Fuera de la Tierra
Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
27Trip End Aug 2006
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Valparaiso, however, feels nothing like the US. A port city built on a series of steep hills, it has a toography that reminds me of San Francisco. And it's alive like San Francisco. The nightlife doesn't pick up until 2:00 a.m. and a normal night lasts until 6:00 a.m. My friends and I gave it our damnedest, but I'm not sure any of us was capable of such sustained effort, for two nights in a row. The Valparaiso is beautiful in the daytime and luminescent at night.
One of my friends came into Santiago the night before most of us, almost a month ago now. He waved over a taxi driver at the airport and told him the name of the least expensive hotel in his guidebook, which happened to be in an old part of Santiago. The few old-looking parts of Santiago's center remind me of Quito--a little dirty, smoggy and hectic, but they carry an identity. My friend coffessed anxiety at waling around late at night, lugging two unweildy suitcases through an "unsafe" part of town. But, he said, that was one of the few times he felt like he was in Chile.
And Valparaiso is that way. Perhaps we carry a preconception of South American cities should be hectic and dirty, a web of narrow alleys that weave between aging colonial buildings. South America, perhaps, is supposed to be backward. On the other hand, I believe we see the continent as carrying the vestiges of its culture and its history on every inch of its surface, in a way we Americans are often unable to find in our own country.
Walking in Valparaiso is an effort. The only flat parts seem to sit within five blocks of the waterfront. Otherwise, its a 45 degree climb to the tops of the hills. Old "ascensors," elevators that that slide up steep, sloped tracks, provide opportunities to rest, but cost money
From the tops of the hills (photos to come soon, once I get my act together), the views are magnificent: out into the pacific, up the coast to the resort towns and at the patchwork of brightly colored houses up and down the hills.
The people there are also more lively, helpful and generally friendly. My friends and I didn't need to search out a place to stay because a woman at the bus station showed us photos of a series of apartments she was renting out for $10 a night on Cerro Alegre, one of the more bohemian (that's the word they use) and interesting neighborhoods. And the lodgings were actually nicer than the pictures.
But Valpo people are also strange. While taking a picture of my friends in front of the National Congress building (the ugliest edifice in the city, actually. There are hotels in Santiago that look nicer), an deranged middle-aged man approached me to try and sell something. It was clear I was taking a picture, but he was insistent, and I made a hand motion to tell him no. The thought I was waving him out of the picture and growled at me, saying I could not overlook another human being, that he was there, that he was not insignificant. Then he walked away.
Sitting in the park a few minutes later, he appeared out of nowhere and walked directly to me. Down in my face, he repeated his words from before, adding that everything I ever did would come back to me in the future
As we left to return to Santiago, we walked down a steep hill toward the bus station, alone on the street except for an old man. He was on the opposite side of the street, walking calmly uphill, and when he saw us, he stopped. He pulled his hands out of his pocket, cupped them around his mouth, and in a gravelly voice shouted, "Fuera de la Tierra!" Then, returning to normal, he turned back uphill and walked away as if nothing had ever happened.
Strange. We were in town as Michelle Bachelet was officially sworn into the presidency--the first female elected to such a post in the western hemisphere. We showed up late to the parade, and as things were being dismantled, a few people uttered that our group of five gringos was probably the CIA. Obviously, the paranoia that came with the rule of General Pinochet hasn't disappeared. Bachelet was actually given the mandate in the national congress, which was moved out of the capital by the general to diminish its influence.
In any case, my friends and I found a place to escape to for a few odd weekends in the future (it's only an hour and a half away from Santiago by bus), where strange and interesting things happen, and where we can feel more alive than in Santiago, and where the South American identity is more palpable than here in the capital. It was more than worthwhile