Sunday, December 28, 2008

Crossing the Andes -- Carolann’s SNAPSHOT

We are early as usual at the bus station in Santiago and await the other passengers who curiously fail to materialize. When we booked our tickets the day before, the agent turned his computer towards us to show how few seats remained. As it turned out, only six people took the trip this spring day and two of the six failed to finish their smoke in time and missed it all together. They would have to collect their collapsible unicycles in Mendoza since they remained in our luggage compartment. We felt sorry for the two dark haired young men, evidently poor street buskers. Each dressed in zany coloured striped jerseys and one wore a lime green bowler hat, which might have been a Bolivian design by way of Dr. Seuss. As it turned out, when they miraculously caught up to us at the frontier in the faster bus behind us, we found out they were Germans enjoying a gap year abroad.

This trip makes the fourth time we have crossed the Andes. We’ve flown over them to the southern tip of Chile, taxied around them in Peru, and now over the top and through them in tunnels on a long distance, El Rapido bus.

Leaving Santiago with its mildly toxic halo, we now enter the mountains as little as a half hour out of the city. Chile is such a sinuous stretch of land, its capital city as close to the sea as it is close to its neighbour, Argentina. The road follows the unruly brown water of the Mapocho River, which rushes along continuous rapids towards the sea. As we climb higher, the river doesn’t know which way to run, and it crashes every which way, a visual image of this historically disputed frontier. I know that I’ve been afraid before about the winding, severe switchbacks, crowded by belching transport trucks carrying goods in and out of Argentina. Funny though that this time I’m no longer afraid, rather, excited and riveted to the passing scene. Perhaps the recent death of a parent is as liberating as it is tragic, in that a certain amount of fear itself, which so often directs a younger life, passes away too.

Choosing not to take a double decker bus was wise. Drivers who work mountain routes in South America are uniformly oblivious to centrifugal force as applied to hairpin turns. Fortunately the seats across the aisle are unoccupied because either Dan, who had moved into the empty seats ahead, or me, or our respective backpacks and lunchboxes, are thrown sideways across the aisle, then back again, or occasionally rammed into a window, with each completion of at least nine switchbacks. And what I believed were the final turns, took us onto a broad plateau, at which point we began yet another climb. Eventually, we would travel upwards more than 9,000 feet. That is the kind of elevation that hurts should you linger.

The Andes on the Chilean side are not so much beautiful as they are dramatic with gigantic clefts of rock wrenched apart by earthquakes. Until you reach the snow and ice streaked channels of retreating glaciers, the view is monochromatic grey. Of course, rock can be beautiful as we know in northern Ontario. But this rock’s beauty is in its texture, rather than its colour. We are mere mice, scaling the furrowed, tough hide of an elephant. I’m mindful that a single seismic sneeze of the beast is bad for the mouse.

As we approach the border, there are more than fifty transport trucks going into Chile awaiting the processing of their papers and I wonder if talk about us being held up three hours will turn out to be true.

But this is spring in South America and fewer tourists mean we are waved on within half an hour after a cursory search of luggage. From this point, it’s downhill all the way, but with a difference.

We are leaving behind the comparatively sombre and tightly squeezed Chilean side of the Andes. Now, white alpine flowers litter the slopes like confetti. The severely chiselled grey walls of rock have turned into piles of scree, brown and red with strains of white. There are more alpine plants, this time purple and yellow. Perhaps it’s my upbeat mood, or just all these shades of chocolate and cream make me think dairy, always a happy subject. I imagine a triple scoop dish of ice cream, melted caramel topping, chocolate shavings and sprinkles. And when the last of the mountains are behind us, and the broad expanse of land unfolds ahead under an endless sky, I come to exactly the same conclusion about these two countries as I had five years earlier on a similar crossing near Baraloche. Chile holds its breath; Argentina exhales. C. Moisse

November 28, 2008

No comments: