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South America by RV: Chile, Peru, and Argentina


I last visited South America twelve years ago, and although at the time I mostly stayed with Silvio's family-now scattered over separate homes-and involved myself with their internecine struggles, that other visit coloured my way of thinking about my latest venture to the continent, rather like dark clouds suggest but don't guarantee a downpour. The most significant moments in Argentina and Chile from my first trip were fleeting and mostly overwritten by an attempt to grapple with a culture that could be very isolating. I laughed with Silvio over strange people we met on our trip across the Andes to Chile, grimaced with him through the awkward confrontation with his cousin, marvelled at the way in which people in the coastal city of Mar de Plata dealt with organ trade child abductions in the past and the mark that had left on the culture, and ran with him when the rabid cousin pursued us for over four hundred kilometres.

Necessarily, more negative impressions from that first trip fed a reluctance to return, but I hadn't seen Silvio since his short visit to my cabin, and the circumstances of our latest trip promised to be very different. He had urged me to visit ever since my last trip south, and I had put him off, but he had spent both time and money ensuring that we could travel for thousands of kilometres in a way that he would be comfortable-and thus happy-and I would be assured of a method of traveling that at least in part suited both my temperament and inclinations. There only remained the question of what we might want to see.

I went to Portugal several years ago, and once my friend there had spent part of his weekend taking me to various tourist spots, he finally, with puzzlement if not frustration, asked me what I wanted to see in the country. I didn't have an easy answer for him, and I felt that what I said left him unsatisfied, and ultimately fell short in terms of what a country might contain. I said I wanted to see people interact in the market, watch a couple fight in the street, see what litterers throw in the ditch, observe local wild animals, eat in a café with villagers, walk along the shore and in the mountains, and struggle to make myself understood. I passed the weekends with him and his wife in Olhão and spent the rest of the time driving the small roads north from the Algarve toward the capital, looking vaguely for Roman ruins and picking up hitchhikers walking on remote village roads.

I actually didn't know what I was looking for, and even after a few weeks, I was no closer to an answer for my friend. The images that stay with me were impossible to predict: driving my friends into a huge roundabout in rush-hour Seville, renting a car from my friend's cousin who soon became my friend, sleeping in the car and being woken by police at four in the morning and trying two other languages before he asked, embarrassingly, his English perfect, "What language do you speak?" since it was obvious I didn't speak either Spanish or French passably. I remember crossing a high mountain pass that was closed to traffic, and unaware, dropping down through the snowstorm and seeing huge boulders rise out of the mist on the other side as I drove past abandoned trucks. I looked in people's faces for a hint of recognition, and despite my lack of Portuguese, I saw it more than once.

I was approaching South America a second time with the same directionless gaze. The trip promised to offer more than a hard chair at a noisy confusing table, and although Silvio and I had shared road trips before, he had organized the venture to take into account our changing circumstance.

We had driven to western Canada a few times in my old car, but that way of traveling suited me more than him. Camping in a tent does not represent privation for me, and cooking over a fire is a relatively familiar procedure. Silvio likes the clamour of crowds and meeting different people, and endures lack of comfort with little grace. His latest project promised to satisfy both of our requirements, and he was more than a little excited to show me what he had accomplished.

Silvio has spent the last two years building a recreational vehicle, although that label does not do his achievement justice. He used a common Canadian RV as his model, but improved on that enough that the result is not easily recognized as a similar project. He bought a Mercedes Sprinter truck chassis, and with the help of a man who has been buildings RVs in Argentina for years, gradually constructed the walls and roof, filled the truck interior with tasteful and carefully designed furniture, and wired the truck with a dozen kilometres of cables for Direct TV, 200 VAC and both 12 and 24 VDC. As well, the entire vehicle is networked. Three flat screen TVs allow viewing from either of the two bunks and the kitchen, and USB ports are available an arm's length from nearly anywhere one might be sitting. Four hundred watts of solar panels run the electrical equipment, and the gas powered oven, two burner stove, water heater for the shower, refrigerator, and diesel powered furnace ensure comfort, ease and, perhaps equally importantly, a transparent familiarity that allows the user to ignore their surroundings so they can focus on their trip.

