Our trek through South America quickened its pace when I finally had a guaranteed job at in September. This meant we had an actual schedule and an actual itinerary to see the southern end of South America from June through August…Not a breakneck pace, but one with a beginning and an ending. What did not seem to change was the ever presence of paramecium. It was in all the water that washed all the fruits and vegetables, and we inevitable got a helping of those bugs once a week, though we tried to eat only raw fruit like mangos and bananas and things with skins. Fresh vegetables were harder. We only occasionally peeled carrots and all vegetables had to be washed and therein lay the presences of the paramecium. I started out at 180 pounds and ended up at 159, svelte and fast but afraid of the most nutritious foods. Sure they made fresh potato chips and donuts, fried in grease right there on the street, but most meat and cheese and eggs were always suspicious, meaning we could eat none of those with relish and no risk.
After becoming the Ambassadors of English in Peru, we headed by train across the continent to Lake Titicaca and an overnight boat on that huge inland lake, to La Paz, Bolivia for a few days, and then flew back to Arica, Chile. We rarely took flights in South America, but occasionally it made sense to save time and trouble, especially when the local airlines were less than the cost of a hotel room. There was a reason for that. First of all, many South American nations used their Air Force as a commercial airline. This drove down costs for all carriers and was kind of cute in the way the crew stood at attention as the passengers made their way across flat dirt airstrips and up the flip-out stairways in old two engine DC-3s. Secondly, these airstrips doubled as lower division futball fields, undoubtedly to the surprise of pilots and/or players if the schedules became confused.
When we landed in Arica, Chile, our taxi driver took us to his uncle the street banker, and he gave us four times the bank rate for our American Express traveler’s checks. Then we got on a bus that took us 24 hours across the northern Chilean desert. We stopped a few times in what looked like a state park barbecue shed, and drank exquisite white wine with the other passengers from a huge clay vessel, suspended by ropes so that you could tip it into your cup. Then at night we stopped at a small fishing village and tried the Congor Eel, its large diameter cut in steaks of flakey meat. Fresh fish and white Chilean wine, all for about a dollar.
What we were about to find out – first from rumor, of course –was that Chile was a bargain if we used our Chilean money, escudos, there in Chile. Because of some political and economic skullduggery, our absolute haul of escudos would become almost worthless when converted to Argentine pesos. After scoring big time on our traveler’s checks through the Mercado Negro in Arica, Chile, we ended up with cash that would drop 75% in value when we finally crossed from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina. Funny, that was possibly the value we started with when we entered Chile.
We got off the bus in Santiago and started calculating. We needed to stay just a week in Santiago because we were on schedule to make it back to Oklahoma. It was the early part of July, and my first college teaching job started in a little over a month. We’d approached South America with some leisure up to that point, but now we were more like tourist, on a timetable, than nomads following the seasons. If we did not spend our pile of Chilean escudos here in Santiago, in a week, they would be worth only a quarter of the buying power we had right now. It was logic inescapable. We would have to blow that money here in Santiago. Holding our two pieces of luggage, we asked our cab driver to recommend a hotel.
“Barato?” he said, also as an assumption as he looked at our cloths and somewhat ragged bags. They were used to Gringo wastrels asking for a “cheap” hotel.
“No,” I said. We pointed out the window to a tall building on the skyline of Santiago. “Is that a hotel?”
It was a hotel. The best in Santiago. Taking us there, I knew he would expect more of a tip than he first estimated from us. When we stopped, he took our threaded bags from our laps like they contained precious glass crystal, and made the doorman take extra care stowing them on the roller cart.
The desk attendant in this very best of Santiago hotels was about to tell us that they had no rooms available, and then he saw our wad. “We do of course have the Presidential Suite,” he said, sure that we would not be able to afford that. “But,” he said, “It even has a grand piano for entertaining, and a small dance floor leading out to the balcony.”
“Who was the last President to stay here?”
“I guess we’ll take it.” I said. Strossner was the ex-Nazi who had taken over as dictator in Paraguay and ruled with iron tentacles around the whole region. The desk manager was shocked.
“You didn’t ask the price.”
I laid down a wad of escudos. He nodded. We who had been riding dirty buses and chasing rats out of small pensiónes and drinking only soda pop were now turning the tables. Tough life…but you understand, we had to spend the money.
It was a gorgeous view of the city. We dropped our bags in this vastness of luxury. Couches, bars with real liquor. Tapestries on the walls. Carpet inches thick like walking on cloud in heaven. I, who had who had learned the boogie-woogie in two years of teen piano from an always tipsy local piano teacher, was fastest to the piano, and started giving it the boogie-woogie workout as the bellman waited for his tip. Brenda, who had won school contests in piano, waited patiently to take over with Beethoven’s 9th.
There were real showers and bathtubs with gold fixtures. The toilet had a telephone extension on the wall beside the commode, which told us that powerful people never slow down. We found later that this suite had another bedroom and another bathroom, but unfortunately we knew no one in Santiago to invite. The ultimate party suite and no one to party with.
We had questions for the concierge. What is the best place to eat in Santiago? (He got us reservations) Where are the best clothing stores? (He made a list of streets where we should go shopping.)
So we ate…well. And we walked down the streets of Santiago’s boutique clothing stores like masters in need of regal drapery. Brenda got a green trench coat made of goat leather. I got a blazer and slacks and shirts (which, because I was so malnourished at that time, I could not wear after 6 months back in the States). That experience of buying anything you saw, staying at the top of the town, walking around expensive streets with money to burn…This should be accorded every human being once, so that it will never be an aspiration that exceeds family and community and real personal accomplishment. That’s what I think, anyway.
