Santiago de Chile
It was raining when I ate my last sandwich, and the dismal weather showed no signs of clearing up before September or so. No matter what part of the sky I looked at, I was greeted by the uniform grey monotony of rainclouds that have come to stay, and perhaps build a house and raise a family. This was the situation as I stood, somewhere in the central part of the Chilean region of Aysén, soaked to the bone. The temperature hovered just above freezing and yet, for some reason, I was still fruitlessly hitchhiking down the deserted mud track also known as the Carretera Austral. I was headed north, to Chaitén, yet what little traffic that actually used this wet stretch of mud as a mode of transportation seemed to be headed south.
A day that had started off fabulously (with a warm bed and shower in Puyuhuapi) had turned, six or seven hours later, into easily the most miserable day of hitchhiking in my life. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all miserable. But that day most definitely was.
I spent my last night in Coyhaique inside my tent just behind the COPEC service station near the plaza, listening to half-drunken youths prowl by looking to buy hot dogs at the only place in town that was open on a Wednesday night at three in the morning. The next day around nine I was awoken by the early attendant, who informed me that I needed to move because the boss was coming and needed to park his car where I had pitched my tent. I complied and thanked him for allowing me to sleep there, rather in plain sight, for most of the evening. Half an hour later I was walking to the beginning of the Carretera Austral, the infamous highway that weaves and winds its way throughout this semi-mountainous and largely unpopulated sector of Chile.
After a few good sets of directions from the local military, I found my way to the start of the highway. A large brown sign which read “LONG. AUSTRAL” confirmed that I was in the right place; and so I began enthusiastically attempting to reach my goal of Chaitén, 420 kilometres to the north, before the end of the week.
My first ride came after a mere half an hour, which I felt was a good start. Jamie and his wife Paola were on their way back home to their farm after a morning of visiting grandchildren in Coyhaique. Jamie was currently in the house-building business, and proved to be a very jolly man, laughing and cracking jokes for almost the entire ride – even as we stopped to “borrow” about a ton of dirt from the side of the road. “This is all Piñera’s* dirt,” said Jamie as he tossed me a shovel, “And the Lord knows the man can afford to replace a little mound like this one!” Piñera’s “little mound” took about half an hour to borrow, and filled most of the bed of the little blue pickup truck.
(*) Sebastian Piñera is the current President of Chile
After about forty-five minutes of driving, we arrived to the modest dwelling of Jamie and Paola. The small, simple home was set in a sweeping green valley surrounded on all sides by towering, heavily forested mountains. A small puppy bounced around in excitement as we pulled up, while a fat, black and white cat sat nearby, licking its paws and trying to remain appropriately aloof (despite the fact that it smelled the leftover steaks Jamie had brought back with him just as well as the puppy did). A few stray chickens pecked randomly in the mud; either they were able to see something edible there that I could not, or they were simply mud-eating chickens.
“Come in for lunch!” insisted Paola. “I’m making lentejas (lentel bean soup). If you want to make yourself useful, you can help Jamie pour the concrete for the new house over there.”
“All right, thank you!” I said, and went back outside. It was still early in the day, and anyways, I was getting pretty tired of ham and cheese sandwiches. Jamie disappeared into a nearby shed and emerged a few minutes later pushing a wheelbarrow.
“You know how to mix concrete?” he asked.
“Mmmm…” I said, “I’m no professional, but-”
“Pour that bucket of water,” he pointed to a blue five gallon bucket, “into this wheelbarrow. Then pour in the bag of concrete. And then,” he handed me a club-like stick, “stir.” Jamie gave a wide grin, revealing several missing teeth.
I grinned back and begun the mixing process. Meanwhile, Jamie started building a wooden frame. We would later pour the concrete into this frame, forming the front step to a brand-new house which at the moment, was just a partially-constructed frame.
“Folks next door bought this property from me,” said Jamie as we poured the wet concrete into the mold. “I told them I’d build the house and everything, s’long as they let me design it.” He gestured to the almost-completed frame. “That’s all me. They paid me pretty well to do it all, but really, it’s not about the money…” We nailed the last bits of the frame into place; Jamie inspected it, tapped it with his boot, and gave a satisfied chuckle. “I just like to build things!”
