Friday, November 27, 2009

Chile - Day Three: Valparaiso and Vina del mar

Whoever said central Chile is similar to the Mediterranean was spot on. Unlike American deserts, or even unlike the semi-arid climate of Colorado, it is both dry and lush; around Santiago, there is enough brown in between the green that one might think they are in the desert after it has rained, but there is real grass here and the grass holds to the ground so there isn´t dust or loose dirt blowing through the air as it does in Colorado or Dallas or New Mexico. I´ve said it before - this is Greece in South America.

The closer one gets to Valparaiso, and the dark Pacific Ocean that dominates its business, the greener the land gets with vineyards and tall, thin sequoia-like trees. I don´t know what the trees are exactly, but they are as tall a tree as I´ve ever seen. The fir trees look soft, as if their needles would make a comfortable bed if they fell to the ground. But the dirt is still a hardened mud red. The landscape has now turned into the Sierras of California.

I step off the bus in Valparaiso amidst a tornado of loose plastic bags. Walking through the bus station is no different than hiking through six feet of fresh snow. I trudge through the garbage with each foot lifted higher than my hip just to move forward.
The cobblestone streets here are narrow and the sidewalks have only enough room for one person despite the thousands trying to use them. I was warned of pickpockets, so I keep my bag close and I put my head on a swivel.
Valparaiso is steep. The hills rise from the sea to outer space, up where Pablo Neruda has another home, so I became an astronaut and climbed the broken streets and the crumbling sidewalks until I am bored with views of the endless sea filled with cargo and naval ships. There is only so much one can enjoy when tall, evil, Star Wars-like-AT-AT-Walkers dominate the shoreline pretending to be longshoreman cranes. The hills are the quietest I had heard since I arrived in Chile - no diesel buses, no crowds, no shouting hawkers, but these streets aren´t interesting to me, so I head down to eat before going to Vina del Mar.

I´m having a difficult time trusting the small holes-in-the-wall restaurants here. We avoid them in the US unless we know them. We´re generally suspicious of their cleanliness, but everything is dirty here and these food places that are smaller than my closet at home are the norm. In fact, they replace McDonald's and are supposedly healthier with more fish and grilled meat options. But I'm still leery, and my Spanish is too weak to eat a place where it is likely English is not understood, so I keep going until I find a better place, where there's a menu that I can read, translate, and understand within reason what I'm about to order, eat, and digest.
Hours later my walking has turned to stumbling. There is no breakfast in Chile as there is in the US, and it´s late in the day so I´m hungry, light-headed, confused, and afraid - not out of fear but from the hopelessness of knowing that wherever I go they won´t understand me nor me them. I gaze at the lines of normal people standing at the portable carts that dot the streets. The people, the native Spanish speakers, those who are normal here and living life as I do at home in Boston, are waiting for a quick empanada or maybe just some bread and nuts. It all looks so good and my stomach craves anything I can stuff into it. I wish all empanadas were the same so I could just go up to a vendor, point, pay, chew, and swallow. But despite my surging dizziness I am able to remember that they aren't made equal. While in Chile they all have at least an egg and olive inside the pocket-like pastry (I had two empanadas in Argentina without egg and olive), they can also have any combination of steak, chicken, pork, fish, and / or cheese mixed in. That means knowing the words to ask for the right combination, understanding the words said back to me, and paying the right amount. My head is too muddled for that, so I walk on and try not to look at all the quick fast-food options around me.

Random stumbling is the closest I can came to describing how I'm walking at this point. It's worse than being drunk because at least when I'm drunk I know I'm walking funny. But this, I don't know what this is. It's uncontrollable. It's weakness in the head and muscles, particularly in the legs where fatigue and balance have switched positions so that the former has more control than the latter. I must look strange to the locals. Not only am I as white as a ghost, but my face feels blank and my eyes distant. It takes a great effort to not bump into people while I'm staggering along. I need food fast.
I finally go to a hamburger place because my instincts tell me to eat. I order the only thing I know to eat, a burger and fries. I don't even know what the waiter is telling me, so I point to the picture and say, "medium." He understands. The cook cooks, and I eat my food afterward. It's OK, not great, but I feel better and it´s sunny out. On a normal day back home I'd head back to my apartment and rest. I'd visit the other places on my list another day because I have that luxury. But I only have two weeks in Chile to check things over, so, despite my near disaster and hour earlier of falling face first onto the hard stone streets, the beach calls.
OK, so I´m still far from being good at asking how much it costs to use a microbus. Let´s just say the transaction doesn´t go smoothly and leave it at that. Then the microbus drops me off in the mini Miami that is Vina del Mar.
What a difference there is between the three towns I have visited. On one side there is the filthy Valparaiso. In the middle is the simply unkempt Santiago. And at the far other end is clean and pristine Vina del Mar. It is obvious why this is the way it is. Santiago is a living and working city; it´s the house that one tries to keep clean but doesn´t because of how hectic life is. Valparaiso is the rock star younger brother that everyone hopes will be special someday. But the reality is he never learned how to take care of himself and he thinks his poor behavior, which never went punished - indeed, it actually went rewarded by UNESCO for some reason - is a character positive. But Vina, even if a bit stuffy, is manicured because when people go to the beach they want it to be pretty. Yes, it has the tacky beachfront high-tower condominiums, but it was nice to see overall. And for the first time in my young trip here I feel the urge to relax, so I take my shoes off, roll up my jeans (not high enough at times!), and feel the hard sand gather in between my toes while the cool, salty sea froths over my feet and up my ankles and calf when the waves are strongest.
Then I hop on a microbus and pay full price for what should have been a four-stop trip, even though I'm on the bus for five stops beyond where I was supposed to get off.
Back in Santiago, I meet Otto from Switzerland and we head around the corner for a beer. We chill for an hour, nursing the our beer and talking about our lives and travels. I´m an aspiring writer researching my next step, and he´s a burnt out mechanical engineer who is travelling for a year. This part of his trip is six months from Mexico City to Patagonia. The next six months, after Christmas at home, is Asia. I envy him a little, but not much. I wish that I had more of his tolerance of hard daily living. I just can´t put up with people like that - always changing languages and cultures. In the end I feel better about who I am, or at least I can admit it. Hunger and dizziness aside, confusion isn't so bad when it can be domesticated. It is much easier to be confused on a daily basis when things are the same every day. I'm not getting much better with my Spanish but at least I can get on a bus, ride an hour away from my comfortable bed, see two towns, eat, and come back safely without much of a hitch. OK, so I got a little confused on the microbuses in and around Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, but I got where I needed to go. With a little practice, it won't cost me so much over time. I still won't understand everything, but at least I'll understand what I need to. This all sees possible now, even if I still haven't seem as much of the light as I'd like to. Still, at least there is some light. I put that in my back pocket, put my head on my pillow in the hostel, and fall into a deep sleep that should leave me rested for the next day.

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