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Valparaiso and Santiago: Urban Legends

As I find myself peering reflectively out the window of the Edén ship here in the Galapagos Islands, thinking about Valparaiso, the bay of Puerto Ayora dotted with the lights of dozens of all manner of ocean craft, it occurs to me that I am currently engaging in no fewer than three creative firsts – writing while listening to music (Thirty Seconds to Mars / Jake Bugg), writing at night (well, probably not the absolute first time but certainly not a common occurrence, what with my penchant for spending my evenings either reading, watching TV or getting sloppily and irretrievably hammered, depending on the season and/or sport), and writing a travel blog entry about a city while sitting on an adventure ship (the opposite would seem intuitively more likely and, in fact, will almost certainly be taking place about a week from now once we make it back to mainland Ecuador).

Anyway, after our relatively brief meanderings through the Lakes District and the island of Chiloé, we travelled north to Santiago, the huge capital of Chile.

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We travelled by plane, naturally, which is increasingly our transportation mode of choice as our impatience with the mundane difficulties and discomfort of bus travel continues to grow in direct correlation to our age. A few more things also increasing along with my age:

–         The “distinguished” quality of my hair

·         The number of days my legs are stiff after any new activity (i.e. first soccer game of the season, first viewpoint hike of a trip, first day in a new pair of skinny jeans)

·         How genuinely hilarious I find the idea of leaving the house after 9 pm

Actually, though, we only stopped momentarily in Santiago before continuing on to Valparaiso (by bus, albeit a much more palatable hour and a half instead of the all-day extravaganza we would have suffered from Puerto Varas). Valparaiso started out, and remains, an important port city and is world-renowned for both its beauty and its authenticity, only the third time I have seen something that meets both criteria, along with livestock auctions and Jew-fros.

So, where to start? Well, it is definitely a port city, no question about that, with every aspect of the dock neighbourhood eager to prove itself “genuine” and “unpretentious”, not to mention “filthy” and “urine-soaked”.

Warning: I seriously considered deleting the following paragraph in its entirety but, in the end, never got around to it.

In fact, while it’s certainly not something we’re proud of, or at least not something we should be proud of, I think I’d merely be stating a fact when I say we are among the world’s foremost authorities on urine, particularly old urine, in all its different forms: the kind that catches you off-guard just around the corner from someplace famous and amazing, like the Louvre, or our cabin at Waskesiu, or the pervasive type that just lingers for the length of an entire city block, baffling you with its irrational ability to dispel the power of open space, or the nasty, claustrophobic type that attacks you in the darkest, most frightening corners of ancient Middle Eastern castles or the toilet at the P.A. Shell station. Impressively, Valparaiso had all of these types covered. If I didn’t know better I’d think they hired people just for this purpose – malnourished, unhealthy people remarkably skilled at defiling public spaces and relieving themselves both publicly and prodigiously with their uniquely aromatic piss.

And since I don’t actually know better, I’d say that is as good a theory as any because there is no other logical explanation for how incredibly stained and pungent Valparaiso’s sidewalks are.

All right, back to the task at hand. The entire city of Valparaiso (referred to as Valpo by locals and overly pretentious tourists alike) seems stuck in time – a time I would roughly estimate to be somewhere in the fifties. They have the oldest working trolley buses in the world (“of its kind”), rickety old ascensors to transport people up and down the steep hills – like an open air elevator that goes up on an angle, has a conductor and costs 20 cents per ride, and an awesome old empanada place featuring bar stools and signs written in cheerful old-fashioned cursive. Where it falls short in its fifties montage is in its distinct lack of leather jackets, greased hair, or any overwhelming sense of post-war sexual urgency, and ,as best I could tell, nobody drinks scotch during business meetings or shares a cigarette with their doctor during their prostate exam.

Besides the overall atmosphere of timeworn decrepitude, the two most noticeable aspects of Valpo* are the hills** – scenically covered in colourful houses, old churches and narrow winding streets – and the graffiti – which seemingly covers every available surface in the city and is stunningly creative, demonstrating a surprising level of skill for people who spend such a large part of their work day sitting on a sidewalk wearing overalls. On a related note, I currently have people looking into a possible connection between these tremendously talented street artists and the prevalent urine problem. Her first report consisted mainly of a shrug and disgruntled “How should I know?”, but she has since been reprimanded and I expect informative results to begin flooding in any day now.

*  See how I did that, using the short form and making it seem like I am far more familiar with it than I really am, like I’m practically a local, despite the fact I really only spent three nights? Love using city nicknames. Love it.

** Reputedly 42, although in my estimation this is far more than they really need. I think 8 or 9 would be plenty for my purposes.

