Vern: Crossing from Bolivia into Chile took a very long time! It should have been a transfer after our salt flats tour but the southern border was closed because of excessive snow. Instead we woke up at 3am to catch a 4am bus out of Uyuni. At 8am we passed through immigration at the Bolivian border and into no mans land. And there we waited. On a barren, windy plain in between the two countries. Half the people on the bus disembarked and offloaded a random assortment of stuff, then battled against gale-force winds to set up little stalls. For an unexpected and unexplained four hours we waited in the bus while a handful of Bolivians and Chileans traded fabrics, knock-off DVDs, beige computer monitors, bed-frames and mattresses in the least inhabitable marketplace imaginable. Every five minutes someone would go sprinting toward the horizon chasing their recent purchase, or the banknotes they'd intended to tender with, across the cracked desert ground because the vicious wind had whipped it away.
Finally a bus permitted to enter Chile arrived and seventy people shoved and pushed and squeezed to get through the door and claim one of the forty seats. "Watch out please! There are children!" shouted a woman seemingly alarmed that three young girls might get trampled and, respectfully, the mob held back for just a second. Finally, after some gymnastics we squished through the door and were able to secure two precious seats. After the unlucky and less vigilant were sent away, three woman casually boarded the bus and displaced the three little girls who they'd forced on to keep them seats. Very sneaky, ladies. Touché.
The bus drove ten minutes to Chilean immigration and we spent another two hours there. And then finally after three and a half more hours we arrived in Calama, Chile. We waited in the queue at the bus station ticket office for a while but once at the counter, the lady said she was unable to sell us a ticket to San Pedro de Atacama because, as far as we could translate, a machine which was either integral in the sales process or in the journey to our destination was unavailable and on its way from Santiago. We could wait until 10pm to see if it turned up, and therefore whether we would be allowed to buy a ticket, or we could give up on the last leg of the journey for the day. And so, along with an English couple, Kieran and Yvette, who'd also endured the day's comedy of errors, we left the station and found a hostel. Calama, known only for its proximity to the world's largest copper mine, was dead on Sunday night but the four of us found the only open restaurant, and we enjoyed a rather civilised chow mein in a Chinese place decorated like a Chinese place anywhere in the world, and after that we retired.
The following day, we still weren't allowed to buy tickets from the ticket office but were permitted to board the bus and later paid the conductor directly. Finally after two more hours in transit through the driest desert on earth (or so they say) we were deposited in parched San Pedro de Atacama.
P.S. A few days later Andrea worked out that in Chilean Spanish "maquina" is used interchangeably with "bus" so the reason we couldn't travel was because of a severely delayed bus. We chuckled because the Chileans calling a bus a 'machine' is like us South Africans calling a traffic light a 'robot' or an undiscovered Amazonian tribe calling an aeroplane an 'angry sky god'.