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The bus ride death trap

Every time that Stacey or I mentioned we were planning to go to southern Chile, people would tell us that it was too late in the year, and that it would be raining all the time. This didn’t really bother us, and it still doesn’t, especially if people’s definition of “rain” is the light splattering for a few minutes that we encountered in Santiago the day before we left to go south. The south of Chile is in many ways similar to the south of New Zealand in climate, with the furtherst south (supposedly) being comparable with Fiordland. By now we’ve traveled south, and I’m writing this entry from a hostel in Puerto Varas, and the weather has actually been quite nice. Today was bright sunshine, in fact. This entry, however, is mostly about a day-trip we had when we were spending time in Castro. It wasn’t raining heavily, but there was definitely some moisture in the air.

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Castro is a small town situated on a beach-front of an inlet, roughly in the centre of the island of Chiloe. It has a large fishing community and lots of seafood, none of which we tried, and a whole lot of churches that are apparently on a world heritage list somewhere. In fact, the whole of Southern Chile is full of churches that are historically interesting, and the taxi driver back in Santiago had impressed upon us that we should really go and look at some. We’ve yet to do this, though.

Having arrived at Castro and discovered that seafood and churches were the main attraction, and having walked around most of the town and surrounding hillside on the first day, we decide to hop on a local bus for a 2 hour ride to the nearby national park. We can’t find any decent maps of the park, except for the standard tourist cartoon fun map, which includes smiling animals and pictures of buses that are 1/20th the width of the entire island. We hope to be able to find some better maps by the time we arrive at the park entrance, however.

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The trip is only hindered when the bus gets stuck in a particularly muddy part of the road. Trying to reverse out of it doesn’t work, and within a few minutes, half of the passengers are outside the bus attempting to push. It’s far too heavy, though, and trying to dig out the back wheels also doesn’t work.

We’re milling around outside in the mud, and a chatty local woman wearing a blue track-suit, taking the opportunity to have a smoke, jokes to Stacey not to worry — this happens all the time. A few minutes later, another local assures Stacey that this has never happened before.

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Within about twenty minutes, a big truck has driven up from a road-works site in the opposite direction. Having attached a rope to the front of the bus and reversing back along the road, it is able to tow the bus out. The driver indicates that we’re away again, and everyone cheers.

During this time, we’ve had an opportunity to chat with a group of young French tourists who had jumped on the bus at a small town called Chonchi. They’re also planning to go to the park, but they’re not going direct, as they’ve decided to go to a new hostel for the night in a village situated about a kilometre outside the park entrance. They’ll first need to find the hostel to drop off their things, and hop off the bus as we arrive there. We wave goodbye.

Not long after, we reach one of the main entrances to the park. The driver stops and lets us off once we’ve eventually realised that we’d almost gone past it. After a short walk over a fence and through some trees, we reach a camping and picnic area that must cater for hundreds of people at the right time of year. Right now, though, it’s deserted. A light is on in a nearby office, but nobody seems to be around. Eventually once we’ve had a look around the available display boards, we pick up our things and start walking along the only obvious track.

We still don’t have any useful map, which is a little frustrating. The information board at the entrance contained several maps, all of which scale the entire national park (or the entire island) into the space of a few centimetres, and none of which included any useful detail. The main information on the board besides these maps is a chart displaying rare birds that might be seen in the area, and a few paragraphs that define what a “National Park” is, in a very general context.

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After a few minutes into our walk, we begin to reach some signs that give a vague indication of where we’re going. It seems that the track we’ve started following will be a 700 metre 40 minute walk through some native bush. It doesn’t indicate whether it will really be 40 minutes, or if it means 40 minutes at grandma pace. Given that 700 metres would typically take about 6 or 7 minutes to walk, we’re presently assuming the latter.

The loop actually takes us 30 minutes, after we added a couple of additional detours down signposted tracks that seemed to go nowhere in particular. This is longer than we had guessed it would take. It is also quite a bit rougher than either of us had anticipated, mostly because the entire middle section of the loop is missing. It looks as if the track used to be there, but it has since been dismantled and is in the middle of being rebuilt. What’s left is a mixture of roots, mud, and slippery broken logs to climb over, which used to be a well constructed path. Stacey slips and it leaves a distinct graze on her leg. The bush itself, in this region, is very similar to New Zealand bush, especially for things like how the tree roots sprawl around. There were more than a few times that we thought we could just as easily be walking through some of New Zealand’s back-country.

