Quite a fascinating catamaran trip up the Beagle canal . I suspect the weather was typical for the Patagonia autumn- drizzle, overcast and cold, indeed bitterly so. But lots of wildlife seabirds by the thousands, seals by the hundreds, a couple of delightful dolphins and I was fortunate to witness a whale from a distance. Then there were the penguins, predominantly Gentu and somewhat few majestic Magellans. The predominant birds were imperial cormorants – millions !!
I am legally in Chile!
It was not without a nervous minute as I had to explain that the new visa from Ushuaia was a NEW visa ! The officer was confused that I had entered (and left) Chile and was now re-entering the county, she assumed that the visa I handed across was the original visa and expected a multi-entry type! The cost of a tourist visa for Chile is $US 105 – if you are keen to visit this bloody state!
So before I turn to explaining the title, I will document that I am sitting, at last relatively relaxed, although NOT quite at peace with the world, in the Xpresso cafe, Ushuaia. Having been designated an alien, disallowed from embarking in the cruise, I have purchased a ticket on a “pinguine” tour on the bay at 2pm today, as some solace for missing out on the last 4 days! It’s overcast and drizzling, but who cares.
When it comes to nature tours, I am like the albatross of the Ancient Mariner, on a trip to port Lincoln a few years ago, I signed up for 2 “swim with…” adventures: seals and the next day, sharks (great white pointers) on both there were no seals or sharks to be seen! Zero, Zilch, nix, nought! The tour leaders were in despair. They were apologetic, indeed almost distraught..: then the anticipated, predictable “ in all my 32 years of leading these dives, this has NEVER happened before! Yeah tell me about it I think to myself. Or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde ..” To miss one animal swim , Mr Norton , may be regarded as a misfortune; to miss two looks like carelessness.” So if I don’t see a single penguin this afternoon, then as Allah would say “It is written “!
Given my bad karma on animal adventures, so it is with weather. On a memorable cycle holiday in New Zealand, we awoke to subzero temperatures, sleet and a biting howling wind. You can anticipate the tour leader’s apologetic excuse: “in my 18 years of organising cycle trips in NZ, I have never experienced this sort of weather… “ we were literally unable to make any forward motion when mounted! This in the days before e-bikes although I doubt that would have made any difference!
So it was that on the first 3 days of staying at Ushuaia, the weather was absolutely uncharacteristically superb! Cloudless blue sky, windless and a bright almost too glaring sun. The backroads leader gleefully exclaimed “ this is the best day of trekking I have had in my 2 years in Patagonia”. I say only 2 years as the Backroads tour guides are universally about 23 years old . It’s about time I had some good luck !
I am stuffed, stuck and crucified, in limbo in Ushuaia, Argentina awaiting the issue of a re-entry visa to Chile! This dream holiday post pandemic, using my accumulated Qantas vouchers, has turned into an unmitigated disaster. And it is entirely of my own making.
Quite simply I turn up at Adelaide airport without a valid visa for Chile.
My enforced imprisonment in Ushuaia is as bread and water , compared to a colleague MK, who was stuck on a luxury boutique cruise ship after an Antartica adventure when Covid-19 overnight literally threw an iron fence around continents and countries. So whilst she sailed at sea imprisoned, isolated and immune, eating Eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and champagne, for a month up and down the coast of South America I sit in a forlorn lodge hotel awaiting the verdict of the local Chilean customs in Ushuaia.
This is a summary – I join the Backroads tour Sunday. we set off in morning hike, our passports had all been collected for preparation to board the cruise ship Australis around 5pm. At lunch the tour leader says “Russ we need to talk!” (remember I am Graham aka Russ). So the visa graciously issued at Santiago by the gun touting immigration officer was for s SINGLE entry! … the cruise ship will not allow me to embark without a valid visa as we are to disembark back at Punta Arenas.. Jesus wept !
As the genuinely distressed Backroads man explained if they let you on board, when the Chilean immigration officers come on board on Monday and discover you are visa-less, the boat will be forced to turn around back to Ushuaia!
Whilst I do not have the actual visa stamp in my passport, I am reassured by the very efficient and hard-working, local representative of the travel company that my visa has been processed . I collect it at 9:30 am in the morning
My first sighting from the bus of the slate grey mountains, dusted in a mosaic of sooty summer snow, provoked an intense feeling of déjà-vu and a twinge of nostalgia. For it was, god forbid, almost 50 years ago that as a medical student I travelled to Nepal and the same scene greeted me from my room in the Shanta Bhawan Hospital.
Both Kathmandu and Ushuaia shared that dry, bracing clean cold weather . Yet the clean brisk atmosphere was to some extent also polluted. In Ushuaia it is the motor vehicle, in Kathmandu 50 years ago, it was the smoke of perpetual house fires of wood and cow dung pats. Give me smokey cow dung any day!
Somewhere in the next year or two, there is a book to be written.
The bus trip from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia was scheduled to take almost 12 hours. The distance some 650 km. It wasn’t that the bus was slow, indeed, it was a very modern vehicle but eventually, we had a couple of longish stops- the the 1st to catch a ferry across a narrow strait. See picture below, the point was Campo Cerro
Besides a few appreciated stops on the Highway, we had quite a wait at the Chile immigration ( to leave) and then a few kilometres further along, at the Argentine border to enter. Now it goes without saying that given the “ Saga of the Chilean Visa Stuff Up” I was more than a little anxious, indeed as at the airport, scared shitless, that there was now a permanent red flag on the Chilean immigration department computer, against the name: “NORTON Graham Russell”. The driver collected all passengers passports and sauntered down to the Chile Immigration outpost. For what seemed an eternity, we waited…. Was that a military uniformed Chilean immigration officer heading towards the bus,? Did he have his hand on his pistol? Was that a salivating Alsatian (dog!) by his side?
