Friday, May 16, 2008


I have wanted to visit Valparaiso, Chile, ever since I found out years ago that Pablo Neruda lived here. As an important port town, it is the oldest city in Chile, now chalked full of art, amazing architecture, and history. Although only about half a million people large, it is considered the cultural capitol of the country and is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. The best parts are the hill neighborhoods or cerros, where you have to climb steeply through cobblestone streets, windy staircases, beautiful graffiti art, crumbling buildings, cute bars, haphazard walls, stained-glass churches, and hole-in-the-wall artist studios. You get lost in the labyrinth of streets, whose designers clearly didn't believe in right angles, and find your way not by street names, but by the artwork. "I know I've seen that horse mirror mural, but never the winged lady..."

Here's an approximate recipe for the city of Valparaiso...

* a Tim Burton film set
* massive amounts of brightly colored paint
* many of Chile's artisans and visual artists
* garbage and industrial grime
* a handful of slick, petty thieves (they got another wallet of mine, dammit!)
* old port area with precarious stacks of shipping containers and military vessels
* stockpiles of pisco (white grape brandy) and hot mulled wine (vino navigante)
* a dozen colleges and subsequent students (who by the way, have a very distinct style- sort of makes me think of if The Clash moved to South America and got into hip hop and plaid scarves)
* clouds and fog of the Bay area

--Combine ingredients and pour onto steep coastal hillside. Let contents settle and enjoy for 500 years!--

A few other random facts about Valpo- it can claim Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world.

So about Chileans in general- they are so hard to understand! I've been studying and speaking Spanish for over 10 years, and I had little trouble communicating in Peru, but here it's a constant, "Como? Como?" Oh, maybe it's because they don't finish their freaking words! They take the 's' off the ends of words and drop it like it's hot. For instance, 'mas o menos' (more or less) becomes 'mah o mayo'. There are words here I have never, ever heard of that they don't say anywhere else. I was struggling to understand a man at the store the other day, and his coworker said it well, "The poor girl speaks Spanish, not Chilean!"

I am staying with a high school friend, Elizabeth, who is living here teaching English at a college for a year. It has been absolutely wonderful for several reasons. It's great to see an old friend, and one who speaks Spanish and has similar interests. Her apartment is amazing- centrally located, beautiful bay view, and q u i e t. I have slept better here than I have in all of South America (excluding the quiet of camping on the Machu Picchu trek).

She also is a fabulous cook and has kept me well fed. To back up a little, I have to say that my taste buds have been seriously neglected the last month. After I left the fresh seafood and tropical fruit of the northern Peru coast, the cuisine took a turn for the worse. Through southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile, my standard diet has been (dubious parts of) chicken and plain rice, with a lot of gummy boiled potatoes and sometimes fried fish... Some meat soups, an alpaca steak, mushy spaghetti, and occasionally "salad" which is a lot of raw chopped red onion with a tiny bit of limp lettuce. I generally eat where locals do, at little restaurants, stalls, or markets because the food is cheaper and more authentic than the touristy places and usually delicious. It's funny that the ONLY time I got throw-up sick on this trip was from a nice gringo restaurant in Huaraz when I thought the chicken curry and mango chutney would be a nice change of pace. I had a night of sleeping by the toilet to regret that decision. Later, for more variety I tried some nachos in a gringo restaurant in Copacabana, and they were so bad. The tortilla chips were stale Doritos covered in cheese and greasy shredded chicken.

Anyway, here with Elizabeth I have finally found redemption- she's made hearty egg and hashbrown breakfasts (including bacon, which we had to go to 3 butchers to find, and finally ended up paying $18 for a half kilo, apparently it's rare here), curried garbanzo and spinach pitas, salmon lasagna, bruschetta, and green salad. There are really good restaurants, some foreign-owned- all with ocean views or great ambiance or funky decor-and we've had Spanish tapas and wine, seafood soups, tofu burritos, and saffron rice balls. Well, it hasn't all been that varied or healthy. Elizabeth did have to introduce me to Chorillana- a quintessential Chilean dish which is a HUGE pile of french fries with chopped onion, beef, and fried egg. No condiments. If you ask for ketchup or anything they just stare at you. There are restaurants that serve nothing else, and is often the Sunday family meal after church. You can only order by number of people, so we obviously had to get a Chorillana plate for 2, which by my personal calculations could have easily fed 5.

Finally, I have to mention some of the big current events going on. There's a drought, and subsequent power shortage since much electricity comes from hydro plants. There are big student protests going on in Valpo about transportation and other things, and a bunch of colleges are "en toma", or in take-over. The students literally have seized control of the schools, keys and all, and some haven't held classes in over a month. Finally, the volcano Chaiten is erupting after being dormant for thousands of years. The nearby cities are having to evacuate, and relief has been a national effort. We donated to a victims of Chaiten food drive yesterday. Here's a picture of it.

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