Letters From Latin America: Puerto Octay, Chile

1 June 2019
Saturday
4:40pm

Hey you,

It appears that I feel none the wiser when faced with a precarious situation. Before embarking on this trip, I asked myself how I would handle things differently based on past experiences. Would I be wiser this time around? Is it possible to be even more cautious than before, while still being open to vulnerability and strangers? I honestly had no answers. Yesterday, I found myself in a place where all of the above applied and bad memories came rushing back. Yet I still didn’t and don’t know the best way to deal with things.

Leaving the Confluencia cabin after four weeks felt strange and a little sad. It was wet, cold, and windy – all the components of a gloomy departure. The only good thing about freezing temperatures is it takes a load off my backpack because I’m wearing my warmest clothes and jackets all at once.

Within an hour, I got my first ride from Gus. A round, jovial man, Gus is a book editor who looks to perhaps be in his fifties. He’d been driving for 30 hours over the past couple of days… or was it 3,000 kilometres? I’m not sure, but something with a ‘three’ in there. Whatever the distance, he didn’t mind having extra company.

He was curious about Malaysia, while I struggled to find the Spanish words for ‘rainforest’ and ‘season’ (to say we don’t have the four) and ‘mix’ (of many cultures). To my surprise, only about half an hour later, Gus would throw out English words when I’m uhh, ahh, mm-ing for too long. When I turned to him and asked, “¿Usted habla inglés?” He burst into a cheeky chuckle and replied, “Sí, pero no hablas inglés.” He could speak English but didn’t want to so that I had to speak Spanish. Touché, Señor.

Constantly in need of more heat

Gus dropped me off at a junction and continued his journey straight on. I got out, walked right, put my bag down, stuck my thumb out at the first car turning in, instantly getting my second ride. By our third sentence exchange, M revealed he was from Switzerland, and we conversed in English from then on. It’s so nice to not be limited by language because I get to hear stories about why he had to flee Europe (and the law), how a Shaman in Costa Rica saved his life, and what it feels like to suddenly be almost hitting 50.

We get to the bus terminal at Villa La Angostura, said our ‘thank yous’ and ‘goodbyes’, and I was getting out of the car when he offers to help me inquire about a ticket into Chile. We headed to the counter and were told there were no more buses for the day. M asks if I’d like to have some tea while enquiring on the web about bus schedules. I agreed.

M and I parked along a residential street and he got out to meet his landlady. I was a little confused because I thought we were heading to a tea shop. He invited me to wait inside while he made back and forth trips carrying groceries, toiletries, a sleeping bag, and other things from his car into his new place. I went in. Sat down. Suddenly my pulse started increasing. I was really grateful to be in M’s car earlier, feeling no threat and happy for the conversation. Why did that feeling of security seem like a blur now?

In between his up and down pacing, he’d ask if I wanted tea, fruits, bread, and whatever else he had. I accepted the tea. Peppermint. I used his phone to check the bus schedule. I always find this process confusing, especially when there isn’t a direct bus to where I want to go.

Where I was headed: My accommodation with a separate cabana for volunteers 

“You can stay here tonight and take the bus tomorrow if you want,” M offered. My face showed a smile and my mouth said thanks, but my mind was going into mild PTSD mode. Memories of sexual assault came rushing back. What if I get attacked again? Maybe I should just leave now. I can sleep at the bus station or something. How stupid would I be if I allowed myself to get into trouble again? How ashamed would I be? I imagined people saying, “You should have known better. Why did you go home with him?” Then my fear expanded into guilt. This man is trying to help you. He’s being so kind and you’re picturing the worst. How horrible are you? Imagine if you were helping someone and they thought you were a bad person. How would you feel?

While all that was happening in my head, our conversation was still going on and I only hoped my face showed no sign of trepidation. I thought more about all the things M spoke of. About wanting to be a Shaman himself; about attracting good energies; about The Power of Now and how I should read it; about how hugging his daughter is the best part of life. All of that should only come from a good man, right?

