South America 2011-2012: The Stew Brews... and Boils Into Action

Once again Thanksgiving has approached - and it's time for me to hit the road. There's something pleasant about being gone when the holidays descend; the appeal has been apparent to me for some time. Whatever pressure cooker there is found in the heaviest travel period of the year, I happily avoid. As a bonus I usually escape winter, too.

But it's not without some regret this time that I leave the increasing cold behind. I've moved again to a place where such can be interesting, to a resort town tucked against the mountains. A small ski hill even butts into one edge of town, plus a handful of cross-country trails on offer lie equally as close. Throw in limitless snow-shoeing (ditto on the distance), and that only briefly before noting that an ice rink is in the embryonic stages of being built, too. Not bad.

My house, meanwhile, is being constructed. But that's further along, if the best reason to flee the burg. A late start to the effort in late summer, due to belatedly selling my house in Seattle, made for a push to get things done into fall. That, in turn, bespoke a hurry before the next season, winter, should undue some measure of progress with crushing snow or perhaps a remnant rain of late fall to make plywood unhappy. I'm not into "redo".

Thus excavation work was engaged as hastily as possible on the schedule of others, various forms of machinery at play, matched only to some extent by the foundation work which followed. That step was mostly undertaken by my friend-contractor and I, however. The six pours of cement, plus some help along the way with forms and pours, meant prodigious openings of wallet to expedite matters. I'm not particularly into "spend increasing amounts of money", either. Surprise.

Anyway, framing, the next up, next reduced the worker count completely to just the two us - outside of getting lumber to show up in a timely manner (and my credit card similarly paid and paid again to keep the balance properly uninhibited). Work we indeed did: With my friend plugging away with plans and hammer in hand, defining the shape of things to come, I followed behind when not prepping in front with saw, hammer, or the lugging "power" to move all the incoming lumber out of its numerous piles. This was accomplished not without pain on various levels (digression avoided here).

Still, we somehow in 24 days of framing "got 'er done", the roof finally making it sufficiently on with its all-important ice/frost shield. No more rain (or an upcoming snow-melt) in the building! Moreover, my car made it under garage cover (doorless as the case may be) on my last day. That's remarkable enough, if only for occurring just the first time in 21 years of owning the thing.

Now it's time for my body to catch up. As friend (slash construction foreman) Kerry switches to a greatly-reduced schedule of odds-and-ends before taking his own break, I've flown out to Phoenix and points south to begin my immediate healing process. And verily so: In the mornings, for instance, I've come to hardly be able to make a fist, what from gripping so many objects. My right elbow and forearm, meanwhile, shoot pain at all types of inopportune moments (such as pulling something, buckling a seatbelt, putting on a backpack, etc) from so much hammering and wielding.This was exacerbated by the use of both a made-for-someone-bigger power saw and nails gun - not to mention in awkward poses.

The litany of ache-dom doesn't stop there: A large, immediately broken and raw blister in my hand speaks to shoveling; Bruises all over my body speak to clumsily bumping into things... or from repeatedly carrying material while using parts of my body as a "cushion". The rest of my body, meanwhile, merely feels at times like someone's beaten me quite randomly with 2x4s. Maybe someone did. It's all turning into a blur.

A Phoenix pitstop on the way to Chile, thus, is hoped to provide the first glimpse of an antidote. Besides the welcome company of brother John and wife Brooke, I especially look to their two angelic daughters Aislyn and Claren (however much the parents would say that even they have their human moments). Their soft voices and endearing charm should stand me well in good company - and in stark contrast to nail meeting wood or lumber dropping from on high to a resounding thud below.

The trumpet will no longer be permitted to issue such forlorn looks from a shadowed corner, either. For the first time in a dozen years it's mostly been sitting idle as framing went full-bore. Not for a mere handful of days, either, but nearly four weeks. On occasion I've picked it up, sure, for a short battery of lip trills, but the high notes have become as increasingly resistant as my stamina has grown relatively non-existent. Not for nothing have I packed a record amount of music to toy with abroad.

Writing of which, I'm also bringing my usual contingent of books, if probably for a last time with such a "classics" bent. I've about run out of such older, staid tomes that appeal to me. Fortunately, though, I'm nowhere near the bottom of any "lists" of books I intend to read. THAT would be a tragedy, indeed. For the unnecessary record, then, here's what the backpack holds to get things started:

The Sea Wolf - Jack London
A House For Mr. Biswas - V.S. Naipaul
The Heart Of The Matter - Graham Greene
Ghost Train To The Eastern Star - Paul Theroux
Magister Ludi - Hermann Hesse
The Green House - Mario Vargas Llosa
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - John Le Carré
Smiley's People - John Le Carré
Gargantua & Pantagruel - Francois Rabelais
Moll Flanders - Daniel DeFoe
Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton
Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
Silas Marner - George Eliot
Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel García Márquez, this time read in Spanish

Surely I'm not alone in believing that these should provide a sufficient and even hopeful smattering of material, a collection chosen to roam in numerous directions of both adventure and introspection. Nevertheless, they equally suggest by their bulk and weight that I buy a Kindle or somesuch electronic reader in the future. Someday, anyway: There is still something emotionally (and tangibly) perfect to me about carrying books and giving them away, the pack growing lighter as the trip grows. Not that I'll tell that to my back or suffering elbows just yet.

