Welcome to Chile

HAVE spent many evenings in bars over the years, a fair few of which have ended in bizarre circumstances and tears.

The details of many of those nights remain hazy – partly because they are, partly to protect the innocent. And the quite possibly guilty.

But our first evening in Santiago produced a fresh interruption to an evening’s drinking.

We were showered, freshly laundered, enjoying a few beers and welcoming new arrivals – who officially join the truck tomorrow as we bid farewell to two existing truck mates, part of the reason we headed in to a troubled city – as we waited for the evening’s barbecue.

It was all going so well, considering we were pretty much confined to barracks by the escalating anti-government protests on the streets around our hostel.

And then there was a thud on the roof above the bar.

Clearly visible through the open skylight was a streaming canister of tear gas.

Our hostel the morning after

Like to think it was the journalist in me that opted not to run but head towards the scene for a closer look, but not sure any of us fully realised the extent of what was going on.

Right up until the point we were ushered out of the bar to another part of the hostel and we were introduced to the effects of tear gas.

It is another experience ticked off the list and not one that will be trying to recreate anytime soon.

Basically, imagine cutting onions and, just to make sure you felt the full impact, rubbing them in your eyes. All while a nasty taste develops at the back of your throat.

And up your nose. While your eyes burn.

Thankfully, our exposure was minimal and with hostel staff on hand to spray something helpful on the affected areas, the effects did not last long – although think it was more behind the discomfort in my eyes the next morning than anything drank the night before – and we were soon getting on with the evening’s festivities.

The entrance to the subway at Plaza Italia, the heart of the protests

But it was a clear reminder we are in a city and country that has become a powder keg over the last month since a group of secondary school pupils began a fare evasion campaign against proposed price rises on the subway system.

That campaign – and the subsequent crackdown by the authorities – sparked a programme of civil unrest which has seen subway stations burned down or badly damaged and the protests spread to wider grievances against the government and President Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera has declared a state of emergency but the protests show little sign in subsiding and neither does the response to them.

Last night’s protest, which is all over Chilean CNN on the TV behind me and reports say involved up to 1.5million people in the Plaza Italia a few blocks from us, was described as largely peaceful.

That’s largely peaceful as in a university building a couple of hundred yards from us burning throughout the night, the church over the road being looted and the streets being littered with rubble and graffiti.

With the odd stray tear gas canister from the police thrown in.

We checked out the damage the morning after as the aftermath of the protest became a tourist attraction.

All very sad as you can see the skeleton of a very attractive city. Those of our group who have been here before spoke highly of the place and it does look pretty once you look beyond the damage.

Chile is no stranger to internal issues with the military dictatorship under Augustin Pinochet which ran the country for much of my youth from 1973 until 1990.

Honouring the disappeared

Sorry to confess, bar a couple of songs by Billy Bragg and U2, Pinochet’s eventual house arrest and lack of trial in Britain – and a former colleague’s mix-up with former Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot in a match report – plus tales of people disappearing and some pretty awful press collaboration with the ruling Junta, cannot claim to know too much about it.

Which is why this morning’s visit, prior to wandering around to view last night’s fallout, to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights to colour in some of the gaps was very welcome.

Not easy, certainly uncomfortable but very informative.

Have been to a few museums and memorials of difficult history – Auschwitz, Rwanda, Ground Zero, the Jewish Uprising Museum in Warsaw – and always come out with head spinning and trying to process what we have seen.

They are always tough going, but recommend them for anyone travelling to understand the world they are heading through.

Beyond the undoubted horrors of the dictatorship – topped, like those previous examples, by the powerful wall of pictures of the dead and disappeared which forms the centrepiece of the exhibits – two major issues came to the fore as relevant to today.

First was the way the press backed the Junta with false stories and propaganda to excuse their actions (before an independent, radical press played a key role in the resistance).

The road from the border

Inexcusable and no wonder my profession struggles with its reputation.

But also a signal to the dangers of certain powerful figures decrying anything they do not like in the media as fake news. Asking the awkward question is journalism, anything else is just PR and propaganda (to misquote Orwell).

And the tale of the opposition to the regime and fight to find out what happened to the disappeared echoes throughout the protests we have seen close up – no wonder people feel so strongly about the power of public opinion and their right to express it.

We can only hope they do not have to come close to the depths of those dark years before finding resolutions which will enable this city to get back on its feet.

The trouble has spread throughout the country, but there was little sign on the road to Santiago – which we were still unsure about taking a few days ago – which took us from Mendoza across a high pass through the Chilean border via a spectacular road down a ribbon of hairpin bends.

Soccer Dog

Sort of a South American Alpe d’Huez.

Our three days camping in Mendoza, reached by a bush camp which saw our team win the truck quiz, was fairly relaxed with a fair amount of wine and steak – normal service was resumed – both around the campsite with a footballing Labrador and on a day in town which started as a tasting and ended with rather more than a taste.

And we got clean – both us, our clothes after a couple of weeks without laundry that left several of us rationing underwear and Spongebob, a group effort taking apart and tackling every part of the truck.

All to head into the issues of Santiago from where we head off to the relative peace of the countryside.


Bed, Bugs and Ballyhoo

What happens when Gaucho Day coincides with Halloween – and there’s a onesie market round the corner from the campsite

BEDTIME as an overlander can rely on many things.

