After driving for a couple of weeks in Argentina, we were slowly getting used to the language, the people, the terrains and had started feeling ‘at home’. We crossed the Argentine-Chilean border crossing set in the midst of the Andes mountain range.
“Never knew a border crossing could look so beautiful” Sanjay commented. We crossed the border and drove to a town called Osorno. We reached the busy market place and were looking for a hostel to spend the night. After checking out a few hotels which cost 50 USD a night for all 3 of us, we continued hunting for something more cheap and found that Chile has lots of bed and breakfast places called “Hospedaje”. Sounded more like a hospital but who are we to complain? It was already dark by the time we reached Osorno, but using our language translation apps, we managed to find a Hospedaje. As we rang the bell, an old woman opened the door and smiled.
“Halo. Bienvenido” You are welcome.
“An old woman opening the door after dark and seeing 3 foreigners standing at her door could be scary. The fact that she is welcoming us already makes me feel that we are in a safe environment in Chile” I said.
After spending our first night in the Hospedaje, we were up early for a long 1000 km drive to Santiago. We were still
not over the remoteness and barren terrains of Route 40 in Argentina, so we wanted to make an early start on our first driving day in Chile. We had to drive almost through the entire length of Chile in the coming days, we were not using a GPS so it is common sense that we should at least be carrying a road map of Chile. We weren’t. That’s how planned we were! All we had was a lonely planet guide which had a very broad map of the country.
“Santiago is in the north of Osorno, looks very far, but it looks like Chile has only one big highway, how difficult could it be to reach Santiago? The country is like a long alley anyway!” was my expert opinion as we rolled out in the morning. Getting out of town was a bit tricky, but our analysis was right! There was only one big highway called Ruta 5 that covered almost the entire length of this very ‘long’ country. We soon hit the highway and all we had to do was drive up north.
Ruta 5 took us by surprise. It was absolutely smooth tarmac, proper markings, signboards, gas stations at regular intervals and unlike the remoteness of Argentina, the highway was busy and there was always civilization around us. We were totally at ease and were cruising towards Santiago. The highway was so good that it got boring for us after a couple of hours. “I think we are meant to drive only on lonely roads where breakdowns could be suicidal, busy but smooth highways like this one are not exciting anymore” I said. An uneventful 1000 km journey passed soon enough and we reached Santiago by evening. 12 hours to do 1000 km without breaking speed limits!
Just like any big city, Santiago is big, busy, bustling with life, tall buildings, but unlike many big cities, Santiago has an old world charm of its’ own. We explored the city over the next couple of days. Old folks playing chess in the main market square, tarot card readers setting up stalls on the streets predicting future of the anxious and troubled souls, painters, dancers and musicians keeping the public entertained in the busy streets. We also experienced something very interesting and unique about Santiago. “Cafe con Piernas” which translates to “Coffee with legs”. Any guesses on what that means? You are probably guessing it right. Santiago has a lot of coffee shops where women wearing bikinis serve coffee to men wearing suits. It is a concept unique to Santiago. You could walk into a “Cafe con Piernas” at 9 AM and you will be served a fresh cuppa by a scantily dressed woman. If I tell you that I didn’t go to a “Cafe con Piernas”, I would be lying. It was evening, we had walked all day, we were tired, we were exhausted and we desperately needed some coffee! No, I cannot post any pictures because photography is not allowed while you are having a “coffee with legs”.
We also met the Indian Ambassador to Chile who warmly welcomed us in the Indian Embassy and spent an hour talking about our journey.
“You want to meet Indians in Chile? Well, there is an Indian family waiting outside who own the Hilton Hotel in Santiago. Would you like to meet them?” he asked us.
“Absolutely” I said. Head of Chancery Mr. Rajiv introduced me the family of 3 brothers and their father who owned the Hilton in Santiago.
“This is Mr Tushar, he and his friends are driving around the world” Mr. Rajiv introduced me to them. I started chatting with them and as expected, we got a dinner invite at the Hilton for the following evening.
“We will send a car to pick you up and bring you to the hotel tomorrow evening.” Suresh, the eldest of the 3 brothers said to me.
Mr. Rajiv, set up a meeting for us with an Indian Priest and also got us a dinner invite at an Indian Restaurant in Santiago called Jewel of India. “Not bad, one visit to the Embassy and we have a dinner invite at an Indian restaurant today and another invite at Hilton tomorrow” we were of course delighted.
“Lets’ first go and meet the priest” Sanjay said. Rajiv had already called the priest who was known as “Maharaj ji”
amongst the Indian community in Santiago. We thanked Rajiv for all his help and went to see Maharaj ji. He lived only a few blocks away from the Embassy. As we approached his home, the smell of Indian food and incense confirmed that we are at the right address. We rang the bell and in a few minutes a tall, slim, middle aged man wearing specs walked out.
