When I travel, there are often times when I find myself really questioning my own sanity. When I decided to hitch hike the 1,600km from San Pedro de Atacama to Valparaíso— by myself, in a country where I can’t understand a thing anyone says to me— it was one of those times.
The trip took 3 days. On the first day, after getting started around 2pm, I made it as far as the city Antofagasta, although I’m not sure how. I asked every car and truck that stopped for me where they were going, but never understood any of the responses. I just kept repeating “Yo voy a Valparaíso” and got into every vehicle hoping for the best. I was feeling pretty confident about my Spanish in Bolivia, but it turns out that it’s true what everybody says about Chilean Spanish: It’s impossible to understand.
To make things even more difficult, I’d only had about 3 hours sleep the previous night. I was barely awake by the time I arrived in Antofagasta. I had planned on finding a place to camp for the night, but there I was in the middle of a big city, exhausted, with a heavy backpack and no idea which direction to walk in. It wasn’t the type of place to feature a selection of hostels either, so I splurged at whole 10.000 pesos ($20) for a sketchy motel to call home for the night.
The next morning, I went out walking, looking for somewhere I could eat some food and use some wifi to figure out where the highway was, but I couldn’t find anything. However, I eventually reached the main plaza, where I bought and enjoyed my first Chilean empanada and where I saw the beautiful beacon of a bright pink “Tourist Information” sign— in English, no less. I’m not sure which tourists they thought they were catering to, since there didn’t seem to be too many, but the place was clean, shiny and well stocked with maps and brochures for fancy restaurants. Feeling ridiculous, I asked the woman behind the desk if she could tell me where a good place to hitch hike was and how to bus there. Incredibly enough, she drew out some instructions on a map for me with no hesitation and only a few skeptical looks.
She was definitely right about the spot I had to be at. When I got there, I found a lineup of 2 couples and a young guy who looked like he was dressed for a rave. At first, I was discouraged, not wanting to wait my turn, but I then I decided to sit down, say hi to the young guy, and ask him where he was going. His name is Saul, and he was headed to Valparaíso for Christmas, just like me. When the hitch hiking spot opened up, I asked him if he wanted to catch a ride together.
Saul is from Peru and doesn’t speak English, so communication was still a problem, but I knew we were going to the same place, so I could let him negotiate with drivers and just follow him around without having to worry so much. We got to know each other slowly, as we both answered questions from our drivers. I found out that he had friends in Valparaíso who he planned to stay with. By the time we reached La Serena, at about 2am, as we rolled out our sleeping bags in an empty lot next to the highway, he told me I could come with him to his friend’s house. I didn’t understand why I was invited, as most of our conversations consisted of him saying things to me, me failing to understand anything, both of us giving up and continuing to flag down trucks in silence.
My Spanish was improving, though. Saul taught me two new words: Camiones and la carretera.
The journey itself was quite lacklustre. The Atacama desert goes on and on for pretty close to forever. All 3 days consisted of mostly rolling beige hills with no vegetation whatsoever. We might have gone crazy if it weren’t for the one driver who made a detour to the ocean, announced that he had to stop the truck for 2 hours for some sort of legal reason, and turned us loose on the beach at a place called Punta Negra.
The hills contrasted with the blue ocean and black rocks so dramatically that it felt like a dream. We climbed the rocks, waded in the ocean, collected shells, and had a moment of silence for a bloated sea lion washed up on the shore.
We eventually arrived on a random street corner in a random suburb of Valparaíso and I had no idea what was going on. After some time, a young couple arrived— a boy with dreadlocks and a crystal through his stretched earlobe and a girl with long, flowing hair and a tie dye shirt. Together, we walked up a big hill until the paved roads turned to gravel, and we arrived at a house so small, full of people and christmas decorations that I didn’t think we’d be able to fit through the door with our backpacks.
Despite the squeeze, we were hugged and kissed hello by the dreadlocked boy’s mother, our backpacks found spots squeezed in between ratty furniture, and spare mattresses appeared out from under single beds. A three course dinner was served within an hour of our arrival, and we all sat around the table talking— or in my case, desperately trying to follow the rapid Spanish coming from every direction. It had been a little while since I’d had a proper family dinner, and this one came just in time to get me feeling Christmas-y. I stayed here for the next week, feeling so lucky to be invited into the little world of this family at a time when I was really missing my own.
It completely blew my mind how accepted I was, despite being a shitty conversationalist. Mostly I had no idea what was going on, but occasionally they asked me questions about Canada and about the meanings of their favourite songs in English. I busied myself by sitting in the rooms where everyone was gathered, crocheting wonky-shaped things and grappling after as much communication in the English language as possible via Facebook (I literally spoke zero words of English out loud for almost 2 weeks). Every once in a while, someone would tell me “Vamos!” and I would grab a small backpack with everything I thought I could possibly need for the complete mystery of an adventure that would surely follow.
It was a great way to travel— guided by tour guides who couldn’t tell you where you were going. I left the house never knowing what to expect, and suddenly I was at another house, eating plums from a tree and playing with children, or in a local park, eating ice cream and listening to bad karaoke, or at the beach, near Viña del Mar, or in downtown Valparaíso, exploring colourful streets while my friends sold jewelry in the plaza. They taught me how to sneak on to the metro for free and how to find the best deals on street food.
One night, we ended up staying out until the sun came up, and despite having no idea that was about to happen, I loved it. The streets of Valparaíso come alive at night. Although it’s known to be very dangerous, the bright colours of the street art, glowing in street lights made the gritty scenes seem friendly, almost like there should be kids present. But there wasn’t a soul in sight without a beer in their hand, people danced to the most incredible sidewalk jam-sessions I’ve heard in my life, and piss ran like rivers down the steep streets. I honestly felt super out-of-place, more because I didn’t have any part of my head shaved than because I couldn’t speak the language. Punk culture is alive and well in this city.
By the time Christmas Day arrived, I was a part of the family enough to receive a present. Completely unexpectedly, I was given a package at the same time as the visiting grandmother. We opened them at the same time to find a giant pair of granny panties in hers, and a pair of small, lacy panties in mine. Hilarious, thoughtful, and also very useful. You can never have too much underwear when you’re travelling.
I really can’t thank these people enough for this experience— the love, the adventure, and the Spanish. By the time I found myself back on the carretera, flagging down caminones, I was feeling so confident with those three gifts. I made it to Pucón in a record-smashing 24 hours, enjoyed every minute, knew exactly where I was most of the time, and managed to carry conversations in Spanish for most of every ride I got.
Un mensaje para mis amigos de Valparaíso (Saul, Nicole, Alex, Anibal, y su madre): Una mas vez, gracias para todo. Nuestro tiempo juntos fue muy especial. Si ustedes vienen a Canada, llámame. Tienen un lugar conmigo siempre!