Zapallar: A beautiful life


Sigh…….the time comes to leave Santiago. My next major destination will be Valparaiso.  Javiera takes the opportunity to take a day off and escape the urban grind and offers to drive me to a town just north of Valparaiso called Zapallar. We can spend the day there and then she will drive me an hour down to Valparaiso and return to Santiago. I am so grateful for this as it delays having to say goodbye for a few more hours. Javiera also tells me that Zapallar is probably one of her favourite places on the central coast. It must be nice….So, we set out on the journey. It is stinking hot, there is blue sky. I say goodbye to Santiago, for now..

The car provides a close space for us to talk, and we talk the whole way, about travel, about solitude, about love. As we drive we listen to a selection of music. We listen to Violeta Parra, who was a Chilean singer/songwriter whose voice is so beautiful and strong, it cuts through the dry, mountainous landscape that I am watching through the car window, cutting open my heart as I listen. There is such fire in her lyrics, so much suffering, yet underneath, there is the fragility of a child asking “why?”. Javiera tells me her story, which is one of total drama: lost love, the death of a child, suicide. It is so very tragic. There is, of course, so much more that I will never know about this woman. As with Neruda, I realise that the information I am receiving is prepackaged discourse handed down through time, given shape by books, movies and “chinese whispers” from traveller to traveller….. Nevertheless, I ask myself, is it important for me to know this woman, or any artist for that matter? If I had had the opportunity to really know her in person. But even then, do you, can you ever really know someone? I guess, from this perspective, I don’t believe that knowing the person who produces the art makes the experience of the art any more authentic. It may provide some broad brush strokes with which you can colour the work in, but that is all. Violeta Parra sang because that is what she was drawn to do, for reasons that even she did not understand completely. I listen to her songs and I feel sadness and anger at the tragedy and stupidity of the ways that we lower ourselves to those in power. Her voice makes me feel something, it makes me think, which is the whole point of art. Indulging in the tragedy of her life is just wallowing in someone else’s misery…..

We arrive at Zapallar and the first thing I notice is that it is cloudy and cold. Not what I expected. We park el tomate in front of a church and the first thing I do is go rummaging around in my backpack for something warm to wear. I have one long sleeved top, that I was not expecting to have to use until I got up into Northern Chile..And this is where I learn a little lesson about the weather in this part of the coast. It is highly unpredictable. One thing I notice, as the days go past is that the clouds hang overhead most days, probably until three or four in the afternoon, at which point they burn off, revealing infinite blue skies. During this time, the temperatures can be quite cool, so layering is essential when one is out on the streets.

Zapallar is a town where rich people have their holiday homes and the well-to-do of Santiago come to rent out holiday apartments. I notice that many of the license plates of the SUV’s parked around the town are from Argentina. The first thing we do is go into the Church, which is a very small, humble stone structure, beautifully kept. Simple. I wander about and take photos. I am surprised to see stained glass with German writing. As with most churches that I have gone into, the light is dim, yellow. As soon as I start to walk in this place, my pace and my heart slow right down, until I am in a meditative state.

Leaving the church, we follow a tree-lined path down towards the beach. We pop out where the Rambla starts. “Rambla” is a space for strolling~ slow relaxed walking. In past times, this was the place where people probably came not only to walk, but to walk with lovers and family, a space for random encounters with neighbours, conversation, thinking, to see and importantly, to be seen. A trace of this essence probably remains in some places, but I fear that in modern times most of us walk, more often than not, to move from point A to point B or to improve our cardiovascular fitness. We decide to walk along the rambla , towards the other side of the bay, where there is a restaurant we want to have lunch at. As we walk, I begin to take notice of the large, expensive looking houses that are nestled against the many cerros that roll upwards from the beach. This place breathes wealth and privilege. I admit that if I were wealthy, I would also want to have a house in a place like this, although I probably wouldn’t just come here on holidays. I love the energy of this place. It is clean, quiet and gentle, a hidden corner.