“Namaste, welcome to my home” Maharaj ji folded his hands, smiled and greeted us. We were requested to take off our shoes as we walked into his house. The living room was converted into a temple where idols of all Hindu gods were placed. Sound of “Om” chanting was playing in the background. It felt like we were back home in India.
“Have you boys eaten lunch?” he asked us
“Umm, we were planning to go for lunch after meeting you” I said
He smiled, walked into the kitchen and prepared a simple meal of dal and rice for us.
“Please eat lunch with me, it is simple home made food, I hope you don’t mind” he said. This was the first time that we ate Indian food since arriving in South America. We felt very comfortable at his home, listening to him talk and having a meal with him.
“I am called as the priest in most Indian weddings in Chile. In fact, now days I am called more for Chilean weddings.” He said
“A lot of Chilean people get married in the Indian tradition. I have translated Indian wedding mantras into Spanish and all guests at Chilean weddings are very interested in understanding the meaning of every mantra” he added. This was something unheard of for us. Chilean people getting married in Indian style?
“So do they worship Hindu gods too?” I asked
“Yes, in their own way, for example Ganesh ji is known as Senor Ganesha here!” he smiled and told us. We thanked Maharaj ji for his time and for feeding us.
The niceness continued when we went for dinner to Jewel of India. As we entered the restaurant, a short, bald, old man wearing specs, a designer jacket, shiny leather shoes greeted us.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome to my home, welcome to India. Come here my children” he walked towards us and hugged us. He was Mr Rakesh Arora, the
owner of Jewel of India. To be honest, we all were a bit surprised by his warm welcome. When does a restaurant owner greet clients so warmly with a hug?
“You kids must be hungry, want to eat first?” he asked with a million dollar smile
“Umm, no, we are ok” is all I could manage.
“Ok then, let me give you a tour of my restaurant.” He showed us around his huge restaurant which had different halls based on different themes. “This room is called the Love room, all the paintings here show various Kamasutra positions”
“This one is the Dance room, different Indian dancing styles are depicted here”
He continued showing us his very interesting restaurant and finally we settled to have dinner with him.
“Beta, what would you like to eat” he asked me
“Umm, can I see the menu please” I asked
“No. Why do you want the menu? That is for locals. You tell me what you want to eat, and I will have it prepared. Just name it” he said confidently.
“Butter chicken” my choice
“Amritsari fish” Prasad’s choice
“Aloo gobi” Sanjay’s choice
“Done. May I offer you some Chilean Wine while your food is getting prepared?” he asked. The evening was getting better and better. I was a bit confused, why was he being so nice to us? Was he like this with everyone? He looked so happy, so content with his life, so kind and so friendly. We realized that he was that nice and friendly with every single client in his restaurant.
“The President, The First Lady, South American footballers and rock stars have all dined in my restaurant. You, they and anyone who walks into Jewel of India is god for me” he said. We ate a lot, we drank a lot, we talked a lot and finally when it was time to leave, Mr Rakesh personally dropped us back to our hotel.
Our journey amazes us every day. We meet people who surprise us, who inspire and motivate us, who teach us how to become a better human being. The dinner at Hilton with the Indian owners was no less. They showed us around the hotel, made us meet each member of their staff, proudly introduced us as Indian friends driving around the world and then laid out a lavish dinner for us. We were made to try exotic Chilean wines and the excellent sea food of Santiago which included local delicacies like sea urchins and cerveche.
Santiago done, we headed further north. Leaving the city behind us, we were on our way towards a small mining town
called Copiapo in the Atacama Desert. Chile has a very diverse landscape. In the south, you can freeze staring at the glaciers or driving up the mountains in the Andes, in the north, you will find yourself in the middle of the Atacama, one of the driest deserts in the world. As we drove further north from Santiago, the traffic thinned, the flat lands were replaced by sand and before we knew, we were driving through the Atacama desert. All around us was brown, as far as the eye could see. We were driving through sand storms and dusty roads with a bright sun over our heads; the snow storms and the glaciers were far behind us.
We reached Copiapo in the evening and were greeted by Mr Kannan, Country head of Santa Fe mines, a part of JSW Group – The Jindal Steel Company in India. JSW had invited us to stay at their guest house in Copiapo and also offered to show us their Iron Ore Mines.
“We all are so happy and excited that you guys are driving through Copiapo. We hardly get any guests here, it is a small mining town and there isn’t much to do here” Mr Kannan said to us.
“Copiapo made headlines a few years back when 33 miners got stuck in a mine for 67 days. Eventually, all of them were rescued but that incident highlighted Copiapo” he told us. I remembered that incident, it was in the news for a long time many years ago and as he was talking about it, I recalled images of a mine somewhere in South America where a lot of miners got stuck underground for a long time. Today, we were sitting in the same town not very far from where that incident had happened.
