Mendoza was the hopping off point for my return to Chile. Way back there in the pre-history of 1978 I had been selected as one of two youth representatives to go to the World Conference of YMCA's to be held in Buenos Aires. En route we would stop in Tahiti, Easter Island, Santiago (capital of Chile) and, eventually, on to Argentina.
I had a very strong mental chronicle of experiences of those days in Santiago. Just five years previously. I had fallen in love there. There had been nine o'clock curfews and armoured cars that patrolled the streets. I had seen my first water canon; my first slum, curfews, and the first poor people I'd ever seen. The hairs on my neck had been raised at the haunting sound of Andean flutes, I had been approached on the streets by gypsies who winked at me and said, in mysterious and seductive voices, "ocko, ocko". A dramatic indentation into the life of a young Broken Hill sporting "jock".
But it had been those romantic notions that had prolonged as my notion of Chile. As a nineteen year old, fresh from Broken Hill, I had known nothing of the disgusting history of Chile. As I had wandered through the streets of Santiago hand in hand, heart pumping with discovery, I had known nothing of the oppression, the beatings and terrifying tortures. Nothing of a history scarred by the intrusive tenticles of the US.
I had met Carmen Cecilia whilst looking upwards and lost at tall buildings and their signs, right in the centre of Santiago. She was studying as an interpreter and revelled in practical English usage. She showed and explained all the best tourist sights of her city. We saw movies and went dancing in seedy underlit discos. Five days of the purest, most uncomplicated romance with true Latin gusto. To kiss her goodnight seemed the most timeless action of my life. Curfew would always stamp its mark as the end of every day.
I left Mendoza mid-morning for the four hour bus ride to the border control between Argentina and Chile. It was an easy trip, with a half empty bus meaning lots of leg space, and quiet to read by. We ventured first through lowland hills and ultimately upward for our Andean crossing. The scenery was stunning. Vast tracts of snowed-in landscape interrupted at the horizon by the cragged upheavals of mountains. It was the pure mountain beauty that I always imagined of Switzerland or Austria, and it wasn't surprising to hear that the area was a favourite sidestep for European and American skiers. The CIA and ex-Nazis? Break a leg!
Such had been the easy flow of my travels that I had neglected to read up on visa requirements for this crossing. I ultimately paid the penalty.
The Argentinian border control had processed our passports, exit stamps included, and sent us on our way with just a ten minute stopover. The toughened Chilean system meant that everyone had to get out of the bus, unload baggage and carry it into the inspection station and personally present it to the immigration controller.
After a half-hearted baggage scrimmage, I was sent on to present my passport. The stiff faced controller sent me back to Argentina!! Retreating again to Mendoza so that I could get a consular visa that would allow my legal crossing. Life and learning would have been a more philosophical and tame response to the officers explanation. At first I tried "not understanding" Spanish, and then my wealth of gesticulations learnt from a year of bartering, explaining, arguing and communication in the depths of the Andes. Neither had the slightest effect. So I tried sadness, downcast head and general perturbed quietness. This was equally unsuccessful and when the border guard told me that the last bus back to Mendoza was going in five minutes, I grimaced and left.
I returned to Mendoza, changed some money at a Money Exchange, found a new hotel close to the bus station, gained my visa from a friendly consular official and went to sleep. Start again ...... take two!
Next day, I was again making my trans-Andean border crossing, but this time with the complete comfort of knowing that there could be no set-backs. I sat on the opposite side of the bus to that of the previous day. Again I took in every crevice of that stunning scenery. Well, as was usual, everything didn't go smoothly. Firstly, there was this huge elk with the Omar Sharif moustache who politely scanned through people's luggage. That was, at least, until he proceeded to plough through mine like an elephant in a rage. He left me standing there with the aftermath and then peered back at me with a sheepish grin. Was it because I was Australian, a backpacker or just not a Chilean?
Next to oppose me was a sleazy immitation of a man sitting at the visa check desk, who delighted at his chance to make an entry "refusal" when he saw that one of the pages of my passport was torn half way through. The result of being so close to my sweaty moving body for so many months.
Higher officials were called in. I wasn't moved. They were just amateurs, and I was quite unimpressed by their dramatic imitations of the sort of treatment I'd become accustomed to in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. I knew they were just having their fun trying to put a scare into me. I knew that this ran parallel to the proverb "To teach a dog to jump, first you must be smarter than the dog". I just stood firm and lapped it up. Arf! Arf! I was having fun too, I wasn't in a hurry and I had already figured out the ultimate consequence of this case.
Motioned to re-pack my bag and rejoin the bus was inevitably the outcome. They were now processing our declaration forms and I knew that I was about to get my own back. To make a statement. I could almost sense what was going to happen, and when the "elk" finally appeared at the front of the bus waving the solitary declaration form and announcing "Peter Leslie Keelan", my adrenalin pump nearly seized. I raised my hand to indicate that it was "I" who possessed "the fruit". He marched up the aisle towards me with that, "you're the one whose backpack I scourged not half an hour ago, ha! ha! ha!" look on his face. He commanded, with a taint of sly glee in his voice that I'd have to hand over all the fruit..... I couldn't help but smile as I pathetically reached into my day pack and produced this solitary, slightly bruised apple. Even the stately old gentleman situated across the aisle from me was grinning broadly. He had obviously seen either the baggage episode or the silly stamping saga.