My Super Stupid South American Odyssey

So it’s been a while… My bad. I bet/hope at least one of you wonders what I’ve been up to in the 9 months since I last wrote anything for this blog.

Well, after leaving Puerto Natales on the final leg of Otra Vida’s journey south, I promptly lost a large chunk of my right hand ring finger in an accident involving a 72-foot mega yacht, wine, and a creepy captain named Chase. A week later, I poured a beer into the keyboard of my laptop. These two incidents should explain at least the first half of my radio silence.

With my right hand mangled and my favourite worldly possession ruined, I was in pretty bad shape, more than a little frustrated with life. Martin stepped up in a big way, not only taking over almost all of the chores on board, but also listening patiently as I all-out screamed at the coffee pot most mornings for being so difficult to operate with my left hand.

Despite all the difficulties, that month was possibly the best month of my entire life. We anchored in beautiful cove after beautiful cove. We sailed through challenging whilpooling narrows and spectacular glacier-lined channels. We watched gusts hurtling towards us across the water so violently that they resembled whales. And then there were the whales, surfacing in all directions, feeding in the slack tide, unafraid of Otra Vida as she slipped silently past, under the power of her sails. Their tails resembled butterflies as they dove. We climbed peaks without trails, sailed through flows of brash ice, and looked up at the towering faces of immense blue tidewater glaciers. We took in as much of the infinite beauty possessed by the Cordillera Darwin as possible, navigated the infamous Magellan Strait and Beagle Channel, to finally arrive in Puerto Williams, one of the last shreds of civilization before Antartica.

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We stayed for about a week at the famous Micalvi Yacht Club, a grounded out-of-service military ship, with sailboats rafted all around it. Then we sailed to Ushuaia, Argentina, where Martin and I hugged goodbye-for-now and I began a 4000km journey north, to catch my flight back to Canada out of Santiago, Chile.

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I really did intend to take busses. I’m not always trying to do the dumbest thing I can think of. But when I realized that the cheapest I was going to get to my destination via legitimate means was $300, the choice was more or less made for me. Although the summer season was pretty much entirely over and I didn’t have a tent or a even winter sleeping bag, I figured I’d just have to hitch hike the entire way and figure out how to survive the nights as I came to them.

I got out of Ushuaia at about noon and caught short rides, all the way across Isla Grande Tierra del Fuego. The weather alternated between driving rain and a pleasant mix of sun and cloud, but the landscape stayed consistently gorgeous, featuring glacier-capped mountains, fall leaves, winding rivers, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.

Late in the day, I was sitting on my backpack at one of the border checkpoints along the small stretch of highway that passes through Chilean land, when a semi truck pulled over. I hadn’t been hitch hiking. I’d been waiting for the trucker I’d been riding with before to clear customs and pick me up again. I shook my head and tried to communicate my situation via hand gestures, but the driver jumped up on his seat and kept trying to wave me over. This was not the typical 50 year old, Jesus-loving, South American trucker. He looked to be in his early 20’s, with a full head of thick brown curls, a goofy smile, and a disco ball hanging in the windshield. I didn’t want to be rude to the other trucker, but this guy did look like a lot of fun. “What the hell,” I decided, and I got in. He put on some Bob Marley and a kettle for yerba mate, brewed in a gourd, just like I’d heard all Argentinians do. The sun was beginning to set, and I was feeling pretty good.

The young trucker’s name was Brian. We ended up travelling together for three days. Luckily, had space for me to sleep in his cab. I could hear the icy wind whipping across the land outside as I fell asleep and was very grateful. What I would have done without this friend, I don’t know.

We drove north in a straight line for the entirety of our time together. Once past Tierra del Fuego, on the mainland of Argentina, the landscape remained entirely unchanging— flat, as far as the eye could see, covered in sage brush, the occasional herd of guanacos and nothing else. Every 500km or so, we might have passed through a tiny mining town, but they were unremarkable to say the least. We passed time by starring out the windshield in silence, until one of us would crack and exclaim “No hay nada!”— “There isn’t anything!”. Then we’d descend into conversations about the futility of life and what the highway might symbolize until my Spanish inevitably gave out once again.

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A guanaco is like a very aggressive wild llama. This is a photo from the sailing trip, not the Argentinian highway. That explains the landscape features.

When we hugged goodbye at a gas station in Trelew, it felt strange to be on my own again. I missed my new friend, I was only half way through the journey, and right back where I’d started with my complete lack of plans. I made good time that afternoon, though. I caught rides quickly, and even managed to navigate a change of highway with minimal confusion. It wasn’t until the sun was starting to set (when else?) that my luck started to give out.

