The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Tag: bus rides through the Andes

What Do I Look Like, A Drug Lord?

When Jorge, Kelli, our friend Sam and I began packing up and shipping out of Argentina, we opted for the night bus between Mendoza and Valparaiso. About 9 hours long, it’s an easy way to save a night’s expense at a hostel, though you do miss some of the stunning views by day as you ascend the craggy, rusted mountains of the Andes.

Being that it was a full moon the night of our trip, we were able to catch ghostly glimpses of the terrain. And with our bottle of wine, the four of us had a fun time chatting, sipping delicately out of the world’s tiniest plastic cups, and planning for the upcoming days in Chile.

andes mountains

Here’s a shot of the Andes during the day, from a border run in late 2013.

A few hours into the ride, we knew the aduana, or customs control, would be happening soon. The typical steps of a land border crossing, at least between Argentina and Chile, are as follows:

  1. Approaching the border, a border official will board the bus to inspect things. He usually leaves after a quick once over.
  2. Fifteen minutes later, you’re at the actual border. Enjoy the frigid mountain air.
  3. Everyone must get off the bus, line up in front of two windows, and get their passports stamped/attended to.
  4. Linger outside for awhile, buy some Chilean sandwiches, wait until your bus pulls up to the next customs door.
  5. All the luggage is offloaded from the bus onto a conveyor belt, where it is automatically X-rayed.
  6. Passengers must line up in front of two long tables, where we place our hand luggage in front of us. Dogs sniff up and down the tables a few times.
  7. Our hand luggage is then scanned through the same machine. Anyone who didn’t pass the screening has to open their luggage so it can be inspected by an official. (And if they don’t pass the inspection…well, they don’t cross the border!)
  8. Re-board the bus, and try to catch a few more hours sleep until you arrive in Valparaiso!

Los libertadores border crossing

“Los Libertadores” border crossing; every Mendoza-Santiago bus route runs through here, high up in the Andes. [Photo Credit: Soy Chile]

Fairly straightforward. Getting INTO Chile is often more difficult than getting INTO Argentina because their import rules are much stricter. They do not allow any fruits or vegetables of any kind to be brought into the country, and most loose food is confiscated.

So around the time we knew we’d be approaching customs, we collectively realized we still had a crapton of chocolates leftover from our impulse purchases earlier that day at the Mendoza bus terminal. And nuts! We had so many nuts and chocolates.

TIME TO EAT. We began scarfing chocolate, unwilling to let Chilean officials confiscate our hard-earned candy. They were gourmet, for god’s sake! I’ll eat myself sick before I hand these over just so they can be tossed in the garbage.

Our bus shuddered to a stop at the first control (step 1) while we were mowing down. The official boarded the bus as normal. Our bus was oddly empty, only about ten people on the 2nd level with us, where normally it could fit up to 60. The official didn’t have many people to assess before he made it to us.

He paused at our seats. After a curt assessment, he asked if he could see all of our hand luggage.

I nodded and grabbed my backpack, still popping chocolate almonds into my mouth. He began to rummage, one by one, through our bags. We exchanged confused glances as he did so.

He hadn’t asked anyone else on the bus for their hand luggage. And in my ample border crossing experience, on this exact route, the most I’d ever been asked to show was my passport.

As he rifled through our belongings, I offered him some chocolate. He curtly declined.

“What is this?” He held up Sam’s lip gloss, which was in a spherical pod.

JUST LIKE THIS LIP BALM, except without the pineapple, the floating face, and the HILARIOUS ENGRISH. Take care of that crackle with this adorable lip balm.  [Photo Credit: Alibaba.com]

“Just lip balm,” she said, as he opened it up and examined it against the lights of the bus.

After he’d inspected all of our hand luggage, he told us to get off the bus. “Bring your hand luggage with you, we need to get your bags out from the bottom.”

Now this was really weird. Wordlessly, we followed him off the bus, sending wide-eyed looks between each other, wondering why we were being singled out. At the side of the bus where the luggage is stored, the border official and the bus employee pulled our bags down. They laid them unceremoniously on the side of the highway.

