10 July 2019
The past few days have shown me that you can find good food in Chile that’s not limited to just slabs of meat and that not all Chileans are super conservative, as forewarned by previously-met Argentinians. Although, Chileans don’t exactly have the best things to say about Argentinians either. Which, I suppose, is typical of many neighbouring countries – Malaysia and Singapore, America and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Friendly rivalry, right?
While we were still in Elqui Valley, unsure about what to do or where to go next, Rodrigo, mentioned he was going to drop by a beach somewhere on the way back to Santiago. To which, the four of us thought, “Sweet plan! Want some company?” The only problem was that Rodrigo was the only one with a car. Some kind of Hyundai. I’m practically car-blind with no knowledge of models and can only describe it with basic adjectives such as ‘small’ and ‘blue’. We were five grown-ups; two of whom are especially tall Americans and all of whom had a week’s worth of camping gear. This was bound to be a challenge.
Rodrigo was our meastro de asado. Or ‘barbeque master’. He arrived days before everyone else, and even then, he would treat us (the camp staff) by buying chorizos and beefsteaks to be slowly grilled over the fire. When the whole jingbang arrived, he continued to barbeque for everyone. Always with a beer in hand. I was often told, “If only you could understand what Rodrigo is saying. He’s really funny.” I wish that too. He’s always cracking everyone up. And every time I laugh, it’s because his laugh is super infectious.
After much discussion and strategising our real-life Tetris game plan, all the hard, boxy luggage went in the back, sleeping bags and anything soft were to be sat on, bottles on the floor, while food and other smaller bags stayed on our laps. The tall ones took the front seats – never mind not having prior driving experience in South America – while the remaining three sat in the back with our heads always slightly bowed because all the stuff we were sitting on took up what’s left of our headroom. Not super comfortable, but greatly satisfying. We actually fit!
In the driver’s seat was Ryan. The first thing you’ll notice when you look at Ryan is that he has names tattooed across every part of his body. That, and how he’s constantly lighting up a new cigarette. From a distance, he may seem intimidating, but once you sit down for a conversation and hear his gloriously husky laugh, it’s impossible to not immediately take a liking to this genuine, good-at-listening, open-hearted, kind soul of a man. Oh, and the names were of all his nieces and nephews. Ryan comes from Oregon, where he lives in the woods, so he can live as he pleases.
Jarett, a cousin of Ryan’s, took the passenger’s seat. This man was the apple of many Chilean women’s eyes. When he walks into a store you can see their vision shyly whispering “Ooh, handsome gringo alert!” He’s just as deeply kind and caring as his cousin, gives his full attention to whoever’s speaking, ever-ready to share his bottle of pisco, and ever-determined to practice and improve on his Spanish. Which is more than I can say for my Español at this point. For every night that we were there, Jarett, Mauricio, and I were the last ones standing. Both Ryan and Jarett are fully armed with a great set of skills from hunting to martial arts to wilderness survival, and I would trust them with my life if there were a zombie apocalypse.
In the backseat was myself, Rodrigo, and Mauricio. Blessed with a set of kind eyes, a good lock of curls, and a face that takes a decade off his real age, Mauricio was the glue who kept us all together. Not only did he easily connect with everyone, but he was also often our much-needed translator. Always making sure no one felt left out of the conversation. Besides Louna (the French volunteer I mentioned in my previous letter), he was the other whom I chatted with most. And when our host/boss performed that hullabaloo of yelling at us for having the music too loud, Mauricio was the only guest who told him off about not speaking to us in that way. Which made me grin almost too widely. Although when we first met, I struggled to speak with him in my broken Spanish. It was only four hours later that he finally revealed, “You know, I think it’s easier if I spoke in English…” Thanks, man.
Seeing as Ryan and Jarett had no plans for the next 10 days, Mauricio suggested we all squeeze into Rodrigo’s car until the next town, where they could rent their own and we’ll convoy from there. Thus began our road trip.
To be honest, I slept through most of it. Anyone who’s been in long-distance rides with me will tell you that a car’s vibration works like the rocking of a cradle. I would only wake up for meals, which were mostly seafood partnered with pisco sours, and that put me right back to sleep. There were times I’d wake up, find the car in a stationary position, with no one else around. They all went to check out the view or take a walk on the beach. I was alright with that though. I find beaches rather pointless when it’s freezing cold. Also, nothing makes me appreciate Malaysian beaches more than checking out other countries’ beaches. We’ve got it so good at home.
Backpack? Check! Tent? Check! Beach? Well, check out these five beautiful seasides:
Leaving the desert and re-entering civilisation felt super weird. While waiting for the boys to rent a second car in La Serena, I know my face was involuntarily turning into a frown. I didn’t like the noise and people and traffic and absence of unpolluted air. Then, we made our way to a seafood restaurant just across the beach.
