Approaching the end of my fourth month here in Chile, I decided it was time to ramp up the holiday part of my work and holiday trip. With the temperatures continuing to fall and the rain threatening to do the same, I thought it would be a good idea to head to the warmer, drier north for the long weekend at the end of June. After consulting with my Chilean acquaintances and pouring through my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, I settled on the country’s Fourth Region.

An hour’s plane trip north of Santiago, the Fourth Region is home to the almost coastal city of La Serena, brimming with Spanish colonial architecture, and the Elqui Valley, known for its massive telescopes, its UFO sightings and its pisco production. Chatting with a student of mine who hails from La Serena, I began nutting out a rough itinerary and, branching out on my own, I even managed to book my accommodation over the phone in Spanish.

Buoyed my success I hopped onto the internet late one night to book my flights. The website of LAN, Chile’s national airline, is relatively straightforward and after selecting the best times and cheapest prices, I proceeded to the payment area where I entered in my name, address and debit card details, ticked the box to say I had read the terms and conditions and pressed continue.

My laptop whirred and hummed and whirred some more. Then it calmd down. I looked at the screen and sighed in frustration. Written in neat, red letters across the top of the page was a very annoying message: “Dear customer, unfortunately we were unable to process this transaction. Please try again.”

Dutifully, I tried again but I got the same message, only this time it didn’t ask me to try again. Instead, it said: “We have reserved a ticket on your behalf. To secure the booking, you will have to pay the fare within 48 hours. Please try an alternative payment method.”

Browsing through the other options, I accidentally clicked on a link to secure a coupon that would enable me to pay for the tickets in cash through the BancoEstado (StateBank). The time limit was 24 hours. I copied the PDF onto my thumbdrive and, even though it was 11pm and cold, I ducked around the corner to the local internet café to print off the coupon.

For some reason, the coupon had saved as a ‘CGI’ file, and the middle aged woman at the internet café was unable to open it. She called her husband from the next room and after looking at the screen, scratching his head and looking at the screen some more, he called their son over. The son didn’t have much more success. He googled ‘Opening a CGI file’ and when he didn’t find anything useful, he too was on the point of giving up. As he prepared to break the bad news to me, I suggested that perhaps he should try opening it with Adobe, as the document had originally been a PDF. Thankfully this worked and my coupon was printed. The son charged me 150 pesos – about three times more than I what I had paid to print off a page at the same place in the past – but I was just relieved to have my document.

At home, I went back online, searching for a BancoEstado branch near my work in town. I found one on Bandera Street, not far from a familiar bus route and only two metro stops from the office. I could duck in there on the way to work the next morning, grab the cash from an ATM, pay the coupon and then be on my way. If only.

The next morning things started going wrong from the start. First up, the bus I caught was painfully slow. Every traffic light it came to was red and every zebra crossing seemed to have a doddery old lady waiting to cross at the kerb. Twenty minutes later than I had planned, the bus pulled up at the Cal y Canto Bridge and I jumped off. It wasn’t a major problem but it was a nuisance.

Resigning myself to the fact that I would be late for work, I set out in search of the bank. After walking around for a good five minutes without spotting Bandera Street, I ducked my head into a drycleaners to ask for directions.

Hola, buenos dias,” I said. “Una consulta por favor. Is there a BancoEstado near here?”

“Yes, it’s on Bandera Street, the next one back that way,” said the kind older gent behind the counter.

I thanked him and retraced my steps. This time I found Bandera Street. But after another five minutes of walking up and down the street I still hadn’t seen the distinctive orange, white and blue BancoEstado sign anywhere. I did see a Banco de Chile branch but that wasn’t going to help me ‘cancelar’ my coupon.

Starting to feel frustrated, I popped into a supermarket and asked for directions again. The young security guard at the door had no idea so he checked with a girl at the service desk. She confirmed that there was a Banco de Chile branch across the road in the same block. I crossed to the other side of Bandera Street and retraced my steps, this time looking a bit more carefully. And then I saw it. Set back from the road and up a short staircase, the major downtown branch had golden double doors with the words ‘BancoEstado’ engraved above the doorhandles. It had no orange, white and blue sign.

Inside the bank was spacious with an elegant tiled floor and faux marble columns. Best of all, unlike most banks in Chile, there were very few customers and no queues at all. I went over to the ATM, in the corner and went to withdraw the money. But like the night before, a message flashed up on the screen telling me the transaction could not be completed. I tried again but I got the same message. I tried with another card but it told me I had the wrong pin. My third and last card had no money on it. Now I really did start to panic. In a hurry, I left the bank and headed back to the supermarket to try the ATM there. Same story.

I remembered the Banco de Chile branch further down the street and in a last ditch effort, headed there. Having used Banco de Chile ATMs quite a few times before without any problems, I thought it was worth a try. There were two people ahead of me in the queue for the ATM and they both seemed to take forever. But when I finally got to the automatic teller, I was able to withdraw the cash. I breathed a sigh of relief and ran back to the BancoEstado, retracing my steps along Bandera Street once more.

Back inside the almost empty bank, I went straight to the front of the non-existent line and headed to the counter. The bored teller behind the counter looked down at my coupon then looked up at me, before saying: “You can’t pay this here. You need to go to a ServiEstado.”

“But it says BancoEstado here,” I said helplessly.

The teller just looked back at me. “It’s at Santo Domingo 972,” he said, writing the address on my coupon. That was it. I thanked the teller as sincerely as I could and left the bank reluctantly. Thankfully I had a vague idea of where Santo Domingo was and I half jogged-half ran in the general direction, my laptop laden backpack banging against my back. After about ten minutes I saw a welcome street sign: “Santo Domingo, 924-992,” it said. I looked down the block and saw an orange, white and blue BancoEstado sign. Excellent.

Without wasting any more time, I zipped across to the bank and stepped inside. This time though, there was a queue. I counted the number of people ahead of me. Thirteen. Not great but not terrible either. I plugged my headphones and did my best to speed up time. Twenty-five uneventful minutes later, I reached the head of the queue. “Next,” said the teller and I proceeded to the counter. Again. This teller was much friendlier but her message was just as unhelpful.

“You need to go to ServiEstado,” she said in her friendly way. “It’s five doors down from here,” she added in a friendly tone of voice. I really should have checked before joining the queue. I thanked the teller as sincerely as I could and headed back out onto Santo Domingo. Sure enough, just down the street was a small shopfront with a garish orange sign that said ServiEstado. Here the queue was very short and within a couple of minutes, I found myself at yet another counter.

“Can I help you?” the young woman behind the counter asked.

“I’d like to ‘cancelar’ this coupon,” I said, waiting for her to tell me why I wouldn’t be able to.

But she didn’t say anything. She just took my money, typed into her keyboard and then handed me a receipt. The tickets were purchased.

I revelled in my relief for 10 seconds then rushed out the door back onto Santo Domingo. It was past time to be at work.

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