Leaving a continent – a travel log

Expreso del Norte – the bus. Photo by Ben Angel.

International travel writing – yes, it’s been done before. Reviews of international travel writing as literature have even been done before; the most notable that comes to mind is Paul Theroux’s “The Old Patagonia Express,” a log of his journey from Boston, through Mexico and Central America, to what was then the southernmost internationally connected railroad line, the “La Trochita” route that terminates at Esquel in Argentina’s Chubut country. (Although not really on Theroux’s radar back in 1979 in pre-Falklands War military-governed Argentina, this is the same area that Butch Cassidy and Sundance attempted to retire to before the temptation of a huge accumulation of payroll loot near the Argentinean naval port of Rio Gallegos proved too much to resist.)

That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be done some more. There are plenty of roads still left standing, like a soon-to-be-dead horse before its final flogging. One idea that Theroux had was to write not so much about his own experience as much as to try and pin his experiences to the people he met on the way down to the southern cone countries. Unfortunately, a rather cynical nature sort of prevails in the telling of his story, and instead of any uplifting message that one hopes to receive, his “Express” left me with the sort of taste that one gets when gossiping about silly travelers with an equally jaded traveler. You eventually wonder why bother? (For me, the answer to that question was to gather another person’s impressions about the parts of the Tren Patagonico line I had traveled upon when going to Chile in 2010.)

Still, I can’t credit myself with doing much better. Although admittedly well-written, and actually containing passages full of great praise for author Jorge Luis Borges, whom he met in Buenos Aires (he was perhaps the only recipient of Theroux’s praise among all the people he met on the way south), I’m still slamming his work. It is worth a read, but don’t expect to come away inspired, unless you have actually been on any of the trains he described. Further, I’m not as sociable as Theroux. I’m more a spectator than an interrogator.

Nonetheless, I hope that I can provide at least some insight in my story of leaving behind faded hopes and dreams for a happier reality that hopefully I won’t completely miss, that of my own daughter in her third year of learning how to be the really great person she no doubt will become.

Valparaiso, my friend

The view of Cerro Concepcion from Paseo Dimalow. Photo by Tourism Chile en Valparaiso via Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot to be said for the Puerto Principal of Chile. It’s been written about, certainly, many times, from the days when the Talavera Regiment was evicted, along with the Reconquista Government, from the central coastline by rebels bold enough to brave certain death crossing the Andes, just for the sake of the element of surprise, to the days of the self-exiled Lord Cochrane, who fought in support of national independence first in Chile before moving on to a handful of other countries. Charles Darwin included it in his logs, the very ones that eventually led to the formation of his Theory of Natural Selection, and Liborio Brieba, when he wasn’t busy devising the first ascensor in Valparaiso on the side of Cerro Concepcion or building German-like settlements east of Viña del Mar (Villa Alemana was his design), wrote novels of history and deviltry for an enthusiastic audience.

Still, around each corner there is an as yet unknown story. For every tale of sainted serial killers rewritten for yet another unaware audience, there are stories of people with far more uplifting tales. Among the strongest that I’ve come across that ranks among the untold was that of a single mom who set out to pursue her dream of owning a hostel on the city’s Cerro Alegre, or as friends of mine would one time joke, the “Happy Hill.”

When I came to Valparaiso, I had no real friends in Chile. I arrived perhaps three days after crossing the Argentine-Chilean border between Bariloche and Osorno, passing at the time through countryside freakishly like that near the city I grew up in, Seattle. When the bus pulled into Valparaiso for the first time, it reminded me of Baku, the dilapidated capital of Azerbaijan, and I wondered if I made a mistake in coming to this place. Originally, I thought that perhaps this old port, or the newer city of Viña del Mar, would make a great place to settle my wife and child while I continued my engineering career.  I still think it might have been, had circumstances been somewhat different.

