The anxious day between farewelling my original group and meeting my new group tested me. Santiago’s topography leaves it in perpetual fog that fades into thick smog. I awoke to a gloomy morning, but was determined to see everything I wanted to here, including a movie! I marched off from the hotel – in the wrong direction! Distracted by the smell of a damp city after rain, and muddy courtyards it took me a while to realise. Rubbish collectors rattled down sleepy streets, the soft sound of sweeping heard over the distant rumble of traffic. Green trees and plants lined the streets, taking away the harshness of cracked concrete walls, peeling paint and graffiti. It seemed too quiet to be a capital city… Starting in the right direction, there was a rapid change from calm back streets to the loud high rise city. Shaded streets nestled between huge buildings and crowded by leafy trees, vendors and parked vans formed my path. I was disappointed to discover one of the few movies that had been dubbed in Spanish (instead of only subtitles) was the one I was planning to see. Moving on, Bellavista was confronting, streets thick with people and trash. ‘Markets’ were considered lying out forgotten items found in the tip on a rug for sale. Dirty stuffed toys and barbie dolls missing limbs stared sightlessly to the sky. Inside the huge building, the air was a hazy mess of spices, fresh produce, meat and people. Above the shed tin roof hung electrical cords coated in clumps of dust. The bustling maze of people and stalls was basic yet overwhelming. Many people ignored me, encapsulated in the bustling world they were accustomed to. Others watched in amusement as the lost, blonde girl stumbled helplessly to escape. Trying to catch my breath, I recalled the weather forecast promising that fog would clear by one o’clock, in half an hour. The Cerro San Cristóbal towered a few blocks away, the winding path training for Machu Picchu. My training ended in sore feet, and no view. The fog clung tightly to the city, blocking my view of the Andes and the expanse of Chile’s capital. It was only when I returned to the bottom did blue sky appear. 
The kilometres of lost wandering left me observing life. It’s so unusual seeing people going on with everyday jobs in their own world. Movers carrying boxes into apartments, shopkeepers sweeping their shop fronts, friends sitting in cafes. Being detached from every day life for so long causes my head to spin. The ritual of school, Coles work, it all seems to have disappeared into a void. Seeing a new place every day, a new city each week, it plays with you in a rewarding yet cruel way.
That night I tried to go out on a ‘pub crawl’ to farewell my group, after weeks of promising to go out with them. I only lasted to the second bar before two amazing friends got me home in time of need. It always amazes me the pure kindness and selflessness of people, and I will never forget the lengths these two beautiful souls went. 

Naturally, the drive the next morning with a whole new group of people through the Andes was less than pleasant. I had my longest border crossing so far, waiting to get into Argentina for about five hours. The Chilean side of the Andes was cold, and grey. South America’s highest peak invisible in the cloud. On the other side, warm sun and clear blue sky brightened the road to Mendoza. A beautiful city in the desert, the streets resemble the grace of Buenos Aires. Clean buildings and leafy, green trees line the road as tourists flock in for wine tasting or adventure activities. Unfortunately I remained in the hostel for our day there, my body still punishing me for past bad decisions. Nethertheless, it was a lovely place with large, glass paned windows slowly being crusted over by delicate, green ivy. The lack of activity and sudden separation from my Dragoman family of two months took its toll. I found myself homesick again, missing Meadow Flat and the journey from Rio to Santiago. The positive outlook of meeting new people came crumbling down as I felt I had repeated past mistakes – not realising what I had until it’s gone. Now I was confronted with the decision, continue to learn and grow, or retreat to what I knew?

The stay at the traditional Argentinean Estancia promised some distraction from my musings. To my dismay, drizzle uprooted our first day at the estancia, robbing us of lovely countryside horseback rides. Instead we all retreated to the cozy, stone dairy stables turned games room. Grey skies outside, a warm stove in the corner, books and our tour leader/ professional piano player, Sam, allowed for a day of relaxation wrapped in warmth and soothing music. The bitter disappointment of missing riding a horse somewhat lessened, though I longed for an escape from my mind. I pondered Anzac Day, thousands of kilometres from a service and separated from the Australian camaraderie, I felt isolated in a new group dominated by Germans, Scandinavians and Brits. Sitting in the building I felt an eventual peace, fond memories of a mud brick Walang home and country living arising. It was ironic to realise I’d fought to hard to reject country at home, yet it was what I longed for when I was away from it. 

