After getting off the plane in Santiago, a helpful young lady in an official-looking blue vest asked me if I had an Australian passport. When I told her I did, she said I would need to pay a reciprocity fee and directed me to the correct queue.

Having done my homework, this came as no surprise. Chilean citizens have to pay an entry fee when they visit six countries including Australia, the USA and Albania (but not New Zealand). So when residents of these countries visit Chile, they have to pay a reciprocity fee. For Australians, the fee is set at $US61. Knowing this, I’d come prepared with a US hundred dollar bill and joined the queue confidently.

But when it came to my turn to pay the fee, the girl behind the counter told me in a nonchalant manner, typical of Chilean bureaucracy, that she had no change in US currency.

“You will need to pay with a credit card,” she continued.

It was a slight blow to my plans as I’d been saving the hundred dollar bill for a couple of weeks for this very reason but it was far from disastrous.

Having gotten that out of the way, I proceeded to immigration. The girl at the immigration counter looked at the visa in my passport and then looked at the receipt stating I had paid the reciprocity fee. Then she looked at me.

“You don’t need to pay that fee,” she said bluntly and like most Chileans, quite quickly. “You have a visa. The fee is only for tourists. You will have to go back and get a refund.”

Dreading having to explain all of that in Spanish, I considered making a $US61 donation to the Republic of Chile but then thought better of it. As it turned out, it wasn’t too difficult to get the refund and the nonchalant girl was actually quite apologetic as she stamped ‘NULO’ over the payment record in my passport.

Now having truly gotten that out of the way, I passed through immigration, collected my two big bags and cleared customs without any further dramas.

Like many official buildings in Santiago, Arturo Merino Benitez Airport has a distinctly ’70s feel. And like much of Chile during the summer break, it seemed to be in a terminal state of repair (pun intended, of course). Everywhere you looked, there were small areas cordoned off with witches hats and protective tape that said ‘PELIGRO’ in bold, black letters. Inside the danger zones were workmen, perched high up on A-frame ladders with their bodies disappearing into the ceiling and only their legs showing. Helpful signs assured anyone who cared to read them that the work was for being conducted for our benefit.

Arturo Menito Benitez has three levels and I came out on the ground floor, or Level 1 as it’s known in Chile. Keen to make contact with Leonel, the friend who had kindly agreed to pick me up, I asked around to find out where the public phones were. As it turned out, they were on Level 3 so I found the lifts and ascended with my bags. When I reached the phones, I realised I didn’t have any Chilean coins and a quick consultation with some locals confirmed that I would need them to make a call.

I made my way to the nearest shop and asked if I could change a $CH10,000 note for a mixture of notes and coins.

“Oh no,” the shop assistant said, “we can’t do that. But there’s a money exchange office around the corner. They will be able to help.”

Unfortunately, the fast-speaking man at the money exchange office was also unable to grant my request. However he was able to change my US bill to Chilean pesos and he helpfully told me that I could buy a phone card on Level 1 at the Maxi Kiosk. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. So I returned to the lift and descended to Level 1.

“Can I buy a phone card here?” I asked at the Maxi Kiosk.

“No, you have to use coins,” said the smiling girl behind the counter. I was already starting to learn that my listening skills in Spanish were not up to scratch.

“…Can you change a note for coins?” I asked, slightly exasperated.

“Yes,” she said.

So it was back to the lifts, back to Level 3 and back to the public phones. While keeping an eye on my two bags, I fished out Leonel’s mobile number and a 100 peso coin. Then I dialled the number and waited. An elderly woman answered. I had trouble understanding exactly what she said but there was no doubt that I had the wrong number.

I tried calling Leonel again and got the same lady. Starting to feel a little worried, I turned to the cleaner who was emptying the bins next to the phones.

“Do you just punch in the eight digits when you’re calling a cell phone?” I tried to ask.

Thankfully she understood me. “No, you need to dial 09 first when you’re calling from a landline,” she explained. Thankfully I understood.

For a third time, I tried to call Leonel. The phone rang. And rang. And then it stopped ringing.

“Alo,” said a familiar voice. I smiled. In spite of everything, I had made contact.

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