Published: February 12th 2012February 12th 2012
Sleeping at the border
My first time hitchhiking happened to be in the furthest place from home I'd ever been. I was in Ushuaia with my sister, and we had just finished 2 weeks of Introductory Spanish School topped by two weeks of shameless loafing around - Ushuaia was an amazing city, and is still one of my favourites. Sitting at the very bottom of South America, it has been called the Southernmost city in the world, and is a place where people from every country on earth can, and do, meet and play together.
Our plan was to head to Punta Arenas, whichever way the cars or trucks that picked us up ended up going. All our bags packed, we slung our violins on our shoulders and started out of the city. Instantly, it began pouring rain. We looked at eachother and wordlessly agreed - this town was more than good enough to stay one more night.
The next morning, we repeated the affair, this time in a cloudy but warm day. After an intense argument at the gas-station near the highway out of town, we decided the highway was right, and luckily it was (Thanks sister). Reaching city limits, we passed
Russian with the jacket
a small guard office stopping cars, but they didn't even look at us. This would be the first time I witnessed how little we mattered to South American border guards.
We passed a hitchhiker, and kept walking. Seeing another hitcher in the distance, we groaned and continued walking. It may be that hitchhiking is for bums and vagrants, but there is still an etiquette to follow. Finally past all thumbs-up hitchers on the side, we took turns thumbing and began the long wait. Before an hour had passed, the last hitchhiker walked up to us and introduced himself. His name was Daniel, a russian with impeccable Spanish and a killer jacket. He proceeded to tell us that the first hitchhiker came after him, but refused to move past. As karma usually works, a car promptly stopped and picked the bad-mannered bum up.
To pass the time and maybe attract interested drivers, my sister took out her violin and began to play. 3 minutes later, we were all stuffed into the front cab of a big transport truck with a friendly Rock music loving Argentinian who drove us all the way to Rio Grande. Daniel happened to know a
girl and her family there, and after getting dropped off at the truck stop just outside town, with a promise from the driver that he would wait for us there until 8am the next day, we managed to hitch another ride into town where we could find Daniel's friend, and one crammed after-school bus ride and a pleasant walk later, we were settled on a floor of mattresses and blankets, with complimentary and, I might add, delicious pastries to munch on. The three of us and Rominia, our benefactor, shared a bottle of wine and walked to the beach, witnessing a beautiful Pacific sunset just hours after saying goodbye to a cold-looking Atlantic sea.
The walk back out the the highway was long, and we missed the promised ride. Less than an hour later, we were on our way to the San Sebastian border with a friendly mother and son. It is amazing how normal it is to pick up complete strangers is in the South. It wasn't a crazy thing for them to do, it wasn't socially unacceptable; we needed a ride, and they were happy to help. The most unhelpful people we met that day were the
Torres Del Paine
Parque Nacional outside of Puerto Natales
border officials, who kept us waiting for 8 hours along with hundreds of other poor souls in the middle of the desert-becalmed outpost before we could get our passports stamped. Standing outside in the freezing cold for 7 of them before finally being able to squeeze in the doors, having nothing to eat but a shared chocolate bar and taking turns to share a much-needed smoke out of sight from the guards, we had to eventually say goodbye to the mother and son. The ferry we were planning to take to Punta Arenas was not running that late in the day, and they were driving far past the terminal. We decided to sleep at the border for the night, and try to hitchhike out in the morning. After shivering from the frigid temperatures for several hours, the guards finally took pity on us and allowed us to sleep in their border office, as long as we promised not to play with their scanning machine. We happily agreed to this deal.
After waiting hours for a ride the next morning, we walked down the highway to the hosteria and small ranch that was almost 2 miles away. Finding no luck there either, we trekked back to the border, and waited another few hours until we found rides seperately to Punta Arenas, me and my sister with a big family in a van. The smaller kids stared at us nervously (gringos?!) for the entire ride, regardless of our efforts to connect and communicate with them. Nevertheless we reached the sea, and on the ferry ride, it was possible to see fairly large pink jellyfish, a sighting that I shared with an Argentinian, along with a cigarette. These are the moments I sometimes love most about traveling; a brief interlude between activities, with nothing to do but contemplate what the hell you are doing and what could possibly come next; but in this intensely personal moment, I had the company of a friendly, equally quiet, complete stranger.
We arrived in the city, and began the difficult search for accomodations. Everything was full, or too expensive, until we found a small and cheap homestay that made us, for some unexplainable reason, very uneasy; it was just for one night however, so we took it, and walked to the waterfront. Our hunger overcoming our desire to walk around aimlessly, we headed to the mercado, where we could purchase massive portions of food for almost nothing : 1 000 chilenos is 2 dollars, and nothing was less than 3 000.
Back in the hotel, accompanied with a fully cooked roast chicken, a loaf of bread, jugs of juice and other edibles, we fell asleep, saving what was left for the morning. Another long walk to the edge of town and 2 rides later, we ran into the best ride of my life. Steaming along in a pre-80's little red beater car, we were picked up by a hopeless drunk and either a mute or very quiet man. Thankfully, the mute was driving, and we shared the boxed wine with the drunk, who was a pleasure to talk to. 5 miles down the road, they braked suddenly and screeched to a halt on the dusty roadside, before muttering insensible words, squealing around in a rapid 180, and flying back down the way they had come. I guess it was time to stick the thumb out again.
The second car to drive our way slowly came to a stop next to us, and we saw Daniels face grinning at us out the window. Hopping out, he dumped his bag and the car drove off. We were back to 3. A few missed cars and a rock-aiming contest later, the sound of a engine in horrible shape started growing louder. Who would it be, but our good old friends the mute and the drunk. They had forgotten something back in the city, and the fact that there were now 3 of us may have confused them, but they didn't bat an eye or even ask any questions as they stuffed our bags in the trunk and took off at full speed, another box of wine recently opened. Perhaps they hadn't even noticed we were only two before.
Bidding a last goodbye, we found one last ride in an out-of service tourist bus heading back to its base in Puerto Natales. Running out of gas, we had to trade cigarettes with the gas-station owner for enough fuel to get us there. We finally arrived into the town, got dropped off at a camp site, set up our tents or hammocks, and as quick as that had a new home for the next few days, or until we felt like moving on again.
If we wanted to get to Puerto Natales without any problems, a bus would have been easier and quicker. What wouldn't have happened though, is us meeting Daniel, Rominia and her family, all the people who gave us rides, the man on the ferry, the mute and the drunkard; we wouldn't have spent an amazing night in Rio Grande and Punta Arenas; and there wouldn't be a story to tell about the border debaucle. The less you pay, the more you experience.