Admittedly, it is my great weakness to never be without quality literature as I travel. I've come to mistrust the larder of hostels... if equally the depths of my unwillingness to spend much money on printed volumes I intend to keep for such a meager amount of time. Even so, this pile will regardless be supplemented by other companions in both English and Spanish over the course of the trip. Perhaps some Borges in Argentina, Vargas Llosa in Perú, or Neruda in Chile? Sounds plausible, likely even.

To start the trip on the right foot, however, I choose Theroux. The veteran traveler and his insightful perspective seem the right one to immerse in and even adopt on an open-ended adventure such as I hope this to be. In fact, in Ghost Train To The Eastern Star's first chapter or so, he right off echoes a mantra to my travel thinking: "Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world." Yep, gotta fly low.

Unsurprisingly, then, I intend to look at hostel-like lodgings where- and whenever possible. I'll conspire to get my own room to set up a trumpet practice where reasonable; I'll certainly not be moving at anything resembling a quick pace. Moreover, I also know that most of the trip will likely be by bus: Trains are almost non-existent on any practical basis in South America, and planes are nowhere as cheap as they are in Europe or the U.S., either. If I find myself making it as far as Colombia, however, it likely'll have meant that I took a flight if not two to move things on their way. So be it.

This still all begs the most important question: What IS this trip to be? It IS more the case on this than on any previous trip that my outline remains pretty sketchy. Or... maybe not: A plan has been hatched, after all, to start in Chile. The not-entirely-foggy idea then continues with heading up the Andes in fits and starts northward toward home. Thus a one-way ticket to Santiago after several days in Mesa/Phoenix should lead to, in some months, a counterpart from somewhere else in South America back to Miami, Tampa, and the States beyond. THAT much I know. I think.

Such is the thinking at the start, in any event. And, as things stand at the trip's outset, the mental picture I've come to draw looks to be an itinerary something like this:
Valdivia, Chile - Puerto Varas, Chile - Bariloche and San Martin, Argentina - a mystery area that could be back in Chile or running north to Mendoza, San Juan, and Salta, Argentina - another mystery area that might see me in Sucre and La Paz, even Cochebamba and Rurrenbaque, Bolivia - Arequipa, Perú to check out Colca Canyon - possibly a forced pass through Lima, Perú - Huaraz, Perú - Vilcabamba, Ecuador - the coast of Ecuador - Tierradentro then Neiva, Colombia - Honda then Medellín, Colombia.

Time will tell... but, leaving early in the morning from Mesa, the realities of traveling heavier than ever before come quickly into focus like never before - if only thanks to my arm injuries. The aching left wrist, in conjunction and conspiracy with its unneighborly right elbow, take no time to being speaking as one. The message: to unload weight from my rucksack as soon as possible, which currently isn't allowing an easy loading of the pack onto back without unseemly contortions of the rest of my body. Not good.

The concept of unloading some backpack weight, and quickly, isn't exactly new, however. And neither is it by coincidence that I first start reading Theroux's book to get me in the traveling mood: it's also the heaviest in my pack. I meanwhile liberally goop some ointment provided by my sister-in-law onto my arm's injuries... before gratefully eating the ample slice of blackberry pie also offered by her to get the journey started on the right foot. Other books and crutches of food shouldn't take long to follow.

The flight to Miami, gateway to Latin America, is as calmly uneventful as most travel in the U.S. is. Boringly efficient, I find it a platform for people-watching at a polite distance. Aboard, and although all the connecting flights mentioned continue on to Latin America, I take in this largely Caucasian manifest of folks. Virtually all are in comfortable-yet-brand-advertised attire - typically American.

The pleasant lady next to me, though, is another story altogether. Returning herself to Chile to visit family, as she says, does nothing to stop me from being drawn to the book she is reading... and its copious illustrations. Looking to be a mix of astrology meets nuclear physics, a chosen paragraph or two is enough to convince me that some kind of madness lies afoot therein. There is God, fusion, particle matter, and a frowning sun with a human's body to keep me guessing. Thankfully for all involved, I know better than to even ask what lies on those astral planes.

