Friday, February 24, 2006

Santiago Revisited


Nightfall and I was still on the road from Mendoza to Santiago. I came upon the mirador, or observation point for Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. When I passed here a month ago, the summit was shrouded in cloud, but tonight, in the twilight "alpenglow", I was startled when I looked up and saw the mountain. I scampered up a small hill (as fast as I can scamper in all my riding gear), and in the rapidly-fading light, set my camera on the ground and took this five-second exposure. Below, with a little software enhancement, is a high-contrast image.




I'm amazed that the camera captures so much detail, when the eye can barely discern the mountain!


2:00 a.m.

There's a strange sense that I need to get home. "I've got work to do." (Though it's not at all clear what that work might be.)

And I couldn't really understand why circumstances were propelling me back to Santiago. ("Maybe I can then take a ship home?" It's one of those romantic ideas I've had, to sail up the coast and through the Golden Gate.)

Wind is certainly a "feature" of Argentina. (And it always seems a crosswind!) Again, I was fighting heavy winds. Though my track was generally westward, the wind had now shifted to the southwest, and was as brutal as ever.

Passed the 40,000-mile mark in this journey today. A long ride in exactly nine months (and for most of Latin America, it's nothing like driving 40,000 miles in the U.S.) Strange to think that 7% of that mileage was racked up in just the past four days!

Fell for the "LPG station trick" again. Very low on fuel, I was relieved to roll into a station, only to find all the pumps outfitted with an unfamiliar kind of hose and nozzle assembly. Fortunately a real gas station was not far beyond.

Arrived at my destination, Mendoza late in the afternoon. The smell of fermenting grapes in the air. I drove right downtown and, with just a bit of difficulty, found my way to the Alcor Hotel. The streets seemed just as busy as during my previous visit, which was a concern. I thought tourism would be winding down now, as summer vacations are ending.

The hotel lobby was crowded. I squeezed to the reception desk and asked about vacancies. "None," the woman said with a smile. A couple other travelers were standing there trying to somehow extract an opening, but there were none to be had. Another young lady recognized me. I think she said "I'm the one who turned you away last time!"

I tried only one other hotel, one that had looked interesting on my previous visit. "Completo!"

"I'm not going to play the game this time..."

Left Mendoza, and headed for Chile. ("I might make Santiago by 10:00, which is not bad, though I'm not sure what time it's getting dark now.") Opened up the throttle and made tracks for the border. The sun would be dropping behind the Andes soon.

In the golden late afternoon light, it was a pleasure to be carving my way through the sweeping mountain curves, effortlessly passing trucks and buses as we climbed through the pass.

Heavy on Argentine Pesos, and uncertain how I would unload them, decided to take a bottle of wine back to Chile with me. At a market in Uspallata, I grabbed the most expensive bottle from the shelf, a "Goyenechea" Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza, about $14.

Sunset came earlier than hoped and with diminishing visibility, I was gradually forced to slow. I wanted to be over this pass by dark, but it was now clear (especially with customs still ahead), I would be on the pass well after dark and would have to adopt a much slower pace.

I was so focused on the road that when I reached the Aconcagua mirador and glanced sideways, I was jolted by the sight of the mountain, looming in the cloudless twilight. Turned the bike around and found a parking place on the shoulder, then fumbled for the camera. The cold air now had a bite.

Climbed a small hill for a clearer view. My tripod packed away in the pannier, I improvised, using some rocks to prop the camera on the ground. Took a few photos, blindly aiming the camera. The cold limited my patience.

Before reaching the border, pulled up to a hotel to see if I might exchange currencies there. It was a castle-like structure, very European: the "Arco de las Cuevas" hostel and restaurant. A fascinating building. Unfortunately, I wasn't interested in staying the night. They don't do currency exchange, but I was told there's an exchange office at aduana.

Reaching the border station, I was waved right into the large immigration hall (as opposed to going past all the little booths outside.) Apparently this is the way it's supposed to work, but when traffic is too heavy, they have to augment with the booths.

