Standing on the side of the motorway, I began to wonder if I’d made a big mistake. It was before seven o’clock on a cold Saturday morning and rain was falling from the dark, pre-dawn sky. My hair was getting wet and although I couldn’t really see them, I was sure my hands were going purple. There weren’t many cars going past but when one did come along, it would spray me with hundreds of tiny droplets of water. The trucks were worse.

Some of the drivers flashed their lights as they zoomed by but I didn’t respond. Straining my eyes in the dim light, I would check to see if the headlights rounding the bend belonged to the white pick up truck I was waiting for. None of them did. I shivered as the cold rain dripped down my nose.

There was no sign of civilisation and I didn’t know how far it was to the nearest town. All I did know was that I was more than 800km away from my home in Santiago. Around 822km to be a little more precise. Well that’s what I hoped anyway.

Just after half-past nine the night before I had boarded a coach at the Alameda Bus Terminal in Santiago that was heading south. According to the ticket in my back pocket, my destination was the small town of Los Lagos but, like almost everything else in the past 24 hours, that had changed.

For two weeks I had been planning to return to the south of Chile to visit Juana and Julio, a couple I had met when camping by Lake Riñihue with Leonel back in February. Juana had come over to our tent to ask if we could lend her some bread and we ended up spending most of the night eating, drinking, telling stories and dancing at their campsite.

Before taking off the next morning, we chatted some more with our new ‘neighbours’ and exchanged contact details. Living on a farm about 40km away, they weren’t used to rubbing shoulders with foreigners and they seemed to think I was exotic.

“You’ll have to come back to the south to visit us,” Juana called out as our car pulled away.

“Of course,” I yelled back. “I’d love to.” And I meant it. Julio and Juana had been so hospitable to us and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. “Hasta luego. Until then.”

Over the next few months, I kept in touch with Juana by email and on Facebook and most of our brief exchanges revolved around one topic: when I was going to visit. At first I told Juana that I would come down to the farm in spring, when it wasn’t so cold. But changing the calendar at the start of August, I noticed that there was a public holiday in the middle of the month and in a rare impulsive moment, I sent a message to Juana saying I would be there in a fortnight.

“Excellent! We’ll be waiting for you,” she shot back.

The Monday before the long weekend I purchased a ticket for the 10 hour, overnight coach trip to Los Lagos, the closest town to Juana and Julio’s farm. Thankfully, it proved to be much easier than my experience buying aeroplane tickets two months earlier. But not everything was going to plan. Throughout the rest of the week I tried to call Juana to confirm the details several times but she never picked up. And like so many Chileans, she had no voicemail service. The phone would just keep ringing through until it timed out. It wasn’t very promising.

“Perhaps they have changed their mind,” I thought to myself.

I decided that if I didn’t hear from them, I would put the trip off. Some other friends were going to the beach for the long weekend and they had invited me to join them if I didn’t have anything else planned. On Friday morning I still hadn’t got through and I was getting ready to return to the coach company to cancel the ticket for that night. Even though it was the middle of winter, the beach didn’t seem too bad.

Then at 1pm, my phone rang. It was Juana.

“Hello, my son. How are you?” she asked. “I’m so sorry I haven’t answered your calls. My phone hasn’t been working properly but I’ve just been into Valdivia this morning to get it fixed.”

The trip was back on. It was a good thing I hadn’t cancelled the tickets after all. I packed my backpack in a hurry and rushed off to work at the language institute.

A short way into my first class, I got a text message. As soon as I’d bundled all the students out of the class, I checked my phone. It was Juana.

“Let us know when you’re leaving Santiagto so we can give you instructions so that they can drop you off outside the farm. The kids are really excited.”

I scratched my head. Instructions? I had assumed they were going to meet me in Los Lagos. And what sort of coach service just drops people off outside people’s farms. It didn’t seem to make any sense so I decided to check with my Chilean colleagues that I had understood correctly.

“Oh yes,” they assured me. “Here the coaches drop people off anywhere along the route. It’s quite normal.”

Towards the end of the second class – my final one for the night – I got another message. It was Juana. Again.

“Don’t forget to call before you leave so we can give you the instructions. See you soon.”

Collecting the backpack from my locker, I said goodbye and left work. One bus trip and two metro lines later, I reached my destination: the Alameda Bus terminal. It was really happening. I was returning to the south.

The terminal was bustling with people, suitcases and the buzz of conversation. After pausing to help out two fellow travellers with their fares and grabbing a bite to eat, I pulled out my phone and called Juana for the vital instructions.

“Hello!” she said. “Where are you?”

“I’m at the terminal in Santiago.”

