When I went to the bus company again on Thursday - to check the progress of the bus leaving to Salta on Friday - there was no change in the situation. So it was decided that I should try further south - Sebastian had said that it should be ok crossing in Santiago, which is only five hours West of Mendoza, Argentina. It's such a busy crossing, that the high demand would ensure enough people would be employed to clear the snow away to make the road passable. If going straight down, it would be a 19 hours trip. So I thought I might as well see a little more of Chile, whilst I was here.
So in the late morning of Friday, was on a bus southbound to Copiapo, a good place for some trekking (over Argentine peaks), as well as lending a possible passage across the border. But I was already undecided on whether to bypass this, and go even further down to La Serena (another five hours away), where my guide mentioned "nice wide sandy beaches"...
Copiapo is only seven hours away from Antofagasta, and about an hour away from Copiapo, the bus stopped for a break. Jumped off the bus immediately to try to extend my ticket to La Serena, and was told I must do that in Copiapo (and hence the bus would go without me, and have to wait for the next one??). Though lunch was served on the bus (beef with pasta, a bread roll, and an orange), I was hungry and went a couple of shops down to buy a hot cheese sandwich. When I returned, the bus... was gone. Some people standing outside the ticket office helpfully told me that the bus had gone. And the clerk, recognised me, and told me the same thing. Why didn't they ask the bus to wait for me then??? Why didn't the bus honk before leaving (as I was accostumed to)?? Why didn't they make sure all passengers were back on board before leaving?? There weren't that many of us!!
S**t, s**t, s**t! My backpack was still on the bus! The clerk in the office, though wearing the smart uniform provided by the best bus company in Chile (Tur Bus, if you want to know) had the same level of customer care as the ones in Peru and Bolivia. Actually, worse, because he's only one of millions of employees, and he didn't really care about how much money the company make. Whereas in Peru and Bolivia, they actually want your money, and would work harder obtaining it.
Anyway he told me there would be another bus arriving an hour later for Copiapo - arriving at about six. The next bus onwards to La Serena would be at eight, hence arriving there after one in the morning - too late for me. So I would have to spend the night in Copiapo afterall. Tried to get him to call Copiapo immediately to take my bag off the bus, but he was relucant to do that until fifteen minutes before the expected arrival. Explained that all I had on me was only a small bag, no extra clothes nor toothbrush, and would rather my bag not go all the way to Santiago (the bus' final destination). He didn't really care.
So when I finally got to Copiapo two hours later, found that, naturally, my bag wasn't there. Incompetant people!! It was on its way to La Serena, where I should be the next morning. They offered to send the bag back, but I would rather it make as little journies as possible on its own. Told the clerk there (who was much friendlier and helpful) that I had only 6000 pesos (US$12) on me - the rest of my money in my backpack - and wouldn't have enough for a hotel (US$10), dinner and breakfast, so please compensate for her colleagues' incompetance (well, not in so many words) by giving me a free passage to La Serena. She was relucant, but finally complied - putting me on the first bus in the morning (at 7:50am!! -instead of 8:50am as I had requested), and on an ailse seat - though the bus was practically empty.
Had similar luck with my hotel, the manager knocking off $2 for me - which left me $4 for dinner. Which, I can tell you, is quite little in Chile. But first, though hungry, had to find somewhere with food for me. Must have spent forty-five minuts touring around the city, asking in at least fifteen, sixteen places before finally finding somewhere with vegetarian fare, which wasn't a sandwich or a salad. Hadn't eaten properly all day, and would really be grateful for a hot meal!! Luckily I didn't give up, as I managed to enjoy a cold beer and a nice creamy vegetable crepe (US$8 - lucky had stack of cash in my little bag). Also lucky that I had packed my travel alarm clock in my small bag, so that it would wake me up early the next morning for my next bus...