Thursday, December 1, 2011


So alright, Valparaiso was a nice spot. It was funky and colorful, the artsy, rebellious sibling to straight-laced Santiago. My first thought when I started wandering the cerros (hills) of Valpo was that it was like an old woman in a teenagers outfit, from far away it looked hip and young, the forms were right, the energy was right, outrageousness of it was right…but upon closer inspection you saw that the foundations were weathered, the paint was chipped, the doors creaked and windows chattered. The older buildings had dark soot in their elaborate stonework and the ascensors (elevators) that rattled up the hills look like they hadn’t been updated since they were first constructed over 100 years ago. I think that’s what I liked about it. This place was different, it had personality. Each building was in competition with its neighbor to be the most outrageous, and the colors screamed for attention. Public art was sponsored in some areas and in others, wildly talented graffiti artists left their marks in huge murals that turned the whole city into a giant canvas. Down by the water the old cranes lifted, stacked and moved shipping containers as giant barges sat moored a close distance away on the water. It´s like San Francisco on steroids. Get down from the cerros to the flatter area by the shore and old trolley cars and 1980´s buses have their routes plastered across their windows in neon paint.
Everyone kept warning me to be careful in Valparaiso. It´s dangerous there! Don’t go out at night! The port area is dangerous and the sailors will get drunk and hit on you! People will try to mug you! Watch your purse, watch your camera! Be very careful when you go up the stairs because people can hide there and…be afraid! Be afraid! BE AFRAID! But this place was hypnotic, and the stairs wanted to be climbed, and I wanted to take pictures, and I like to watch the sunset over the water with the cranes frozen in position. I never felt concern, and never even had a moment where I felt unsafe. I can understand the reason why people want you to be cautious, you could easily get lost and turned around and be bait for anyone with bad intentions. Fortunately that was not my experience.
There is a nice boardwalk that connects Valparaiso to Viña Del Mar. I rented a bike and took a day to see this neighboring beach town. Everyone I met in Santiago, well the local Santiaguinos, kept telling me how beautiful Viña was. That I absolutely HAD to go, so I did. I don’t get it. I suppose it must be because it’s on the beach? I learned a word in Chilean spanish that I think captures my thoughts for Viña: fomme. It loosely translates to boring, bland, blah. Compared to the craziness and color of Valpo the only worthwhile thing about Viña was that there was a beach, where Valpo was just the port, but that was it. It was too clean, too structured, too same-same. For all I know it could have been a town in California, not that I have anything against California, but I want to FEEL like I´m somewhere else. I did finally break and eat a completo when I was there. I had been avoiding this cultural experience my entire stay in Chile. A completo is typical Chilean fast food, it consists of a hot-dog in a bun that is then COVERED in tomatoes, avocado (so far so good) and then a shit-ton of mayonnaise and ketchup. Barf in my mouth. What is it with these guys and mayo and hot-dogs? They really seem to love those two food items more than anything else. It´s bizarre. I tried to like it, I really did, but this is just one of those things I can’t seem to get behind, and let´s be honest, I´m ok with that. I like the empanadas, I like the sopapillas, I like the mote con huesillos, but I cannot dig the completo. Just the thought of trying to eat another one of those things gives me involuntary gag reflex. 
Anyway, the boardwalk is nice. It makes it easy to get to back and forth between Viña and Valpo by bike or on foot. You pass an area where there are sea lions just hanging out on some sort of abandoned structure in the water and pelicans fly around overhead. There are little cove beaches along the way, and one small strip with seafood restaurants. From what I hear these all get really busy in the summer when everyone from Santiago heads over for the weekends. It was pretty mellow when I visited, and the water was cold, cold, cold. I don´t imagine even on the hottest of days that I would try to brave that water, but there was a couple of kids splashing about. Leave it to kids to play in water that cold.
Overall, I liked my experience in Valparasio, but was so ready to leave the city and get back to the mountains. On my walk back to the bus station I was re-routed by police a block or so because there were protests going on. Not a problem for me. I don’t want to get in the middle of that that. I just want to get back to Santiago to pack my bag and prepare for Patagonia. The university students have been protesting for months, I think it’s getting close to almost a year. They are fighting for free education…and in the process have missed nearly a year of school. I am not educated on the matter, so I have no opinion here or there on the politics of the Chilean education system, however I now can say that I have had the experience of being tear-gassed thanks to these protests. I was just minding my own business, trying to get to the bus station to get back to Santiago and the fumes from the gas wafted right at me. I coughed. What the hell is that? My nose started burning. My eyes started burning. What the hell IS that?! I tried to hide my face in my sleeve, but the burning didn’t stop. Get me out of here!! I picked up the pace to a fast walk that morphed into a trot. It burned to breathe it in, I just wanted to get out of there and back to the mountains as soon as I could. I didn’t care if running made me breathe harder and the burn more pungent, each step was getting me that much closer to my goal.
I knew that when I got back to the house I was staying in that my hosts would ask me about my experience there. I was struggling with how I could tastefully tell them that I thought Viña was a bore. I mean, they were so excited for me to go and see it, and were sad they couldn’t go with me. I figured I would have to break it to them somehow. At first I tried the angle of just talking about how fun Valparaiso was. How much I enjoyed the colors and the buildings. I opted not to talk about Viña at all. But it was inevitable that they would ask, so I just said that I imagined it would be very nice on a sunny day, but that the day that I went was unfortunately cloudy.
I suppose it´s safe to say that, I didn’t want to hurt anyone´s feelings. Besides…at that point all I could think about was getting back down south. I was meeting my friend at the airport the next day and we were heading down to Torres Del Paine. In one short day, Viña and its terrible completo, and Valpo with its funky houses and tear-gassed streets would be worlds away. I am starting to learn that time on this trip doesn’t work the same as it does back home. The days fly by, it’s hard to believe that I am nearing 3 months... and yet somehow, hours feel like days.

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