And just like that we're in Miami, back in Terminal D, but not headed to Colombia this go-round. The guessing is that this is the portal to all things Latin America, but I really don't know. One just can't help but think so with the constant flow of Spanish. By all appearances, the Latinos I see have successfully completed their shopping stateside, branded bags in hand. The non-hispanic-looking North Americans otherwise seem to be looking toward tropical or mystical escapes. Maybe it's the Hawaiian shirts, safari outfits... the hats. I'm just happy to get a boarding pass with no one else in my row.

Frankly, nothing speaks to the most glorious of travel imagery these days more than that. I thus can happily ignore whatever movie (Cars 2?) plays out over the screen as I spread myself out little by little over three seats, three tray tables, and three "storage areas located under the seat in front of you". I am three; three is me. Soon enough I inhale a half-portion of my meal, to be repeated with the breakfast before landing, with the intent of scavenging the rest (the packaged, unheated and non-refrigerated stuff) for a not-too-distant later. Did I really just ADD to my backpack's load?

Apparently this is so. My cold, meanwhile, hasn't quite gone anywhere yet, either. Sneezes and tissues somehow preclude any possible thoughts that it might go away soon. Sigh. Under such a clouded sky, then, do I stretch out as stretch can in my row's solitude. I thankfully only suffer the mildest of sore throats for the remainder of the flight. In eight hours we have gently touched down in Santiago. I choke down a final, moderately acceptable coffee.

But the fun isn't over quite yet: Santiago is to be a mere interlude. At least it's not a pesky one, however, not outside of the required detour for being an American and needing to pay a $140 "reciprocity" tax. That's the one I get to pay thanks to our government FIRST leveling such a similar tax in Chile's direction - and Chile being one of the few countries with enough balls to give equal to the take. Somehow the countries of Australia, Canada, Mexico, and ALBANIA (!!!) suffer the same fate, too. As for that oddest of latters, I can only take it to be on account of not wanting more gypsies. Chile, after all, was the lone South American country where I remember seeing the Roma in my previous travels. I honestly can't think of anything else that could possibly put that oppressed country on any other's radar. Seriously - Albania?

In any event, I get to chat with a pleasant Canadian woman for the effort. Advising her to the extent she seems eager to receive, she and I soon part company after the relatively non-existent customs step, followed by a short ride on a bus shuttle toward the city center. I get out to jump into the nearest Metro station; she continues on toward hers. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to bump into her again in Perú or some such as these things and our generally northward plans allow.

I meanwhile lug my cumbersome load to the station and get off some half-dozen stops later, at the Cumming stop. In the process I'm offered another weird dose - if only in name - to the unique English influence found in this South American country (alongside the grand avenue O'Higgins). More importantly, I find my hostel in minutes.

My most temporary of lodgings, Hostal Chile Inn, is completely unnotable - but that is as it should be. Still in the morning (I arrived at 7:30 a.m.), the clerk sets me to rights with a bed that I immediately take to. Later, for the afternoon, I plan to head into nearby downtown Santiago. To be fair, though, I have no actual interest in the capital. I previously discovered whatever I could possibly have interest in on my 2000 visit (i.e., not much)... but I do have a mission of getting a plug adaptor. No getting around that for my camera, computer, iPod, shaver, etc.

Fortunately the walkabout-by-necessity is not without its charms. Some handsome buildings line the streets, still intact from colonial days; there is the palpable bustle any city needs to validate its existence. I nevertheless could as equally be in Bogotá or Buenos Aires for the general look of folks. Dark hair, dark eyes, nicely dressed on average. I mostly note that, yeah, I could use a haircut.

It is thus that I take to my original menial task with some relish, even as I find it curious that I'm uniformly directed by so many to only one particularly tiny electronics store near the pedestrian zone in the country's urban heart. I come to wonder if the impossible is true, that, in the unanimity of directions, there is no other place to spend 25c and get the puny piece of magic that will let my various appliances work. Hmm.

Truthfully, I don't really care. My side mission, after all, is to bumble about. THAT I do: I look into a few curious Cafe Haiti establishments, for instance, all offering a possibly quality coffee if nary a seat. The hostesses offer miniskirts instead, prancing around with shot glasses of espresso as handfuls of businessmen stand at counters reminiscent to me only of espresso stands in Italy. Too bad I like to sit for my coffee, I muse.

I ALSO like to find shade. This is something which I'm immediately reminded, particularly as the intense sun of the Andes at modest altitude kicks in. Little such available refuge is on tap near noon, however - only sunny benches are free - so I take refuge in a chess pavilion on the central Plaza de Armas as a consolation. I purposefully sit to rest, avoiding the one table with a crowd before retaking the reins of a directed coffee search not long after. THAT eventually puts me in the trusted hands of a lonely cafe with a German name: Muüller Kaffee. Sold - and justifiably so. Whew.

