Crossing the Andes: A M***** F******Scary Experience

Overall I’d have to say that while I enjoyed Santiago it was a long shot from contending for my favorite city.  I unfortunately have the attention span of a goldfish and the “impress me” threshold of a typical obnoxious New Yorker so I was kind of excited to leave Chile simply for the sake of seeing something new.

We got on the bus in Santiago sometime around 5pm after spending several hours in the bus terminal constantly being sniffed by the infinite number of stray dogs, and fighting with the bus driver about our Argentinian Visas (“If they’re not good, we’re leaving you at the border”). Of course being a New Yorker unaccustomed to rural landscapes I started taking pictures as soon as we left Chile and started heading towards the mountains. Whereas in New York I’m all like “oooooooh look! Shiny things!” While going through Chile it’s been all like “oooooh look! Tall things.” Except when it comes to the people. (Irrelevant anecdote: I’m average height to tall in Chile when wearing my flatforms. This makes me very excited.) Anyway, I figured since we had 6 hour bus ride ahead of us I’d stay up and enjoy the natural landscape of the Andes until it got dark and then I’d take a nap.

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As the sun started to set, the trip took a literal turn. For one we got stuck in an insane parking lot-esque traffic jam, so when we started to move an hour later we were pretty happy. Then things got really interesting.

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By this point we were very close to the mountains and I was Asian tourist-ing up a storm with my camera. Then we started the ascent up the Andes.

In my city slicker mind I thought that to cross from Chile into Argentina through the Andes there would be some kind of blast tunnel through a mountain. I’m sure anyone else with a brain that hasn’t been subjected to an American attitude of, “If something’s in your way just blow it up or destroy it.” would’ve told me something to the effect of “Asshole, we have to go over the mountains to get to the other side.” As we started driving, I realized the bus wasn’t taking a direct route, which was another of those “duh” moments since a direct incline up the Andes is unthinkably idiotic. The road, as I came to realize after looking up at the headlights ahead of us, was more like someone stacking a rope in a tight coil. The bus would drive some amount of kilometers (see I’m trying to assimilate and use the metric system) and then make a fairly sharp U-turn to head back in the other direction. Lather, rinse, repeat.

At first this wasn’t much of a problem. Then I started paying attention out the windows. The higher we climbed, it was apparent that either this road wasn’t done or they were doing some serious construction. Every time the bus took a left turn, the right shoulder of the road, you know the side that faced down the cliff of insanity, was getting smaller and smaller to the point that by the time we were 3/4 of the way up the shoulder was no more than a few measlyfeet. The woman in the front row of the second level of the bus was literally crying and burying her head in her boyfriends shoulder while muttering prayers in Spanish each time we took the turn. I prayed to the gods of physics that whatever laws of gravity and trigonometry needed to come together to not have this bus tip over on the next 30 degree turn please help us out.

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Check out the road shoulders on this baby!

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Miraculously, we reached the top in one piece without the bus toppling over, and I’m sure my fear was in vain since many people must take this trip without a problem.  Incidentally, Fung Wah doesn’t carry a bus line in South America. Either way, by the time we reached the top my adrenaline levels were through the roof. Adrenaline, you know the stuff that cues fight or flight, or this other heightened state of arousal verb that begins with an f. As if on cue, the guy whose girlfriend had been crying throughout the ascent turned on his laptop and started playing “I want to know what love is” while gently rubbing his girlfriends back, and before the end of the song they had taken a couples trip to the bathroom. Gross. Not because of what they were doing, but have you ever seen the bathroom on a South American bus. Seriously. Gross.

After that rousing affair, we also got stuck for another couple of hours sitting at the top of the mountain waiting for all the buses ahead of us to clear customs. Apparently the fairest place to divide a mountain is at its summit, so Chile had the west half and Argentina the east. So at midnight we sat parked for several hours atop a mountain waiting for Argentinian customs to clear us – which contrary to the bus drivers beliefs was no problem for us. Even though on top of not believing we had the proper American visas, he also didn’t believe that I was American, while I tried to pretend I didn’t understand Spanish, while he repeatedly asked me where I was really from.

All the ordeals finally being over, we finally headed back down the mountain into Argentina in a much less dramatic descent. Most of the bus was sleeping, but I was half deleriously untired and half enamored with the desert mountain landscape which it was unfortunately too dark to get photos of. The whole landscape was pretty surreal with giant mountains on either side of us that only contained sparse desert foliage. The idea of having something so vast that’s more or less undisturbed by humans is such a foreign concept to me I really felt like I could’ve been on another planet. I half expected one of the peaks to move and mumble “they look like big, good, strong hands,” before sitting back and disappearing into the nothing.

Some 5 hours later, at 5:30 am, we finally arrived in Mendoza.  Good thing we arrived at 12am as planned.  And good thing we had a beer and wine tour on bicycle planned for 9 in the morning.

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