A few minutes earlier I had let her cut in front of me at the ticket counter because I felt uncomfortable with her standing so close. In Chile you have to stand on top of the person in front of you or others think you’re not really standing in line, just sort of checking it out.
My body felt weak and unstable teetering under the weight of my backpack. I was recovering from carbon-monoxide poisoning in Castro.
Now she was standing beside my bus. She radiated exotic, South American sensuality—golden skin, lustrous black hair and dark eyes. They were pointed in my direction
I wasn’t sure if she could really see me inside the bus through the tinted windows, but I tried not to stare back too intently just in case.
She wasn’t actually climbing aboard. She just watched it as if trying to decide if she really wanted this one. I wanted her to choose this one.
The idea of her getting on also sent a tremor through my body.
The chance that this bus was hers seemed to dwindle the longer it sat in its slot and she didn’t board. And still she watched me. The engine turned over and rumbled to life. Before the doors closed, the woman ran to the bus, up the steps and into the aisle.
She tossed her Planet Hollywood bag into the overhead near the front of the bus then turned, setting her dark-eyed gaze on me and began walking. I sat, like a Huemul in the headlights as she approached. Flashing me a smile like we were old friends, she sat down in the seat next to me.
I’d come to Chile for the summer to bartend at a little hosteria in Villarrica for an American ex-pat friend of mine named Glen. He knew that I had just finished my first round of college and had nothing better to do than pick up and see a different part of the world.
I was grossly unprepared. After months of trying to learn Spanish out of books, I had a solid foundation of six words: yes, no, foot, shoe, beer and wine.
I could smell the warm leather of her jacket and hear the quiet groan of it when she moved her hand up to brush the hair out of her face. I could see the lines on her lips. Glen told me before I arrived in Chile: “Learn as much Spanish as you can before you come. You’ll get more out of the experience.”
She began talking to me as if that was the only reason she had gotten on this bus.
“¿De donde es usted?” she asked rapid-fire.
It was a simple question, but it came too fast for me to understand.
I shrugged and said my well-rehearsed line, “No comprendo. Lo siento.” I don’t understand. I’m sorry. I could already feel this conversation going nowhere.
Her smile grew larger. “Where are you from?” she asked in heavily accented English.
“From Montana en Norte Americano,” I said.
Before I got here I assumed there were bus-loads of Americans in bright T-shirts and shorts clogging up every open air market and artisan stand in the country. I was amazed at how few Americans the average Chilean ever saw. In a broken mix of English and Spanish she said she was from Argentina.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
How does any traveler answer this question? Did I really come here to work at a bar in a little hotel? I could do that back in the US. I would be able to speak to the locals and make a lot more than the ten dollars a day I earned here.
When confronted with the idea of telling her that the reason I was here is to find myself having the most beautiful woman in the city get on the same bus as me and begin talking as if drawn together by something bigger than the two of us, I found that I couldn’t possibly do it justice with the scant vocabulary we shared in each others’ languages.
So I stuck with bartending in a hotel in Villarrica.
Of course, this interested her. I got the feeling that I could have said that I had come to Chile to learn how to sweep floors (something they do differently in Chile than the US, by the way) and she would have been interested to hear about it.
Her apparent interest in me was a little unnerving but exciting in a surreal way, as if I’d stepped onto the set of one of those ridiculous romantic comedies where the storyline relies on the most implausible scenario coming to life.
She said that she was there to visit her mother. She rolled her eyes and said a few things in Spanish I didn’t catch, and didn’t quite know how to phrase a question for her to explain.
She saved me by asking if I’d made it into Argentina while in South America. I was sad to say I only spent one day in Argentina, barely going far enough in to get my passport stamped and have a picnic by a lake under the volcano Lanin.
A frown of disappointment clouded her face for a brief instant before becoming a smile again.“You will have to come visit me in Buenos Aires,” she said, pronouncing each consonant and vowel of the city’s name, making it sound like singing, rather than the muddled way we say it in America. “Es muy bonito.”
Her eyes said I could stay as long as I wanted. Whether it was my lack of understanding the subtleties of Argentine nuance or not, I wasn’t getting the sense that she was trying to pick me up for a one-nighter, but really wanted me to explore her country and come to love it.