Soon Paola called us in for lunch, and we dined on lentejas while watching Jamie’s favourite TV programme, Caso Cerrado. Around noon my builder host drove me a few kilometers further north and dropped me off at an intersection. He waved goodbye and drove off back to his house…but not before “borrowing” a few shovelfuls of dirt from a nearby construction site. And so went Jamie: grandfather, builder, compulsive dirt-thief, and my first ride on the Carretera Austral.
While I was waiting at the intersection it began to rain, and it wouldn’t stop for three solid days. Fortunately, a series of short rides in semis and a few pickups left me relatively dry at a small bus stop just after dark. Unfortunately, I was still about 300 kilometres from Chaitén, so I decided to try and get one more ride to top off the day – hopefully to a place where I could set up my tent because the terrain around the bus stop was steep and practically un-campable. After a few hours, getting increasingly colder and wetter as I signaled to passing traffic with thumb and flashlight, an empty school bus picked me up around nine-thirty. An hour later it dropped me off at a small, generator-powered home on the shores of Lake Torres, a popular fly-fishing destination in the summertime (key word: summertime).
I wandered around in the rain looking for a place to camp for about half an hour. Unfortunately, this area seemed just about as un-campable as the bus stop – perhaps even more so, as the steep slopes were thickly forested and covered with boulders. With hopes of finding a small beach of some sort, I wandered down to the lakeshore and was relieved to find a small fish-cleaning shack. I pitched my tent on the dirt floor of the old wooden hut, hung up some of my wetter clothing on a nearby peg, and went to sleep for the evening.
I did not sleep well. The night before, as I was searching for a place to camp, practically everything in my bag had become completely soaked (with the exception of my laptop*, which I had carefully wrapped in waterproof plastic before leaving Coyhaique). The worst hit was my sleeping bag, which was uncomfortably damp and made for a chilly night there in the fish cleaning hut. To top it all off, the zipper broke as I was sealing myself up for the evening. Being as I use a goose-down sleeping bag, when it gets wet, it gets heavy. I cursed myself for forgetting to buy a waterproof tarp in Punta Arenas, and was not looking forward to the upcoming day.
*By the way, I bought a laptop in Punta Arenas. Very cheap, and worth the money – it’s already paid for itself with the cash I’ve saved by not using Internet cafés
When I left the hut around eight that morning it was raining, if possible, even harder. I grumbled darkly as I hiked back up the steep rocky incline to the highway and prayed to the Road Gods for a day of long rides and short waits.
My first wait lasted an hour; during that time, anything that had dried the night before in the cleaning shack was now twice as wet. When a construction worker on his way to Puerto Cisnes pulled over, he was greeted by a shivering, dripping mass of non-waterproof clothing. How could I have forgotten two of the most important pieces of gear for southern Chile, I thought to myself as we motored north on the sopping highway, a tarp and a bloody raincoat! Stupid, stupid, stupid stupid!
The truck left me at a small intersection, where I was thankfully able to take refuge in an abandoned police checkpoint while I waited for my next ride. Here, the Carretera Austral ceased to be paved and begun its 450-kilometre saga of mud all the way to Puerto Montt. A decent, two-lane highway shrunk to little more than a trail, winding up, down, and around the perpetually wet Andean peaks of southwestern South America.
The wait at the intersection was long, but it wasn’t so miserable since I had a roof to wait under. There was a small shrine to Saint Sebastian nearby, the patron saint of the Carretera Austral. A wooden plaque nearby read, “Gracias, San Sebastian, por cuidarnos en estas rutas peligrosas.” Thank you, Saint Sebastian, for taking care of us on these dangerous routes.
I’m far from a devout Catholic, or even a believer in the idea of God. However, if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I know nothing for sure. To be completely honest, I didn’t believe there was a patron saint of the Carretera Austral, protecting the wet and muddy travellers who trudged around its mucky twists and turns. I didn’t believe that Saint Sebastian was there to hold up the rickety old wooden bridges every time an overloaded semi passed over them. I didn’t believe those who thanked Saint Sebastian for his guiding hand were somehow better off than those that didn’t. It was a beautiful idea, though; an ethereal protector of a hazardous route, silently steering the wayward traveller back to a warm home and family – except it simply wasn’t true.
But what if I was wrong?
