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Thursday, 31 August 2006

Descending the Andes? Don't Look!

Written by Rick Robiar
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roadSix months ago my girlfriend and I went to South America. Her convincing me to go was quite a feat considering my fear of flying was no match for a trip that involved eleven plane rides. But after successive journeys from Boston, New York, Miami, and Buenos Aires, my screaming mechanism malfunctioned and for the first time in my life I was speechless. For her, this made for quite a relaxing trip to our first destination: Mendoza, Argentina.  A small city close to the Chilean border, Mendoza’s outskirts consist mainly of wine country, boasting some of the best Malbec grapes in the region.


After a few days of enjoying some of the very best wine we’ve ever had, it was time to go to Valparaiso, Chile, a seaport city northwest of Santiago.  Getting there would mean a bus ride through the Andes mountains, which form a partition of monolithic proportions between Argentina and Chile.


When my girlfriend and I travel together my input on planning is typically conservative and limited.  Being the trusting, selfless type, I allow her to enjoy the work and spend the time planning our trajectory.  In the process of boarding the bus, I asked her how long it would take to arrive in Valparaiso.  Imagine my surprise when my trusted trip planner told me we’d be crammed into a bus with 40 people for the next 10 hours.  “Why wasn’t I informed?” I demanded.  I was then told the whole itinerary was explained in great detail months ago and the vigorous head nodding I demonstrated while staring at the baseball game on TV was all the confirmation she required.


So we broke out the snacks and settled into our mobile commune as it began to roll.  Our seats were on the upper deck directly above the bus driver, a friendly, carefree man, or so I originally thought.  As I proceeded to eat 2 days worth of snacks within 2 hours, my trip wizard surprised me yet again with another juicy piece of info.  It seemed she had heard from friends that the trip we were now undertaking was a harrowing one.  She couldn’t remember exactly why.  I pondered that ominous comment for about 3 seconds as I unwrapped a chocolate bar.


Our gradual ascent into the Andes provided a wonderful introduction to the many visual splendors we’d later encounter, but it was obvious from viewing the vistas that we had climbed significantly above sea level.  As we enjoyed our surroundings, a thought came to mind: what goes up must come down.  Somehow this had an alarming ring to it.



At this point we both noticed a churning sound coming from the back of the bus.  The steeper the incline, the louder the clanging.  Suddenly the cabin was filled with black smoke.  We inched over to the side of the road and the driver opened the door.  Everyone scampered out into the mountain air while the ticket collector threw our luggage into the street, as if this was a usual occurence.  Several announcements were made in Spanish, and we pieced together that the engine had fried and eventually a replacement bus would be sent from Mendoza.  At least we broke down right beside the tallest mountain in South America: Cerro Aconcagua.


As we made ourselves comfortable on the side of the road, we waved to the many passing buses which honked while their passengers stared blankly at us.  I then had a flashback to the bus terminal in Mendoza.  We were searching frantically for tickets to Valparaiso, running back and forth to all the numerous ticket agencies --- they were all sold out, except one.  The very last agency we asked had several tickets for sale.  Now all 40 of us sitting, standing, and laying on the side of the road to nowhere understood why those were the only tickets available.


After 3 long hours our replacement bus came, and we claimed our seats at the front of the bus.  A friendly middle aged man sat next to us, as did a 12 year old boy who had previously been traveling with his family at the back of the bus, but came up for the views. The two of them became fast friends and talked for the next 5 hours.


Eventually we came to the border crossing where we had to depart the bus with all our carry-on luggage and stand in 3 different lines to get our paper work stamped.  Menacing-looking police walked around toting guns and wearing sunglasses.  Their swaggering machismo reminded me of Chile’s darker days when Pinochet’s death squads roamed with impunity.  Some of them were accompanied by muzzled, drug-sniffing German shepherds as they mulled their way through the crowds of people en route to the luggage inspection area.


We had to wait again as our belongings were removed from the bus for inspection, and several men hand-searched almost every piece of luggage. They found some trail mix in one of our bags and conferred amongst themselves as to whether or not we should be allowed to keep it. Finally they gave it back. This whole ordeal lasted more than two hours.


Finally we started rolling again and at long last the bus started to descend.  The guy sitting next to us was smiling in excitement, pointing out the window, wanting my video camera to follow his finger.  We all stared in amazement at the immense drop off --our bus was four thousand feet above the base of the valley. It was thrilling and spectacular. Unfortunately, from my high vantage point, I could also see how the front wheels were creasing the edge of the road. In fact, as time went on, I became more and more obsessed with watching just how close we all were to experiencing how gravity affects a four ton bus without a parachute.



My conversation dwindled as I focused on the small rocks and road debris that whipped out from underneath the tires and disappeared over the edge. Occasionally I got to watch the poor, helpless stones as they fell out of sight. My gulping became more audible. My eating slowed in proportion to my increased heart rate.


The extreme downward tilt of the bus made it apparent the bus driver had just morphed into God, with thepower to give life or death with the flick of a steering wheel. For some reason, at this critical juncture, the speed of the bus increased, which seemed counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind slow down if the vehicle they drove was moving at an angle more suitable for a stomach-pumping, roller coaster ride? Perhaps the driver was inebriated? Was that cola he kept sucking on more than just refreshing tonic? Maybe his woman left him and he had decided that life wasn’t worth living anymore. But he might get lonely on the other side so why not take us along? These thoughts further drugged my mind with fear and anxiety.


Something else got my attention: there were no guard rails on any of the roads! I think they’re against the law in Chile. Perhaps something to do with not wanting to stem the flow of human cargo spilling over into the bottomless pits that seemed to be everywhere. I looked around me to see if other passengers were a tad bit concerned that, to make ends meet, in his spare time their driver was an acrobat in the FLYING BUS CIRCUS.  To my horror, they were all napping. It had to be carbon monoxide poisoning! Who could sleep through this? And to think, they offer this particular trip at night!!!


I had only my companion to share my angst with, and her bug-eyed, stone-faced gasping did not help the situation. At one point she turned to me and said “if we don’t make it, it’s been nice spending this time with you.” Nothing like a heartfelt farewell to cheer up a terrified hypochondriac sitting on a runaway bus.


The road was narrow and had two lanes, accommodating traffic from both directions. Whenever the driver ran into a slowpoke he would gun the gas and pass on the left, often just barely missing the oncoming traffic.  He took particular delight in doing this on blind curves. We barreled along, the bus rattling just loud enough to drown out my pleas to the holy trinity.


This story has a happy ending. We made it to Valparaiso in one piece. We had a great time in South America and I learned something about myself: I absolutely love to fly.



©Rick Robiar


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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