The official pulled me aside as he opened my big backpack. Wearing gloves, he pulled out my personal items and handed them to me to hold as he searched–my sandals, a Little Mermaid towel, piles of clothes. At the same time, another border official, who had already searched through some of Kelli and Sam’s things, grabbed my hand luggage and began searching through it again.

“Who’s is this?” His voice came out gruff, angry.

“Mine,” I told him, arms piled high with my crap as his colleague continued scouring my bag.

“Come here.”

I looked helplessly between the two officials. How was I supposed to go through two of my bags at once? “Uh…I don’t–…um, what do you–? It’s already been inspected!”

He grunted and pushed it aside. Then he motioned to Jorge to follow him behind the back of the bus. The official searching my bag finished, and told me I could put everything back inside. Then he disappeared to where Jorge and the other guy were.

All I could see was Jorge’s face as they talked. Serious faces; occasional nodding. Intense glances. They were fucking questioning him.

My belly flopped. Was this about to be a problem, like a real, honest-to-god IMMIGRATION PROBLEM? [Cue horrifying flashback to Bolivian Immigration problems.] My mind started doing somersaults as I waited for some word from them, or my husband. Kelli, Sam and I huddled nervously as we waited.

Finally, the officials motioned us over. “Get back on the bus.”

THANK GOD. We re-boarded the bus quickly, settling into our seats with something like delirious relief pulsing through the air.

“What did they say to you?” I asked Jorge as the bus rumbled to life once more. The passengers at the front of the bus side-eyed us, probably wondering what we had done to warrant such a search.

“They were looking for weed,” he said, and went on to explain that the officials were looking for marijuana in all our bags–all the way down to Sam’s lip gloss. Convinced that we had it stashed somewhere, that we had been smoking it somewhere. Behind the bus, the officials had tried to bargain with him–if you guys have any on you, just let us know and we can work something out for you. We’ll make you a deal. Just admit it.

SERIOUSLY.

We gaped at him, incredulous, horrified, totally confused. Why on EARTH would they suspect us for SMUGGLING AN ILLEGAL DRUG INTO CHILE?

Clearly, they didn’t find the treasure they were looking for, because we don’t smuggle illegal substances across international borders. 

Of all the passengers on the bus, they chose us. And why was that?

Was it because we were foreign? Maybe because of my dreadlocks? Was it because we were three American tourists, lost in a conversation in our own language, trying to be nice by offering chocolates?

Who knows. We sure don’t.

The incident weighed on us, hanging somewhere between astonishment and fear. What if this had been a different country, a place where cops bribe people to confess something, while they plant a drug in their belongings? What if this had been a situation where not finding anything in our luggage didn’t matter, and we’d be carried off to jail anyway?

Those places exist in the world. And oftentimes, it’s up to luck about what happens to you on the road: what society you’re traveling in, what border official is looking you up and down, what night of the week you happen to be traveling.

Once we made it to the actual border and our luggage was offloaded again to be X-Ray’d and sniffed out, none of the dogs noticed us, our backpack, or Sam’s “questionable” (yet adorable) lip balm.

It’s times like these that make you wonder all the ways that things can go REALLY wrong! Have you guys ever had a touchy situation like this traveling abroad? I want to hear about it!

Between Here And There: Part 2

In April of this year, I went to Mendoza on my first official border run, which I wrote about in the original post, Between Here And There. I spent only two days there — a perfunctory visit as opposed to a sight-seeing, money-spending, OMG-I’m-visiting-vineyards-and-drunk-at-3pm trip like I typically like to have — so when my next border run came up at the end of October, my boyfriend and I decided to make a vacation of it.

(Did I mention Jorge yet? I apologize, blog-o-fiends — I have an Argentinian boyfriend. He is lovely, and darling, and sweet, and supportive, and talented, and a total delight in my life. This month we will celebrate 8 months together. This is his face:)

I like his face a lot. Like, A LOT a lot.

This was not only our first vacation together, but a vacation that would allow me to meet every single important person in his life. I was going to meet the entire family.