A hitchhiker like me can’t afford to tempt fate by angering the guardians of the routes he travels. Whether or not Saint Sebastian really existed was irrelevant – I placed a 100 peso coin on the monument and wrote a short note of thanks to the patron saint of the route…just in case.
Oddly enough, a short while later an old Japanese semi truck with black decal letters spelling out the words “S E B A S T I A N” on the doors pulled over. Whether this was just a coincidence or the hand of the saint thanking me for my offering, I’ll never know. Whatever the case, I opened the door of the semi idling in the pouring rain with a huge grin of gratitude directed at the driver.
“Chaitén?” I said hopefully.
“Better!” responded the portly driver wearing suspenders. “ Puyuhuapi!”
And so I met Sebastian and Germán, the former loud and ebullient and the latter a bit less so – my companions for the next two hours until Puyuhuapi, wherever that was. We bounced along the Carretera Austral, which at this point had deteriorated to little more than a swath of mud with tire tracks threading periodically in and out of the mire. It curled and zigzagged through heavy vegetation and solid rock, slowly making its way north – the longest, hardest, and wildest route from Coyhaique to Puerto Montt.
“There’s a volcano erupting over by my house!” thundered Sebastian as we splashed through an ocean-like puddle in the road. My savior downshifted and punched the gas hard, causing the tires to throw mud and water to approximately Buenos Aires. “It’s spewing ash and shit sky-high! Can’t see a thing for miles!” Sebastian waved his hands about in the air, mimicking how the ash was like, totally everywhere. “Of course,” he went on, switching the windshield wipers to Maximum Overdrive, “the argentinos are getting the worst of it in Bariloche. Thank God for westerly winds, eh? Ha ha!”
“You must be from Osorno,” I said, gripping the handles over the windows as we skidded around a corner and took out a fern.
“Born and raised! Germán too. We’re neighbours, friends for life!” Sebastian put his arm around Germán and gave him a chummy squeeze. “Right, mate?”
“For life…” repeated Germán, looking rather gloomy.
Sebastian and Germán were en route to Puyuhuapi to recover what Sebastian described as “stolen merchandise.”
“So they’ve got this company, a fishing company – they raise salmon, you see,” explained Sebastian. “Now, no problems with that, of course, but the thing is, they used the name of my grandfather – my flesh and blood! (he bellowed) – as the name of the company.” He looked over at me. “You see where this is going, Pato?”
“Maybe,” I said. Sebastian gave a grave nod and went on. “So now they’re down there profiting, profiting using my family name to run a business that I never see a peso of return from!
“Bastards!” I said with what I felt was the appropriate amount of indignant sympathy.
“Bastards,” agreed Sebastian. “So here’s what we’re going to do: I’ve just bought me a fishing boat, but it’s still lacking…em…propulsion.” He twirled his fingers around, simulating, apparently, propulsion. “So I figure the least they can do,” he went on, “is give me a boat motor. They owe that to me.”
“So you think they’ll just give you a boat motor? Just like that?” I asked.
“You’re damn right they will!” roared Sebastian, punching the steering wheel and causing the horn to blare. I gave a chuckle; I felt rather sorry for the unsuspecting fishing company in Puyuhuapi – the wrath of Saint Sebastian was about to rain down on them and all their stolen boat motors.
After an hour or so we arrived to a sector of the Carretera Austral that had been cut for construction. Fortunately, the regional government provided a free car ferry for about 8 km to Puyuhuapi, and after another hour we arrived to the small, isolated town on the shores of a secluded fjord.
Sebastian dropped me off near the local police station. We exchanged phone numbers,* and he said he would call me so we could go and get a coffee later. “First, I’ve got business to take care of!” he said ominously as he gave a wave and drove off in search of the plagiarizing fishing company.
*I also bought a cheap, re-chargable cell phone in Punta Arenas. It’s proved very useful. Oh, shut up, I’m still a vagabond; just a more connected vagabond. Aha.
I found free WiFi in the city hall, and occupied this for an hour or so until I received a call from Sebastian.
“Got the merchandise!” his triumphant voice shouted through the earpiece. “Meet me by the police station and we’ll go get some coffee at my friend’s house!”
Sebastian’s truck motored up to the police station fifteen minutes later. Before I could get in, he opened the back of the semi and proudly showed off a large Honda outboard motor and assorted lengths of steel cable. “I tell you what, Pato, those bastards didn’t stand a chance!” laughed Sebastian. “After twenty minutes with me and my infallible logic, they were begging me not to take two!”
Sebastian drove Germán and I to a nearby house, which we entered and met an older couple with a warm, dry living room heated by a wood-burning stove. Our hosts, Norma and Luis, welcomed us with pisco and ham sandwiches. Norma was especially kind, letting me dry all of my wet supplies alongside the burning stove. As we drank and enjoyed being dry, the conversation turned to me and what I did. I took this opportunity to try out a new project I’ve been working on…
Back in Punta Arenas, I birthed the idea for a program I call “Inglés de la Calle” (Street English). Since the Tronwell Institute where I worked employed the use of PowerPoint presentations to teach English, I figured I could do the same on the road – and perhaps make a little extra money while doing so. The plan is this: teach basic English lessons for free in truck stops, using a series of PowerPoint presentations I’ve developed. Have a tip jar prominently displayed so that whoever wishes to contribute may do so. Also, I might travel to remote towns with very limited access to language classes and teach for the simple price of food and shelter for the duration of my stay there.
One thing that there is a huge industry for in Latin America is English lessons. Everybody wants to learn – but not everybody had access to classes, either because they live far away from any teaching centre or simply because they can’t afford them. With Inglés de la Calle, I can help those who want to learn do so for free, and maybe make some friends and have a good time in the process – not to mention eat a little better.
I told the group about my project, and they seemed excited and wanted to get a first-hand glimpse of what I had planned. Shrugging, I got out my laptop and began the first-ever lesson of Inglés de la Calle.
All four of my students were attentive and willing to learn – even though they were rather drunk. Germán even procured a small notebook from somewhere in his jacket and surreptitiously took notes from under the table. I ended up giving them a two and a half hour English lesson – something that would have cost at least $12.000 pesos a person had they hired a freelance professor. At the end of the lesson I quizzed my students, and was pleased to find they were able to remember how to properly form simple sentences in the present tense using new verbs they had just learned. Earlier that night, they had only been able to say “Hello” and “How are you.” Norma even asked me if I could stay a few days to teach her more!
And so I dubbed the first lesson of “Inglés de la Calle” a complete success. I didn’t make any tips, but I was offered a hot shower, a warm bed for the night, and a bottle of pisco for my troubles. We retired around two am – that is, except for Germán, who stayed up late to study his notes.
The next day I emailed a few English lessons to Norma for further study and set off north, happy to have spent a warm, dry night in a bed. Sebastian and Germán went back to Puerto Cisnes with the Honda motor rattling away in the back of the semi, telling me to add them on Facebook and send them photos.
“Congratulations on getting your stolen merchandise back,” I said.
“I just might buy another boat and come back for more!” said Sebastian with a cackle as he waved and started the engine. “Good luck, Pato!”
I walked to the exit of Puyuhuapi and stood in the rain for twenty minutes before a park ranger took me to La Junta, one of the only sizable towns of the entire route. After that I walked for about an hour in the rain, soaking wet once again, until a small red pickup let me ride in the back for a miserable, bumpy thirty or so kilometers. The driver dropped me off at a random suspension bridge in the middle of nowhere, where I attempted to take shelter under a small pine tree. This didn’t work at all, and I ended up just getting more wet since it kept dumping sheets of cold water onto me from the branches above.
Later came another back-of-the truck ride for 15 clicks or so, followed by a three hour wait and a one hour walk in unrelenting, steady downpour. By this time, every inch of me was soaked; this wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t have been just above freezing. Bloody weather- all this rain and cold, without even the decency to snow.
I was sitting on my pack in some sopping grass, huddled with my knees close my my chest and shivering violently when I finally got a ride to Villa Santa Lucia. At least this time I got to ride in the cab. I got off in Santa Lucia, my wet jacket steaming as I went from the warm interior of the cab to the freezing cold outside air. I waved goodbye to the driver and went to see if I could continue hitchhiking with the twenty minutes of daylight I still had left.
