Landing in Valparaiso

cerro alegre

cerro alegre

Driving away from Zapallar and towards Valparaiso, I feel the tone change. Radically. As we drive south, we go past not one, but two, (petrol?) refineries. I feel these monstrosities stab my eyes. I have no doubt that these awful structures are here because they are conveniently close to the port, but I still think that there are some things that are more important than money. I feel sorry for people who live around here, having to look at these structures every day. Although, now that I think about it, I suppose it is also the case that these companies are providing jobs to many locals…..As we arrive at Vina del Mar, the traffic becomes crazy, cars everywhere, people everywhere. Actually, Vina del Mar reminds me of a hyped-up version of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. I had been considering coming and spending a day or two here on the way north from Valparaiso, but in the traffic jam and after the shock of seeing those refineries, I change my mind. We continue to head south, towards Valparaiso…

Javiera drops me off on Avenida Pedro Montt- in front of the bus station – and I am not in Kansas anymore. Valparaiso is the lovechild of Mumbai and Santiago, conceived on the beach under a full moon….. Valparaiso is something else, and in my mind, soul and gut, that “something else” is magnified and deeply contrasted by the clean, soft place I have just come from. Dirty, grimy, profoundly vibrant, in this sense it is like almost every other port city I have ever walked in (except Sydney). Anticipation manifests as a flurry of butterflies in my stomach.

This city has one big flat surface to walk- the area directly in front of the port. But the guts of this place rise up into the surrounding hillsides, entwining across the many cerros pocketing the city. This is a city to walk in, a feast for the eyes, but when tiredness descends there are always the colectivos, funiculares, tram buses and micros. Colectivos are privately owned cars that operate in specific sectors, functioning like buses, they travel back and forth along specific routes. It is cheap and easy. The funiculares are these old carriages that move up and down the cerros on tracks ~18th century versions of “The Giant Drop”.

On my first walk in Valparaiso, I am just checking things out- orienting myself. In Santiago and Zapallar I feel absolutely safe walking the streets, whereas here I notice that my instincts talk to me more insistently. I notice my hand grip onto my bag that little bit more tightly, my heart beat that little bit more quickly, my eyes become that little bit more wary. From my alojamiento, I walk down the cerro, all the way across the flat part of the city and to the other side, where I end up in a shopping mall. I buy water, nuts, a bit of fruit. I walk back along Pedro Montt, past the markets and the bus station. I am dancing my way along the footpath, avoiding dog shit, cars (not so concerned with pedestrians here), and dodgy looking blokes. Like India, smells waft past~ first comes the smell of delicious pastries followed by the smell of rotting garbage~ a sneaky punch to the stomach coming out of nowhere. I get back to my room and I am exhausted…..

I do a couple of massive days of walking. One day, I start off with lunch at Cafe Postal, on Cerro Artilleria, where I am renting a room in a 100 year old house during my stay. At this restaurant I have the most enjoyable dish- Congrio with pure de choclo and papas – Congrio ( a type of eel) with corn puree and potatoes. This sounds simple, but let me tell you, I am in heaven with every mouthful. The plate is dotted with these lightly sautéed explosively sweet, rich, cherry tomatoes. The potatoes are divine and they serve it with this sauce that tastes of cream and soft nutmeg…..I relish eating this food alone. Of course, sharing food with others is lovely, but then it becomes more about the company than the food. Alone, it’s just me and my friend, the dearly-departed eel. After this transcendental food experience, I start wandering. As I had discovered the previous day, I don’t need a map, I can see right in front of me what the deal is. Walk down to the centre, walk up to the cerros then down again. There is no chance of getting lost. I come across a funicular that is moving up and down the cerro transporting people. I start winding my way down the cerro and every step of the way there is something new to look at. Over to my left is the water, the port, the metal tapestries of containers from all over the world… And in front of me, street art, everywhere I look, walls covered in it. Long distance, middle distance, up close, each metre of wallspace is taken up with something. Instead of city-walking, I feel that I am walking in a huge, industrial gallery, a moving work of art. My only wish is to hear the voices of the people who did the paintings and wrote the words, to guide me through, to add flesh- but that is not the point. My only job here is to walk, look and feel.

