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How to End Up in Someone’s Spare Bedroom 500 Kilometres North of Santiago

It’s pitch dark outside, which is a sure sign it’s way too early to be up, packing.

I hope I’ll be able to find a taxi.

I hope I won’t get lost in the maze of the San Borja bus terminal.

I hope I’ll find the right bus—apparently, mine says “Iquique” (even though I’m going to La Serena) and it should arrive at platform 35 (or 41, or 24, according to the company’s employee).

I hope I’m making the right move, because I have no idea where I’m going.

I spent four nights in Santiago and I took surprisingly few pictures of the city. It’s partially because it’s hotter than usual in Chile’s capital and shooting in bright, direct sunlight isn’t ideal. But I also used my time in Santiago to do plenty of non-particularly picturesque activities—catching up on work, going to the bank, getting my legs waxed, and yes, buying a bus ticket to La Serena, my next destination.

I didn’t have a plan for Chile. The geography of the country makes it difficult to travel—it’s long and narrow so you have to go north or south, but cities are hours apart. I didn’t want to go south, it’s cold… okay, cooler down there. So, I settled on La Serena, 500-kilometre north of Santiago.

Why La Serena? Because there’s a beach, because I was able to find a hotel—tricky in the middle of summer—and because we’ve never been there.

And it’s precisely because we’ve never been there that I was lying in bed wide awake at 4 a.m.

Taking a chance is scary, and so is jumping into the unknown. I was stressed out. Going to La Serena was a bit of a commitment—a seven-hour bus trip, a long way from Santiago.

The alarm rang at 6:30 a.m.—short night. Never mind, once safely seated in the right bus, I’ll have plenty of time to catch up on sleep. Time to get moving.

When you catch a taxi early in the morning, you’re likely to meet one of these two kinds of drivers: those who are starting their shift and are annoyingly perky because they’re high on caffeine and those who worked the night shift and are falling asleep at the wheel. I got the perky kind and I tried my best to match his perkiness—apparently, my Spanish is better when I’m sleep deprived, he actually thought I was Spanish. That, or Chileans assume a strange flavour of Spanish is spoken in Spain.

Much to my relief, the Terminal de buses San Borja was just waking up—the terminal and the surrounding streets are completely packed during the day. I grabbed a cup of coffee and I started laughing when I realized I was travelling with Cikbus—Feng and I would totally have made fun of the company’s name, I mean, “sick bus,” really?

I had the window seat and I politely “buenos días-ed” the guy sitting besides me.

“Where are you going?”

“Last stop. Iquique.”

I winced. That’s… far. “And… ahem, when will you arrive?”

He checked his watch. “Tomorrow, 3 a.m.”

“Suerte.”

And then he didn’t utter a single word for the rest of the trip. Poor guy, I’d be a bit sullen too if I had to travel 1,500 kilometres by bus…

I slept comfortably, thanks to the neck pillow I bought in Santiago, at Miniso—yes, Feng, I know you offered me yours in Brazil and I declined, but I reconsidered, okay?—and woke up around 1 p.m. We were arriving somewhere. I looked around. “Holy shit, I hope that’s not La Serena,” I thought. Phew. That was just Ovalle. Sorry, Ovalle, you’re just not very inspiring with your barren hills.

An hour and a half ago, the bus stopped in La Serena, where most of the passengers—except my seatmate—got off.

The cabaña I had booked was a ten-minute walk from the bus station and I found it easily.

“Hi!” I called from behind the fence. “I have a booking…”

“We’re full! Sorry!”

“No, but I have a booking.”

The two women looked at each other.

I’m pretty sure the three of us had the same thought—“oh, shit.”

It turned out Expedia screwed up my booking and since all the cabañas were booked, I couldn’t exactly act American and scream “get me the manager or I’m suing you!”

But all it took was a phone call to find a plan B.

“Look, how about spending the night at a friend of mine?” the woman in charge suggested. “One of the cabañas will be free tomorrow.”

I wasn’t terribly excited about the idea of crashing at someone’s place, but it was 5 p.m., I was tired and I had nowhere to go, so I followed her across the street, two blocks further.

The spare bedroom owner was a sixty-something woman named Estella. The place was actually very cozy with a side entrance and an attached bathroom, and she didn’t seem to mind me staying over for a night.

“Dale.”

And this is how I went for a studio on the 9th floor of a modern tower in downtown Santiago to a small room with old wood flooring and a folding wooden door that opens straight onto the street—note to self, close curtains tonight…

Estella promptly retreated to her side of the house—she didn’t seem to be the chatty kind—, the cabañas owner/manager apologized once again and left, and I surveyed the room. Clean, cozy, cute. Exactly what I needed after a long bus ride. Bummer about the booking but hey, happens, and a solution was found quickly. Besides, I’m always curious about people’s living spaces, so there was my chance to spend the night in a Chilean home.

And now it’s 1 a.m. and I’ve just made some instant soup because there’s a small electric kettle in the room, so why not? I’m wrapping up some work, then I’ll eat the gohan bowl I bought earlier, along with some sushi—cold food it is, I don’t have anything to cook or warm up a dish.

There are a few stray dogs barking outside, some Latino music playing from a bar a block down the street and La Serena is quiet. It’s a bit cooler than in Santiago and it’s pitch dark outside. There are so many stars in the sky…

It feels right to be here, and I can’t explain why considering La Serena was hardly a lifelong dream destination I finally reached today but rather a city on the map I decided to go to.

I’m tired, sore (…from the bus ride? How??), and sweaty, but I’m completely relaxed and amazingly happy. I wish Feng and Mark were here, but I called them a few hours ago and they were happy at home and they know I’m happy here, so even though we aren’t together, we still are in a way.

La Serena is going to be an interesting place.

Terminal de buses San Borja, 7 a.m., Santiago
Terminal de buses San Borja, 7 a.m., Santiago
Terminal de buses San Borja, 7 a.m., Santiago
Terminal de buses San Borja, 7 a.m., Santiago
Leaving the bus terminal in Santiago
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Between Santiago and La Serena
Terminal La Serena
Terminal La Serena
Terminal La Serena
The spare bedroom (and my bus ticket), Andrés Bello, La Serena

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