions, I grabbed a girl (different one each time) by the arm to keep her from falling. Not gonna lie, it was pretty silly.

We walked through a ravine, and then up another hill until we reached a cliff. And that was the end of the trekking. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. I mean, that was only like 45 minutes, if that. But hey, at least we could go rappelling now. Oh, jeez. Remember back in the Waitomo Caves, when I went rappelling (though I called it abseiling back then) and said that it took a good while? Yeah, that was with six people. This group had more than twice that many. And again, some of these folks didn't seem to have the confidence, and so they took a long time. A really long time. Like, I was just sitting there, speaking with the Norwegians (as my whole deal was that I would go when nobody else wanted to), and just waiting. I swear, I was sitting there waiting for longer than we were trekking. When it was finally my turn (I was second-to-last), I went down fairly quickly, stopping only briefly to enjoy the views on the 30-meter descent. I had a couple little mistakes (mostly just me turning round and hitting the wall during one of the aforementioned scenery viewing moments), but it was all good. And after unstrapping myself, my rope loop was now a lovely little hand warmer, thanks to the magic of rope and friction. On reaching the bottom, though, I realized immediately what I should - and could - have done: I should have gone rappelling first, and then trekked my way back up to that point and gone again. There was literally enough time to have done that, and it wouldn't have made a difference in the overall schedule. Ah, well.

Once I and the two Norwegians got to the bottom, we walked to the nearby cafe. A lot of other folks were buying food, but the three of us were content to munch on the snacks we had brought. We then waited. Lord, did we wait. I asked one of the employees how long until we'd start getting ready to raft, and he said that it would be when people were finished with their food. But, this being a Spanish-influenced country, people were taking their damn sweet time. Like, I appreciate a place with a relaxed environment, but I have my limits! We were seriously waiting for more than ninety minutes. The three of us just sat there, talking and growing increasingly restless. However, what little patience we had left was rewarded, as they finally called us to start preparing to raft. We grouped up for the briefing, only to be called for the "English briefing". The fact that all the Spanish-speaking folk started laughing as we walked away vexed me more than it really had any right to. On the whole, there were five of us: the three already mentioned, and two older folks from England, a pleasant-enough looking woman and the mopiest-faced man I've ever seen in my life. We had our briefing, got into our rafting gear, and then piled with everyone else onto the rickety old bus that would take us to the starting point.

When we arrived at the river again, it was time to split into groups. Each raft could have six people. There were five English speakers. We all figured we'd be in a single raft because, hey, that would be logical, right? Nope, apparently. I can only assume that it was because of the different group sizes coming in, but two of us (the older British folks) went to one raft, and the other three went to another. In my raft, I ended up in the front, which proved within seconds to be one of the wettest parts of the raft, as I got splashed by a big wave almost immediately upon our start. Our guide was a guy named Marcos, an experienced rafter who could only speak a little English, but was apparently the most insane of all the guides. I say this because he had us do things nobody else did (and I was watching the other rafts to see if this was the case). This included having us all stand up on the raft's edges, stand up every time we were to celebrate, straddle the side of raft and paddle with our hands, help pull one of the other guides' kayaks into our raft, and near the end, huddle in the back of the raft and lean back, getting us this close to flipping the whole thing over. He'd also occasionally push people and push our raft down to get it completely flooded. A total troll, basically.

Anyway, the river - a Grade 3 - was actually more exciting than I was expecting, though my expectations were pretty darn low. We went through some pretty respectable rapids, and it was all very fun. And I like to think that I was doing an admirable job in front, and I was sounding off to keep cadence, both for the folks behind me and the folks on the other side. About maybe halfway through, though, we switched positions with some of the girls in back. Not to come across as a braggart, but I didn't feel there was as much synchronization with the paddling after that. But I actually think Marcos had us sit in the back for another reason. See, I was told that while the front is probably the place where you'll get the most wet, the back can be the place where you're most likely to fall out. And in fact, at one point, I almost fell out. Then, at another point, I did. See, I'm pretty sure this was set up, but during this one rapid, we drove right up onto a huge rock, and the raft went about 60 degrees vertical, with me at the bottom. The fact is, when going back down, I was already submerged before I fell out. In fact, me wearing my life jacket had move me back slightly, and so when the side of the raft came back up, the majority of my weight was on the other side. So I was outside the raft, but still holding on. I was pulled back up pretty quickly, only having gotten hit in the side by a couple underwater rocks. I actually felt pretty good about the situation, it was fun. After that, there weren't any more real incidents of note, though I was able to play hero myself when Marcos flat-out pushed one of the girls into the water and I had to pull her back in.

