Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Letter to the Gypsies.

By Zach Watson

Editor's note: This corresponds with Alex's Thank You Blog below.

Those were our days, the days on the bus. I think back, now that it has been two months for me without bus, and I think about how incredible it all really was, how those stories will never be matched. Is there a way to ever top it? I think the answer is no, not in the way we did it. No mattter how much we struggled with it, we invented it. It was our moment. And the best part was sharing it.

The bus really started with just A&A and I on those streets of Quito, yes, but it didn't become the bus until the others rode it. I remember sitting with Alex and Alaena in the Centro Del Mundo Hostel at the infamous rum night and saying to the other travelers who sat around drinking, almost as an announcement, that we were buying a bus. In that moment, with the confused stares from the audience, I knew that what we were doing was different. It snowballed then after that, especially after we actually bought it. And we were never alone, even when the bus was broken last summer.

The bus inspired something in Matthias and Mike. They believed in it. They waited for us to figure it all out for a month while they could have been traveling, hooking up with chicks, and drinking beer. I know after they read this, they will say that they wouldn't have done it any other way (and that they still got to hook up with chicks and drink beer.) And I know they wouldn't have. They were just as much a part of it by that point as we were. But it meant a lot to me and A&A to have their never-ending support. Because in those days we really needed it, and we at least knew that two people were just as stupid as we were. Thank you guys for waiting, I told you it would be worth it. haha. Thank you guys for believing in the bus the way you did, unconditionally.

And while we waited. A&A were the real heroes. Trekking back and forth from Quito to Santo Domingo, test driving the bus around Ecuador, getting matriculas and number plates. Alaena with non-stop phone calls to Ivan and late night karaoke parties. You guys were the best. Really I think there might be something wrong with you.

Who does what you did? No one. No one goes to borders and bribes the guards so they can have more time to get a number plate for their broken bus. No one goes illegally across another border to find a cabezota for their broken bus in the backseat of some strange Ecuadorian's car. You guys were the operational nerve center of the bus, the bleeding heart. As much as Alex isn't a bleeding heart in any sense of the idiom, his heart bled for that bus. That made me smile to write. Thank you both for changing my life.

I feel like I am making a speech at a wedding...anyway...

Tom, thank you for supporting us when we needed beers those days in Quito and for your always appreciated words of wisdom. Oh yeah, sorry for bumming cigarettes off you. Thank God I quit. Please, Tom, write me a fucking email. I know you are in the normal world now, but even in the normal world people return emails within 3 months.

Marta,thank you for making me a happy man on three different occasions in South America. I know you dreamed of the Gypsy Train while your nose was buried deep in quantum mechanics, and I know that every second you could have been there, you were with me and even when you weren't you were. Plus, I don't know how to be alone.

Monkey, where the hell are you? Thanks for being a good dog and for pleasing Matthias sexually when he needed it.

T and B you rode bus. you love bus. you were bus. bus was you. I miss you.

Ben and Jake it's too bad you couldn't have bought the bus in Ushuaia that would have been a fairy tale ending to know that the bus would have kept going. Good Luck anyway. Jake I added your picture.

To the gypsies I haven't mentioned, Andrew, Lucas, Tor, Tabitha, CC Boom Boom, Nick, Kate, Karen, Kerry, Hilla, Charlie, Cesar, Mike O’Sullivan, Huburtus, Kate Weatherbee, Bacci, Roa, Hannah, Heather, Bianca, Carla, Chelsea, Johnny, THANK YOU!! Without the gypsy donations, we wouldn't have been able to move.

Also thank you Mom and Darrell and Dad and the Ginger and Brittany Watson for cutting my hair before I left. And Thank You to the other parents of the Gypsy Train who without you giving life to us and providing us with such great nurture we couldn't have realized the Great American Dream.

I don't want to forget to thank you, all of those farmers who let us sleep on their farms, those people who warned us when we needed to be warned, the mechanics, those helpful strangers in passing, and the farmer who gave us the fresh milk that time. Just to let you know, I chilled it later and ate cookies with it. Thank you.

If I have forgotten anyone...Alex and I did this together, so if I hadn't mentioned someone, it is because he had in his. And if he hadn't, then blame him.

A Retrospective Gypsy

By Alex Mehlin

Travelling without The Gypsy Train is odd. I have become so accustom to the dizzyingly dynamic day- to-day events of the bus it is hard to adjust to a more passive travel experience. It seems that without the bus travelling is simplified down to restaurants, hostels and tours.

It’s a far more relaxing existence, but I’m not sure that the relaxation is for me. I miss the bus, at the same time I am enjoying the comforts and leisure being an average tourist allows. My new found free time has allowed me to think back on The Gypsy Train and how wonderful it was.

I would have to say there were a couple of things that made the Gypsy Train so hard to let go of; the nightly dining experience, the freedom to roam and the sociology of the bus.

The first thing that people would always mention when they joined the bus was the food. It took me till now to understand what they really meant. Going out to eat is one of the best parts of travelling. However, this day to day adventure into unknown eateries can take their toll. Many times you are surprised with amazing food but most of the time it is lacking something. Mike coined it best when he said, “it needs sex”. It seems funny to prefer a meal by headlamp to one under a roof and with service, but dinners on The Gypsy Train had SEX. The ingredients are simple and we managed to perfect it night after night; caring cooks, fresh ingredients, cocktails and warm conversation.

Travelling without the bus means using public transportation. This has been the hardest adjustment for me. It is the lack of control, there was something so special about looking at a map and deciding where we were and where we were heading. Being a passenger allows access to places the bus could never go, time to read, naps and is far less stressful. However, it comes with; cramped conditions, bad music, time tables and sketchy drivers.

The bus did something funny to people. Everyone lets loose when they travel its part of the beauty of it, but the Gypsy Train did something more. Looking at photos a transformation takes place in each person. The longer the person stayed on the bus the more they developed a Gypsy persona. When we walk into a bar I now feel a lack of presence without the Gypsy entourage, it’s just not as exciting to go out. Because of these alter egos, we developed roles and rules of the bus. Being back in the real world means living by the rules of normal society; this takes getting use to but once comfortably adapted it is refreshing.

For Alaena and me our lives now orbit tours and meeting up with friends. Much of the time I felt like the bus was waiting for us in a dindgy garage awaiting a joyfuly reunion.

Our most recent activity took us seven days into the Cordillera Real. As we passed over 5000 meter passes and dropped down into glaciated valleys, I slowly adjusted to life without the bus. Following a guide and taking public transport finaly broke me from the Gypsy Train. The break was not pretty and resulted in a childish temper tantrum. When I came out of my episode I was humbled and had a greater appreciation for the accumulation of effort and the help we needed to make the last year so extraordinary.

Thank you to everyone that helped to make our dream road trip a reality.

Our families, thank you for all your; financial help, emails, doing taxes and other various paper work, sending much need packages, constant love and for being our biggest fans. I would especially like to thank our parents...Pam Mehlin, Tim Bateman, Bill Watson, Tom Mehlin, Lori Taylor, Al Czeck, Kelly McNet and Michael Redecker.

Tio Tom, for believing in us when we were just getting off the ground and always having a beers ready and something positive to tell us when times got hard.

Matthias and Mike. I’m not sure who was on the bus longer, but thank you both for your daily contributions and sticking around when times got hard you guys kept us going.

Everyone who rode and loved the bus, without you The Gypsy Train would have died as an idea: Andrew, Lucas, Matthias, Tom, Tor, Monkey, Tabitha, CC Boom Boom, Nick, Marta, Kate, Mike, Teagan, Bernadette, Karren, Kerry, Hilla, Charlie, Cesar, Mike O’, Huburtus, Kate, Botchi, Ben, Jake, Roa, Hannah, Heather, Bianca, Carla, Chelsea, Jonny, Vicky, Zoe and Emily.

I would also like to thank a few people who helped us along the way; Ivan our trusty mechanic in Santo Domingo, The Grinn House, Edwin, every tire guy who miraculously appeared and all the mechanics who did not rip us off.

We would have never gotten the blog rolling without you the readers. Thank you for your interest in our adventure. It was inspiring to see how many people actually read what we had to say!

