Friday, December 24, 2010

How Chile Almost Stole Christmas

I'm sitting in the Miami airport, waiting for the last part of my trip back to Boston after a roller coaster of a final week or so in Chile. The fact that I'm actually back in the US might not seem like a big deal, but there were times in the past week and a half that it was far from certain. My exercise in zen in Melimoyu, it turns out, was only a warmup.

After returning from Melimoyu, I had a couple of days in Coyhaique to finish up my project with Patagonia Sur before heading down to southern Patagonia for a week of hiking in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. There are no roads that cut through the southern part of Chile, as the full width of some stretches of the country is comprised of fjords and ice sheets. The only options for getting to Torres del Paine, then, are to drive 20 hours through Argentina or to fly to Punta Arenas and take a series of buses eventually leading to the park. I chose the latter.

Punta Arenas, according to the selection of souvenirs in the windows of its shops, is known as the "Fin del Mundo" due to its location on the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of Chile. I had a few hours to kill after arriving, as the next available bus up to Puerto Natales, gateway to the park, wasn't for a few hours, so I walked down to the promenade along the coast. From there, you look south towards the Antarctic Peninsula, across the southern ocean that, at times, experiences some of the world's worst weather, but on that day looked flat, gray, and barren.

I walked for a while, then turned to head back to the bus station. Instinctively, I checked my camera case for the pouch with my passport, which I had put inside because it would stay with me and be readily available while traveling. It wasn't there. My heart dropped. I furiously checked my pockets, realizing that I must have removed the passport when I stopped to take a picture along the coast. In a panic, I ran, backpack and all, back to my photo spot. Nothing there either. And nobody had turned anything in to the neighboring hotel.

What to do? Fortunately, the PDI (Policia de Investigaciones) office was right across the street, and I found someone who spoke English pretty well. My Spanish was ok for a lot of common situations, but explaining a lost passport was outside of my capabilities, especially in my panicked state. I'd need to call the Embassy in Santiago to get the full scoop on replacing a passport, but PDI called in someone else who could at least get me the paperwork that I'd need to travel within Chile. This person didn't speak any English, but through a somewhat difficult exchange we were able to fill out the forms in Spanish and I was on my way.

So with that, my carefully planned 5 days in Torres del Paine were thrown into uncertainty. There was nothing else I could do that evening, though, and I couldn't stand to stay in bleak Punta Arenas any longer, so I got the next bus up to Puerto Natales and found a hostel for the night. Despite my best attempts to remain calm, sleep was not easy.

As usually happens, things seemed better in the morning as I started the long process of figuring out what I'd need to do to get back to the US. I only had a little over a week before my flight, which was originally scheduled to depart from Coyhaique and stop for about 5 hours in Santiago. Clearly, this wouldn't be enough time to get a replacement passport. What I really needed to know was whether I'd have to go to Santiago immediately, or whether I could stay in Puerto Natales and then go a few days before my international flight. The person on the phone at the embassy just referred me to the website, which didn't give any indication of the time required for a replacement passport. The State Department website said that people in these situations needed to contact Citizen Services at their local embassy to figure out what would need to be done, but I was then told that Citizen Services in Chile didn't take phone calls, only emails. Not the kind of reassurance that a panicked traveler needs to hear.

Finally, after some pleading, I was put through to someone who told me that a couple of days would probably be enough time for an emergency passport. And Patagonia Sur's CEO had a contact at the embassy who corroborated this, so it seemed that I could stay in Puerto Natales for the rest of the week as long as I could return to Santiago in time to get to the embassy the following Monday morning. I then called LAN to see if it would be possible change my ticket, and found that I could depart from Punta Arenas and then have a few days in Santiago before heading back to the US. The only missing piece was my bags that I had left in Coyhaique. These could be shipped up to Santiago with some help from coworkers at Patagonia Sur.

