It sounded simple. Before your ninety days are up, cross the border into Argentina, have a steak, a nice bottle of Malbec, and relax at a hostel for the weekend. Then when you cross back over into Chile, get your passport stamped, pick up your new tourist visa, and you’ll be good for another ninety days. A systematic loophole so easy a gringo could do it.
After eighty days or so in Valparaíso it was time to exploit said loophole. It was another beautiful day in the port city and with a light breeze in the air I strode down Pedro Montt towards Terminal Rodoviario in short sleeves ready to buy my bus ticket for Mendoza. Behind my Wayfarer’s, I watched the giggling Catholic schoolgirls rush passed me hand in hand. I smiled at the two old women in front of me ambling arm in arm in matching knitted sweaters. I chuckled as another sweater clad woman appeared, tapped one of them on the shoulder, then darted behind the other one before locking arms and joining their ranks. When a cute Chilena asked me for directions, I was able to point her in the right direction rather than just telling her to go “two blocks that way” which had been my modus operandi when anyone asked me for directions.
The bus station was crowded but the international window didn’t have a line. The only hiccup was when I forgot how to pronounce the letter “y” when I was spelling my name for the woman behind the desk.
It’s an eight hour ride from Valparaíso to Mendoza. Through Santiago and the lined treetops of the Casablanca wineries, up the windy roads and through the unlit tunnels that take you over the snowcapped Andes, stopping at la frontera de seguridad, and then descending down into the arid countryside and the famous Argentinian vineyards before arriving at el terminal de omnibus in Mendoza where it is at least twenty degrees warmer than the breezy coastal climate from which you have come.
My first thoughts upon arrival were that perhaps a black long sleeve button up and corduroy pants were not the smartest wardrobe choices and that it also might’ve been a good idea to have printed off a real map of Mendoza rather than the hand drawn one I had sketched out the night before. Beads of sweat dripping down my face, I asked a girl for directions.
“Sabes donde esta, calle Zapata?”
“Cual Zapata?” But what I really meant was, “mierda.”
She did her best to help me out but my mind was more focused on changing out of my damp shirt. I thanked her for her help and decided to go right. After changing into a white tee shirt and asking another, older, woman for directions, I realized I should’ve gone left. Feeling rejuvenated, or at least less sweltering, I sped up so the woman wouldn’t notice when I again asked for more directions, this time from an older man.
“Eschuchame chico,” he called after me. “Cual Zapata tú necesitas, porque hay tres calles Zapatas aquí.”
“Ah ok, Zapata y La Rioja,” I said, looking down at my squiggly drawings.
“Sí, bueno. Tres cuadras alla,” he pointed ahead, “pasa la hospital, y la calle de al lado son Zapata, gire a la izquierda y dos o tres cuadras mas usted estará en La Rioja.”
Hostel Lao was highly recommended and when I arrived the first thing I noticed were the plaques displayed along the walls listing their various awards. I lounged in the spacious backyard, fully fitted with two hammocks, a pool, colorful flower beds, and a kumquat tree, for an hour or so chatting with an Australian couple and a girl from England. It was the first time I’d spoken english in months.
“Where are you from?” the blond English girl asked. She laughed when I said California.
“What’s so funny?”
“Every American I’ve met says the U.S. except people from California or Texas.”
After some self-effacing American jokes and claiming to be an aspiring writer, I went out looking for some bife de lomo con puré and maybe a whiskey or two around nine o’clock. I was disappointed when the steak didn’t put Ruth Chris to shame, but sitting outside in the balmy weather people watching in what the concierge lauded as “the city with the highest amount of beautiful women per capita” sipping on cheap Johnnie Walker, you’d have to be quite the curmudgeon not to be in a good mood.
Back at the hostel I got my Malbec. The hostel gives out a free bottle of wine every night at eight o’clock and though I was out eating my overcooked steak at that time, it had apparently gotten the ball moving because when I got back the Aussies had cracked open a nice bottle of Malbec and were passing out glasses. I bought a pint of beer from the hostel refrigerator and joined the party. A few hours later, the last four standing were the Aussie couple, an Irish girl, and myself. The Aussie couple told us they had only been together for a few weeks and when they went back to their room to presumably get another bottle of wine, the Irish girl and I remarked how unusual we thought that to be. She also told me that the girl had lived in America for more than a decade and that she seemed to only lean into her accent and say things like “proper hour” when her boyfriend was around. I said, “I thought she was a little off.”
When the Aussies came back the girl with the flip flopping accent said that we should go out. To say she was a dominant personality would be putting it nicely, a more apt description would be erratic. Her boyfriend however, was very even-tempered. We bonded over boxing.
“I’ve never been a fanatic or anything but my best mate, he loves it, so I always watch the big fights with him and he explains it to me. Pacquiao. I love Manny, man.”
“He’s fighting next week at the MGM.”
“No shit? I’m gonna be in Vegas next week. Man, I gotta get tickets!”
“Better get em quick.”
“I’ll be there with my mate and he’s a big Manny fan too. Who’s he fighting?”
“Juan Manuel Marquez.”
“Shit man, I gotta get two tickets. I’m not a fan like him or anything, I don’t really follow it you know, but the more I learn, the more I appreciate. There was a guy who worked on a mine in Africa with me who used to be a professional. He was a
proper champ, thirty and oh or something like that. He showed me some of the basics, how to move your feet, not shuffle, but slide like this.”
That led to us putting on an exhibition and a few minutes later when we were out of breath and refilling our glasses with another beer I’d bought, we found we were the only ones left on the back patio.
After spending the night at an Irish pub, we didn’t get back to the hostel until around six o’clock, I spent the next day drinking water, napping on a hammock, and munching kumquats. All I managed to accomplish was purchasing my bus ticket for the next morning. And despite my throbbing head, it was quite easy to find the bus station. As it turned out if I had just went left the day before, I wouldn’t have had to make any turns at all.