She wondered, if I hadn’t gone to Argentina, then what have I done since I arrived in Chile?
“I climbed the Volcán Villarrica,” I said, not really knowing how to get the rest of the adventure out. “I could see into Argentina from the top,” I said finally. What I couldn’t communicate was that I had experiences both frightening and beautiful on the sides of that mountain, forever changing the way I look at danger and exploration.
We spoke for several more minutes but I could feel my ability to carry on the conversation waning, having exhausted my Spanish. I didn’t want her to go, but I didn’t know how I was going to communicate for the next few hours. She may have thought the same thing, since once the bus lurched out onto the highway, she said goodbye and moved back to her seat near the front of the bus.
I should move up and keep talking to her, I kept thinking as I stared at the back of her head, her smooth, dark hair swaying with the movement of the road. I imagined three outcomes if the encounter continued:
- We’d fall in love and I’d miss my plane back to the US to travel around Chile and Argentina with a partner (something I wished I had every time over the last three months I’d found myself in a position of making a fool of myself.)
- We’d have a short-term romantic interlude before I headed back to the States—something I didn’t have much experience with, but had always sounded interesting.
- We’d have a fun, platonic time exploring her destination. I’d finally have someone to travel with, if only for a day or two.
All of the options sounded more fulfilling than traveling the last few days of my trip alone. Every time the bus slowed I sat up a little straighter as if to move forward but I stayed where I was. Each option sounded just as terrifying as exciting.
I’d always looked up to the people who deviated from the course of life so as to live in the excitement of the moment. I was so close to being one of those people, all I had to do was get up and go.
As the busy tourist season had wound down and my pisco sours were no longer in such high demand, I decided it was time to finally leave Villarrica and explore more of the country. I made my way south to Castro on the Isle of Chiloe, home of the palafitos or stilt houses built out into the water along the coast so fishermen could park their boats under their houses.
After staying in the much cheaper hospedajes, or empty rooms a families rent out to travelers, I chose to stay in a tiny hotel room on the third floor of Hotel Azul overlooking a busy street and the main sea lane busy with boats of all sizes chugging in and out of the harbor.
I made a preliminary trek around the city the night before and at sunrise I woke up to find a beautiful day. I opened the window of the tiny hotel room, grabbed my camera and went out to capture the palafitos in the morning light.
When I returned to the hotel, I knew I’d gotten the best photos of my entire time in Chile and decided to take a short nap before trying to find something to eat and my next destination. It was the biggest mistake of the trip.
I awoke feeling like I had the worst hangover of my life. I hoped that going back to sleep might help it go away. I felt too horrible to even drift back into unconsciousness. Eventually, I smelled it. A mixture of diesel and gasoline exhaust coming in the open window from the road and boats outside. I shut the window, but too late. My journey southward was finished.
The next couple of days involved eating almost nothing and stumbling from bus station to bus station, finally arriving back in Puerto Montt. On the morning of the third day I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to die out in the Chilean countryside, but had squandered enough days that I decided to make my way back to Villarrica.
That’s how I came to stare at the beautiful Argentine girl near the front of the bus.
As we closed in on Osorno, I couldn’t guess where a relationship with this girl could go, but that’s not the nature of relationships even when you can speak the language.
It’s not the nature of travel, either. The nature of travel is to remain flexible, break plans and see what happens. If I didn’t make a move, I would probably regret it.
When the bus stopped in Osorno, I thought this is the last chance I’m going to get to know this person.
Before I could get myself to take the chance, she stood, pulled her bag from the overhead, and walked to the back of the bus.
I hoped she would drop again into the seat beside me, but instead she handed me a sealed envelope.
She asked me what my name was, told me hers, said a quick, sweet goodbye and went to the exit. She kissed her palm and blew it to me before stepped down the stairs. She did not look back as she went to the terminal.
I held the envelope until after we’d begun moving again. Safely at speed I cut open the envelope and pulled out a photograph of the woman and a note half in Spanish, half English:
You broke my heart. I’m giving you this photo so that you remember on the other side of the world someone awaits you.
It gave me an address and said not to forget to come visit her when I make it to Argentina. I tucked the note back into the envelope and stared out the window, wondering why I hadn’t opened it before the bus left Orono and chased after her.