A gong show for Wong

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December 31st 2008
Published: September 30th 2017
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At least the meal at the Italian joint was started with some nice, hot buns. Rarely are such hot little "buns" of this quality found outside of Spain, if you know what I mean :)
Geo: -33.0206, -71.5548

Had an early bus to Valparaiso (or Valpo, as Chileans call it), but still had time to cram down the hostel's breakfast, and make a few sandwiches with the leftover meat and cheese from my meal a couple of nights ago. I was in a bit of a rush, so I practically drank the last little container of strawberry yogurt that was also leftover from the same night.

Off to Valpo, for the biggest New Year's Eve celebration and fireworks display in all of Chile! I think the population of Valpo is normally something like 250,000, but it swells to 2 million for this one night.

Being a savvy traveler, I did some research beforehand and knew that buying tickets last-minute for New Year's Eve buses to Valpo would be almost impossible. Hence, our decision to buy these bus tickets for Valpo almost a week ago, when we were in Santiago. And being a savvy traveler, I double checked my bus tickets when I bought them to make sure everything was correct. Date? Check. Time? Check. Bus between La Serena and Valpo? Check.

But being a COMPLETELY MORONIC traveler, I neglected to confirm one thing - sure,

Some really sweet, thick, strawberry juice.
I had a ticket between La Serena and Valpo, for New Year's Eve. But what I didn't notice was that my ticket was to go FROM Valpo TO La Serena, which was the opposite of what I needed! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

Luckily, the lady at the bus station was quite helpful and understanding, because in this moment of panic, my Spanish was failing me. My whole itinerary was predicated on being in Valpo for the New Year's Eve festivities, and I actually cut out a few places I wanted to check out, in order to be there for it.

The lady suggested that I check with other bus companies for the La Serena-Valpo route, because her company was sold out. In hindsight, I should've checked, but I really just wanted to have a plan in place that would get me to Valpo, right away. And besides, if I managed to find a direct bus, which wasn't likely, then I wouldn't have such a good story to tell!

She suggested getting to Santiago and then going to Valpo from there. No good, as all the Santiago-Valpo buses were sold out. So here was the plan - take a bus back to Santiago,

The Quattro Stagione pizza was not as it should have been - it was a mixture of everything spread out on the pizza, where it really should have been four distinct quarters, all with different toppings. Mushroom, ham, shrimp, mussels ... I thought the mussels were pretty terrible on the pizza, even worse than in the empanadas last night. The entire thing was just one big, soggy mess. Mussels on a pizza ... somewhere, some old Italian granny is rolling in her grave ...
but get off at a little town called Cruces. From there, hop a micro bus to another little town, La Calera. And from there, take a bus to Valpo. This had gong show written all over it! At least it didn't cost me much extra to exchange my bus ticket, as Chilean bus regulations allow for pretty free exchanges/refunds of tickets, with only a slight penalty.

I hopped on the bus for Santiago and asked the steward what time we arrived in Cruces. He had no idea. WTF? Isn't that your job? It was funny because I didn't get to bed until late last night, and though what little sleep I had was quite poor quality, I figured that it was no big deal, because I could sleep on the 7 hour direct bus to Valpo, and arrive for the New Year's Eve festivities recharged and refreshed. So much for that plan!

Not knowing what time we were to arrive in Cruces meant that I couldn't take it easy and sleep, as I needed to keep an eye out for it. And unfortunately for me, both Cruces and La Calera were both too small to be shown on

Beautiful fountain at Plaza Victoria.
my guidebook maps of Chile. But on the positive side, being awake meant that I saw some nice scenery around Los Vilos. It was a little bit overcast and hazy today, with the waves pounding the rough shoreline, and reminded me a lot of some pictures I took on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, such as this: http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/pwong/canaries-2007/1199575320/tpod.html#pbrowser/pwong/canaries-2007/1199575320/filename=dsc00077.jpg

I was VERY glad that I packed those sandwiches earlier, because the bus made no real stops for meals. We finally reached Cruce, but where the heck could I take a microbus? The bus steward didn't know, but luckily my Spanish had returned after calming down, and a local was able to give me directions.

I hopped onto the microbus, but realized I had no idea where to get off. Again, some locals helped point me in the right direction and told me where the Valpo bus stop was. But it turned out the stop was for a different bus company, and not Turbus, the company I had my tickets with.

