The bus ride to Chile was very scenic. But not as scenic as it would have been with my camera. Unfortunately it was pretty long as well. Even longer without my camera. It was like I'd lost a friend. Sad, I know, but that's really how it felt. Now some jack-leg was probably pawning my camera along with a memory card full of pictures of me on Machu Picchu in some second hand store in La Paz. The thought sickened me.
Ok, I'm done whining now. At least I had my little 2 megapixel camera...
We passed over and through the mighty Andes. Around 7:00 or so, the sun started to dive below the horizon, making for some absolutely surreal views. Strips of deep, rich golds, oranges and reds cut by the silhouettes of jagged mountain tops. I didn't enjoy them as much as I should, because I wanted to take a picture. I focused on watching the movie on the screen above me - it actually made me feel better - "Tears of the Sun" was the choice, a movie which holds a special place in my heart (Arch and Christy, I watched all the way through the credits for Paul's name). After the show I quickly fell asleep, dreaming of my camera.
We pulled into town around 10:30 pm - or so I thought (I found out later during the summer Chile is an extra hour ahead of Peru - time changes are a pain). When we disembarked, I ran into the station to book a ticket on to Santiago that night - figured I was already in "bus mode", might as well keep going. All the bus companies were closing. This left me in the unenviable position of finding some shelter for the night at 10:30 in Arica, Chile. I consulted the guidebook, which directed me across the street. I walked over to the "Internacionale Hospidaje" which was surrounded by an iron gate. It looked like someone had converted a small hotel into a home/hostel. I didn't really care. I looked around for a way in and noticed a lady asleep in a lawn chair near the door. I tapped on the bars loud enough for her to finally wake up. She led me to my "room" which was the equivalent size of a jail cell - one window and no bathroom. It was ridiculously small. However, as I was going to be there for a total about 10 hours, my standards were pretty low. I pretended not to see the stains on the bedding and the wall and tried to get a little sleep.
I got up early and headed over to the bus station to procure a ticket on the earliest available bus out of town. All the 8:00 departures were full, but I ended up getting one through a company called "TUR Bus", leaving at 11:00 am. As it was just 7:00, I had some time to kill. I proceeded to buy some breakfast consisting of some chocolate chip cookies and an orange Fanta. I contemplated the ride ahead of me - it was scheduled to be 26 hours. I'd never been on a bus that long. I don't think I'd been in one place that long, save a few crappy days at the office - but even then I could get up and walk around a bit. Needless to say my legs and I weren't excited about it.
Around 10:00 I proceeded with the pre-trip bladder strategy and went to the bathroom in the station. Like most public bathrooms in Central and South America, it cost a bit to use the public toilets. This time, 150 Chilean pesos (about 25cents). It's pretty much always the same in each place - some younger girl working the counter where you pay your fee, after which they hand you a receipt and a measured amount of toilet paper. It was kind of embarrassing the first time. They'll even ask you if you need paper sometimes. Weird. Once in a while you'll find some lady in there cleaning. Doesn't matter if there are dudes in there taking a wiz. They'll just mop away like they don't even see you. Whatever.
I finally got on the bus, which I had to again psyche myself up for - 26 hours on a bus, in one seat - ok, ready - go. It sucks, but it's better than spending $500 to $3000 on a plane ticket. Plus, it offers some unique experiences and scenery and stuff (I can rationalize with the best of them). I was in seat #1, right behind the driver. God must have been working on the seating charts because as we took off, no one made it into seat #2. It was beyond awesome. If I'm going to be in one seat for 26 hours, I'll need to move my feet and legs a little. I stretched out just because I could.
For those of you who don't know (I didn't either until I got there), Arica is right on the coast, and pretty much the most northern city in Chile. Not much but brown/gray sand all around. I could see the ocean in the distance as we left. We headed east, rising up through the dry foothills of the Andes, then turned South on a major highway connecting the majority of the country. I was about a quarter of the way through "The Fountainhead" at this point, which I stuck my nose back into after the first half hour of repetitive desert scenery.
About two hours later we were really, really in the desert. I read later that this area of desert is the driest on earth. I'd believe it. There was nothing to be seen for miles in any direction. All the sudden, the bus slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. "They must be switching drivers" I naively thought.
