Thursday, September 27, 2007


I have a three hour wait at the bus terminal for the AndesMar connection to Buenos Aires. I discover that the AndesMar bus takes an indirect route. The direct route taken by other companies is six hours shorter. Damn! However I will see more of the country and I can't change my ticket. The connection is down at the bus terminal's smart Internet cafe. I eat ravioli in the slow-service fast-food restaurant. Service is slow because the male staff are watching football on TV. I chatted with a young Chilean woman on the bus. She is studying Tourism and Hotel management in Buenos Aires. She was home for Chile's national holiday. Her mum gave her a new laptop. Argentine Customs wouldn't let her through without a certificate from Chilean Customs. She was in tears when the bus pulled out. Now I see her pushing a luggage trolley. She spots me and we hug. She tells me she hitched lifts on a couple of trucks and a car - more evidence of the indefatigability of the indigenous Mapuche. The Inca failed to conquer them. The Spaniards failed. Now the Argentine Customs have failed. We sit together. She tells me to prop my foot up on her luggage. The swelling ebbs from the ankle.


We have left the mountains behind. The land slopes towards the vast coastal plane. Soil is ochre and brittle. Scrub is dry and brittle. Sparse grass grows in coarse tufts. We pass a Hereford steer. Five minutes later we pass a second. Two horses scavenge for fodder. A few sheep pretend that they don't know each other. So this is a ranch...for a Texan. An Argentine landowner would refer to his estancia. Two steers eight sheep and a couple of horses in ten miles? I'll stick with desert.


I reach Buenos Aires tomorrow evening, a long bus journey, time to muse. We pass a pickup. A small boy - at most five years old - kneels on the front seat and smiles. This is a mountain road with potholes and patches of wet snow. The city is as bad. Are Moms and Dads ignorant or stupid? Not the type of question that a tourist can ask...

Monday, September 24, 2007


I am crossing South America with AnderMar - US$80 from Temuco to Buenos Aires via Neguyen for a fully reclining seat in First class. Mile upon mile of eucalyptus bring me close to tears. Trees are planted in what were rich pasture land and on hillsides already scarred by soil erosion. We climb into the Andes and finally escape the rain. Eucalyptus gives way to plantations of spruce, more food for paper mills. We travel through a long tunnel and emerge on the fringe of the snow line. The bus stops briefly at a charming mountain village, Lonquiney. This is tourism country, horses in paddocks. I spot black face sheep. Snowploughs have left piles of snow along the road edge. The bus slushes through fresh snow. We cross a plain below mountain peaks. A thin scattering of monkey puzzles trees stand in the snow. Ahead lies the Chilean border post. My crutches earn me sympathy and a place at the head of the queue. I chat with a young Chilean woman studying Hotel Management and Tourism at a college in Buenos Aires. Back in the bus and we drive through a sparse forest...A forest of monkey puzzle trees!
We reach the Argentine frontier. I am joined by an Argentine Customs officer as I photograph trees. We laugh together as I relate my disappointed search for the ancient Araucaria in its natural habitat only to find it here travelling by mainline bus. Such is travel, full of surprises...


Temuco is a big industrial city. It is magnificently ugly. It could win prizes for ugliness. Even the central square is ugly. I have consulted two guidebooks. Both recommend that travellers don't stop. I am here to stay a night in Chile's oldest hotel, the Continental. Established in 1888, my guidebooks report that nothing has changed. I telephoned yesterday for a reservation. No one answered. I sent a fax. I give my destination to the cab driver at the bus terminal. The cab driver is nonplussed. He radios base. The Continental has been closed for a year. The driver takes me a modern hotel in the city centre with a US$30 room rate. An elderly woman with a kind face runs reception. I suggest a pensioner's discount and she drops the price to US$12. Next stop, the Tourist Bureau. I want to see 1000 year-old monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria) in their natural habitat. The National Parks are unsuitable for an hoppity old man on crutches. Defeated, I book myself a seat on the morning bus for Buenos Aires.
One bright jewel in a rainy day: a charming bandstand.
The best I can do for dinner is vacuna soup.