The next day bought kinder weather, making the ride I’d been wanting finally possible. Paired with a horse called La Bomba I was warned he liked going off the path. Indeed he did, the idiot wanting to wander multiple times through the rocky and ominous long grass. I did my best to control this, but there was one time I wasn’t stern enough when he wanted to go over s rock. He of course tripped and gave me the fright of my life. Alas good balance prevailed which was very important for later on when we performed my first ever canter. Considering trot was the next up from canter, I wasn’t too paranoid. How bad could it be? I’m sure the image of me flying along on the back of a shimmering two-toned grey/brown beast, clutching the saddle for dear life while simultaneously screaming and laughing will do. It was terrifying, exhilarating and hilarious all at once. The valleys and steep hills of the Estancia, clad in clumps of long grass, spiky trees and bushes, and stone walls made for an enjoyable afternoon ride in the sun. 

To further the day, my old group rumbled up to the Estancia in their new truck, Amber. Much more luxurious than dear, old Gus, the group tumbled out looking relatively pleased after a long drive day. Mum once told me that when you tap into the emotional side of yourself, it’s not so easy to revert back into the proud, cold-hearted girl of the past. I truly understood this when tears streamed from my eyes as I bounded excitedly to hug my friends. The days of uncertainty and homesickness suddenly melted away as I was comforted by the familiar faces of those I’d spent the past two months with. That night we were spoiled by a lovely BBQ and wine (although no more wine for me!). A large bonfire crackled warmly in a stone pit, chasing away the biting, cool air as the groups mingled. Dashing between the two groups, Gus and Amber, I felt confident for the first time in a long while. The hurting high school girl that expected judgment before acceptance disappeared as I chatted happily to new friends and old. Some walking and others stumbling, we made our way to the cozy games room to settle down for some music. Sam sat by the piano, accompanied by a bluetooth speaker and a tipsy Duncan on guitar (Amber’s leader). The songs were legendary, the voices carefree. My choir teachers would’ve been ashamed as I belted out songs from Goo Goo Dolls, Queen, ABBA and Toto. I sung as loudly, obnoxiously and passionately as I could, until my throat burned it protest. My heart soared and I reminded myself once again, I am here, I am alive. Hannah sung beside me, one of the strongest girls I’ve met, whose helped me get where I am today. Looking around I realised it was only her from Amber, the rest of that group either retired or sitting in the corner. It was Gus people that sung with me, swaying along to the melodies. I decided I’d made the right choice to move on, and had been blessed with a wonderful group of people. I have made beautiful friendships within my old group, friendships forged with time and experiences. Now in a new group, with a new mindset the friendships are coming easier and naturally. I am thankful for all I have met along the way and all I am to meet. 
Another long drive and camping night took us through the Andes, the scenery a crazed mix. In less than six hours we drove through dry farm land, a humid city at the rainy base of the mountains, lush mountain side greenery with flowing creeks, rocky Andean valleys, desert with monstrously huge cacti and finally to Cafayate with it’s numerous wineries challenging the dry landscape. A lost photo opportunity would have captured the rows of autumn grape vines in deep purple dwarfed by a single, looming cactus in the centre of the vineyard. Still not ready for any alcohol, I skipped the wine tastings. We visited the ancient ruins of the Quilmes, a mighty people who were some of the last to fall to the Spaniards. A sucker for ancient history, I loved wondering the remains of buildings and walkways that had shelters people since eight-hundred AD. There was a small upset when I thought my photo companion, Inti the Llama, had decided to disappear forever at the ruins. Thankfully I found him admiring a wall further back on the path. 

After so long in Patagonia, it was a shock to arrive to feral, biting sand flies by day and mosquitos by night at Salta Rafting. Never encountering the tiny, ‘demon flies’ I was devastated to see the bite of these gnat-sized things left a pinhead of blood and savage itch. Covered in itchy red spots, and itchy white blotches the sand fly and mosquito blood lust was very real. Zip lining offered a temporary distraction, bringing back memories of Fiji, New Zealand and home. The climb up the mountain was exhausting but I felt like a pro clipping onto the first line… Then I looked at it and was pumped with adrenalin. It was a long line across the valley we were camped in. Orange helicopter balls swayed lazily in the wind just above the line to remind me of the height. It would be a long fall if this slack line gave out; did I fill out the waver correctly? Jumping from the mountain side, the air rushing past my face and wind blowing me to the side slightly, I whooped the whole way. There were four lines, each crossing the valley further down. One line we all got stuck, some pulling ourselves the rest of the way and others needing to be rescued by the guides. The last two lines were great, I’d mastered the breaking and lift offs, feeling like a pro as some others continued to brake too early.

