Travel: When school's out in Santiago

Rhiannon Batten took her year out in 1992, and after a series of adventures ended up in the wilds of Chile
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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST time I remember getting truly drunk was at the start of my year off. The next 12 months carried on in much the same way: sipping pisco sours in Chile, discovering wine in France and getting merry on coca tea in Bolivia.

Although none of my friends from sixth-form college was taking a gap year, I didn't want to go straight to university. All I really wanted to do after my A levels was lie on a beach. The first rule of any gap year is "use your contacts": fortunately, some family friends had thoughtfully and conveniently relocated themselves to the Cayman Islands.

On this particular day we'd taken a boat to the appropriately named Rum Point. I sat at the beach bar gulping Kahlua cocktails far too quickly, and then spent the rest of the day suffering.

Although my gap year got off to an intoxicating start, reality soon hit and I spent most of the time back in Shrewsbury working at WH Smith to save enough money to travel. On the days I wasn't at work, I trekked off to university open days and to visit friends at college, who all seemed to be partying wildly and having a much better time than me.

Eventually, on New Year's Eve (the only day for which I could get a ticket), I flew to South America and celebrated New Year in the air with a deaf German-speaking Argentinian and the New Year parcel a friend had made up for me in lieu of being at the usual Shrewsbury gathering.

When we flew over the Andes, I wrote in my diary that I'd never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

My mum's schoolfriend, Susan, was waiting for me with a grin and a hug at Santiago airport in Chile. I brought out half-coated chocolate biscuits and the latest Coronation Street storylines in return for the best base I could possibly have had in South America.

Although visiting Santiago wasn't exactly like canoeing down the Amazon or trekking up a Colombian hillside, this was a town where coffee came served with a glass of water, and couples seduced each other dancing la cueca.

Dragging myself from the cosmopolitan pleasures of Santiago, I took the overnight train to Puerto Montt in the Chilean lake district. The train was like something from an Agatha Christie novel - all dark wood and velvet-covered seats, and a courteous little man came and made up the beds with crisp linen sheets.

Luxuries like that were few and far between, W H Smith in Shrewsbury not having been a font of fabulous wealth. So I mostly stayed at youth hostels to save money. These varied from a floor in a schoolroom in Puerto Montt to a fabulous wooden mansion in Osorno.

At Puerto Natales, almost at the southernmost tip of Chile, the hostel was full of local girls on holiday so we all spent our time gossiping and dancing to the summer hit, "La Pachanga".

To trek around Torres Del Paine National Park - crammed with glaciers, jagged granite rocks and gently baked pastures - I hooked up with the only option of company. Michael, who was from Colwyn Bay, was also staying at the hostel.

We proudly made "tents" from plastic sheeting and stocked up on camping food before realising we needn't have bothered. It wasn't very dry and it certainly wasn't warm and our specially bought rations were years out- of-date, so we had to munch on whitened chocolate and soggy spaghetti.

Michael spent the whole time trying to impress me, but I'd already met a beautiful Argentinian in Puerto Natales and Michael just could not compete.

I made it back to Susan's farm for Cosecha '93, the February grape harvest, and spent my birthday in the giant frigorfico where the fruit is stored, packing grapes. It was strange wearing woolly hats and jumpers when outside it was around 30C. I still had just enough time to go north to San Pedro de Atacam and get bronchitis in Bolivia before flying home.

The travel bug had got me, though. Before long, I was working as an au pair in France, looking after William and Yoan. On my days off by the pool in Valence, eating sticky French peaches, slabs of goats' cheese and turning brown, or cycling out to Mirmande - a miniature inland St Ives with steep winding lanes and clusters of artists' studios.

I'd get to the top of the village and sit and imagine university life - and wonder how the glamorous black-tie cocktail parties mentioned in the Oxford student handbook would compare with evenings spent sipping Kahluas at Rum Point or drinking mate with my Argentinian in Puerto Natales.

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