I peered anxiously into the baggage-claim area at the Quito airport. Why had my toiletries been spread pell-mell down the conveyor belt? The answer, in the form of my opened backpack, lurched up soon enough. Apparently, baggage handlers where the plane had stopped earlier in Guayaquil, Ecuador, carry metal detectors. They sample the luggage and take what they require. As a backpacker, I had little to offer beyond my penknife and an electric razor.
Having sacrificed so little, I could not pretend to be as enraged as the wealthy Ecuadoreans around me who fumed and cursed. They had lost all their luggage, chock full of New York booty. As the whole process of making baggage-loss claims lasted hours, by the time I got to customs, the officials had gone home. So I walked out of the airport and into Ecuador without having to endure the usual regulatory checks. "Neat country," I thought to myself.
After getting acclimatized to life in Latin America, I made my way to Peru. It was there that, hoping to fit in with the locals, I ended up jumping out of a bus. The local population, of course, knows how to gracefully leave a moving bus, whereas I just jumped out the front door, which is always invitingly open, and hit the ground - I should have kept hold of the outside handle when I jumped, running alongside the bus at its speed, carefully slowing my gait before letting go.
By the time I made it all the way down to Chile, I decided to forgo buses altogether, and made up my mind to walk - yes, walk - from Chile to Argentina.
The long walk itself was charming enough, and I was quite possibly the only person that day (or that year) who chose to walk the road that links Peulla, Chile, and Puerto Blest, Argentina. Look carefully on a map of the Chilean Lake District; you won't see it.
I admired the bamboo along the roadside and peered into my backpack, vaguely recalling my initial Latin American customs encounter in Ecuador, and watching enviously as Brazilian tour buses whizzed by.
Then shots from the bazooka-like elephant guns sounded in the distance. This fact alone should have been enough to let me know that passing through customs into Patagonia might be more complicated than in Ecuador.
Plus, I had changed since my arrival in Latin America weeks earlier. I showed some of the scars of a seasoned traveller - I now sported a severely bandaged hand (thanks to my bus-jumping fiasco) and a scraggly beard, a tribute to the baggage handlers in Guayaquil who now disported themselves with my electric shaver.
"Bad luck, extranjero," the Argentine border guards stated firmly. "The border has just closed, but we have a place where you can stay for the night." Before returning to their target-practice activity, they pointed their elephant guns in the direction of what I could only call a small hut.
Content to accept this unexpected hospitality, and aware of the near darkness, I happily allowed myself to be ushered into the decrepit wooden shack. The floor was thick with sawdust, so I decided to pitch my tent inside the shack. At this moment, I discovered my metallic tent pegs were missing. My mind raced, and found its way back to the Guayaquil airport metal detectors - yet another reason never to return to Guayaquil.
I decided to use both my sleeping bag and backpack frame to hold up the tent
and tried to make myself comfortable.
My sleep was far from sound, as I cursed my predicament. Nor was my sleep soundless as, some time during the twilight hours, another hapless traveller wandered into the shack to spend the night. Not wanting to upset the delicate balance of my tent, I chose not to greet the other unfortunate, content to listen to his laboured breathing off and on until daybreak.
My sleeping companion and I finally met, face to nose, when I opened the front of the tent to a glorious mixture of sunlight and steam. Peering at me with a curious, intelligent look, he offered me a paw and a smirk. The biggest German shepherd I'd ever seen was staring intently at me.
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