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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Changing backpack for the suitcase

Houses covered with colourful sheet metal in Valparaíso
'No way that you hitched all the way from Poland to Chile! You're fucking crazy!' I nodded taking another breath of air filled with eucalyptus scent. 'You can camp in front of my hostel, you're my man!' Marcel was driving up the steep, sandy forest road, a shortcut to Pichilemu, the view of savannah scattered with vineyards was behind my back as well as the majestic snowy cordillera. In twenty six hours I made more than eight hundred kilometres, the fastest jump since Ushuaia. My daily distances were so tiny in recent months, I was relishing Patagonia, but it was time to leave the cold wild south behind and try the city life instead. A city life over the Pacific.

On the way we were asking each other hundreds of questions. After cycling through South America this Dutchman arrived in Pichilemu and said: 'that's my place, that's where I want to live.' It was years ago. As an enthusiast of surfing he couldn't find a better place in Chile. He opened a hostel for surfers and enjoyed his life since. 'You're my man!' he was repeating listening to my travel stories and it was like we both admired each other. We both were doing what we wanted to be doing, we both preferred rather to be than to have. Rather meant that I still needed some money in order to continue my trip and I was hoping that Valparaíso would help me to get some cash.

In the hostel restaurant I met only two couples from Buenos Aires and another Dutch guy, called Niels. If it was summer time Marcel told me he would have a job for me, but now the high season was over. I was hoping Valparaíso wouldn't be so quiet, together with Viña del Mar it was inhabiting half a million people. After free breakfast I cycled with Niels to see the best surfing spot and soon after hit the road again. It took me a few hours to find a lift, Sunday afternoon on a local road.

The morning routine of rolling my tent was broken by a creature jumping out from a hole in the ground, a big hairy spider! I pitched my tent on its nest, oops... I spent the night close to San Antonio, Chile's largest port and with two easy lifts I arrived in the very centre of Valpo as everyone was shortening its name. The city was built on steep hills and it kind of looked like a mini version of Rio de Janeiro, but more colourful, more artistic, more... yeah everyone was right, more bohemian. The real image of the city was even better than the one I had for years in my head. Time to have a rest!

Late in the evening I ended up in a house of Karem another couchsurfer, who lived with her sister and two friends. The house was located in top of Cerro* Santo Domingo, one of forty two hills making separate districts and the view from her living room was amazing. It looked like all the stars fell from the sky and stuck to the hills and only moon left at the sky. I had a lot of questions about the city, about work possibilities, rents and salaries, but the first night I preferred to chill out with the guys over a few bottles of beer.

The next day I went for a little walk through the historic parts of the city, but most of the day I spent searching for my own place, that was the first thing I needed to start living in Valparaíso. The prices depended a lot on the neighbourhood and in some more remote or dodgy areas it was possible to find a room for fifty thousand pesos a month, which was more than one fourth of the minimum wage. There were not many offers though.

During the weekend I managed to contact one guy who had two rooms for rent, both in the very city centre. The price was suspectedly low, so I wasn't too sure what to expect, I hoped it would be okay as Karem couldn't host me much longer. The place was actually terrible, it was more like a seedy worker's hotel than a flat and the bastard lied to me on the phone, the price was way higher. I had one more day to find something.

In the morning I went to the public library to check if anyone answered my Couchsurfing request. No messages. I checked the city's main page in CS, and wow, that was something: 'Staff wanted in our hostel! Work part time for food and accommodation!' I didn't even bother to call them, I went straight there as it was a few minutes away. After a little chat with a girl working at the reception I was set up for an interview the next day. The deal was to work three shifts one week and four shifts the other for full board and a bed in one of dorms. Good deal for the start.

After breakfast I said goodbye to Karem and started to march towards the hostel with my backpack on. There were three other people applying for the job, one girl from Colombia and two chicks from Spain. I didn't feel too confident next to them with my poor Spanish. When I stayed as the last one I told Tami and Josefa who ran the place about my lacking language skills, but it didn't seem to bother them. 'Your Spanish is good enough' I heard. They told me also that they were looking for someone to do night shifts and I was more than up for that after bartending Irish pubs. After the interview I went to the library to check the CS. No news, no place to sleep... What's that noise? Oh my phone!
'Hi Paluch, I'm calling from La Valija Hostel. Would you be able to start tonight?
'Yeah of course!'
'Cool, you can come now and move in. We're waiting for you.'
'Sure, perfect!'

