Chilean Cocktail

As usual, there is a huge time lag between the actual time of travel and this blog post. I think its more than 2 months since I left Bolivia…. I still remember that day so clearly in my mind. Waking up at 5 am to take the jeep to the border of Bolivia and Chile. I dont remember it because of the unearthly hour I had to wake up. I remember it because of the goodbyes I had to say to Mauro, Lina and Diego. The jeep ride did not take too long…. we went to the thermal spring and then to the Laguna Verde (Green lagoon)…. everything was a slight blur for me that morning…. I was getting emotional for the first time in the trip…. How can you not with 3 wonderful people calling you their family and giving you a memorable gift …. a handmade Colombian passport declaring me as a Colombian Citizen.

Anyway, I think after a few hundred pictures and many more hugs, the jeep dropped me off at the most amazing border Ive ever been to. The border of Bolivia and Chile from where you can even see Argentina. The border had 2 huts. Nothing more. 1 for Bolivian immigration and 1 for transport companies. After giving my exit slip, I got into a mini bus headed towards San Pedro De Atacama, the desert town in the North of Chile.

The minibus stopped in this really fancy immigration centre an hour later. As usual, the immigration officer took 10 minutes to look at my passport and talk to a few people before he put the entry stamp. I dont think anyone from India has ever come that way. I try to always go last in the line so that I dont have to make others wait… the time ratio for immigration is approximately like this … 1 Indian = 20 Americans/Europeans/Australians/British = 10 Japanese/Other Asians/Other South Americans… possibly only other nationality they will take this time is with Africans.. but, guess you dont see too many of them around either…

After starting the day at something like zero degrees… I was clothed in fleece pants, jeans over it, 3 t shirts and a fleece jacket… I reached San Pedro Atacama… where it was something like 35 or 38 degrees….. The stripping of layers started from the border.. When I reached Atacama, I was wearing only the pants and a t shirt. I had a huge bundle of clothes in my hand in addition to my backpacks. For a change, I had made no plans regarding staying in Atacama.. how long I was gonna stay.. what I will be doing.. Nada….

It was so freaking hot… I desperately needed a drink… I had no Chilean Pesos.. So, I decided to head to the ATM…. Thats when the nightmare started. This little town had just 2 ATMs. 1 had run out of money and the other was a Mastercard. I had a VISA. I think I mustve tried all permutation combinations possible with my credit card, debit card, etc. Nothing worked. Basically, I was in Chile (one of the most expensive countries in South America) with no money but Bolivian change. Imagine that. What Bolivian change can buy you here is one Cutting Chai. I would have been happy had that been available.

Anyway, the fortunate part was that I had exchanged my Bolivian money for some American dollars with Lina. I had 10 American Dollars. Thats approximately 6000 Pesos. Thats how much a dorm bed costs in a hostel. So, I headed to a hostel and dumped my bags by paying that amount. And again, I was penniless. I was hoping the ATM would start working. 3 hours.. no luck.

Time to start thinking of other ideas. I had Brazilian and Argentinian money from the time there. with pathetic exchange rate, that worked out to another 5000 Pesos. (If you get confused with these numbers, just refer to my post called Money Money Money… its a note on exchange rates and money matters). With 5000 Pesos, I could buy a few bananas, 1 carton of juice, a loaf of bread…. and 30 minutes internet time… enough to get by that day…

ATMs did not work all day. I felt that there was no poinnt sticking around in a city like San Pedro Atacama with no money. This town was a cross between Goa and Rajasthan. Mud houses like Rajasthan mixed with the hippie culture of Goa. Expensive. Everything costs. Tours. Food. Stay. So, I made up my mind to take a bus to Santiago as soon as possible.. Anyway, that’s where I was supposed to meet Neesha…..

How do I buy a bus ticket without any money. I went online and realised that TurBus would let you buy a ticket only with a Chilean card. Since I had already lost my credit card in Peru (was stolen) and I was traveling with Roy’s credit card, my only option was to forge his signature and pray that the ticket guy would not notice. I sat outside the TurBus office, practiced Roys signature about 20 times… its bloody complicated.. Then, I walked in confidently and went to the counter with the guy. Its always easier to use any charm on a guy.. the woman in the other counter dd not look too understanding anyway…. I did the whole broken Spanish hello and explanation that I was from India…. the minute I said that, nothing else mattered to him.. he wasn’t even looking at the credit card voucher… just kept asking me about India…. I forged Roys signature, picked up the tickets and vamoosed out of there. Before leaving, I even gifted him a small packet of incense sticks. Phew!

The tours that most people do in Atacama are Sandboarding in the dunes, Night tour to check out the stars, Sunset in the valley of the moon, a trip to the Geysers… Luckily, as a part of the Uyuni tour, I had already seen the Geysers and the stars.. I could live without seeing a sunset. But, the sand dunes was something I really wanted to hit. But, I did not have money for a sand board. Instead, I just walked to the dunes (a long hot walk) and climbed up… and rolled down the sand… its more fun… trust me….. with a sandboard, you are not making that much physical contact with the sand.. however, when you roll down the dunes, you really feel like you are experiencing the desert in a manner one should experience…

I got back to the hostel later and showered like I had never seen a shower. Spent the night chatting with the receptionist and asked her to give me a wake up call. My bus to Sangtiago was at 8 am and I did not have an alarm clock.. I did not have a mobile phone…

The bus ride was the most boring bus ride of the entire trip…. Everytime I woke up (at 2 or 3 hour intervals), I only saw sand outside. Tremendously boring. Since I was buying the ticket with a credit card, I had treated myself to some luxury. Executive seats.. something like business class in a bus. I got served some food… ham and cheese sandwich and peach juice. I ate, slept, ate, slept… woke up to watch a Spanish documentary on Brazilian football… covered the year that Brazil lost to Uruguay in Maracana.. I hope I got that right… But, the man siting next to me (evidently not Brazilian) seemed to take some sadistic joy out of it.. was smiling…. I think he was an Argentinian…

I reached Santiago around 9 am on a Sunday morning…. My body was aching from the wierd position I had slept in that bus but I was so excited to meet 2 people… Neesha, after a month almost… and Naaz, after 10 years… Naaz and I had gone to school together all our lives.. She was 2 years my junior in school, lived down my street (Gandhi nagar bonding), took part in every athletic event like me and now lived in Chile with her Colombian Fiance Mauricio (Another Colo
mbian Mauro). Well.. I hadn’t met her in ages. Thanks to Facebook, I found out that she was there and had written to her. She was only too happy to see a Chennai person in chile. She had agreed to host Neesha and me for a week.

