It was a blustery day in 1997. Brad Pitt plodded through the mountains in tattered footwear, his worn out jacket proving no match for the icy wind sweeping down from the slopes of Aconcagua – South America’s highest peak. While the film he was making was called Seven Years in Tibet, he was actually in Argentina, just a few miles outside of the small town of Uspallata. In 1997, actors staged a conflict between peaceful Tibetans and fierce Chinese soldiers bent on taking their land. Little known to Brad Pitt at the time, a similar conflict would take place 15 years later, not far from where the icy Aconcagua winds chilled him to the bone, between peaceful Americans and fierce Chilean border agents bent on taking their food.
Three days before the conflict…
We leave Mendoza and hook West toward the Andes. Scenes of vineyards and cottonwood trees soon give way to low shrubs and dry arroyos. On both sides of the road the hills grow into craggy peaks. An old railroad bed parallels the road, as does the Rio Mendoza, a wide river carrying glacial runoff to the fertile wine region below.
On the roadside we spot a shrine amid a sea of trash. Legend has it that a woman traveling with her infant child died of thirst in the desert, but her child survived by suckling the milk from her dead mother’s breast. In remembrance of the story, travelers are given free rein to throw their plastic bottles on the roadside, where the occasional whipping wind scatters them into the countryside and the Rio Mendoza.
Nine miles later, we coast into the village of Uspallata in a valley surrounded by towering peaks. We find a place near a stream and set up our home. Straight in front of Nacho, high in the towering mountains, forever roams the collective memory of Brad Pitt in his tattered jacket.
Two days before the conflict…
We explore the town – little more than a highway with a few unpaved offshoots that lead to estancias and the surrounding canyons. To protect the village from the harsh winds that come down like frozen avalanches from the Andes, extensive groves of deciduous trees have been planted around the town. The trees make the place seem tranquilo.
References to Tibet are all over the place. The Tibet bar punctuates one corner, while Tibet tours and Tibet markets abound. To someone unaware of the town’s famous recent past, the references would be very confusing indeed.
We hike to the top of a low hill outside of town where we find another shrine, this one devoid of any plastic trash.
In the evening we make a lasagna from scratch in our Dutch oven, watch a local teen flyfishing in our stream, and then retire to bed.
The day before the conflict…
I am awoken in the morning by a gaucho leading a herd of horses across the stream right in front of our camp. Throughout the day, more horses cross the stream. I am again awoken in the night by yet more horses crossing the stream, en masse. I start to wonder what’s up with all of the horses crossing the stream.
The day of the conflict…
We wake up early, have coffee and pancakes, and then tear down camp. We head West and climb farther into the Andes. The terrain looks remarkably similar to the Himalayas. I guess that explains why they chose this place to film Brad Pitt pretending to be a Himalayan mountaineer.
We eventually arrive at Aconcagua and pull over. Our plan is to hike up to the base of the mountain, but one step out the door puts those plans on the backburner; the wind is howling and it’s absolutely freezing. Springtime in the shadow of a 22,841 foot peak isn’t as balmy as we’d thought it would be. A quick walk around a field, a few minutes looking at a natural bridge and we duck inside of a tienda for some hot chocolate while sitting around a wood stove.
Back on the road we approach the Chilean border. With any luck, by nightfall we’ll be wearing fancy turtlenecks and quaffing expensive wine in a seaside restaurant in Viña del Mar. The abandoned train tracks paralleling the road are enclosed in a manmade tunnel of plate steel to protect it from the deep winter snows. The plate steel is rusty, dilapidated and sagging, giving the tracks an unreal scariness. They’re like Marilyn Manson reincarnated as train tracks.
The road approaches an unbelievably steep and towering triumvirate of mountains, seemingly impassible, and I wonder how we’ll get over them. My question is answered when the road dives into a tunnel straight through the biggest mountain. We drive for a few miles in the subterranean tunnel, icicles hanging from the roof, and then we see a sign hanging from the tunnel wall: Bienvenidos a la Republica de Chile. We’ve crossed the Chilean border underground.
Sheena ducks into the back of the van to do our routine of hiding all of the food before getting to the border guard shack. She’s getting pretty good at it by now; she tucks our meat, fruits and vegetables into every nook and cranny, while leaving a few straggling pieces of wilted vegetables in our fruit bowl as decoys for Customs to find and confiscate.
We emerge from the tunnel into an unreal scene of snow-covered mountains sweeping down to the valley where the road and the abandoned train tracks are. A few kilometers more and we arrive at the Chilean border control building. It’s a busy day, so we sit in line for close to an hour before it’s our turn to enter the enormous A-frame drive-through building.
We’re waved into vehicle control and find a place to park. We enter the building to get our passports stamped, our importation paperwork taken care of, and we sign an affidavit stating that, under penalty of a $1,000 fine, we aren’t transporting any food. It’s time for our Customs inspection.
Outside in the freezing air I scour the parking area for an inspector. I’m looking for the most relaxed and unintimidating one, so that if things start going wrong, they might be more easily distracted by shiny objects or random questions. I start going for the young girl whose inspector jacket is slightly too big, but she dodges me at the last minute, leaving me staring at a strict, intimidating-looking man in his thirties. Bollocks! Looks like he works out too.
