The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Tag: mendoza argentina

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!

A South American Wedding Voyage, Part One

HEY GUYS! Here I am, after several weeks’ absence. I swear, we’re not dead. We’re not starving, kidnapped, or even carried away by the freak tornado that appeared in Candelaria 24 hours before our wedding.

We’re alive, and well, and actually in Valparaiso at the moment. But that’s not what I came here to write about.

Blogging–no, sorry–using the internet in Candelaria is difficult. There’s only that one freaky government signal to sustain the whole village, and though it reaches the cornfields it doesn’t quite reach Jorge’s parent’s house. So updating the blog, or checking emails, or even communicating with loved ones while in the pueblo is nigh on impossible. So all of my internet activities are slightly backlogged.

I’ve been writing these blog posts in my head for days now, waiting for the moment where I could sit down and elaborate some of these tales. So where do I begin?

At the beginning, of course. Here’s a whirlwind summary of how it all went down.

SATURDAY FEB 13th:

Kelli and I eagerly appear at the CLE airport for our flight, very much on time. I run into my best friend’s mother at the airport, because things like that happen to me. We go to our gate, the flight is a little delayed, we are getting progressively more wine drunk in celebration of our upcoming wine tours in Argentina, and then suddenly it’s time to board. We board.

Forty minutes later, they tell us we have to get off. Some sort of light for the fuel gauge is not operating, one that MUST be operating prior to take off. The mechanic to fix it won’t be there for two hours. Everyone groans and deplanes. We scoot into the line immediately, eager to reschedule our flight for some sort of magical, immediate replacement that will still allow us to make our connection in Miami.

Last glimpse of Ohio Winter

Goodbye, Ohio? Just kidding. You have one more day here.

It doesn’t happen. The only flight we can take is one leaving almost 24 hours later, routing through Texas. American Airlines mechanical failure strikes again! Remember the engine failure from Lima to Baltimore in 2014? They offer us a free night at the Sheraton, which we take, only mildly soothed by the promise of clean, fluffy beds in exchange for our immediate departure to Argentina. I have no winter jacket, since I left it in the back seat of my father’s car since I was on my way to summer in South America why would I need a jacket? At the Sheraton, Kelli finds what may or may not be a bed bug. We change rooms, expensively dine, and steal all the free shampoos in both rooms (the one thing I had forgotten).

SUNDAY FEB 14th:

The day we were supposed to be arriving in Mendoza, at noon. We lament this, awake late, and go to the North Olmstead mall to eat greasy food and shop unsuccessfully for bathing suits. We have interesting Lyft experiences, catch our last glimpses of Ohio winter, and show up hopefully to the airport around 5pm. Kelli has to check her carry-on bag at the gate. When we arrive in Texas later that night, we are relieved, but there is little time between flights and a gate agent tells her, somewhat unconvincingly, that her checked carry-on will show up in baggage claim at her destination…wherever that may be. We board the flight to Santiago, Chile, eager for free wine and movies.

I watch The Martian, and realize my longheld dreams of being an astronaut might not actually come to fruition after all. Maybe I’m not cut out for long-term space travel. Maybe I’m only meant to be a lower atmospheric day-tripper. These are things I’ll have to figure out once I enter the space program, I guess.

MONDAY FEB 15:

Hello, Santiago! We make it to the Benito Juarez airport, which is full of expensive wines, Chilean Spanish, a Starbucks and…Ruby Tuesdays? Yep. We consume delicious quesadillas, doing our best to while away the hours until Argentina. We do yoga in the waiting area, pilfer Starbucks’ internet, waiting for the fucking plane to board, and then finally, magically, we are on the plane to Mendoza. About an hour later we are landing on the other side of the Andes, going through customs, and then we are waiting at the one lone baggage claim in the mostly-dilapidated airport that looks more like a forgotten regional airport than a bonafide international airport.

Kelli’s checked carry-on luggage is the first to appear, much to our surprise. Then the rest of luggage appears. SCORE! Wild luggage success. We scurry out of the airport, into the sweltering heat…and Jorge is waiting for us, smiling with his arms open wide.

[cue sappy love music]

[kissing]

[hugging and then more kissing]

Yeah, yeah, after a month apart, I had to stroke his beard a little more than normal, I admit. We get into a taxi and are whisked away to downtown Mendoza. The heat collides with the sonorous, Italian-reminiscent Spanish vowels, and between the sweat and the soot and the palm trees I remember what the fuck it is  love about this place, why these foreign destinations are so intoxicating, why these voyages are not only desired but necessary.

Once we check into our little room at the hostel, Jorge’s friend Gustavo comes over and we begin to straight summer hang–poolside, with freshly cracked beer, all sorts of bug-swatting, heat-relishing, summer style.

TUESDAY FEB 16:

We sleep in, then Kelli and I have a slow but methodical yoga session next to the pool. In the afternoon we go on a wine tour, our first ever in Mendoza! We visit two wineries and one olive oil factory. They are all interesting and varying levels of delicious and clean. We each leave with a case of wine. Oops! Or should I say, SCORE!

Mendoza Argentina bodega

Standing in front of the wine barrels we wish we could be swimming in!

Mendoza Argentina bodega

It’s a good day for a bodega stroll. 90 degrees outside, but 60 degrees in the wine cave!

Argentina Wine Tour

Wine tasting. Would you believe some people tossed their wines after tasting them? THE HORROR.

That night at the hostel, we have a cookout and invite all of Jorge’s friends. It is full of meat and wine and bread. I feel like a glutton, as always, since it is a stark contrast to my regular, chosen diet. We have a delightful, drunken time. Hurray, Argentina! Hurray, Malbec! Hurray, South America!

We go to bed, bellies satisfied and South-American-plump. We need the sleep, because much greater treks await us. And so much merriment is already surrounding us, and so much more awaits!

Not only is my best friend Kelli with us, experiencing this region that is so special to Jorge and now to me, we are about to celebrate our love and our union in the southern hemisphere, with Jorge’s friends and family.

Next installment: Commence the Candelaria!

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