Where do I begin…. It was the most rested week…. the one week where I did not feel the need to run out of the house with my Lonely Planet to see the city. Everything was so relaxing. The bed was comfortable. The coffee was fabulous (Colombian). The shower was perfect. I felt at home. I woke up at around 10 everyday, ate a slow breakfast, had tons of coffee, used Wi-fi to write, went out ocassaionally and chatted with Naaz about all these years….

What I remember most about that week …

– Naaz dressing up in wonderful feminine clothes.. well, in school, I had never seen her in anything but shorts and t shirts around the long jump pit or the tracks… (I dont think she saw me in anything other than shorts next to the high jump pit)

– Mauro’s eyebrows… they are the most unique eyebrows…. you have to see them to believe it

– The way in which Naaz called Mauro ‘Amor’…. I think its so romantic to say ‘Amor’ that way..

– The way in which Mauro said ‘No’ sometimes just to scare you….

– The pebre and the merken…. Pebre was this deadly salsa and Merken this deadly spice.. since I was craving for food with flavour, they introduced me to these 2 spices.. and I spiked my bread everymorning with this..

– Induction to Spanish music… Naaz and Mauro made me listen to tons of music.. my love for Jarabe De Palo began somewhere in Bolivia and it only went up further in Naaz’s home

– Trying some awesome food…. we headed to an international fair organised by the embassies in Chile and we tried Colombain food, Palestinian food, Peruvian food, Thai food…. what not…

– The street juice Mote con Huesillos…. like a peach juice with dal in it or something…

– Naaz’s cool friend Pilar.. single mom.. totally sexy.. Adriano the boy who could be the perfect J&J baby…. Pilar’s love for taking photos of Adriano doing anything .. smiling, burping, crying, sitting, sleeping… Pilar’s obsession to dress up Adriano in matching stuff.. shoes, clothes, cap… every little detail…

– The trip to Valparaiso with Naaz and Mauro… clicking pictures of all the amazing graffitti there… going to a salsa club to dance…

– The posters and advertising about the Women’s week in Santiago…. against Machismo…

– The eternal debate in the living room with them.. about whether I should give in to my impulse and buy my tickets to Easter Island or not… (I eventually bought those tickets and went and had the time of my life… you will see that blog post soon)

I did see a bit of Santiago city… well, I just thought it was really American…. the Christmas tree in the city centre was made of Coke bottles…. God! That was the ugliest tree I ever saw in my life.

Apart from Naaz and Mauro, Neesha and I also met Monica. Monica is the mother of Monica (a couchsurfer who stayed with Neesha in India). Monica (the mom) wanted to show us everything in one afternoon…. She was like a woman on wheels. Right from the time she picked us up at Naaz’s house, she was on the phone non stop telling people that she was taking around Monica’s friends from India. I think we got introduced to everyone Monica knew in Santiago. She was so happy to have us around we almost felt like celebrities. Well, ofcourse Monica has met her share of celebrities (Like Mother Teresa, the Pope and all)… cause her husband was the Mayor or something of Santiago.. some important position in the government…. I remember seeing the pictures in their house…. We spent an afternoon in their house eating some really exotic salad and sauteed prawns… drinking wine…. clicking pictures so that Monica could share it with Monica (who is currently traveling in Asia)…. After a whole bunch of portfolio photos and some shopping (she bought us gifts), we headed to meet Monica’s friend Margarita, an actress. She had planned to take us for a play… in Spanish.

God… I have never felt so psyched in my life. I did not understand a word of the play. It was also one of those totally audio driven plays with sounds of drum beats and trumpets. It was dark. Dark in nature. I felt as though I was sitting in a funeral and I did not know who had died. Margarita later explained that it was difficult even for her to understand the play in terms of language as it was extremely high fi Spanish. Either way, I decided theatre in a language I did not understand wass not my cup of tea. With movies, its easy. Ive seen a couple of movies in Spanish and Portuguese now without subtitles and Ive understood them. Infact, in Santiago, I saw the most amazing movie (Proibido Proibir… a Portuguese film with Spanish subtitles) and I fell in love with it… I also saw a documentary film about Bolivian women in Spanish… infact, movies has been one of the easiest ways for me to pick up the language…

After the play with Margarita, we headed to a dinner with Margarita’s friends who all learnt Yoga. Thats another thing about south America. Sometimes, I feel like there are more people learning Yoga than any of the local stuff. Ive seen more Yoga studios that anything else. This whole Yoga group had decided to meet at an Indian restaurant. We were the guests who were supposed to check the food and tell them whether it was authentic. The chicken tikka masala was made with a white coconut gravy. Need I say more……

Anyway, Chile to me was more about the people I met… random people.. random experiences…. all in all, it was a Cocktail. One unique cocktail. The ingredients are available only in Chile… You don’t have to select them… They will find you and you can just savour the taste…. It was pretty strong… stayed with me all the way till I reached Argentina…. actually, some of it is still lingering on….

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