Yet, because I am female, I can never 100 per cent be sure of my safety. My tactic was, and still is, give the man the benefit of the doubt, but observe to see if an emergency escape was possible at any point. So I listened. I could hear voices from outside, which means the walls are thin. If I screamed, I’d be heard. This is a residential neighbourhood; he just moved in; I’ve met his landlady; it all points to this place not being an ideal location for one to do anything dodgy. Finally, I just prayed for my safety and conceded. If anything bad were to happen, I had to believe I will survive it, and it was meant to happen for a reason.

“I can get an extra mattress in,” he says. Maybe noticing my hesitance. “Then you can sleep here and I will sleep there with my daughter.” Oh, thank God. That was all the assurance I needed. His daughter will be joining us. I can feel safe now.

Befriending the locals. Meet Alma, the black sheep who thinks she’s a dog

But still, I felt rather horrible. To doubt humanity when all it’s doing is being humane. After all the kindness I’ve received, I hated that the few negative incidents are the ones you never forget. So, unfortunately, I’m still not sure if I’d handle situations differently now. I can’t tell if my instincts are sharper or if I’m wiser. I don’t know if I’ve gotten better at this.

I slept on the kitchen floor as there wasn’t an extra mattress, which was more than okay with me. The following morning, M offered to drive me to the border so I could continue hitchhiking from there. I declined his kind gesture and decided to go with the internet’s suggestion of the 11:15am bus. Imagine my vexation when I got to the station at 10am and was told that the only bus to Chile leaves at 8:30am every day. Hitchhike it is then.

I’d barely walked a couple of kilometres out before it started pouring and I found myself trapped at a petrol station. I looked out for Chilean number plates and approached trucks drivers, all to no avail. Two hours before I changed my mind and headed back to the bus station. “Autobús a Chile para mañana, por favor?” Got the next day’s 8:30am bus. I stood around wondering what to do next. Should I hang out a cafe until it closes then sleep at the bus station? It was only when I spotted a ‘Hostel Angostura – 200m that way’ signboard did I think of checking into a hostel. Seriously, I don’t know where my head is at sometimes. I feel like it’s stuck in the behave-like-a-hobo phase of my previous journey. Although Villa La Angostura is known to be really pricey, it’s now autumn and I managed to get a bed for USD12, which is where I’m warmly sat at now. During summer and winter, it’s probably double the price.

The funny thing about having been able to survive with no money before, now I feel bad every time I spend or feel ridiculous when I feel nervous. As though since I’ve done it before, I should have no problems doing it again. And I find myself having to justify to myself why I’m not hitchhiking more or picking that piece of bread off the street to save for later.


Always wanted to travel along but scared the loneliness will creep in? Just follow these tips:
How To Make Friends While Travelling Solo

15 June 2019
Saturday
10:32am

Oopsie. Looks like two weeks have passed and I haven’t updated you since entering Chile. While crossing the border, we had to place our bags in one line against the wall before we queued up to get our passports stamped. Along came a sniffer dog that walked past all the other bags, then stopped and pawed at mine. They went through my stuff to confiscate an apple and half a banana. Which is how I found out that fruits seem to the main contraband.

Once in Chile, I needed to take a Colectivo, which is what the people call their local buses, to a small town called Puerto Octay. Ticket sales were cash only so I had to visit the ATM. I didn’t previously download any currency conversion app, and so didn’t know what all these 000’s added up to and ended up pressing a random number, receiving more money than I needed. I can still be such a rookie traveller.

From Puerto Octay it was another 10 kilometres to my host’s house. Rather than wait for another Colectivo, I started walking, believing that someone would offer me a lift. True enough, 20 minutes in and a van stopped. Such are the advantages of carrying a backpack.

When I got out of the van, I could see that I’d arrived at a cow farm, but the land was huge and all the houses I saw seemed to be empty. The pin drop on Google Maps pointed to somewhere not connected by a road. Against all common sense, I figured that the road I was on would not lead me to the right house. I contemplated walking across the fields, but I wasn’t sure if any of the cows were bulls and if they’d charge at a wandering stranger. Eventually, I spotted some humans and were led to the correct house.

