Pandemonium at Port

He who does not travel, who does not read, who does not listen to music, who does not find grace in himself, she who does not find grace in herself, dies slowly.

-Pablo Neruda

Our third morning in Chile started on a bus. This was the day that we had all been eagerly anticipating, as we would be boarding the Sapphire Princess for a sixteen day cruise. Even though we’d had a lot of fun exploring the Santiago area, it almost felt like the trip was just now beginning, and a sense of impatience had come over me by the time our bus arrived in the coastal city of Viña del Mar. I had no idea how much patience I would need later that very day as I descended from the bus and stretched my legs which were cramped from the long drive.

Viña del Mar was not our actual destination, but Pablo wanted to make sure that we got a chance to see Reloj de Flores on our way to the port city of Valparaiso. This functioning clock, whose mechanisms were made in Switzerland, was built into a hillside in honor of the 1962 world cup. The second hand ticked away as Pablo told us a brief history of the flower clock, after which our group of twenty piled back onto the bus, bound for Valparaiso.

Although the morning had been cold and cloudy, the sun was making an appearance by the time we arrived at La Sebastiana Museum House, the former home of Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda. I took a minute to ask a tripmate, Gary, what he knew about Pablo Neruda. As a Ph.D. in higher education, and former Dean of Arts and Sciences, I can always count on Gary to have interesting historical information on the places we visit. He gave me a brief overview of Neruda’s life and career, including his exile from Chile after speaking out against then-president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. Neruda fled on horseback through the Andes mountains into Argentina and spent three years in exile. My own interests lean more towards the natural world, so I often don’t have a rich historical context for the places I visit, but Gary has a way of bringing history to life and I always appreciate his input and enthusiasm. After our talk, I was much more excited about seeing La Sebastiana since I knew more of the history of the man who called it home.

After our quick stop at La Sebastiana, we drove a bit further into the city and then finally left the bus behind to start our walking tour. Pablo led us onto a funicular which ferried us to the top of Cerro Alegre, or Happy Hill, where we were met with a fantastic view over the city and out to the Pacific Ocean. Vibrantly painted houses dotted the hillside, giving it a cheerful feeling. The overlook platform we were standing on also had a slide attached to it, and with some encouragement from Pablo, everyone in the group took a ride down it.

We wandered through the Cerro Alegre neighborhood, and admired beautiful murals, and the work of local artists who were selling art of all varieties along the streets. Every so often, a street would open up a perfect view of the harbor far below us where we could see the Sapphire Princess waiting to come into the dock. Murmurings had been circulating all morning that the ship had been barred from making port due to a high swell, which would cause a delay in boarding that evening. For the time being, I wasn’t too worried. Truly living up to its name, the colorful and uplifting atmosphere of Cerro Alegre was making it impossible to stress about what might be taking place way down at the bottom of the hill. For now, I enjoyed blissful ignorance.

Because of the delay we actually got to extend the walking tour, taking our time to enjoy the sights of the city as we slowly made our way downhill. Eventually we ended up at Plaza Sotomayor, where our bus driver picked us up. Now we were officially running into problems. This was supposed to be the end of the tour, so our next stop would ostensibly be at the port to start the embarkation process. However, the ship still hadn’t been able to make port, which meant that we wouldn’t be boarding anytime soon. Seamlessly, Pablo informed us that we would be returning to Viña del Mar for lunch, a nice alternative to waiting around for hours, but an unsettling prospect since we still didn’t know what the results of this schedule interruption might be. There was no use worrying about it yet though since the situation was thoroughly outside of our control, so I once again put it out of my mind as we rode back towards Viña del Mar.

The city had come to life in the few hours that we’d been away. Viña del Mar is a popular beach destination and now that the day had warmed up, it was filled with vacationers and beachgoers. Pablo chose a sit-down restaurant for the group to have lunch, but Vince and I decided to skip the restaurant and eat at a nearby stand with Venezuelan food. I ordered a cheese empanada and a black bean arepa-I was particularly excited about the arepa because they were a favorite of mine years ago when we visited Colombia. It was just as delicious as I remembered and it brought back fond memories of my first time traveling beyond North America.

As it turns out, scarfing down an arepa doesn’t take nearly as long as eating a sit down meal, so Vince and I were left with a lot of extra time to hit the beach, and it was a beautiful day for it. The sun was shining, and huge waves crashed against the shore. Paragliders soared overhead and the sounds of happy vacationers mingled with the songs of a rapper busking near some sun bathers.

All-too-soon it was time to face the reality that was waiting for us back in Valparaiso. We met back up with the group and boarded the bus one last time. Now we had no choice but to confront the situation that was unfolding, and it turned out to be worse than I had imagined.

We arrived at port to find a sea of tagged luggage waiting to be loaded onto the ship. Pablo and the bus driver stayed with us until all of our luggage had joined the line-up, and then we said our goodbyes and entered a nearby building to wait for embarkation.