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We’ve now reached the end of the loop. Given the lack of additional tracks from this entry point, except for a maze of paths between neighbouring campsites, we decide to cross the street and walk to the beach. The path to the beach passes through some loose bush for a few minutes, and then reaches a look-out point, from where we can now see the coast and the sea. In the foregound below us is a wide plain of partial swamp-land, with a big white sign that contains bold, black lettering. My first impression is that the sign is probably some kind of instruction board or safety notice for people walking to the beach, but Stacey then points out that it’s actually a For Sale sign for the land.

We continue towards the beach, eventually reaching it over the top of some sand dunes on the far side of an ankle-deep swamp. Stacey gets her socks wet, but my boots manage to hold out. In the far distance to the left when we reach the beach, we think we can vaguely see four figures of people walking along the beach, but we decide to walk the other way instead. Being slightly concerned about finding the correct position to get back to where we came from, I try to count the number of big pointy stick things we see pointing out of the sand, in an effort to identify how far we need to walk back. This walk lasts for about an hour, finally reaching the mouth of a river, before we decide we should probably turn around and go back.

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There’s still a lot of time left, however, and we decide to walk in the other direction. There aren’t as many pointy sticks in this direction, I we instead make a note of the cow grazing on the sand dune above us as the point to climb up and walk over.

Not far along the beach, we run into the French group again, and have a chat with them for a few minutes. It seems they’ve decided that they’re not very impressed with the local hostel. Once they’ve finished their walk, they’ll be catching the bus back to where they came from. We wave goodbye, wondering if we might see them again on the bus later in the afternoon. Unfortunately the cow seems to have spontaneously combusted by the time we return, but luckily Stacey has also been keeping track of where we came from, and somehow picks the correct dune to climb up. A further walk of about 10 minutes, beginning with the swamp, brings us back to the roadside.

Our bus doesn’t arrive until 4.45, and it’s only 3.30, so we could be waiting for quite some time. We wander down the road slightly past a cafe, which is closed, but a sign in the window suggests that another company also runs buses out here, and there might be one at 4pm. Being a public holiday, however, we have no idea whether the bus will actually be running. We walk down the road a little further, however, and meet a group of four or five people waiting. A quick question suggests that there will be a bus at 4pm, which is a relief.

We continue to walk down the road to the centre of the nearby village. A bus approaches from the other direction, heading towards the beach, and we see that it’s the same bus we caught that morning. The driver recognises us from the stuck-in-the-mud incident, and we wave to each other. We eventually decide to stop outside some houses where another person is waiting. There aren’t any distinct bus stops, but we figure that if the driver stops to pick up that guy, he’ll have to let us on too. Before the second to last bus of the day arrives, the group of potential passengers at our stop has grown to about 5 or 6, and it looks as if most are returning from visiting family on the long weekend. By 4.20pm, however, the bus still hasn’t arrived. Stacey overhears people in the group commenting that perhaps that company isn’t running any buses today. This wait could end up being quite long.

At 4.25pm, I finally see the bus cross the bridge in the distance, before disappearing behind a cluster of trees. Even better, this looks like a larger bus than the miniature bus we caught this morning. It should be here within a minute, but it isn’t. After two or three minutes, Stacey and I begin to wonder if it was actually our bus. After about five minutes, it finally appears in the distance at the end of the straight road. It seems to be on a slight tilt.

The bus stops once for a couple of other people waiting next to the road in the distance, and finally arrives. The bad news is that it looks quite full, and there are already people standing. This could be a slightly uncomfortable ride if we’re to be standing for two hours, but hopefully some people will get off along the way.

After jumping on the bus, however, it soon becomes clear that there isn’t a lot of space. The bus is really full, and there isn’t exactly a lot of space to move. By the time the bus has stopped a couple of extra times, we’re crammed half way down the bus with only a single door at the front, there isn’t a lot of room to move at all, and it’s difficult to see anything either out the front of the bus, or out the windows at the side.

The driver continues to swerve and skid along the thin, muddy and unstable road, and the events are starting to become a little concerning. By this time, I’m consciously trying to move my weight towards the left side of the bus. Logically I realise that it won’t make any difference, but it seems about all I can do to counter-act the apparent lean of the bus to the other side. Straining my neck to look towards the back, I notice one of the girls from the french group waving at me from a couple of metres further down the bus. She then signals to me, asking if I can push her backpack more properly into the luggage rack, which is above my head somewhere.

