Photo: Sam Patton
To do research for a magazine story, I once spent a few days at a lodge in a remote part of Chile, on Lago General Carrera. After leaving the lodge, I was scheduled to take a puddle jumper to Balmaceda, a town near the lake's opposite shore. When high winds forced the pilot to cancel the flight, the lodge owner patched together a plan B: His wife would drop me off in the closest village, where an acquaintance would pick me up and shuttle me the final four-hour stretch to Balmaceda. The route would pass through a few towns and two military checkpoints. The rest: empty wilderness.
After the woman introduced me to the driver in Chile Chico and waved goodbye, three stocky, good-looking men appeared out of nowhere and jumped into the backseat of the Toyota Hilux. They were bomberos, or firemen, they told me, on their way to a conference in Balmaceda. "Interesting timing," I thought, since it was Good Friday in a Catholic country where all business had ground to a halt for the next few days.
We started driving and the buddies started joking, first about my wedding ring—"I didn't know she was married," one said—then about my height (I'm 510), then about my hair (I'm blonde). My heart started to beat faster. To distract myself, I flipped open my Lonely Planet guide and landed by chance on the "Women Travelers" section. The first sentence I read: "If you hitchhike, exercise caution and especially avoid getting into a vehicle with more than one man."
A dozen ugly scenarios reeled through my brain. Most of them ended with me in a ditch. My heart was racing and my chest felt tight. I opened my window; I couldn't get enough air. And that's how it went for the next hour, the men joking while I tried to breathe and wondered if today was going to be my last day on Earth.
As we rolled into the first town, I said I had to go to the bathroom, but after I hopped out of the truck, I told the driver I'd decided to stay in Los Antiguos for the night.
"¡Buen viaje!" I said, backing away as the bomberos hurled a tirade of unflattering Spanish, cursing me, the ungrateful gringa. The truck idled there for a few minutes, as if the men were deliberating what to do, then squealed off.
After spending the night with a local family, I made it to Balmaceda the next day. Maybe the delay was silly. Maybe I'd caved in to an irrational fear and offended four harmless men for nothing. I'll never know. All I could do at the time was act on my internal SOS signals. Had I ignored them and wound up in trouble, my prescient notions would have proved true. But by then it would have been too late.
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