Monday, March 2, 2009

Mad Dash to the Finish

I got on the bus in Coyhaique in the late afternoon. Twenty three hours later, I got off in Osorno. In between was a trip east into Argentina, north, and back west into Chile. The paved road to the border turned to rough dirt when we got to Argentina. Slow going, bouncing along in the big bus, slowing to a crawl for cattle guards and bridges. Around us the wide pampas stretched out golden under the setting sun, and colored clouds sifted through a wide-open sky. 

I did set foot in Argentina, in the dark, in the town of Rio Mayo at a gas station. The road turned to pavement there, and the ride was smoother, more conducive to snoozing in the seat, waking to stare out the window at stars. North through the dark, then morning's glow and El Bolson, Bariloche, past lakes and through forested mountains. Turning to afternoon, turning to the West and back into Chile. And finally, Osorno, my link to an easy bus north to Santiago.

Except... There were no buses available in time to get me to my flight. 

There isn't a central ticket counter, but one for each bus line, and there are a dozen or so in Osorno. I checked any and all going north. Saturday, sure, no problem, Santiago. But my flight was late Thursday night. There was a seat going, but absolutely no room for my bike, I was told. Dang. Time for yet another plan. 

The airport! Expensive, maybe, but if it would get me there and save me from missing my flight... Guidebook said there was an airport just 5 km out of town. I was dragging my heavy bag and my bundled bike past the line of buses toward the taxi queue. "Aeropuerto?" said a bus driver. Well, sure! The front of the bus said Puerto Montt, but I figured it would stop on the way. I, however, figured wrong. 

The bus WAS going go Puerto Montt, another 80 km south, further from Santiago. I panicked for a moment. Checked the guidebook. Learned that there was a much bigger airport there where there would be a better chance of a flight than Osorno, anyway. So I stayed on, feeling the day burn away, my time slipping, trying to go north in time...

The bus wasn't really going to the Puerto Montt airport, either. Just to the main bus terminal where I could catch another bus to the airport. When I jumped off, I almost got right on another bus to the airport, but instead decided on a new plan: Get any available seat for Santiago, heck with the bike, just in case the airport didn't work out. It was discouraging to think about leaving my bike behind, but my stressed calculations suggested that it would be cheaper to buy a new bike than to buy a new plane ticket. (I had purchased the cheapest and least flexible ticket possible.)

Back to the rank of bus ticket windows. On my first try, there was a seat going north available. The Cama, fully reclining sleeping seat, if that was okay. Heck yeah. Leaving the next morning and arriving around 8:30pm in Santiago, a mere 7.5 hours before my flight. And sure, no problem bringing my bike. SaWeet!

So a night in Puerto Montt. I rode through the rough-edged town and found a beautiful wood-paneled room in a spotless house with a flower-strewn spike-fenced yard and a vicious guard dog. Then set out on foot to the warf. 

My whole trip I've been looking for Curanto. Curanto is a Chilean traditional food, a stew of, well, about anything and everything. And I'd been told that if you want the best and want it right, you go to Puerto Montt where the shellfish are unloaded at the warf, taken immediately to the restaurants, and cooked up right. I found such a restaurant and was served a plate heaped with mussels and clams in their shells, pork ribs, chicken, and three kinds of potato. All stewed and salty and tasty as all heck! Plus mouth-burning soup, a tomato onion salad, bread. I ate like a king. 

Back in my room I did not sleep like a king, but rather like someone living in fear of missing his 8:00 bus. But I made up up in time, got on the bus, and headed north, Santiago in the sights. Pastureland slowly evolved into farmland, orchards, vineyards. The Andes loomed out the right window, lighter shadows against a dark-cloud background. The sun set in the west, firing the sky to gold, rose, red, embers. But still no sign of Santiago. Nerves began to jangle again. 

Finally, at about 10:30, we pulled into the terminal. I jumped out, dragged my bike around checking for any kind of boxing or shipping place. But late, in the dark, nothing seemed open or likely. Got into a taxi for the airport, bike bungeed into the trunk. 

At the airport, the first thing I did was breathe a sigh of relief. I'd planned to get to Santiago a couple days early, to get my bike boxed, to make sure I got on my flight. And here -- after slow-riding, volcanic eruptions, unreliable buses, huge distances, back-up plans, and a bucket full of stress -- I was safely at the airport just 2 HOURS before check-in. Nice. 

Just one final task. Nothing much was open, and most people said that any chance I had of finding a box had closed with business at the end of the day. But I asked the cleaning ladies, and they hooked me up. Took me out back to the trash and the cardboard recycling area. No boxes, but all the carboard I could need. I strapped my bike tightly together like it was inside a proper bike box. Then taco-wrapped it in cardboard. Good enough, almost, but I had no tape. 

Near check-in there was a suitcase shrink-wrapping service. My awkward bundle wouldn't fit in their machine. But the two guys, me, and a passerby managed to get my bike wrapped safely in two-suitcase's worth of plastic. 

I checked in for my flight. Then it was just the simple matter of a 6.25 hour flight to Panama City, a 3.5 hour flight to Houston, a 2.25 hour flight to Denver, a couple nights at my dad's house, then a nice drive with him back home, back to Grand Junction, Colorado. 

And it's very nice to be here!

Check back soon for a link to some of the 1900 photos I took!


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