In the underground metro of Santiago, the word “Permisso” means “Get out of the way before I knock you to the floor”. On this rural mini-bus, however, the meaning of “Permisso” has become “Please hold your breath for 60 seconds and press yourself as far to either side as possible while I attempt to scrape past you, even if that’s impossible.” Stacey is beaten up by a little girl in this fashion, who was desperately trying to get to the front of the bus so she could get off before it raced past her stop. Her attempts to get through a space that wasn’t there forced Stacey’s hip up against one of the seats.

The swerving continues, and one of the locals near us nervously comments that she’s very uncomfortable, and wants to get off. By this time, I think it really would make a lot of sense to let people off, but it’s not really possible to ask the driver to stop. If there was, there wouldn’t be a chance in hell of actually getting to the door, and the driver’s still letting people on.

To make things even more difficult, the other guy who sells the tickets decides that it’s about time to start collecting money from people. Somehow, he very slowly manages to inch is way past people, gradually making his way down the bus, collecting money, and giving people tickets. Stacey and I pay him 3000 pesos (about NZ$8) for both our tickets. The driver finally stops collecting people, and leaves them on the side of the road. It seems he’s finally decided that the 80-odd people on the bus, by Stacey’s and my count, is about as much as the bus can handle. People still waiting will have to catch the last bus of the day.

Shortly after we’ve bought our tickets, something very unnerving happens. The bus is in a low gear grinding up a hill, but stops. Then it starts rolling backwards. It stops a few seconds later. The driver starts grinding the bus forwards again, but with the same effect. After gaining a few metres up the hill, it stops and drifts backwards. The most unnerving part of this for me is that stuck as a sardine in the middle of the bus with no view outside and no obvious escape, I really have no idea if the drifting backwards is controlled at all. If the bus happened to slide off the side of the road down a bank, it could be really bad.

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After the driver’s third unsuccessful attempt to grind up the hill, suggestions finally start circulating that it might help if some people get off. It’s muddy outside and many of the people up the front of the bus aren’t too interested in moving, but the woman next to us, who earlier expressed concern, leaps at the opportunity to finally get off and get some space to move around in. Soon after, a large group of people have jumped off the bus and are very happily sloshing their way up the muddy road outside. Stacey and I are among the few who are actually prepared for sloshing through mud and rain. The woman in the blue track-suit, whom we’d met on the bus this morning, notices us, smiles and waves. She’s taking the opportunity for another smoke. Fortunately for her, she only has to cope with this trip for a few more minutes before she arrives home. For the two of us, however, we have at least another hour back to Castro.

The bus still can’t make it up the hill, even after the minority of people who decided they preferred to be able to breathe had elected to temporarily hop off. Fortunally help isn’t far away, though, as a massive road-flattening machine of some sort drives up to tow the bus up the hill. We wait for it at the top, and I take the opportunity to snap a photograph.

Now back on the bus, Stacey and I make sure that we get on almost last, placing us towards the front. Finally, from our new position, we can actually see almost vertically out the front window towards the road ahead of us. Even though there’s not much space to move and the bus still feels like a death trap as it speeds around corners and leaps over small hills in the road, it’s a little more reassuring than being crammed half way back down the bus. Furthermore, I reassure myself with the knowledge that if the bus were to tip over on its left side, we’d at least be reasonably near the door on the front right, and might have a hope of getting out.

Ten minutes later, we can finally see some good old concrete slab road out the front of the bus, and the ride no longer feels quite as perilous… despite the crush of people still pushing through the bus every time someone needs to get off. At Chonchi, about a third of the people finally get off. Stacey and I find ourselves in the seat at the front left of the bus, and a small sign next to the front window finally becomes visible, which says “Capacidad 41”. Scanning around the bus, there are still at least 60 people on-board, including a collection of children sitting on parents’ laps.

Several notices are pinned to the dividing wall between us in the driver. One notice advertises that an eye specialist will be visiting the region from Santiago in the near future, and states several dates on which people will be able to have their eyes checked. Another notice advertises the address and phone number of the Chilean transport authority that is responsible for inspecting the safety of buses.

Despite having the seat for a few minutes, we notice that a chap is still sitting in an uncomfortable position next to the driver with a very tired kid on his lap. I end up standing for him, and he moves back to sit next to Stacey. Stacey eventually finds out that his kid is feeling quite sick, and it’s an effort to keep him awake. After a few minutes, the man leans forwards and glances at the notice from the transport authrity. A moment later, he pulls out his phone and records the number.

Finally, we arrive back at the bus terminal at Castro. As we’re jumping off the bus, Stacey notices that the last bus, which was scheduled for 45 minutes after the one we were on, is also pulling up. It looks about as packed as ours was.