Most of all without the heart, dedication and fearless financial input, The Gypsy Train would have never come to fruition. So, thank you Alaena and Zach. You guys are amazing friends and I’m still buzzing off the year we lived on the whims of South America’s highways.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The selling of The Gypsy Train

By Alex Mehlin

I bumped into a van when pulling the bus out of the parking lot in Potosi, Bolivia. The damage was minor but the guy managed to get 340 Bolivianos out of us. I was pissed at myself for the accident. Alaena and I drove 200 km to Sucre. The mood was not right, I didn’t really believe it was going to be our last long distance drive in the bus. I guess I should have cherished it a bit more.

We pulled into Sucre, the white city and after getting lost amongst the endless one-way streets of the Spanish colonial town, we finally found a car wash who allowed us to park for the night. We cleaned the interior while the fat man and his balaclava wearing children cleaned the outside. We parked the sparkling bus and promised to return in the morning.

It was my and Zach´s one year anniversary being in South America. Alaena and I watched a movie on her laptop like we had done so many nights before on the bus. We had a couple of beers and passed out.

We awoke before the sun and walked up the hill to the bus. We pulled out of the parking lot and drove to the car market. Only there was no market, it was just a blank street. A local informed us that it only took place on Saturday.

The next morning we returned after spending our last night ever sleeping on the bus under the street lights.

A small man greeted us, I spoke to him the best I could while Alaena made last minute adjustments to the bus. He assured me that many people came to the market and we would sell the bus today. It was hard to truly believe him, I guess I didn’t really want to.

The sun pierced through the window, outside short fat women set up stands selling Salteñas, sweet pastries filled with meat or cheese and Papa Rellenas, deep fried mashed potatoes filled with meat. We got our first visitor as the street began to fill with cars.

For the next 8 hours Alaena answered these same questions.

A small man, generally missing multiple teeth would approach the window and yell in. “How much,” Alaena would respond, “6 thousand”. He would smile, thinking this was very cheap and we must be very stupid.

“What year”, -1998.

“What type of motor” - 3500 diesel.

He would respond,” oh that’s small.” We were after all very stupid gringos.

Then the kicker question would arise. “Do you have Bolivian Papers?” This took more explaining, no we did not have the papers, we were selling the bus illegally. The buyer would take full responsibility for the legal aspect of having the bus. This is why we were asking only $6000.

At this point most potential buyers would just walk off. A few would tell us the ways that they could illegally operate the bus making it a good, but risky purchase for them.

One, make duplicate copies of the same bus in a different city and apply them to our bus. Two busses having the same papers. If discovered by the police the bus would be seized.

Two, buy a shitty bus legally and transfer all the numbers and papers illegally to
the good bus.

Three, bribe officials until the bus was legit, this would cost $4000.

Four, sell it off as parts.

Those that stuck around would ask more questions. Why would we take the seats out and put a bed in? They also questioned why we would want to hang so much stuff on the roof?

They then would make a ridiculous offer or question whether we would go down and declare they would come back later. One man even tried to trade us Artisan goods, like sweaters for the bus. At one point he told Alaena to take down the for sale sign because he was going to buy it with colorful pants and sweaters.

This went on for what seemed like years. Towards the end of the day Alaena´s patience was wearing thin. I tried to help her by getting her some chocolate but she was going to need more than just chocolate to keep up with the barrage of questioning.

A small business lady approached the bus, she wanted it for parts, she offered $4000 no more. Alaena looked like she was considering. Could we sell The Gypsy Train off as junk? The bus that brought us to all those amazing places in a million pieces scattered around Bolivia, it was hard to swallow.

We passed on the offer but not before giving her our number with instructions to call on Monday.

The market began to wind down. Two very young men entered the bus. They were ecstatic about the bus. One was a mechanic and the other was a bus driver who owned a beat up bus. Option TWO was now in play.

They offered $5000 on Monday. Just as we were discussing the prospect of sale, a couple who earlier were looking at the bus showed up. They offered us $5000 on the spot.

We had the makings for a bid off.

Alaena asked the young men if they were serious. They kind of blushed and walked off the bus. We were left with the couple. Soon the commotion attracted more people. The artisan man was now offering $5500 but we could hardly take him seriously.

The couple offered to take us to their house, they had a garage and spare room. We could stay there until Monday when we could go to a lawyer and send off the money to a secure location.

In the commotion and relief to have a real serious buyer we took the offer. I pulled into the stop and go traffic and drove out of the market with the couple. I stopped and Willy took the wheel. It was my last drive.

Willy maneuvered the bus with skill. He had previously been a bus owner, driving was in his blood. We entered their massive constructed brick complex. Dora showed us our room and made us coffee and toasties. A delicacy she picked up two years prior when her and Willy left their children in Bolivia and moved to Spain to work in rich people’s homes. They saved every Euro and used the money to build their home and I presume to buy our bus.

It was very weird staying with them. After coffee Dora instructed us to go rest in our room. It was 7 o´clock and we were hardly tired. We spent the next 3 hours watching movies on the laptop and fell asleep. I questioned whether the bus would be there in the morning.

The sun came up and we ate more toasties with Dora. We escaped her home for the city for the day, but not before checking on the bus.

We came back late, went to our room and slept.

In the morning we cleaned out the bus. Collected all our belonging and put what we did not want in a pile for Dora to buy. She purchased; blankets, the kitchen, the chairs, the shovel, old camping equipment and other various goods for 300 Bolivianos.

The four of us, Alaena, Dora, Willy and I, got in their 21 year-old son´s car and he drove us to the lawyers. There they gave Alaena and I $5000 in crisp 100 dollar bills. For the second time in a year I was running around a South American city with way too much money in my hand. We found a safe outlet and got rid of it while Dora and Willy waited for the lawyer. The paper work was not to be. We had to wait until morning.

At 9 a.m. sharp Willy phoned us and we met him at the law office. The paper work was completed. It stated that I sold the bus to Willy and he bought it from me. I signed it and we went to the notary. He took my thumb print and Willy´s. We signed again and made it official. Willy and I shook hands, Alaena and Willy shook hands. We parted with an Adios. Willy seemed happy and we were happy to have the process over.

Alaena and I proceeded to get far too drunk and went to the mercado central for dinner. The next day we had a proper celebration at the finest French restaurant in town, it cost us $35.

Not having the bus has not hit me yet. I know it will when we board our first public transportation bound for La Paz. Right now it kind of feels like the bus is safely parked waiting for us to be tired of the city. I know deep down that day long drives and the thrill of having no idea where we will end up is over, but in that same deep dark hole I know that it was time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Life after...

So I started a depressingly funny new blog about life after the Gypsy

It's under my pseudonym, Johnathan Tweed, because I didn't want anybody to think that this was how I actually thought.

But you know, fans, that it is me, Zach W. Watson, behind the English facade.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bienvenidos Bolivia

By Alex Mehlin

We successfully stamped out of Argentina. We walked five meters to the left to the Bolivian vehicle crossing guard. I mechanically produced our documents while Alaena sweat talked the guard through a warm smile.

He glanced up through his bifocals. Seguro? I reached into the folder and produced our tried and true international driving insurance. He scrutinized it as if it were a ticking bomb.

Without raising his head, he informed us that the folded piece of paper did not specify that the insurance was indeed for Bolivia. I looked across the boarder. Donkeys pulled loads of good illegally passing between countries, people chewed on coca leaves, cars not fit for a demolition derby sped down dirt roads. There was no chance in hell any insurance company would ever pay out for an incident occurring in Bolivia.

Alaena argued with the stubborn man. ¨our insurance has worked in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Are you telling me that Bolivia is not in South America?¨ He did not like this and finished the argument stating that we would not pass into Bolivia without insurance that specified Bolivian coverage.

We were forced illegally back into Argentina. We returned 30 minuets later and 180 peso the poorer with a print out of an insurance statement declaring that we owned insurance for the Gypsy Train. The guard once again did not look up, he stamped our paper and we were allowed to pass.

The ancient floor board creaked under our feet, cracked glass windows sheltered the tellers from unwanted saliva, a sign hung on the wall stating that children are not objects and should not be sold. We stood in line watching every South American get stamped through with little effort and extreme speed.

In order to expatiate the process Alaena bypassed the line and procured a document of entry. She filled it in and qued up. Her time came and she stepped up to the cracked window. ¨Where did you get this paper?¨ The boarder guard, officially sporting track pants and a leather jacket, inquired. ¨You did not get it from me, take this one and fill it out.¨ He gave her the exact same paper and sent her to the back of the line.