So, we spent a couple days just wandering around, enjoying the hills, the vibe, the street life (observationally, not like getting our own piece of cardboard and wearing 9 layers of clothes while collecting plastic bags), the art, all the while feeling a bit edgy and devil-may-care thanks to the numerous warnings we had received as to the danger of theft in the city. Although, despite being cautioned by everyone from our hotel owner to our waiter to the guidebook (don’t leave valuables unattended at night near the docks, which was quite helpful since in most cities one of the top tourist attractions is to head down to the port around 11 pm to flash gaudy jewelry for a while before setting it on a barrel for safekeeping while you investigate some abandoned warehouses and ask a homeless guy if he’s can change a hundred. Regardless of where we heard it, though, the advice always had a slightly amused tone to it, like it was just a minor eccentricity of the area, one that added flavour or excitement – better hold on to your wallet, don’t leave your jacket on back of your chair, keep your watch stuffed way down the front of your chinos, because, you know, armed robbery and all that, well, that’s “just Valpo being Valpo”, heh heh heh. But, no, seriously, you really should invest in a dagger.

Laynni, as she is wont to do, took these rather sincere warnings far more literally than I tend to do, preferring personally to only take seriously that advice which it is possible to heed while exerting little or no effort on my part. So I decided that the most accurate and precise way for me to convey this philosophy to her was to scoff politely, and to accompany that with a gentle snort.

Cue my comeuppance:

On our way to the bus station to leave town we were riding the scenic “0” bus up and through the hills (for the second time, at my specific behest) when a couple of teenage boys got on. I noticed this because one wasn’t wearing a shirt (I noticed because it was very unusual, not because of how silky smooth his skin looked) and he also had a large camera hanging from a strap around his neck (extremely incongruous). A few minutes later, though, I had completely forgotten about them, at least, that is, until they reached “their stop” and decided to rush off the bus while frantically liberating the daypack right off my lap. Shirtless wonder got a pretty good hold and tried to make a break for it while his partner in crime, clearly already sensing victory, raced off and away, but as I had not given my belongings up for dead just yet, a brief tug-of-war ensued with Punk A outside the bus, me inside, and our trusty collapsible MEC bag stretched taut in the middle, connecting us like a black vinyl – and moderately criminal – umbilical cord. Eventually his formerly triumphant buddy came back to investigate the hold-up, peering in at me with a “do you mind?” frown, until finally “skins” conceded, although his panicky dash off between some houses made him seem less than gracious in defeat.

I was briefly tempted to give chase, although eventually my mind worked its way through to the pointlessness of such a plan, about the same time that I caught bus driver’s eye in the mirror, him making a face back at me as though asking if anything had been taken, or maybe if I had to go after something, or maybe just curious to see if I was going to cry or something. I shook my head (in denial of all three), then we drove off like nothing happened. Oh, Valpo, you naughty little minx, you. (Add in rueful, yet amused, shaking of the head)

Now, for Santiago. In keeping with the relative differences between the two cities I think it would be fitting to remain as orderly and business-like for this section as I was rambling and ridiculous in the previous. Metaphors, symbolism, pee jokes, this entry has it all.

Santiago is a very modern, very clean and very tidy city, especially when compared with where we had just come from. Efficient metro system versus 60 year old trolleys and even older ascensors, well-maintained and manicured Santa Lucia Park with spacious viewpoints versus empty lot with large-breasted blue woman painted on wall, tree-lined bohemian neighbourhood of Lastarria versus the street near the docks where people violently chop fish into small pieces.

On the whole, Santiago seemed very vibrant and interesting, although our two brief nights there hardly qualifies us to contribute to the city’s annual Christmas card update (although if they aren’t already doing this maybe I can get in on the ground floor). Considering the brevity of our stay it probably isn’t too surprising that our main highlight was our accommodation, the perfect place to recharge for a couple nights after a fairly hectic two weeks in Chile. It was a “loft apartment” which somehow only went for $60/night in a nice building right downtown, with a balcony onto courtyard, a kitchen, bedroom upstairs (technically a “loft”), and, ahem, cable TV. We watched Two and a Half Men, and I refuse to apologize for it.

So there you have it, Chile in the books for second time. Even though we once again only visited another small portion, what we did see was very enjoyable, although much pricier than we are used to, even in comparison to Argentina. As Laynni described it, “it’s expensive like Europe, but it definitely ain’t Europe”.

A lot of great scenery, though, and a very festive holiday vibe, and a place I’m sure we’ll return to again someday. Maybe during the off-season when not everyone in the country is trying to get from place to place as cheaply as possible and determined to wear shorts in any and all situations. Obviously, that should be our job.

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