La Valija, meaning The Suitcase, was occupying an old building in Cerro Concepción which together with the next hill called Alegre was declared the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. It was the most historic part of the city overlooking the bay with the port. From the window of one dorm I could see Viña del Mar, Reñaca and Con-Con to the north and on a very clear day it was possible to see the snowy cordillera with the majestic Aconcagua. This nearly seven thousand metres high mountain, the highest in Americas, was in Argentina! Hypnosis guaranteed.

On my first shift I was working with Gabriel, who just like me worked there for food and bed. There wasn't much to do by night, just open the door if someone wanted to go out or come back, and maybe answer an email or phone call, but that was unusual at this time of the day. We could actually sleep during work as long as the door bell could wake us up. The shift was starting at twelve and finishing at eight and the last thing to do was to put cups, plates, jam, butter and so on on the table so breakfast was almost ready. Then off to bed again. Easy!

Every day I was learning new words, words I would never learn being on the road, like a dust pan for example and Gabriel was my best teacher. There was a good vibe between us from the very beginning and we quickly became good friends. He was from Malaga in Spain, but no one could really tell, neither by his accent nor by his long blond hair. He lived in different parts of Europe for years and then started his trip through South America. He lived and worked in one hostel in Brazil and now he was planning to open his own hostel somewhere in Chile, a hostel based on ideas of permaculture and bioconstruction close to good waves as he was a surfing freak.

Beside me and Gabriel there were other people working in the hostel. Samantha was from Colombia and she began the same day as me and we shared the same dorm. Fernando was a local guy doing some night shifts as well. The owners of the place Tami and Josefa were two close friends and they opened the hostel just five months ago, so it was relatively new. Tami's mother, whom we called Tía**, as well as her sister Mara were helping in the morning with breakfast, cleaning and the reception. Tami's other family members, and she had a big family, were popping in regularly and it took me some time to find out who was who, who was related to whom and so on.

La Valija Hostel in Valparaiso Chile
La Valija Hostel, a place that became my home
For the first few weeks I got really lazy, watching tv all day or reading some non-important stuff on the internet. The nights I was working were either quiet and I could sleep or more busy and I could enjoy it with guests. Sometimes we were organizing barbecues in the patio with nice tunes and drinks and yes I could sip a beer during my working hours. One night we even danced samba with Brazilian girls, there were always cool people to hang around with. When I was off I was going out with Gabriel to discover great clubs of Valparaíso. The entrance fees were high for my pocket but we managed to get discounts or even enter for free many times. Our line was: 'We work for La Valija hostel and we send many people to your club.' It usually did the job.

The atmosphere in the hostel was great, it wasn't this kind of shiny brand new, sterile place. Girls had an artistic feel and every corner was filled with little pretty stuff usually made of recycled material. La Valija fitted well to Valparaíso's vibe, it was its extension. Bohemian and artistic, unusual just like every steep and windy street of the city with all the murals, graffiti, street art, lazy dogs and cats. I had never been to a city like that. It was addictive.

When Samantha told me she was looking for a part time job I asked her what the situation was. Wintertime was just beginning and it wasn't too busy. The salaries in pubs were really low so I gave up for a while. There were some extra paid shifts for us in La Valija plus Tami and Josefa let us sell drinks for the guests even though it was illegal without the licence. There were always some pocket money so I could buy a few beers on a night out. For the moment it had to be enough. And there was an idea brewing in my head how to support my trip in the future.

My stay in Pelotas in the south of Brazil with Martha, Alex and all other artists was very inspiring. I had my debút there as an actor and it was that moment when I realised I could actually turn myself into a travelling busker. I couldn't play any instrument, I was always bed with them, but I could do some performance on the streets. I always liked sketches of Ireneusz Krosny, famous Polish mime and I thought I could actually adapt his acts as they were short and funny, he never used any face painting and pantomime is the art without words. I could play it on the street of every country without knowing local language. Sounded reasonable, but I couldn't learn it myself.

Alejandra, the girl I met in Pucón, told me about his friend Juan who was an acrobat and clown and she even gave me his facebook so I managed to meet him in Valpo. He was running with his friends a small circus in Cerro Barón called Carpa Azul and they were organising a lot of workshops, one of which was about miming. Happy as fuck I signed up straight away and attended the first workshop showing me the basic movements. Now just practice, practice, practice. How easy to say.

A few days later I packed the most important stuff, took a public transport to Viña del Mar and stuck my thumb up again. No, I wasn't yet ready to continue my travel, I just needed to renew my visa and the best way to do it was to go to Argentina and then come back. I headed for Mendoza, a city on the other side of the Andes, where Deolinda, very active local couchsurfer, was already waiting for me.