Exchanged my last 31 Pesos, which was perfect; this provided enough Chilean Pesos for the highway tolls going into Santiago (and for the fee I was about to discover.)

The border checkpoint is very well organized:

Window 1: Argentine Immigration. Stamp my passport. No problem.

Window 2: Argentine Aduana. Handed the officer my motorcycle temporary importation permit. "Do you have this document?" he said holding up a large yellow and white form.

"No. Only the entry form. That's all they gave me."

He consulted other officers, then handed me the blank form. "Fill this out and return it." A little miffed, I stomped off to fill it out. Returning, he signed, stamped and handed it back to me.

"Go to window 3," he said, pointing the way.

Window 3: Chile Immigration and Aduana. "Do you have this form?"

"No." (Because it’s kept behind your window, you idiot!)

"Fill this out, then take it to window 4."

Window 4: SAG (Agricultural) "Fill out this form, then give it to the officer outside."

I handed the completed forms to a SAG officer standing outside near the motorcycle. She looked at the yellow and white form (from window 2.)

"You did not go to window 1."

"Yes I did. They stamped my passport!"

"Go to window 1. They have to sign this."

Window 1 (revisited): The officer was perplexed. I told him he had to sign. He did so, and handed it back.

Back outside, I found the officer again.

"Did you pay?"

"Pay what?"

"Window 5. You have to pay."

"Jesus Christ!"

Another officer, smiling, escorted me to window 5. The fee is about $1.25. Now I remembered: it's the toll for the Chilean side of the tunnel. (Earlier, entering the tunnel on the Argentine side, I was just waved around the toll gate.)

Outside. I showed her my receipt for the toll. Okay, now they can inspect.

Another officer, a young fellow, noting that I was very angry, decided to inspect the three hard cases and the tank bag, tapping each in succession, indicating he wanted them opened.

Of course, when you open the side panniers and start rummaging through, everything just starts spilling out.

After being satisfied, he said "close them up” and left.

"Thank you very fucking much!"

Other travelers milling about were amused by my carrying-on.

I had lost it at this point and was livid (an all-too-common condition lately!) All the mindless bureaucrats and "control freaks"!

I'm weary of the countless control checkpoints along Latin American highways. Even if many of them don't pertain to motorcycles, or just wave you through, their very presence is oppressive and demoralizing.

(Yet, just today, I was reflecting on the virtual absence of a police presence actually out on the highways of Argentina and Chile. You can pretty much drive without fear of being pulled over and cited. I don't quite understand the contradiction. Perhaps it's the high cost of gasoline that keeps them relatively immobilized. The California Highway Patrol certainly doesn't allow the price of gas to curtail activity.)

In the dark, and with no pavement markings (only occasional reflectors along the shoulders), I slowed to less than half the speed I was driving earlier. But I was okay. Really. I had calmed down and it was just a matter of taking things slowly and patiently working my way back to Santiago.

Highway mileage signs confound here: it is not uncommon for distances between cities to change significantly. According to the signs, the distance between Mendoza and Santiago grew by 30 miles, the nearer I came to Santiago. It was running away from me!

Midnight exactly. Arrived at the "Park Inn Hotel". 46,251 miles on the bike. The only other vehicle in the parking lot, an R1200GS like mine. An unfamiliar clerk at the front desk (and a not very hospitable one at that.)

I asked for my "old" room, 207 (I think) again. He said the second floor was not available. "Why?"

"It's closed," he said, but couldn't explain why.

I was getting picky now, but settled for a first-floor room.

While unloading the bike, a group arrived by taxi. They had obviously enjoyed the evening. All were motorcyclists. One Spaniard and six Brazilians. Most of their bikes are in the shop at Williamson Balfour. One, an R1200GS only three months old has a bad engine! Another, has $5,000 in damages, the result of fall in Peru.

Settled into my room, turning on the TV. The first English channels in weeks. Later, connected to the internet. Ah, the luxury! (Is this why I drove all the way to Santiago?)

Travel has become tedious the past couple weeks. Not what I would characterize as “fun”. I look forward to just "chilling out" here for a few days.

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