Safe travels. It's a phrase one hears many times before setting out on a new journey. Of course the well wishes and warnings are appreciated, but I am also guilty of assuming everything will run smoothly, as it always has.
I did my research before heading out to South America at the end of November. The advisories were nothing out of the ordinary, and I felt pretty confident having travelled to India and West Africa before. Looking back the thing that I appreciate most about my trip to Chile was that I saw the worst and the best side of a country in just a few short days.
My friend Julia and I arrived in Santiago and my first thought was that I was little relieved that we wouldn't have to be on our toes as much as we were in Peru. It was beautiful, developed and almost reminded me of a Spanish Toronto. We were looking forward to showering off our hiking adventures and putting on some nice clothes to wander the streets.
As we were getting ready my friend asked if she could borrow my small side purse. It did suit her ensemble better than the money belt she had been wearing up until now.
We picked up a map and walked to Central Plaza de Armas Square. We were greeted by live music and dozens of smiling couples dancing on the sidewalks. I took a moment to soak up the first sights and sounds of Chile.
We came across the next street and evaluated which way to go. In one direction, several people were walking around but there didn't seem to be anything interesting. The other road was lined with blossoming trees and buildings reminiscent of European architecture. We decided to go that way.
It wasn't too long before I suddenly felt a presence behind me and heard my friend scream. After a couple of seconds of shock it finally registered that a man had been following us and had just ripped my friend's purse off of her and ran. And so I did what any logical 22-year-old girl SHOULDN'T do: I chased him. Ironically there was a police officer across the street but he wasn't nearly as fit as the robber and so he didn't make much progress. I ran back to the street my friend was on. The strap of the purse lay strewn on the sidewalk in front of her. Two women were sitting beside her, trying to comfort her. They were locals but spoke very good English. They kindly offered to walk us to the police station.
On the walk it started to process that Julia had just lost the majority of her money, her IDs, visa, debit, iPhone and her passport. I started to panic about what the process might be like getting a new passport. We only had six days in Chile. The women helped Julia fill out the police report, translating everything because neither of us spoke a word of Spanish. We certainly would have been lost without them.
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There was one more thing to panic about. I had forgotten my visa and my debit card in Canada. I had gone for dinner the night before and forgot to switch my coin purse into my travel bag. When I initially realized this at the airport we decided everything should be OK since I had plenty of cash and Julia had her visa. But low and behold, unexpected expenses including paying for our Machu Picchu trek in cash had really set us back. So here we are, five nights away from our flight, missing a passport, no way to take out money and unable to pay for the rest of our trip. It was every traveller's nightmare.
My manners suddenly kicked in and I realized I didn't even know the names of the women who were spending the night with us at the station. I introduced myself and thanked them. Their names were Maria and Josefina. I could tell they felt bad about our poor first impression of their country. Josefina invited us back to her apartment and offered us snacks. On the walk I embarrassingly admitted our financial debacle. Without hesitation she suggested I transfer her money online and she could take it out for me. I told her that was unnecessary especially since e-transfers usually take a day to come through. "That's OK!" she said, "I trust you." I couldn't believe how kind a complete stranger could be, and that transaction secured me for the rest of the trip. They walked us back to the hostel and I told Maria she was my Chilean mother. She laughed and agreed.
Upon hearing our story the other travellers insisted on taking us salsa dancing. We went despite how exhausted we were. The hostel worker that night, JP, tried teaching me how to salsa. This proved to be challenging after 14 years of ballet training. JP laughed at my first attempt. "Just be calm and love the music," he said. Somehow that advice seemed to work.
After a couple of hours of sleep the dreadful alarm went off and I knew we had a long day ahead of us at the embassy. We got some vague directions and headed to the subway. I found myself evaluating every man around me while holding my bag. To my left I noted a man with lighter hair and blue eyes and I thought that he didn't really look Chilean, he reminded me of a friend back home.
After the first crowd went in we held back and the man was now closer to us. "You're not from here, are you?" he said, probably knowing the answer to that already. "No, we're Canadian," I said. "Me too!" His name was Rob and his work had brought him to Santiago. We told him our story and I could tell he was worried about us. He offered to make sure we found the embassy and made it in OK. I was so appreciative of the helpful strangers we had met thus far.
Many hours and dollars later we were finally able to carry on with our trip as planned. We were told a new passport would be ready in 48-hours. We visited Valparaiso and the beautiful beaches of Vina Del Mar and Renaca. The stunning scenery, the ocean, sea lions and pelicans put me right back in the travel mood I needed to be in.
We returned to Santiago and Julia got her new passport. Luckily we were able to catch our flight the next day. We were looking forward to taking Maria and Josefina for lunch but when we arrived to Josefina's apartment they had already prepared a homemade meal for us. We enjoyed our lunch together, probably the last time we will ever see each other. We talked about everything from family to relationships and dreams for the future. I don't think they will ever know how much their kindness and hospitality meant to us.
After lunch we explored some markets then started heading back towards our hostel. On our walk I was observing the faces of the people who strolled by me in this unfamiliar and beautiful city. Suddenly in the sea of strangers I spotted a familiar set of blue eyes.
It was Rob. I couldn't believe in a city of over 5-million people we ran into him on the street. He seemed very happy to see us. He introduced us to his girlfriend Melissa who was familiar with our story and we started walking back towards the hostel together. Just as we were about to part ways Rob asked us if we wanted to go for a drink with them. I couldn't imagine a better way to spend our last night in Chile. Rob and his girlfriend led us to a beautiful patio surrounded by lively Chileans indulging in delicious looking food. "Order what you like," he said. "It's on me."
As the night progressed it felt more and more like we had been friends with this couple for years. We exchanged funny stories and talked about Canadian and Chilean cultural differences. On the topic of travelling to challenging places Melissa lit up and her and I immediately connected.
By the end of the night I was linked arms with Melissa as we talked about our favourite news sources and Julia and Rob were just ahead of us arm in arm laughing. I realized in that moment that I never would have met the amazing people I did if our trip hadn't taken that unfortunate turn: from my Chilean mother to my salsa teacher to the blue eyed man that reminded me of home. These people would have remained strangers if we hadn't needed them. I saw the worst and the best side of Chile and the best side won. And so to the man that targeted two young foreign women, took their things but left them unharmed, I say: thank you.