“OK. You will need to tell the driver to drop you off at Kilometre 822 on Southern Route 5. It’s about 10 minutes down the road from a town called.”

“822?” I asked, checking I had heard correctly. “As in eight-two-two.”

“Yes, that’s it. There will be a white pick up truck waiting there. Ask the driver what time the bus will arrive there and let us know. And tell them to wake you up when you get to Máfil. That’s 10 minutes before the farm. See you soon my son.”

When it came time to board the coach, I approached the driver and asked if it would be alright to drop me off at Kilometre 822.

“No worries,” he replied. “Just let the assistant know and we will sort it out.”

“What time should we get there?”

“Well we’re scheduled to arrive in Los Lagos at 7.30 so we should be at 822 around 7.15.” I forwarded the information on to Juana.

Climbing the narrow stairs to the top deck, I poked around until I found my seat: Number 14. It was right up the front of the vehicle, directly above the driver, which meant I had a great view out the front windows and a little extra leg room. A real blessing. At 9:40, exactly 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time, we pulled out from the terminal and began the journey south. After the obligatory safety message, a movie started screening on the small screens hanging from the ceiling and I busied myself with deciphering the Spanish subtitles. It was a surprisingly interesting film about a pair of hitmen on a strange assignment in Brussels and I was able to follow the plot fairly well.

The time flew and as the movie was finishing the assistant tapped me on the shoulder.

“What is your name?”

“Tim. That’s T-I-M. Dixon. D-I-X-O-N.” I’d learnt that it’s best to spell it out.

“An emergency contact number?” After pulling out my phone to check I had remembered correctly, I told him.

“And what’s your destination?”

“Would it be possible to drop me off at Kilometre 822? There will be a white pick up truck waiting for me there.”


“And can you wake me up when we get to Máfil?”

“No problem.”

He gave me a blanket and a pillow and soon afterwards the lights went out. A young Anglo guy on the other side of the aisle was listening to some loud music on his iPod and fiddling on his computer but most of the other people were already sleeping. I decided to do the same. The ticket I had bought was for a ‘semi-cama’, or ‘half-bed’, seat but that was an insult to all proper beds the world over. What it actually gave me was a coach chair with a reclining backrest and an inconvenient footrest. ‘Half-bed’ and totally uncomfortable.

I tossed and turned throughout the night, desperately trying to get some sleep. It wasn’t very easy. At one stage I even tried ‘lying’ on my stomach in that strange semi-upright position but the plan was quickly abandoned. Somehow though, I did manage to fall asleep because many hours later I was woken by another tap on the shoulder.

“We are now in Máfil,” a voice said.

It took me a few moments to figure out where I was and what I was doing and by then it was to late to thank the assistant for waking me. I looked at my watch. It was twenty to seven. We were early. That wasn’t good. And the sky was pitch black. I hadn’t been expecting that. Even worse, I could hear raindrops falling on the roof. This wasn’t how I had imagined things but there was nothing I could do. I folded the blanket, gathered up my backpack and sent a message to Juana: “We have passed through Máfil.”

The assistant returned and pressed a small cardboard box into my hand.

“This is yours,” he said.

About five minutes later the assistant came back again. “We’re at Kilometre 822,” he informed me. The coach pulled to a halt. Following the assistant in the dark, I descended the stairs and stepped out into the cold, rainy air. We were stopped on the road shoulder in what looked like the middle of nowhere.

“Are you sure this is the right place? Where is the white pick up truck?” the assistant asked.

“I’m sure it’s on its way,” I replied.

“OK. There’s a bus shelter just up there,” he said pointing in the direction that we had come from.

“How far?”

“About 20 metres.”

With that, he hopped back on board and closed the door. The coach drove off. I walked back up the road in search of the shelter, counting my steps. After 30 metre-like steps, I hadn’t come across a bus shelter. 35. 40. Still nothing. I gave up and headed back to where the coach had left me.

Now I turned my attention to the cardboard box in my hand. After fumbling for 30 seconds with the sticky tape keeping it fastened tight, I finally managed to open it. Inside was a small sealed cup with juice and two biscuits. I quickly finished them off. The rain continued to fall and it was cold.

Then the phone rang. It was Juana.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I’m waiting by the side of the motorway,” I said.

“What? You’re already there? Julio’s down there in the pick up truck. Can you see him?”

Just then I noticed some some tail lights reversing slowly along the opposite side of the motorway.

“I think so,” I said, hanging up.

When the vehicle drew level, I was able to make out that it was a white pick up truck.

“TEEEEM. MY FRIEND!” a loud voice cried out. It was Julio.