I stepped up next. Bolivians hate Americans and I did not expect much. What I received was far from welcoming. I was asked a serious of questions outlining my birth city, occupation, if I ever worked for the government and if I had family who did. I must have passed the inquisition because I was given a piece of paper outlining the very questions I just answered. I filled it out and stood in line. At the window I was told I would need to produce $135 USD and no other currency would be accepted. Since I was just coming from Argentina I was forced to exchange my peso for dollars at a painful rate. For this exercise I was allowed to enter Bolivia, however not trusting the guard holding my passport hostage, Alaena for the second time in a day ran illegally into a foreign country.

She returned safely with the money. I paid and was rewarded a 90 day vias once a year for the rest of my life into Bolivia.

We drove back into the third world.

At the gas station we were forced to pay double the diesel prices because of a law prohibiting sale of diesel to foreigners within 200km of the boarder at the national price.

At the gas station I met my first real Bolivian. We talked and he told me that the road to Uyuni was very long, however his crooked gold smile proudly informed me the first 90 km were newly paved. We shook hands and he wished us safe travels, warning me never to drive at night.

Off into Bolivia we drove. The world outside the Gypsy Train filled with dust and gravel. The country side looked like the Wild West only the renegades to the likes of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, have now traded their stallions for 4x4 Toyotas.

No longer did signs point the direction to the next town or warn of approaching danger. There were no longer any fences marking private property and llamas roamed freely. Quechua women huddled next to the side of the road watching the world go bye and we occasionally picked up kids hitching to school 30 km from home.

Once again we were away from all the comforts of the first world, like an unwanted but highly needed cold shower if felt refreshing.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Bus Magic

By Alex Mehlin

Our bags had just been stolen. Our bus was filled with emerging Gypsies. Horns honked as I glimpsed back, dangerously weaving through traffic while watching Zach’s awkwardly skinny body disappear in the morning smog.

We drove out of Mendoza, a new chapter was underway.

It did not start great. I watched as the temperature gage climbed, it gave me the far too familiar sour feeling in my gut that has been recurring ever since our first major break down in Ecuador. I knew what was needed to be done but we had new people onboard and I was embarrassed to share with them that the bus was not perfect.

A truck sped past, honking and pointing at the roof-rack. It was the perfect alibi for pulling over. I quickly took the first off ramp. My muscle memory went to work; lift the sheep skin, open the engine bay, take off the radiator cap, listen in disgust and confusion as the engine spits and gargles fluids, pump by hand the radiator hose, replace the radiator cap, turn on the engine and watch the temperature drop. I climbed up on the roof-rack. Nothing was wrong so we got back on the road.

We drove from the land of roaming Gauchos into the vast wilderness filled by obscure towns dotting the map of Northwest Argentina. Seemingly ancient adobe buildings crumbled. Built around ancient Spanish colonial towns dating back to the 1600s, when North-western Argentina held all the wealth and Buenos Aires was little more than a fort, the towns now are quiet outposts.

Sunset at Puente del Inca

Our emerging Gypsies watched out the window as the mountains sped past. They gave way to deep canyons, monster cacti, snow capped peaks, red sandstone cliffs, dried salt lakes and empty valleys. Each day lead us to a new activity, star gazing, bush whacking up mountains, exploring slot canyons, drinking under the starts around roaring campfires and admiring outlandish rock formations.

Valle de la Luna

It was odd at first, with only Alaena and I being the sole remaining Original Gypsies. But as the days went by our cult like group behaviour began to morph our companions into true Gypsies. No longer did the girls climb onto the roof for clean clothes. Jonny gave up shaving and pondered the possibility for future facial hair. Structured camping became a luxury as did showers. We camped on the side of roads and everyone grew angry with outlandish tourist prices. I watched the metamorphism take place from my driver’s seat, an object I’m sure has twisted my back and ass so they perfectly line up to its torturous metal frame.

Jonny's lunch outside of Tafi de Valle at 3800 meters

The bus is like learning to drink beer, at first it is hard to digest and get down, but soon you learn to love it and you can’t think of life before it. It has forced three people to sell their cars, two people to deliberately miss flights home, it convinced one brave soul to buy a motorcycle without even having any idea how to ride, it has made love blossom, it has convinced people to stay on even though they have very limited travel time, it has made people fly around the world just for a short stint and most of all it has made everyone who has stepped foot on it fall in love.

I never expected that when we bought the bus it would consume so much of my life and the lives of all the people who have ridden on it. Every time we think it has been over somehow the bus has produced a way or reason for us to push forward.

Alaena and I have only a little time left on our visas for Argentina. From there we will drive into the poorest and arguably most corrupt country in South America. A country home to the “death rode”, a place where drinking and driving just became illegal to the disgust of bus drivers and truck drivers alike and the world’s largest supplier of cocaine.

We always said we were not going to even attempt Bolivia, but as always it seems the bus has a plan and we are only along for the ride.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hot Springs

By Alex Mehlin

Since we have left Valparaiso, The Gypsy Train has been on a search for hot springs. We have looked long and far searching the seemingly endless array of South American hot spring only to long for the perfect bath.

The idea bath is pictured in a remote valley, an underground river leaks scolding water from a crack in the rocks forming a pool. We drive up, park, our muscles cry out for relief from the cold night air and we long for a soothing soak after a day spent hiking. We undress crack open a few beers and jump in.

We have found everything but this idea situation.

What we have found are: Luxury spas, overpriced algae infested pools, empty pools, community bathing grounds, whore houses with hourly rates, cold pools, splashing children in municipal swimming pools with water slides and mapped out pools at the end of the world that don’t exist.

For a while it became a joke, every day we would promise all the Gypsies a night spent at the hot springs, Mike always grew excited only to be let down. Eventually the joke became old, but we never gave up our search.

We drove with our newest crop of Gypsies into the deserts of Northwest Argentina. The map promised a hotsprings. We expected very little. The surrounding country side was nothing more than an empty moonscape. I wondered how any body of water would survive a day in the heat.

We pulled up to an unsuspecting goat herding village. A small hotel sat amidst the dusty adobe homes. Alaena snuck around back and tested the water, a warm clean sensation rushed over her hand. She jumped back over the fence, her face tattooed with a smile.

I dreamed that this could be it. We rang the door bell. No one came. Alaena, anxious to get in the water, rang again, this time for 15 seconds.

We waited. Finally an elderly lady came to the door. She whipped the corroded mascara from her tired eyes as she unlocked the glass door. I instantly knew we had awakened her from her siesta. A rush of Antique air passed us as we entered. She was dressed as if to meet hoards of customers at any minute.

A rosary hung from the full rack of keys to the vacant rooms. A tacky photo of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns hung above the seventies decor. It seemed as if this lady was preserving a business that was long dead.

Alaena asked in her most innocent voice. “Can we please pay you to camp in your backyard and use your pool?” Alaena’s charm usually pays off; I stood smiling anticipating a welcoming yes.

Through her cracked lipstick the words spilled out. “No, you pay and stay in the hotel or you do not use the pool.” The rock hard flatness of her voice left nothing to negotiate. She was not going to budge. It was if we asked to borrow her first born.

The prices were set at an exuberant 200 pesos for a single, 250 for double and topping the charts of luxury her ancient suites came in at 330 pesos.

We are poor travellers. There was no way we were going to pay these prices. With shattered dreams of cold beers consumed in a warm concrete pool gazing into the arid startlit night, we walked back to the bus.

The Gypsy Train drives on, continually searching for our romanticised perfect pool. We know that one day we will find it tucked deep in the wilderness, free of splashing children, angry old women and filled with sexy travellers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Beginning of a Fellow Gypsy's Writing Career

I think Mike might be a little shy about his newly found passion. But I think its great and I love the first installment of his new blog. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When you don't want bus...

Zach W. Watson

This is a recant of my last blog entry, “When you have bus…”

I was caught up in the excitement of our successful trip to Iguazu when I had written the last blog.

The trip to Iguazu was our final trip with all the original gypsies. It had felt good being on the road again with everyone in high spirits. The future of the bus was uncertain.

We were on our way back to Buenos Aires from Iguazu falls when we stopped for the night in a little river town called Colon. We parked in a city park that lined the river Uruguay. We drank a number of beers that Matthias had purchased for everyone.

