Sandwiched in between my recent and exciting visits to Pucon and Easter Island, I spent some time in the urban heart of Chile – Santiago, and two hours away on the coast, Valparaiso. Valpo, as it is affectionately known, is universally praised by travel aficionados, guidebooks and UNESCO, which has declared it a World Heritage City, but I was not as high on it as that. In general, though I enjoyed the uniqueness of the buildings spread out among the hills throughout the city, I found it to be lacking in atmosphere and excitement. I believe if I had visited the city earlier on in the trip, I might have found it more exciting, as it would have made a great introduction to typical South American life and culture. But as it was, after nearly three months, and over 30 cities, Valparaiso seemed to me to be a little more of the same, with a splash of colour. I certainly was glad that I only planned to spend a half-day walking its streets, as anything more than a day in the town would have driven me to boredom.
Not that Santiago was much of an improvement. My original plans involved spending over a week between Santiago and Valparaiso but this quickly changed along the way as I talked to fellow travelers about their experiences with the cities. The key exchange that I vividly remember was with Bernardita, a lifelong Santiago resident that I met in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. When I asked her what there was to do in Santiago, she thought for a second or two, gave me a blank stare, and then said simply – ‘nothing’. Quite the endorsement, I know, but as my Lonely Planet Chile book so eloquently put, Santiago – Paris it ain’t – there isn’t a lot to do in the biggest city in Chile.
But that said, I managed to keep busy for a day or two. Being the end of my trip, and having a nice balance of reward points accumulated on my credit card, I exchanged some points for a drastically reduced rate over 3 nights at the Sheraton Santiago – a far cry from the humble hostels I was used to. With staff bordering on pretentious, and located in one of Santiago’s more upscale neighborhoods, staying at the Sheraton was an excellent way to slowly reintegrate myself into the Western way of life. During the day, I went on long walks around the city, taking in the sights and sounds, often stopping for a snack in the cafes, or an ice cream to bring to the park. I climbed Cerro San Cristobal (only because the cable car wasn’t operating), a large mountain and park in the middle of the city that offers panoramic views all around…stretching about 3 kilometers before the city is swallowed in a thick haze of smog. Surrounded by the Andes mountain chain, Santiago sits inside a bowl where pollution can’t escape, to the point where you can barely see the mountain range as nothing more than a thin outline through the smog. I came face to face with Pablo Neruda, one of Chile’s most famous historical figures and a world famous poet, during a tour of his Santiago home, which must have been the epicenter of luxury in Santiago fifty years ago. And with little to do at night, I went to the movies and watched a subtitled copy of Shutter Island, released months earlier in North America, but only just now making its way to Chilean movie screens. All in all, it was a good way to relax and say goodbye to a country and continent that I have come to love over the course of the last three months.
Unfortunately, my bad luck with international flying continued as I attempted to return home to my native Canada via a stop in New York at JFK. Never again, will I ever fly through the United States to get somewhere else unless I have no other alternative. Wanting to bring home as much of the continent as I could, I stopped by a grocery store in Santiago and picked up a bottle of Pisco (for the grand price of about $8 US). I then arrived at the airport and was able to land a seat in the emergency exit row, a major bonus for someone of my height. Things were going well – and then the stupidity began. The first bit of stupidity was my own. With my backpack full to the brim, I decided to attempt to bring the bottle home in my carry-on luggage. It lasted about five seconds at airport security before it was confiscated. Thankfully, as cheap as it was, it was no big loss. I proceeded to the duty-free shop to do what I should have thought of in the first place. Though the bottle there was a little more expensive, I never got the chance to buy it as I was told that the duty-free shop was closing at 8 PM, and thus they would not be able to bring a bottle to the gate of my 9:45 PM flight. How grand! Common sense would leave one to think that they could drop purchases off at the gate at closing time, but common sense seems to go out the window in airports pretty quickly. Still without a bottle of pisco, I found a small shop across the hallway from my gate selling Pisco among other alcohols. I asked if they were required to bring the bottle to my gate, and they said no, that I could walk away now with the bottle. So I did, at double the price of the original bottle I had. Upon boarding my flight, airport security had setup a last-minute screening table on the way to the plane where they quickly seized my bottle of pisco even though I had a receipt showing that it was purchased in the airport, less than two hours prior. After some arguing about why it wasn’t from the duty-free store, they told me that I had to go and get the woman who sold me the bottle and bring her to them. Ridiculous! but I did it anyways much to the consternation of the LAN employees boarding the flight, who wouldn’t, in the end, let me bring the saleswoman down to the security checkpoint. After several warnings of ‘You have to get on the plane’ (which I think is the only English the LAN employee spoke), I gave up and boarded the plane to New York without pisco, and out of pocket $20 US. I’m absolutely convinced that that last-minute checkpoint would not have been there had the plane not been stopping in the US on the way to Canada, and the complete and utter incompetence of the people working that night was astounding. To make matters even more frustrating, I boarded the plane to find out that I had been given a seat one row behind the emergency exit row. Determined not to let this get to me, I put on my headphones and proceeded to watch several movies over the course of a sleepless night.
I managed to get a couple of hours sleep in the early morning and woke up shortly before touching down in New York, though I did not have a connection. New York was supposed to be a stopover, and the same plane was to take me to Toronto two hours after touchdown. I assumed I would be able to stay on the plane, or worst case scenario, be made to sit outside the gate in the terminal – particularly as the flight attendant insisted that I didn’t need the customs forms she was passing out. Little did I know that this simple stopover turned into a full blown connection in which I was offloaded from the plane, sent to US Customs without forms, put at the back of a massive line after finally getting some forms filled out, got stamped through in about two seconds because I’m Canadian, upon which I was sent into the general arrivals section of the main terminal building. Here I had to go back to the departures level, and go through security again before finally making my way to the gate to board the plane I was just on – a process that took nearly the entire two hours I had to spare. I feel bad for any non-Canadians who had to go through this process. Though they were on American soil for less than a couple of hours, they had to have their hands and fingerprints scanned, and digital photographs of themselves taken. The whole process is an amazing scheme on the part of the US Government to collect personal information on as many people as possible.
After another two hours in the air, I landed on Canadian soil and could not have been happier. Getting home, it felt like I’d never left as I rode the TTC bus back into downtown Toronto.