October 21, 2011: Arriving in Chile. Planes, buses, and telephones, oh my!

By the time I had finally managed to fall asleep in my airplane chair, they flipped the lights on again and started feeding us breakfast. At last, the novelty of the airline food re-wore off, and I poked dejectedly at the strange albino-potato-with-tomato-goo-and-pale-bacon meal that was our breakfast’s centerpiece. Then, my first glance of Chile: imposing mountains, hard brown earth, and towns where 95% of the roofs were red and the other 5% had sports-courts painted atop them. With more customs forms in hand and feeling rather woozy from the added sleep deprivation, I wobbled down to buy my tourist visa (U.S. citizens pay a reciprocity fee upon arrival, instead of needing to file for a visa beforehand), and then waited in a Neverending Line of Neverendingness for customs, grabbed my bag, and was free.

Step One: find money. Inquire en español at several money-exchange desks, and be directed instead to an ATM. Press buttons futilely on the ATM until I find a menu option for “extranjeros” (foreigners). Attempt to withdraw 200.000 Chilean pesos. Argue with the ATM machine: I know I do have that much money in my account, so don’t you give me any sass! The ATM machine wins. Settle for withdrawing a slightly smaller amount. Secrete it in many different pockets around my person.

Step Two: get to Santiago bus terminal. Ask a taxi driver where the Valparaíso bus is, and learn that I need take a bus to the Santiago terminal, and then to Valpo. Politely decline his offer of a taxi-ride to the terminal. Locate and start to board the bus, but first ask if the driver has change for [x amount] — nope. Wander off to find someone who will give me change. Achieve a small amount of change. Suddenly realize that I had asked the bus driver if he had change for the wrong amount (by about 100 times too much). Oh well. Board bus to Santiago terminal, and chat with a nice young architecture student from Colombia. Gaze hungrily at the brand-new scenery and all the unusual trees, and the hand-lettered storefronts, and the abundant stray dogs. Arrive at terminal and get briefly adopted by a young man, who walks me to where Valpo bus tickets are sold and asks if I need a compañero for the trip. Politely decline. Attempt to use Santiago payphones but they all reject my coins (I was supposed to call the owner of my lodging from Santiago, so she could come meet me in Valpo).

Step Three: get to Valpo. Board bus to Valpo and, once again, nod off and on and off. Wake up on the bus just in time to see a sign for “Valparaíso, 5 miles” (or was it kilometers?), and force myself awake to watch out the window as we approach. Reach the outskirts of the city: it is just as I had hoped and imagined. Vividly painted houses that seem to be stacked atop one another (by virtue of the hilly terrain), cacti sticking up from disturbed wet earth, wild plants growing over everything, dotted with flowers. Enter the central part of town, which has less colorful, more city-style buildings (e.g. as you might find in San Francisco), but still overlain with wordy advertisements and hubbub. Retrieve suitcase from bowels of bus, and drag it past more taxi-hawkers in search of a payphone.

Step Four: get to lodgings. Find payphone and discover it has the same impractical problem as the Santiago phones did: nine out of every ten times, when you give it a coin at the appropriate time, it spits it back out. Finally manage to get it to accept my coin and the phone number, and call my lodging contact “V.”. Humph at the phone service: V. can hear enough to guess that it’s me, but the connection is so bad that she cannot hear anything else. Try a few other phones but they all decide not to accept my coins. Now unsure whether she’s on her way, or not: walk out to the street and stare at cars and passerby for a while. Walk back in and decide to ask a man at a booth if there’s anything special I need to do to get the phones to function for me. Oh, dear: he leaves his booth and walks me to a Phone Central half-a-block away. Paranoidly prepared for tourist-hunters, I worry that he’s expecting a payment. He spends five minutes devotedly dialing both of the numbers I have written down until he finally gets through on V.’s cell, arranges a place for us to meet, and gives me a timeline. I gratefully Spanish-mumble, asking if I can pay him anything; he tells me that I owe the ladies at the Phone Central a few cents. He then walks me to where I am to meet V.; I ask again if I can give him any money, and he says, almost startled, “Oh, no, no.” The kindness of strangers.

V. shows up shortly thereafter and greets me with a big hug, and we walk to catch a bus back to where she, and now I, live. The bus is wild and cramped. I squeeze my bags close to me as we careen up the hills and through the crooked streets. Eventually, we ring the bus to stop — which it does, lurchingly. We turn down a side alley and walk down several trillion stairs, and then we reach her B&B. We do a brief tour — my room has three beds in it, but no other occupants, and it opens onto a marvelous sun-porch with about as Valparaíso a view as one could ask for: stacked colored buildings stuck in amongst trees, children and dogs running by on the stony path below, and the ocean glittering off in the distance. I’m pretty sure I’ll end up describing this same kind of “typical vista” eleventy-thousand times by the end of this trip, but that’s okay — it’s pretty darn amazing.

The sun-porch. (You can faintly see the ocean through the far window.)

V. asks if I would like coffee; I opt for water. She pours me water and then also offers me tea, which I accept. And then she asks if I’d like a sandwich. Well, wow, certainly! She pulls out a map and marks on it how to get to my language school, and other interesting places I might enjoy. V. then goes out for a bit and then comes back with a giant bag of strawberries, from which she fixes me a sliced bowlful. I spend the rest of my day catching up on emails inside, then getting too chilly, and moving to the sun-porch to finish reading my book (Affinity, by Sarah Waters). We talk on and off; I keep resorting to Spanglish and even English, but she is patient. I putter, I try not to let the sleep deprivation win. Just when I’ve decided that I am too tired to go find dinner, she wanders downstairs and asks if I would like pasta. She tells me I should go read or relax while she cooks it, and then we eat y hablamos más en español. Then, contented, I finally lay down to sleep for more than an hour at a time for the first time in two days. Or here’s a-hopin’.

5 thoughts on “October 21, 2011: Arriving in Chile. Planes, buses, and telephones, oh my!

    1. I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of the money. I keep hearing conflicting stories: nobody uses coins as small as 100 pesos anymore (except that they totally do), and nobody will break a bill larger than 10,000 (partly true, but depends on the place). Currency is so strange and interesting.

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