I was planning to go find a spot for the night if none of the next dozen trucks stopped for me, but then one did. The driver was a fat, balding man with a huge wad of coca leaves stuck in his cheek, making him nearly impossible to understand. I immediately felt uneasy around him and stumbled through our initial conversation. Once we were out of the tiny town and the sun was entirely gone, I finally understood something clearly— “Asi tu necesitas plata, puedo darte algo por el sexo.”

“No entiendo,” I said— “I don’t understand”. Although that wasn’t true, I wasn’t sure what else to say. I’d never actually talked my way out of a direct offer of money for sex before, even in English, but I figured that I could use my perceived ignorance of what he wanted to my advantage. The driver began to get frustrated with me.

“Sexo!” he repeated, thrusting his hips into the steering wheel. “Plata!” He pulled a handful of pesos out of his pocket to illustrate.

There was pretty much no way I could claim to not understand after that, unless I could have convinced him that, in addition to not speaking the language, I was a complete idiot. At that moment, in an amazing stroke of luck, the lights of a gas station appeared up ahead. I told him that I needed a bathroom.

The driver tried to pull over a couple hundred metres before the gas station, indicating that the side of the road would do. “No,” I told him, “Soy una princessa.” Eventually I got him to pull ahead, into the light. I opened the door, stepped out, then grabbed my backpack from behind the seat. As soon as my hand was on the strap, the driver’s hand was on the other. He was yelling something so quickly that I couldn’t catch any of it. But I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed the strap with my other hand and jumped backwards out the door of the tall cab. With gravity acting on both me and the bag, the driver couldn’t hold on to the other strap. I put the backpack on, slammed the door, then smiled and waved as I walked away. I stood right outside the door to the gas station, in the bright floodlights until the truck had left and not come back for quite a while.

While I was waiting, I’d unfortunately attracted a fan club of other truck drivers, sitting around an outdoor table. I didn’t blame them for staring. What the hell was this gringo chick with a backpack doing at a shady gas station in the middle of the night, at least 1000km in any direction from the nearest tourist attraction? At that point, I wasn’t too sure either. But since I was apparently stuck there for the night, I really didn’t want any of them to find me while I slept.

I walked off in a straight line, towards the bushes and out of the floodlights. I could feel their eyes on the back of my head the whole way. Once in the dark, I snuck my way across the highway and found myself a home for the night at the foot of a billboard, surrounded by tall bushes. I wrapped my sleeping back in my raingear, put on all of my clothing and went to sleep.

The next morning, I awoke to a pack of wild dogs barking at me and a brilliant pink and gold sunrise. I walked back to the gas station, followed by the dogs the whole way. I got myself a coffee, a sandwich, and then another ride north.

That afternoon, the landscape finally changed to include some variety in colours, elevation and other roadside features. Over the next 3 days, I met an old man who blasted earsplitting hardcore electronic music for hours on end, a travelling family who showed me all the beautiful spots just off the highway, a rich man who drove like a maniac in his fancy car, a creepy fireman, and all sorts of other kind people. Before I knew it, I was standing around drinking morning coffee with a half dozen Chilean truckers outside an industrial park in Santiago. I related my story to them as best I could in my still-shitty Spanish. They laughed and told me I was crazy, but I had made it.

I passed the last week before my flight in the neighbouring city, Valparaíso— an incredible place for art and culture. I lived in a cheap hostel with street performers and vendors from all over South America— jugglers, flag spinners, chocolate makers, musicians and trinket sellers. Alone and with my new friends from the hostel, I spent the days exploring the graffiti-covered streets, plazas and stairways that wind their way down steep cliffs, to the edge of the pacific ocean. The autumn weather even got hot enough for a beach day.

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At night, I would loiter outside liquor stores until I met someone who would show me where the street party was that evening. Those parties are some of the best I’ve ever been to in my life. Music came from every direction— guitars, harmonicas, drums, voices. Somehow, they all merged into a beautiful harmony, no matter where you stood. People passed around bottles of cheap beer, glasses of even cheaper red wine, and rolled smokes that nobody seemed to know the content of. Street performers showed off in the middle of circles or just off in a corner by themselves, illuminated by streetlights. Everyone had an interesting story to tell and enough patience to hear mine. One night I kissed at least 12 strangers. The connection at those parties was as abundant and satisfying as the greasy empanada stands on the streets at lunch time.

By the time I arrived at the Santiago airport, my heart was happy and full. Despite the delayed flights, the knife I’d forgotten in my carry-on bag, the lost checked bag, the 18-hour layovers with no internet access, and my complete lack of ideas for what I might do with my life back in Canada, I stepped off the fourth and final plane of the journey in Vancouver with a smile on my face.

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