Well, here I am.
I’m writing a little before 11am on April 20. At this moment, I was supposed to be just starting up the Andes on the second floor of a bus that was to have left at 10am. I was very much looking forward to this ride. Chile remained a backwater of the Spanish Empire for a very long time and is, today, not unified with Argentina almost entirely due to the Andes. Before the 20th century, Chile was a very hard place to reach. To come by land from the north, one had to cross rugged mountain terrain AND one of the largest, driest deserts in the world. To come from the east, one had to cross the Andes with very high passes. From the south and west, of course, there is ocean. To get to the Chilean coast from Europe or the east coast of North America, one had to sail around Cape Horn or come through the Strait of Magellan. Neither passage was trivial and many ships were lost.
The founding fathers of Chile turn out to be pretty much the same guys as in Argentina. But the two fledgling nations could never unify. Some of this was due to inherent culture – Chile and Argentina are very different places. But a lot of that difference came after they split post-independence. And they didn’t unify, despite fighting for independence at about the same time with the same generals, because they simply couldn’t unify. Crossing the Andes was to be done only under extreme duress, as a last resort.
Generals San Martin and O’Higgins liberated Chile from Spanish rule by just such an audacious move. Royalist forces assumed the Andes protected their backsides and so were set up to fend off attacks from the sea. San Martin and O’Higgins, fresh from liberating Argentina, led an army from Mendoza to Santiago and won in surprisingly quick fashion.
Of course, of the 4,000 or so men San Martin left Mendoza with, he arrived in Santiago with only around 2,500. The Andes are brutal, under the best conditions. But 2,500 men were enough as they were able to push the royalist forces all the way to Lima. As I say, Chile was a backwater and had not received overwhelming support from the Spanish.
Given the history, I thought it would be great to follow this route. Of course, I would be doing it on a bus, and grading papers, but still. It is also a beautiful route. The Andes are remarkable – it’s funny how mountain ranges have personalities. You can almost tell by feel which range you’re in if you’ve spent a little time there previously. I’ve now been on the ground in a good bit of the Andes around Santiago and as far north as the Elqui and south to Pucon. But I haven’t gone through them.
I couldn’t fully relive the trip as that would require my going from Mendoza to Santiago by bus. That’s the return trip and I need to be at work Monday. I’ve left the trip late enough that the pass is not always open. Thus, I chose to take the bus to Mendoza today and fly back to Santiago on Saturday. Lots of cushion.
But, as I wrote at the beginning, here I sit. My worry about the pass was borne out. I arrived at the bus station at 9:15 for my 10:00 bus. It’s raining today in Santiago. Real, steady, hard rain, the first that I’ve seen in the city. Of course it would be on the day I have to drag my suitcase to the metro. I stayed reasonably dry but people gave me funny looks. They’re bundled up like it’s winter. It is 60 degrees. I have a water resistant shirt on.
My trip is international so I asked the guy I bought the ticket from if I needed to go through customs. He looked at my ticket and told me to go to counter 42, making an odd gesture as he did so. Okay. Counter 42 hosted the very long line I had just pushed my way through. It looked grim. In retrospect, I knew, deep down, how it looked but didn’t want to admit it to myself.
I got in line behind an older gentlemen who was holding his ticket so that I could see he was also going to Mendoza. The guy in front of him looked to be in his early 20s and was clearly not Chilean. He didn’t quite look American and so I guessed Canadian. I was in error but not by much. After ten minutes, the line hadn’t moved. It was 9:35. I asked the Canadian if he spoke English. He looked at me, laughed and said yes. I clearly don’t look or sound Chilean, either.
By his accent I deduced that he is from New Zealand. He’s backpacking around South America for a year. Aside: non-Americans from the “first” world have the coolest early adulthoods. I asked him if he knew why we were in line. He did not. We speculated a bit and agreed we’d give it five more minutes and then we’d head to the platform.
A man emerged from the ticket booth, I’m not sure what he’d been doing in there but he wasn’t helping customers. I showed him and asked, in good enough Spanish that he came back with rapid Chilean Spanish, if I needed to be in this line. He asked me if I wanted to change my ticket. No, of course not. I want to go today, now. I told him this. “Imposible,” he said, “El Paso esta cerrado.”
I then recognized the line I was in. I was in a line of people, some quite desperate to change their travel plans or convince a powerless ticketing agent to clear a mountain pass a hundred miles away and two miles above us. You’ve no doubt been in the same line, as have I, in airports. Some are angry. Some sad. Some resigned. Some worried. All tired. What never happens in airports is what happened when I saw the ticketing agent: the guy asked if I wanted to change my ticket or “dinero”. Um, dinero, por favor. He nodded and handed me the ticket price in cash. Astounding.
The Kiwi was still hanging around displaying most of the emotions I listed above. After he saw the ticketing agent he had told me that the pass was officially closed. He must have heard what I have, that sometimes one company will shut their service down voluntarily while another may be open. The ticketing agent told us that the government(s) had shut it down and warned us not to buy from any of the buskers selling tickets, loudly, in the station. I knew better than to do that anyway but decided I wasn’t that desperate. My friend from New Zealand was, by the looks of it. He’d been in Santiago two days and checked out of his “really nice” hostel and had a place booked in Mendoza that he’d probably be eating. Me, too, I thought. He was worried because he had nowhere to stay now in Santiago. I told him he should get his butt back to the good hostel pronto. He agreed. I probably should have invited him to stay with me but…I don’t know, that early childhood parental admonition against picking up foreign guys in grimy bus stations tends to stick with you.
Besides, I knew something he didn’t. I knew how Chile came to stop being a backwater and rose to the economic top of South America. The first time they did it was by defeating Peru and Bolivia for control of what is now the northern regions of Chile. These regions are rich in saltpeter, nitrates that can be used to blow things up and fertilize fields. For the last 30 years of the 19th century, Chilean exports rose dramatically and by 1910, they were rich. The nitrates were valuable enough that European and American merchants established routine shipping to the Chilean coast.
Of course, Haber and Bosch put an end to the value of Chilean nitrates and the Panama Canal gave northerners an option to rounding Cape Horn costing coastal cities in Chile millions. But then they found copper in the desert and we developed powered flight. Take that, Andes. As I said, I booked my return from Mendoza by air just in case the pass closed. I checked the airline’s website and, sure enough, there were still seats on tonight’s flight. So I booked one.
With any luck, I’ll be at my hotel at just about the same time the bus would’ve gotten me there. I have dinner plans with friends so I hope so. However, the storm that is dumping snow on the Andes is dumping rain on Santiago. Hopefully that won’t affect the flight but it isn’t as if Santiago deals with a lot of rain. I may check in at the bus station Saturday morning and see if the pass is open. If it is, maybe I’ll skip the flight and bus back to Santiago. If not, I’ll just have to tip my hat to San Martin and his men for having a lot more tenacity that I.