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A drug bust and a random act of kindness on the way to Santiago

CHILE | Tuesday, 13 January 2009 | Views [753]

The challenges with our final South American journey, to Chile, began as we alighted the bus. Our seats, 9 and 10 were on different floors of the bus. It took a few minutes of confusion before someone with some common sense came along to sort out the mess left by selling tickets for one type of bus and making the trip itself on another mode with a different seat configuration.

We passed through amazing mountain scenery on the way to the border, where we waited for about an hour for the queue of buses ahead of us to pass through Chilean customs. There had been no movie and no service to speak of on the bus, unusual for a seven hour journey. When it was our turn we all filed out of the bus for passport control while our bags were taken off, scanned . We then had our hand luggage scanned. As mine went through, the customs official stopped the belt and looked again. He waved to one of his colleagues to perform a more thorough search. Rummaging through the contents, he said 'Ha!' as he pulled out the contraband item identified in th scanner. It was a bag of corn for popping – clearly highly dangerous for the fragile Chilean ecosystem. He asked me if I would like to declare it and attempt to formally import it (for a cost). I politely declines, pointing to the bin.

While all this was going on other officials were searching the bus itself, looking in the coffee machine and all sorts. They then asked for all the bags to be taken off again and for the owner to stand in front of each bag. Each one was hand-searched again, but there didn't seem to be anything found, not even a whole corn on the cob or a tin of beans. We eventually got back on to the bus, thinking we were on our way but the bus pulled over to a side about 20m into Chile and the engine was cut.

The attendant put on The Fellowship of the Ring and served coffee – not a good sign seeing as it should only be about an hour or so to Santiago and it's a 3 hour movie. I asked him if this was normal and he said 'no', it was a special search. Not too long later more customs official entered the bus and said that contraband had been found on the bus and that it was to be impounded – everyone off. We duly complied, only to be told to get back on by the attendant, now looking pretty stressed. It was all a little confusing, but beautiful, standing out there as the sun set, about 4000m up in the Andean cold. A lady took pity on Claire (only wearing a summer dress), shivering away and offered her a shawl which she gratefully accepted.

We eventually got back on – the middle aged lady who had given the shawl to Claire was now sitting downstairs along with who we assumed to be her husband. A conversation started through me asking what was going on. What had happened was that they had found something illegal, some form of drugs most likely, in the attendants cabin. The bus needed to be impounded to do a more thorough search and either they would send a replacement bus up to meet us or we would head down the pass and swap buses at the next town. So that was what was going on. They had seen it happen a few times before – that's how they knew.

So that was how we met Teresa and Carlos, both Chilean, from Santiago who had spent a few days holiday in Mendoza. As we were waiting for something to happen I remembered we had a carton of wine somewhere in the bag, opened it up and found cups for us all. It was a lively, conversation which totally contradicted what many people had said about Chileans: that they're a bit frosty and not as outgoing as people from other Latino countries. They were fun, engaging and really appreciated the wine and the chat.

The bus left at last – we would swap on to another at the bottom of the pass (not that any announcements were made). It must have been a tough drive down for the driver and attendant who were both implicated in the situation. It was very impressive however, coming down 32 hairpin turns in a row. The new bus was waiting for us at the bottom, as was a police car.

As a result of all this we were seriously late now – it was nearly midnight as we approached Santiago itself. Teresa asked us to stay at her house and we said yes – to say no would have insulted her I think. We stuffed ourselves and our bags into a taxi and surprised Teresa's son who had not been expecting her back for another few days. He had just cooked up some pasta which we all tucked into, and were introduced to her 'babies' – 4 new born kittens, about 3 weeks old.

Teresa flurried around preparing things – we were given her bed and she took our dirty clothes and washed them. Matresses and clothes driers were moved around from the recesses of the house and everyone hit the sack. The kittens went to bed in Teresa's wardrobe as a preventive measure – the mother had taken to carrying them out of their cot and leaving them in different parts of the house. I woke just as Carlos was leaving and went out to chat with Teresa. Now that Carlos was gone she explained things a bit more.

She had had her colon removed due to cancer 25 years previously. Carlos had terminal prostate cancer. She had lost one daughter, a nurse, to a brain tumor and another to a car crash a few years later. Carlos was originally a friend of the family who had lost his daughter tragically as well and Teresa and he had become close as a result, united in grief. Teresa's husband died many years back, but not before they lived together, while separated, for many years. Carlos had his own house in the North of the city.

She had a gift wrapping business which was based in the mall at the main train station in Santiago. Her sons both lived with her, in the son sort of equivalent of granny flats out the back. Her oldest had a workshop in his flat where he made the fancy boxes and bags for the business and the other worked in the shop and was also a DJ. She loved travelling, and travellers, often opening her doors to people she met. In Iguazu she asked a Paraguayan for directions and ended up inviting her to Chile. She gave her a room in the house for 6 months asking only for her to pay light and water. She gave hera job in the shop and she's now a naturalised Chilean citizen. An incredible lady with an enormous heart, especially after witnessing so many tragedies in her life. I think she saw a lot of her daughters in Claire, who was suddenly able to understand pretty much everything that Teresa threw at her in Spanish .

Tags: drug bust, hospitality


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