The driver returned with the bundle of passports! He strode up and down the aisle… can you believe it, mine was the LAST one to call out! But I had a STAMP ! I could legally leave and return on 5 days… I assume?
The Punta Areas cemetery is the number 3 tourist attraction on Trip Advisor out of about 70 things to see and do. Each to his own and as an inveterate reader of plaques and a mausoleum meanderer, I head there today. There is an entrance fee of 5000 Chilean Pesos, I extract a crisp note of the Monopoly money, buckling slightly at the knees, when as I wander aimlessly down the avenues of cypress pines, it dawns on me that it’s the equivalent of about $10. Oh well I sigh , I can’t take it with me when I die!
The reason for this photograph is to illustrate the Chilean english turn of phrase . For 5000 peso, the visitor is entitled to a brochure picturing and describing the more significant and usually more ornate mausoleums. It describes poor Sir Walter as being “surprised” at his death whilst on an expedition.
This privately owned and run museum is number 4 out of 70 of things to do in Punta Arenas. It has full size replicas of the “Victoria” and the “Beagle”. It’s a fair way out of town requiring a taxi to get there then entrance fee of about $10 Australian. It’s worth it. It’s reasonably well maintained and quite impressive and there are lots of interactive information bays in both Spanish and English
Who would have thought that this man who prides himself on his forensic ability to detect scams, swindles and tricksters, should fall to pick up this – an eye watering catastrophe.
It needs a preamble to even try and excuse, justify the sequence of events! I recommend strongly reading the previous posts before this one. It’s my first trip OS for 3 years, the first not organised down to the minute by a travel agent. Hence the Chile e-visa fiasco which dogged me from day 1 until I escaped the clutches of the local immigration authorities and left me a quivering, frightened wreck of a human being. Still in a state of panic, I headed to the exit, not bothering to change some basic currency.
As I entered the arrival area, there were the usual drivers with signs to pickup their clients. A middle aged respectable man with an official looking lanyard, standing actually in FRONT of the security rail, designed to separate the arriving passengers from their welcoming, rather than behind, approached me and in excellent English ask me if I was being collected and which hotel I was going to? I said yes, I was going to the hotel Matilda. He said I will show you where the pick up point is so I followed him. What follows is a very impressive scam, which as bad luck would have it caught me in a extremely fragile state of mind. You’ll understand clearly the process he adopted, and it became obvious to me once I realised what happened, quite quickly.
I acknowledged his help ( yes he was “employed to welcome international visitors! “) We walked along until he stopped and explained that he could not see any driver from Hotel Matilda. He said he would phone the hotel and brought up the web site of what looked like the hotel Matilda, which he showed me. He dialled, spoke at length, then handed his phone to me! At the end of the line , a man, who I assumed was on the Matilda front desk, explained that his driver had a car problem, could I take a taxi, get a receipt and I would be reimbursed! So we walked further to the park and were met by a young man and a limousine.
We set out, very chatty driver. Arrived and I brought out my phone to swipe. He apologised his payment device required an actual plastic card! So I swiped and verified! He then said “my machine is not working I will park around the corner and come back to the hotel.” He supplied a receipt for $US 25 . I carried my bags and receipt into the hotel and I NEVER SAW HIM AGAIN!
Whilst checking in, my phone sent me a notification that I had debited an amount of $Aus xxxx.xx ! Jesus wept!
I contacted the NAB 24 hour card line! Helpful but pessimistic! We will try he said when you return. Change your PIN now ( which I did) and he lodged a disputed transaction for me and recommended I cancel the card when back in Australia, A potential hassle being overseas.
The hotel staff contacted police, who were totally uninterested and/or disinterested- take your pick! The whole scenario and police total lack of action, brought back memories of the stolen iPhone whilst travelling in Brazil more than 10 years ago
The amount, to give you a clue, was akin to a drop in my share portfolio over a day. My financial planner at those times in the past I had emailed, phoned or SMS him about such sudden falls, would patiently explain, that these were just paper changes, virtual, imaginary and any other synonym that you care to use, meaning that I hadn’t LOST any money! Well let me tell you, SIR, I think that advice needs a Royal Commission.
In summary, I wandered the streets of Santiago, Sunday night, a severe migraine, and so distressed by the catastrophic, accumulation of events over 48 hours that I contemplated throwing in the travel towel and giving Chilean customs the satisfaction of catching the next flight back to Australia! “I’m too old to travel especially to the third world anymore…enough is enough! “
But after another day, a good night sleep Monday, changing some Chilean Peso Monopoly money , I am better!
In a few days time I’ll send a link to a GoFundMe link to offset my loss!
The only other scam that involved money was the saga of the “ tea sampling and drinking ceremony” in Shanghai. That was also several years ago at a Parkinson’s neurological conference. However in the end I had a delightful time with several young Chinese allegedly wanting to improve their English. The money they asked was not that much, but not expected as I assumed, lulled into a friendly interaction with “locals”.
I have arrived successfully in Punta Arenas. I negotiated the domestic air terminal in Santiago. I have confirmed my bus ticket to Ushuaia on Friday, joining the Backroads tour Sunday . Punta Arenas is a delightful village which I will explore tomorrow Thursday.
I am in a much better place mentally! But having said that the sad thing is that one only becomes more suspicious and even paranoid about ones’ fellow man, especially when travelling in a third world country.