Like any of either my or Silvio's projects, I wasn't sure how long it would hold his attention, and that thought-as well as the knowledge that I am changing my personal circumstances so that traveling might soon become more difficult-made Silvio's offer of the trip even more inviting. The RV promised to give him the comfort he requires to travel happily, and meant that I might be able to touch the leaves in the Peruvian jungle, or feel the heat of the Atacama Desert; otherwise I would have to be satisfied with merely glimpsing them from a speeding bus. With those constraints and enticements in mind, I booked a ticket and promised Silvio I would meet him in Santiago, Chile on May 17th.

A Record of Events

Without over thinking the decision, I determined to keep a written record of our journey. Partially this is because I have learned not to trust my sometimes negligent memory, or, perhaps worse, I suspect that my recall contains only a chaos of fleeting images. Other more significant events, I fear, are almost immediately dispensed with, although at the time they disrupt what I accept as normal, or strange. Across time or distance, what is significant becomes difficult to distinguish. The chronicler finds themselves reaching for the arbitrary detail like a drowning man might grab for a soup spoon, so entranced in the urgency of the moment by its metaphorical connection to liquid that he loses sight of the main goal. Only with a more sober evaluation, as his feet desperately plunge for a solid bottom, will he understand that not everything in the hand is necessary to the page.

A diary or journal externalizes the process of memory until it almost seems to be the trip of another; even within a few months the writer finds themselves excavating the entries as if an archaeologist in a collapsed cave. The half-forgotten bone knife is examined anew, the ashes from the long extinct fire are sampled and tested, and the emotions of the time can be set aside to be spaded into moments of introspection at some later point. The book takes on a life of its own as it moves beyond the confines of hazy memory, retrospective reinvention, and outright fabulation. It exists to answer the infrequent questions that greet the traveler freshly back from a trip and, with the drift of the seasons, to give meaning to a slice of time that otherwise fades.

During my first trip to South America we were mainly confined to Argentina, although we ducked into tropical Chile long enough for Silvio's allergies to drive us back to the desert of Patagonia. I have fading memories of the trip, the confusing visit in the mountains at Villa de Angostura, the van ride over the Andes, snapshots of children playing in the street in Pucón, Chile while a massive volcano steamed passively overhead, and the long drive back to Neuquén. Without a journal, these memories are trapped in my head, although many of them have seeped out and hopefully enjoy a life of their own far from where I write about them. I returned mentally to Mar de Plata years later and tried to evoke the feeling of that dingy city-for all the world like a run-down Miami-the laughing crowds and desperate street performers, but I only held a handful of cinders of what had been a bright flame.

Partly, the attempt to put an earlier trip into context becomes problematic because of the elapsed time. Retrospective narration can only do so much. The logic of the circumstance might perhaps be clearer to the editor whose eye turns to improving on the half-forgotten moment, but the multitudinous detail that the daily record captures is gone. The rich tapestry of pine and birch and maple becomes in the faded memories only a sprawl of green uneasily captured by the diminutive word forest.

The daily record suffers from its own problems with accurate recall, of course. The journal is necessarily written at the end of a sometimes long day, and often this means late at night once the thrill of the day's events are over. The writer is not necessarily in the most reflective state of mind, since he or she is labouring while exhausted, hungry, rushed before sleeping, or with the constant interruptions of a fellow traveler. As well, important incidents that make up a day on the road duck below ground, only to reappear as a mundane grocery list of events. The richness of an interaction might well be lost as the yawning traveler tries to cite events in the order of occurrence, and the significance of a singular moment, the meaning in a tiny lift of a hand or a raised eyebrow might, in the rush of recording, be lost because the writer does not have enough perspective on the trip to realize the importance of the gesture.