Shortly after, and maybe after about 90 minutes total (which, combined with the other stuff I did, was a great deal for $50), we were finished. We got onto the shore, took a group photo (in which Marcos jumped from a high ledge and was lucky that everyone was able to hold on), and then put our gear away. I then got my own stuff out of the locker, and went in to wait to see how the photos from the trip turned out. While waiting, my van driver came to me and said that I only had 10-15 minutes. Thankfully, in that amount of time I was able to see the photos of our group, and there were some pretty amazing shots (and I'm sure some good video as well). I asked how much they were. 130 pesos for photos, 180 for photos and video. I didn't have enough cash to get the latter, but I could conceivably spend most of what I had left for just the photos. But then, they would come on a disk which I had no drive for, and I didn't know if I'd have enough time before my van left, so I decided to make a deal with the Norwegians. I gave them 60 pesos, my email address, and my trust, and asked them to just send me the files when they could. They agreed to do so, and I can only wait for it now. Having secured that, I hurried to the bus, which was scheduled to leave any minute now. I sat down and waited. And waited. (Notice a theme here.) Apparently, this guy was taking everyone back home (including the Norwegians), so we waited at least an extra twenty minutes.

We drove back to town, enjoying the lovely views on the way back (except for the slums just outside Mendoza - those were the first honest-to-goodness slums I've seen in a number of months). And then everyone was dropped off, me last of all. It was about two hours after we were supposed to be back; I wasn't upset - it wasn't like I had plans - but considering how much waiting had occurred through the day, it seemed somewhat avoidable. In any case, I went into the hostel, grabbed my laundry, went up and changed, and then went out to get some dinner. I ended up going to this hot dog place (it's weird, hot dogs didn't really show up thing in Buenos Aires, but in Mendoza, they seemed to be the it food), where I got what I can only assume was their specialty (as it shared it's name with the establishment, "Mr. Dog"). It turned out to be a weird monstrosity, with two dogs in the bus, lettuce, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and some other unidentifiable stuff. I also stupidly bought a soda there, because there was a grocery store literally right next door where I could have gotten the same thing for much cheaper, and also wouldn't have been limited to regular Coke, regular Sprite, and regular Fanta. Again, it's the little things that bug me sometimes. I brought my food back to the hostel and ate, and then spent the rest of the night writing and doing some initial preparations for leaving the next day.

So, last night I had really weird and, I would almost say, oppressive dream. I don't actually remember the details of it, try as I might, but it wasn't a pleasant one, and I woke up drenched in a nervous sweat, and with a distinct feeling that I didn't really receive the benefit that I should have from seven hours of sleep. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to go back to bed, because I had to be out and about for the day. I got up, had my breakfast, went back to my room, packed up my stuff, and then checked out. In doing so, I got back 50 pesos, leaving me with about 65 left (about $6 by black market rates). Too little to convert, too much to just leave on its own. I initially went to the nearby grocery store to see if there was anything I could get there, including maybe some deodorant for when I ran out (the only reason this popped up in my mind is because Argentina is the first place I've seen since...damn, since I don't know when, that has had stick deodorant instead of one of those roll-on types. I eventually rationed Chile would have it as well, and so just left and took a taxi to the bus station, which used up 25 of my pesos. I used the rest to buy some last-minute snacks, and then headed to my bus. No last-minute drama this time; I got on with plenty of time to spare. Interestingly, even though I'd gotten a first class seat, it was on the bottom level of the bus, along with five others. This meant that buses may be different than I thought, with all seats being first class, while another bus would have all of another type. Or maybe it was just this one, I dunno. What I do know is that it wasn't quite as nice as the bus I took from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. The seat was still leather and fully reclining, but you didn't get the personal TV, nor the nice meal (all we got was a small sandwich and a couple packaged pastries). But hey, it was nice enough.

I was happy to see that, for whatever reason, the seat next to me was empty (which was weird, because it was booked when I got my ticket). But that extra space was nice. It also allowed me to talk a bit to the guy across the aisle, who was from Wisconsin, and had just attempted to climb the Aconagua (but couldn't summit because of weather conditions). I asked about his plans afterward, and he said his vacation was almost done, so he was heading back to Santiago, and then going back to Afghanistan. It wasn't until that point that I realized he was in the military. I asked him what Afghanistan was like at the moment. "The worst ****hole you can imagine," was his reply. I suddenly became really uncomfortable, since I couldn't imagine the kind of stuff that he'd gone through, and so I definitely didn't want to go through my normal routine of talking about all the places I've visited while he was fighting a war. "This may sound trite," I eventually came out with, "But thank you for putting yourself out there for everyone back home." Happily, he took that exactly I was hoping, and said it made it all worthwhile.