Let me digress a second to set the stage - The "cockpit" of the tour bus/coach is glassed/walled in, separating the drivers from the 40-50 passengers behind them. Since I was in the first seat just behind the glass, I could see all happenings in the "inner sanctum". Our bus was staffed by three men, one driver, and the other two sitting in fold-down chairs in the cockpit. In the two hours we'd been on the road, one of them came through to check tickets and a different one to pass out our "lunch" (consisting of a roll with mayo and ham and a pine-apple flavored soft drink).
As the bus came to a stop, the two non-drivers started looking curiously at the door. The driver pushed the release button two or three times. I could hear the faint hiss of hydraulic pressure, but nothing happened. The door didn't move. One of the crew (the biggest of the bunch) put both hands on the door and started pushing it - hard. The entire bus rocked as he did it - the door didn't. It was stuck. He pushed and pushed and pushed to no avail. In time, all three of our fearless crew tried shoving it open by themselves, somehow thinking they were the Arthur of the group. They then joined forces, one taking the high end, one the middle and one the bottom. Nothing.
After about 5 minutes of trying the exact same thing over and over and over, they slid the driver-side window open (which was right in front of me) and proceeded to squeeze/shove the smallest of the crew members through it. It looked pretty painful, which therefore made it all the more comical. Once on the ground, he circled around to the door, at which time the remaining two crew members started pushing on it again. And again. And again. Unsurprisingly, the bus moved more than the door. A few of the other passengers toward the front thought it was as funny as I did.
About five minutes later, I noticed the little guy who'd been shoved outside walking out in front of the bus. He stopped after about 200 feet, in front of a pile of trash on the side of the road. It consisted of what looked to be old tires, sheets of dusty black plastic, pieces of steel rebar, concrete blocks and some worn, splintered wooden boards. He rummaged around for a bit, finally grabbing a three-foot long weather-ravaged two by four from the heap and carried it back to the bus. He passed it through the window to one of the guys inside. They proceeded to try to use it to pry it the door open - first at the top, then at the bottom. It obviously wasn't going to work but it was fun as hell to watch. They pushed and pried, wedging it anywhere it would stick, then worked on the loose end like their lives depended on it. Again, unsurprisingly, the door stood defiant.
About 30 minutes after the bus had initially stopped, the big crew member came through the cockpit door and broke the news to us that there was a slight problem with the door, and they were trying to fix it. He then went back through the door and started pushing on it again. He didn't really explain why we couldn't just keep on going to the next town and get it fixed there, which seemed to me a better option than using a two by four from a trash heap to pry a hydraulic door open. But then again, I'm not licensed to drive a bus. I was thinking about this as the third crew member braced his back on the dashboard, put his feet on the door and tried to leg-press it open.
The crowd was surprisingly calm, and had a pretty good sense of humor. A few people started cracking jokes to which everyone laughed. I did as well, even though I didn't understand a word they said. Occasionally, another car or truck would zip by. It made me feel a little better that at lease other humans might see us after a few days of being stranded. After a bit, a fellow TUR Bus approached from the opposite direction and pulled over. Their crew got out, walking over to our bus smiling and laughing. I was hoping they had some tools or something to help our fearless leaders. That was apparently too much to ask. They didn't really do anything, outside of shake our crew's hands through the driver's side window, exchange a few yuks and then get back on their bus and drive off. Thanks for the help boys.
As we started hour number two, I started wondering what the real options were. I still wasn't sure why we didn't just pack it up and drive on to the next station. It started to get hot in the bus, as they'd turned it off - presumably to save gas and try not to overheat the idling engine. Would they send another bus? How long would that take? Where would it take us? Would we turn around and go back? Drive on to Iquique? Stay here until a service crew arrived? Either way, it looked like we weren't going anywhere for a while.
About 20 minutes later, another TUR Bus came by and handed our crew a little chest of tools. Why the hell we didn't have our own set to begin with, I don't know. After making its delivery, the other bus drove off, leaving our crack crew to start working on the door - specifically the connection between the hydraulic arms and the door. They took the plastic casing off, and then proceeded to work on the bolts that connected the door to the arms. About ten minutes later, they yelled a couple things to each other through the glass, then pulled the entire door off the arms and off the bus. The curved black hydraulic arms hung defiantly in the doorway.
Knowing we were even further from making any forward progress, the crew opened the cockpit door and gave us the option of getting off the bus. Almost everyone took advantage of the space. It was hot on the bus, and likely even warmer outside, but at least it was outside.
