Chile - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 393 (203)

Santiago

Tuesday 5th April (2005)

I didn’t much feel like breakfast this morning but Sandy threw together some sandwiches for herself. In fact, what looked like a very nice breakfast was laid on this morning in the main house. Neither of us was too impressed with the hygiene in the kitchen, however, and so we weren’t particularly eager to eat there anyway. I paid the outstanding US$100 (€76,92) bill for our two nights here and we said our goodbyes to the staff as well as Kai, whom the owner’s mother rather unceremoniously shook out of bed so that he could ‘say goodbye’ to his ‘friends’. It’s always nice to share a few days with another traveller and we’ve enjoyed Kai’s company tremendously, as we have done previous travellers that we’ve temporarily met up with before him. These off-chance encounters with other travellers that we meet are all part of the experience and we feel very much richer for having met them.

As per the Jeep rental woman’s instructions, we left the Jeep at the airport with the keys in the ignition. This rough and ready four by four served us well for the past four days. Many of the people that were already there at the small terminal building were people that we’ve bumped into around the island and in town over the past few days and we all exchanged a few anecdotes of our time here. The queue of passengers was being very slowly checked in and the wait in line would have been less irritating if it weren’t for the German package tourists immediately behind me that were doing their utmost to move ahead through the line faster than it was naturally moving. It seemed to take forever for the line to whittle down to the last remaining passengers but despite that, the plane did somehow manage to take off on schedule. Given that the vast majority of the flight was over the open ocean, there’s not really much I can comment on. What was interesting nevertheless was the fact that we passed over the real Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile. We started our descent just as we were approaching the mainland and the sun was by now very low in the sky. The mountain ranges of the Andes looked particularly spectacular with a light mist hanging in the air that allowed the low sun to cast some eerie shadows between the peaks and valleys.

Once again, we find ourselves arriving into a new place, indeed a new and very different region of the world, completely blind. That is to say that we don’t know where we are going to stay or how we are even going to get out of the airport once we collect our bags. Worse still, neither of us speaks any Spanish. I must admit to being just a little apprehensive about what Chile has to throw at us. It is, after all, our first real foray into South America (excluding for the moment Easter Island) and this is the one region of the world that I must admit to knowing the least about. South America has never really been high up on my list of priorities as far as a travel destination in which to spend a lot of time and I have subsequently not devoted much time and energy to researching it. For each and every other country that we’ve visited, I’ve been able to tell Sandy, for example, all about what to expect and thus have been able to exude a certain degree of confidence towards her. This has helped in the past to put any fears or apprehensions she might have had to rest. Generally speaking, I’ve been driving this entire endeavour with Sandy following behind me, metaphorically speaking, and I’ve done my best to explain all about what is to come and what to expect as we’ve moved from one country to the next. Chile, or rather South America as a whole, is the first destination for which I’ve been unable to do this.

For all my apprehensions about South America, I’d have to say that I’ve been entirely impressed with Chile so far. All the usual formalities at the airport went very smoothly. Even the immigration officer seemed like a nice man and all he wanted to know was from where we just flew in. As we were walking towards the baggage belt, my attention was caught by a nice young lady standing at a small booth with a backlit display full of hotel listings. I swallowed my natural instinct to be wary about this sort of touting and went over to talk with her. Since we were still waiting for our bags to arrive, it didn’t seem like any harm. She was very nice and told me about various places to stay that were inside of our budget range – that is to say, as cheap as possible. My natural instincts to be wary were starting to break down but what I think sold me in the end was the fact that one of the places she was representing was in the same street, but just a couple of doors away, as the one place that we were intending to try out first from our guidebook listing. She called them to make sure that they had a room and then wrote out a receipt for me. I told her that I would need to see the room first before I paid any money but this wasn’t a problem since the idea was for me to pay the hotel directly anyway. I figured I could at least show up, check it out and, if it was no good, just walk up the street to our first choice anyway. She pointed out the various options for getting into town and they all matched exactly what our guidebook told us so her stock went up a bit more with that too. There isn’t a metro station at the airport so the cheapest way to get into town was by bus, then metro and then on foot. With it now getting very dark, we didn’t much fancy the idea of that much stress but just across the other side of the baggage belt was another couple of booths where we could buy our way onto one of several regularly departing minibuses that would drop us and our luggage off right at the hotel’s door. I showed them the little brochure of the hotel that I’d just received and for US$10 (€7,69) each, we bought a couple of return trip vouchers. I explained to the shuttle booth attendant that we weren’t yet sure exactly which hotel we were staying at since we planned to check them out first but this too was not a problem. I just had to call to let them know once we were settled and they would collect us from there. So far, then, everything has gone very smoothly and all the usual new destination arrival hassles have been lifted from our tired shoulders. We collected our bags and walked straight through customs only to be immediately greeted on the other side of the sliding glass doors into the arrivals hall by a uniformed shuttle driver who took our trolley and helpfully loaded all our bags into the waiting minibus outside. As luck would have it, we were the last of half a dozen or more passengers to be collected in this shuttle and thus departed immediately. I don’t think we’ve been anywhere yet where we’ve been so well looked after right from the get-go (except those places were we’ve met friends or relatives).

