¡Hola a todos!
Earlier today (although obviously much later for all of you back home in sunny Blighty) I posted a long-overdue blog completing my experiences while in Mendoza. Now I intend to wave Argentina goodbye with a wistful smile and move on to pastures new in chilly Chile (sorry, I simply could not resist). Before I do so, a quick note in answer to a friend who requested that I set up a mailing list, alerting any potential readers out there (you poor souls) as to when I update this blog. I have considered this but, ultimately, I have rejected it, partly because I am intrinsically lazy and partly because I do not want to include people who would prefer not to suffer a barrage of automated e-mails at sporadic intervals. Instead, I notice that there is a hyperlink below my blog-posts for anyone who wants to subscribe – I have not tried to do so (writing this blog is enough, without being reminded of it and re-reading it) but, perhaps this will suffice. Once again, thanks to everyone who has been in touch; it is great to hear from you and special mention again goes to Tony – I love reading your wittily composed comments and miss the banter during our twice-weekly suffering at the whim of Jim.
I crossed the border into Chile on Monday 4 May. Truth be told, I had perhaps over-indulged while in Mendoza: my waistline is surely bigger than I recall previously and I was certainly a little bored at numerous intervals during my final days in the city, lovely though it unquestionably remained. My day of departure dawned bright and clear and this is how the climate served out the remainder of the day, making for a spectacular crossing through some of the lower-lying peaks of the Andes. I retraced my route of a week or so previously when my friends and I paid a fleeting visit to the border, taking in the mighty Aconcagua from a distance in the process. The scenery was lunar-esque in places, only the colours cast by the sun on the steep cliffs and heady heights suggesting anything to the contrary. Elsewhere I viewed massive sedimentary formations, proudly displaying their heritage through centuries of varying layered slices of rock. The crossing-point itself was largely uninspirational, the only note of interest being how the various vehicles were separated into car-, bus- and heavy goods vehicle-lanes, much like the fore-court approaching the cross-Channel ferries that delivered my family and me to countless wonderful holidays in France. The scene altered dramatically once we had successfully passed through customs (a process that took well over an hour and amounted to little more than passport control, followed by some personnel opening random bags to check for illicit products – the best that they came up with was a half-eaten kiwi fruit that some preoccupied Australian girl had forgotten to throw away beforehand). The road opened out before our bus to a breath-taking vista down a long valley with a steep, hairpin descent to a small, artificial lake. These switchbacks, numbering in their tens, produced some exhilarating moments for we passengers, our driver seemingly discontent with simply navigating slowly down the route, instead seeking every available opportunity to swing wide in the tight bends and over-taking the slower moving lorries indiscriminately. All great fun of course.
I arrived in Santiago (St. James in Spanish, as I only recently discovered) as the sun was setting – Chile is a further hour behind Argentina and so the swiftly approaching darkness caught me a little by surprise. So it was that I hurried through the dusky streets, finding the main through-fare and following it into the heart of the downtown, university-filled area of the city. Luckily I had reserved a hostel-space ahead of time and also double-checked its location and direction from the bus terminal. Even so, I found myself asking a dear old lady in halting Spanish at one point, convinced that I had taken a wrong turn, only to be reassured that no, my sense of direction does not always amount to a Dad-inspired ‘short-cut’ and that I was indeed on track, just a little further from my destination than I had hoped – I am not often in the habit of strolling around a foreign city at night with all of my traveller belongings for any period of time, it has nothing to do with the ioncredible weight that my pack (as well, it seems, as my waistline) had assumed since last I checked. Of course, Dad, inspirational short-cuts are no bad thing – I certainly had a lot of fun among the vines of Mendoza – but, now was simply not the time.
In no time at all (really), I arrived at my hostel, a lovely townhouse owned by an American ex-pat now settled in Santiago, named after his recently deceased dog, to whom he had clearly been very attached. My first physical dealing with this chap amounted to him telling me, quite bluntly, that it was imperative for me to pay for the entire duration of my stay up-front and that I had better find a cash-point (having no Chilean money at this juncture) to furnish said transaction. Welcome to Chile. Fortunately, his other traveller occupants were much more hospitable, as was his American-inspired breakfast of pancakes (ah, the waistline is lost) and games room complete with full-size pool-table. Equally fortunately, the bed bugs had decided against hitching a ride across the border in my clothing or bags and remained absent in this delightful abode throughout my stay.
My time in Santiago passed rapidly; arriving late on Monday evening, I had only until Thursday morning to explore what I could of the city before the departure of my bus-tour to the south. I made great head-way into my canvassing of the city on Tuesday, awaking late, gorging myself on pancakes and leaving the hostel long after the mid-morning sun. After calling at the office of my bus-tour company to confirm my presence in the city and continued intention to take the next bus south, I headed to Plaza De Armas in the heart of the old city for some excellent photography opportunities and cultural delights. It was here, quite intentionally due to my discussions with previous travellers to the Chilean capital, that I came across a multitude of chess tables, each inhabited by two rather aged Chilean gentlemen – there were no female players in sight. After some time observing a couple of interesting games and becoming familiar with the general protocol, I sat down at a vacant table and promptly became the youngest player visible by a good thirty years. Fortunately, such trifles did not seem to concern anyone present and I progressed to play five thoroughly entertaining matches with two difficult opponents. The first of these seemed quite a rougish character, with heavily slicked, though tragically receding, hair and a strong whiff of cologne. He played as his appearance suggested and we enjoyed two closely contested, wildly positioned skirmishes. In between, I played an older gentleman, perhaps approaching 70. His style was wholly different; much more considered and much more conservative. In fact, he played a little like I am occasionally wont to do and this match was epic – indeed, I was delighted to come away with a win. After my rakish younger opponent had vacated his seat for a second time (it transpired that the policy was firmly that of winner-stays-on), the older gentleman, whose name it transpired was Raul, sat down once more. This time, my luck was not quite so strong and I soon lost my queen to a crafty trap and, with her, the match. So, two matches against Raul, with the spoils shared evenly. It was as I thought about vacating my rather warm, cosy seat that Raul quietly suggested another game, with no mutter of disconsent from the assorted by-standers. Thus it was that the board was reset a final time for a truly monumental (well, for we two players at the very least) winner-takes-all play-off. After once again finding myself at a slight material disadvantage but, resultantly, in a better position on the board a series of inspirational moves (I thought so at least – they certainly beat me!) on Raul’s part brought him to the edge of victory as we rumbled on into a rather one-sided looking end game. It was here, with my two pawns and a rook against Raul’s four pawns, a bishop and a rook that I was somehow (I honestly am not sure quite how, only that Raul despises end games even more virulently than I) gained the upper hand, wiping out all bar his rook for no loss on my side of the board, in a vicious ending. Finally, with one pawn poised to queen, safely guarded by king and rook, Raul forfeited. I was jubilant, though discreet: I had just played some of my most memorable games of chess and against a brilliantly weighted opponent, so similar in ability to myself. Of course, neither of us were exceptional but, our games were made so by our closely-matched skill-bases, such that we had the largest following watching our matches in the near vicinity. All that mattered to me was that we had played well, enjoyed ourselves and given due respect to one another. I made some heart-felt, though characteristically clumsy, farewells in Spanish before heading swiftly back to the hostel in the company of the day’s dying light. True, I had seen little of the city but, there was – once more – an undeniable spring in my step and a contented smile across my face: welcome, truly, to Chile.
¡Saludos a todos!