We arrived in Salta after a lazy morning lying in the sun under my mosquito net before the relatively short drive. Music is an important language in nearly all cultures, and it’s incredibly vital for over landing. My cheery and spunky new leaders are not only brilliant with their job, but with choice of music. A memorable playlist was the choice of Western movie soundtracks as we drove through the desert valleys on our way. I thought when coming to South America I’d be sick of the big cities, but each one we’ve been to I’ve enjoyed the life and variety. Salta was no different, a large sprawl of buildings popping from the dry desert and nestled in between mountains. On our arrival the hotel we’d booked ‘lost’ our reservation, so we downgraded to a less fancy hostel. Before I would have complained, wasted energy on the lost cause. That afternoon I showed progress, maintaining a cheery air as we arrived in a beautiful, alas basic and smaller, hostel. The South Americans love their holidays as much as their daily siestas, so the full day of Salta was eerily quiet. Few shops were open, save for a few dedicated tourist shops. Not even the large mall with a cinema and food court, nor the cable cars to the view point were open. Nethertheless I marched on, wandering the streets until the sounds of life drew me to a park. The annual bike race was on, locals sitting on picnic blankets to watch the cluster of cyclists and parade of honking ambulances and cars race by every twenty or so minutes. I couldn’t understand much of the commentary, but just the atmosphere of the community coming together, radio hosts interacting with the crowd and delicious food stalls was enough to remind me of the beautiful Bathurstian events I never knew I loved so much. 

To my luck, the park was the beginning point of the one thousands and seventy two steps up to the view point. The sun was shining and air fresh, and with Machu Picchu coming up within the month, there was nothing better to be doing. The view was nice, a sea of concrete and brick buildings sprawling in the cradle of mountains, a soft haze hanging lazily in the sun. With no shops awaiting for me, and the hostel room not comfortable enough to spend hours in, I relaxed into the timelessness. Four months of schedule requires a day of nothing every so often. I soaked up the suns warmth into my skin, closing my eyes to hear the hum of city life far below. 

Back to schedule, I awoke promptly the next day to video call home. It’s easy to overlook how the simple nightly rituals of preparing and eating dinner together is so natural and calming. Our camping cook groups do wonderful jobs, I’ve had some amazing meals in the middle of nowhere. We sit around together eating, and cleaning up together too. But I do miss sitting at a table (instead of balancing on my knees) with the dog on her mat in the corner and the comfort of indoors.

 It was one of our last days in Argentina. Doing my budget the previous night I was delighted to calculate I’d survived two months on very little. It was time to do some shopping! Salta non-holiday was alive, church bells pealing and echoing through the streets and people bustling their way into the day. Buzzing around collecting the souvenirs I’d held off on gave me great joy, and I was able to finish on a high (literally) at the MAAM (Museum of High Altitude). Here resides three Inca children mummies that were found as offerings to the gods. For preservation, only one is shown for a few months before rotation. I wandered through the cold, darkened exhibitions, admiring with awe the variety of artefacts found – gold llamas and votive statuettes, bright textiles and bird feathers, and leather shoes – before coming face to face with the Lightning Girl. Only six years old, the beautiful face bore ages of time yet still maintained the chubby cheeks and long lashes over closed eyes. Lips slightly parted, tiny white teeth glowed beneath the dehydrated and burned (by weather) skin. So small and special, left to the gods and now the future. How displaced she must feel, after hundreds of years alone in the mountains, to now be in a case, the eerie pre-recorded howling mountain winds and indigenous percussion set on repeat as worldly visitors stare upon her eternal slumber. 

