15.02.2003 - 26.02.2003
I have come to my last full day in South America. Tomorrow I board a plane in Santiago at 3:25 Chile time (1:25pm Toronto time) and will land (assuming all goes according to plan) at 6:30am on Thursday. So this is my final update. After the excitement of guns and tanks in the last update, this one will seem positively dull (as if they don't seem positively dull already).
We pick up the story in Arica, Chile (Ah-reek-ah). Arica is a small ocean-side town in a river valley of the Atacama desert. I had an impression upon arriving in Arica which my 5 days there could not shake. I was in Florida. Arica reminds me of one of those little towns that dot the coasts of Florida. Wide main avenues lines with palm trees, cute little bungalows painted bright colours, motels along the beach strip perfect for the "driving family vacation."
I was pretty worn out from the altitude sickness from La Paz, so I did very little in Arica except hang out at the beach and sit on the patios that line Arica's pedestrian mall. After the hustle and bustle of constant travel and exploration of the last 6 weeks, though, it was a welcome change.
As for my health, it improved almost immediately. My appetite came back and my energy level increased immediately. I was a little weaker than usual, though that was probably due more to my having not eaten in the past 5 days rather than any ill effects of the altitude. However, some facets of my health were longer to come back. For about a day and a half I still found it hard to quickly form thoughts. Speaking to people was a chore, because I paused so much to gather my thoughts. It would take me half a second to figure out what I wanted to say in English, and then another second to figure out how to say that in Spanish. I am sure people thought I had suffered a head injury. It actually was a welcome change from my usual spouting off without thinking though. However, soon my thought process was back to normal, and I am back to putting my foot in my mouth on a regular basis again.
The other thing which was slow to return was my sense of balance. For about 3 days I was walking around like a drunken sailor. I would often find that I had (unconsciously) leaned to far forward or backward or to the left or to the right and suddenly find myself stumbling in that direction. It was especially bad after I had been sitting or lying for a spell. In one of those patios I mentioned earlier, I rose after eating dinner and took my first step in about an hour. The first step was fine, but during the second step my right foot landed on my left foot, and thus during the third step I ended up tripping over my own feet. I stumbled through the patio, attempting to regain my balance without knocking over or crashing through any of the glass topped tables which adorned the patio. I was able to regain my balance without injury to myself or the furniture, however the two older German women at one of the tables gave me a "there's a man that can't hold his liquor" look, even though I had no alcohol at dinner.
After 5 days of relaxing, I boarded a bus for Santiago, stealing myself for a 30 hour ordeal. The bus started off inland and into the heart of the Atacama desert. The Atacama desert in the north of Chile is almost completely lifeless, just miles of sand and barren rock. Occasionally this otherwise lifeless landscape would be punctuated by a river valley. A river running from the Andes to the Pacific would pass through the desert, and create a ribbon of green in the otherwise brown landscape. The river valleys also tended to be 500 feet below the usual desert floor, so the bus spent a lot of time descending and ascending into canyons. Those were fun rides! The canyon walls are probably at a 60 or 70 degree slope, and thus off to the side of the bus was a very steep drop off.
The further south we got, the more the desert filled with life. Soon (and by soon I mean by hour 16) the brown sands were covered with cacti and small, gnarled trees. As we approached Santiago (hours 26 through 30) the landscape changed again to rolling hills covered with brown grass and small dark green trees. It reminded me of the hills around San Ramon, California, where (for those following my career will know) I spent the last 10 months (on and off) of 2002.
That's the amazing thing about this whole trip, how much the geography has ended up reminding me of places I have already been. Santiago is like Northern California, Arica like Florida, the lake district like Lake Tahoe, the Patagonian coast like the Pacific Northwest, Patagonian inland like Montana. It's a strong reminder that this truly is a small world (though I wouldn't want to have to paint it).
I had big plans for Santiago - going to Vina del Mar and Valpariso to see the beach and fishing ports, going to the mountains to horseback ride. However, when I arrived at the Marriott in Santiago (thank you Marriott Reward points!), I knew that I would do very little during my last 5 days in Santiago. My world has consisted of the hotel, the neighbouring mall and the middle-class suburban neighbourhood surrounding the hotel. Truthfully, I have been crashing since my last few days in Buenos Aires, and I have little energy left to be the great explorer anymore. One of the most important lessons I learnt on this trip, I am not meant to be the kind of person that spends 6 months backpacking around the world. I still love travel and seeing new places, but the energy required to be constantly planning your next move and the laissez-faire attitude required for the travel is just not in me. Plus, after about a month I start to miss things "North American." I miss Harvey's hamburgers and Swiss Chalet Chicken and TV in English and good Caesar salads. Don't get me wrong, I am glad I took this trip. But I don't think I will be taking another like it again. My next trip - shorter, more focused on a single location or task and planned in advance.
So that's it. Soon I will be home in Toronto. I am looking forward to being home, though not to the cold weather or my impending return to the world of the working stiff. I will have to play the lotto when I get home. So thanks all for indulging me and reading my little stories. I hope they were entertaining and maybe a little educational. Actually, I don't really care about the educational part. I just hope I made you laugh at least once.
P.S. In the last message (Chapter 4) I wrote...
And this is where you find me now, Arica, Chile. Population around 200,000 people with lots of great beaches. And so ends what I hope will be the most dramatic and harrowing of my updates. In fact, if all goes according to plan, my final update will say simply "spent 5 days in Arica, 5 days in Santiago. Saw some pretty girls."
Oh were I only so brief...