It was indeed hot. The desert floor was covered with fine white powder. It flew up in dusty clouds when walked upon. Near the bus were some piles of gravel which some people used as cover to relieve themselves.
So, there we sat for another hour, sitting in the middle of the Chilean desert watching our inept crew working on the hydraulic arms of the door. They also had a hatch open at the back of the bus, working on what was probably the motor controlling the arms (what the hell do I know about tour bus mechanics?). To add to the spectacle, I saw a passenger stick his nose into the hatch and start talking to the crew. He then walked over to the pile of dusty trash in front of the bus and grabbed a piece of dirty, dusty sheet rubber. He pulled it toward the back of the bus where he and the crew used his pocket knife to cut it into strips. They then used them to wrap something inside the hatch. I have no idea what it was, or what they did. All I know is that whatever it was worked. After a few loud commands from the front of the bus to the back, the arms started moving. There were smiles all around, and some claps from the passengers still outside. They tested it a few times, then proceeded to re-attach the door.
Three hours and fifteen minutes after we initially pulled over, the bus started moving again. Everyone seemed happy - I was too, but I'd already added the additional 3 hours onto our already 26 hour bus ride. 29 hours at the minimum. Holy crap.
Thankfully, the rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. I ate a lot of cookies and Sprite. I had in mind a carefully planned effort to try not to use the toilet on the bus. I hate those things. They are worse than airplane toilets - nearly as bad as port-a-potties. I don't know anyone who likes either of those things - just imagine being 6'9" and trying to use one. Then imagine being 6'9" and using one while in motion on a bus with suspect drivers and bad roads. Yeah - it sucks. So, every time we stopped, I risked being left in some random town by getting off the bus and scrambling to find the bathroom. I paid my 150 pesos, pocketed my handful of TP and conducted a speed pee, listening carefully for the sound of a revving bus.
For "dinner" we stopped in some small town at a crappy-looking restaurant I'm certain no one on the bus would have visited had they seen it. One of the crew got out and returned with a cooler and full of pre-made lunches in foil containers. It turned out to be a piece of undercooked chicken sitting in a bed of buttered noodles. I ate the noodles. (Not to focus entirely on the digestive system here, but I was also conscious of avoiding any probable catalyst of traveler's diarrhea while on a 29 hour bus ride - hence the minimalist diet of cookies and Sprite). Darkness fell, and we continued on through the night, rolling the kilometers under our tires. As there was absolutely nothing else to do, I continued my reading of "The Fountainhead". I was incredibly intimidated with it at first. It is a meaty 698 page trade paperback, making it almost as thick as it is tall, but after a few hours I was hooked. It's tremendous. I can't believe it's taken me this long to find it.
I slept a bit - as much as you can on a bus. I woke up as we were pulling into a town called La Serena. It was about 8:30 or so now, and the sun was up. It looked like a pretty nice little town - near the ocean, and the bus stop was really nice (I've found my opinions of small towns are determined in no small part by the ambiance of their bus stations). After a quick stop at the main terminal we drove around to the TUR Bus office to pick up our "breakfast" consisting of a brown paper bag with a roll with a piece of ham in it along with a bottle of Orange Crush. Sweet.
The rest of the drive was scenic and uneventful. We headed south, moving from the Pacific coast to the center of the country in the mountains. The terrain shifted from dry deserts to farmland, loaded with vineyards.
The closer we got to Santiago, the more impatient I became. After all the delays at the different stations on top of the incident with the door in the desert (which seemed like a week ago), we were entering hour 31. 31 hours on a damn bus. That number just sounded stupid when I thought it. We finally hit the city, and of course managed to hit it near rush hour. Traffic was thick. We got stuck at a light where it was next to impossible to turn left without a heroic effort. Our driver didn't have it in him. We stayed there for at least ten minutes, cars behind us honking, passengers walking up to the front of the bus to see what was going on, our driver throwing his hands up in frustration... 31 hours! I was so pissed off. If my backpack wasn't under the bus, I would have forced the door open and found a taxi. Finally, after much prodding and pushing, we made it to the station where I took a taxi to a hostel recommended by the book - La Casa Roja. It turned out to be a very cool place where I got a dorm bed for $9.50 USD a night. They had a travel agency, beer, soda, water, a pool, kitchen and a cool house dog. Even wireless internet access. I'd found a home. To be honest, anything probably would have sufficed, as long as it wasn't a bus.