But continuing the story of meeting my friend Carolina Blanco Vargas, I took the train to the Puerto Station after buying a Metro card that established my determination to someday make this 2010 earthquake-stricken city home (all for the cost of maybe an extra 3.60 USD), and then clambering with all my bags across Plaza Sotomayor up to the Peral hillclimb. Cruelly, the ascensor El Peral was well camouflaged against my English-and-Russian trained eyes, and I only caught sight of it when I reached the top at Paseo Yugoslavo.

As most of the energy slowly faded from my limbs, I received a gesture of pity from a person standing at a gate, who flagged a passing guy who took me up the hill to what was then the last hostel up, Valposhostel. He introduced me to the owner, a woman in her younger 30s, who had struggled successfully to open this place in the promise of tourism growth that left everyone intoxicated in that up and coming place until early Saturday morning, Feb. 26, 2010, when catastrophe changed everything. She then truly became a struggling business owner, with a very willful two-year-old on top of everything else, testing her during every moment that wasn’t committed to care for her business.

As I left to work on mediaguas in central Chile for a couple months, basing myself and my search for work in Santiago, she invited me to come back with her catch-phrase that there was always a home for me there if I ever returned to Valparaiso. Naturally, when the hunt for work bogged down, and it looked as if no one would ever respond to any of my CVs, I decided that this would be the person to approach about trying to find a place to settle in the port, rather than in the capital.

As I would later joke, if I wasn’t going to find work, I might as well not find work in a place I felt inspired. It might have been the old world scenery outside, or the triangle of Pacific Ocean blue that formed near Muelle Baron, or just the occasional cheery face mixed with the hundreds of typical scowls that you’d also see in Santiago. But chances are, the real reason for the inspiration was just having a friendly person who would put up with me and my never-ending typing on my computer, and quietly support it.

Her struggles as a mom interested me in that they were a year ahead of my wife’s struggles with our little one. I could catch cues from Macarena about the things that Albina might have problems with a year later. Both little girls had great potential as future leaders, mostly because they were both so head-strong.  And the difficulties that Carolina faced being a single mother helped me understand where I would eventually be useful in supporting Marina, my wife, whenever we got back together.

For two years, I typed on my own work and I watched Carola work. Eventually, I was given an unofficial role in watching the hostel whenever needed, and just helping out around when things needed to be done. In return, I could stay without having to pay. This allowed me to find avenues first to make myself known as a researcher, such as through the genealogical website called Geni, and as a writer, such as through the online publication I Love Chile, published by Dan Brewington.

It was through Carola that I made what friends I did make on Cerro Alegre. I learned the struggle of the poor people of the country during the building of mediaguas, as well as the wonders of discovery that the sons and daughters of the wealthy gained in helping them as fellow volunteers. But I learned what celebration was like for a Porteño during Cerro Alegre’s street parties and peñas, and through watching the people of the hill dancing the cueca after downing too much hot wine and piscolas.

Eventually, though, I could no longer ignore that my little girl was growing older without me being there in Belarus to watch her myself. I watched from afar as God fulfilled my fervent wish that she be beautiful. As she approached three, I knew the time had come for me to fulfill my part in raising her, to help her become as intelligent as she was beautiful, so that when happiness came around, she would know what needed to be done to ensure that she would partake in her rightful share of it.

That meant that I could no longer “not find work” in Valparaiso anymore. I had to find a way to get across the ocean again and back with my family. I began ghost-writing to allow my wife to earn money from a Kazakh essay house to both stay afloat (after Belarusian taxes) and eventually pay part of my crossing to get back to her. My parents paid the rest.

At Christmas 2011, I finally let Carola know that I was getting set to leave. She took the news stoically, but with the full shared understanding that yes, it was time. Albina would soon have memories that would survive to adulthood. I needed to be in them, and not just another face on a computer screen that competed with what YouTube had to offer for children’s entertainment.