The drive into town was about half an hour long and what immediately struck me was the well-developed country infrastructure around me. I had half-imagined South America to be quite third world with very poor facilities in general but Santiago, at least, seems to have a quite well developed airport and road system with lost of advertising for consumer goods much like I might expect from Europe or North America. During the brief drive, I was suddenly aware of the fact that I was no longer holding onto any apprehension or misgivings and was quite at ease. Just about the only thing that I was concerned about was the slightly heavy right foot of the driver as he zipped through the city traffic, trying to one-up all the other road users. Judging by the flow of traffic and the general manners of all the other motorised vehicles on the road, this very much seems to be the norm here. As cars and buses were busy cutting each other off, I was reminded of how things were in Cairo, although things there were very much worse than they are here.

Santiago is a sprawling metropolis just like any other large city. From what we could see through the failing sunlight, it is devoid of the cluster of skyscrapers that many cities tout but still a very active and lively metropolis nevertheless. Some parts that we drove through were very reminiscent of Delhi and Cairo whilst at times it felt like we could have been driving through London or Paris. I thought the five-ball juggler that was entertaining traffic for small change at a particular red light was quite amusing.

Just one other passenger was dropped off before we reached our hotel in a very quaint part of the city with cobblestone streets and architectural splendours that beckon to be visited during the daylight hours of tomorrow. Our driver politely offloaded our bags and he was away. Rather than take the luggage straight into the hotel, I had Sandy sit with it all outside, whilst I went in to check it out. The idea was that if it didn’t look any good, we could just walk the few metres across to the other side of the narrow and winding street to check out some of the other places here, including a couple that are listed in our guidebook. One of the pleasant young ladies at the reception desk spoke a little bit of English and rather than telling her that I had a receipt from the airport, I thought I’d just ask her how much a double room would be. To my pleasant surprise, it was the exact same price that we were given at the airport. I asked her if I could see the room and, after persuading her that my wife was pregnant and unable to climb very many stairs, she had one of the hotel maids show us a room just around the corner on the ground floor. The room was very spacious, had good security and its own bathroom. As with all the buildings in this part of town, our hotel is an older building but has a lot of character to it. Breakfast here is included in the US$34 (€26,15) per night room rate and there is a kitchen as well as free Internet use. I told the receptionist that I was happy with the room and that I was going outside to collect my wife and our baggage. Once outside, what I actually did was to tell Sandy to stay put whilst I quickly dashed over to the other side of the street to check out the other place but the first thing that struck me there was that there was a flight of stairs leading up to the reception area on the first floor. That was all I needed to see to convince me so I collected Sandy and so we went to check in to our ground floor room from where I had just moments earlier emerged.

As Sandy was making herself comfortable in our new home, I wasted no time in checking out the Internet, which turned out to be quite a respectable speed. Unfortunately, some bad news was awaiting me from Holland. Out camper-van had failed its yearly check-up and I was now facing more bills to fix the battery and brakes. Will that problem ever go away? Our guardian angel in Holland, Dinie, is handling things for us but still needed input from me on how to proceed so I spent a few minutes writing her back. Hopefully, we can get things sorted out before we get to the Galapagos Islands, where I’m certain that Internet access is going to be extremely limited.

The streets of Santiago are alive with thousands of pedestrians going about their business so we ventured out to have a general look around. Although we can use US Dollars for many things here, we still needed some local currency. It took just a few minutes to locate a nearby ATM and I withdrew CLP70,000 (€95,89) to keep us going for the next couple of days.

A main road just a short walk from out hotel building appears to mark a clear division between two parts of the city. We are located in what seems like an older sector of town with narrow, winding, cobblestone streets and elegant architecture that houses mostly hotels whilst on the other side of the very busy road, the city takes on a more modern feel with very many more pedestrians buzzing around and dozens of restaurants and other food outlets. This is where we found a small eatery where I did my level best, using little more that primitive sign and body language, to try to place an order for our evening meal. The fact that there were some pictures of food on a backlit sign above the counter helped as I was able to point to things as we went through the ordering process. It was more like a cafeteria than a formal restaurant and I took the fact that it was packed with locals to be a good sign. The very busy wait staff seemed generously tolerant with me (and my one to two word Spanish sentences) and managed to bring out exactly what we thought we were ordering in the end.

When we were in Thailand, we bought several bottles of the coconut oil that they use there for massaging. We bought and sent some bottles home for ourselves but kept one with us in our backpack too. Since Sandy has become pregnant, she has been using it on her stomach. It helps to keep her skin dry and she read somewhere that it can help to prevent or reduce the effect of stretch marks. We think we left this bottle behind by mistake somewhere recently as we can no longer find it anywhere and so since we were now in a large city with lots of shops, we went shopping around to see if we could pick up another bottle. And so it came to pass that we had recently arrived in a new continent and were walking around in a major city looking for coconut oil to rub on my wife’s tummy, even though we had no idea what to ask for in the local language or how to even describe it using sign language. We made several attempts to try to ask for it at pharmacies and even a supermarket but the language barrier proved just too insurmountable for something that complex and so we eventually had to abandon the quest. We’re thinking the next thing we should start to look for might be a phrase book instead.

Back at the hotel, I had the receptionist call the shuttle bus company to confirm our airport transfer pickup for the day after tomorrow. This she did without hesitation or reservation and even with a smile. Everything is now settled. We have our place to stay right in the thick of things, some local currency in our pocket and our onward transportation all sorted. We can now devote the entire day tomorrow to sleeping in and enjoying what Santiago has to offer.

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