Austins return from wild trip to South America

Will and Gay Austin stand in front of the rugged Andes Mountains in Chile last month.

Could it be that Pike County’s own National Garden Clubs president, Gay Austin of Holmesville, is something of a Lara Croft, Tomb Raider?

And that her mild-mannered husband, McComb ear-nose-and-throat doctor Will Austin, is a bit of an Indiana Jones?

They would scoff at the suggestion. But they do have a habit of venturing off to exotic places and returning with tales of adventures.

Like their latest trip to Chile, where riots broke out with looting, burning and tear gas.

As president of the National Garden Clubs, which has affiliates around the world, Gay is frequently off on some overseas journey.

“I go a lot,” she said. “Next year I’ll go to India, Costa Rica and New Zealand.”

Past trips included Ireland, Mexico, Panama, India and Costa Rica.

Will, because of his medical practice, gets to accompany her only occasionally.

He wanted to go on this trip because Chile seems like such an interesting place, running down the narrow western edge of South America.

“It wasn’t a tour,” Gay explained. “It was part of an invitation from their (garden club) leaders to go down there, give programs, attend flower shows. One of them was in our honor, which was cool.”

On Oct. 18 the Austins flew out of Dallas for a nine-hour flight to Santiago, Chile.  

They visited garden clubs, flower shows and botanical gardens. They journeyed south on a highway as fine as Interstate 55 through agricultural country — mountains and ocean on the right, the Andes to the left. Gay gave speeches with the help of an interpreter.

But there was a problem.

“The day we got there — this is a friendly country, it’s very stable — all of a sudden the government decided to increase (the cost of) public transportation. It really was just pennies,” Gay said.

“Protests started as peaceful demonstrations, but after four or five days it got out of control.” 

She and Will were able to keep up with news on their hotel TV, which had English subtitles. Reports indicated a group from Venezuela came down to orchestrate the protests.

The Chilean government responded with a military presence that Gay said seemed appropriate and which she compared to Gov. Haley Barbour’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

“They activated their army to police areas,” she said. “One day it was a peaceful demonstration. The next day they burned a car. The next day they looted a store.”

Nights were especially volatile, so the government imposed a 7 p.m. curfew.

Fortunately the Austins’ guides had gotten a U.S. State Department number and were able to get regular updates on the situation.

“We weren’t ever in any danger,” Gay claimed.

Of course, that’s the kind of thing Lara Croft would tell her parents or Professor Indiana Jones would tell his archeology students when returning from hair-raising adventures.

The unrest shortened the Austins’ trip by a day and canceled scheduled nighttime events.

“In retrospect, I’ve never had anything like this happen before,” Gay said.

While her two female guides were glad the deep-voiced, six-foot-plus Will was along, “Will was no help,” Gay joked. “He couldn’t speak Spanish. But having a man helps if you’re a woman traveling.”

At one point their van driver pulled to the back door of their hotel, and Gay stepped out on the sidewalk watching a crowd in the street.

“The manager of the hotel was freaking out,” she said. “It looked like they were having a parade. They weren’t having a parade, they were protesting.”

As things escalated throughout the country, the Army used tear gas, and a McDonald’s boarded up its windows. All transportation was shut down, including trucking, which interrupted normal business.

“It was still going on when we left (Oct. 25),” Gay said.

And it’s still going on now. According to an Associated Press article earlier this week, thousands of people were still marching, and lootings and burnings continued.

But the upheaval wasn’t all bad for the Austins. In a report on the trip, Gay wrote: “Due to national unrest, the program at Santiago was suspended, beginning a seven-hour drive to Los Angeles, stopping at the prestigious Miguel Torres winery at Curico, where a memorable four-course lunch with wine pairings was enjoyed.”

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