Another momentous event was happening, though we had little knowledge of the particulars. Salvador Isabelino del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Allende Gossens (or Salvadore Allende to most of us) was elevated, with his socialist party, to the leadership of Chile. All through South American the young people felt the Chileans were the intellectuals of South America, and were ever so excited about his Marxist programs which froze prices and gave living wages to the poor. Allende even nationalized copper, one of Chile’s main exports, much to the despair of our President Nixon at the time. One of the sights of a lifetime I should remember is standing at twilight on the balcony of the Presidential suite in the best hotel in Santiago, drinking aguardiente and looking out over a large hill which hovered over the city. Lights strung across the whole hillside came alive in the encroaching darkness, and in large vibrant letters in the night, they proclaimed “Cobra es nuestra.” (Copper is ours!)
It did not dawn on me then, or for some time, how ironic it was to be standing there on the balcony in the best room of the most plutocratic hotel in Santiago, capitalist pigs from the US sipping our drinks, oblivious to the fact that a vast world was changing right front of us.
Turns out the depreciating escudos still didn’t last us more than four days – four really fun days – and then we had to fly over the mountains to Mendoza, Argentina and spend like normal pobre travelers again. Mendoza brought us back to earth when the plane landed. Things once again cost what things cost, instead of a fraction of expectations. A lovely piece of Argentine beef cooked over hot coals and a glass of wine with it cost over 7 dollars. What a shock!
To follow our schedule we took the Argentine national railway 24 hours across the pampas ( which looked for all the world like West Texas) and into Buenos Aires. Funny thing about that railroad. It seemed like something in a nation’s infrastructure that would always be there. However, recently I was brushing up on my fledgling Spanish and talked to someone on the Internet in Cordoba, Argentina. Someone in their twenties, it turns out. I said we liked Mendoza and had taken the train across to Buenos Aires. He sounded confused.
“Your national railroad from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.”
“There is no railroad across Argentina there.”
“Of course there is, I rode on it.”
“There has never been a railroad there.”
“How can that be?” I said, and excused myself from what I thought was one of those many prankish exercises young people indulge in on the Internet.
He was not wrong…Well, he was wrong, but had no notion that there ever could have been a railroad there. None of the Argentina history books were allowed to cover the real story. The real story is that the railroad went on high government subsidy and was dissolved by a political party, which then handed choice lands over to developers as quickly as the railroad ties were pulled up across Argentina. Someone as old as we are may be the only ones who remember, and we are easy to ignore by a country which did not want to admit such a failure.
So we did ride the railroad, and came into Buenos Aires in the dead of winter. A beautiful city to explore with its lush parks and tango clubs, but by then we could give it only a few days on our diminishing itinerary. We bargained for some stopover tickets through a thoroughly corrupt travel agent, and plunked down nearly the last money we had on earth to get back to Oklahoma (- which might tell you a bit about our total prospects). We were able to go from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, Uruguay, whose residential streets looked like a vintage car museum. Turns out they put about a 4x tariff on any new cars, but had no tariff on car parts. So they just kept the old ones, pre-1940s, in great condition and running perfectly. The middle class teenagers who I grew up with in the 1950’s were always rebuilding cars, and they would have dearly loved Montevideo.
From Montevideo we went to Asunción, Paraguay, which had its black market bartering big Hotel Guarani on all its money rather than some political hero. The President at the time was Strossner, an ex-Nazi immigrant who took over every element of the government and created Dakotas, huge cartels which daily brought flights of Boeing 707s full of transitor radios and other highly taxed imports, to be distributed by mule back through the back trails into all major countries in South America. The Ricos (rich families) in every country owned stock in the Dakotas and profited from those, while keeping normal tariffs very high on imports because – of course – they controlled most of the government except in Chile. (That was resolved shortly after we came back, with a coup in Chile in which Pinochet brought the Army in to occupy the capital, and Allende committed suicide as his dream socialist state of South America was relegated to history’s many backwaters.)
Iquazu Falls is one of the world’s spectacular waterfalls, absolutely worth getting drenched in its volume and majesty. From there we bused to Sao Paulo, to which so many Japanese at the end of WWII had fled that it looked like a Japanese city the size of Kyoto or Osaka. Rio was gorgeous on the beach and up the sky tram to Sugar Loaf as we ran down to almost our last dimes. Brazilia was a stop along the way, a new and empty city build by the government back in the interior to be the new government of the new Brazil. I hear it took many years to fill it up, after almost being a laughingstock of one President’s vision.
Manaus was the last city we touched down in before Miami. It was on the Amazon river and had the look of a temporary encampment…but one in which they were already building an opera house. This was years before the fictional guy made the ball field in Kansas hearing “If you build it they will come.” Apparently they did come to Manaus, as it is now a city of over 2 million people on the Amazon. It now seems amazing what can happen to places in your own lifetime. You turn away and when you look back a river stop is a metropolis.
Next stop, Miami. The problem we had been wondering how to avoid was that Brenda could not come in to the States legally. As my wife, she would have to wait outside the States 4 months for a green card. We stood there in the customs and immigration line, contemplating a quick divorce. (For the rest of the story, see “Dostoyevsky Meets the Anadarko Indians” .)