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Perils of Polly: An odd requirement for crossing a border

Posted: May 11, 2012 - 9:53am
Polly Crawford
Argentine firemen etch the license into all the windows of Polly’s Kangoo so she and her sister can cross the border into Chile.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

The gravel didn't end. Dust pervaded every crack, every mechanism of the car. It caused seat belts and seat backs to break. Nuts and bolts would fall from nowhere, discovered in heaps of dust. While driving along in third gear, suddenly the standard transmission would slip and the gas would rev because the car was now in neutral.

If we drove with the windows open, dust would swirl in from passing cars. If we drove with only the vents, dust already in the car would swirl up at our feet into our eyes. Air conditioning was best, although there was still the initial swirl of dust.

After a day of dust and jarring, a good campground is nice, but not always available. One of our worst campgrounds was in Patagonia. It was a municipal campground that had been closed, yet everyone in the town pointed us to it. Three others were already camped there. There was no water or bathroom. No one had picked up litter, and it became quite evident where everyone had used the non-existent facilities. We pulled in there at dusk, held our noses and covered our eyes for the night, and were out at first light.

Onward and upward, through more gravel, then finally pavement. We searched for a restaurant at around 2 p.m., but all in the village of Perito Moreno were closed for their siestas. We grabbed a nasty sandwich at a truck stop and pressed on to the border. Our goal was to cross into Chile before nightfall.

We got to Los Antiguos and drove up to the border, parked and went into the building. We'd crossed the borders four times, and by now knew the procedures: immigration first, vehicle second, and then the search for contraband -- horrible things like apples and meat.

This border was going to be different. I truly think it was a scam, but oh well. I handed the man all the vehicle paperwork. He looked it over and said something to me I totally did not understand. I heard the Spanish word for window and license, but it was so out of context for me, I couldn't make sense of it. Finally he walked outside toward the Kangoo, motioning for me to follow. He pointed to the window and then the license plate. I shrugged in exasperation. What did he want?

Finally another man who spoke slower Spanish and a little bit of English came out to help. He said our car was illegal because the license plate number was not etched into all the windows. I explained that we'd crossed four borders without trouble. He shook his head. That didn't matter. That was their problem for not being thorough.

At least he was nice about it. He said all we had to do was go back into town, which was only a couple miles, to the fire station -- the bomberos. They would etch our windows.

I took a deep breath and translated all this for my sister. We chuckled in amazement and headed back into Los Antiguos. He'd given us some directions, and how hard could it be to find a fire station? Of course it wasn't exactly where we thought he'd said, so, as always, took some wandering and more asking -- donde esta los bomberos?

It looked like any fire station anywhere in the world. I pulled in, said a couple Spanish words, and they took over. Apparently they get a lot of business, which is why I wonder if it was a scam. When we got back to Buenos Aires, Cris at Andean Roads was amazed, but paid us back the $10 we had paid the bomberos. He'd never heard of it. Apparently it's just this border crossing!

Back at the border, they accepted our etchings, and the one customs agent decided he needed to tell us the wonders of the Carretera Austral, or Chile's Ruta 7. I could tell he also wanted to practice his very limited English. That was great because I could practice my very limited Spanish.

Sue and I had looked at the map and found two ways to get there: one was the road alongside the Lago General Carrera which Lonely Planet said was spectacular but one lane, steep, and scary -- definitely not for the faint of heart. The other was to take a ferry across the lake. Tired of gravel, we were leaning toward the ferry.

The customs agent was adamant. We had to take the road along the lake. He said it was beautiful, and the road was "perfecto."

Four hours after we arrived at the border, we finally left, just in time to camp in the quaint village of Chile Chico. The customs agent had convinced us to take the road along the lake. We were soon to find out "perfecto" is an extremely relative word.

Check back next week for Polly's next perils.

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