I’ve nearly made it to Bolivia…I estimate I have only a day or two more of travel until reach the border somewhere deep in the Altiplano.
I stayed in San Felipe for two more days after posting last; unfortunately, during my time there, Keto and I had a bit of a…disagreement (I won’t go into it) and I am no longer traveling to Bolivia with him. I find myself, once again, flying solo.
Nearly everyone left the house on the fifteenth, as it was the start of the winter holidays here on the southern hemisphere. I was left only with Mathias, one of the other roommates there in my second home in San Felipe. This was a good thing, as him and I get along quite well.
About 22 years of age, Mathias is from Los Andes, about half an hour into the mountains east of San Felipe. He’s quite the jolly fellow, and was one of the other people who got mohawks besides me that one night a few months ago when we all decided to play with the clippers (his is considerably more extreme, while mine looks kind of like a dead squirrel.)
Those two nights were spent socialising with a few of Mathias’s friends, which consisted of a couple of guys from the university and some pretty ladies. Pisco was consumed and dancing commenced until the wee hours of daylight. I was, of coursed, grilled by the newcomers about myself, (something that happens daily) and lectured on the importance of not frying my spaghetti until it’s crunchy like potato chips (cholesterol.)
On the seventeenth of June, I left San Felipe once more, bound north for Iquique and the nation of Bolivia. After waiting about ten minutes on the exit road, I hitched onto a small truck loaded down with approximately 17 billion chicken eggs. I soon learned that this was the egg delivery truck, and was driven through the countryside for about three hours while the driver delivered eggs. Finally, around five that evening, we made it back to the Panamericana and I was able to commence my northward travel.
I waited for a good chunk of time, with no luck. Then, I heard the ear-rattling punch of the horn of an approaching train, which, I noticed, was also headed north. I made a split second decision, darted across the busy freeway, and hoofed it as fast as I could to the tracks. Unfortunately for me, the train was moving approximately twice as fast as I can run, (especially with a heavy pack) and I was unable to jump onto one of the cars. Besides, twice as fast as I can run is still pretty slow, and risking getting my legs removed by a three-foot steel disc carrying four tons of copper and whizzing along an iron track just isn’t worth the benefits. So I continued hitchhiking, and eventually was picked up by a car just after dark.
Four rides and six hours later I was about three hundred kilometres north of Santiago and about a hundred south of Coquimbo at a COPEC service station. My second home. I trolled around for rides to the north for a bit, but had no success. So I plopped my pack down on a bench in front of the station, stared off into space, and smoked. Around two in the morning, the night-shift gas pumper came over and started talking to me. He was a good guy, about twenty-one years of age, and was happy to have someone to pass the long, chilly night shift with. After all the cars had vacated the parking lot, he even broke out the weed and burned a few fatties with me, something that I appreciated a lot since the grass helps me sleep when it’s freezing outside.
Around three, I explored the unoccupied field behind the station and soon found a suitable place to pass the night. Taking care to avoid the cactuses, I unrolled my tarp, sleeping bag, and blanket and wadded up a few extra hoodies for a blanket. A few minutes later I was asleep.
The next morning I was awoken by the rising sun, which warmed me significantly and thankfully melted the frost that has accumulated on my blanket during the night. In fact, the heat felt so good that I decided to sleep in a bit: I was lulled back to sleep by the random, lightning-fast chirps of tiny morning songbirds, who were currently hopping buisily about the thorn trees in search of berries, and, presumably, bird sex.
I was so comfortable that I didn’t wake up until three in the afternoon. I wasn’t upset, though. Sure, I had pretty much just trashed a whole day of traveling sleeping in a field, but it was really nice and I had good dreams. Anyways, it wasn’t like I had a schedule to keep or anything. I packed up camp and hiked back to the freeway, which was exactly where I left it the night before about three hundred yards away to the west. I took a deep breath of the afternoon air, and before hopping the barbed wire fence that separated the field from the highway, took a last look behind me at the natural beauty of north-central Chile.