I was unsuccessful; after another hour and a half the rain changed into sleet, and I started to become seriously concerned that I would become stricken with hypothermia. I was shivering uncontrollably, felt faint and dizzy, had difficulty walking, and couldn’t feel my extremities. I needed to get to a warm, dry place as soon as possible, or I could risk losing consciousness and freezing to death. I stumbled my way back to Santa Lucia and paid $5.000 pesos for a night in a dingy hotel near a construction site. After stripping off my wet clothing and placing it to dry near a tired-looking old stove, I massaged the feeling back into my feet and hands. Soon after I collapsed into the warmth of the bed and slept for ten hours.
The next morning I awoke feeling more normal, and ate a warm bowl of soup before packing up my bag (my clothes still weren’t completely dry). While packing, I discovered to my dismay that my tent had vanished somewhere between Puhuyapi and Villa Santa Lucia. I gave a loud groan; in my weakened, forgetful state the day before, I had probably left it in the back of a truck.
FIRST RULE OF HITCHHIKING: Always check the vehicle before you leave to be sure you haven’t forgotten anything important! Curses; what a rookie mistake.
I left the hotel in a foul mood, and walked outside to find Villa Santa Lucia covered in a thick blanket of snow. Thankfully, the snow seemed to be the clouds’ last gasp of moisture for the day, and there was blue sky all around as far as I could see. Finally! Now I would get to spend a day on the Carretera Austral dry and in sunlight.
I trudged through the snow and slush on the road until I got out of Santa Lucia and to a good hitchhiking spot. I threw snowballs at the guardrail and smoked while I waited for my next ride to Chaitén. After an ancient snowplow passed me a few times, he apparently felt sorry for me and took me to a construction camp about five kilometers ahead, where I was able to rustle up a ride to Chaitén.
The town of Chaitén was an important tourist attraction in Chile up until 2008, when a nearby volcano erupted and practically leveled the place. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, so the government of Chile decided to declare the town uninhabitable, strongly encouraging its residents to move north to Puerto Montt.
Not everyone complied, however; to this day a handful of Chaitéños still reside there with very limited water, scavenging electricity from passing power lines (most basic services still have not been reinstated to the area). A couple of restaurants and a hotel or two are open for passing travellers, but most of the town remains buried under several metres of ash and rock.
Finding a place to sleep without a tent in Chaitén was easy as pie; I simply walked until I found the nicest-looking abandoned hotel, waded through a drift of standing ash, and dug my way to the front door. The hotel had been fairly expensive in its time; there were what used to be nice couches near a marble counter, hiding under an inch of ash. I set out to explore the back rooms to make sure there were no skeletons in the closets (so to speak), but found only stacks of old magazines and clothes.
I slept comfortably on the floor in my sleeping bag, and the next morning went out to tackle the problem of how to get to Puerto Montt from Chaitén. There’s a small issue with the Carretera Austral in this costal region: it’s missing about 200 kilometres. From Caleta Gonzalo (slightly further north) until Hornopirén, the only way to get further north is by ferry. Why, you may ask?
Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s resident dictator in the 70’s and 80’s, started construction on the Carretera Austral in 1976 but never finished it (presumably because he was too busy sending RPG’s and cluster bombs to Iraq). The successive governments of Chile also failed to complete the road to Hornopirén; consequently, there are now three options to he who wishes to travel north from Chaitén:
1) Take a ferry (cost CL$19,000) to Quellón, on the island of Chiloé, and follow the route there north to Puerto Montt
2) Take a ferry (cost CL$ 25,000) directly to Puerto Montt
3) Take a ferry (cost CL $ 5,000) from Caleta Gonzalo to Hornopirén and follow the end of the Carretera Austral for about an hour to Puerto Montt.
I wasn’t too happy with the prospect of paying for passage, but it seemed like I would have no choice if I didn’t want to backtrack 420 sopping kilometres to Coyhaique. Obviously I would opt for the cheapest ferry from Caleta Gonzalo to Hornopirén – not just for the price, but for the sake of finishing the entire existing route north from Coyhaique. I went to the ferry office to buy my ticket and waited for an hour and a half for it to open. Chaitén is practically a ghost town; therefore, the few business that are there run on Ghost Town Standard Time – meaning they open and close whenever they feel like it. When I was finally let in, I was given bad news:
“We can’t sell tickets from Caleta Gonzalo today,” said the lady at the ticket counter.
“Some trucker took out a bridge yesterday. The route to the port is impassable.”
Of course it was. “For how long?” I asked tiredly.
“Until the highway department tells us it’s usable again.”