In the morning, Mr Kannan took us to visit their mine. As we drove into the compound, I was surprised to see a lot of dumpers working on hills all around us.
“Umm, where is the Mine?” I asked
“Look around you, everywhere you see is our Iron Ore Mine” Mr Kannan said
I thought that a Mine was always supposed to be underground. I kept quiet and whispered an “ok” to him. He showed us the whole process of how the mountains are cut, rocks are crushed and the Iron Ore is extracted. But Sanjay and I were interested in something else altogether. We were eyeing the 85 tonne dumpers that were working in the mines. We wanted to drive them. We thought, when the company is being so nice to us, we might as well request them and see if they will let us drive the beasts.
“Yes, it’s possible, let me speak to the safety manager, if he agrees, then you can drive the dumper” Mr Kannan said casually.
“Yes, no problem, we will give you a safety brief and handling instructions, but you will be allowed to drive on an
open flat ground for only a few minutes” the safety manger told us. We were elated. We climbed the stairs of the 85 tonne dumper that looked like a building on wheels. The driver briefed us on how to handle the machine, it seemed simple enough, it had automatic gears, we just had to be more aware of the space around us. I sat in the driver’s seat, put the Drive shift, and pressed the accelerator. It was absolutely exciting to drive a beast of a dumper. Both Sanjay and I were like kids who got to play with a toy they always wanted.
From Copiapo, we headed deeper into the Atacama Desert towards a town called San Pedro de Atacama, one the most popular tourist destinations of Chile. We will never forget this town, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. After driving long hours through a lonely, brown, dry, dusty and hot desert, as we approached the town, our vehicle started giving issues. The AC, the power windows, mileometer and speedometer stopped working. We feared it might be something serious. We had to go to Bolivia next which was going to be a very difficult journey through even more remote regions in high altitudes. There was no way we could afford to go there with a less than perfect vehicle. We couldn’t find any mechanic in San Pedro de Atacama who could fix the problem so we drove an hour back to another town called Calama where a simple fuse change fixed all the issues. This was only the beginning of our problems. Feeling relived after getting the vehicle fixed, we drove back to San Pedro and planned to spend the day visiting the unique sights around the town such as Moon Valley – a unique terrain that resembles moon’s surface, try out sand board surfing in the desert, visit the Tatyo geysers and hot springs etc. We couldn’t do any of it.
We returned to San Pedro, parked our vehicle outside the hotel and were unloading our bags. Sanjay and Prasad were taking the bags inside while I was waiting outside with the vehicle.
“Amigo, come here, quick, quick.” A man shouted at me frantically from inside the hotel. He was signalling for me to come and see something urgently. It sounded like some emergency so I quickly ran inside towards him. He picked up a set of keys from the floor and told me that my friends had dropped it. They didn’t look familiar but I took the keys and went back to the car. I casually took the bags from the car and went back to the hotel.
“Tushar, do you have my camera?” Prasad asked.
“Umm, no” It hit me. During the one minute during which I went to see that guy inside the hotel, his partners in crime, opened the car and stole Prasad’s camera. I was shocked. I couldn’t not accept it. “Check again, it might be in the room, maybe it’s somewhere in the car, are yo sure you didn’t leave it anywhere else?” I pleaded. But I knew, that during that one minute when I had left the car alone, the car was unlocked and that’s what the schemes were hoping for. They called me inside without giving me a chance to think and within that minute, the theft happened. We informed the hotel staff, they opened the cctv footage of the hotel and it was confirmed. As I had run inside to see the guy, 2 fellows who were loitering behind me while I was unloading the bags, quickly opened the door, took the camera and ran. We could not believe our eyes. It had happened. It had happened because of me, because I was careless, because I didn’t lock the car. Our whole journey was in jeopardy because of me, the camera was not only expensive but a very important part of our journey. We are trying very hard to get our show on a TV Channel, we are filming tonnes of footage every day, without the camera, we have no purpose. We informed the police, they reacted immediately and searched the entire bus station, they even took me in their car with sirens blaring and stopped the last bus that left the town.
“Look carefully” they asked me to look at every face in the bus to try and identify the man who had called me inside the hotel. He was not in the bus. The last hope was gone. We had very little resources to survive in South America, our camps and sleeping bags were already stolen, now the camera. San Pedro was not a tourist destination for us anymore. The car had broken down, the camera was stolen, what else was going to happen here? We tried to console each other saying that we will recover the camera from our Travel Insurance, but that was going to take time. Prasad was devastated but calm. Sanjay was as usual trying to cheer him up and make me feel like it wasn’t my fault. I was only thinking about one thing all the time…How did I forget to lock the car?