We left Rio de Janeiro, heading south. We had a long drive ahead of us, 4,000 kilometres, on a mixed bag of roads. Our final destination the container port in San Antonio, Chile.
En route we needed to find a new windscreen for the van. The screen had taken hits in almost every country (well - 17) on the American Continent and was illegal in all by the time we hit the 2nd - Canada. The cracks resembled something like a map of our route. As this van model only exists in a few South American countries, we chose a glass specialist in Argentina.
After several long days driving, sleeping at truck stops/garage forecourts, we crossed into Argentina. We had driven hard to arrive at the windscreen specialist before the weekend. The emails I'd exchanged with the owner, my order confirmation and appointment came to nought - the screen he had said was in stock was not. It was sitting in Buenos Aires, a considerable distance away. Not a happy bunny.....
So, we continued our journey and headed to Rosario. This had been one of our favourite stops (April 2019) and was a chance to catch up with friends, Lisandro (Tortuga), Fede and Nacho. On Friday morning, we arrived in the city and caught up with the super active Lisandro. His life appears to involve getting up late followed by squeezing three days' activity into one. We were only in town for one day and had a few things to sort. We met Lisandro and mentioned windscreen and laundry. Within minutes he had everything sorted - Fede, it turns out, also owns a laundromat and Lisandro had found us a windscreen nearby.
At the windscreen shop we were given three price options:
1) Credit card full-price incl tax + 15% for card use + tax receipt + guarantee
2) Cash - full-price incl tax + tax receipt + guarantee
3) Cash - no receipt - 20% discount.
It helps having a local with you.
We were told to return by 5.30pm to collect the van. Any later, we would find the shop shut until Tuesday. Off we walked looking for cash machines, with Tortuga insisting we were all then going to lunch at his kite-surfing beach, a little island sitting about a mile or two out from the city across the Rio Paraná.
Tortuga organises a motor boat, his kite-surf gear and buys a huge piece of steak. We grab a nice bottle of red and set off to the island, with me feeling a bit anxious. It is already mid-afternoon and we have a boat trip, bbq and kite-surf to deal with and be back in the city by 5.30pm. We had a great afternoon and I am still in awe of how he managed it all and delivered us back to the van at 5.25pm.
After collecting the van, we went to meet Fede for the laundry and some maté. Then, after selling some kite-surfing equipment to Tortuga, we headed to camp in a local park, overlooking the river. Knowing that Lisandro had three young children, we didn't want to disturb him, despite his mention of dinner, so Rachel headed off for provisions for a picnic supper. At 9.30pm, just as we were about to eat, Lisandro called to ask where we were and why we hadn't been in touch. Forty minutes later and he arrived with supplies and three excited children. Time for a midnight picnic in the park. Super fun and a late night.
The next day, we charged across Argentina and subsequently crossed over the Andes to the west of Mendoza and into Chile.
On the coast, just outside San Antonio, we rented a house for nine days. We emptied everything out of the van, then set about a deep clean. It needed to be spotless, free of all dust and mud, for its arrival into New Zealand. We spent eight solid days cleaning the van and its contents. It took a collection of old toothbrushes, a lot of rags and a fair bit of elbow grease to complete the task. I even survived a mini-earthquake whilst under the jacked up van. In reality I missed it, failing to hear the screams of Rachel, who was inside the house, with visions of me under a shaking van!
All buffed up, our little van was delivered to the San Antonio Container Port. She was loaded into the container, ready for the journey to Tauranga, New Zealand via Colombia. Last thing we did was disconnect the battery to protect it on the crossing!
Chile is going through difficult times. The country retains the constitution introduced in the days of that infamous dictator General Augusto Pinochet. His regime was responsible for the disappearance, torture and murder of 1,000s of Chilean citizens suspected of anti-government views or activity. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is vast - it shouldn't be, as Chile has quite a healthy economy.
Jumping to the present day and the country was in turmoil. The protests and riots began before we arrived and evidence was to be seen throughout the country. The population was protesting the lack of basic rights, a bad old constitution and a rise in 'disappearances'. In a matter of months, up to the time of our arrival, 300+ protesters had suffered traumatic eye injuries, a good number caused by deliberately hardened rubber bullets.
You now have the basic background. We had a week before our flight to New Zealand and a 17th floor apartment booked in central'ish Santiago. Our shipping agent had offered to drive us to the apartment. "Where are you staying?" "Bella Vista"...."Ah, the War Zone".... Well this is going to be interesting.
We were dropped off at our building, a gated community of two tower blocks. We were in a restaurant/bar area. All seemed normal. We settled in and immediately received a message from the apartment manager, offering us a larger swankier apartment in another part of town - no extra cost. She also threw in a little mention of civil unrest. This was getting more interesting by the second... I replied with a No thank you, we are happy. She even visited and made the same pitch, but we gave her the same reply.
We could hear some drumming , car horns and shouts in the distance. At about 8.30pm, just as we were about to head to one of the busy restaurants we could see below, the noise, shouts and bangs grew louder. We watched from the 17th floor as the restaurant guests retreated inside, with staff rapidly clearing tables and chairs. Into the streets below came a large number of masked protesters, fighting a rear guard action at the junctions. They set fires across the junctions, blocking traffic and continued to retreat into the side streets. They seemed to avoid damaging the few cars parked in the locality. They were quickly followed by police in riot gear and armoured cars firing tear gas. Not my first time being tear gassed, but it was Rachel's. Even on the 17th floor we felt the effects. The running skirmish lasted about 30 minutes and melted away. The restaurant doors opened, tables, chairs and customers back to position. Off we went to dinner.
We spent the next six days walking and sightseeing in the city. Highlights, if they can be described as such, were the memorial museum to the Disappeared, an infamous torture centre and a lot of political street art. A little bit of 70s England made plenty of appearances on walls - the acronym A.C.A.B. or numerical equivalent 1312. It appears to work the world over.....
Going back to the unrest. It turned out that the daily centre of protest was at the Plaza Italia, a short walk across the river from our apartment. On a few occasions we wandered to the plaza, in amongst the protesters. We strolled around taking pictures, ignored by the crowd who were focused on the police water cannons a few hundred metres away or gathering bricks to use as missiles. We didn't feel threatened and only had to scatter once when a couple of gas canisters landed nearby. The rioters even had people posted at junctions directing traffic. Those in the traffic jams waited patiently and a lot seemed to toot horns in support as they passed.
I have to say it was an experience and not a bad one. For six days we timed our evening outings. We became somewhat used to the tear gas and it was no biggie going out for an ice-cream with rioters running past in the opposite direction, followed by police.
On our last evening, we decided to eat at a restaurant on the other side of the river. We booked a table for 8.30pm, dressed up and set off walking at 8.15pm. Buffoonery, this is the time when police normally force the rioters across the bridge into Bella Vista.
We arrived at the steel bridge to find 15 to 20 rioters, backs to us, taking a stand in the middle of the bridge. Missiles were being thrown at the 60 riot police near the other end of the bridge. There was plenty of gas in the air. We started walking across the safest side of the bridge and as we levelled with the rioters, they ceased throwing and waited until we had cleared the bridge. We continued our casual stroll and the battle resumed - surreal.
The experience in Santiago needed no embellishment- it was that strange....
However, it was now time to say Adiós to South America. It is an amazing continent. Each country special in its own way. In a heartbeat, we would happily spend more years there.
Now, off to an old favourite - New Zealand.