“Which will be roughly when…?”
She shrugged. “Maybe in an hour, maybe in a week. Where are you trying to go?”
“Well, the ferry to Puerto Montt leaves today at four.”
I pointed to the price listing. “It says there that ferry costs $25,000 pesos.”
She shook her head. “That’s the price for locals. Are you a local?”
“Then it’ll cost you $35,000.”
I laughed. “Let me know when they fix the bridge, okay?” I walked out of the office and took a seat on the doorstep. A few minutes later I heard voices shouting and arguing from inside the office; suddenly, a man who looked vaguely like George Washington stormed out of the office.
“This is ridiculous!” he shouted over his shoulder. “You can’t cancel a ferry and not give notice to the passengers who’ve bought their ticket in advance!” The girl at the ticket counter gave a meek response, saying there was nothing she could do.
“I’m reporting this to the regional government!” shouted George Washington. He left the building grumbling to himself, then fished around in his pockets and extracted a pack of Marlboros. He lit one, took a deep drag, and then noticed me sitting on the doorstep. “Can you believe these people?” he asked me, smoke streaming out his nostrils.
I shrugged. “It’s not their fault the bridge is broken.”
“But they should have called me to say I couldn’t get on the ferry. I bought my ticket five days ago in Coyhaique.” he shook his head exasperatedly. “This ruins everything!”
“She said they might open the road back up today.” I said consolingly.
“Yeah, right. And my name’s Pablo Neruda.” said George. He heaved a sigh, and then said, “Are you going to Puerto Montt as well?”
“Trying to, but you know,” I gestured vaguely to the north, “the bridge.”
He looked around. “Where’s your car?”
“Don’t have one.”
“Then how are you getting to Puerto Montt?”
I shook my thumb around. “Good old-fashioned hitchhiking.”
George Washington raised his eyebrows. “Sounds kind of miserable, with this weather we’ve been having.”
“You have no idea.”
He gave a chuckle and held out his hand. “Name’s Ignacio.”
I shook the outstretched hand. “Patrick.”
Ignacio gave a nod and said, “Well Patrick, if they ever fix this bridge I can take you with me to Puerto Montt.”
My eyes lit up. “Really? Thanks, I’d really appreciate that!”
He waved the thanks aside. “Don’t mention it. If I don’t pick you up, you’ll probably be stuck here until the volcano erupts again.” Ignacio stamped out his cigarette on the sidewalk. “Well, you want a coffee or something? My wife’s making some in the hotel room.”
“All right, come this way, and – wait a second…” he looked at me and narrowed his eyes. “You’re not a Jew, are you?”
I frowned. “No?”
“Good.” We kept walking. As if by way of explanation for being so blatantly anti-Semantic, Ignacio said, “The Jews are buying all of Patagonia, you know. They’re trying to make a new Promised Land here – it’s the truth.”
“Really…” I said as we went into the hotel room. Ignacio’s wife was busy preparing breakfast, and introductions were made. Then we sat and ate breakfast.
Despite his manifest racism, Ignacio was not a stupid man. He asked me if I read books, and we had a nice conversation about Patagonian explorers during the 18th century. He seemed a perfectly nice guy – so long as you didn’t bring up Jews or the ferry. About an hour later, the ferry office called and said that the highway department had rigged a temporary bridge for small vehicles, and that we would be able to continue to Caleta Gonzalo that day. This cheered Ignacio up considerably, and we piled into his pickup truck and began the short, 60 kilometre drive to the nearby caleta.
Along with history and Jew-hating, Ignacio had a passion for photography. We stopped literally every two minutes so that he could take pictures of random things on the side of the road.
A few kilometers before Caleta Gonzalo we passed the notorious Volcán Chaitén, which smoked ominously from above the dead forest surrounding it. Ignacio stopped for more photos and spent a good hour hunting for igneous rocks. We arrived to the ferry port a good 200 pounds heavier with stones that were dubbed by Ignacio as “interesting.”
This ferry was the first in a series that would take us to Hornopirén. Ignacio drove his truck onto the ferry and immediately got out and began taking pictures of a pile of rusty steel cable near the stern. The ferry sailed for about half an hour before we had to get off and drive across twenty more kilometres of road to the next ferry port. Somewhere along this stretch was the rouge bridge; when we got there, Ignacio stopped the truck for a good fifteen minutes while photos were taken of every detail and he conversed with the workers (“What happened here?” “Why is this bridge broken?” “A truck, what kind of truck?” “Was it a Jew who was driving?”)
