Getting to Chile with Kayaks - a struggle well worth undertaking.
It had been a long late night filled with a cluttered confusion of paddling gear, memory cards, camping equipment, kayaks, and a swirling host of other random but essential items that resisted our exhausted efforts to make them conform to the rigid order of 4 checked bags of 50 pounds or less, 2 carry ons, and two personal items; it threatened instead to uncaringly consume our entire house. Andria went to bed, spent from the effort and the lingering effects of a vicious stomach bug that she had picked up in Mexico a week earlier, which was waging fresh war in her gut with a dose of cipro that we hoped would make the flight survivable. Some time in the early hours of morning I abandoned any last hope of order, and simply crammed fistfulls of gear randomly into any bag that would accept it until the floor was bare.
It was bitingly cold as we struggled the bags into the yard the next morning, the sharp winter-clear air revealing the mountains in the distance as if seen with some surreal computer enhanced sharpness that bit into my fuzzy consciousness in a vain effort to pry me awake. We had a quick session of wrapping and bagging the kayaks in the kitchen, then we also blearily dragged them out to our housemate's waiting van, following the visible puffs of our breath. The breakdown of our truck 36 hours before now stood as a saving grace, because Curt would be driving us to the airport in Atlanta, saving us from the ordeal of sorting out a parking plan and shuffling gear and boats to the terminal. How we will get home from Atlanta in February is a problem left for another day.
After piling on some mini-mart caffeine boosts along the way, we were feeling a bit more alert as we unloaded our mountain of gear onto the curb at the airport. Andria went searching for a cart and returned with Dre - a big jovial skycap whose broad easy smile revealed a gold tooth which glittered an accent to his bright red Christmas tie. "Oh, they're light," he said as we lifted the first "surfboard" onto the cart. We said goodbye and thanks for the ride to Curt as Dre wheeled the fruits of 2 days of packing into the airport and over to the shortest American check in line. When our turn came, he gave a cheery hello to the girl behind the counter and sidled over next to her to chat while she checked us in. It was $100 each for the "surfboards;" before we even finished paying Dre had helped tag the boats, we handed him a tip and a big thanks, and he rolled them away to the oversize luggage area.
We almost missed the flight by waiting at the wrong gate, but figured it out just in time to make it on board to Miami. As we descended 2 hours later, we could see the glow of the city with one brighter row of tall building lights standing like a bulwark at the border of the inky blackness of ocean which our next flight would plunge us through. The warmth and wetness of sea air washed over us as we staggered up the jetway, followed closely in the teminal by the stench of fryer grease burnt by untold hours of feeding weary travelers. Touristas in shorts and tank tops swirled around us to the blaring accompaniment of Jimmy Buffett as we staggered across the terminal and into the bar and grill, hoping fervently that we wouldn't meet the Jolly Mon's fate of having to sing for our supper. We piled our bags against the wall near the corner table and gave in to the moment, requesting rum drinks and the fruits of the fryer from a Cuban waiter to bolster our strength for the overnight flight. The food came as the terminal emptied of all day travelers, leaving only a group of young people at the bar, sipping beers and exchanging excited plans for their southern destinations as they browsed their travel guides for Bolivia and other exotic points on the bottom of the world.
At the gate for our flight the crowds started to gather, bunching in clusters around the raised towers of the power stations to surf the internet or charge their phones. Most of the convertsations were held in hushed Spanish, barely distinguishable above the football din of Cleveland crushing Pittsburg far away in the blistering Ohio cold, which already seemed a world away from the strange purgatory of international travel in Miami. We dazedly filed onto the full flight, and fell into a deep sleep as before the plane even left the ground.
I awoke to the muted light of a new day streaming in through small gaps in the shaded windows. Many people were still asleep, although some were starting to stir. I slid the shade up on my window and winced as the sun's full light stabbed into my eyes. I slammed the shade shut and fumbled through my bag for my sunglasses before cautiously opening the shade a little bit again. A layer of billowy white clouds spread out below, like the glowing cotton batting from a giant incandescent quilt that shielded the mystery of the southern ocean from view. We approached land, and mountains reared up through the breaking clouds, looming higher and higher out of the receding mist like a giant upturned granite rake struggling to clear the vaporous debris from the morning sky. I cracked open a Red Bull and ate a bar from my bag as the mountains groped their way higher and higher into morning, while the plane slowed and eased its way down toward the strange land below. I picked out the peak that seemed highest, guessing it might be the fabled highest peak of the Americas - Aconcagua - and snapped a few pics through the window of the plane.
In the airport we got our first taste of Chile as we filed into the laid back open area for customs and immigration. It was not clear from the signs in what order we should attack the various lines, but after a few seconds of confusion a very friendly Chilean helped us out by steering us toward the reciprocity fee line and then on to immigration. Arriving at baggage claim was like childhood Christmas morning, as we were greeted by the sight of the wrapped bundles of our kayaks. They were festively decorated with colorful new packing tape where they had been cut open and searched, revealing only that they were filled like burgeoning stockings with assorted other implements of summer kayaking fun. We piled those and our bags onto carts under the watchful eye of a friendly drug dog, and trundled off through customs and out into the chaos of the Santiago airport exit.
We were met by a rush of people pressing in from all directions, holding up signs and calling out for people from our flight. We were met quickly by Cristian, a Chilean kayaker from Santiago who had agreed to rent us his truck for our southern travels. It's a 4 door, 4x4 Toyota with a reliable old 4 cylinder 22r motor, roof racks, and basically everything we'll need for our adventure down here. Demshitz had rented the truck a couple of years back and called it the "Gypsy Wagon," so it seemed like it was destined to be our ride when Jared recommended it for us. Not too long later the third member of our crew arrived a little bit late, but after much trouble he did get his kayak on board. Jeff is a friend of ours from Seattle who we've boated with the last few summers - he's a super solid guy, a safe and highly skilled kayaker, and a great choice to be the third River Gypsy for our summer in Chile. He was a little worse for wear, though. In the Seattle airport, everyone knew that his "surfski" was a kayak (they insisted it was a sea kayak), but after he talked to 3 different airline reps he managed to squeak onto the plane by paying $200 for the boat and another $100 for the paddles. Jeff also has trouble with migraines when he flies, which leads to some gnarly naseau. He was violently ill for hours before landing in Santiago to make his way through customs.
The rest of that day was a blur of Santiago traffic, smog, and shopping malls - with Jeff wretching out the window of the truck all the while. We struggled with the strange new currency, the language, and navigation in a new land. Chilean road signs are better positioned to let you know that you just passed your exit than to tell you that your exit is coming, and the exchange rate of 500 pesos to the dollar was extremely confusing as we tried to sort our way throught he aisles of stores to buy all of the cooking gear and food that we would need to survive the next few days. We struggled wearily out of town and onto the interstate, stopping every few minutes to try to get some cash or to pay one of the ubiquitous tolls which fund the Pan American highway. We were lost in three more towns before we had what we needed to survive, and then struggled into the dark countryside toward the Rio Claro. Andria and I took our first taste of Pisco as we hurlted down interminable dirt roads into the obscurity of the Chilean night. Jeff's puking from the window slowed, seeming now more like some strange clock chiming out the hours of confusion and toil towards the glowing morning prize of summer whitewater in December. Exhausted, we bumbled into a campground at the end of a road in the wee hours of morning, set up tents like protective space capsules in the dirt of an alien land, and collapsed unconscious beneath the twinkling of unfamiliar stars, the glowing miasmas of the Magellanic Clouds, and Orion on the horizon standing on his head, his sword pointed like a celestial compass to the center of the southern night sky.