On May 10, 2012, after finally packing, cleaning clothes, and seeing for the only time a home of Pablo Neruda, the Cerro Bellavista-based La Sebastiana, I left Valposhostel for the last time as the sun began to rise over the Andes. Valparaiso Bay shown in its beauty, not wanting to be forgotten. Carola, meanwhile, kept a smile on her face through the drive to Viña’s bus terminal and as she said goodbye, but I knew from the goodbye to Macarena the night before that it was a false front. For me, I had no emotions. I was too numb with the mixed emotions of failure and loss of familiar surroundings and people to really sincerely express anything, if that makes any sense.

To Carola, I will remain thankful. She kept me alive when she didn’t really need to. And today, as a result, I am preparing to make my way back across the ocean to the women I love and still live for.

Crossing the Atacama

Arica, the last stop in Chile. Photo by Juangoo0 via Wikimedia Commons

No more than five minutes after Carola’s face disappeared behind a concrete bus terminal wall, the city of Viña del Mar too disappeared behind an arid hillside. Dust, palm trees, and cactus separated the Expreso del Norte bus from my immediate past as this motorized floating existence passed through the streets of Brieba’s Villa Alemana, and then below Darwin’s Cerro La Campana through Limache, eventually arriving on Highway 5, the Panamerican heading northward out of Chile. Meanwhile, the driver’s assistant put on an action film, “Columbiana,” starring Amandla Stenberg and Zoe Saldana in the leading role (albeit at different ages).

At some point, sleep overtook me. Much of the early route I had seen or slept through before. But there was at least one couple, of undetermined European origin, who appeared to be on a voyage of discovery. They eventually got off the bus at Ovalle, just after the bus left Chile’s Fifth Region, Valparaiso’s Region, behind. In their place boarded grandmothers and a businessman who was on his way to Coquimbo. As the bus passed through the desert country that once housed the renegade Jorge Edwards Brown, as well as his Chilena wife, through whom so many prominent Chileans were born, Colombiana became some sort of vampire movie. Later, the screen showed a third action film, which I had stopped paying attention to long ago.

Iquique signature ship and train in the morning sun. Photo by Ben Angel.

Meanwhile, outside, the night settled on the surrounding desert, and the stars came out. For the last time, the stars of the Chilean southern sky would twinkle to me. Copiapo passed in darkness, as did Antofagasta. Gray daylight rose with tropical suddenness along a rocky coast well south of Iquique, well before the bus passed the town’s little red train and signature dark sailing ship.

A resort town, Iquique had less character than I imagined. It seemed to me before setting eyes on it to be a place of cumbia and never ending summer. Indeed, summer had ended, and children in characteristic Chilean penguin school uniforms attested to that. But still, the place had some level of charm, and the bus rose above the city along part of the route covered in the Chilean television serial “Profugos”.  It crested the hill at the town of Alto Hospicio, a desert settlement housing most of the town’s poor, before passing along into the high ground towards Highway 5.

After passing Huara, a major Bolivian road junction, the desert was partly shaded with Tamarugal trees as the bus began to dive into deep green valleys that were reminiscent of Star Wars-like Tatooine landscapes. Finally, as the bus descended past a prison, it arrived at the desert city of Arica, the last stop before the border with Peru. A quick escape from the bus station led to a lengthy struggle with my over-packed bags, and a not-so-accurate memory.

I found the train station in the daytime, but barely made it to the hostel I was after, the Arica Surf House, by nightfall. There, I took a shower and filled up for the last time my bottles with drinkable Chilean water before the Peruvian border. It was here that a fellow traveler from California informed me of a report by two German girls who had said they were turned back because a strike of undocumented miners had led to large-scale blockages of roads across the south of Peru. They could only get as far as Arequipa, and after four days of this, the government finally began to make threatening noises that they were going to do something about it.

After a night of deeper than normal sleep, I woke early and finished off my repacking before checking email one last time. I then said goodbye to the Californian after downing breakfast with him, and made my way to the train station. Outside, I was told by a kindly old man who worked there that the train wasn’t operating. Apparently the engine had died some time ago. He directed me to a collectivo, the driver of which took me back to the bus station, where I caught a bus over the Peruvian border.

