Sunday, October 24, 2010

Comedy in Chilean Buses


The time for “aimless wandering” in Valpariso had come to end.  Our time in Chile had also come to end (for now).  Our journey to Argentina began at 6:30 AM and included a series of buses (including funiculars) that would spirit us across the border and into Mendoza, Argentina.  Wine Country.  Cheap, but delicious, wine country.  Yum.

We skipped a lot of steps for a mere $0.75
We left our hostal at 6:30 am so we could catch the first funicular down our hill.  The well-spent 75 cent ride (each) deposited us right at the bottom of the hill, where we were told we could hail any micro-bus (pronounced “mee-cro-bus”) because they all went to the main Valpo bus terminal.*  It was reassuring to know that we could not catch a micro-bus that did not go the bus station because our Spanish is especially bad at 7:10 AM.  We were doubly glad that all micro-buses went to the bus station because it was also raining. 

As we stood in the rain the first micro-bus we saw had a large sign that read “Viña del Mar”; we nervously boarded the (thankfully empty) bus and confirmed with the driver that his bus would stop at the central bus station.  Assured by his machine-gun response of “sí, sí, sí, sí, sí, sí, sí, sí, sí,” we hopped on the bus, and each paid him his fare of 300 Chilean Pesos ($0.60 USD) and hoped we saw the bus station soon.

As the rain increased in its intensity, it became harder to follow the streets with our map and when the driver pulled over at a corner that was certainly not the city’s main bus terminal and told us to get off we were a bit (but not that much) surprised.  Pointing up the street it became clear that he didn’t go exactly to the bus station, but rather, a few blocks away.  Assuming that this was probably as close as this bus was going to get to the bus station we hopped off, zipped up our rain jackets, and started walking in the direction he pointed.  Three blocks later, after passing the opening of a number of vegetable, fish, and other street markets, we were amply concerned that we would miss our 8 AM bus (our third bus of the day) and just like any good motorists, rolled our luggage right up to a gas station to ask for directions.   

Now, even the most rudimentary Spanish speaker knows how to ask “where is the…”, so you can imagine our concern when the gas station attendant looked at us like we had three heads when we asked him where the bus station was.  Pointing first to his right, and then to his left, and finally gesturing all around him, it would not be possible for him to offer us less helpful instructions.  The situation seemed so dire we turned to one another and decided we should ask him to call a taxi.  This, however, turned out to be unnecessary, as his wild gesticulations indicated that we could indeed go in any direction.  We were standing in the gas the station that fills up every bus that comes into and goes out of Valapariso.  The only thing between us and the bus terminal was the gas station building, and as we walked around it we could see, and it was a glorious sight, that we were standing in the bus station, and our beautiful, double-decker, Cata International bus (reserved seats, semi-cama) awaited us.  We could only hope the upcoming nine hour bus ride would have a little less action and a little more certainty.

Nine hours on a bus is a long time.  The ride was mostly uneventful, except for a few points worth mentioning. 
  • Hours one to five.  On nine hour bus rides, companies should not play Spanish love songs/muzak, loudly, from the speakers directly over your seats for over 50% of the ride.  But there was beautiful scenery as we drove into the Andes mountains.  I see it in my minds eye every time I hear the popular Mexican hit, “Espara Espara” (which was the best of the four tracks they played on a loop).  We continue to look for the CD. 

Spectacular mountain scenery

Now that is beautiful mountain scenery


  • Hour five to six.  Customs.  Here, all the lines are not the same.  One line is to leave Chile.  The other is to enter Argentina.  You need both.  We only realized this after the bus driver assistant (bus attendant?)  physically walked us from the bus back to the line to gain admittance to Argentina.  I am glad we did.  It would have been a real bummer to be stuck between Chile and Argentina in the middle of a high Andes mountain pass.

Its a long climb up to Boarder Control

Almost Made it...




    Nobody wants to be stuck in a
    Chile-Argentina border patrol station.
    Even if it is cheerful looking...
  • Hour six to six-fifteen.  Our bus seems to be delayed.  Jesse and I knowingly looked to one another and scoffed at what must be an inexperienced traveler holding up the process.  Probably someone who didn’t get their passport stamped the right number of times.  Eventually, the bus driver (not the assistant) comes to the upper deck and begins barking in rapid-fire Spanish, something about bags “maletas, maletas…”.  Because we think we are all good, and because we don’t know what he is saying, we just sit quietly and gesture that we are fine.  Becuase the entire other side of the bus is looking out the window, I decide to take a look myself, and there all alone, in a sea of tables used to inspect baggage, is my bag.  Twinny Brown, and not another bag in sight.  Panicked, I shrieked, “esto es mi maleta!”  The driver, and the rest of the bus, now knowingly looked at me, and I am quite sure, thought, “Stupid Americans.  Totally novice travelers.”**  Now, imagine our double-decker bus, totally full, having just sat for 15 minutes while a single person’s piece of luggage sat unattended, and because it was locked, uninspected, that prevented us from crossing the border and entering Argentina.  The horror.  I flew down the steps and out to the table where the entire side of the bus watched me and the bus attendant attempt to get the Argentine customers officer to finish his cigarette and inspect my bag.  As he moseyed on over, I dreaded what he might find in there.  He pulled each of my ebags packing cubes and routed through them.  Holding up each of my (very limited) pieces of clothing was only mildly embarrassing – I think my ex officio boxer briefs are really nice (and all black).  When he he pulled out my bag o’health, which was filled with totally full, hand-labeled pill bottles, gauze pads, and other drug-ish looking first-aid supplies, I became a little nervous about what might be lost in translation.  As he began unzipping the bag, however, I was saved because what appeared to be about 100 tampons began falling out of the bag, and when he realized what they were, he zipped that bag up mighty fast and then waved us along.  I am sure it was the fatest he moved all day, and probably all month.  Phew.  I threw that bag back on the bus as fast as I could and we headed into Argentina.

  • Hour six-fifteen to nine:  Grinded out the rest of the ride.  Watched Grown-ups, in English with Spanish subtitles.  It was bad.  I only imagine how bad it would be if you had to read subtitles.
All in, the day was not as bad as this recounting may make it seem.  Anyway, our next bus ride is 18 hours, and after that 22.  So this was just basic training.

*Micro-buses in Valapariso are buses that run along set routes, but, it seems, can be hailed by anyone at any point along the route.  Based on the unreasonable and totally dangerous way the micro-bus drivers swerve, merge, and stop (most uncomfortably in a full bus) on a dime to offer a ride to anyone who even so much looks at the driver, they must be paid by the number of fares they sell.  Because the fares range from $0.20 (for students) to a whopping $0.60 (for an express) these guys are merciless.  Also, because they are the biggest cars on the road, the drivers of Ford Pintos and Dahatsus know to steer clear.

** And by bus, they were totally right.  This was indeed our first multi-hour, international, double-decker bus ride.

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