I went to South America this time-in some ways retracing the trip I had taken twelve years earlier with Silvio-determined to capture the dry desert air, the ashy smell of asado, the garish purple of the jungle flowers, soft voices and those raised with shouting, and the thousand other details that the mind is too tired to make note of, or which are lost to time once a decade passes and the minutiae of daily life intervenes.

May 16 ~ The Mexico City Airport

It occurs to me, waiting out my seven hour layover in the Mexico City Airport, that my tendency to avoid researching a trip before leaving might be working against me. When I first went overseas-to the Cook Islands-I was traveling with another Canadian volunteer who avidly read what westerners had said about the islands until he had some very strange ideas about local culture. He told me I couldn't wear black, for instance, and even had the temerity to say it in front of some local high school students wearing black t-shirts. Others of my friends even, in my terms, over-prepare. My friend Nancy went to France on a trip of her own design and packed every day with more activities than she would have had even if she had relinquished her creativity to an organized tour. The effect of that was that she visited many sites that I still have scarcely heard of and came back sated with France and French culture. By comparison, I stupidly stood outside a cathedral in Bruge, Belgium, pondering whether to pay the entrance fee for a glimpse of Michelangelo's Mother and Son. Only later did I find out that if I walked another several steps I could have entered for free.

I'm sure there's a happy medium somewhere between these two extremes. Today I have been wandering around the Mexico City Airport on a seven hour layover on my way to Chile. Since I didn't have internet at home before I left, and was busy painting my new house, I didn't look up Chile, or the airport I'm flying into. Now that I have airport Wi-Fi, as well as too much time on my hands, I have belatedly discovered that Chile has import restrictions on all kinds of food items. Even packaged goods are sometimes taken away and destroyed.

I knew I would be in transit for some thirty hours, and would likely not have a vegetarian meal on the plane, so I brought too much dried fruit and nuts. Likely I will have to discard my two packages of figs, and I have already thrown away my peanuts and prunes. The rest of the food I choked down quickly before my flight, but most of the blame for this waste can be directly attributed to my recalcitrance about advance research. My method is certainly not a universal traveling panacea, although I have had vivid encounters in many countries largely because I had chosen not to press myself too much into the well-folded shirt of planning.

In Santiago I am meeting Silvio, who historically has not been that avid about planning either. Only yesterday, while I was in Toronto waiting on the flight to Mexico, did he check where he would be picking me up at the airport. He sent me a photo of an overhang and suggested it was on the second floor. I'm sure we'll find each other, and in any event we are much better prepared for our trip, and life itself, than the tightly wound fanatic couple who just passed me as I was writing this. For them the world is a deliberately convoluted mystery wrapped in a thick gutter loaf of ignorance. Everything must seem strange to them. They spent ten minutes discussing their gate in front of the information booth, but perhaps a lifelong habit of putting their trust in the ineffable instead of the world around them leads them to striking out alone rather than asking the staff. They are like the deluded swimmer who eyes the Atlantic crossing with aplomb, only to find themselves choking on salt water ten metres from the shore.

The most impressive feature in the Mexican airport, at least for me in my situation, is the chairs. They are meant to discomfort those who sit upon them, such as the hostile architecture I have written about before, but in this case they have been modified by weary travelers. The stainless steel arches, meant to be used as armrests and to prevent people from lying down, have been compressed by frustrated travelers so that they might stretch out on the bench. As Thoreau said over a hundred years ago, the public utility of the seating is being tested by the traveler's urge to modify.

May 17 ~ The Arrival

This latest set of flights felt much longer than they did on previous trips. I was in the Mexico City airport for seven hours, and I was tired already by that point. My thoughts flitted about like the sparrows that swooped through the airport walls. Like the birds, I was perhaps enticed by the angled holes some architect had designed into the structure, but of their presence only a brown blur was left to declare that they had been there.