This border was the scene of a drama played out within the first months of my stay in Chile, while I was still in Santiago. It was here that Joran van der Sloot, who had been preparing to resist extradition to Peru on charges of the murder of Stephany Flores, was legally outflanked by Chilean authorities, who rather than extraditing, chose instead to expel him from the country. It was at a nearby airport that he was flown in (one visible from the highway), and made to walk this very road, having nowhere else to go but back to the waiting national police of Peru. When he was captured by Chilean police while fleeing murder charges awaiting him in Lima, he had been on his way to Viña del Mar, the town where my travels to this point had started.

The roads of southern Peru

Volcan Misti from the Arequipa terminal. Photo by Ben Angel.

The desert heat had built up as the bus road into Tacna, a valley town stretched out below huge modern geoglyphs put in place by the town’s military garrison, apparently in response to a hillside sign swearing loyalty to Chile of the citizens of Arica. The border crossing had been to the sound of music. So too was the arrival of the bus at Tacna’s International Station. It was here that a huge festival had been prepared in advance of Mother’s Day, the day after that of the bus’ arrival in the Peruvian border city. Despite this more wholesome affair, outside the terminal, in the desert sun, the real scene awaited the cooler evening. Prostitutes sat on door steps awaiting any extra customers that might be passing by. Upon noticing this, it seemed time to find a way to get out of the town. Where there are hookers, there are other forms of desperate people, and Peru is not a country that is effective in restricting the distribution of weapons.

I set up in the terminal and waited for the last Flores bus to Arequipa, the run that left at 10 p.m. After placating a sore throat with soup and chicken with rice, I boarded the 6-hour run to Peru’s second city. At 4 a.m., the bus pulled in to Arequipa. According to reports back in Tacna, Arequipa was in fact worse. Stepping outside the terminal was taking your life into your own hands, at least while it was dark.

When light came out, the town appeared not that bad, although not the typical mountain town that most tourists had come to know. Indeed, other than the perfectly steep Volcan Misti, the “White City” appeared run down and not particularly clean and white, as it might have once appeared. Indeed, a lot of Peru had appeared run down. However, buses were passing through to Lima. I made arrangements to catch the bus that left at 6 p.m. that evening and waited at the terminal , safe from any problems of the outside world, as the sun finished its great arc in the daytime sky. The bus left the main terminal without incident. However, at the Flores terminal, it was apparent that the ticket sold me had been mismarked. After some jockeying around of seats, I finally found my place aboard the crowded run, and as a trade tourist fell to fitful sleep next to me, I too dozed off.

The trade tourist was among the first wave to leave the bus at Camana, a coastal town still south of the blockaded sections of road. Still, the construction detour made travelers nervous, fretting that we would become the unwilling participant in labor action.

Throughout the night, the lights of coastal facilities dodged in and out of dreams, as had sand heaps by the roadside where grades were cut into hills. In the daytime, these would have been dramatic scenes. At night, they were merely ghosts between semi-conscious moments. At one point in the night, perhaps in pre-dawn, the bus passed by the Nazca Lines, the ancient desert geoglyphs that were set out by the Nazca people for reasons unknown. The bus wouldn’t have stopped for them anyway, but supposedly there is a view point from the Panamerican Highway, the road that the bus traveled upon.

Sometime after Ica, the sun rose above the clouds, bringing daylight quickly to the countryside. The clouds parted briefly at Pisco, the city for which the Chilean national drink was named (it was here that the process was first created – it remains an international contest of national prides over who produces pisco better today). Shortly after, the last film of the trip began to play: “Colombiana”. This time, I stayed awake to watch the film in its entirety.

One night in La Victoria

The cheapest way to get around in Lima. Photo by AgainErick via Wikimedia Commons.

The bus pulled into Lima as the sun broke through the clouds. The Panamerican became eventually the Paseo de la Republic, then Avenida Iquitos, then finally the Flores Terminal in La Victoria. What the guidebooks say about La Victoria is pretty much true. It is an ugly part of the Peruvian capital, and one not particularly trustworthy at night. For me, after walking through the neighborhood and finding all the places that sold “delicioso cuy” (a type of guinea pig that reportedly tastes very horrible), I spent the day catching up on emails and forward travel research, and the evening, reading through books about quality system implementation, dry stuff I had spent years trying to get through.