So by the end of the day all of the pieces seemed to be in place, and I called LAN again to make the ticket change. Unfortunately, what seemed like it should be the easiest part of the process ended up being the most difficult. Though flying on LAN is a very pleasant experience and the people on the phone are very friendly, the process of actually making a change was absolutely miserable. Their back office processes are disastrously inefficient, such that I had to call back probably 10-15 times in order to finally make the change. First they had to check on the difference in fare, which didn't end up happening until the next morning. When they finally told me what it would cost, I gave my payment information, but had to call back a few hours later because I had not received a confirmation. At that point, they claimed that the back office was STILL working on a quote, and they had no record of receiving any payment information from me. Then there were several more hours before they returned with a new quote, which was higher than the original one. Finally, a full day after starting the process, I got a confirmation that my credit card had been processed, though final flight information wouldn't come for another 24+ hours.

Through all of this, the people at the hostel were very kind and supportive, including one guy who gave me his old cell phone charger, because I had left mine in Coyhaique. If anyone is heading to Puerto Natales, check out Hostel Shakana on Miraflores just north of Erratic Rock - great people, good breakfast, and very cheap too.

I wasn't about to wait around for another day, so I decided that things were about as much under control as they could be, and I headed out to the park. I had lost two of my six planned days, so I had to rearrange my itinerary, but I was still able to do most of "the W," the park's most popular trekking route. It was wonderful to finally get out there after a few days of uncertainty and worrying, and I was able to put the remaining uncertainty out of my mind for much of the time on the trail.

I haven't yet had a chance to edit my pictures from Torres del Paine, so I'll wait to give more details on the hike when those are done. The park was beautiful, even if the pictures don't necessarily fully capture it.

There was a bit more uncertainty at the end of the trip, when LAN told me that there was an 80% chance that I'd be able to board my domestic flight, the other 20% apparently up to the whims of the person at the counter issuing the boarding pass, but I showed up to the airport with plenty of extra time and there ended up being no problems.

So it was off to Santiago for a few days. The passport replacement process was relatively straight-forward, and I received a temporary version within a day. That left a lot of time for exploring the city, which I ended up liking quite a bit more than I had expected. Santiago is a big city, with maybe 6 million people in the full metropolitan region. It's also quite a wealthy city due to the surge in the price of copper in the past decade. The best way I can describe it is as having the energy and commercial / residential mix of New York City, the geography and weather of Los Angeles, and the grand administrative buildings and international feel of Paris. There is an abundance of modern glass and metal towers, and more under construction, including what will be the tallest building in South America. The new downtown area feels a lot like midtown New York, with banks on every corner, expensive shops, and luxury cars. And, being summer in the Southern Hemisphere, temperatures were right around 90° all three days, without a cloud in the sky if you don't count Santiago's infamous smog.

I stayed in an area called Providencia, which is between the historic downtown and the new downtown and apparently was the place to be in the 70s and 80s, and I did quite a bit of walking around the rest of the city. My favorite area was a neighborhood called Bellavista, the historic artsy section of the city tucked up against Cerro Santo Cristobal and filled with older, multi-colored houses and quiet, tree-lined streets. I'm very tempted to find a language school in Santiago and go back to try to live there for a few months. The location of the city as a whole is pretty incredible too, as it's only a few hours from 12,000-15,000 ft peaks in one direction and ocean in the other direction. I was a bit smitten.

So that brings us up to the present, sitting in the airport in Miami, about to get on a flight to Boston. The whole passport experience was a bit of a nightmare, but there's a silver (or maybe shiny aluminum?) lining in the fact that it taught me a lot and and made me more confident in my admittedly still rudimentary Spanish. I'm now quite practiced at saying "Perdí mi pasaporte." It also further reinforced the need for flexibility and the fact that worrying never helps. And finally, without the mishap, I never would have had a chance to explore Santiago. So all is well that ends well.

There's still a significant gap in my description of Torres del Paine, and the whole Chile experience probably deserves some sort of recap, but those will have to come later. For now, happy holidays, or feliz navidad!

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