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Those aren't pillows!

It has been over 4 months on the road ("road" being a liberal term in most parts of South America) and today is the day I had originally planned to return to Canada. Plans having changed, I still have another 3 weeks to do in Chile, a month in Argentina and then 2 weeks to get out of Brazil from Rio and I still feel rushed. You could spend 3 years in South America and still find a way to not see all that you wanted to. That is the beauty of traveling, the fact you can never get bored of it.

I left La Serena with Brian, the South African, last Sunday, leaving a couple of layers of skin behind, and took an overnight bus down here to Santiago. I am still having a bit of trouble adjusting to the normalcy of Chilean life - the malls, the traffic lights, the way people here wear shoes... it is a change. In Peru, our rule of thumb for whether we could afford to eat at restaurant was: If it had a door, we couldn't afford it. Doors, windows and toilet seats were rarities even in nice restaurants in Peru, whereas here computerized everything is the norm. Normal is weird.

There are various other steps needed, besides being first world, to be a regular Chilean.

Step 1: LOVE HOT DOGS. Santiago is hot dog crazy, serving them everywhere and smothering them with buckets of mayo and avocado amongst other toppings. The major hot dog chain (cleverly named "DoggiS") has various flavours of hot dog based on the condiments put on top. Some flavours include "Country", "Ranch", "Premium" and "Crack" flavoured. Meanwhile, supposedly "liberal" Canada doesn't serve anything crack flavoured. Well, except crack. But I only know that after living in downtown Toronto for too long. But everybody here eats the hot dogs so I have yet to figure out how not everyone (or anyone, for that matter) here is grotesquely obese. It's gotta be the shoes.

Step 2: LOVE SHOES. In the 4 blocks between my hostel here and the main plaza, there are 14 shoes stores. In the plaza that number about doubles. It's no wonder so many Peruvians had none.

Step 3: LOVE MEAT IN GENERAL. Meat is served with nearly every meal everywhere in South America and vegetarians, while not yet publicly stoned, are still considered a bit of an oddity. I passed a vegetarian restaurant yesterday that served two set menus. One included tuna, the other ham. Here, if it's not beef, it's not meat.

Step 4: OVERPLAY SONGS. This is another All-Over-South-America trait. The songs are played ad nauseum and can often be heard over once an hour on the same radio station. It is like living in the continent of AM Radio.

Start with these, and I will promise to teach more later.

I have been in Santiago about a week and have been really enjoying a city that is exceptionally modern but with great colonial buildings interspersed amongst the skyscrapers; the mixture is fascinating and pretty. The weather has been lovely, as well, which is lucky as in winter Santiago often suffers from emergency levels of pollution. When you consider that non-emergency levels here can still be 6 times the emergency levels in Toronto, you get a picture of how filthy the air can be.

Opting to get out of town for a bit, Brian, I and an Irish guy, James, headed up skiing for day in the Andes. My brain has obviously taken a different vacation from the one I am taking and I realized when I got up there that I had neglected to bring my gloves along with me. The skiing was fun, the mountain was great, my hands were freezing and all in all it was an excellent day.

For the weekend, Brian and I and another Irish guy, Paul, headed out to Viña Del Mar, the biggest beach resort in Chile. As soon as we arrived, the weather turned very foggy and remained that way until approximately an hour before we left on Monday. Stupid mother nature. But Viña is a fantastic little town with funky old houses situated one atop the other on awkward, dropping hillsides looking over a perfect white sand beach; it was active and alive even in early spring and I could see how it must be a great place to be in summer.

Saturday night, the three of us went out to a local disco where we were constantly asked if we were sailors. It turns out that the city of Valparaiso, 10 minutes from Viña, is a huge port town and American sailors come in frequently. We let them know with great certainty that we were NOT American sailors. Soy capitan, soy capitan.

Step 5 on how to be Chilean: BE A VAMPIRE. When we arrived at the disco, it was midnight and we were 3 of 5 people in the bar. There were no other discos nearby so we decided to stay. By 2 o'clock there were a couple of hundred people there and by 5:30, when they closed, there were still about 400 people there, all dancing. Late nights are typical here. After the bar we got some food at a nearby restaurant which was absolutely packed at quarter to six in the morning. I could definitely get used to this.

I am presently back in Santiago, but only for one night as tomorrow I fly south to the very southern tip of Chile, near the Antarctic. I am heading to Torres Del Paine national park, supposedly a miniature Alaska and the nicest national park in South America. I didn't figure I would get to go but I found a super cheap flight and will go down there for 10 days. Now, joining Steve Martin and John Candy, I will have made it through South America in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And bikes with no brakes. And boats with live piranhas in them. And buses loaded with chickens. Of course.

SPECIAL NOTE: In what is perhaps the most amazing incident of my trip so far, my package from Lima has arrived in Canada in one piece! (see Sept. 17th entry) Never again will I hestitate to stuff my belongings into a sewn up potato sack while being monitored by a strange man with a shotgun! CanadaPost, you could learn a thing or two...