Arica

When I woke up Monday morning I was still in Peru.

It was just before 4 a.m. – a normal hour for me these days – and with the border not opening for a couple hours I was stuck in a rank concrete bus station for the second morning in a row. 

Spirits were high though. Sleep deprived to the point of delirium, I was a happy camper typing up my travels with my imaginary cup of coffee. The sparse population of shady characters around me might feel threatening to the less traveled gringo but I’ve come to enjoy a good border crossing. 

Having read that the border opens at 8 a.m. I though I’d be terminal camping for four hours. Around sunrise it occurred to me that that information was for the Chilean side, an interesting two time zones ahead. So at 6 a.m. picked up and asked how to get to the frontera. 

After crossing the street to the international terminal I asked the right questions and was thrown in a white four door sedan with four strangers. A plain-dressed woman asked for my passport and removed my Peruvian travel card, the document I absolutely needed to exit the country. I was somewhat distressed when she disappeared but was reassured by the driver in muddy Spanish I couldn’t make sense of (I’d later figure out it was because he was Chilean).

Then our driver vanished, returning with my travel card and two new documents with my name on them. We were off.

Every border is different. In this case it is a 20 km. drive through grey Peruvian desert to get to the line and another 20 km. drive through grey Chilean desert to get to the first town, Arica. Without a single sign of life or decent real estate, it makes total sense they could agree on separating their countries here. 

Despite having to exit and reenter the car at each step of crossing, the process went as smoothly. At such an early hour, no one has the energy to make a fuss about anything. The only thing spoken by anyone was a soft buenos dias.

We got to Arica around 7 a.m. and, conveniently enough, Arica was my final destination. Having paid only 1 sole to be thrown in the sedan, I was’t surprised when we were asked to pay for our journey. Having scrooged my way through Puno – not wanting to pull out any more money in Peru – I had just enough left to pay in soles, receiving my first 1000 Chilean pesos in change.

My choice of hostel was described as “a hop and a skip” from the bus terminal. 

My problem: without a map I had no clue where to walk except toward the beach. Nestled away in an alley of a street, no one could tell me where to go, so i just started walking, not ready to give away my first and only 1000 peso note ($2 value).

In these situations, experience has taught me to trust my gut. My gut was wrong this time, taking me south along the shore instead of north. I stopped at a small university and asked for help from two men from the front office. Thanks to the wonders of the internet we were able to find where it was and they copied me a map from the phonebook. 

I was grateful, and while such a process should have been easy, I had to navigate the stone wall that is Chilean Spanish. 

Imagine clean, non-regional Spanish. Then mutilate it, tar and feather it, and blow it up with dynamite. Full of slang, syllable omission and played in fast-forward, that’s what Chilean Spanish sounds like. While people seem to have no problem understanding my questions, I am helpless in perceiving the answer. I can only hope that a little exposure will tune my ears to this white noise.

Finally arriving at Sunny Days Hostel, I was finally rewarded for my journey.

I’ve stayed in a lot of nice hostels, all with their amenities and perks, but no place has ever compared to the hospitality of this place. More of an extension of a home, this wonderful abode is run by a 60-something Kiwi expatriate named Ross, the nicest man in South America (along with his not so present Chilean wife). As soon as I walked through the door I was treated to the warmest of receptions and (praise-the-lawd!) a fantastic breakfast that included good bread, good coffee, cheese, a selection of fruit and cereals, and I hadn’t even paid for a night. I was in heaven.  

As I was basking in my feast, the house-associated surf instructor popped in and asked if I was interested in an afternoon lesson. Given that surfing is the primary draw for this little city, and remembering my last solo attempt in Mancora, I decided it was a good idea. 

I spent the morning and early afternoon relaxing at Sunny Days, relishing my first shower since Cusco and making some overdue progress on my book. 

I wish everyone could meet my surf instructor. Yoyo, as he is called, is a special breed of human: the surf bum. Scruffy with wavy hair half-down his back and skin that glows from the sun, it’s not hard to guess Yoyo’s vocation. You can pretty much sum up his personality with his two major interests: surfing and smoking marijuana. The native Chilean has bummed around the beaches of the world, teaching his love so that he can catch waves every day. He has no plans of changing.

While some might paint him as a deadbeat – and to some definitions he is – I think of Yoyo as an enlightened, albeit simple, human being. While many people day dream of such a lifestyle for its romantic sound, it takes a specific kind of person to do it. 

Yoyo doesn’t own many things. His primary residence is a metallic green minivan. His standard meal, ramen and powdered soup mix, is prepared on a small camping stove. He checks his email and Facebook every morning and afternoon on the hostel’s desktop computer. For $20/day he will teach you to surf as long as you can last, and I’ll guess he averages one lesson a day (i.e. his income is $140/week). Yoyo essentially does the same thing every day. While it’s a great way to live for the duration of a vacation, and he could be any happier, I don’t think most people aren’t cut out for such a lifestyle longterm, myself included. 