We all decided to commemorate Matthias and Ben’s final night on the Gypsy Train by sleeping like cowboys on our wool blankets in the grass looking at the stars half drunk on cheap booze, hidden in the shadows made by the bus and the street lamps that sat above the park. And we did sleep like cowboys, except for Matthias who got cold and went into the bus halfway through the night. But before Matthias became cold and while everyone was sleeping, I asked Alex and Alaena what they wanted to do.

“We want to keep going. We talked about it today and we want to get new people and Gypsy Train it to Bolivia.” Alex said and Alaena quietly agreed.

“Wow.” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”

“What do you think? We can’t sell the bus in Argentina. So we have to keep going.”

“I am probably going to have to decline. I mean. I want to live in Buenos Aires and learn Spanish. But don’t count me out, I guess.” I said.

“You should at least come to Mendoza. Free living.”

I thought of the idea all night and the entire next day. I made the decision to keep going with them, to find more people, and to continue to live life like a vagrant, stinky hippy. I never felt quite sure of my decision. I wanted to live in Buenos Aires, but I couldn't remember what life was like outside of this life that we had made. It scared the shit out of me.

So we found more people. This didn’t conceal the fact that every gypsy that had meant so much to me and the bus wereleaving.

The night before The Gypsy Train left for Mendoza with the new people, we walked Mike to the bus stop where he would catch the number eight to Ezeiza International to fly to Mexico.

“Now it feels so short.” He said to me as we stood waiting for the bus. A group of young Argentine kids were helping us sort what bus we needed to get him on.

“Thanks.” He said to me.

“Aeropuerto! Aeropuerto!” The young kids cried and Mike hugged the Canadians, Matthias and me and jumped on the bus.

He hung his head out of the bus window and said, “This is it. I’m really leaving.” And like that he rounded the corner and was gone.

I was leaving the next morning with the new gypsies. Matthias was flying home the following night. The Canadians were leaving in a week. So we got really drunk, and I woke up early with a hangover to lead the new people to the bus, three hours outside of Buenos Aires by public transportation. My eyes were barely open when I greeted them.

I had a fun trip with the new people on our way to Mendoza. They were great and fit in very well. I saw that they could love the bus like the others did.

I felt unreal, though, like a plastic robot shell of a man. My excitement was gone. I had done this all before. My actions and my jokes were mechanical. I felt like an adulterer, cheating on Mike and Matthias.

Buenos Aires called to me, “Zach. Zach. You need me. It’s time to leave. It’s been time to leave. Come to me, big boy. You have wanted me since Patagonia. Are you really going to go home without learning Spanish? The bus is over for you. It ended when the others left. It’s time to move on. You want a refrigerator. You want a bed.”

Alex and Alaena already knew when I told them. I had mentioned a few things about leaving.

I signed the roof, as is the custom, and left.

Good Bye and Good Luck A&A, from Buenos Aires. It was a great adventure. Thank you. I love you.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Siesta Blues

Cobble stone shakes the Gypsy Train as we drive down an unknown deserted street. The sun is high, we are hungry, thirsty and in need of filling our provisions for the next two days. Nothing moves, the sole sound of a dog barking echos out from behind tightly closed shutters.

I drive on in hopes that at least one store owner in the town understands the concept of capitalism. I drive, nothing moves except our empty stomachs. An eerie calm fills the air, the town is thatched down tight. I wonder if there is a tornado alert.

We pass children playing in the park, their mothers look on, a line of stores offer a beacon of hope but they too are closed. We pass an elderly lady strolling the street I slowly pull up to her.

Alaena leans out the window, “we are looking for a grocery store,” she explains. With a few hand gestures and the sense of direction finely tuned after years of afternoon strolls, we are directed to the town´s grocery store.

I pull up, park, the lights inside are off, the sign on the door indicates that the proprietor will return from his afternoon spent hidden from the light of day and open his store at 5. He will then proceed to close at 8.

I look down at my watch, it reads 3:30 we still have 200 km of dusty desert to cover, yet we have no food and will be forced to wait out Siesta. A flurry of well rehearsed swear words drain out of my mouth. Every one looks around wondering what to do.

Some people venture off to find an ATM, toilet or a hidden corner store containing sweet bites of chocolate or even better an empenada. I open my book read a few pages and fall asleep.

Time crawls on and we wait.

Slowly the town begins to come to life, a group of teenagers begin to make noise in the street. A team of electricians begin to repair a light post. Stores begin to open and the once sleepy town now seems to have life. We watch and wait in preparation for the glorious opening of the grocery store.

We watch a man dressed in white casually smoking a cigarette as he walked up to the caged doors. We salivate at the thought of spending all our Pesos on meat, cheese, pasta, veggies and cookies. He takes another drag of the cigarette, looks up to the clouds, throws his cigarette out and slowly turns the key.

Zach and Mike rush in I yell behind them, “make this fast we need to move.”
Soon the cash register is ringing as we dance out of the store chewing on snacks and sipping cold drinks.

I prepare the bus for the return of bags of food and get ready to leave. Zach comes back first, “They didn't have good meat, Mike went over to the butcher.” We pack the veggies away and wait.

Mike comes running back to the bus, I start the engine and we drive back into the desert.

Authors Note:

When we first entered Argentina we struggled to figure out the culture of Siesta, after spending months living with Siesta we have it worked out. If we need anything we go shopping for it before noon or after 4. The smaller the town or hotter the enviorment the longer the Siesta.

It could be argued that Argentines are nocturnal. They eat late, stay out dance late and go to bed even later. Siesta is their time of rest and also family time. Most people go home to eat lunch with their whole family and take a nap.

Friday, April 1, 2011

When you have bus...

Zach W. Watson

I thought the Gypsy Train was over. But I am bus.

I thought, after we met our goal of reaching the end of the world in Ushuaia, we would sell the bus and the next phase of my life would begin, one where I would have an apartment and a refrigerator that I could keep orange juice in. I would teach English, learn Spanish, and maybe buy a new pair of pants, living a quiet life in some quiet place in Buenos Aires.

After finding out the impossibility of selling a foreign car in Argentina, we have decided there are two options. One would be to kill the bus, blowing the fucking thing to smithereens. Two would be to continue gypsying the South American continent, visiting the places we haven´t seen.

As much as I talked, over the last few days, about filling the gas tank and strapping sixteen sticks of high grade Bolivian TNT to the undercarriage, I knew, in all reality, we couldn’t explode the bus.

With Mike leaving to Mexico next week to see his family, we will be without a cook. With Beanie and Tegan leaving for the vaginally rhyming Saskatchewan capital of Ragina, I will no longer have an audience for my seemingly endless barrage of tasteless potty jokes. With Matthias having to return home to the Deutschland, where he will be forced to speak a language he has almost all together abandoned, we will be without a scapegoat.

Ben´s gone. Jake has a motorcycle. Marta left to study chemistry.

We have bus, A&A and I, but we have no people. They are all gone.

So long, dear friends, my gypsy family.

Now we are back to the way we began. Like in Quito, we are three searching for others to join us. I hope we can find people that are at least as good, hopefully better, as those we became so close with over the last six months.

It´s our only logical choice, to run the bus into the ground, to get every cent of worth out of it, to destroy the axels, the transmission and whatever other part could break on the bumpy death roads of Bolivia.

Monday, March 14, 2011


By Alex Mehlin

It’s nine p.m. a crowd is beginning to gather outside of La Cabrera, one of Buenos Aires premier steak house. To the applause of porteños and tourists alike, complimentary champagne is liberally served, fueling the multi lingual conversation of the waiting diners.

Having just spent the last nine months bumming through South America Alaena, Mike, Zach, Matthais and I stood in a crowd of well-to-do citizens. It was all we could do but to laugh. Our ragged clothes, the best we own, stood in harsh contrast to the evening dresses and suits surrounding us.

It was our second night in Buenos Aires and thanks to a generous gift from Mrs. McNett we were going out for dinner. We were quickly learning that dinning in BA is an event.

After a healthy amount of champagne, Mike’s name was called and we parted the cast of diners. Entering the restaurant the essence of grilled meat iodated our senses. The gentle hum of conversation, clinking silver and crystal floated through the air.

We were seated to an assortment of spreads and a basket of freshly baked bread. Our waiter soon approached, “would you prefer your service in Spanish or English?” He asked as he handed out a distinguished wine list.

We looked over the list of steaks ranging from 800 gram tenderloins to 400 gram t-bones. Sneaking looks at other tables we quickly realized we were going to leave very full.

