Chile, June 2014 - This was my first time traveling entirely by myself for 3 weeks with zero plan. Highlights include getting fired from my (laughably easy) hostel job, following a miner up a mountain on horseback in Cajón del Maipo, and catching a bad and my first case of fall-in-love-with-fellow-traveler syndrome.
The home-base of choice was Santiago. I found Santiago pleasant, but (dare I say it) boring. So I left often.
Which leads me to elaborate a bit on the miner on a mountain part:
One afternoon, I am no longer in Santiago. I look around and I am smack in the middle of what looks like a highway. That yes, leads to nowhere.
So begins the walk, aimless, and with creeping fear in my chest. Although I am surrounded by the most spectacular mountainous view, I still feel somewhat perturbed by the fact that I had just spent 3 hours taking maybe 8 buses at the advice of roughly 15 people (of whom I understood about half), and nowhere in sight are the natural springs and tourists on horseback that Google Images had promised me the night before.
Is this how all the travel horror stories begin? Would my parents grieve? Or worse, nag?
The only other person remotely close to me, and in fact the only other person I've seen since arriving, is a man with a backpack. He is relatively middle-aged and has a kind face.
I trust faces. Also, he doesn't look lost.
We walk and walk, cognizant of each other's presence, but only after a good half an hour of individual mountain-appreciating do we throw out an attempt at conversation.
He's a miner, his name is Marcelo, and he is on the way home. I learn from him that the red patches on the mountains are copper, and we take a detour to la boca de las minas, the mouth of the mines to have a look at his workplace. He leads me to someone's house (or maybe it is a restaurant, I have no idea how to tell), where he gets a coke for me and a beer for himself.
We sit and drink, mostly in silence.
We arrive at El Volcan, which is where (I think) I communicated to Marcelo the horseback riding was. It looks completely void of activity. Marcelo is still my only company, and I happily trot behind him, expecting the horses and tourists to show up anytime soon.
He asks me, is 5,000 pesos okay?
Yes, okay, I reply.
He walks away, and 15 minutes later reappears, accompanied by a friend and two horses.
I finally piece together that Marcelo's intention all this while is to be my guide. And that we are going to ride up one of the surrounding mountains. And I get to ride the horse myself!
Because I felt I lacked any other real options at that point, I simply smile at this turn of events. And then I try to help him with the saddle. He laughs and gently swats me away.
We set off. His instructions are simple; pull right on the rope to go right, pull left to go left, give the horse a hard kick on its sides to accelerate (this part was emotionally difficult for me to accept). We ascend; he speeds off, I embarrassingly lag behind, he stops and waits for me to catch up.
And so it goes.
I didn't think it possible, but the mountains look even more ridiculously amazing from above.
These two canine companions trot alongside us the whole time.
My legs start to die almost immediately from clumsily kicking the sides of my horse to get it catch up with Marcelo. Marcelo does it to his horse with complete ease. Feeling the slope of the mountain right by my side was so incredibly vivifying. Maybe the most vivifying thing I'd experienced up to that point.
Marcelo turns his horse around.
Of course I wanted it to run. We find a flat enough path, he shows me how to kick the horse with just enough strength to make it gallop. Cue more awkward leg movement, and finally my horse ran. I laugh nervously.
It's worth the realization later back on land that my glasses had completely flown off without my knowing.
We ride back down, and I am still breathless from how amazing everything is.
It is still a good two hours before the bus that only comes twice a day is to arrive.
So, we head to his house, a mere five minute walk away from the horses. We drink his coffee, slowly and silently again, and I stare at his things. We begin to talk, and talk, as he savours his many cigarettes and strokes the cat on his lap.
He says how glad he is to be able to do this for me, someone from a random other country on the far side of the world, and that he would probably never see another Singaporean again.
Further cause for amazement - have I really been speaking to this guy in Spanish for five hours? Without spluttering from embarrassment and self-consciousness, as I have been doing ever since I arrived in Chile a week ago?
The next day in Santiago, I traipse over to Barrio Brasil and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, where my energy level, exhausted from my day with Marcelo, simply does not allow me to do justice to the gravity and import of the subject matter. So I slip into the nearest restaurant I can find.
It felt both comforting and disappointing to be back in the city.
I drink onion soup as a waiter approaches and asks me, just as so many others have, in a reenactment of the patterned conversations between insider and outsider who both have the mutual desire to understand, are you from Japan, or maybe Brazil? There are so many Japanese there! Oh, where is Singapore?
I am not tired of these questions yet. I will be, in years to come, but just now, not yet.