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Here we are, Susan and I starting our third (my fourth, actually) South America road trip since December 2017 in our trusty 2007 high mileage, much abused, Subaru Forester. We arrive in Santiago, Chile after a hectic departure from home — because for me, every departure is hectic. Important pre-trip tasks don’t get done until the last minute and I end up packing in the final hour before heading out for the airport. The absolute last thing I have to do before stepping on the plane is go to the German Consulate at United Nations Plaza to submit the application for my German passport, itself the culmination of a long story, which includes recognition — at age 69 — of my lifelong dual US/German citizenship. Why now, finally, 20 years after I found out? Hint: it’s primarily for the benefit of my two kids and their future offspring. The German bureaucracy is especially kind to me and everything goes very smoothly.
The red eye flight is long, cramped, but otherwise uneventful. The short stopover in Houston breaks it up somewhat but, unlike the old, pre-terrorist days, flying is merely a means to an end. It’s a miserable, authoritarian, physically torturous experience in which you’re treated as a criminal suspect and subjected to the whims of every tin pot dictator-wannabe you may encounter among the numerous staff manning the gauntlet of transportation access. Admittedly, I make it worse because I really react badly to being told what to do and flying demands obedience to a seemingly endless sequence of mandatory instructions. Back in my Alaska days (1975-1985) flying was actually fun. You looked forward to it as part of the travel experience. Now I feel lucky if I’m not pulled out of line for a body cavity search. I’d rather drive from New York to San Francisco than go through airport security — and I’ve got Global Entry, despite my substantial ethical objections to government selling preferential access to those who can afford it.
The dawn approach to Santiago airport is magnificent, with dramatic clouds highlighting the sun rising over the distant Andes to the east. We arrive 30 minutes early thanks to a hellacious tailwind at 37,000 feet, step off the plane in Santiago, collect our voluminous luggage, and clear immigration and customs without hassle – except that the drug and food smelling dog flags my backpack for extra inspection. This requires a trip through the Xray tunnel (the bag, not me) and a complete unload of the big cargo pack. I already know why. I’m carrying 100 U.S. supermarket corn tortillas, the chemically enhanced kind that can sit around in heat and darkness for years without developing a speck of mold. Why tortillas? Because when we stay with families and other hosts, I like to cook a meal for them. Tex-Mex style tacos are one of my regular choices and prior experience has shown that corn tortillas are rare to nonexistent in South America, especially the immortal kind. Flour tortillas are often available but that just doesn’t cut it. For me, tacos require corn tortillas. Once the inspector satisfies herself that I have no contraband, say a brick of fentanyl, a fresh apple, or slab of raw steak, I’m left to the 15 minute job of repacking everything.
We’re past all the barriers by about 10 AM and since our initial rental apartment doesn’t want to see us before noon, I use the time to locate the airport Aduana (Customs) office to resolve a nagging question I have about car travel. When you take a vehicle out of its home country, you’re generally required to return it or face illegal export charges. What I want to know is what happens if the Subaru is stolen, or totaled, or otherwise impossible to return to Chile as the law requires? Will my name eventually be on a wanted list, meaning I can never take a chance on returning here lest on some future arrival the lettuce sniffing dog grabs my leg and drags me off to detention? I’m eventually referred to a very friendly agent who, to my pleasant surprise, totally reassures me. Even better, she speaks English well, relieving me of the chore of having to conduct a complex legal discussion in Spanish within an hour of my arrival. Señora Astorga tells me that if the unfortunate happens, to send her a police report or mechanic’s letter explaining the car’s fate and she will issue a waiver of return on it. She gives me her direct phone and personal email and assures me there will be no problem, no arrest warrant, no massive fine. I am much relieved because the car is really getting old and might very well give out somewhere along the way. If only all bureaucrats were so friendly and helpful. U.S. Homeland Security, take note!
The cheapest way to get downtown with our mass of belongings — the substantial carrying capacity of the Subaru makes it tempting to over pack – is by Uber. With Susan minding our pile curbside, I call via phone app for a ride. The message is “arriving in one minute” and I’m quickly in contact with the driver as we try to coordinate a specific pick up point at the busy terminal. He tells me where he is and I’m scanning cars for the provided license plate to no avail. After several minutes, I figure out why — he’s on foot right next to Susan. No, this is not some developing country version of Uber where he’s going to carry us and our luggage to our destination on his back. Uber is illegal in Chile, despite its dominance in ground transportation, so the driver leaves his car in the remote parking lot, meets his fares on foot, and accompanies them and their luggage on the free shuttle bus to the vicinity of his car, thus avoiding unpleasant interactions with airport police. I’ve used Uber on rides to the airport, where there’s also a dodge employed — the driver gives you his first name and instructions to back up his story, if the police ask, that he’s just dropping off a friend rather than a paid ride. As you approach the ramp, his Uber sign disappears under his seat and anonymity prevails. By the way, although Uber quotes you a price before ordering a ride, they can upcharge you without notice. This ride cost 18% more than the price I was given before I said OK. Bastards.
A little after noon, we arrive at the downtown high rise where we’ll be staying. I’ve gotten pretty good at finding accommodations, usually via booking.com, that meet both my criteria (a cheap place to sleep) and Susan’s (clean, comfortable, quiet, private bathroom). This apartment is no exception and after shuttling our luggage from car to curb to elevator to apartment door, we’re met by Norita and Rosita, the on-site greeters who orient us to our two-night home, one of nine apartments in the building owned by Raul, whom we never meet face to face, as traveler lodging. After today, I have just two workdays to accomplish everything it takes to retrieve and document the car. Anything I don’t get done by Friday at 5 PM will have to wait for Monday. The rest of today is my only chance to rest between the trip down and the car project. As the afternoon progresses, we head out on foot to find dinner. To our great good fortune, we see a Chinese restaurant just 200 feet down the block. A quick perusal of the menu indicates price, ambience, and food selection make it worth a shot. Indeed, our “menu for 2” choice is quite tasty and we even take about half of it back for lunch tomorrow. The rest of the evening is spent reacquainting ourselves with the historic Plaza de Armas neighborhood. The central square of most Hispanic South American towns is so named because, originally, the community’s weapons were stored centrally so everyone could run there and form up quickly in case of attack. We browse a bookstore, ogle beautiful public gardens locked behind high fences, people watch, and generally kick back before falling into bed with a lullaby of steady traffic noise six floors below.