It is 3 am, and my fellow hostelmates in Uyuni have made no sign of waking up to my muffled alarm. I lay in bed for a few minutes, as one often does when waking up at an ungodly hour, questioning whether getting out of bed is worth it or if one should just return to beauteous sleep. I have paid for a bus ticket to a new country (Chile, #56), so I decide that is reason enough to press onward. The overnight receptionist unlocks the door, quite literally leaving me to the dogs. Thankfully, the closest pack, of about five, is much too excited by some squabble between themselves to pay me any mind. The streets are darker and emptier than when I arrived the morning before, until I arrive at the bus station where there is clearly activity. The bus company I am searching for “11 de Julio” is to send a bus at 4 am to the corner, and when 4 am comes and goes without any sign of a bus to the city of Calama, I start asking around. As it turns out, about fifteen people are all waiting for the same bus, for which the company has now changed its departure time from 4 am to 6 am without updating Busbud.com. My iPhone weather app tells me that the temperature, with wind chill, is around 16 degrees Fahrenheit.
This would not be so terrible, if all I brought on this trip wasn’t a sweatshirt and a now-ripped pair of jeans. I shiver and shake until a rival bus company, which offers services at 5 am, opens and I buy a ticket there, though they make it clear that their bus is running late and will arrive at 5:30. When the bus company I was originally supposed to use opens, I wait inside with the women there–who are lucky enough to have their own space heater–until my bus arrives. They complain about their kids, how they won’t study in school, and how they care more about making “plata,” or the regional name for money (literally “silver”). I think one of them also calls me handsome, but she could have been talking about her son.
It has somehow grown colder, and I wait by the space heater until the last of those waiting to go to Calama have already boarded the bus. I am lucky enough to have a seat, as so many people had planned to take the 4 o’clock that they all rushed to get tickets to the 5:30 when the ticket office opened. Four men are either standing or sleeping in the aisles, while I have the absolute last seat in the back stuffed between the bathroom and a man whose face is wrapped entirely in hats, scarves, and wind guards. He also has a heavy fleece blanket, in which he is tightly wrapped and well asleep. As we finally pull away from the street corner around 6, it becomes apparent that this bus, which has exposed wires where there were once TV screens, and whose seat numbers are indicated with messy Sharpie, is also not equipped with heating. In the back seat, I thankfully have a window behind me, and I am the first to feel the sun on my neck as we drive through the Atacama. My feet finally defrost around 3 hours later when the sun is high and an ajar security hatch welcomes the warm desert air.
When we step out to go through border security, it is clear that the Chilean government is extremely concerned about the influx of cocaine from Bolivia which, I learned from the La Paz walking tour, is the second largest producer of the drug after Colombia. Another interesting fact I learned from the walking tour was that the president of Bolivia actually comes from a family of coca farmers and supports their trade unequivocally. Coca, of which there are two predominant forms, one that is better for tea and one that is better for manufacturing cocaine, remains legal to grow because of its popularity for the former use. In my La Paz hostel, coca leaves were stacked next to a hot water pump for guests to make tea whenever they liked. Perhaps I was doing it wrong, but for those wondering I noticed hardly any flavor or even coloration of the water, let alone a high.
At the Chilean entry checkpoint, our bus is examined, all of our bags are sifted through, and drug-sniffing dogs follow us every step of the way. During my bag search, I almost got my beef jerky confiscated as it seemed like none of the Chilean customs agents had ever seen such clearly inferior meat products before. After asking her supervisor, my customs agent gave me back my 1-dollar Rite Aid meat sticks, but clearly felt she would have been doing me a favor by throwing them out.
After the two-hour border ordeal, which was actually quite pleasant in the early-afternoon sun, we boarded our bus again and continued through the Atacama desert. As we neared the city, we crawled through several miles of mountain switchbacks that slowed traffic immensely. When we arrived in the center of Calama, it was late afternoon but the weather was pleasant. The bus let us off at a street corner rather than a terminal, so I walked north about ten blocks to the bus station where I bought my ticket for the trip to Salta, Argentina for the following day. Thankfully, that bus had plenty of empty seats, to the point that they were offering discounts on the tickets to try to fill it. I got mine for almost half-off, though this was still the most expensive bus ticket thus far at $45 USD. Ultimately, I was glad I was able to pay with my credit card, which most restaurants and other vendors would not accept previously on the trip.
I was only to be in Chile for about 12 hours, so I definitely needed to make sure I met my criteria for really “seeing” a new country that night. The criteria, as long-time readers know, involves three things:
As I was saying, Chile was to be the biggest challenge in South America. After I had bought my bus ticket, I had satisfied the geographical requirement but had not yet eaten Chilean food or taken in Chilean culture. I stopped by the Catedral San Juan Bautista in the center of town. This technically would have satisfied the cultural clause, but was actually quite unremarkable to the point that I would have felt I was not truly taking in Chilean culture. Architecture, and cultural institutions like churches or other places of worship, are typically great low-cost ways of fulfilling the cultural requirement in new countries. However, Calama’s church seemed rather new and it seemed like it could have easily been picked up recently in Northern California and placed in Chile. This was not a church from the colonial period, and in fact it seemed the square outside was a better portrayal of Chilean culture than the church. The church’s looking rather Californian could easily be said about Calama as a whole. The people were relaxed, the air was cool and clean, and the general atmosphere seemed much safer and less crowded than the cities I had mostly been visiting so far.