Soon it was time to move on, heading up into the mountains for my last Argentinian night. This was our first night at a slight altitude, the next day promising a long dose of high altitude. I dreaded the thought of sleeping in a tent in such icy high mountain air, especially when I saw the gravelly ground. It was a blessing to my ears when our leaders announced it would be beds tonight – even though it was two mixed rooms of nine and thirteen I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. Any night with a bed is a good night. And just as well, for the next day was torture. Altitude has an array of affects, and differing each time. My first taste of altitude consisted of nausea and breathlessness. The nausea was great fun as we twisted and turned up the winding roads to Paseo Jama, as was the breathlessness when I had to carry my large bag for the Chile customs check. As I felt sorry for myself, Sam decided it was music quiz time. Normally it would be a nice distraction, but the year chosen brought a wave of despair as I relived one of the worst years of my life through the songs. 2012. Swelling with emotion, I truly saw how far I’ve come, and who I am now. That lost, lonely girl with pimples and bent teeth has morphed. That long year in the stuffy MKC halls that I thought would last forever – sun filtering into the music room, rain fogging the grey mornings in the hall, and delicious canteen smells now distant memories. Feelings of despair, confusion and unsettledness gone. Remembering the disconnection from my family as the innocent and thoughtless child grew into an independent human being hurt. Recalling friendships that fell apart and some that were made. I’m proud of myself for making it through the hostile environment, for not giving in to the pathetic ways of ‘popularity’, for remaining true to myself when it really mattered. For taking the step to change the life I was unhappy with. For learning to accept what I cannot change. For pursuing the positive mindset. For being someone I am proud to be. 

San Pedro de Atacama was a rewarding stop after the long drive, it’s dusty, basic streets turning out to be a rich, touristy place. My last visit in Chile, I decided to enjoy it, treating myself to delicious pizza with some new friends. We went out star gazing afterwards, our guide full of endless astronomic knowledge and cheesy puns. I had seen better skies at home, the moon lessening the night’s brilliance. Finally able to identify my astrological sign in the sky, among other stars and planets, it was worthwhile improving my knowledge of the familiar southern skies. Through telescopes I could see galaxies of stars more numerous than particles of sand, stars the colour of jewels, Saturn, and even a star thats light flickered the rainbows of a disco ball as it shone into our atmosphere. To top off the night, our gorgeous hostel had warm and comfortable beds to fight of the desert chill. The next morning was souvenir time yet again! I spent hours wandering the dusty, mud brick streets admiring the colourful, overflowing shops. Using the last of my chilean pesos worked out well, affording me gorgeous souvenirs and also forcing me to pace myself. So close to Bolivia, I was able to taste the sorts of clothing and textiles I had been holding out for for two and a half months! Just what was available in San Pedro had me calculating the maximum baggage I could sneak on my flight home. La Paz markets were going to be fantastic!

To top off Chile, our visit to the Moon Valley had me grinning from ear to ear. The eerie otherworldly landscape certainly was a fitting adventure for May the Fourth, but it was the people who made it so fun. Still slightly giddy from the altitude, and displaced by the martian scenery, I found myself being overly dramatic much to everyone’s amusement. Failing a race, being subject to savage banter and giving up on normalities had my cheeks aching from the wide smile plastered across my face. I had my good friends from Amber, and my fun new leaders from Gus. I waddled through the tight caves like a goblin, and sung Eye of the Tiger to myself up a steep climb as those behind me laughed. Team Gus (or Spice) pumped Wanna Be from the speakers as I challenged Amber to a lip sync. That afternoon we watched the sunset over Moon Valley. Showered in a brilliance of pink and oranges, I soaked up the energy with every pore. The cultures that worship the sun certainly have the right idea. Sitting on a rocky ledge, the sun fell behind the horizon, setting fire to the Andes opposite. Twilight crept behind the magnificent mountains as the light faded, freezing the towering faces of rock in shades of pink and purple. My heart beat steadily and I could breathe freely, the days perfection humming in my veins. It is those blissful moments of laughter and happiness we need to hold onto. Those short moments where we forget anything ever made us unhappy. 

It’s been a strange few weeks. After so long on the road the places begin to blend in together, only the new experiences really sticking out. To combat this sad notion, I try to learn something new everyday. Sometimes it’s a life lesson, or sometimes it’s that eating the delicious pancake smothered in dulce de leche on the high, winding road isn’t worth it (even though I’d probably do it again). I’m thoroughly enjoying my new group, especially the leaders, Sam and Sara, that make everyday exciting and happy. Some in the group put in much more than others but the vibes stay positive. I’ve learnt there will always be unfair or entitled people but it’s out of my control. My life became a million times easier when I stopped worrying myself with the attitudes of others. 

Bolivia holds much promise, the first new country I will have been in over a month! Farewelling Argentina and Chile are not as hard when Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador glisten on the horizon. 


Beyond Santiago 

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