Our waiter soon approached and we ordered a bottle of Malbec, a celebrated Argentine blend hailing from Mendoza, and starters of; Tortilla of Artichoke, Hearts of Palm salad and a Sundried Tomato, Prosciutto and Mozzarella spread.

In Argentine fashion our meal leisurely came together. With the second bottle of wine our steaks arrived. Cooked to a perfect medium, our 600 gram hulks of beef steamed before our eyes. Argentina steak houses seem not to mind tarnishing their steaks, as ours sat surrounded by a battalion of sauces.

We cut our portions of steak off the two slabs of rib eye filling the table. Between pallet cleansing sips of fine wine we passed the sauces; apple sauce, spicy marinated peppers, pesto, homemade golf sauce, spinach spread and a variety of others. Unable to determine the best we dabbled in all.

We laughed and joked at the turn of events that put us in Buenos Aires as we enjoyed our meal.

Our bill casually arrived under a tree of lollipops, allowing us enough time to take our final sips of wine and digest. Calmly, Mike opened the leather bound booklet, uneasy at what the potentially disastrous total may be he glanced in.

He quickly closed it smiling. Moments later, bursting and buzzing we walked out of the restaurant only $125 dollars the poorer.

Delighted we watched the city lights pass by from the window of our cab. It was only 12 o’clock and we were in Buenos Aires, a city where the party does not stop till 6 am. We met up with the rest of the Gypsies and rounded off the evening we a few night caps in the barrio of San Telmo before retiring to our clean sheets and soft mattresses.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An Angry Penguin

By Alex Mehlin

In 1947 a half a million Magellanic Penguins unexpectedly waddled out of the Atlantic Ocean and onto the vast Patagonia steppe at Punta Tombo. They have been coming back ever since.

From September to April these flightless birds make their nests amongst the dome shaped bushes, the occasional guanacos, countless cui, harmless foxes and now up to 300 people at a time, seven days a week.

A small chain restricting access to a board walk and ticket window functioned as a welcoming for visitors. At the gate we were given the stringent rules of the park; One, Give the penguins the right of way. Two, stay a meter and a half from the penguins. Three, do not eat food or smoke in the park. Four, do not deviate away from the path.

With the rules freshly implemented into our minds we walked down the board walk. The sound of honking penguins filled the misty air. It took no time for us to see the sleek black and white creatures. They waddled about picking up sticks to bring to their spouses. Others lined up and marched piously towards the sea. The fledging young huddled together like a bunch of displaced teenagers, no home to speak of and no spouse to call their own, they loitered about.

The Penguins seemed to hold little regard for the intruding humans. They boldly took over the path going about their daily business with a sense of determination and authority, except for one.

We stood at the edge of the white rock barrier watching two full grown male penguins peck at each other’s face until the less dominate of the two decided he has had enough and waddles way ashamed and defeated.

The sound of honking was suddenly interrupted by Spanish screeching.

“Ahh, My hand bag, my hand bag,” a middle aged women yelled. We quickly turned our attention to an Argentinean man taunting an aggressive youth with his wives hand bag. The penguin with his chest puffed out pecked at the Black Hand bag, angrily he move closer to the bag, grabbing it with his beak and shaking his little head.

The Argentine man pull the bag away and let it sit just out of reach from the penguin, we looked on horrified as the penguin advanced on the bag a second time.
This time the man was having nothing of the penguin’s advances, in one swift swing he pulled the bag and the penguin off the ground and swung them in a circle. Undaunted the penguin held tight. Once safely back on the ground the penguin released his death grip on the bag.

His wife looked on horrified as three penguins sensing the urgency of the moment marched towards the scene. Alarmed she warmed her husband of the pressing danger. “The others are coming, the others are coming,” she cried.

The man seemed to realise the pure ridiculousness of the situation. He pulled the hand bag out of reach and quickly walked away.

Not done yet, the angry penguin turned his attention to us. Still appalled by the man’s actions I watched as the once docile creature turn on me. He waddled at me with surprising speed. I began to back away fast enough to keep him from pecking my knees to shreds while still remaining calm. My escape seemed to work.

Exhausted and seemingly satisfied with defending his turf, the penguin turned and walked over to a crowd of his observing peers. We moved on still flabbergasted by the childish antics of the grown man.

We spent the rest of the morning watching penguins hop into the sea and waddle about. More and more people walked the trail. Overwhelmed, hungry and tired of smelling bird shit, we left the reserve.

On the way back to our bus I wondered when the penguins would have enough of the day to day torment and decide to pick a new plot of land to lay claim.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fin del Mundo

By Alex Mehlin

"So this is it." Mike and I sat looking out to sea, his face dripped with depression, "Yup, that’s all it is." Tourists milled about, snapping photos, artisans pushed carts filled with wooden penguins, the sound turbo diesel engines rumbled ready to escort their passengers to the next point of interest, while yachts sat anchored to the southernmost city in the world.

For the last nine months The Gypsy Train has driven roughly 20,000 kilometres spiralling down the Andean spine. Since the fateful morning of Friday the 13th when we pulled out of Quito, the distant thought of reaching Patagonia hung in the back of our minds.

Here we were sitting at the end of world with no real idea of what was to become.
Imagining life without the Gypsy Train is hard. It has become so much a part of us that the ridiculous life style we live has become normal. We live day to day, travelling where and when we want, we meet our simple needs of food, shelter and drink. Reaching Ushuaia was a sad wakeup call that one day we will have to return to average life.

As we walked the city littering it with flyers, gringo grabbing in hostels, drinking in bars, each and every person we met was a reminder that it all could end and we could be boarding some tourist transport in the morning just like them.

Zach, Alaena and I dabbled with the idea of selling the bus in Ushuaia, but we quickly learned that because of Chilean and Argentine import tax laws it would be impossible. Selling the bus would require us to falsify the documents and make a sale in no-man’s-land. Without finding bold and brave buyers, most likely other travellers, it seems a near impossible task.

Daily we lost Gypsies, some left by north bound busses, others thumbed it out of town and in the end we had only 4 Gypsies; Alaena, Mike, Jake and I. We all knew after 2 months of living together in a small bus that it was a time for a change. As they left, two by two, and we failed to recruit new people, it became apparent that it was going to be a quiet ride north.

We walked the city streets avoiding the hoards of cruise ship tourists flocking to duty free stores and gift shops that occupy the main drag through town. At times Ushuaia gave us a glimpse of her rugged past, a ship wreck sat just off shore, tin roofs rusted down the side of small square shacks, whale bones decorated the pier and interpretive tour leaders dressed in prison outfits walked the streets.

We spent our last few days as a group watching the sun set and drinking beer as it rose, we dined on King Crab, eventually we hugged and parted ways setting vague plans of meeting in Buenos Aires.

We loaded the bags on the newly repaired roof rack, grabbed some snacks and turned our backs on the last piece of land before Antarctica. Nostalgically we drove over the mountains.

Mike thumbed through our played out ipod, "There are two reasons to visit Ushuaia," he said between songs, "to drive your car there and say you did it or you are there to take a cruise to Antarctica".

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Day I Left the Gypsy Train

By Zach W. Watson

I walked along the bay at the end of the world, a storm behind me, the bus behind me. My backpack hung heavy with everything: my tent, my six hundred and seventy pesos, my passport, a camp stove, some rice and tuna, and my sleeping bag. These were my valuables.

My plan: to hitchhike to Buenos Aires. 3040 kilometers to the north.

I was walking out of town to the police checkpoint, the only exit from Ushuaia, to wait. I had a thick moustache, pants with holes in them and long hair. Was I a dirty vagrant hippy, hitching rides, begging for handouts? The answer was yes. But that’s probably a whole other blog.

I got my first ride to Tolhuin. We didn’t talk much due to the language barrier. He dropped me off. And I waited again, this time longer, maybe two hours, the storm still behind me. Then Elbio picked me up. He told me the Falklands were Argentinean. We talked a lot, mostly just pointing and saying words like Guanaco, llamas native to southern Patagonia, which happened to be abundant on the sides of the roads.

He dropped me off in Rio Grande. I sat by the road again. I eyed out a nice place to put up my tent in some high grass, invisible from the road. I was tired.

In the distance I saw it coming my way, the toaster with the chairs strapped to the roof. I couldn´t believe they caught me. They stopped. We talked for a minute.