This fascinating child understands complex sentences even though she can’t speak yet

Here, I met Maria. A charming mother of four who very quickly became possibly the only reason why I’d want to stay on longer. When she greeted me with, “I was so excited to meet you. You sounded really interesting,” I totally wanted to gush with, “Oh my god, you’re so pretty!” While I don’t have an exact reason why that wouldn’t be an appropriate way to greet someone, I held back my gushes and responded in a more socially acceptable manner. I’m not sure how Maria did it, I believe she’d make a great psychologist because it didn’t take long at all before I started sharing all about my personal past, the evolution of my faith, and family and relationships. Maybe also because admittedly, I really miss having a friend, and with her, I could pretend that I had one.

Since I took such a great liking towards Maria, I hardly minded that the work involved handling a lot of cow dung, until I got calluses on both my hands, just below my middle and ring fingers. As we’re at a cow farm, I initially imagined performing more tasks involving the cows themselves, such as milking them by hand. Silly me didn’t realise that many farm animals typically only birth during spring. And of course, this is a ‘happy farm’, where they’re well taken care of and not forced to breed all year long. I think during the winter they just roam around munching on grass. So the tasks at hand have mostly revolved around gardening; where we shovel shit into a wheelbarrow and transport it elsewhere to create a fertile ground for new plants.

I wasn’t too enthusiastic on the first day because I was bummed about working in my Doc Marts. For the next few days, I also kept smelling the stank and wasn’t sure if I had bits of poop in my hair or the smell was simply part of my imagination. Once I found out I could fit into their nine-year-old son’s pair of rubber boots, I didn’t mind sloshing around.

I must say though, I’m so glad they have a separate cabana for volunteers to stay in. While having four kids is admirable, it’s not for me. I don’t know how they do it. And without grandparents. Did I mention they migrated here from New Zealand? A Kiwi family with Kiwi cows. They brought the sperm over.

I made friends with some people too

Anyway, for the first time, it properly sunk in that if I ever migrate and have kids, I won’t have the privilege of leaving them with Grandma and Grandpa. Which is a real heavy sacrifice to make? When one kid starts going “Mummy! Mummy! Mummy,” another does the same. Then when one starts crying, another starts shouting, and then another blows on a recorder. I wonder how I’d deal with it if and when I have kids of my own. When I watch my sister calmly talk to her screaming two-year-old and all I can do is admire her patience from a distance. My maternal instincts have yet to be discovered.

I won’t be here for much longer though. I’m going to chase the solar eclipse somewhere in the north of the desert; still in Chile. My hero and friend, Priscilla Patrick, told me about this even before I flew out. So I’ve had it in my calendar ever since. I think it’s actually the only thing in my calendar. Everything else is whatever whenever. I just can’t wait to be warm again. Based on the change of climate alone, I foresee good days ahead. Maybe I’ll also stop constantly comfort eating. This cold is making me bulk up unnecessarily. Speaking of which, I’m going to grab lunch now. Adiós, muchachos!

Besos y abrazos,
Petrina

PS: I think Chile is more expensive than Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:

1. They often charge for public toilets here, which is already a major pet peeve. About RM2-3 (approximately USD0.50) too! Not like it’s super clean or anything.
2. I went to McDonald’s once and paid RM25 (approximately USD6) for a small McValue meal.
3. I did some grocery shopping (not much) and I’m pretty sure I’d have paid less even at the fancy supermarkets of Malaysia like Jaya Grocer, Cold Storage, or B.I.G.

*All images courtesy of the author. 

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Occasionally referred to as a hobo, Petrina happily sleeps on cardboard boxes at petrol stations, digs through bins for food, and can go without showering for days, when necessary. She has terrible sense of direction but believes that getting lost can be pretty fun too.

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