“Ready for your inspection?” he asks. I take a deep breath and invite him over to Nacho, handing him my signed affidavit. After a cursory walk around the exterior, he asks Sheena to open the sliding door. He steps in and gets to work.
“Do you have any food in here?”
“Food? No sir, we don’t have any food in here,” I respond. I’m trying to look a little surprised by his question, as though the thought of having food inside of a car is completely stupid. My acting does nothing to convince him, so he starts opening things.
Drawer one: no food. Drawer two: no food. Drawer three: no food. Cabinet: completely stuffed with dry food. He slowly turns his head at me and shoots me a disbelieving look. The proverbial Nazi soldier has just found the proverbial stash of hidden Jews under the floorboards.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any food.” This must be very rewarding for him, watching liars like me squirm.
“Oh, right, sure that’s food. But I thought you were talking about things like fruits and vegetables. Is it illegal to cross the border with oatmeal and stuff?”
He slowly turns back and starts emptying the cabinet until every last crumb is out on the counter, and then he goes through it piece by piece.
“You signed the affidavit, right? Did you even read it?” he asks in a slightly insulting tone.
Not knowing how to break it to him that nobody ever reads anything that they sign at a border, I try to be vague. ”Not very well, no.”
He begins throwing our food in a pile on the floor. Once he’s created a nice mound he moves on to Sheena’s clothing storage area under the couch. He withdraws her clothing piece by piece until, halfway through, he pulls out a bag of apples. He holds it up, turns to look at me, shakes his head, and throws the apples in the pile. A few shirts later he removes our cucumbers, cilantro, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
The inspector leans back and stretches his shoulders, and then turns his head to look at me. He’s done messing around.
“I will give you one more chance. Just tell me where all of your food is.”
I confidently explain to him that he’s found everything – that we keep all of our food up here in the front area. He definitely doesn’t believe me, and positions himself on the couch, ready to tear our whole world apart. He reaches his arm into Sheena’s sleeping bag and slowly withdraws a huge head of cabbage, and then gives me the stink eye.
“Do you always keep your cabbage in your sleeping bag?” he hisses. He lets out a disappointing sigh and starts getting rough. He claws at our belongings and throws them at me, and tells me he will remove everything from the van.
Within a few minutes, most of our belongings are on the ground in the parking lot and the pile of food on the floor has grown to include all of our meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, backpacking food, honey, and anything not in its original packaging. There’s over $200 worth of food on the ground, and he’s spilling it everywhere. Finally he looks behind a curtain and finds the carton of eggs.
“Are these eggs hard boiled or raw?” he asks.
“Raw,” Sheena says. We’re done lying; we’ve lost the battle.
Not satisfied with our too-little-too-late honesty, the inspector removes two eggs from the carton, holds them over Sheena’s pillow, and smashes them against each other. The eggs explode all over her pillow and the inspector’s hands. He wipes his hands on her pillow and hands it to me. Classy.
Sheena shoots me a furious glance; by now we’re all feeling a bit pissed off. Just like every traveler we’ve met, we always have food in our car. This is our home, after all. And just like every traveler, we always deny having food for the purpose of crossing borders. It’s a formality that no border agent has ever really cared about. This guy, however, deeply cares.
“Wait, stop. Just stop touching our stuff. We don’t want to go to Chile any more. We’re going back to Argentina.”
The inspector looks at me, eyebrows raised. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, just get out of our car.”
He jumps out of the van and asks me to follow him. I follow him to his group of inspector friends, where he informs them that we will be going back to Argentina. One of the women looks surprised and asks why we’re going back.
“We’re going back because you’re stealing all of our food,” I say. I’m still pissed about the eggs, and I’m not doing much to mask my anger. At this, our inspector’s eyes nearly pop out of his head and he charges at me, stopping an inch from my face.
“Did you say STEALING!? You signed the affidavit, right!?”
At this, I realize that in fact he’s right, and that we’re really the bad guys. In our minds we think he’s a jerk because he’s the first border Customs agent we’ve ever met who actually cares about people smuggling food over international lines. We later find out that Chile in general is very serious about crossing borders with food because of their lack of invasive insect species, and their desire to keep it that way.
Still fuming, I tell the agent that my Spanish vocabulary is lacking, and that “stealing” is the only word I know to describe the act of taking away someone else’s property. The agent scribbles “VOID” across my completed importation paperwork, and shoves it in my hand. We retrace our steps through all of the border control processes and get stamped out of Chile.
Once we arrive back at the Argentine side, we have to explain why we’re back so soon from Chile, and why we don’t have properly discharged Chilean import paperwork. When asked whether we’re carrying any food, we look a little surprised and say no. We’re casually waved through, back into good old Argentina.
When evening rolls around, we camp in the same place by the river outside of Uspallata. I drift off to sleep thinking about Tibet and Brad Pitt. It’s almost as if today never happened. A horse crosses the stream outside of our window, and I fall asleep wondering, what’s up with all of these horses?