Travelling back in time

6th August 2013 by Helen

It all began yesterday when I went down the bus station and bought myself a return ticket to Rio Turbio.  Actually, that’s not entirely true, it began a couple of days before, but more of that later.

This morning I left the hostel in Puerto Natales in Southern Chile at 7.30, taking my breakfast with me to eat on the bus.  By 8.00 we were headed out on the road.  The whole driving time would be about 40 minutes but the journey was scheduled for one hour.  As we headed out of town the snow alongside the road deepened, the day was dawning grey and cloudy.  I ate my ready sliced oranges.

After thirty minutes the bus stopped between two rows of low almost white buildings, the driver and ‘conductor’ got out followed by the passengers in a well-rehearsed silent ritual.  I followed.  Just over a dozen of us.  We crossed the road between the buildings and entered one of the doors.  Silently we queued at the ‘Salida’ window with our ID cards and passports.  I was near the end of the queue, giving me the opportunity to watch the others going through the process. When it came to my turn I silently slid my passport over the counter, with my tourist visa slip tucked into the page in which my passport was last stamped.  The immigration officer took my passport, looked at the cover.  As he flicked through to find the photo page a general look of confusion shaded his face.  He was obviously not used to seeing a UK/European passport in the middle of the first bus crossing of the day, otherwise full of Chilean and Argentinean locals.  It took him a little longer to process my passport.  He slid it out of the cover and into the electronic reader, checked my visa slip again. Clearly he was drawing on some rarely used memory of processing unfamiliar passports.  He tapped his keyboard, looked at his screen, until finally he hit a nice fresh page with a Chilean ‘Salida’ stamp, stamped both copies of my tourist visa slip and, retaining one copy, returned the remaining copy in between the pages of my passport before sliding it silently back across the counter towards me.  I realised I’d been holding my breath.  I was out of Chile.  The first stage of my mission completed.

I skipped as discretely as possible back to the bus and took my seat again.  Another five minutes driving and the driver pulled up again between another set of low off-white buildings.  This time the conductor zipped up the aisle collecting up passports and ID cards while we sat and read, or looked out of the window.  The window mist began to clear as we sat there and I contemplated the blue sign with its logo: Los Malvinas son Argentina.  No-one chatted. No one made any noise. Five minutes later the conductor and driver returned to the bus, handed out the ID cards and passports, and we set off again.  Stage two completed.  I was now in Argentina.

Another ten minutes of driving later were were threading our way through the streets of Rio Turbio, a typical border town, until we pulled up outside a tour bus office.  With a few ‘gracias’ for the driver we all otherwise silently trooped off the bus.  It was 10.00 am, precisely one hour after we left Puerto Natales.

I had 45 minutes to kill.  With some excitement I headed straight for the bookshop four doors down from the bus office, only to find it’s opening hours ranged from 16.30 to 19.30 each day.  No mooching and browsing there then.  I looked around for a cafe or coffee shop.  Many stores were closed, their facades dowdy and with an air of neglect.  None of them were cafes.  The whole place had a rather run down look.  Then I spotted a YPF fuel station. Behind the plate glass windows of the office I could see tables and chairs and so I headed over.

Fortified by cake and coffee to the tune of $21.50 Argentine pesos (about £2.50 / $3.90 US), I trotted back to the bus office.  It was now 10.45.  The bus I had arrived on was sitting in the yard to the side of the office.  A few people joined me in the office, waiting to board the bus that would make its way back to Puerto Natales, killing time by filling out the regulation Chilean forms stating our proposed destination in Chile and declaring any illicit goods, such as the odd lunch apple.  Right on time, 11.00 am, we pulled out and completed the earlier journey in reverse.  There were six passengers including myself.

Ten minutes later we pulled up between the same off-white buildings, facing in the opposite direction.  The conductor gathered up our passports disappeared into an office and returned a few minutes later and we set off again.  Another ten minutes later we pulled up between the Chilean set of almost white buildings.  As we trooped off the bus and headed into the immigration office I knew this would be the test of the advice given to me by the officials in Puerto Natales a few days ago.  My three month tourist visa would expire on 12th August.  They could renew it at the office in Puerto Natales at a cost of $100US.  Or, I could catch the bus on a round trip to Argeninta and get it renewed for the cost of the bus fare.  If they were wrong, or if a one hour trip was considered insufficient, I faced a potentially long time trying to explain in Spanglish what I was doing and why. But there was no problem.  No doubt the Rio Gallego crossing are used to this little trick.  We all had our passports stamped, our forms taken and stamped, our bags given a cursory glance before we all trooped back on to the bus again.  By now the day was a little brighter, and my heart a little lighter as I was going to be all legal in Chile again.  And, like the official said, a lot cheaper than $100US.  The bus fare had been 6,000 Chilean pesos – £7.63 or $11.83 – quids in, even with the cake and coffee.

Back in Chile the clock read 10.45.  Quarter of an hour earlier than I’d left Argentina and a quicker 45 minutes than the outward journey.  Just need to get Landy’s temporary import extension now!!

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