Stepping over the threshold felt like walking into a wall made completely of sound. The building was packed with people, and completely chaotic. We pushed our way through the crowd, looking for anywhere to sit down, but every chair in the building was occupied. There was also no space to sit along any wall, so we found an available spot in the middle of the room and set up camp, not knowing how long we’d be there. Jared disappeared for a few minutes to check us in and returned with little slips of paper with the number 16 printed on them. Apparently, this was how we were to keep track of our boarding time, and Jared handed one to each of us.

We wouldn’t need to worry about boarding for several more hours though as the passengers from the ship’s previous cruise hadn’t even begun disembarking yet. So we hunkered down and waited. And waited. And waited.

Eventually crew members started bringing out trays of cookies and sandwiches, and shortly after that we got word that boarding was about to start. This caused an uncontrollable surge of traffic towards the check in stations, and we all tried our best to stay together as a group as the crowd pressed toward the entrance stations, and freedom from the holding room. There was no PA system in use so crew members were just shouting out numbers that could come forward, but of course, people with those numbers were struggling to get to the front of the “line” because they couldn’t fit in between the crowd of people that had gathered. Everyone was practically stuck where they were, and people were shoving their way through the chaos when their number was called. On a couple of occasions, I saw a bunch of people suddenly surge forward, which did nothing to calm my growing anxiety.

Miraculously, the numbers started at 15, so we didn’t have to wait in the huddle for too long. When 16 was called, we fought out way to the front of the line, and started checking in. We had to hand over our passports, which were tossed into bins full of other passports in a seemingly disorganized mess. Our check-in agent couldn’t tell us when we would get them back, which even further added to my anxiety. I later found out that laws in some of the ports we would be visiting required our passports to be checked by port authorities on our arrival. This wasn’t explained to us at boarding so it was all I could do to keep from panicking as my passport disappeared from sight, and I wondered if I would ever see it again. Thankfully this fear was unnecessary, and our passports were returned to us near the end of the cruise.

After relenting our passports and picking up our medallions (essentially Air Tags that you use to unlock your stateroom and pay for things onboard) we boarded a bus that finally drove us over to the Sapphire Princess. I felt immense relief walking up the gangway. We entered the opulent Piazza where crew members greeted us with huge smiles despite having just been through what I assumed was probably an even more stressful day for them than it was for us.

The ship felt like a soothing oasis after the pandemonium we’d just escaped, and I was beyond happy to find our stateroom and take a minute to just decompress. Vince and I had upgraded to an obstructed ocean view, and the room was quite spacious and comfortable. I had only been on two cruises in the past, most recently a full decade ago. It isn’t my preferred mode of travel, but with the destinations we’d be visiting on this trip, it was by far the most practical and affordable option. I had envisioned the cramped, dark space that we had on our previous two cruises, but our room on the Sapphire Princess, although basic, was very nice. In fact, writing about it is making me miss its cushy bed and pillows.

Although we had our stateroom, we couldn’t unpack or settle in because our luggage hadn’t made it onto the ship yet. Actually, I ended up going to bed in hiking pants later that night because our bags didn’t end up arriving until after one in the morning. Since we couldn’t unpack, Vince and I went out to eat dinner and explore the ship, and throughout the night we were able to piece together more details about what had caused all of the trouble that day.

It turned out that this was the Sapphire Princess’s first time docking in Valparaiso. Usually it makes port further south in San Antonio for this itinerary, but it had to divert because of construction in San Antonio. The port at Valparaiso isn’t big enough to handle a ship of its size, so the port was flooded with more passengers than it was prepared to deal with at the same time that a swell prevented the ship from docking on time. The longer the ship had to wait to come into port, the worse the situation became. Passengers from the previous crew were trapped on board without their luggage and without access to their staterooms since they were being cleaned in preparation for us, meanwhile the queue of people waiting to board only grew and grew.

We also heard through the grape vine that our first port of call, Punta Arenas, had been cancelled (later we found an announcement about this posted in our stateroom). There hadn’t been time to refuel the ship, so we would be spending the next day fueling up in San Antonio and would have to stay on board, and this loss of time meant we had to skip a port of call. In all honesty, Punta Arenas was probably the port that I was least excited for anyway, so it certainly could have been worse. We were refunded our port fees and given extra credit to make up for the day’s inconvenience.

With all of this drama, it would perhaps be easy to view it as a harbinger of things to come, but I’m happy to say that everything started looking up again after we’d recovered from the stress of embarkation day. We ended up having an amazing time, and the crew of the Sapphire Princess were beyond outstanding. I celebrated my birthday onboard the very next day as we refueled in San Antonio, and then we finally set sail, ready to shrug off any negativity and jump into what would be one of the most spectacular adventures of our lives!


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