My feet crunch on the sand and I notice imprints of other people’s feet criss-crossing the sand in front of me, dog paws, even something that looks like horses hooves, and the undeniable three pronged imprint of bird feet- probably seagulls, as there are dozens of them flying about overhead. I ask myself: do birds have feet?. I walk towards the waters edge and allow the waves to come and make contact with my skin. The water is very cold and crisp. One would have to be brave to swim in this water, yet I see that there are kids in there. I see a boy who from behind could be my nephew Sol…. I marvel at the intertextuality of human bodies- the boy turns around to look at me, but it isn’t Sol, he looks nothing like Sol. In that split second, I miss my nephews.

Making our way over to our next destination, the restaurant, we walk past other strollers and a man who has an easel set up. He is painting the bay. I notice at this point that there is major concentration of birds here. Seagulls and pelicans. The pelicans are amazing. They aren’t the black and white ones I have seen so often in Redcliffe, these are darker, tinged more strongly with greys and browns, and with beautiful blue feathers that move in lines down their necks, glistening in the sun. Fishermen are down by the waters edge, they are cracking open molluscs called “locos”, cutting out the part that I guess isn’t for human consumption and throwing it to the birds. The rest stays in the shell and is stored away, presumably ready for sale to restaurants like the one we are about to go to. Seagulls and pelicans are flying all over the place, feeding. The smell here is pungent, a deep sea fishiness that grabs me in the pit of my stomach. I try to breathe it in, dissecting it, allowing it to absorb into my body slowly, pushing back the resistance that I have to this strong smell. We sit and watch the birds for a while, then walk to “Chiringo” which is not 50 metres away. It occurs to me that ordering “locos” might be a good idea…..

The restaurant is expensive, so we enjoy every mouthful. Locos empanados, pastel de Jaiba and for dessert, dried figs stuffed with walnuts. I am taken by the old dog that sits sentry just outside the window. We joke that he is the reincarnated spirit of an old sailor, back in his old haunt, watching the weather. I wish I had taken a photo of this old dog- but truthfully, his face will stay etched in my mind forever. A big, shaggy thing, he was. After lunch, when I walk out, he is there and I whisper hello and goodbye, scratching his ears.

We decide to walk off lunch and Javiera takes me on a wander back across the beach, where more people have now congregated, sensing the lifting of the clouds. Colourful umbrellas dot the sand and there are the usual sounds of the beach, kids having fun, adults chatting, seagulls……we sit for a few minutes and I make a recording of the sounds, which is what you are listening to now. If you listen carefully, you can hear Javiera yawning. We are in the post-lunch, pre-walk coma, so we don’t pause for long for fear of simply falling asleep.

On the other side of the beach we pick up the trail that winds its way around the coastline for a couple of kilometres. As we walk, we talk of what it would be like to live here, we fantasise about owning a house here and waking up each morning being greeted by the sea. Each house has its’ own character, they all have beautiful gardens, bursting with flowers, trees and bushes. The only sign of danger is in the tsunami warning signs that we see occasionally, pointing us in the direction of where to go should a tsunami come. These signs momentarily drag me out of my rather idyllic wandering and into the harsh reality of what it means to live in Chile. One lives with the idea of the possibility of earthquakes. I wonder about the impact that living with this sort of danger has on the psyche of people living in a place…I have only experienced an earthquake once, when I was living in Japan. It happened in the middle of the night, I awoke to the sensation of the ground beneath my bed shifting from left to right. It only lasted a minute, and it probably wasn’t even an earthquake, more like tremors, but it was enough for me to get a taste of what an earthquake might be like. Feeling that the earth beneath you is absolutely unstable, that any given moment it might crack open underneath you and swallow you up (yes, I also enjoy watching disaster movies) is profoundly frightening. Even in our language, the concept of the “earth moving” expresses deep shifts, loss of control…..

As we move along the coastline, I am becoming more and more silent within myself. I am excited to commence the next part of my journey alone. As we get to the end of the walk, the sky finally opens up to reveal a stunningly blue sky, which reflects on the water, drawing it out, deep and glimmering. As I look back along the path we walked, this transformation that the light brings is magical in that moment. I am ready to move on.

One thought

  1. I hear the contented yawns and the blissful waves…the words and pictures this so divine unbelievably envious of you just being able to get this all down……let alone being there!


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