The Mountain Pass to the Pleasant City

Trip Start Jun 16, 2006
Trip End Aug 15, 2006

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

As I gaze out the window of my beloved bus (we seem to have a recurring theme here--an enduring relationship), my best friend, Aconcagua sneers at me. The highest mountain in the western hemisphere. Two years ago, this mountain beat me. Two years ago, I was woefully unprepared, fighting the wind and the altitude, trying to get to the first refuge, the first base camp. I was forced to turn around due to time and inexperience.

Two years later, the Mountain God has found a way to screw me over again. This time, it has managed to turn a 6 hour bus ride into 10 hours. Traffic is at a crawl on the international highway. The road was closed for several days, and now everyone is trying to get to Chile. It`s backed up for miles and miles by buses, trucks, and cars.

Now I understand why it was closed. There`s snow everywhere, more than I`ve ever seen in my life. This could be Alaska. This could be Antarctica. The mountains are clearly unforgiving and vertical. Everything is impossibly steep.

The highlight of the ride (aside from the spectacular scenery) is the crazy old woman sitting in front of me. We`re on the top deck of the bus, and she is in the front row, looking out the forward window, quite an enviable position. I`m in the row behind and I get to watch her antics. She screeches to the steward about the time it is taking and the service. He eventually tells her, "Ya no vengo por sus comentarios." (I`m not coming back for your commentary). She complains about how she spent some of her pension on the trip. I`m not exactly sure, but pension has several meanings depending on the context, so she either meant some of her savings or she was missing the food service wherever she was staying. So I guess that sucks. Everytime she is upset, she taps the steal beam in front of her, to send a message to the driver below her. After a while, the driver starts to tap back.

All I can do is laugh with the friendly Chilean girl next to me. Sometimes livin` ain`t easy and you have to roll with the punches. That`s what I tell my seatmate. She agrees--everyone wants to arrive early, but that can`t always be the case. She makes this trip 15 times a year, so well, shit. She splits time between studying in Mendoza (because it is cheaper) and living in Santiago. I couldn`t understand if her parents were divorced and live in the respective cities, Chileans talk so fast.

I get a break from the screeching and the conversation when they play The Motorcycle Diaries. Now, this is very cheesy, but there is no more fitting movie when you are leaving Argentina and passing through the Andes to Chile. Right now, I`m more or less following the same route as Che Guevara did. All of the gringoes and I are chasing a shadow. We`ve been to the same places. We`re sharing the same landscapes. My grand design isn`t so original.

I don`t want to draw on too many similarities between Che and I, but Che was 23 when he did this. I`m 23. Our mode of transportation is different, but the spirit is still there. Che was liberal (albeit to the extreme). I`m liberal. I`m "Fuser" Eder. We share the same nostalgia for a past that we have never known.

In this moment, I do my best to look like Gael Garcia. You truly are a work of art Mr. Bernal. After the movie ends, we rest for a while, and then we start to descend. I`m reminded of the movie Alive when Ethan Hawke talks about leaving the mountains and entering the green valleys of Chile. The myth is true, beacuse the green valleys are there, and they are impeccable.

I think we`re about to arrive in Santiago, but we pull over on the highway to switch buses. The new bus is slow as hell. Apparently, some people were traveling to the otherside of the continent and needed our faster bus. Pain in the ass. Damn bus companies.

So I show up late to the capital, but everything is alright. I`m staying in a cheap (albeit outside my budget) hotel in the bohemian quarter of the downtown. Lots of bars. Lots of drunks. I`m living near Pablo Neruda`s house and the law school and everyone here is an intellectual or a hippy.

Santiago is a manageable and pleasant city (Think Toronto with a South American flair). It`s exceedingly safe and I`m able to walk around with my camera in plain view. I can also walk around and see all the sites within 4 hours. Everything is Americanized or North Americanized. We have McDonald`s, KFC, and Starbucks (the first city in South America I`ve seen with a Starbuck`s).

The other food options are interesting. I eat bad Chinese food the first night. I eat the next days lunch at the Mercado Central, a historic fish market. I chow on ceviche, fried fish, and rice. Good seafood. It`s a nice change of pace from ice cream, empanadas, and steak.

The Chileans are friendly but speak rapidly. They don`t want to speak English, which is good. Everybody thinks I`m Brazilian for some reason or another, which I`m glad about. I`m tired of being mistaken for Japanese, which seems to happen in every city I visit in the the world.

I go on a photo tour and take pictures of everything. This is ironic, becuase I take more pictures here than Bs.As. or Rio. And ultimately, Santiago lacks the character of a Buenos Aires or a Rio De Janeiro. The architecture is a hodge podge of colonial buildings and modernity (due to the earthquakes that sometimes destroy things). But the city is too safe to be terribly exciting.

The only danger is the traffic, which is terrible--and the smog. The city is nestled in a picturesque valley, but like Phoenix, during the winter it creates an inversion effect which traps all of bad air. Pretty unhealthy.

It`s sunny and warm, which contradicts the weather reports and all the conventional wisdom I gather from people. I don`t need my jacket. I climb a hill in the center of the city which has a sort of castle/garden built on it. The park is beautiful and the views are excellent. I`m snapping photos like crazy.

I`m interrupted by two people who claim to be students studying at a university. We have a pleasant conversation for a while, and then they ask for the money. They claim school is expensive here, which it is. One of them is working on his thesis. I give them money that is more than generous for the situation, but they continue to demand more. They insist that I go to a money changer with them so I can donate more. This is a trap and they could be lying. So I thank them for the conversation and say I need to get going, I have a lot of their pretty city to see and it is a beautiful day. Before I depart, they ask for American dollars. I tell them sorry and leave.

In our conversation, they are surprised by my admittedly little knowledge of Chile and the indigenous civilizations. What they don`t consider is that their actions will engender a negative valence on my perceptions of their people and their country. They claim that I am rich and that I have an obligation to them somehow. They`re convinced that they are entitled to my money.

I could have said some choice words to them, but of course I didn`t. Travling is two things to me: endeavour and privilege, and I always try to recognize both. In this case, I`m flexible and will give when I can, but I won`t break the bank doing it. I don`t think it helps either party. I`m confused as to why travelers (i.e. Westerners) are expected to change foreign societies, when their own people and governments should take care of them. Don`t get me wrong, I`m generous and compassionate, but I`m also rational. We can`t place too much stock in dependency theory.

Here, Che Guevara and I follow opposite paths.
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