The day was clear and quite warm, the storm that passed a few days ago changed the weather and the mornings were not that crisp anymore. The problem was that it brought a lot of snow in the mountains. The border crossing was closed for several days and I was afraid they wouldn't open it until my last legal day in Chile. Luckily they did. From Viña I got quickly to a toll station in Quillota, then to another one on Ruta 5 and then fast to Los Andes. Hitching was working perfectly. In Los Andes I had to walk for a few miles to get to the bypass where all the trucks from Santiago were exiting. After maybe half an hour I jumped into a yellow lorry.

'Are you going to the border?' I asked.
'I'm going to Mendoza' I heard from the driver, 'well I'm actually going to São Paulo. Wanna go with me? No problem. He he.'
It was a tempting offer but Mendoza was good enough. I wasn't sure if I could manage to get there in one day, it was getting dark so early in this time of the year. Because of that the border crossing was open only between eight am and eight pm. But well, it looked like I was sorted, or maybe not?

The first problem started at the famous switchbacks at the altitude of 2,400 metres where roadworks were causing traffic jams. When we finally arrived to the first control point in Los Libertadores it was getting dark. In that checkpoint all the trucks had to obtain some papers, but the immigration and customs were done on the other side in the town of Uspallata. After crossing the tunnel we entered the Argentinian territory and started to descend rapidly, but then maybe thirty kilometres before Uspallata we got stuck in a massive queue to the customs. Fuck!

Private cars could pass by, they did all the papers before in a village called Los Horcones a few miles down from the tunnel. I thought for a moment about saying goodbye to the driver, but hitching a car in the night could be hard, especially considering their high speed. There were other problems. I still didn't have my entry stamp so I would have to get it myself in the immigration for truckers. And then my driver told me it was written in one of the papers from Los Libertadores that he had a passenger and it would be better to show up with one in Uspallata. Okay, let's just wait..

It was well after eleven when we finally arrived at the immigration. I got my stamp and was ready to go, only around hundred kilometres left, but customs that I didn't have to do could take a while. Okay, let's just wait. Then I realised it wouldn't be done by the morning, so I grabbed my stuff and started to walk towards the petrol station in the town. The border crossing was already closed, so the only hope would be some locals heading to Mendoza. Nothing, no movement at all.

'Excuse me, I have a few questions' I said to a young girl working in the YPF station.
'First, can I top up Movistar here?'
'No only Claro and Personal. But you could try in the other station down the road.'
'Is it far?'
'About two kilometres.'
'Doable. Do you know if I could pay with dollars there, I don't have Argentinian pesos.'
'Don't think so, you can try.'

It looked like I had to wait somewhere till the morning and I wanted to at least inform my host about it. My Chilean number was without any credit and the Argentinian one was not used for a few months so all the credit left was gone. And the fucking issue with changing money, eh Argentina. In the second station they didn't have Movistar either so I went back to YPF, it looked like they had internet there.

'Did you get it?' I was asked after coming back.
'No, no luck there either. I wanted to send a message to a friend waiting for me in Mendoza, I'm hitching from Valparaíso.'
'Where are you from? You're not Chilean.
'From Poland.'
'Wow, Poland, far away.'
'Yeah quite far. Could I sit here for a while? You have a free wifi here, I could send her an email.'
'Sure. Wanna cup of coffee?'
'No, no Argentinian money' I smiled.
'No worries that's on me, it's cold tonight.'
'Very cold.'

Soon on my table I had a steaming cup of coffee and a plate with three croissants. How nice. I sent a CS message to Deo, even though I knew she didn't have internet at home. Then I tried to text her using my Irish number, I could send online text to any number in the world. Well, any beside the Argentinian one it seemed. I was sitting on that comfy armchair till dawn and after going outside I found out it was freezing. Literally. Water in the puddles turned into ice.

View on Aconcagua from La Campana National Park in Chile
It took me nearly five hours to find a lift, somehow the traffic was very scarce. The truck that stopped looked familiar, so did the driver. It was the same guy who brought me here last night. Descent from the mountains lasted for about two hours. The landscape was breathtaking, now I could finally see something, not like the last hundred kilometres. Reddish rocks contrasted intensely with white summits. The road was built along the Mendoza River next to the old railway, now mostly in ruins. The climate was so dry, cacti, so common on the Chilean side were non-existent in this part. Once we got to the plain we saw vineyards that were surrounding the city. They could survive only thanks to the irrigation system which was first built by the Incas and later extended by Spaniards.