Alaena asked, “When you get into someone’s car do you tell them that you own a bus that is heading in the same direction as you are?” We laughed.

“I don´t think they would understand.” I said

“No one really does.” We laughed again.´

It was a personal journey, I decided, to have only myself to rely on to get me from point A to point B using my wit and resourcefulness.

They left me on the road. I was tired, so I set up my tent in that tall grass I had eyed, the Atlantic Ocean meters away. The sound of the wind whistled through the sea grass between the overpowering sounds of the crashing sea and semi-trucks.

Once I pitched the tent, the walls sagging from extensive use, I made chicken noodle soup under the vestibule and fell asleep before the sun had set, between Ruta 3 and the sea.

I awoke to a grey sky, packed up the tent, and hit the road, thumb in the air. It began to rain. Luckily, I hitched a short ride to the truck rest stop where Carlos eventually picked me up and there was shelter.

Carlos and I struggled communicating but managed to understand some things about each other. He was from Mendoza and was driving five thousand kilometers to see family. Also, he had a bag of cookies which we snacked on.

We crossed the border and headed to the ferry crossing at the straits of Magellan. I thought, that would be funny if the bus was here. And then, right in front of Carlos and I, somehow, sat the toaster with the chairs on top. They were waiting for the ferry. I told Carlos I wanted to say hi to my friends and walked over.


“We thought we would see you here! Who are you with?”

“Carlos. He´s my friend.”

We talked a little when the cars began pulling onto the ferry. I ran back to Carlos´s car. Carlos and I just sat in his little blue car waiting. He couldn´t grasp what the bus was and why I was not with my friends. And neither could I, looking at the bus from the passenger seat of some stranger.

I just kept saying contradicting things about where they were going. He thought me a halfwit. I knew this because he kept explaining to me the geography of the borders.

“Argentina. Chile. Argentina. Mexico. Estados Unidos.” He said followed by laughter. Then he would say, “Estamos en Chile.”

And I would look at him blankly and say, “Ahh.”

We crossed into Argentina again, after our short stint in Chile. He dropped me off in the middle of Rio Gallegos. I walked for an hour and a half to the outside of the city, asking my way to the north. I stopped at a gas station to fill up my water, so I could cook my dinner of rice and tuna.

I waited on a northern stretch of highway by the airport for a ride, hoping to get a ride before I had to see the Gypsy Train again. I sat. I stood. I sang songs. One went like this, “It is getting cold out, someone pick me up now. My jacket is getting thinner and thinner and thinner and thinner.”

I had made it four hundred kilometers in two days by this point and had waited for three and a half hours in that spot when I saw the toaster again, encroaching. It pulled over quickly under an overpass, five hundred meters to the south. It didn´t move. It just sat there, so I walked to it.

When I came closer, I noticed the hood up and Alex, working the same routine, filling up the radiator with water out of his blue nalgene. A panicked look on Alaena´s face accompanied the sweet smell of diesel lingering in the air.

I opened the door. “Perfect timing for a problem.”

They smiled. I couldn´t get away from the bus no matter how hard I tried. We talked, establishing that Alaena´s birthday was the following day and it wouldn´t be right for me not to stay in Rio Gallegos, where they were to wait due to the gasoline leaking from the engine. I jumped in. We camped, ate and drank for two days.

After the party, I hit the pavement.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Torres del Paine

By Alex Mehlin

We stood shoulder to shoulder like cattle in the one shelter that our free campsite offered. The rumble of camp stoves echoed off the tin walls grinding in with the murmurs of foreign tongues. It was our first night on trail in Torres del Paine and it was just as we expected, packed.

Like refugees, late arrivals scrambled to find a flat piece of mud to lay claim for the night. We arrived safely before the influx and leisurely sat back watching the show. Every sort of tent ripped out of stuff sacks, the few experts put together their well worn middle of the road tents with ease. The majority struggled to figure out their rental tents, while the Patagonian Elite stood puzzled looking at their top of the line structures unsure where to start.

Over our travels we have become jaded and judgemental. Sitting back and stereotyping has become a Gypsy pastime, all of the campsites on the ‘’W’’, the most popular offering 3-4 days hikes or single day outings, offered us great subject matter. Mike and I stood examining tents comparing and contrasting designs, weighting the benefits of the four season designs and poking fun at the people who obviously walked into their local outfitter and picked the most expensive tent possible for their great Patagonia adventure. The Elite stood glimmering in matching blemish free apparel while the rest trudged through the mud mismatched and patched together.

We spent the next 6 days hiking the Paine Circuit, looping around Torres del Paine. Going into the hike we were aware that it was the most visited park in South America, averaging 200,000 visitors a year, but we were not prepared for freeway like atmosphere that waited on the trail.

There is no question as to why the park is so popular. Granit massifs dominate the skyline, giant glaciers empty into turquoise lakes, hardwoods lead to alpine shrub and it is impossible to escape the sounds of rushing water and thundering avalanches. There is no point along the trail that is not photo worthy and awe inspiring.

We pushed our bodies to the limit. Logging ten hour days we pushed past pay camping and flew past other hikers. The Paine Circuit is not so much a walk with nature, but a social appreciation of travel and natural beauty. Our first night on the circuit we met the crew we would be leap frogging down the trail for the next few days. Of the 30 odd people we met our first night, five made it through the Circuit in the same time and efficiency as the Gypsies. Each time we passed one another and each night around the sheltered table we traded stories of Antarctica, our bus, swapped favourite sights and views of the day. By the end of our journey we had become friends with our trail companions.

We sat with only three kilometres left of or 101 kilometer journey. We ate the last of our food while overlooking two distinctly different lakes, three snow-capped mountain ranges and a waterfall. On the opposite side of the ridge a luxury lodge and parking lot filled the vista. I arrived first sitting cropped up on a rock enjoying the serenity of the moment, eating my last bits of trail mix and watching the traffic pass below me. The Gypsies came around the corner, I heard Ben’s distinct laugh before I saw them and I knew it was over.

As we drove out of the park I could not help but to think that we missed something. It seemed too easy, the sights were immaculate, but there was little sense of adventure. Five fully loaded tour busses rushed past us leaving a cloud of dust obstructing the reflection of the Paine massif in my rear-view. The busses disappeared as we crested a hill, giving way to another spectacular snow-capped range. I wondered how long it would be before the media made it the next big place to be and the flocks of tourist would be carted in and out of the new picture book adventure destination.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chaiten: Part 2

By Zach W. Watson

The next day we awoke to sunshine. The ominous volcano smoked behind the city.
La Jefa told us about the house of the German, a beautiful old house, the kind you take your shoes off before entering. It was completely split in two and remained in the rubble somewhere along the river that now split the city into two.

CNN described Chaiten around the time of the eruption as a giant ashtray. This was an accurate description. Three years later, ash still piled up on the banks of the road. A playground lay buried under the ash, the slide never reaching the ground.

We climbed into the second story of a house with no roof that now sat at ground level due to the height of the reservoir of ash. Alex sat on the bed, still made with sheets, and Mike took a picture. The frame of the house still remained erect, along with a triangular wall with a single window.

The next house, I sat on my knees and peered through the top half of an opened window. The living room was filled with ash that raised the old furniture nearly to the roof, with arm rests and end tables barely peaking out.

These were people’s homes, people’s couches, people’s knives and forks, people’s broken windows, left to disintegrate, abandoned but not forgotten. The city waited, as a constant reminder, for the next eruption. As much as the people wanted to rebuild their city, on their own without help from their government, it could be destroyed again.

The government has good reason to resist the funding of reconstruction. The volcano still smokes, and just recently, last February, seismic activity in the area warned of another eruption.

As long as the people remained and had such a strong resolve, they will live there solely, and against better judgment, because it was their home. The government has a responsibility to its people. Maybe the government shouldn’t rebuild the houses and the stores, if the people want to live there, knowing that their lives might be destroyed again, they can rebuild the city. But it’s a governmental duty to provide water and electricity to its people, which Chaiten has been without for three years.

They can reinforce the dam to protect their interests, but they can’t provide basic utilities. This was one of the few places I have been in all of South America that doesn’t have utilities, and for a country as advanced as Chile with means to help, it was a shame to see these people struggling as they did.

We found the German house along the orange, iron-rich river. The second floor stood, mostly intact, supported by a wall, above nothing but a colorful mosaic sitting above a rusting kitchen sink. The house leaned on the single wall, making it weak and ready to collapse at any moment.