Jorge’s family is big. They hail from rural Argentina, a total born-n’-bred-on-the-farm type family. Jorge is the youngest of 6 children, and his eldest sibling is over 45 years old. He has 17 nieces and nephews.

Let me repeat that. Jorge has 17 nieces and nephews. And the eldest nephew is ALMOST THE SAME AGE AS HIM. Jorge became an uncle for the first time when he was 6 years old.
When we first spoke of the trip, I had nightmares about it. Not because I didn’t want to meet the family (I did), but the thought of being surrounded by so many of his blood relatives who only speak deep-Argentina Spanish (i.e. mostly incomprehensible) and would be sizing me up as the novia kind of made me freak out.
Also, I’m an only child. I don’t have troubles remembering my family member’s names, because there aren’t a lot of us. My family can comfortably fit into a regular sized living room. We don’t have to opt for the warehouse for graduation parties, and instead can choose the picnic table option. I don’t have 17 nieces and nephews. I don’t actually have ANY nieces or nephews.
We spent the first leg of our trip with 2 of Jorge’s “brahs” in Mendoza, where I got to experience far more Mendoza than the first time in April. There were no pink fountains this time, though there was plenty of city-exploring and Andes mountain-visiting.

Me and Jorge, posing by mountains in Mendoza, ‘CAUSE WE BY THE ANDES, YA’LL.

The next leg of our trip featured Candelaria, the 4,500-resident pueblito where Jorge was born and raised. The majority of his family still lives there, minus two siblings who raise their families in the capital city of that province. This is where the cultural differences started to rack up. Let’s use a list, because I haven’t made one in awhile and am feeling twitchy:
More cultural differences between Argentina and Chile, and other things that are just bizarre:
1. Remember when I was horrified about chilled red wine, and *hard swallow* the use of ice cubes? Well, readers, things took a turn for the worse (for my palate, at least). There exists a phenomenon called vino cortado, which is red wine with soda water. Sometimes, they mix it with coca-cola. [lengthy pause] Needless to say, this was one cultural activity in which I did not participate. Most family members were horrified by the fact that I drank pure wine. COME ON, IT’S MALBEC!

Nothing to do with Malbec wine; this is part of the campo (farmland) where Jorge grew up and helped raise racehorses and generally ran around half-naked at all times.

2. City planning is…different. In both the USA and Chile, cities are cities and towns are towns and there you go. Not in Argentina. They get a bit grabby with the city planning, and what is called “Mendoza” is actually several cities lumped together but differentiated by different names but still…Mendoza. The same for other cities in Argentina as well. It’s kind of like how Brooklyn is still New York City but it’s also Brooklyn. For my Ohio peeps, it would be like if Huron, Castalia, Sandusky and Milan were all called their names but technically named and considered Sandusky. Whaaat??
3. News coverage is a little excessive. While it reminded me of news coverage back home at times, especially with a preference for celebrity happenings over legitimate world news coverage, the segments in general were long-winded and redundant. The Buenos Aires news channel devoted a lot of time to the fact that it was drizzling. They sent a reporter to cover the drizzle, and the segment featured voluminous quantities of live footage of people ambling on city sidewalks where no rain could be seen. The amount of time dedicated to this segment was like something I’d see back home where a tornado had touched down in Oklahoma and ruined 35 houses and maybe some animals were injured. But no — it was just raining. Invisibly. And not impacting anyone’s day in Buenos Aires. At all.
4. Meat, man. Meat. Meat meat meat meat. Meat meaty meatmeat MEAT!!! Argentina is famous for meat — I knew that before I ever went there — and while both Chile and Argentina are meat-centric cultures, Argentina wins the award on this one. Though my vegetarianism went out the window with my USA residency, I don’t eat a LOT of meat in Chile, despite our frequent asados. I knew that going to Argentina under the wing of an Argentinian would be a, well, intestinal shockventure, since I wouldn’t be cooking for myself at all. But I wasn’t prepared for how damn GOOD it was all going to taste! Jorge’s family killed and cooked a lamb for our arrival. That’t not even a joke. I was honored, in a way, but also not sure that I should feel honored, because it’s normal for them to raise and then kill lambs and then eat them in large group settings because all they can do is large group settings because there’s 17 nieces and nephews. (Editor’s note: my bowels went on strike after the third consecutive day of eating meat. My return to Chile — and return to majority vegetarian diet — has helped the situation, but there was a good week of alarming inactivity in my gut.)

