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This morning we face the formidable job of packing the car and new rooftop box with everything we brought down plus everything left in it from the earlier trip. Surprisingly, that goes pretty well and we’re even able to leave the rear seat free for possible hitchhikers. A mysterious law of car travel is that packing efficiency evolves – the same stuff packs better and tighter each time you load it. Of course, if you acquire more crap along the way, all bets are off.
By coincidence, today is Susan’s 69th birthday, so our celebration consists of hitting the road on our 3rd South America perambulation.
We leave Santiago, grateful that I filled the tank yesterday because every gas station we pass this morning has long lines stretching back into the streets. This is doubtless an effect of the crippled transit system.
We are heading for Hostal Berta, another small lodging run by a wonderful family. We’ve stayed there twice before and even the first time it felt as if we were old friends. They’re about one hour shy of the primary border crossing linking Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a little community called Villa Aconcagua. We divert into Los Andes along the way to pick up some gift wine but it’s a wasted side trip. All the supermarkets are closed, fearing possible looting. The drive is otherwise uneventful although we veer around the smoldering remains of two roadblock fires from last night. A few seconds after we negotiate each one, Google Maps helpfully announces, “Warning, obstacle in road.” Smart, but not quite smart enough.
We arrive about 1:30 pm to a warm welcome. Alex and Berta have prepared – unsolicited – an amazing birthday feast in Susan’s honor. Barbecued meats, cooked vegetables, salads, wine, and more. Almost everything is local and all is prepared in the quincho, a traditional Chilean outdoor kitchen and dining area. To make the meal even more celebratory, they’ve festooned the ceiling with birthday balloons. What generous friends.
We have a great reunion and the talk quickly turns to politics and the protests. Fiery Berta, equally fiery daughter Gabriela, and neighbor Maritza complain bitterly about the level and handling of violence against women, the privatization of drinking water, the difficulty most families have making ends meet, and the massive economic inequality in Chile. They good naturedly shout, “¡Revolución!” but it’s not just a joke. They tell us that cows die of thirst because farmers can’t afford to buy sufficient water from the corporations that control it. Indeed there’s a proposal to privately dam up the Aconcagua River and drown their entire valley. Changes are truly needed in Chile, as they are in many nations.
After lunch, Berta gives us our room, saying they only have one other guest at the moment. We settle in, grateful for the rural peace and quiet amidst the uncertainty of the upheaval across Chile. The tranquility is disturbed only by the thrice daily copper ore train that rumbles by just 70 feet away.
The narrow gauge track was part of the Transandean Railway that used to go over the pass, connecting Valparaiso, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina. The line employed some impressive railroad engineering, but was abandoned as an economic failure in 1984. Now only a portion operates on the Chilean side to haul ore from a major mine further up the valley to the Pacific coast. Copper is said to be Chile’s most valuable export.
As we’re settling in for a quiet evening, some new guests arrive, a group of 9 Brazilian women, all riding substantial touring motorcycles. They’ve arrived unannounced and Berta scrambles to accommodate them, filling every bed in the hostal and housing the remainder with her neighbor.
In speaking with them, I find out they’re from all over Brazil, northeast to south. I also confirm what I already know – only tiny remnants remain of the Portuguese I learned pretty well during my 5 months traveling in Brazil in 1984. When we return there in a few weeks, communicating will be a real challenge. Fortunately, although most Brazilians vehemently deny any language similarity, they can actually understand Spanish without inordinate difficulty. The women are preoccupied with getting their sleeping arrangements settled, so we talk a bit but don’t get into any lengthy conversations before Susan and I retreat to our rooms for the night. The women sit outdoors until late at night, smoking, drinking, socializing, and playing music.
It’s been a great birthday for Susan.