Monday, January 20, 2014

Squalor in the Vale of Paradise

Nothing can effectively describe Valparaíso- UNESCO World Heritage Site, incidentally - unless maybe you're Pablo Neruda, but I will certainly try.  It was like a compilation of all the weirdest and most exciting cities I've ever seen - a mix of San Francisco and Ping Yao and St. Petersburg - and it smelled like sewage and cigarettes and piss and freshly baked cakes.  So many cakes!  Moreover, it's filled with art and lovely stray dogs and pyramids of onions and avocados people are trying to sell you.  There is a raw transience about it, (maybe that was just me though, frazzled and at the end of my trip and projecting,) and colonial grandeur, and decay of Soviet Union proportions.  The houses have walls of corrugated tin and are painted in vibrant colors.  They look like boxcars from abandoned trains that have been stacked on top of each other all the way up the 42 hills and beyond the reach of tsunamis.  Plus, there are sliding boards for no reason at all.

The streets make no sense at all - they curve and spiral and stop dead and jut out over dizzying stone staircases.  All the walls have these alien fever dreams painted on them - geishas, koi fish, naiads, spaceships, steampunk chameleons, and even the stones have eyeballs - and it's swarming with bohemian types, ensuring that every street you walk down is going to have some sort of impromptu circus or jazz session or guy drawing chalk murals.  There are crumbling palaces and Belle Epoque hotels with fancy plaster facades and everything behind the walls demolished.  To get up and down the hills you can climb hundreds and hundreds of Wall of China-esque stairs or you can take the antique, rattling ascensores.  Walking up along the tsunami evacuation route, you can see the whole city spread out beneath you, 19th century mansions perched precariously over ravines, houses crowded together up and down hills, staircases switch-backing through raggedy gardens and past the ascensores and not really going anywhere at all.  The whole place is like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film, like the place all your childhood toys go after you lose them.

Clearly, I could not get enough of the murals.  Over ten days of exploring I found some great art galleries, cafes, and second-hand bookshops, a lot of them around the trendy Cerro Concepción area.  I kept hearing the night life in Valpo was bar none, but I was entirely too tired/poor to go out much.  (Chile is the most expensive country in South America, with prices similar to what you'd get in Europe.)  However, I did take a tour of La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda's amazing house full of seafaring things from around the world, where he used to sit and write in green ink in his study that overlooked the Pacific Ocean.  In the evenings he would hold parties for all his friends and say clever, poetic things, and sometimes come in disguise, darkening his face and eyebrows with burnt cork - Pablo Neruda was essentially Mr. Rochester.  It made me really want a house or flat to live in; nothing extravagant, just a charming couple of rooms in some squalid, romantic city where I can throw open the bay windows to the Black Sea in the summer and in the winter light cheap cigarettes off the gas stove as I knit fingerless gloves for the stray cats outside, where I can burn the manuscript of my three-volume novel for fuel and cook great, walloping pots of borscht and maybe even have my very own teapot.  (I've been missing Eastern Europe lately...)

Now I'm back in Peru again, after 42 hellish hours of transit from Valparaíso to Santiago to Tacna to Arica and finally to Arequipa.  It's a huge relief a) to come to a city I already know, which hasn't happened in practically eight months, and b) to be someplace where $3 can buy you a three-course meal plus a glass of chicha morada.  I've met up with Lisa, Darragh, and Diane again which is great, because traveling alone makes you crazy after a while.  Otherwise, I'm pretty busy finishing up the first draft of my book on Dublin as well as a few other travel articles and conceiving new projects and whatnot, and all is right with the world.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mendoza: Asados, Bicycles, and Bodegas

Onwards to Mendoza, a city in the middle of the Argentinian desert kept green by an extensive irrigation system, which is much too pretty for its own good.  The city center is filled with fountains and plazas and tree-lined boulevards and trendy boutiques.  It's much quieter and more laid-back than Buenos Aires, and that's just fine by me.  Asados every night and a gloriously exciting midnight Christmas dancing across the street amongst fireworks exploding in every which direction like a scene out of Apocalypse Now was beginning to take its toll.  (My roommate at the time, a guy with a blue mohawk who was covered in tattoos and who worked, as one might expect, as a hairdresser and tattoo artist, plus his buddy Beepo - introduced to me as "El Maestro de Asado" and the name was not inaccurate - both got me into Iggy Pop, and I've been listening to his music fanatically ever since.)

As for Mendoza, there were two things I wanted to do here: horseback riding and a bike tour of the bodegas.  The first was as spectacular as they get - a group of us drove out into the desert and sat around a swimming pool until the sun was low enough for us to go out riding.  Then we rode off into the sunset (yes, we totally did!) and turned so we had the Andes mountains on our left.  We saw a wild tarantula crawling along the rocks on the side of the road, and everything was a dusty purplish in the twilight.  We walked along for a while but then the horses, who had a competitive streak, starting racing.

My horse especially seemed to have something of an inferiority complex, because any time someone tried to pass us, he'd just set off at a dead run.  And I have no more of an idea of how to ride a horse than I did in Ecuador, so I just clung on for dear life with my knees, my feet flying out of the stirrups, and mostly thought, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die!" as my horse went flying along the edge of a deep gully filled with pointy rocks and cacti with 7-inch spines.  Afterwards, some of the other foreigners commented on how comfortable I looked riding, and one Brazilian guy, when I told him it was only my second time on a horse, gaped at me and declared, "I thought you were an expert... but you're actually INSANE!!"

Afterwards we had an asado, filled with much wine and grilled steak - one of our guides cut me off a piece of the lomo, the best part of the cow, and it was crispy on the outside and so tender and juicy and savory on the inside that I nearly wept with joy.  I have every intention of turning the asado into a tradition everywhere I go from here on in.

As for the bike tour, it was good fun alright.  A group of us from the hostel biked out to three different bodegas, one an old family-owned bodega that made organic, artisan wine (I bought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for my friend's wedding in February,) and another one a big, mass-producer and exporter.  Interestingly, as someone had told me at the asado from the night before, despite Argentina producing some of the best wines in the world, there really isn't much of a wine culture when it comes to drinking - on nights out, people usually just order beer.

After an excessively weird New Year's Eve of jumping into a swimming pool and dragging people in after me, giving myself a black eye, and sleeping in an abandoned stairwell, (yerba maté and tequila is a disastrous combination...) I took my final bus across the Andes to Santiago, where I had ice creams and juice with my Dutch friend Jonas and his girlfriend Stella, and together we visited the Museum of Human Rights, a memorial of the torturing and disappearances in Chile under the Pinochet regime.  It was a very interesting exhibition, with lots of first-hand accounts of what it was like, as well as newspaper clippings and TV footage.  However, it was all in Spanish, and the wave of information was too much for me to take in at once, so it was a good thing we had Stella to explain things from a local's perspective.

I'm in Valparaiso now for a few days, a city that begs to be explored, so off I go!