The moment we walked in, my heart started racing. It was too fancy. I opened the menu and my eyes darted to the prices before the dish itself. A place like this would be considered a treat back home in Kuala Lumpur (KL). But we’re here, so let’s just enjoy the very fresh swordfish that I decided upon. And oh, was it good. When I took out my wallet I was told, “What are you doing? You’re my guest. You’re not paying.” Oh, thank God. I wasn’t going to argue with that this time. Come visit me in KL and I’ll belanja (treat) instead. Our subsequent meals consisted of ceviche, cheese-baked clams, abalone, octopus, big juicy prawns. These guys were out to feast, and feast we did.
After a couple of days in La Serena, with the boys doing their fair share of souvenir shopping and Jarett buying out almost an entire store of alpaca ponchos, we took off along the coast to Los Vilos. By the time we’d arrived, it was past midnight and had no place to stay. Circling around the neighbourhood fronting a beach, a house with a vacancy sign and a contact number caught our attention. Mauricio gave the number a call and the landlady drove over immediately, dressed in her jammies and a bathrobe, to pass us the keys. It was a spacious double-storey house with a good view, a balcony, more beds than necessary, and at a price lower than expected. Everyone could have their own private room here. It was a surprisingly smooth and quick transaction; we felt lucky.
Then, we found out the truth the next morning. This house had actually already been booked by someone else. So when Mauricio called, the landlady thought he was the original booker and let us in. It was only when the other party called her an hour or so later that she’d realised what happened and apologised. Rather unfortunate for them (sorry, guys!), but also, really funny for us. I guess with it being so late it was an easy mistake to make.
Our next stop was Viña del Mar, which made me think of and miss my friend, Jeanette. She was here just a month ago where initially I told her, “Of course I’ll meet you there! If we’re in the region, I will make my way to you!” I imagined how much fun it would be to have a friend from KL be with me here in South America. But as you know, I’m such a slowpoke while travelling. By the time she’d flown over, I was still in southern Argentina and didn’t think it best to rush over. Which is now making me wonder if I’ll be able to make it to Peru by October.
Another crazy awesome friend, Angela, would be there, and if I don’t see her now I don’t know when I’ll see her again because she lives in Portland. But I also still have Bolivia to do, I don’t know how long that will take, and I’ve been lingering on longer than expected at every location so far. Why am I so bad at even minimal planning?
Ugh. Once I start thinking about the future, I don’t get anywhere because I go into panic mode. Worse still if I think about my professional life. Or possible family life. What’s happening there? Nothing. What steps am I taking to progress? None. Whenever I return from a long trip, friends have (unsurprisingly) gotten promotions or married or a house. And there I am, with my newly-emptied bank account, older, looking to start over, realising my world has spun on its own axis without me. Wondering if those things are what I want too, wondering what I do want, can I achieve those things while still frolicking around the planet, and does anyone know what they want or is everyone just winging it? That’s where I pause and stop thinking about the future because I just don’t know. Anyway…
Our final stop was in Valparaíso, the Jewel of the Pacific. I’ve heard it’s a colourful city; bursting with the arts and music and bohemian culture. I didn’t see any of the vibrant architecture though, mainly because we were there at night. Yet the streets were certainly still very much alive. Clowns, puppet shows, jugglers, magicians, musicians; there were street performers everywhere you turned.
As we strolled along the docks, one busker got me unexpectedly emotional. It was a simple curtained stage setup, with a Muppet-type puppet in front of a toy keyboard, singing the loveliest, most heart-breaking rendition of A-ha’s Take On Me. Not the saddest song you’d think of, but when his voice crooned gently, “I’ll be gooone… in a day or twooo…” My mind jumped forward to when I’ll have to leave this company and be on my own again then rewound to all the times I’d reluctantly said goodbye. I get sad when I have to go. I get sadder knowing I’m making someone else sad by me leaving.
I quietly wiped a tear away as I dug into my wallet. There’s a chance the person behind is merely moving the puppet’s mouth to a recording he ripped off YouTube, but even so, if they win my attention, they win my change. The people here get creative and aren’t just singing the typical busker’s choice of Hotel California. But it also made me see how many in this country are tirelessly hustling to earn a few more Pesos. Even at traffic lights, it’s not uncommon to see a college kid on stilts or someone hula-hooping in the middle of the road once the lights turn red. I felt like a brat for finding it annoying that Chile is expensive. It’s more than an irritation to the locals; it’s a real struggle. The World Bank states that Chile’s economy is strong and has a low poverty level. Doesn’t really look like that to me.
A little tired and a little cold, we found a little place to caffeine up (this is where I’m writing to you from) before the drive home to Santiago. Well, home to Rodrigo and Mauricio. Jarett, Ryan, and I will simply be crashing at Mauricio’s. I think we’re just about ready to get the bill and be on our way now. So I’ll be signing off too.
Be good! Te extraño!
*All images courtesy of the author.