Rolling hills stretched far into the distance, studded with cactus and small, thorny scrub trees. A thick carpet of short, soft grass-covered the ground wherever there was space, and sheep and goats wandered aimlessly about and munched on cuds. The morning songbirds had been replaced by screeching predatory hawks who swooped about in the air, riding the drafts to a height of about fifty metres until suddenly folding their wings and plummeting to the ground like a missile. The shriek of the unlucky mouse or shrew on the receiving end of those talons could be heard for an impressive distance.
I hitchhiked on the freeway for hours and hours, with absolutely no luck whatsoever. This being the beginning of the winter holidays, nearly every car that passed was loaded down with people on their way to visit their friends and relatives in the north, leaving precious little room for a hitchhiker with a fifty pound bag.
I played the blues while I waited, writing a few interesting little riffs that I was sure would make bank when I played them in Bolivia. I was bending up the number four note when, all of a sudden, I heard a little *clink* and the note fizzled out like the end of a sparkler. Hm. What was this all about? I got out my handy-dandy Swiss Army knife and took the instrument apart, searching for the inconsistency that had so rudely ruined my blues.
Then I found it. Fuck a duck, I had broken a sound panel! The little piece of metal that was the number four note lay slain on the inside cover. Damnit, that’s the most important note! Why couldn’t number ten have broken, I hardly ever use number ten! You can’t play the blues without number four, it just doesen’t work.
So now I had no music. Stricken, I went back to the COPEC to mourn the loss of my dear friend and smoke the last of my cigarettes. Now how was I supposed to play the blues in Bolivia? I felt like a tennis player who was missing his arms. Soon, night fell. I walked over to a little restaurant that was about 400 metres down the road and drank a glass of water, mumbling profanely about poorly constructed German harmonicas.
The owners of the restaurant had apparently been observing me hitchhiking out of the freeway for the past five hours, and asked me where I was headed. I told them Bolivia, and I got the usual expression that means ‘You do know that’s about 2.500 kilometres from here, right?’ spread across their faces. I assured them that this was of no importance, and they brough me out a free coffee and some bread, offering their condolences for my poor luck on the road during the day.
After I finished my coffee, they asked me if I wanted to wash some dishes and help out in the back in exchange for some real food and breakfast the following morning. I thought this sounded like a great plan, and soon found myself in the back scrubbing away at dirty plates and mopping the floor with a dishrag. When the work was done, I was served a delicious meal of chicken, rice, and potatoes, as promised.
My belly full with the hot meal, I returned to my campsite around eleven and slept peacefully through the night. The next morning dawned with the same amount of warmth and beauty as the one before, but I was ready to get up and get on the move as soon as the rays of the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. Packing up camp, I stopped by the restaurant for my breakfast and was soon back on the road.
My luck was much better on this day; after an hour I was whizzing north in a pickup, bound for the city of Coquimbo and La Serena. Upon arrival the driver pressed CL$1.000 into my hands and sped off. Not too bad, not too bad at all. I walked for about an hour until I found a decent spot to hitchhike. Luck was still with me; an hour later a small, noisy car drove me seventy kilometres to a little town at the very edge of the Atacama Desert, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I stopped at a convince store and bought a pack of ten cigarettes and went back to the highway, hoping my luck would hold.
Hold it did; two and a half cigarettes later I was rolling merrily northward with a few guys in a pickup who were headed to the beach about five hours up ahead for some camping. We rode for the remainder of the day, stopping only to pee and eat a spot of lunch.
As we drove along the lonely desert road, I stared out the window and marveled at the barren Atacama. It was amazing that a mere 500 kilometres to the south lay the lush green farmlands of the Chilean wine country, and if one traveled two or three thousand more kilometres one would find himself in the heart of a temperate rainforest. As I stared out the window at the shades of brown and tan that made up the sandy, rocky desert, I found it hard to belive that I was even on the same planet, much less in the same country. Bare, rocky, red mountains stretched high into the sky, their base covered with the ever-present layer of perpetually blowing sand.
