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South America by Subaru 19/10/26 My Iditarod: Car Parts to Mendoza

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I’m up and out of the hostel at 5 AM, standing on the wide, deserted Alameda in the dark. The 25 pound car part is hanging painfully off my shoulders from the crude backpack kluge built into my duffel bag. Since I have no idea if the city buses are running this morning, I start out on the 2.5 mile hike toward the bus terminal. It’s a nice walk but my shoulders are aching, as much from twisting my head every few minutes to scan hopefully for the bus as from the load itself.

Eventually, I see the unmistakable light pattern of a bus in the distance and jog my way to the next stop in time to board. Now, of course, I arrive at the terminal way too early. I buy my ticket, which curiously costs a third more than the identical outbound trip two days ago, and sit around outside for almost an hour until the double decker bus pulls in and loads. This time, the trip is fully booked and I’m stuck in the last row.

Chile to Argentina bus
Chile to Argentina bus

During my long ago, 1984 five month meander in Brasil, we used to call where I’m sitting the shit seats, since they were always adjacent to the broken toilet compartment. Only once did we get a spot up front where we could see through the windshield. It was an overnight ride in the rural northeast of the country and we were so terrified to see potholes, cattle, and unlit cars come looming out of the darkness into the hurtling bus’s narrow cone of headlight that we gratefully settled for the shit seats on every subsequent ride.

The bus I’m on now has a very nice toilet on the lower level, so there’s no shit seat. As a lifelong car driver, sitting in the back of the bus is still annoying, though, but I just have to grin and bear it. The ride is uneventful, the Chilean highways unmarred by protest blockades. For the fifth time, I traverse the impressive Caracoles switchbacks to the Andean pass.

Los Caracoles switchbacks
Los Caracoles switchbacks

At the border, Argentinian customs quickly notices my bulky auto part. Since this is not normal tourist gear, I’m at risk of being assessed a high import tariff. A few minutes of explanation that this is a Chilean part for my broken Chilean car ends satisfactorily when they’re able to verify in their computer system that my license plate entered Argentina 5 days earlier.

With everyone back on the bus and waiting to move on, a senior immigration officer with a stern demeanor boards and comes directly to the family in front of me for an additional check of their passports. They’re obviously Muslim since the wife is wearing a head scarf. It turns out they’re Iranians with a young son holding a U.S. passport. Although nothing comes of the additional scrutiny, it illustrates how nerve wracking it must be to travel as Asians. The mood is lightened only fractionally when the officer looks at the child’s passport and says, “Gringo, eh?”

The remainder of the long trip unspools as expected and we arrive on schedule in Mendoza, Argentina after 2 PM. Once again, the office that sells municipal bus fare cards is closed but I now know to pay another passenger cash to have them swipe me on board so I’m back with Susan at Casa Huésped by 3 o’clock.

Mendoza, Argentina city bus
Mendoza, Argentina city bus

I deliver the Chilean phone to Ines. Her reserved manner has now evaporated and she is much chummier with us. I had wondered why she so badly wanted a replacement phone from Chile since, in general, prices in Argentina are very much lower than across the border. She explains that for telephones, at least, Mendoza prices are about 3 times higher than in Santiago, so I was able to save her some serious money. We’re paying only about US$17 per day for a very nice room and a decent breakfast, so there’s no way she’s getting rich operating her 6-room establishment. We’re glad we could help out, because we’ve seen her working steadily every day keeping the place scrubbed and maintained.

With her lack of Spanish comprehension and car, Susan has spent the entire 60 hours of my absence at the hostal and she’s eager for a good meal. We walk about 2 miles through the area, searching for an acceptable place to eat. It’s siesta time, though, and most eateries won’t reopen until 8 PM so we end up back at the shopping mall restaurant for a very tasty but repetitive lunch of ravioli and dark beer. Today is Saturday and car repairs won’t happen until Monday morning, so we pass the rest of the day in our room.

For those who don’t recognize the Iditarod reference in the title, I’m facetiously comparing my journey from Santiago to Mendoza with “lifesaving” car parts to the 1925 dog sled relay that brought lifesaving diptheria serum from Nenana to Nome, Alaska. This trip was the inspiration for the modern 1000 mile annual Iditarod sled dog race.

Demonstrator, Santiago, Chile, 25 Oct 2019

South America by Subaru 19/10/25 Santiago, Chile in turmoil

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I’m up early, for no particular reason. My Subaru parts won’t be available until afternoon. The streets outside the hostel are quiet, the demonstrators having gone home to sleep.

I’m hoping to head back to Mendoza today, but the chances of pulling that off are slim. The last bus leaves at 1:30 PM and my parts aren’t guaranteed to be in my hands until 2 PM. I’m going to check out of the hostel and get to the store at around noon, hoping the parts arrive early enough to let me catch that bus. My drop dead time for leaving the store, parts in hand, is 1:00 PM, so I’m clutching at straws.