I saw in the distance an orange roof surrounded by razor wire. It was the detention center. We snuck in through an open window, climbing onto an unsteady desk. An abandoned cup of mate sat on top of the file cabinet that held all the information on the inmates, and above it, plastered to the wall, the likeness of Michelle Bachelor Jeria, President of Chile, presiding over the scattered papers, the lifeless computer on the rotting wood desk, the myriad of personal property left all over the jail and the rest of unlit Chaiten.

The rest of the jail was in the same state. We moved onto the school.
We entered the gymnasium. Tiles scattered on top of the dirt floor. Dark and rusting, the aluminum roof creaked in the wind. In the corner on a wall, dark red enamel letters read: “Chaiten no Morira.”

The survival of the municipality has nothing to do with the people’s resolve or governmental aid, but whether that bitch they called Volcano Chaiten will spew ash, rocks and molten lava again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chaiten: Part 1

Zach W. Watson

We had no idea what lie, secretly, under the clouds when we arrived in Chaiten. We learned, on our ferry through the fjords and bays from Hornopiren, that three years earlier the town of Chaiten was destroyed by a volcano. That was all we knew.

We could make out grey roads and wet eaves through the beads of water on the windows but nothing more. The rain came down hard, and we needed booze if we were going to make it through what seemed to be a possible wet night of camping.

We pulled up to a small store, the only open store in town, and were greeted to the sounds of a loud diesel generator and a sweet store owner named Ana, affectionately referred to by her young female employees as La Jefa.

It turned out La Jefa had a vacant house with no furniture, which fit nine gringo bodies. She invited us to sleep there and then invited us to cook inside her house, a room behind her store with a bed, a four burner stove, an oven and a wood dining room table. Her previous home, which she proudly referred to as her home, was destroyed during the eruption.

We settled in. Mike stirred our sausage-Bolognese sauce, as Ana showed Alaena, Ben and I pictures from when the volcano erupted. The ash in the air, that day in April, 2008, slowly moved its way down to the quaint little tourist town, covering the town in a layer of ash.

Ana, her employees and the gypsies ate in her tiny little apartment/house, exchanging jokes. Ben told all of the girls that worked for Ana that he and Mike were gay together. Matthias then complained to our new friends about Mike’s cooking, which everyone enjoyed, and we all drowned ourselves with wine except for Ana, who didn’t drink, only chain smoked cigarettes.

The townspeople urged us to go to the disco in town, where they all worked and La Jefa owned.

Why would a small town, recently destroyed, in the middle of nowhere, have a disco? I thought. We all thought. But they did have a disco, and it was no joke.

It stood as the link to the old town, when life was lived and not struggled for. The disco was a place where the inhabitants could forget about their ruined houses and ruined schools and a beacon symbolizing a life that can still be lived and a fun that can still be had despite their unfortunate situation. Hope was not lost in Chaiten. It may be dim, but those burning strobes of the Mega Disco can be seen illuminating the sexy moves of its inhabitants on a Saturday night. If they abandoned the disco, a retreat, a symbolic beacon, they would be abandoning their struggle to remain a municipality.

We went to the disco.

We hopped in the back of Chulo’s truck. Chulo worked on the river reinforcement, the only project the government paid for. They were trying to prevent the river from flooding during the next eruption, probably to protect the ferry dock and the road, both linking the north of Chile with the south.

We fed Chulo spaghetti, so he took us to the disco. The truck dipped and swerved over bumps and potholes until we arrived at an unlit home, firewood neatly stacked outside the carport.

“Is this it?” I asked

“I guess so.” Someone replied as we all laughed.
Chulo told us to jump out and that we had arrived. We stood outside in the darkness until the door opened, and we followed one of the small girls from supper. She lit a candle, barely revealing a red wooden bar and a few bar stools, leaving the rest of the giant hall in dark shadow. It felt like an antique macabre theatre. We were early.

I walked to the other end, deep into the darkness, and had a seat on what seemed to be a sofa. The soft light of the candle quivered slowly, crawling across the stools of the bar, teasing the bartenders with its ambiguous light, and obscuring Ben, who slouched over a small piano. His fingers began to participate with the iridescent actions of the candle.

From the darkness of my front row seat, I watched the barmen, who were unaware of the very own performance, dance. They shelved bottles and counted glasses to the out-of-tune strings pulsing from the long bristled fingers of the silhouetted entertainer, who made Amélie’s comptine d’une autre été inch towards my seat, flowing like a river under the right-angled arch that divided the dance floor and the bar room, separating me from what seemed to be a play being performed for only my delight. The candle flickered, languidly, exhausted by the actions of the oblivious performers.

But then the play ended when the generator roared and the voice of Fergie clambered out of the speakers and the strobe light lit and the red, yellow and blue lights crossed the dance floor in patterns. The dark theatre hall from the nineteenth century transformed itself into a fist-pumping dance club from the twenty-first century.

We drank all night in that club. We waited for the crowds to show, but no more than twenty people filled the club that night. Alaena asked them if it would fill. They said it was pretty busy on New Year’s.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Comfort Shmumfort

By Jacob Mccown
Editor's note: Jake is the newest member to the Gypsy Train. He was found by the banks of Hornopiren, wet and dirty. This is his story.

0545. My cell phone alarm abruptly ends my Rhiana love fantasies, and I roll out of the bed to start my morning routine. I stumble into the bathroom and try to aim as best as I can with my “party favor”, but can only aim as good as my morning grogginess allows me. I then wipe down the off target drops, brush my teeth, get dressed, and hurry to work. I come home around 4:30, consume my work out supplements, and head to the gym. Two hours later I’m home preparing and eating dinner. After dinner I mindlessly get on the internet or watch T.V until I am quite tired and return to my love dreams with whatever lucky celebrity it ends up being that night.

On the weekends I usually hit the beach or participate in something active, and in the evening, I get together with friends to enjoy some beverages and head downtown to chase skirts. This was my life, and I had no complaints. I had good money, good friends, and good times. There was not much to worry about except something inside of me rejects a comfortable life and comfortable routine. This voice inside of me cries for places, people and things that are unknown and wild to me. This voice or call to the wild and adventure is not only prevalent inside of me; it exists in tons of like minded individuals. I knew there was people like me, that yearn for exotic places and have no concern for tomorrow. Until I left the military, packed up a backpack with gear to live on for a few months, and left the U.S, I hadn’t met any of these like minded people.

After a week and a half of travelling on my own in southern Chile, I was in a very traumatic river rising accident. Life at the moment was not fun, in fact; life was very cold, wet and miserable. Just when it seemed like only a miracle could make the day get better, the clouds parted and the sun broke through. Just on the horizon a golden chariot came floating my way! A nice group of clean-cut and shaven young people jumped out smiling at me and waved me aboard. That’s the way I like to remember it anyway. In reality, I was sitting soaking wet on the pier, when a 20 ft bus came putting its way my direction.

“Hey what’s up man? The fucking river rose on me last night it was horrible! Where are you guys headed?” I said.

“Wow. That sucks. We’re headed south.” Alex, the driver, said.

“It’d be really cool if I could hook up with you guys and head south.” I replied.

“Yeah sure, why not?”

That’s the story of how I came to be on the bus known as “The Gypsy Train”. Everyone on the bus had been planning and dreaming of adventure. Alaena, Alex, and Zach, the owners of the bus, all gave up their taken-for-granted comforts of home and ventured into the unknown, just as I had.

The past three weeks aboard The G-Train we have been running into people that have been giving up their securities of home, a lot of them to an extreme. We’ve met Middle aged people who gave up prominent jobs, altered their vehicles for travel, and waved goodbye to their lives as they knew it. A man from Chicago, Illinois, gave up his upper level job at Motorola, educated himself on the mechanics of his motorcycle, equipped it for travel, and set off on his adventure. We met him in Chile Chico, Chile, ten months into his projected three year multi-continent excursion. We have met bundles of whiney Israelis, who after their mandatory military service almost second-naturedly travel the world.

