Written in 2004 on Thursday the 5th of February, about two weeks into my year-long trip overseas.
My first act on Chilean was soil was to save myself two thousand pesos with some ruthless bargaining in broken Spanish. I had just flown into Santiago airport after twenty-six hours worth of plane travel and figuring out the bus system half-asleep and with twenty kilograms of backpack strapped around my body was simply not an option. So on the morning of my arrival in Santiago, I decided a cheap taxi was called for.
Refuse the first offer Homer Simpson once said, so I did. I had no real idea how much ten thousand pesos was, but I knew eight thousand was twenty per cent less. I told the taxi dude I was poor, that I should be taking the bus, that I was practically destitute, that life was not worth living anymore, and the price dropped. I hate bargaining and rarely do it, but that fine morning, it all came together in Spanish and I felt pretty damn good about it.
After looking up the exchange rates a little later, I discovered I had saved around five bucks, and after having spoken to the taxi driver on the ride, I felt a little guilty bargaining even though I knew that I had still been ripped off. The taxi driver was a jovial church-going man who provides for his wife and two kids living in outer Santiago by ripping off relatively wealthy tourists like me. I have far too much money to spend on myself as it is, and goddamn it, I should be ripped off every now and again. I am a comparatively wealthy tourist, wasting my money on self-indulgent trips to distant shores, and giving away a few extra bucks to the comparatively poor locals I should expect and be happy about.
Anyway, after a long walk checking out central Santiago with a tinge of thrift-induced guilt, I parked my arse in a park and surprisingly enough, Patricia, a Santiagan babe swathed in tight jeans, came over to speak to me. She handed me a poem and started telling me of the university poetry readings held around Santiago to raise money for students. Pretty soon, her friend Emmanuel came over to meet and greet too. They were exceptionally friendly, telling me the best places to go, what to see, and most flaterringly of all, telling me how great my Spanish was. They pulled out maps, they made me laugh, they told me stories about Santiago, I told them stories about Australia, and when my Spanish was exhausted and silence overcame our conversation, they asked for money, complaining bitterly about the costs of a university education and cursing the name of Pinochet who apparently had something to do with it. I was already feeling guilty at that stage about my thriftiness from earlier on and they were being exceptionally friendly, thus I had no real issue giving them some money. But money in Chile can be confusing because of the excess number of zeroes. Things are usually in thousands of pesos, and working out what those extra zeroes equate to in Australian dollars can be confusing, especially on your first day travelling. So when I pulled out one thousand pesos, correctly thinking it was a decent sum of a few Australian bucks and they scoffed, I thought I must have offended them by offering the equivalent of twenty Australian cents. So I did what I thought was right and pulled out ten thousand pesos. They were much happier about that and so was I. They smiled, I smiled, they told me how good my Spanish was and how the Santiagan ladies will love me, and they left me there thinking how wonderful Chile was.
But then I did some mental arithmetic.
They were laughing, telling me how good my Spanish was and how I would be a hit with the ladies because I had just given them over twenty Australian bucks. It was most probably a combination of Patricia’s babeness, their flattery, the extra zeroes and my guilt that got me suckered into giving them much more money than I would ever give students in Australia for a quick chat and an awful poem about some stupid garden. Sadly though, I knew deep down that I would forgive them and do it all over again if Patricia, the seductress of Santiago, would smile at me a few times more.
Grumbling and cursing, I headed to the nearest restaurant to find solace in food. In many Latin American countries, the restaurants have these menus of the day which are simple three-course meals that in Chile, usually involve a salad for starters, a chunk of meat with rice or chips for main and a desert. They cost around five bucks, and as I was eating, I began to nearly choke myself with self-congratulatory laughter. It had dawned on me that the meal I was eating would cost at least double in Australia, and the more times I ate these Latin American menus of the day, the more money I was saving. So whilst munching, I vowed vengeance on those unsuspecting students, proclaiming that I would eat my way into saving at least double the money that I had given them. Tumbling back came my pride when I struck upon this food-friendly realisation, and after I had finished with my choking chuckles and eaten my meal, I gave the waiter a tip. He looked like the kind of guy that had a family to feed.
Through a friend of a friend that I had never met before and all done via the internet, I found myself catching a bus to a place that my guidebook did not list, and by my reckoning, did not really exist. Constitucion was the place I should go to according to the friend of my friend who I would meet once I got there. It was a six hour bus ride somewhere to the south of Santiago, and the lodge I was to stay at was in the middle of a forest. When I got to Constitucion, I was to call the mystery man Alejandro on his mobile and he would come to pick me up and take me to his lodge. I had no real idea where I was going, nor who these people were, but I jumped on a bus and headed down there anyway, well aware that this felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Thankfully, everything was wonderful at the casa del bosque. The townspeople were friendly and I had a few laughs with a local also named Antonio, swum in the nearby river, went walking through sand dunes and hiked through the trails around the place. But it was only after I had stayed there a couple of days that I realised this town, that isn’t in my guidebook and therefore doesn’t really exist, was a logging town with a paper mill and is situated on the coast of the Pacific. If I had known that, I may never had come down to stay in that lodge. And if I had met anyone named Laura, with or without plastic wrapped around her, or more importantly, anyone named Bob, I most certainly would have started running.
And that was the short version of my trip to Chile. I arrived back in Santiago by bus in the middle of the night for my flight to Rio in the morning and bid farewell to the country in a hot dog bar. Hot dog bars are everywhere in Santiago. There seems to be more of them than people inside them, and I thought nothing would be more fitting than spending my last few hours in Santiago sitting in one of those bars, munching away on sausage in bread with sauce. With the Chilean infomercials on the television and a stupid grin on my face in the dead of the night, I felt a little sad leaving. Maybe it was the excessive dose of Phil Collins I got over the past week that got me overly sentimental, or maybe it was simply due to the lack of decent coffee, but I was somewhat whimsical on my way out of Chile. As well as ripping holes into the crotch of my only two pairs of pants, the past week had seen me lose a jacket, an alarm clock and clip-on shades for my sunglasses. I don’t know what it was exactly, but for some strange reason, I felt like I hadn’t lost enough and I should continue eating hot dogs for a while more. I finished my meal with those contradictory thoughts, hailed a taxi and got my arse to the airport. The ride cost seven thousand pesos.