Out of a desire not to risk going out, I stayed put, finishing off first a Six Sigma Execution book, then the Toyota book on training (the latter of which had great ideas for setting up systems, but which was written in perhaps too systematic an approach – the useful information became as dry as a tree twig in Tacna under such treatment). As the last bus for Trujillo carried passengers away, the security guard chased away undesirables from the lounge. At first, I was among them, but when he realized I didn’t speak Spanish, I was allowed to stay.

Beside me was a grandfather and grandson, and an elderly lady, all of whom had nowhere else to go. I guess I didn’t either. As the rest did, I fell asleep, my computer bag serving as a pillow. The first bus arrived a little before dawn, offloading a large number of people into the terminal. The skies turned from black to gray in their usual short order. Outside, the sea mist had turned the street stones wet, and as food stands began their day, I tracked down where I would need to go to catch the bus to the area of the airport.

By 9 a.m., I was waiting for either the IO 33 or the IO 46 bus to pass. Eventually, a 33 bus stopped and picked both me and my bags up. Buying two tickets, I watched as the last views of Lima went by. Eventually, the bus entered on to Avenida Faucett, then crossed over the imaginary line separating Lima from Callao. Eventually, I got off at the corner of Avenida Tomas Valle and Bertello, about a kilometer from the hostel that I was trying to get to. It was around noon when I showed up at the Pay Purix.

Pay Purix and paying postal

The Pay Purix was a nicely furnished place set in a perfect location. That it didn’t attract more than four people on the night I was there was highly surprising.

There was a grumpy American guy whose day was not being made easier by the selection of music being played by the hostel staff in the day. Then there was the Danish girl and the black British guy who had become travel partners at some point. And I set up my computer and started typing away outside of everyone’s field of view. What I was working on was forward research and answers to email while coordinating with my father on the transfer of needed funds. When that was arranged, I went to the airport, intent on sending off a final package to the United States.

A 1.5 kilometer walk later and I reached the terminal. Under the watchful eye of guards, who eyed my box suspiciously, I went up the escalator to the Serpostal facility at the International terminal. I figured I probably had about 30-40 USD worth of postal charges to pay. I prepared for such a prospect. Turned out I was wrong. When the postal worker weighed my box and asked its destination, the number I got back was something like 262.20 Peruvian Nuevo Soles. This was roughly 100 USD.  I quietly thanked her for the information, took my box, and walked off.

Insane. That’s the only way to describe that. The owner of the Pay Purix hostel later assured me that this was merely the airport facility’s price, that if I sent it from in town, the price would be different. But it marks a definite wrongward trend in pricing. At this rate, souvenir shopping will become a thing of the past in most tourist markets.

However, my entrepreneurial mind kicked in and came up with a couple solutions. One was “featherweight souvenirs”.  Essentially, this would be selling a feather with the name of the tourist destination on one side, and an estimated postal price for sending the “souvenir” home on the other side. Eventually word would hit the appropriate tourist agencies, who would finally correct the pricing trend.

The other solution involved the idea of the price literally “removing the shirt from the tourist’s back”. The solution there is to make sure that the shirt is not particularly pricey. If a person packs only clothes they are going to dispose of on a trip where it is well-known that tourists are fleeced by postal authorities and airlines with overweight baggage fees, they can counterbalance the weight of souvenirs by throwing out the clothes they used at the end of the day. The idea would be that when they left, the bag would come in at the same weight in which it arrived, or less, if there are fewer people to buy for.

The obvious downside to this is when a person has to extend because of weather or political turmoil, or undocumented miners blockading the road. This of course is where the souvenir T-shirt and sweatpants with “Callao wow” written across the bottom comes in handy.

Yes, indeed, every problem creates an opportunity…

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