I thought about buying a new ticket with this company, but decided that with so many things already going wrong today, it was best to stick with the original plan, as

Brent and I - I think we've both had a little bit too much of that crazy Chilean sun ...
I didn't want to introduce any more random mishaps by changing things up. I was given directions to the central bus station, where Turbus departs from, and made my way there on foot.

Finally, I was ready to catch my bus to Valpo - I had two hours to kill beforehand, so I double checked with the ticket agent that my ticket was in fact correct, and that I would arrive in Valpo on time. I didn't want a repeat of today's earlier fiasco! She confirmed everything, so I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. I went outside to catch my breath, and got a few Chino stares. One vendor started talking to me and was shocked that I spoke Spanish, and regarded me as a bit of a novelty. I made a mental note that I have yet to find a single, attractive Chilean women that finds me as much of a novelty ...

Getting hungry, I grabbed a quick empanada - ham and cheese, it was a little too doughy for my liking. Soon, I will be VERY sick of empanadas ... unless I can find more like the ones from the empanada lady in

That looks painful! I'm not sure why, but Hannah grabbed a chunk of Mauricio's face and stretched it much farther than I thought it would.
La Serena! I washed it all down with some too-sweet papaya juice.

Thinking that I might not have a chance for a decent meal later (not that I'd had one up to this point today), I bought some trail mix from a nice old lady, who I ended up chatting with. I'd have to say that aside from the odd Chino stare, one of the highlights of Chile has been the friendliness of the people. People have come up to me within seconds of me pulling out my map, to ask if I needed directions. And people have always been curious to ask me where I'm from and chat with me, and not simply because I'm a Chino!

Anyway, the old lady suggested that if I wanted to improve my Spanish, I should find a nice Chilean girl to practice with. What a grand idea! Maybe the Hotel Plaza Londres in Santiago will begin offering Spanish lessons? If the lovely Macarena is teaching, I'd sign up in a second!

So I waited patiently for my bus ... until it was 30 minutes late. I began to panic and regretted not taking that other Valpo bus I first encountered here

Mauricio looks much more comfortable in this photo, now that his face is no longer being stretched.
in La Calera. I asked some of the bus station workers about it, and they didn't seem to have any idea that Turbus operated any routes to Valpo from here. Uh oh ...

So I popped over to the ticket office, where the lady was looking frazzled, working the phone lines and dealing with some guys that seemed to be having problems getting where they had to go. I asked about Valpo and she told me that she was calling to find out, but had no idea where it was, or what the problem was.

I understand she was frazzled, but she really wasn't all that helpful - I asked if she had any idea when it would arrive, and she responded in some Spanish that I simply could not understand. I asked if she could repeat it once more, but still had no luck. I got the impression that she had no idea what was happening, so I phrased it in such a way that she could simply answer yes or no - I said, "So you have no idea what time it will arrive?" But unfortunately, her answer was never yes or no, it was always

Chaos at Paseo Atkinson.
a bit of a rant.

I tried a few more times, even telling her that I really couldn't understand, but she was never able to communicate to me what was happening. I then asked if she could write it down, as between her accent and both our frazzled minds, nothing was making sense. She then just said "At least another hour late!" Still not much help, but at least it was something.

So this is where things could have turned REALLY bad. I started to think that there was no way I would get to Valpo on this bus, so I considered walking back to the earlier bus stop and seeing if they had any more buses today. But I decided instead to sit down, calm down, and figure out what to do in the event of not making it there tonight.

I ended up chatting with some local guy for a bit, who was also getting concerned that his bus hadn't arrived yet. But within 20 minutes, the Valpo bus finally arrived. If I had wandered off, there was a very good chance that I would have missed this bus, and been REALLY screwed. Smiling at

Even more chaos heading down to the port! It was tough keeping together, as there was simply too much human traffic.
finally having some good fortune, I happily hopped aboard. If all things went well, I'd get to town with plenty of time to spare before the fireworks.