When we arrived to the next ferry port and waited for the boat to arrive, I spotted an old floating dock nearby and went over to explore it. At the end were a few local fishermen, pulling up ropes from the water and twisting off the clams attached to them.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked one of them. The wrinkled face grinned, cracked open a clam on one of the pylons, and slurped it up raw. “Delicious,” he said cackling, and cracked open another one.
“Don’t a lot of clams here have the Red Tide virus?” I asked skeptically.
He waved a hand dismissively. “Nonsense. These clams are fine.” Crack. Slurp.
“Are you sure?”
The fisherman laughed. “100 percent sure.”Crack. Slurp.
Well, I hadn’t had lunch yet…and those clams sure did look tasty. What the hell, I thought, and grabbed ahold of a big one near the bottom of the rope, twisted it off, cracked it open, and slurped it up just like the fisherman.
It was exquisite. So exquisite, in fact, that I grabbed nine or ten off the rope and decided to make a meal out of them. I had eaten two more when I saw the ferry arriving, so I gathered my lunch into my arms and walked off the floating dock. I had cracked open a fourth and was just about to eat it when a big fisherman wearing waist-high rubber boots shouted,
“Hey! Don’t eat that!”
I stopped, the clam halfway to my mouth. “Why not?”
“Because you’ll die. There’s Red Tide in this fjord!”
I gulped. “But…that guy down there said these were fine to eat!”
The big man snorted and said, “That guy’s a jackass.”
“But-” I stuttered, “But he was eating them!” I could feel my heart racing.
“Then he’s going to die.” The big fisherman pointed at me. “Don’t eat that clam!”
I took a deep breath. “Ummm, well…I’ve might have already eaten some.”
The fisherman’s eyes widened. “What? How many?”
He shook his head. “You’d better pray you’re extremely lucky – Red Tide will kill you in an hour!”
I felt rather sick. “What are the symptoms?” I asked shakily.
“Pain in the stomach,” the fisherman began counting off on his fingers, “headache, nausea, unconsciousness…and death.”
Shit; was I going to die here because of some stupid dirty clams? I boarded the ferry on shaky feet and sat down on the padded seats in the passenger lounge. My body was starting to feel weird…was that a pain I felt in my stomach? I had a weird taste in the back of my throat; was that a symptom? I felt a little light-headed – probably the Red Tide taking over my brain.
One of the other guys on the boat had also eaten some of the clams, and had overheard the fisherman’s ominous predictions about my impending doom at the hands of the Red Tide. He sat near me, staring out the window and looking rather green. I leaned over to him and said,
“How do you feel?”
“I feel…faint,” he said. He looked faint.
“Me too.” I wiped my forehead, then said, “Hey man..do you have a weird taste in the back of your throat?”
His eyes widened. “Yeah! Yeah, I do! Hey, do you think that’s a symptom?”
“I don’t know, I was thinking the same thing.” I tried to swallow, but couldn’t. “What if we die here on this boat, man?”
“I don’t want to die on a boat,” he whimpered. “I hate water.”
“I don’t want to die anywhere,” I said. We sat in silence for a few moments. A while later my partner in death broke the hush and said shakily, “Do you think it hurts to die of Red Tide?”
“It’s supposed to tear apart your stomach,” I replied with a shudder. “And then it cuts your brain off from the rest of your body and – well…you know.”
He gulped, then leaned closer to me and whispered, “I still have that weird taste in the back of my throat.”
“Me too,” I said with a cough. I raised my eyebrows. “Hey, do you think we should eat something? Maybe food will, I don’t know, absorb it…or…something.”
He shook his head. “I didn’t bring any food.”
He looked around. “Hey, look!” My soon-to-be hospital roommate pointed to a poster on the wall. “Coffee and bread, $3,000 pesos.”
“$3,000 pesos? For coffee and bread?” I scoffed. “You’ve got to be kidding me – that’s almost as much as I paid for this ferry!”
“I’ve got to try and get this taste out the back of my throat,” he said. “I’m buying some.” He got up and went to the back of the boat, coming back five minutes later with $3,000 peso coffee and bread – which looked exactly the same as $1,000 peso coffee and bread.