I make my way down to sea level and, following the image of the map in my mind, I direct myself to where I think Cerro Alegre starts. It is pretty easy to find, as the flat plain of the town is set out in grids. I head up the cerro and have to stop every 10 metres to take photos. There is colour exploding out of every corner. Colour underneath a layer of grime, and baked on and cracked by decades (months?) of hard living. I enjoy coming in close to read what people have written, and stepping back to get the full effect of the larger pieces. I follow my feet up and up, and as I reach higher altitudes, the numbers of tourists like me start to thin out. When I am almost at the top, I begin to see signs for La Sebastiana – Neruda’s house. Without having planned this, I start to follow the signs, which take me across the top of the cerro and into another part of Valparaiso.

I have been walking long enough that my feet have found their rhythm and I reward myself with a bit of music as i walk. As I move through the barrio streets I am shocked at the decrepit state of a lot of the buildings. One place in particular, looks like an abandoned house. I peer in through the windows, I see a dark space-there is just enough light for me to see that it looks like a bomb exploded inside. The effect is creepy and I half expect bats to suddenly come flying out. As I stand there, I hear signs of life coming from somewhere inside. Unbelievably, I hear the sounds of someone taking a shower. Is this a ghostly echo from another time? A lot of houses look like they will topple over at any second. They are rusted, with leaning walls and dusty, padlocked doors……….Yes, they look like haunted houses, that’s it. It is a creepy effect, but I love it.

After my visit to La Sebastiana, I make my way down again. It is late afternoon and I decide to walk around the plain of the city. My feet take me into a shopping mall, a style of shopping mall that is very particular to Chile as it turns out…. Back in Santiago, when Maria Ester, Javiera and i went to MAC, I saw some photographs that featured a design of shopping mall called the “caracol” (snails shell)- a winding pathway lined with shops, coiling upwards like a giant spring. In Santiago I thought it was curious, and now, in Valparaiso, I am happy to have stumbled across one. This one is made up almost exclusively of hairdressing/beauty salons. I wonder if caracoles are usually thematic? I follow the spiral and walk towards the top…For a brief moment I consider stopping and getting a blowdry, but my feet tell me no. At the top, I am rewarded with a couple of sex shops. But that’s it, hairdressers and sex shops. I walk back down through the bright green coil of shops. I wonder if this comes close to any of the shopping malls that I’ve been to in Australia. Of course, in Brisbane, we have shopping malls that are designed with levels, but they are flat, and one moves from one level to the next via escalators. There are no escalators here, it is an uphill climb all the way…

My stay in Valparaiso is like this for most of the time that I am there. Aimless wandering. It is somewhat marred, on the third day, when I begin to feel a cold coming on. On this day, I wake up feeling like all the energy has been drained out of my body overnight. I make a half-hearted attempt to go out for the day. I make it down the cerro and into a coffee shop, where it takes me two cafes con leche and about two hours to somewhat come to my senses. During this time, I watch a couple that are sitting at a table outside…I write a poem…I read a little…but my heart is elsewhere. I need to go back to bed and unplug. I walk over to where the colectivos stop and I get in one, which takes me back up the cerro. When I get back to my room, I go to my medical supplies and am ecstatic to realise that I had packed Lemsips. For a moment, nostalgia washes over me. I now remember sitting on my bathroom floor in Brisbane, debating whether to pack them or not…. I actually kiss the packet of Lemsip, giving thanks for such things. I boil some water, drink it and climb into bed.

I love my time here. It is on my last day in Valparaiso that I fully land in South America. I realise this as I stand under the shower, thoughts flashing back and forth. It occurs to me that I am actually here. The time I spent planning, the conversations that I had, the anxieties and euphoria that I felt, all that was the end of the PhD ~ now I am here. It is two weeks to the day since I arrived in Santiago that I finally felt my feet touch the earth. Next stop: La Serena.

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