Thursday, December 14, 2006

Talcahuano and Concepcion, Chile

The 14th was Case’s birthday and we were in the port town of Talcahuano, which serves the adjacent university town of Concepcion, Chile.

We took the bus to Concepcion hoping to explore and perhaps find another fine chocolateria such as we enjoyed further south. It’s not always easy to know which bus to take, but we followed “everyone else” getting into a bus marked “Concepcion” and figured we were good.

Big mistake!

But it took a while to figure it out. After all, the bus route showing the city streets of Concepcion was posted behind the driver, so we figured we were home free. We could just sit still and watch the streets go by until we saw the ones we wanted. It was all right there on the route map...

Two turns later, we arrived at the entrance to the Naval Base at the “wrong” end of the route. “Oh well”, we thought, “This is the end of the line, so the driver will turn around pretty soon. The worst he can do is ask for another 60 cents fare.” Most other folks, primarily tourists from our ship, disembarked, of course, but we knew they were just going to see the 19th century ironclad ship that we’d read about -- a local attraction maintained to a spit-and-polish sheen by the naval conscripts.

The bus stayed stopped. The driver turned around and looked at us. All the other passengers, whom we slowly became aware were either evidently or very likely military, also started to stare at us.

Finally, a tall, strikingly handsome naval officer clad in full dress whites came to the rescue. “Where do you want to go?” he politely asked.

“Oh, we’re just taking this bus to Concepcion.”

“This bus isn’t going to Concepcion. It is the wrong way.”

“Yes, but we’ll just wait for it to turn around,” we volunteered brightly.

The ironclad battleship Buque Huascar built in England in 1865 and captured from the Peruvian navy in 1879

I think formulating a response to this stubborn repartee was just a bit too much for the kind officer’s command of English (which was, incidentally, still far better than our Spanish). “I think perhaps you should get off here,” he said again. “Perhaps you would like to see the Huasco. A very nice old battleship. Yes. You should see the Huasco. Please, go see the Huasco. You will enjoy.”

At this point, we were starting to gather the general impression that the bus wasn’t likely to continue unless we got off. So, after much thought, examining the kind officer’s words for hidden meanings, and generally wracking our brains for the best way to handle this impasse, we hit upon the novel solution of disembarking from the bus and visiting the Huasco. (Occasionally, we get these flashes of insight. Call it traveller’s intuition.)

At the ticket window by the naval base gates, our photo IDs were requested and solemnly inspected, matched to our faces, and laboriously noted in a ledger. Signs warned us that we were only allowed in two small memorial plazas within the base, and on the exhibit ship itself. Photos of any other portion of the base were strictly prohibited. Apparently, we passed the preliminary screening with the ticket vendor, as we were then allowed to buy tickets, which we presented to the gateway MP as four of his compatriots eyed us suspiciously. These also apparently gave us a passing grade, as we were allowed to tread within “their” territory, now somewhat subdued by the memory of our cavalier attempt to penetrate the defenses of this top secret citadel by simply riding in on the public bus!

The interior of the ship

Along with all other tourists (save that worthy band of sunburned American men who choose to travel arrayed in Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and a baseball cap … oh, yes, and that other group of Japanese tourists whose identifying characteristic is the practice of occasionally peeping out from behind their cameras), we prefer to blend in with the populace whenever possible. Evidently, our efforts along this line completely failed in Talcahuano. The first hint came as we ambled down the street away from the naval base, hoping we might be more successful in catching a bus to Concepcion in this direction. Suddenly, a passing car swerved to the side and stopped next to us. The driver and the man in the back seat beamed out at us, while the female passenger stepped out and addressed us:

“I would like to introduce you to the mayor of Talcahuano. I am his interpreter and that is his driver. The mayor welcomes you to our wonderful city and wonders if he can help you find something, or give you directions?”

Interpretation: “Out of all the masses of people driving, pedaling, riding, and walking along this busy street in our rather large town, your general dress and deportment screamed out to us, ‘We are two people hopelessly out of place and desperately in need of help from a Higher Power!!!’”

After shaking hands with the mayor and assuring him that we were “mucho gusto”-ed but, no, we didn’t need directions or other assistance, we were allowed to move on, followed by his benevolent and somewhat concerned smile.

Not two minutes later, another small car swerved over next to us, and the four occupants, their faces radiating similar concern, attempted to strike up a conversation with us in Spanish. Unfortunately, lacking the mayor’s advantage of an interpreter, we were not able to help them – or to help them help us – and they drove off smiling and waving. In retrospect, I should have just told them that the mayor had just stopped to help us and he was unable, so they hadn’t a hope. (I think I can just about frame that sentence in Spanish.)

After that, word went around the town that it was going to take larger masses of people to aid these two hopeless gringos trapped in their town, for just a few steps further down the same road, an entire school bus packed with children and clear on the other side of the street caught our attention. Masses of heads, arms, and (for all I know) legs sprouted out the windows, all waving and shouting “hello”. Now feeling hopelessly conspicuous, we summoned up wan smiles and waved weakly back.

After that, Case took off his hat – an entirely respectable Columbia sportswear item, but (save for the color) exactly matching Jolene’s. We don’t know if it was that or the fact that we shortly thereafter caught a bus into Concepcion, but we did manage to lose the papparazi from there on.

And I’m not even telling you about the guy at the bus stop who tried to help us find the right bus… What I can tell you is that the townspeople of Talcahuano are a cheery and very helpful bunch who welcome and celebrate tourists in their town, and that this sentiment carries all the way up to the highest levels of the municipal government!

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