I met Deo in the evening in one of the pubs where Couchsurfing language exchange was organised. I was really tired after all night without a sleep but a beer kept me going. After the pub we moved to her house in the suburbs and talked, talked, talked together with another guest Mercedes. Deo was a bromatologist and she loved to talk about food and wine. Very interesting stuff. The next day the girls gave me a thorough tour through the city which was completely different than Valpo. Flat, green, nice parks, kind of neat, but for me it lacked this colourful character Valparaíso had. In the evening we had Polish cooking classes. Beetroot soup again.

After one more day in Mendoza it was time to go back, I had to work. Reaching the border was very easy, an old man took me all the way to the tunnel, then one of the workers brought me to the other side and after half an hour walk I arrived in Los Libertadores where cars heading to Chile did all the formalities. New stamp, ninety days again. A few hours later I arrived back in Valparaíso after getting stuck for a little while in Los Andes. Mission accomplished!

Soon after coming back I attended two more workshops of pantomime after which Daniela who was running them announced she was moving to Santiago so no more classes for us. The three workshops kind of showed me what I needed for the beginning and I hoped that would be enough to prepare at least one sketch. After talking to some jugglers I found out that the best spots for busking were actually traffic lights in front of the cars waiting for the green one. The guys also told me they were making roughly five thousand pesos per hour. Not bad. I had to find a good spot and calculate how much time the red light lasted for to adjust the sketch. Would I be able to become a mime? There were moments of doubts.

One day Fernando proposed to visit La Campana National Park, so we asked around the hostel and organised a little team: me, Gabriel, Fernando, a cool chick from France called Pauline, Daniela from Argentina and Gaulliome another Frenchie. Not bad, the hostel was quite empty that time. We packed sandwiches and early morning took a metro to Limache. After the last shopping we jumped on a bus to Granizo, but got off to early and had to look for another one. Finally after arriving at the park entrance we were warned that the trail to the summit was closed for the winter and we could only hike half way to the caves. The days were short that was the fact, but if we speeded up we decided, we would still try to get to the peak. We really wanted to have a closer look at Aconcagua. Maybe we could see the ocean on the other side as well.

The first part was quite easy, the trail ran through the forest and it wasn't too steep. After a lunch near the caves we made sure there were no rangers and started to ascend the second part. This time some effort was necessary, sometimes we had to use our hands to climb up. When we finally reached the top the view paid back all the effort. The Andes were all covered with fresh snow and Aconcagua looked like Babel reaching heavens. In the place where the ocean supposed to be we could see the ocean of clouds. We were not the only ones who ignored the warning, the summit was full of people, usually Americans. Grey foxes were coming very close knowing that humans meant easy access to food. During the last hour of our descent we were walking in the dark seeing only our feet lit by head torches. We reached the peak of 1,880 metres above sea level starting at the latitude of 350. Nice trek.

For a while we had one worker less, Samantha moved to Santiago but soon Josefa hired another girl to work with us, this time from England. It was very interesting to talk to Francesca as she was into politics and sociology, very leftist person. She was criticising the current president Piñera a lot and I didn't like him either, but in my opinion he wasn't the only one to blame for many social problems the country had. The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet finished in 1988 and the left wing coalition was in charge of Chile for many years after. Though they didn't manage to introduce free education nor free public healthcare.

Chile was one of the most americanised countries in South America, very capitalist where for example the best secondary schools were private so only kids from rich families could study there. That was making Chile very classist society. Another problem was overuse of power by the police, here called carabineros. They were famous for not taking any bribes, but also famous for being violent. During the whole autumn there were many protests organised by students fighting for free education and water cannons and tear gas were used against them regularly. Still Chile was the richest South American country. There was a visible poverty in some areas, but it wasn't the same kind of poverty like in Brazil. The same could be said about safety. Some areas of the city could be dodgy, but crime with guns was unusual.

Time was passing by fast, my Spanish was improving rapidly, I wasn't even afraid to answer the phone anymore. I was getting to know this city and country more and more. Everything seemed to be fine, but there was one thing that was worrying me. After more than two months spent in Valpo I didn't save a penny. And I wanted to continue my trip. I heard so many times that you don't need money to travel, but I tried it for a few months in Europe and I didn't really like it. It's all right for a month or two but not for years. I just like to go for a pint if I feel like one or buy ingredients and cook something nice for my host. Busking still seemed like a perfect solution but maybe pantomime wasn't the best choice, after practising for a while it felt like I was going nowhere, no improvement. Maybe it's just impossible to become an actor in a month or two. I tried, I found out, time to look for something different. I needed to find some other skill I could learn. Or at least a paid job.

* Cerro - in Spanish meaning hill.
** Tía - Spanish word for auntie.