Today I travel by big bus to Tembuco. We ride through mile after mile of eucalyptus plantation, food for paper mills that pollute the rivers. Has no one warned landowners or Chile's Ministry of Agriculture that eucalyptus sucks all the goodness out of the earth and transforms rich land into an infertile desert?


Rain drizzles from a grey sky. I walk (hop) along the waterfront to the fish market. Heaps of monster clams and mussels cover concrete slabs. Cormorants and gulls hop on the parapet and lunge the instant a stall holder is distracted. Yesterday I travelled though mile after mile of eucalyptus plantations. Boatmen tell me that the rivers are polluted by pulp factories.
Two oarsmen skull by in racing shells.
Drizzle turns to rain.
I am cold. My ankle aches. Valdivia is depressing. Or I am depressed by Valdivia.
I might cheer up were the sun out and joyful, optimistic students milling in the streets and crowding cafes. I eat grilled fish for supper and drink an excellent local beer blessed with the Real Ale insignia. Back at the hostel I chat with a bright and funny young American woman from San Francisco teaching English at a Chilean school. Her mother is Mexican. She is familiar with Mexico and Central America. Chile depresses her. The food depresses her. Particularly the bread. Her companion is Chinese teaching Chinese at the same school. The Chinese loathes Chilean food, especially the bread. She complains that bread isn't part of her home diet, yet Chinese bread is infinitely preferable to Chile's variety.
I am travelling onward in the morning.


Valdivia is an ugly city in a beautiful location on the delta of two rivers. The orginal city was flattened in 1960 by the stronget earthquake ever recorded. What remains of the old is a fine University and a reputation for sea food. I am here for the food. I arrived yesterday on Chile's national day. All restaurants were closed. However there is a fake Chinese at the city centre shopping mall. I ate shrimp with bean sprouts and rice. Edible. Today I lunch beside the fishmarket at La Perla del Sur. Paila de Marisco is Chile's national dish, shellfish stew: king crab claw, massive mussles, two type of clams, a big limpet, abalone, conga eel, squid.
Good? Yes.
Great? No.
I discuss the deceased General Pinochet with a pleasant woman. She tells me that foreigners don't understand: Pinochet saved Chile from a Communist Dictatorship. Allende surrounded himself with foreigners, Russians, Cubans, East Germans, even Communists from Europe.
I discuss General Pinochet with a young man. I wonder that people's opinions of the good General weren't changed at discovering that he had robbed the country and salted away millions of dollars in foreign banks.
I am told that some have changed their opinions. His true suporters either ignore the evidence or believe the evidence is fraudulent.
Chucking your tortured victims from helicopters into the sea doesn't leave much evidence.
I am shamed that Pinochet remains a Good Chap for some of my fellow Brits, ...


Riding a bike, I have the freedom to circle the centre for a hotel. On crutches I consulted guidebooks. Airesbuenos International Hostel is recommended. I telephone for a reservation. My room is on the ground floor. US$30 is the most costly of my nights in Chile. No bedside lamp, the only light comes from an overhead energy-saving bulb draped in one of those round Japanese paper shades made in China. The light is too dim for reading anything other than big print. I have to get out of bed to turn the light on or off. The lounge area is a training ground for expeditions to the Antarctic. Breakfast is powdered coffee, no milk, and that factory-made sliced white bread that remains soggy even when toasted. YUK! My fault. Hostels are invariably a ripoff for anything other than a dorm bed. And all the guests are foreigners. Why travel...?


Travelling by bus is being in jail: you can't get out. I shouldn't complain: the views from the windows change (and I get a pensioner's discount on the fare). I am travelling by small bus that stops on the roadside to drop and collect passengers. Such country buses give an illusion of freedom. I could get off. I don't through my own choice or indolence or nervousness at finding myself abandoned. We travel through a rich dairy country of green paddocks and woodland. Rain falls steadily. A black and white saddleback sow snouts up a patch of mud beside a small wood hovel.