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domingo 15 de diciembre
Destino: Punta Arenas Modo: Omnibus Distancia: 556 kilómetros
El Calafate, Argentina a Punta Arenas, Chile Only ten more shopping days left until Christmas! Sunday started off bright and early and very shaky. The residual brew from last night’s rounds of Quilmes dulled our response to the bedside alarm clock which sounded at 6:30. Even though we didn’t have confirmed seats, we were hoping to catch the 8:00 Pinguino bus south to Punta Arenas with a brief stop back in Rio Gallegos, our original entry point for this adventure. After quick showers and a backpack repack, we hiked up to the bus station at 7:45. Andy went a few minutes ahead of me, as I was still waiting for a full charge on the camcorder batteries. When I strolled into the bus terminal, Andy had the lowdown on our options: an 8:00 departure to Rio Gallegos arriving Punta Arenas at 18:30 for forty pesos or a 9:00 departure back to Puerto Natales via the Río Turbio border crossing and arriving Punta Arenas at 21:30 for thirtysix pesos. We opted for the more expensive bus, figuring that the earlier arrival might give us a chance to catch a night flight from Punta Arenas International north up the Chilean coast to Puerto Montt. Unfortunately, at this point, the proverbial wheels came off. With our mochilas already loaded under the bus and tickets in hand, we were boarding when I asked Andy how much I owed him for the hotel room. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “I didn’t pay for you, I just paid twelve pesos for me.” Panic ensued. It was 7:57 and we knew that the bus, like every bus that we had been on this trip, would leave on time. I was ticked off but quickly resolved to send the twelve pesos to the hostel once I got back to Buenos Aires. Not fully convinced by the merit of my plan, Andy argued that we would surely run into problems down the road. He added that we would definitely be rolling the dice having left all of our personal digits back at the del Norte when we checked in. He had a valid point, but I just couldn’t envision us being cuffed 83
and stuffed by the border guards à la COPS at Río Turbio for failure to pay half a hotel bill. Still, the “true gentleman” in both of us rose to the surface, and I sulked back down the hill to settle up while Andy reclaimed our packs. As it turned out, things would work out for the best. At 8:30, we bought our tickets for the Cootra express to Punta Arenas with a stop and change of buses in Puerto Natales. Waiting in line to board, we ran into my friend Kate, a Carolina girl, who was taking the same bus on her way to Torres del Paine for a solo trek. Kate’s presence was a redheaded blessing in disguise as it gave me a good reason to talk to Andy and vice versa. Serious attitude had flared up between us following the unpaid hotel bill fiasco. The ensuing verbal standoff in the bus terminal and heated finger-pointing threatened to turn our otherwise perfect trip into an episode of Road Rules. That kind of video melodrama, which is broadcast throughout Latin America on cable, gives many locals the impression that most gringos are a bunch of English-only eighteen year-olds. But almost every U.S. student that I had met in Latin America was like Kate: bright, mature, adventureseeking and multilingual. Fortunately, she saved us from the brink of collapse by drawing us both into a quality conversation about our recent treks. We also started up a conversation with an attractive, black-haired Swiss girl named Natalia who was on her way to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine as well. We talked most of the way to Puerto Natales where we disembarked next to the rusting coal train engine in the central plaza at 14:00. We took some photographs together with Kate and Natalia before leaving, exchanged e-mail addresses and said good-bye. The two girls seemed to get along well together and agreed to share a room in a local hostel for the night. With an hour to kill before the bus to Punta Arenas, Andy and I made a beeline for the supermercado, La Bombonera on Avenida Bulnes, and stocked up for the three-hundred fifty mile journey south to the end of the continent. I had 5,000 Chilean pesos burning a hole in my bosillo. Having gone without comida for eight hours, I was very hungry. 84
I bought two turkey sandwiches, two cups of La Lechera yogur, two paquetes of Coco cookies, one Coke, one Quattro, and one huge chocolate bar spiked with a fattening strawberry goo, all for about $6…Is this a great country or what? Andy showed slightly more restraint and made it out with only one sack and four pesos worth of bus grub.
