Border Crossings

Since I started this blog I have been trying to write it chronologically, so that the order of the posts reflects my rather erratic route round South America – a route which the observant may have noticed bears little resemblance to my original concept of getting south as quickly as possible and then heading due north, roughly following the line of the Andes. Regular readers may also have noted that I have fallen some way behind. So to help me catch up my shameful lag, I´ve decided to break my own rules and write entries at random, as the fancy takes me. I´ve had requests for an Antarctic post, but I think it will take me a while to process that experience enough to write about it. Since this is a travel blog, I´m going to write here about actually being on the road.

It took me two days to get to Santiago from Ushuaia after disembarking from my Antarctic expedition, mainly because I was too mean/disorganised to pay the plane fare to fly direct. Instead I took a 14 hour bus ride to Punta Arenas in Chile, including a painfully slow departure across the Argentinian border. The trip held no novelty for me as I´d made almost the same journey several weeks earlier, on my way down from Puerto Natales (slightly further north than Friday´s destination, Punta Arenas). It hadn´t seemed too bad at the time :  having gone to bed at 4.30 am after celebrating our successful completion of the W circuit in the majestic Torres del Paine with the delightful ´Always Up´team (Florian, Lena and Patrick), getting up again at 6.40  to catch the 7am bus  and having failed to buy any food or drink for the journey, I was too weak and tired to mind the interminable hours on the road and at the wind whipped frontier. And there were some highlights : as we crossed the Magellan Straits at their narrowest point, Primera Angostura, to arrive on the island of Tierra del Fuego, gleefully leaping black and white dolphins played in the turquoise waters alongside the ferry. That lasted only about 10 minutes though and to my immense disappointment the onboard coffee shop was closed.

This time, I was also pretty tired : the evening before had been spent in the Dublin pub in Ushuaia with a group of people I´d met on the Orlova, the creaking Russian boat that had carried us on our Antarctic trip. It had seemed sturdy enough (the Orlova, not the Dublin), but was very old fashioned and apparently is due to be taken out of commission after the end of next year´s season. And of course, the bus had left at the uncivilised hour of 5am. Both Aisling, the Irish woman I was sitting next to, and I had railed against this pre-dawn torment and been informed it was the only option. So it was extremely galling to be caught up, during our 2 hour wait at the familiar Argentinian border, by a bus from a rival company with a sign on the front proclaiming its infinitely more civilised 7am departure. Thankfully the sun was out, unlike last time, when every corner of the desolate border complex had been seared into submission by the wind. The only source of warmth had come not from the sun but from a make-shift grill in a sawn-off metal drum, on which greasy hunks of sausage were sizzling frenziedly, to be clapped in between hunks of bread to become choripan, an Argentinian obsession, and be  sold through the windows of a camper van that slumped wearily in the middle. Yesterday there was no sign of life in the van and the drum-grill was closed.

Crossing the Argentina-Chile border seems to have become a bit of a regular pastime for me over the last few months. The first time was at the Tromen Pass, en route from San Martin de los Andes in the Argentinian Lake District to Pucon in the Chilean Lake District, where I got off the bus into a persistent drizzle, bidding a sad farewell to Maarten and Cees, my travelling companions of the past week or so. The Chileans make a big show of not allowing any fruit, meat or dairy products into their country from the land of their arch enemy, Argentina and that first time, I zealously threw away a packet of dried raisins and a couple of beaten-up bananas. By the time of my second, recent stop at Punta Delgada though, I´d learned that if you ticked the box on the customs form to say ýes, you were carrying fruit, meat or dairy products´, it was usually OK.

This ´honesty policy´had worked fine for me when I crossed into Chile from El Calafate, at the Cerro Castillo checkpoint, where the friendly customs officer didn´t bat an eyelid at my sliced cheese and jar of (delicious) local jam made from the local calafate berry. At Punta Delgada, an officious yet pleasant female officer pounced on an apple I had with me and pulled me off to one side. She eagerly rifled through the pile of customs forms filled in by the passengers on my bus, desperate to find mine. I´d left the yes/no box blank to give her the choice, and when she finally brandished my form, she seemed quite disappointed, as all she had to do was tick the ýes´box and add ´manzana´(apple) in bold letters. As a final flourish she decided to confiscate the apple (though she turned a blind eye to my ubiquitius packet of sliced cheese), and then moved impatiently onto a Spanish couple, who had two apples and had ticked the ´no´box: this was much more fun as it meant she could make them fill in the whole form all over again. The coldest crossing so far has to be when I went back to Bariloche from Puerto Varas , crossing between Lake Districts again, this time from Chile to Argentina, when we shivered outside in the driving snow of the high, starkly beautiful Paso Puyehue, before huddling gratefully back onto the bus after clearing customs, to swoosh past a lonely shrine to the Virgin Mary perched right at the crest of the pass.

To return to my most recent long-distance journey, Aisling and I dozed (well, I dozed: she can´t sleep on buses, which is unfortunate in a continent where a 12 hour trip is not even worthy of mention) and chatted and when we finally got to Punta Arenas, a surprisingly big town with a duty free zone, I said I´d go with her to the hostel she´d booked. She didn´t have the address but we tracked it down through a helpful travel agent and after a bit of fruitless walking around, asking various passers-by for directions and getting very different answers, jumped in a taxi. When we got to the Hospedaje Costanera, it looked crumpled and shabby and more to the point, was miles from the square we´d identified as the centre, so we decided to sacrifice Aisling´s deposit and go elsewhere. After a few false starts and with an increasingly bemused cab driver we ended up in the tiny Erratic Rock, sister to the more established hostel of the same name in Puerto Natales, but seeming like a much more distant relative (perhaps an estranged cousin?), being basically a spare room converted into a dorm in the apartment of a lovely young family. We went out and saw ´the sight´, a statue of Magellan in the main square with mermaids propped up at his feet and then headed out to eat. A tasty fish dinner washed down with a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc somehow turned into cocktails in a bar and an extremely late night.

The next morning, I blearily left Aisling to take advantage of Punta Arenas´s duty free status by buying a netbook and got a taxi to the airport. In a slightly surreal coincidence, it was the same driver who´d taken us on our impromptu tour of a sample of hostels the previous evening. Even more strange, we´d had to get out of his cab several blocks away from Erratic Rock because he didn´t know where it was ,or even of its existence. I´d been sure I´d seen it out of the window but he looked dubious and was visibly relieved when we said we´d get out and continue our search on foot. This time, knowing hius way to the airport, he was more at ease. He´d worked on a fishing boat in Antarctica so we compared stories en route to my cheap flight to Santiago – I soon discovered one of the reasons it was so reasonably priced : it stopped 3 times before landing in the capital.

The day after I arrived was  gorgeous, though as I climbed up the Cerro San Cristobal for a hazy view of the city and the Andes behind, I found myself struggling a little with the 30 degree heat after the polar temperatures of Antarctica and the weeks spent in Patagonia and the Lake Districts of Chile and Argentina, with their sometimes marrow-numbing winds. I also felt a bit disorientated by big city life and after 3 weeks at sea, the ground felt as though it was shifting under my feet. It always feels slightly lonely to be a solitary traveller again after spending weeks in company, but it´s exciting to be back on the road again.

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