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.

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