Travelling the world and going to places unheard of before, with locals who don’t speak my language and refer to me as “ El stupid, gordo gringo,” is the best thing to ever happen to me! Along the way I have met awesome people with adventure in their eyes, who are living proof that following your dreams and living life the way you want to is a very tangible and real possibility.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Clandestine Gypsies

By Alaena
We pulled into Hornipiren and watched the ferry pull out. As they were scheduled sporadically , there was not another for two days. We reserved our tickets and after a two day hike in a muddy forest I found myself back at the port.
“It’s 143 000 Pesos. Either buy the tickets, or leave. Hurry up and decide because there are people waiting”
I looked around at the queue of awaiting passengers in the cramped cabin that serves as a ticket office for the ferries from Hornopiren to Chaiten, before turning back to the young lady behind the computer in disbelief.
My patience, which had been slowly ground down over the last half hour, deserted me.
“Do not tell me to hurry up. We have been waiting for 2 days for this boat and today, an hour before the boat leaves you told us it is 100 000 pesos (200 dollars) more than we agreed with your colleague when we reserved the tickets”.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat and gave Zach, who had been standing by me, bearded and angry, a teary look.
“Let’s do it. We don’t have a choice” he shrugged.
Heated argument had lowered the supposed ticket prices from 200 000 Pesos to 143, still a steep rise from the promised 117. I assured her we only had six passengers and she tapped away on her keyboard for what seemed an eternity, eventually selling us the tickets for 126 000 Pesos.
We emerged from the office triumphant, tickets in hand and ready for stage 2; smuggle two passengers onboard.
The plan was already set in motion. The bus was in the queue and Zach, Bernadette, Ben and Tegan were wondering around town. The plan should have been executed somewhat like this;
-          Step 1: Tegan and Ben return and hide in the storage space under the bed as their names are not on the tickets.
-          Step 2: Zach and Bernie come back 15 minutes later in order for it to appear as though there are only 6 people on the bus at any one time.
-          Step 3: we drive onto the boat and have our tickets checked
-          Step 4: Passengers vacate the bus one by one. Tegan and Ben are slyly set free.
We could not know it yet but things were not to go as expected, especially for the only one adamantly opposed to the whole ordeal, Matthias. The first sign of trouble came when one of the employees told us to put away our stove and coffee as we would be the next to board, half an hour ahead of schedule. This unexpected stick in the wheel snapped us out of our caffeine-fuelled rejoicing.
“Just run, Alaena! Run!” Shouted Mike, as he and Alex put away the drying tents. I sprinted up the hill towards town, realising more with every step, the futility of this exercise. They were nowhere in sight. I ran back to the bus. There was only one thing for it.
“Matthias, we have to get under the bed right now!”
Matthias stared, wide eyed. “ NO, Why me?”  he shouted looking terrified. “I’m so high, Goddamnit! This is the worst thing you could make me do!” Matthias had recently befriended two Chileans who had amicably shared their potent hash.
Alex was driving and the tickets were in Mike’s name. It was the only option. We jumped under and the lid was closed over our heads, plunging us into darkness. “I fucking hate you guys. I fucking hate you guys,” Matthias whispered gently in my ear. “Our life is in Alex’s hands. If he misses the boat and drives into the sea we will die”.
“It’s okay Matthias” I assured him. “We put our lives in to Alex’s hands every day”. This seemed to calm him down a good deal and we giggled about the film-like drama we were living. We were being smuggled in a cramped dark space on a bus, on a boat with people shouting outside in a foreign language. It wasn’t long before he slipped back into the old mantra. “I fucking hate you guys”.
Mike’s whisper was a welcome diversion. “Alaena, we need you out here to talk to these guys. We are going to do a swap. Be ready.”
I waited, tense and ready to leap out, listening to the muffled voices. The lid opened and light rushed in. I jumped out past Tegan who was ready to take my place. Mathias feebly lifted his head “I want to leave too”. We apologised weakly and pushed the bed back into place.
Finally things were going smoothly. Tickets were checked and we were leaving port with 6 visible passengers. People wandered off the bus and we set Tegan and Matthias free. Matthias slowly crawled out and curled up in the foetal position on a seat, panting.
“I fucking hate you guys” he repeated, driving home his earnestness. His face was flushed, his eyes glazed over and his chest heaved with the heavy breathing. “I’m so high.” He stared into nothingness refusing all offers of food and drink. “I just want to lie here on the bus where it is safe”.
This he did. Tegan and Ben spent the boat ride as fugitives from the power crazed Captain who marched around the boat shouting at people and demanding tickets. “This is my boat and nothing gets by me” he explained loudly to a group of Dutch tourists. “If someone is hiding a bike on this boat, I will find it!”. He assured us he would check how many passengers left on our boat on the way out and wrote down all our passport details.
After the 10 hour ferry ride through some spectacular landscapes of fjords and islands and furtive note passing to the two clandestine passengers, we finally arrived. It was with great delight that we watched Tegan and Ben casually stroll off the boat under the Captain’s eyes. We picked them up along with seven newly recruited hitchhikers and the Gypsy Train struggled into Chaiten through the pouring rain.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Via Sur

By Alex Mehlin 

We left Puerto Montt with a bus full of provisions, high ambitions and hope. One thousand kilometers, two ferries, two hikes, one smoking volcano, one abrupt run in with a stump, ten species of violent flies, 16 hitch hikers, 100 glaciated peaks, a million waterfalls and a billion trees later we safely arrived in Coyhaique.

The Carretara Austral starts in Puerto Montt and runs south to Villa O´Higgans covering Chile´s Northern Patagonia. The rual Ruta 7 established in 1976 as an effort to connect Chiles most remote communities spans 1,240 km or 770 miles. Most of the road is a combination of gravel and dirt, characterised by pot holes, washboard, falling rock, puddles, wind and rain. Hardly populated the region is inhabited by only 100,000 people 50,000 of which are located in Coyaique.

The land north or Coyhaique is highly protected, national parks and private reserves butt into each other pushing remote human habitation to small towns built around a Copec gas station, a phone and electricity. Food is hard to come by when it is available Hanta Virus is a concern, carried by rats that infest the mossy jungle forests of Northern Patagonia, we have been warned of the danger by every and any Cofac ranger. According to our medical book, Bugs, Bites and Bowels, if infected 50% of patients die. We are extremely cautious. 

Beyond the silly dangers of viruses, running out of fuel, freak brake downs, violent storms and unpredictable roads it seems that Patagonia is not the wanderlust extreme adventure it once was. 

Southern South America is a funnel catching any adventure hungry tourist with a fat pocketbook and spewing them into Patagonia. Every day we pass hoards of touring cyclists, elderly couples in rental cars, hitchhikers of all shapes and sizes, overland companies and Argentinians and Chileans taking advantage of their holidays.
The road has become kind of a whose who of the South, since the majority of travelers are all going south, destination Ushuaia, we see them all on the road. The Gypsies are a bunch of colorful, outlandish and loud bunch dominating the road. For a while it became the vogue to ride on the top of the bus, going 20kms getting 360 views of epic terrain according to Zach, ¨it is the only way to ride¨. 

In our phase of roof top transport we became a memory in every one we passed photo album of Patagonia. It is not uncommon over a glass of wine or tank of gas for fellow traveler to say they have heard of us. Hitchhikers proclaim we are best hitch they have ridden. People get so attached to the idea and ease of the bus it is hard to remove them from the bus once we have reached our daily destination. For this we have made a magic number of 11 Gypsies. Once you are on you get to keep your position as long as you would like or we allow you. We will bend our Gypsy count under extreme circumstances such as, short rides to town or extreme weather where we feel bad for the soaking we soul who litter the ruta sur.

Due to the nature of the terrain; shifting glaciers, dense jungle like forest, sprawling peaks crawling fjords and vast plains there are only a handful of established hiking routes. We have discovered that they are all going to be highly used. Patagonia summer only lasts for 3 months before the winter sets in and everyone is scrambling to check off Torres del Paine and Fritz Roy the two quintessential Patagonia hikes.

Outside of the popular parks, short day hikes beckon us to explore the ever changing landscape. These hikes are much easier for the Gypsies since they take little preparation and only a days effort. Beyond hiking it is impossible to not to appreciate the land. Every night without any effort we set our tents to backdrops of some of the most impressive scenery in the world.
In a land where every thing makes you feel  small we will be pushing south capturing, living and enjoying the moment always keeping in mind that it is fleeting. In the back of our minds we know that next season we will be off in a new land and another wave of tourist and will trudge the rugged remote beauty that is Patagonia.    

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Once upon an Italiano

A short film by Benjamin Peter Jones