We walked into the bus station at 17:30 and had thirty minutes to rest before departure. I bought a magazine entitled Muy Interesante and quickly learned not to judge Chilean magazines by their titles. It turned out to be a Spanish version of Discover geared toward 3rd graders. I also got some information about a possible place to stay down in Punta Arenas from a girl who sold me some throat lozenges from her three-wheeled kiosk in front of the bus station. Within minutes, the weather 5,000 Chilean pesos: about US $12 with the 440 peso: $1 rate. went from bad to abysmal with bosillo: pocket. Also, billetera is a wallet and icy winds, rain and hail bolsa is a bag. Quattro: South American version of Fresca. delivering a soggy triple punch. muy interesante: very interesting. I paused and thanked the ómnibus azafata: trip attendants or “stewardesses” are not uncommon on weather gods for the beautiful longer bus rides through the Patagonia. ten-day window that they had given us in the two national parks. Unfortunately, it didn’t look as if Kate and Natalia would be quite as fortunate. There were only five other passengers on the bus to Punta Arenas, so we had plenty of room to spread out and devour our food. Andy quickly fell asleep, and I managed to stay awake after the ómnibus azafata brought me a stiff paper cup of joe. A second cup was needed to get me through my maiden issue of Muy Interesante. This month’s feature article on The Wonders of Static Electricity had me borderline comatose. Around 20:00, I took a quick inventory of my fellow travelers and found that the driver and I were the only two people awake. However, 85
Loading the bus in the rain
Lonely horizon, lonely bus
Too late to fly north...
Strait of Magellan Sunset 86
the fragile cabin silence was suddenly broken when he turned on the radio. And it didn’t take long to figure out why. The excitement in the broadcaster’s voice conveyed the sheer magnitude of the event: Live from the Monumental fútbol stadium in Buenos Aires: Chile vs. Argentina! Now club fútbol in these two countries is an everyday occurrence; some follow it and some don’t. But when the selección takes the field in either country, everybody listens. Especially when these two countries, longtime enemigos, square off in World Cup qualifying matches. I listened to the scoreless first half, naturally rooting for the boys in light blue. When the halftime whistle sounded, we were pulling into the bus terminal in downtown Punta Arenas. On a tip from one of the requisite bus hustlers awaiting our arrival, we heard about a hostel where we could hang our hats for 3,000 Chilean. We donned our packs and walked due west through the deserted city streets. At that moment every man, woman and child in Punta Arenas was within an arm’s reach of a Sony Trinitron. Our dusty trail boots led us to the Backpacker’s Lodging at Fagnano 324 where the owner, Manuel, greeted us. As we had arrived smack in the middle of the second half, Manuel appeared a bit rattled. His home was full of a half dozen European and U.S. strangers and, perhaps more importantly, his team had just taken a selección: the national fútbol team that represents each country in international surprise 1-0 lead off a matches and the Copa Mundial, or World Cup. Chilean penalty kick. enemigos: rivals; although regional economic integration and new partnerships are fostering Still, Manuel removed greater ties between these two great South himself from the game to American nations. make certain that we were Sí, pero después del partido.: “Yes, but after the game.” comfortable and happy with the accommodations. He asked if we would care for dinner and I replied, “Sí, pero después del partido.” 87
Manuel appreciated our patience, and we feasted shortly thereafter on milanesa con papas fritas, tomates y pan arabe with vino blanco and hot café. Manuel and his relatives were pleased with that night’s 1-1 tie; the Argentine wonder, Gabriel Batistuta, had knocked in the equalizer midway through the second half.
There was a relaxed family atmosphere in Manuel’s home. We dined with his Chilean relatives, two young trekkers from Switzerland, a couple from Germany and a gentleman from Amsterdam. The Dutchman was a sharp chemical engineer who was on his third week of a one-month jaunt around the milanesa: a thin patty of beef or chicken, breaded and fried. Southern Cone. He papas fritas: fried potatoes, french fries Estrecho de Magallanes: the Strait of Magellan was also welltraveled and told us about his adventures in China and the U.S. where he had recently completed a training seminar at a nuclear power plant near Augusta, Georgia. Upon learning that Andy and I were from the South, he told us how he and a friend had rented a car in Atlanta and driven cross-country to California. He was delighted by the U.S. scenery and seemed especially impressed by what he called the vast open spaces of nothingness which he saw cruising along Interstate 10. He added that such spaces just don’t exist in Europe, since every square meter is developed. Around 1:00, we decided to turn in. Things were winding down in La Casa Manuel: The plates were clean, the guests were fed and the temperature was dropping rather quickly. Well past his bedtime, Manuel’s youngest son snuck out of his bedroom dressed in his pajamas, turned off the downstairs lights and plugged in a tiny green electric Christmas tree. The miniature lights bathed the yellow walls of the dining room and our bedroom in pastel shades. At Manuel’s suggestion, we were sharing a room with the twosome from Switzerland since we were the four youngest houseguests. Without 88
warning, they had bolted for the door after dinner in search of a frosty pint downtown. That sounded tempting, but being ready for an early morning flight was now our top priority. The room was already good and cold, so our twin beds were calling. Fortunately, the five alpaca blankets on each bed guaranteed a pleasant night’s sleep down here on the banks of the Estrecho de Magallanes: the southernmost night of sleep in my young life.