Not much to say about most of the trip. It was basically in two parts, split by the border. On the whole, though, the main takeaway is that the views of the mountains (as we were in the Andes) were absolutely stunning. Almost surreal at times. And it was just so empty; I loved it. We drove for several hours for this, and during this time, I was pretty tired feeling (due to that dream, I think), so I dozed in and out, even without realizing it. (I only know this because a sandwich magically appeared next to me at one point.) And then we got to the Chilean border, in the middle of nowhere. It was a place called Los Liberatadores, and it was just a spot in the middle of the Andes. The thing was, there were a lot of vehicles, including buses, moving through this point, and so we were waiting there for a long time. Like, I think it was 45 minutes before we stepped out of the bus for the first time. We were brought to the immigration desks, and I got a little bit of a scare when the lady at the Argentine exit desk asked me for my visa form. I had no such thing; we had just gotten a customs form from the bus. Thankfully, all this issue necesitated was her producing said form for me, and me filling it out. After getting my passport stamped by her and the Chilean official next to her, I went back to the bus and waited again. And then we moved forward about a hundred feet, and had to get out again. This time it was for customs. All bags were brought out, and lo and behold, mine was one of four that had to be specially searched. Thankfully, they couldn't find any issue with my stuff, so it was over with in a couple minutes. (The soldier was taken to a backroom for what I think were supposed to be muscle supplements and/or steroids. I didn't ask what the result was.) We then got back in the bus, waited even more, and then finally made our way out.

The drive out of the checkpoint was something else, it was just a serpentine road with a ton of sharp corners, which only allowed one direction to drive at a time. Still, the scenery was absolutely beautiful, and continued that way for a good portion of the remaining hours we had. However, as we got closer and closer to Santiago, it got more and more urban in view, and we also found ourselves stuck in traffic more than we were moving. As a result, we ended up getting to the bus station more than an hour after we were supposed to. I got off the bus, grabbed my bag, and then began looking. I had been in contact with an aunt of mine, and she said her son Francisco might be able to pick me up from the station; he'd have a sign with my name. I saw no such sign, but the thing was that this place was huge and, more than that, crowded. I haven't seen such a mass of people since Nairobi, I think. So, going around and looking for Francisco in every conceivable spot was no easy feat. I didn't have WiFi on the bus ride, so I had no communication for the last nine hours to see if plans had changed. Basically, I didn't know if Francisco hadn't been able to show up, if he had shown up and then left when I didn't arrive on time, or if he was still there. The third option bothered me most of all. I needed to try to make my way out of there. I got some cash from an ATM (with a near-$8 transaction fee, which is goddamn robbery), and then looked around the place. There was a terribly weak WiFi signal I could connect to, but it hardly kept still long enough for me to refresh my email inbox. So, I looked to get a SIM card. I was a bit disappointed that Claro - the company I was using in Argentina - was one of the main providers here, but that I couldn't use the current SIM card for it. (Though, on the other hand, I only paid $3 for that card, and got 250MB of data, slow though it was sometimes; that's pretty good.) I ended up buying a new SIM card by the company Entel, and then installed it. But...it didn't seem to work. I tried calling Francisco's phone number as it was given to me, but only got a confused person on the other line telling me I had the wrong number.

I was getting quite frustrated, and more than a little bit lightheaded from all the smoke I was inhaling. That was actually one of the first things I noticed - lots and lots of people smoking. Apparently, the rate here is about 34% total. That's one in three. That's a lot. So at least I know I wasn't making that up. But anyway, I was trying to think of what I should do. At this point, I could either take the metro to Cecilia's (my aunt's mom's) place, or just go to my hostel. Frankly, the mass of people surrounding me everywhere was pushing some part of my mind to just want to get away. And while I wanted to go to Cecilia's, because we had planned that, even if only a day beforehand, but I felt like I needed to get to the hostel. I just needed to get out of the crowd, put my stuff down, and orient myself. And I didn't see any immediate taxis (nor did I know if they'd give change for the large denomination bills I got from the ATM), so I just decided to walk the three miles it would take to get to the hostel. And for at least the first mile or so, the sidewalks were just as crowded as the bus station had been. And people were walking so slowly. It was seriously a nightmare for me. Eventually, though, the crowds cleared up a bit, and after some time more, I was at the hostel. I checked in and sat down. It's a charming little place, with a nice poker theme to all its decor. The only thing bad I can say about it is that my next-door neighbors have the loudest little kid.

Before long, I decided to go out for dinner (and this is after 9pm, mind you). The space around the hostel was a big cafe area, but I didn't want anything too fancy or time-consuming. Also, these places were all jumping with people, and I still needed some space. I walked to the main street and went down a ways. There was some neat Friday-night stuff going on, including what seemed like tango class on the sidewalk outside their performing arts center, but I was way too tired to appreciate any of it. I eventually saw a McDonald's and thought that, hey, I could get this leg of My Disgusting Quest™ out of the way. So I went in and ordered whatever seemed remotely Chilean. Oh, but no, they only had two things available: Big Macs that were already made, or Quarter-Pounders (Cuarto de Libras) that were already made. I really wanted to leave, but was again too tired, so just got a burger and ate it. (That, along with some other issues, made this seem like the most pathetic and dispassionate McDonald's I've been to, and that's saying a lot.) I eventually made my way back to the hostel, where I got a message saying that Cecilia had actually called for me. I used the hostel's phone to call her, and we made plans to meet. I then headed up to my room to do my writing, and that leaves us here.

It's really late right now, and I'm too tired to write any sort of outro, so there isn't one.

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