This is Candelaria, by the way.

5. Americans aren’t the only ones struggling with geography. I met plenty of people in rural Argentina who weren’t really sure of USA’s whereabouts. In a way, this felt good: finally, people who don’t CARE that I’m American! In another way, this was shocking: how can you not know where America is? Or that we speak English? I suppose this revealed more of my latent egosim as an American, which is a good thing to get rid of while I can. Small towns are small towns anywhere, I suppose. And in some parts of the world, “America” is just a word you hear on the television.
We wrapped up the last leg of our trip visiting Jorge’s other siblings and their respective families in the capital of San Luis province (which also had an alarming amount of neighborhoods the size of cities grouped under the same city name but still called different names), and spent a lot of time eating meat, hanging out, playing with exorbitant amounts of nieces and nephews, and, well, eating more meat.

Jorge with Bauti, Alma and Tobias (you guessed it — nieces and nephews)

Jorge’s brother and sister-in-law with spawn, and us (not their spawn) during our daytrip to La Florida, a beautiful spot outside of San Luis with views of the Andes and a lot of gorgeous hues in the air.

We’re back in Chile now, happy to be home but a little salty that the vacation is over. It was fun meeting all 3,487 members of Jorge’s family — I remember all of their names, I swear — and it was great getting a tan that will soon wither in the penetrating gray chill of Valparaiso, but it’s also nice to be back home: to Valpo, to our house and its rhythms and its kitchen and the coffee, to frequent and consistent wifi connections, and to regular intestinal events.

One Year Down

I recently returned to civilization (I.E. regular internet use) after a week-and-a-half stint in Argentina, cavorting through countrysides as my boyfriend Jorge and I made the rounds to visit his extensive family. (More on this later!)

The first day of our voyage via bus through the rocky roads of the Andes led us through border control as we crossed in to Argentina. Once we were safely through customs, I paused to take a gander at my passport stamps, as these tend to excite the giddy traveler girl inside me (*ahem* all of them are Chile/Argentina) and I noticed something odd.

The entry stamp for my trip of October 24th, 2013 was right below another stamp into Chile, dated October 24th, 2012.

I unknowingly celebrated my one-year anniversary of Taking the Leap on the exact date itself, and my passport stamps are lovely evidence of this! I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.

STAMPS N’ STUFF. 

Here’s to one full year of living my dream! I raise my internet glass of Argentinian Malbec wine (which I consumed heartily during my trip in Argentina, being that we visited Malbec Country in Mendoza, and somebody remind me again why I didn’t know about Malbec before??) to this, as I had no idea on October 24th, 2012 where I might be a year later on Ocftober 24th, 2013, but as it turns out, I’m right where I’m supposed to be: happy, healthy, and having a crapton of fun and transformative life experiences.

A year ago, my best friend Leslie, her sister and now-my-friend Amanda and I started out on this adventure not knowing where life would take us, and our paths have all taken surprising and positive turns. There’s something to be said for not having a plan and allowing the wind to take you where it may. In my case, it floated me right into a dream house in a beautiful, artistic city where I spend my days writing, working, learning and loving.

I am so grateful for this year, and for this life, and for all of the things that came before it to lead me to this moment and to who I am today.

Thank you to all of you that have played a part in my journey. I appreciate it so much.

(I’m raising the internet glass of Malbec again — everybody, lift yours too and say “Salud”!)

A Step-by-Step Guide to Border Runs

There comes a time during every ex-pat’s trip when the “maximum date” allowed on the visa approaches scarily close to the actual date staring back at you on the calendar. If you’ve already approached the Foreigner’s Department and paid $100 for a 90-day extension, have no plans to leave, in fact have already signed a contract for an apartment in an uber-cool part of an even uber-er-cool city, what do you do?

