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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.
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.
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.
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.