I go downstairs to look over the optional $7 breakfast the hostel offers. There’s plenty of food and it’s nicely presented, but most of it is artificially sweetened fruit drinks, coffee, and South American pastries and breads. Although this is standard fare, I find all of it fairly unpalatable so I go out and buy breakfast items and sit in the kitchen eating. What I buy isn’t any better than what they’re serving, but it’s cheaper and I have a liter of cold milk with which to wash it down. I check out, realizing that I’ll most likely be back this afternoon. As I’m preparing to spend a couple of hours in the lounge researching and writing, an emergency message comes in from Susan. Somehow, the cell phone of Ines, our landlady of the moment in Mendoza, has disappeared, probably stolen. She’s asking if I can buy a replacement in Santiago and bring it back with me. I’m imagining a comical exchange since Susan understands only certain Spanish words and Ines speaks no English whatsoever. Somehow the concept comes across and the task is now mine to execute in the short period before I have to head for the parts store. I quickly interrogate the desk clerk as to nearby cell phone vendors. A consultation group of staff and locals is quickly formed to ponder my problem. To my extraordinary good luck, there is an appropriate store virtually around the corner, but is it open today when so much is shuttered? I walk out to the Alameda, which still shows the effects of yesterday’s demonstrations, locate the store, and find it open and bustling. Excellent fortune as it will most surely lock down in a few hours as the demonstrators return. A salesman latches on to me immediately and I explain what I need, a basic smartphone, not carrier-locked, and cheap. My luck holds and they have just what I need. Ines had suggested a price cap of about 70 dollars and this one fills the bill for less than 60. I text back and forth a couple of times to Ines, via Susan’s phone, and Ines says “get it!” I close the deal, being careful to get a sealed factory box and inspecting the contents before paying. What seemed like an impossible task at the outset has been accomplished in under an hour. Susan tells me the reserved Ines has lit up and is literally dancing for joy at the economical solution to her problem.

Around noon, I shoulder my dead parts, cross the Alameda, and walk to the auto parts store. I ensconce myself on their waiting bench and do my best to cast significant looks at my salesman. Alternately pleading, impatient, and resigned expressions come pretty naturally to me, but it’s not as if he has any control over when the parts arrive. About 12:45, he tells me the delivery has come in. I excitedly queue up an Uber ride to the bus terminal, ready to trigger it the moment the metal touches my hand. The store paperwork and inventory procedures aren’t trivial, so I don’t actually walk out the door until 1 PM — probably too late. I call for the ride but it’s delayed in the heavy traffic and finally canceled. No go, but it was a long shot to begin with.

I walk back to the hostel, this time lugging 50 pounds of metal, both old and new parts, and check in to my same bunk .

I forgot to bring my leftover Chilean cash with me and I’m trying to avoid getting more so I’m limited to buying from places that accept credit cards. Normally, that’s no problem but in conjunction with the closures, my selection of stores is very limited. I’m thirsty and end up walking almost a mile from the hostel only to buy 2 liters of overpriced, bad tasting fruit drink. By this time, the demonstrations have resumed, so I hoof it back to the wide Alameda. The mood today is a bit less peaceful. Intersection fires have already been lit, there’s much more invective being hurled at the still-patient police, and vandals are being more brazen. At one point I see about 20 young men energetically rocking a 60 foot metal bus station railing out of its sidewalk foundations, perhaps to use it as a street barricade.

As I walk further west, I start to get whiffs of tear gas drifting in from out of sight. My eyes tear, my cheeks are stinging, and as I cross an intersection, the acrid burning smoke of a mattress fire starts to choke me.

Protest fire, Santiago, Chile, 25 Oct 2019a
Protest fire, Santiago, Chile, 25 Oct 2019a

I decide a fast retreat is in order and head down a side street at a trot. A noticeable number of others are taking the same action. One young man seeing me rubbing my eyes offers some water from his bottle to rinse them.

In the smaller side streets, the more peaceful protest still dominates. Every block is filled with groups of young marchers. Plenty of vulgar insults are being hurled at the police who have blocked off certain areas for their use, but again by a minority of the crowd. A frequent shout includes a word that sounds like “culio” which from the context is no compliment. The derisive term for the police seems to be “paco”. At one point a plastic water bottle is hurled at a group of standing police but elicits no reaction.

I have to say, though, that in a few days an article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/27/chile-hundreds-shot-and-beaten-street-protests) reports that hundreds of protesters have been severely injured by beatings and non-lethal, but still very dangerous, ammunition. It also alleges that Chile media are self-censoring scenes of police violence, so my direct observations don’t tell the whole story. I talk to more people, take more pictures, and marvel at how committed the many thousands are to invoking real economic change. The original incitement, the 3% transit fare increase has been long forgotten, and the government has actually rescinded it in a futile effort to appease the demonstrators.