Border Run.

Listen, it sounds shady and illegal and maybe it is in a 100% upstanding-law-abiding-citizen-of-the-world sort of way. But I’m not the only one who relies heavily on this legal loophole. The governments know that extranjeros (foreigners) frequently leave a country for a matter of days or weeks only to return to wherever it was they were staying just to get that extra 90 days. It can be done indefinitely, I suppose, until Immigration starts asking questions. Luckily, it can take years for that to happen. I don’t plan to raise any eyebrows down here, so once it gets suspicious I’ll apply for a different type of visa. Eventually.

This isn’t my first foray with the Border Run. My first experience was Guatemala-Belize when I had my internship with Cafe Yax-ha back in 2008. My friend Annie and I spent a glorious weekend among Mayan Ruins basking in the sun and the strange English of Belize, eating shrimp tacos and sleeping in hammocks outdoors. The Border Run is oftentimes a forced vacation. The level of enjoyment is determined by your attitude and your bank account. Luckily for me, the former is usually pretty good and the second one, well, I’ll make do.

Step One: Buy a ticket to the nearest foreign destination. In this case, it’s Mendoza, Argentina, right in the middle of wine country.  It’s only a 6 or 7 (or 8…or 9?) hour bus ride. The only option they had was the overnight bus. Onward to wine country!

Step Two: Pack very little. Unless your Border Run is a multi-week adventure, this is a chance to experience lightweight travel. Which, for me, is a rarity akin to arriving anywhere at the time I said I’d be there, or spotting Bigfoot. I came to Mendoza with a backpack – a regular school backpack, mind you – and my purse. Here are some of the things I left behind: my towel, my yoga mat (EGADS!), all shoes except the ones on my feet, all pants except the ones on my legs, and the variety of clothing that normally accompanies me and fills up the backpack and ipso facto weighs me down. INCREDIBLE. Editor’s Note: I did bring underwear.

Step Three: Go through Customs and Immigrations without any eyebrows being raised or questions asked. If you take the night bus, this will occur precisely at 4am, right during the deepest part of your profoundly-uncomfortable semi-cama bus ride. The night air will feel like Ohio on one of the coldest nights you can remember and you will wait in line for an hour. You will repeatedly thank the heavens that you brought your winter parka and eventually consume the walnuts you had reserved for food for the next day. However, you will successfully smuggle in the apple you really wanted to eat for breakfast because nobody on the Argentinian side actually checked anyone’s luggage, leading you to formulate an extensive list of all the things you could have smuggled in but didn’t.

Step Four: Witness the sunrise on your winding Andean bus trip that all the other passengers the next day said was nauseating and terrifying but surprisingly was the best sleep of your life…despite the profoundly-uncomfortable semi-cama seat.

HEY, NICE COLORS MOTHER NATURE.
THOSE ANDES AREN’T TOO BAD EITHER.
(Note: Andes Mountains not pictured here.)

Step Five: Arrive to said destination at 8am, buy your return ticket for either the next day or the day after, and wander the city. Locate pink-water-spurting fountain. Drink a coffee and do some work long-distance.

At 8:30am, this was a treat. The city was still waking up and I was able to have a quiet, solo walk around the center.

Step Six: Meander aimlessly, revel in the hot sun and the new sights and the distinct European feel of the streets despite the fact that Argentina is so close to Chile. Eavesdrop on grisly old Argentinian men discussing business. Locate a yoga studio. Converse with hostelmates once you make it over there.

Step Seven: Remember why you reserved the hostel (money! It’s so cheap! How could you NOT?) and remind yourself of this strongly when you find your bed.

Mine is the middle bed of the three-tiered bunk system.

Step Eight: Repeat steps 6 and 7 as necessary until the departure date. Make sure the wine tour falls in there somewhere as well.

I think this is a fairly comprehensive border run guide. I will update as necessary if I discover any missing crucial bits to the Border Run Guide. For now, though, I hope this can aid some of you as you seek to cross borders, renew visas, and otherwise enjoy life on the fringe.

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