Calama’s pedestrian avenues, which only make up three or four blocks, seemed particularly charming on this Friday night. A guitarist was playing seemingly the entire Beatles catalog, from the well known ones like “Yesterday,” to ones I hadn’t heard of before like “Don’t Let Me Down.” I sat in a cafe to get a soda and listen, although I admit I have never been much of a Beatles fan. I ordered a “Bilz,” a cherry soda with a warning in Spanish that says “this beverage is high in sugar” on the back. When the waitress brought me my soda, I saw in her other hand an incredibly familiar sight: a hot dog bun, seemingly stuffed to the brim with guacamole.
Many a time, back at home, when the guacamole has outlasted the chips with which one is to scoop it, I am forced to find creative uses for the remaining guacamole. Avocados, the reader likely needs no explanation, are a cherished resource in the United States, as they are not only the sole certified fruit/ vegetable that tastes like butter, but also since they are expensive and have very short shelf lives. As a result, any guacamole I come in contact with, I use in its entirety because I do not know when I will get some again. One of my favorite uses of leftover guacamole is to put it on sandwiches, or on a hot dog. In Chile, a hot dog stuffed with diced tomatoes and guacamole, and perhaps drizzled with mayonnaise, is called a “Completo.” At the small cafe, I ordered another soda, this time diet, and a Completo, which satisfied me immensely after my largely vegetable-less (but naturally not fruitless) adventure through South America. I decide I will be calling this invention a Chile-dog for the rest of my life, no matter how it angers, mystifies, or upsets people around me. It’s my life, and I am living it on my terms. I thanked the waitress, and paid with my credit card once again. Oh the luxuries of the modern world, how I have missed you.
I walked a few blocks and wound up in the slightly seedier part of town, surrounded by casinos and dirty-looking fondas. As the lights became more scarce, I decided it was time to turn around. I looked down at my feet briefly, to see if I had lost all the pink dust from Uyuni that had been staining my sneakers, and found a 10-peso coin ($0.013 USD) on the ground. Since I have no other Chilean cash, as I had by then made it my mission to try to make it through Chile just using my credit card, I decided that I was going to gamble these 10 pesos away at the casinos. I hopped into the nearest smoke-filled hall of slot machines and start casing the slot machines.
For the rest of the night, those ten pesos could not lose on the casino floor. That is to say, I could not find a machine that would accept a coin so small, so losing those ten pesos actually became a chore, walking from casino to casino, inspecting the machines, then finding the only ones with small enough betting limits were cash-free machines that accepted credit card. Just as I had so quickly celebrated the new era of cashless economy, here I was lamenting the loss of the tactile experience of spending, and thus of gambling.
After a half-hour skipping from casino to casino to no avail, I stepped out of the last building on a well-lit block, where the street had quickly become inundated with a parade of Chileans ranging from early childhood to middle age, all holding signs with acronyms I did not recognize. I followed from the sidewalk, trying to get glimpses of some of the more wordy signs so as to make sense of what was clearly a protest. All around me, people were chanting, but in such cacophony that it was hard to make out any words. I jogged a couple of blocks before I finally say a sign that asked for clean water for the indigenous peoples of Chile. I also saw many “No + AFP” signs, which I later Googled and learned protests the lack of a reliable, state-managed pension in the country of Chile. Corruption in Chile, their website explains, has made it so that most people can only take part in privately managed funds, and thus have no widespread safety net in old age similar to America’s Social Security program. I marched with them for several blocks, viewing this as a unique cultural opportunity: joining a social justice protest in the country I just entered for the first time hours before. After leaving my protesting friends, I walked back to my hostel and tossed the ten pesos in the guitar case of the guy playing Beatles tunes in the street. He gave me a very American-in-the-middle-of-impersonating-an-Englishman “thank you.”
When an actually proper dinner time approached, I felt obligated to partake in some Chilean meal that would satisfy my gustatory wanderlust. I had eaten a Chilean border empanada, and the intriguing “Completo,” but still yearned for something I had not had before back in the States. After hours of wandering the streets wherever I felt moved to go, I came across “Scout’s,” a restaurant that was well-reviewed on Yelp and considered to offer generally solid South American food. Like a Chilean Applebee’s, I thought. All I really wanted, after a day of zigzagging through the Atacama in a bus with no heat, was a beer and a very long nap. A “sleep,” I believe they call it when it happens at night and lasts from 6 to 10 hours. As I am crossing the street, like the devil on my shoulder, I see the flashing pink lights of the happy hour menu at the strip club next door. They are advertising beers for $2.000 Chilean ($3 USD) and mojitos for $2.500 ($4 USD). I shake my head for even thinking of going to a strip club for an affordable beer.
When I pull myself away and settle into my table at Scout’s, I am surprised when the menu reads that the cheapest beer they sell is $2.500. The economic Law of Yankee Stadium Hot Dogs dictates, inevitably, that the show I am about to receive here at the restaurant is better than the one next door. I order the cheapest meal on the menu, hoping it will be small and not-too-filling, as I have already had a Chile dog just a few hours before. I am wrong. For the cost of two beers, I get what appears to be half a chicken, roughly a pound of french fries, and a “Chilean Salad,” or a sliced onion atop a diced tomato. When I give up halfway through the meal, I have inevitably spent more money, and perhaps grown more disgusted with myself, than if I had just gone to the strip club next door. My meal, though modestly priced, ends up being more than my hotel room for the night.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.