I persevered through the long night, however, and finally managed, by using each device I brought, to get the internet to work. I updated Silvio on my whereabouts, and choked down the food that the Chilean government doesn't allow in the country due to a fear of agricultural contamination. Soon I was on the plane sitting beside a Chilean couple and we chatted off and on through the morning and afternoon until we landed at eight in the evening. It felt much later to me, however, as though we had flown through the night. The illusion was assisted by the LCD windows which could be darkened electrically by pushing a button. The whole plane was as dark as though we'd flown away from the sun and more than once I pressed on the controls as if to assure myself that the sun was still high in the sky, and had not, as my senses suggested, been eclipsed by a monstrous electronic shadow.

I was expecting fruit and nut problems at customs, but the figs I had left, as well as my Chinese ginger candies, proved to be no issue for the agricultural customs officer I dealt with; I was passed through with a wave after he scanned my luggage. He might have been less assiduous than usual because his fellow border guards were sitting in a row behind him commenting on the travelers and generally chatting. I could see by his angled neck and lack of attention to my Spanish that he was eager to get back to the conversation. I tried to encourage his inattentiveness by looking pointedly at his colleagues, as if their conversation was so enrapturing that even a foreigner would want to hear what was said. It was a delicate balance. I didn't want to appear so interested that they would become sensitive about ignoring their job, or so disinterested in my luggage scan that I would require a more invasive search to confirm the importance of officials.

Once I was through customs, I sat on a bench on the main floor to pull up the airport Wi-Fi and messaged Silvio that I had arrived. I received an immediate reply. He told me to go to the second floor and look for the approach of his RV. The night was cool outside, and the air had a crispness that I associate with fall. The road was filled with cars disgorging passengers and taxis scanning for business, but even as I walked through the doors, Silvio's truck, much larger than any of the other vehicles, and unmistakeably a RV, turned the corner, lumbering like an elephant amongst zebras and wildebeest.

In what has to be the easiest arrival ever, I jumped into his truck, we pulled around the corner to set the GPS, and soon we were driving north out of Santiago. Oddly, the night seemed to warm up once we were underway, although I think that had more to do with the heater in the truck than the ambient temperature of the road.

We aimed for the coastal portion of the Pan-American Highway which we planned to follow for some days. As we drove, Silvio told me how he'd been waiting for my arrival moments away. Although he'd left home days before, he had come to the airport an hour early, chatted with airport security and for his efforts he was soon pointed to a free place to park in the spots reserved for airport staff. "You can stay here as long as you want," his new friend told him, but just as he tried to nap, expecting I would be delayed in my negotiations with customs, I sent a message and he was behind the wheel again.

Laughing and talking, unable to believe our luck, we drove out of the city through the smaller towns that have sprung up around Santiago, and were soon in the Chilean hinterland. For me the evening passed like blurred lights through the windscreen as the city outskirts fell away and occasional yard lights lit the night. We stopped at a gas station, and Silvio negotiated with an African Columbian who spoke Columbian-accented Spanish, and before long we had agreed on a spot to spend my first night in Chile, tucked out of sight in a gas station parking lot. I am energized now that we are finally meeting again, but I am old enough to know that if we spend the night driving, or talking, I will wake the next morning feeling terrible. I can't go without sleep for more than a day without feeling the effects, and as much fun as this trip promises to be, I don't intend to ruin it with pushing too hard too fast.

Silvio's RV is amazing; I feel like stealing it myself so I can see why he worries about theft. He has a stall for a bathroom and another for a shower, an oven, kitchen stove, sink with hot, cold, and filtered water, kitchen table, three bunks, cupboards, and tons of storage. A hyper-efficient Russian-built diesel-burning furnace heats the truck at night, and solar panels on the roof provide the electrical power. Beneath it all is a solid, well-running, recently tuned-up Mercedes truck. Inside it is as complex as an airplane cockpit; every wall, it feels like, hosts a series of cryptic buttons and knobs, and I doubt that a month will suffice for me to understand the working of them all.


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