The prospect of an early start the next day – and breakfast later than 7.30am would be classed as something of a lie-in – is likely to curtail a few late nights. Not all, especially with the chance to catch up on sleep on a drive day.

Nights out or access to bars when staying in hotels or hostels – a rarity over the last week or so before reaching Santiago, which came with its own dramas – will have an obvious impact on what time people roll in to bed.

While camping, conditions and access to alcohol (usually red and straight from the bottle since stocking up in Argentina, to the extent the truck has a distinct clink when it goes round corners) will dictate evening behaviour.

The world’s largest empty swimming pool

At bush camps people tend to head for their tents early, bar those who opt for one more bottle before bed. And then maybe another one.

But for two successive nights under canvas, the decision on what time to head to bed was rather taken for us by the local, buzzy wildlife and the weather.

Hiding under canvas was not always enough for some of us.

Let’s roll backwards a bit first, something we needed to get Spongebob to do after a night listing in a dried river bed.

But freed from our Bolivian shackles and, eventually, through the first of several crossings of the Argentinian border (we bounce in and out of Chile in the next few weeks) we crossed into the fourth country on the trip and an almost instant increase in temperature.

And an increase in the consumption of red wine, starting with our night in the quaint hillside town of Purmamarca which we sort of explored in between trips to the off licence, empanada stall and town square to use the free WiFi.

Our cook group had rather more things to buy as we reached the town of Salta ahead of three nights camping alongside the most enormous swimming pool, easily bigger than two football pitches but sadly devoid of water.

Argentinian steak – the start of a great love affair

Somehow, had managed to only cook once up to this point and managed to forget how long it can take to make a white sauce while camping after suggesting it as the best way to make a macaroni cheese.

Arm muscles given a work out, the evening’s choice of activities was watching The Goonies on the side of the truck or downing a few more bottles of red. While getting chewed by the local insects.

The start of two recurring themes.

With the temperature rising, sitting by even an empty pool seemed a good idea the next day so while others headed off into Salta, several of us hung around camp, sorted our stuff out and fell into a long game of Monopoly Deal (the board game, just played with cards which became a truck obsession) and some suitable refreshment.

Breaking only for some shopping for Halloween onesies before heading out for an evening with the third recurring Argentinian theme, great slabs of steak cooked to perfection and washed down with a nice soft drink.

Or a nice bottle of red, you choose.

Very few pictures, we were too busy eating.

We went even more Argentinian the next day, heading out with gauchos for a spot of horse riding – well, some did, no poor animal deserves that fate with me.

Reunited, we tucked into the piles of barbecued meat and wine which flowed onto the table, all while dressed in a variety of bizarre onesies and Halloween costumes.

Still to work out whether mine is a moose or a reindeer, but it is likely to come in very handy when it gets cold further south and is already doing sterling service as a tent pillow.

After a few days of gluttony and relative inactivity, it was time for some action to work off some of that steak and we headed a few hours down the road for an afternoon rafting.

Not the toughest river – harder challenges lie ahead for those who want it – but a fun afternoon which involved more splashing the other boat than serious threat from the churning water.

But our visit to Salta Rafting will be remembered not for the challenges on the river but those buzzing around the campsite, especially as dusk and dinner approached.

This was after it had started to go down

Regardless of the temperature, we dug out hoodies, long trousers and socks to keep out the nasty, still unidentified little buggers.

Should really have gone for gloves as well before diving into the protection of the tent immediately after dinner and refusing to come out – even with the offer of a couple of bottles of wine in an adjoining tent – until nature dictated.

With just my hands exposed, the right one took the brunt with a string of pin prick bite marks – 26 at one count on the back of it – which as the race to get out of there the next morning intensified, began to bubble up into something rather bigger.

As did my hand.

By the time we had rolled into our next stop in Cafayate via some spectacular scenery, it had swollen up considerably and could not form a fist so rather than head into town, spent much of the afternoon crashed out on the truck – partly the effects of some tablets, mainly the impact of feeling rather sorry for myself and fearing another onset of the cellulitis which dogged my Trans Africa trip.

Beware swinging doors

But snoozing was cut short by the heavens opening – supposedly for the first time in nine months in this part of the world – to apocalyptic proportions, turning the campsite and much of the town into a lake.

Not the best time for two of us to spend half an hour waiting at the entrance for a taxi to hospital – one to check on the results from a scan following a coming together between head and truck door, the other convinced cellulitis had returned.

Thankfully, seems we both got lucky.

No idea if it was cellulitis, but one quick injection later and was dispatched back to the campsite to wait on the truck for a brief cessation in the downpour to make a break for the tent and a night listening to the rain and thunder which drowned out the music in my headphones.

We bought a few of these

By morning, the rain had stopped, the tents were still dry – bar the person who opened his to check on the surrounding water while facing uphill and let the torrent in, but he was concussed – and my hand was on its way down to the point where it could grip normally.

Which was handy, considering how much gripping of wine glasses it did throughout the day as we headed out on a tour of a the local wineries.

Well, we toured a couple of them, grabbed lunch which consisted of huge piles of empanadas and then headed back to one of the wineries to check our original assessments of the wine in their rather nice courtyard.

We were still assessing and discussing, rather loudly and passionately at one point evidently, until well into the evening with a takeout order which somehow came accompanied home by the winery’s dog.

She just had a better idea of when to go to bed than the rest of us.