But that's it for Santiago as far as I'm concerned. I've seen some pleasant spots, even taken in some uninspired grafiti. I sigh audibly as I rue that I can't sit on the inviting grounds of the former congress building - twice, since I pass it by on a SECOND go-round. That one comes complete with a company of police, all decked out in showy attendance for the exit of the prince of Spain. Woo. I look at the official bugler's horn instead, decked out in pageantry that is completed by a flag draped over much of the brass. Nice instrument. This, by the way, explains the formerly unexplainable gathering of police troops I'd witnessed earlier on the intersection of the main drag and the walking zone. Now I can die, or at least leave Santiago in peace, I tell myself with satisfaction. Such an eye for detail I have, yep.

Along the way of this epic journey I take in the Museo Nacional by chance, equally attracted by its non-commital $1 price AND its offer of shade to give my eyes a closing to fight a headache. A guard doesn't like the idea of my sleeping, naturally, but the excuse of pain happily satisfies his need to interfere. The small museum, meanwhile, satisfies nothing: There are nice displays, sure, even well-preserved artifacts, but no story line. Most damning is the stopping of its history with the death of Salvador Allende in 1973 (thanks in no small part to Henry Kissinger). Hel-lo? A little perspective? Perhaps the plaque attributing respect to General Pinochet provides an answer.

Whatever the case, the hostel sleeps through my triumphant return. The trio of Israelis - my lone counterparts in the establishment - are nowhere to be found, for one thing. Perhaps so it should be. Instead I briefly engage in conversation with the owner of the place, who's taken over for her clerk. A confident woman, I don't dare to continue in Spanish as she steps over my comments in that tongue to assert her English.

No, I'm more concerned by far that the hot shower she promised never comes to be. A cold, almost tepid washing greets me instead. This is topped by a night of fitful sleep, one punctuated by buses passing outside my rattling window below. I awaken each time in a half-frightened stupor, expecting the beasts to cannonball impossibly through the wall of my particularly elevated second-story redoubt. What old colonial buildings needed with 20 or 30 foot ceilings for the ground-level floor I really should investigate someday.

For the time being I head for the bus station come morning in lieu of such diligent research. I leave the Theroux book behind (coincidentally on an empty-ish shelf that contains his other book that this one mimics in route, although in Spanish), then I catch a taxi which drops me off at the Los Heroes terminal to grab a Cruz del Sur bus at the last minute. Now it's only 12-plus hours to go for my first destination, Valdivia.

Yay, I think, alternating between sniffling and sleeping deeply for the entire journey. I foolishly ignore the dehydration I suffer, choosing instead to rejoice in the fact that there is no onboard movie (a la Colombia most recently). It helps, too, that there's a girl with impossibly high cheekbones and ample beauty to distract me whenever she - on altogether few occasions - gets up. Perhaps I should make a silly sound, I muse.

Outside, the roads are smooth. At various times, then, I relax for a healthy stretch to do nothing more than take in the scenery. I can't help but notice how comparable Chile is to the U.S. in both its look and level of modernization these days. Wood construction takes on a familiar bent, too, what with the evident (and seemingly unique to Latin America) use of proper 2x4s, quality rebar, OSB plywood, and clean-lined steel supports. The architecture is familiar enough as well, ever the more so as we head further south. Germanic touches grow in number, yet include slight deviations from rooflines otherwise familiar to me that afford something to think about. I can't help but think that all of this is obviously afforded by a middle-class that is nowhere else matched in size in Latin America. Chile has a lot to be proud of in that regard, I reason to no one in particular.

But that's about it, other than rueing the paucity of interaction we have with the actual countryside from the isolation of a highway that could be anywhere in the U.S. I gaze off at snow peaks in the distance on the left, flatness or low green hills to the right. This is all that the highway proffers at a remove. We cross the long valley of vineyards that transforms into hills and forests, yes, but the scheduled pullout stops in addition to the general intersection of road to roadside is completely different than that of how a train narrowly cuts through that which it can't stop and touch. I blame Theroux for so recently reminding me of this disparity, his well-known affinity for trains bludgeoned home.

The rest stop at 3 p.m., in (Santa Maria de) Los Angeles after six long hours, provides no respite, either. I nevertheless am not quite so negative as the Argentine who rejoices upon finding out I'm American and not one his rival Chileans: "We make a proper asado, we do, none of this %(*&^# Chilean seafood!" Not that we'd be eating that, not yet: I settle for a healthy, if uninspired, plate of peas, beets, and mashed potatoes. And I guess that's German enough, I tell myself, happy to avoid a fried whatever to blurble in my guts for the remaining hours.

And then I'm in Valdivia. NOW the trip has begun.
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