I had an incredible time.  

As much as he goofs around on the beach, smoking joints and dancing to a hilarious soundtrack of disco, psychedelic rock and beach music, Yoyo is all business when you get in the water. He makes you paddle your own weight, correcting your balance and form. He tells you when the wave is yours and when to stand up, patient but unsympathetic when you fail.

For the first time since learning to surf I felt like I was really improving. Amid the chaos of waves and wind, where my instincts were telling me to escape from, I found a new sense of comfort. It was like learning to ski again. I began to focus on my immediate surroundings, taking on one wave at a time. 

This doesn’t mean I didn’t still look like a novice, but I was breaking through an important barrier for actually grasping this sport. Thanks in part to the quality to the surf, I was catching my own waves and riding them all the way into shore. As a bonus treat, the area is heavily populated with small- to medium-sized turtles that would frequently pop out of the surface. It was a good day. 

I was absolutely beat after surfing.

It is incredible exercise, especially when you go 2 hours without stopping for more than I minute. Starving, Yoyo dropped me off at a local almuerzo joint that was supposed to be good and cheap. It was both, and I ordered an obscene amount of food. I wandered the adjacent open-air market before returning to the hostel. I tried to Skype the family, but was so brain dead I don’t think I got more than two intelligible thoughts out. I went to bed early and oh so satisfied. 

I woke up feeling like I had been fed through a meat grinder. My whole body was sore. I would not be surfing again for at least a day. Planning on laying low for the morning, Yoyo came into the hostel and convinced me otherwise. Even if I wasn’t surfing, he invited me to come to the beach while he taught a French girl how to surf. Why not?

I had been hoping for some peace on the beach, but the waves were bad and Yoyo was taking his time getting out. I tried to help him hook up a large box speaker to his car, but we were unsuccessful. By the time they hit the water the waves were dead and I didn’t get more than a few minutes alone. Nonetheless it was a good time listening to tunes on the beach for a while. 

I returned to the hostel in the afternoon and got my mellow time. 

Very few hostels make you want to cozy up and read a book all day but this place is one of them. After a month of traveling, I’ve noticed myself slow down a bit. For a while I would hit the ground running every day and try to fill up every waking moment with an activity. I’m still a pretty busy travelers compared to most people I meet, but after a while streets start looking the same, museums start repeating themselves, churches are identical inside and out…you can imagine. In no way am I bored, but at some point in the journey you lose some momentum and require the down time you get automatically at home.

The next morning I bought my ticket onward, giving me the rest of the day to see Arica before catching a night bus.

Though I could have surfed, and maybe regret not doing so, I was still tried from my first day and wasn’t crazy about dropping the money for it. Chile is expensive, and with so much time left I have to start living on a tighter budget. Besides, I had yet to see much of Arica and this was my only chance. 

I caught a collectivo inland to the small town of San Miguel. Praised mostly for its museum (with collection of 30+ well preserved mummies from the area), I first wanted to stop at the local cemetery that Ross said was well worth a visit.

It took me a little while to find it, but after walking a few kilometers out of the way and asking for direction I entered this fantastical place. Apparently Chileans take their graves seriously. Sprawling up a desert hillside, the active graveyard was packed with massive graves and tombs, bursting with color and individuality. The more modest of models is a low concrete or brick platform, finished with tile and decorated with flowers, chachkies, even astroturf. The larger tombs have roofs, doors, recessed picture frames and multiple benches so the whole family to visit. 

It is cool to see how active many families are in up-keeping the last resting place of their loved ones, and the way they personalize the sites helps you know the kind of person they were. Naturally this is a photographer’s paradise, but I was largely disappointed with what I could shoot due to the intense noon sun.

I walked to the museum, looking forward to a break from the heat, but that’s about all I got. The first part was a semi-interesting tour of the pre-Columbian history of the area with some textiles, tools and pottery. Then I was hoping to get up and close to these mummies, preserved from thousands of years ago due to the extremely dry climate of the region. Instead I got a glimpse of a couple poorly lit specimens from 10 feet away. It was something of a disappointment, but not a total waste.

I found a collectivo back to Arica, letting the driver take me near the city center instead of back to the hostel. 

I had a nice time checking out the small but clean metro area. I walked to the wharf to see large pelicans and some giant, stink sea lions. I walked around the pedestrian mall, some street snacks to keep me going. A group of local high school students on assignment approached me, asking me questions about my experience with the Chilean accent. I was honest, perhaps too honest. 

Rather than finding a ride back I walked, which turned out to be not as far as I thought. I got a shower, despite having checked out, and collected my clean laundry. I went to the market for just enough groceries to prepare a decent dinner. As I move south, the quality of produce has largely improved thanks to Chile’s growing standards. My go-to purchase is a big ol’ avocado which I have as much pleasure eating alone with a dash of salt as any other usage.

After no time at all, my stay in Arica was complete. The journey south continues. 



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