Buying a cell phone a few days ago turned out to be a great move - I had called Ben earlier today and told him that I'd be arriving late, but not to worry about me, and to have dinner and meet me back at the hotel at 9 PM. And I'd been texting Diane all day, checking on what was happening with the fireworks later, and giving her updates on my escapades today. And by the way, texting is way more complicated on an international phone like this. For example, there are about 10 different "A"s available with almost every type of accent you could imagine, so if you miss the "A" that you need, you'll be pushing that button many more times to get it back.

Finally, I was able to relax and have a bit of a nap on the bus. Though, it wasn't a deep sleep, because I was still expecting something to go wrong - an accident, a flat tire, ending up in Argentina, instead ... When

I guess Chile has quite a few riots - riot police vehicles were standing by on a sidestreet not far from the port, in the event of the festivities getting out of hand.
I left La Serena today, I expected to arrive around 19:30, but I actually got here early, at 19:15. But of course, had I actually booked a bus from La Serena TO Valpo, I would have arrived early in the afternoon. But let's not talk further of this, OK?

The bus first stopped in the city of Vina del Mar; in fact, both cities are essentially the same - you literally cross a street and you're in the other city. Vina looks nice, but a little bit sanitized. Valpo is grittier, and appears to be more authentic.

One thing that really sucks with having sunburned arms is that it stings like you wouldn't believe when you're sliding on/off a 30 lb backpack. Ouch! Once we arrived in Valpo and I strapped my pack on, a homeless guy approached me for some spare change. Normally I wouldn't, but he seemed so genuinely ecstatic that I actually spoke Spanish, that I gave him a 500 peso coin (worth about $1 CAD).

I'd forgotten that it was still a decent amount of money here, so he grabbed my hand and started shaking it. I know it sounds bad, but I couldn't help

Most of the people had vacated the port by the time we got there. A huge mess!
but notice how sticky it was and wonder where it had been, and when it had last been washed. Eeew!!! And the next thing I knew, he grabbed me and hugged me! My first thought was "EEEEWWW!!!", but then my second thought was "Maybe he's trying to pickpocket me!!!", so I quickly crammed my hands into my front pockets, where all my money was.

It would've been quite the priceless picture to have - me, with my hands in my pockets, my backpack hanging off my shoulder, a homeless guy hanging off my front, a look of disgust on my face, and a look of glee on his. Why don't Spanish women find me so huggable?

I walked over to the Hotel Puerto Valparaiso, which was conveniently located less than a kilometer from the bus station. This was also a bad thing, because the bus station is in the dodgier part of town. They must have phenomenal photographers in Chile, because both this place and the Hotel Plaza Londres look great in the photos, but in person, leave much to be desired. I will note, however, that the website showed a potentially cute receptionist under less-than-ideal lighting conditions and

We found a bathroom for the girls, but the lineup was much too long, so they ducked into the men's room, apparently amidst much hooting and hollering.
at the time, I thought "I'll bet she looks even better in person ..." And I was right! Let's just say that Liszett was qualified to work the reception desk of any hotel in Spain ...

Upon first seeing her, I thought "Hmmm ... maybe this hotel isn't so bad, after all ..." My second thought was "Maybe if I give her 500 pesos, she'll hug me like that homeless dude hugged me ..." The hotel room was even scuzzier than the exterior, and the bathroom was even scuzzier than that. But then I remembered who was at the reception desk, and then for a moment, it seemed like I was staying at the Ritz Carlton ...

Brent, the Aussie from Santiago, gave me a call - I had earlier texted him to see what the plans were for New Year's Eve, since he would also be in Valpo. Normally, the bus ride from Santiago to Valpo is only 1.5 hours, but because of the massive amounts of people heading here, Brent was trapped 5.5 hours on the bus! He had fallen asleep almost immediately after boarding the bus, and almost two hours later he awoke, to find that they

The insanely unhealthy chorrillana.
had only made it to the outer suburbs of Santiago. And this was all without A/C!!! "I need a drink!" was all he said when I asked how he was doing! Apparently it was chaos at the bus station, with a few buses departing for Valpo every few minutes.

I told Brent that I'd call him later, once I figured out what Diannah, and BH&M were doing. After I took a quick shower, I read the note from Ben that Liszett had handed me when I checked in. So the plans had changed - we'd no longer be meeting at the hotel at 21:00, but exactly what was going to happen? These had to be the worst instructions in the history of mankind!!!