The people I met and talked to are committed to change, but with my limited Spanish, I couldn’t fully comprehend their nuanced or complex stories. If you want to see professional reporting of protester interviews, I highly recommend https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/30/chile-protests-portraits-protesters-sebastian-pinera.

As I mentioned yesterday, I shot a lot of photos. If you want to see more than the ones I’ve included here, the entire raw and unedited collection is at https://photos.app.goo.gl/pzeawM1WaUK9NhFg7.


This isn’t much fun either because I have only my phone to work on, rather than the laptop. Life is so hard.

Santiago, Chile protests, 10/24/19

South America by Subaru 19/10/24 Descent into the Maelstrom, Santiago, Chile

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I’m out of bed at 5 AM to get to Mendoza’s main bus terminal in time for the 6:30 bus to Santiago, lugging my heavy, ruined A-frame.

Ruined Subaru A-frame, 25 pounds of trouble
Ruined Subaru A-frame, the 25 pound albatross around my neck

The agent, pegging me immediately as a tourist, assigns me the front seat of the upper level, assuring I can see the expansive mountain views. The ride is uneventful and comfortable. Border formalities passing from Argentina to Chile are much simpler as a bus passenger than with our car.

I’ve sent a message to Álvaro in Santiago, who was so generous and helpful in storing and preparing the Subaru for its return to the road. He owns an automotive accessories business and, before long, he’s done the research, tells me what parts store to go to, and has arranged for me to pay the reseller price.

Arriving at the Santiago bus terminal, I immediately make my way the 4 miles to the store via local bus (micro) and foot. Although the city is in political upheaval, there’s no evidence of that along my route. At the store, I’m told the parts won’t arrive from the warehouse until tomorrow at 2 PM. Given the curtailed bus service to Argentina, my original hope of getting the parts to the mechanic in time to have the car repaired tomorrow, Friday, have already been dashed. Repairs can’t possibly happen until Monday but Susan is sitting in our Mendoza B&B with no car and very little Spanish at her disposal so I’m eager to get back as soon as possible. I’ve urged her to use this forced delay as a writing retreat but I know well that writing happens on her terms, when the timing and conditions are suitable.

I pay for the parts in advance and do a quick search for suitable accommodations. I find a US$7 bed in a highly rated hostel about a mile away on the Alameda, a prominent boulevard that heads west from downtown Santiago. Although Susan has never agreed to stay in a dormitory room, my needs are modest and I like the social interaction that often occurs, so I walk over there to check it out. As I near the Alameda, I see it occupied by a seemingly endless parade of overwhelmingly young demonstrators, many thousands, peacefully but determinedly marching, carrying an array of protest signs.

This piques my interest because we’ve been following the news from Chile every night. The protests are now in their eighth day and it’s clear they’ve become a mass movement, and unexpectedly here I am again not far from the heart of it. I check out the hostel, which is just steps away from the moving demonstrators, find it clean and pleasant, and get a bed in an otherwise empty 4 bunk room.

Che Lagarto Hostel, Santiago, Chile
Che Lagarto hostel, Santiago, Chile

I quickly head back out to the street to observe events. All the stores and buildings are closed and protected with metal roll downs. There’s a heavy police presence including armored vehicles but where I am they are largely stationary and ignoring the vile insults hurled by a minority of the demonstrators. Underlying everything is the rhythm of Chilean protest, cacerolazo (from “casserole”), the rhythmic banging of kitchen pots with spoons. Vehicles passing by, duplicate the rhythm with their horns.

I speak to a variety of young people. They’re all very friendly to me as a North American and I’m struck by how deeply dissatisfied they are with the status quo. They’re out here, at some significant risk to themselves – in some cases, parents are wheeling children in strollers – to try to force big changes in a prosperous nation whose inequality exceeds all other Latin American countries — and that’s saying something.

Santiago, Chile protests, 10/24/19
Santiago, Chile protests, 10/24/1

I’m very skeptical of revolutions, whether peaceful or violent. Successful ones tend to create power vacuums which are too often filled with corrupt politicians or other criminals. The American and French revolutions, arguably, were beneficial to the masses, but those are rare examples and were simultaneously fraught with many injustices and persistent cruelties. In this case, having developed many local acquaintances and friends, I fervently hope some lasting good comes out of this upheaval

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful tenor, there are some hooligans vandalizing public amenities and some intersections have trash fires fueled with plastic, pallets, mattresses, and other flammables.

I shot a lot of photos. If you want to see more than the ones I’ve included here, the entire raw and unedited collection is at https://photos.app.goo.gl/pzeawM1WaUK9NhFg7

After some hours, hunger overcomes me and I’m forced to walk at least 10 blocks perpendicular to the Alameda to find any kind of open restaurants or small grocery stores – large supermarkets are out of the question. The few available eateries are expensive and not to my taste but I make do, then hoof it back to my 3rd floor bunk and fall asleep to the sound of boisterous groups wandering the street below until about 4 AM.