I couldn’t sleep. I’m an illegal alien. There’s nothing else to it. While I shot out two emails, one to a Chilean tourist agency explaining my situation, and another to a Chilean friend seeking advice, I took solace in the fact that at least I wasn’t a job stealer and wouldn’t have to risk escaping over an electrified fence. Worse case scenario, I’ll have to take a bus to Santiago and pay a hundred dollars to get a new tourist visa. But where did I go wrong? Was it when the man from border control asked me a question and I had just said “sí”? Did he really ask, “are you trying to take advantage of our lax border crossing parameters?”
Getting through border control took close to three hours, meaning I was stuck on a hot bus for nearly half a day when you factor in the time we lost when we experienced engine problems about an hour outside of the Mendoza bus station. When it finally came time for our bus to make its way to the head of the procession at la frontera de seguridad and we got off the bus and approached the windows to get our stamps and hand over our immigration forms, I felt obligated not to stand at the front of the ungodly line asking question after question. It was like the DMV on steroids.
The single carbon paper slip folded in half and tucked away in my passport after I got back on the bus didn’t look like the one I’d received when I arrived in Santiago three months earlier. Then, it had been three papers, a white one, a pink one, and a yellow one, with information pertaining to where I was staying in Chile. This one had only the address of Hostel Lao and how long I had planned on being in Argentina. It got stamped appropriately like my passport had, but the fact remained that the information seemed irrelevant and that kept me from going to sleep later that night.
“Seis seis nueve, Melgarejo, piso quince,” I said it over and over. That’s where I had to go for my clarification, or most likely, where I had to go to find out that I’d screwed up and had a big fine coming my way. “Melgarejo. Melgarejo.” Is that the street or the building? Enrique told me it was on calle Bellavista and I knew where that was.
I raced out the door the next morning without my cell phone or my watch, but I had my passport, my wallet with my credit cards, and the slip of paper Enrique had written detailing my situation and what I should say to whomever it was I would be speaking to. Melgarejo turned out to be a street. A nice older woman, not in a sweater, pointed me in the right direction as I was looking like your typical befuddled tourist flipping through my Lonely Planet. At least my face didn’t jiggle as I frantically
scanned. The edificio turned out to be adjoined to a cajero automatico that I had once unsuccessfully tried to take money out of. Piso quince, piso quince. A man in uniform stopped me before I could get on the elevator and told me that I had to first go to an information booth where I explained for the umpteenth time that I had issues with my visa de turista.
“Ah sí,” said the man behind the information booth, “piso quince.” He handed me a small ticket, the kind you tear off at a butcher shop, and pointed me towards the elevator. The departamento de extranjería on the fifteenth floor was packed. I thought that I might have to call María Victoria and cancel my class. Shit, no phone, no watch. I sat down in one of the few available seats next to a girl who kept putting her hood on and taking it off in between sighs.
“Tienes la hora?”
Trece cuarto, trece cuarto – damn these military times! Damn the metric system! Damn celsius!
A small derringer of a man patrolled the hall making sure everyone had tickets. Number seventy-five was in the office already. At least it won’t be too long of a wait. I was number eighty-one.
It took a half hour for number seventy-six to get called back. The waiting area was filled with people holding passports from all over South America. Some had papers with the word trabajo in bold lettering across the top. The Columbian girl next to me who sighed a lot seemed to be in a similar predicament as me, or at least that’s what I
ascertained from what she said to me. She definitely seemed to be more prepared. She had a folder with receipts from what I assumed were the fees I was about to be told I would have to pay, which undoubtedly would mean that I’d have to go to another office and wait in another hallway holding another ticket where I would eventually be told that I’d actually have to go to another building and do the same bureaucratic do-si-do all over again until I gave up and resigned to a life on the run. It was number seventy-seven’s turn now, but before my friend Manuela could enter the office, two other women darted in front of her, swooping her turn. I could almost see her eyes well up. What an operation. This would never fly in the Kremlin.
The two hour wait gave me time to read over Enrique’s note a hundred more times and prepare my speech for when it was my turn.
“Así,” I said to myself, “este es mi situación. Yo vivé aquí en Valparaíso por ochenta dias, mas o menos, y fui a Mendoza…
Numbers seventy-nine and eighty apparently had left and the woman behind the door who looked irritated from working into her lunch hour, called me into her office.
“Ok,” I began, “este es mi situación…estoy preocupado porque la información en mi nueva carta de turista…uh…es…uh sobre de Argentina y…no se si este carta significa yo tengo noventa días más?”
As I stammered my way through an explanation, the woman’s smile broadened.
“Tienes tú pasaporte y tú papelito?”
“Sí, por supuesto.”
“Me lo das, por favor…Qué es el problema?”
“Qué es el problema? Tús estampillas estan justo. Tienes noventa días más, hasta seis de febrero.”
“Tranquillo, hijito,” she said touching me on the shoulder.
“Pero la información aquí –
“No, todo bien. La estampilla en tú pasaporte y aquí,” she said pointing to the sello de entrada sección, “son todo lo que necesita.”
“Aye dios mío.”
The whole ordeal took less than three minutes. When I walked back into the hallway those still waiting looked at me like, “aye, otro gringo confundido.” It was two o’clock. My class wasn’t for another hour.
I’d never been so satisfied with bureaucracy in my life. I exited the building, put my sunglasses on, skipped over a pile of dog shit, smiled at the two Catholic schoolgirls walking passed me, and hummed to the Four Tops song playing in the distance.
…Now it’s the same old song,
But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone…
Written by Zach Edling
Photo courtesy of Stock.Xchng