I was told that they'd be having dinner at a restaurant on the corner of Yunguay, Esmeralda, Rodriguez, and Martinez ... uh ... ok ... how is it possible for there to be an intersection of four streets? I figured that it must be at some plaza, so I pull out a map to find that none of these streets actually intersected ... ok ... there was no mention of a restaurant name, or an address ... ok ...

At least this gave me an excuse to chat with Liszett - she told me that she had seen Ben's map, and she kind of remembered the name of the restaurant being "La Playa", and she pointed out to a spot on the map where she remembered Ben having made an asterisk. It wasn't much to go off of, but it was more than I knew before, so I was off to go find them.

Even on the very slim chance that I did find the restaurant, I figured I wouldn't catch them anyway, since the note made no mention of what time they would be there. The note also mentioned watching the fireworks from the port, so I knew where to find them later, but to spot them in a crowd of a few hundred thousand people? Not going to happen!

I spent 90 minutes looking - first of all, there was no restaurant named "La Playa" at the intersection Liszett showed me, and I walked up and down along all four streets that were mentioned in Ben's note. I gave up and firmed up plans with Diannah and Brent - Ben has my cell phone number, so if they called I'd find them, but I wasn't going to aimlessly wander around Valpo for the remainder of the night!

I grabbed a quick, terrible pizza at some Italian joint not too far from where Liszett thought Ben might have been directing me. Perhaps it was a mistake eating at a place where they answer "yes" to the question "Can I get a pizza and eat it within 30 minutes?" If it is indeed possible, it can't be a good thing! The pizza could only be described as "pukeworthy" - hopefully these words don't turn out to be prophetic, because that's not how I want to spend New Year's Eve!

Off to meet Brent - as I've mentioned before, aside from some of the hotels I've stayed in, girl watching in Chile hasn't been that great. But with 2 million people in town tonight, things were looking up! I waited for Brent at Plaza Victoria, and we were off to meet Diannah, but first with a quick detour to grab Brent some food. Brent had two completos, giant sandwiches stuffed with a grilled, thin piece of beef, and everything else you could imagine.

Off to find Diannah and Mauricio, Diane's boyfriend. Drivers here seem to speed up if you are jaywalking - maybe it's some big game of "Hit the Chino freak"? Paseo Atkinson was where we would be watching the fireworks tonight - I felt bad because the three of them had arrived there hours before, and sat on the ground trying to save spots for me, and the three or four other friends I was supposed to bring. Poor Hannah - apparently some girl had her butt in her face for quite some time. Of course, being a guy, I thought that could potentially be an enjoyable experience ...

It was a great spot to watch the festivities, except for a group of buildings that partially blocked the view. It was an awesome New Year's Eve, despite the disappointment of not being able to celebrate with my friends - we had come all this way to celebrate New Year's Eve in Valpo, and it never happened. But sometimes with bad, comes good - I didn't get to celebrate with friends I've known for over 10 years, but at least I was able to celebrate with newfound friends. After a day full of hassles and plans that never came to fruition, I'd have to say that everything turned out quite well. Sometimes things don't turn out how you wanted, but if at the end of the day you have a big smile on your face, does it really matter?

The fireworks seemingly lasted forever and wasn't impressive for any intricately coordinated displays, but rather, for the sheer volume of fireworks. Things became even more chaotic once the grand finale came - after the fireworks finished, people started spraying their champagne and chanting some Chilean song. We hung around for a while, soaking in the atmosphere (and champagne spray), before heading down towards the port.

We popped into a pub to grab some drinks and a snack - Mauricio suggested we split a chorillana, kind of the signature dish of Valpo. It's a large plate of French fries, covered in chunks of beef, onions, chorizo, hot dogs, and smothered in melted cheese. A heart attack waiting to happen, it was disgusting in its overindulgent use of ingredients ... yet strangely yummy!

Brent and I took off - Brent to continue partying, since he had booked no accommodations here and was going to rock it until the morning, when he could catch a bus back to Santiago. I was headed back to the hotel to crash - Diane seemed a bit concerned because it was at least a 30 minute walk back for me, and Valpo has a reputation for being pretty dodgy at night, but I wasn't worried since I'd be sticking to the main roads and there were tons of people out.

I finally stumbled back to the hotel and hoped that everybody would be up, but given that it was past 3 AM ... nope!


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