“So?” I asked as he ate. “Is the taste gone?”
He chewed thoughtfully. “It’s…less.”
“Really? Do you feel better?”
He frowned. “I don’t know. I feel a little less light-headed, maybe.”
I squirmed in my seat for a moment. The taste was getting worse. What if I died right here on this boat, with $650,000 pesos in my pocket and a stomach full of Red Tide? After moment’s deliberation, I decided it would be better to die here on this boat with $647,000 pesos in my pocket, and a stomach full of Red Tide and $3,000 peso coffee and bread. I went to the back of the boat and bought the food.
“I do feel a little better,” I said, after finishing. “The taste is gone, at least.”
“We still might die,” said the man.
“Well, we may as well enjoy the time we’ve got left.” I pulled out my pack of Lucky Strikes and proffered it. “Cigarette?”
“Why the hell not,” he said, taking one. We smoked in silence and watched the jagged mountains capped with pristine, white glaciers pass outside the window, expecting to drop dead at any moment.
We didn’t drop dead, of course. There was no Red Tide in those clams -but as soon as I had Internet access I looked it up, and learned that the Chilean fjords were in fact notorious for being full of Red Tide. The big fisherman was right; when it all came down to it, we had just been extremely lucky.
I wondered if the fisherman from the floating dock was dead yet; maybe he suddenly died out there on the floating dock and fell into the fjord – food for the infected clams he so enthusiastically slurped. Que pena, as they say down here.
I will never eat raw clams from the south of Chile ever again; that would have been such a stupid way to die. Not even interesting or adventurous, like a shark attack or a mountaineering accident. On my death certificate, under “Cause of Death” they would have jut written “Lack of Common Sense.”
Anyways, we arrived to Hornopirén later that night, happy to be alive. I said goodbye to my fellow clam-chower and rode with Ignacio for about a hundred clicks to yet another ferry port. We waited for several hours (the ferry was having mechanical issues, and of course, there was no backup), then finally were on our way to Puerto Montt. Ignacio drove me that far, then stopped at a gas station.
“Well, I guess this is where you get off Patrick,” he said as he snapped a picture of a nearby potted plant. “I’m glad you didn’t die of Red Tide.”
“Me too. I thought for sure I was a goner.”
I laughed. “Thanks.”
Ignacio stretched. “Well, I’m going to get some gas and then head for Temuco.”
Temuco? “Wait,” I said. “You didn’t say you were going all the way to Temuco. I thought you were just going as far as Puerto Montt?”
“Change of plans,” yawned Ignacio. “The wife’s sister is sick, we’re going for a visit. Didn’t I tell you that?”
“Well, that’s where we’re going.” He wrinkled his nose at the foul weather, then said, “Hey, do you want to skip Puerto Montt and come all the way to Temuco with us? There’s not much to see here this time of year anyways.”
“Hell yes,” I said. “I need to be in Santiago as soon as possible.”
Ignacio nodded. “All right. Hop in, we’ll be arriving to Temuco around 2 am.”
“I appreciate that, Ignacio. I really do.”
“Don’t mention it. Now hurry up and get in, I want to get there in time to have a few drinks with my brother-in-law.”
I got in. Ignacio slammed the door, gassed up the car, and drove extremely fast to Temuco.
The next morning I got a ride almost directly to Santiago, after a few hours outside the toll booth with STGO written on the back of an old beer carton. After arriving I met with T at the Los Leones subway station; first, she gave me an enormous kiss. Then she yelled at me for taking two weeks to get from Punta Arenas to Santiago. Then, she gave me another kiss and said she had missed me. I told her I had missed her too, and about the incident with the Red Tide. This caused T to yell at me again for being so stupid, and then kiss me again because she was glad I didn’t die. I kissed her back and felt the warmth of her body against mine – I was glad, too.
Later we went to her friend’s house for the evening, and the next day started out on our one-month hitchhiking adventure in the barren north of Chile…
…but that’s for the next post.
Hasta pronto, queridos amigos.
Red Line: Hitchhiking Blue Line: Boat
1. Coyhaique 2. Where the route turns to mud
3. Puyuhuapi 4. Villa Santa Lucia
5. Chaitén 6. Caleta Gonzalo