Around nightfall, we arrived to the town of Copiàpo. I bid farewell to my friends and continued walking north, my plan being to walk all night long. However, fate had other plans for this gringo; as I was walking down the street, my eyes were magnetically drawn to a group of people across the way with big packs like mine. They were knocking on the door of a place that proffered a large sign in old-fashioned letters:
‘Hogar de Christo’
The House of Christ. I’d heard about this organization before; on weekdays, they give out free dinner and offer you a free bed for the night. I could certainly use those two things then, so, ducking traffic, I crossed the street and followed the guys inside.
I was enthusiastically welcomed inside by the waiting Señora, who assured me that I could stay here for the night without a problem. Awesome! Finally, Christians acting like Christians are supposed to act!
Inside the House of Christ were a lot of homeless people. They chattered away in their perpetually slurred voices and smoked their hearts out on the patio. Several dogs prowled around the courtyard, looking for stray bits of bread or perhaps a wayward sausage that had slipped the grasp of a careless hand.
Everyone was nice to me, especially the staff. It was clear to me that these people had a very good heart, despite maybe being a bit misled when it comes to the whole religion issue. Anyhow, if you ask me, it doesn’t matter what you belive in; all that matters what you have in your heart, and these people had hearts filled to the brim with love and compassion. I was fed a heaping plate of dirty rice and soup, followed by cake and tea. Then, the TV was playing the Silence of the Lambs (in English!!) so I was occupied by this for the next several hours.
After the movie, I was feeling the tendrils of sleep beginning to entangle the depth of my mind, so I decided it was time to rest. I was shown to where I was to sleep, a bare mattress wrapped in plastic covered with a large, heavy Mickey Mouse blanket. It was surrounded on all sides by other mattresses, most of which contained a snoring, bearded man.
Not bad for a free bed. Not bad at all. I collapsed in a heap and fell quickly asleep.
Around three a.m. I was awoken by strange sounds coming from a few beds over. It appeared to be indiscriminate mumbling of some kind, punctuated every couple of seconds by thunderous snoring. Hm. A sleep-mumbler. Most of his mumbling seemed to be in statement-form, though every once in a while there would be the unmistakable upward voice inflection of a mumble-question.
‘Mergramble amagoblf. Amagraerwr grasccsen.’ *snore* ‘Emblahaffergraben faragaotomer? Emergbo.’ *snore*
Suddenly, another, much more alarming sound came roaring in from my left. It was a popping, wet, slapping fart that lasted for a full fifteen seconds. I dove for cover under the blankets and waited for the gas cloud to dissipate.
After ten minutes or so, I judged it safe to emerge from my oxygen tent, and cautiously poked my head out into the open air. It appeared safe.
God in heaven. Back in the tent, back in the tent! Go! Go! Go! Go!
And so I passed the next two hours, listening to Mr Mumble and taking frequent shelter from what can most certainly be classified as biological weapons under my blanket.
At six-thirty, the priest came inside and awoke us in the most unobtrusive manner possible. Carrying a lighted candle, he tread silently around the beds and said in a voice that was half-sung and neither soft nor loud:
‘Levantarse. Levantarse. Levantarse.’
The second half of the word was said at half an octave higher than the first, making him sound very papel indeed. He crept around the room until he had passed all the beds, and then continued his rounds until everyone was awake.
‘Levantarse. Levantarse. Levantarse.’
Soon everyone was up; Mr Mumble had switched back to plain Spanish, and the Gas Grenade over there seemed to have put a cap on it for the day. I dressed, had my breakfast, and left.
The next day I made it the 700 of so kilometres to Antofagasta, where I am now. I made use of my newfound discovery of the House of Christ and managed to get another bed for the evening in the local chapter in this city. I hope to make to Bolivia sometime tomorrow. Wish me luck on my illegal border crossing!
The Modern Nomad.