Monday, December 6, 2010

Valparaiso, Chile

Finally, made it to a WiFi connection.  Have spent the past two weeks in an extremely remote part of northern Argentina and most recently, crossing the Bolivian desert and salt flats.  Arrived safely to La Paz this morning and looking forward to my first hot shower in a week.  I've got lots to share, so keep checking back as I will be uploading this material over the next day.


After only four hours of patchy sleep, Christina and I woke up still slightly buzzed after our night out in Santiago with my old friend, Roberto and began packing our bags. Travel days put both Christina and I slightly on edge, it can be difficult navigating planes, trains and automobiles given the Chilean propensity for rapid fire Spanish. When a Chilean speaks Spanish, it's often hard to discern where the sentence begins and ends, and what the gibberish was in-between; some people call it getting "sprayed". Usually, by the time I figure out the first word out of their mouth, they are on their last and I am left fumbling to conjugate a sentence in response. My mediocre Spanish has fared well for us so far, but I often find myself a bit nervous when I know it will be our only saving grace. As we crawled out of bed, Christina and I both glanced at each other, squinting out of one eye, a tell-tale sign of a hangover; when you can't bear to look at the world and what is inevitably coming with both eyes open. To make it to Valparaiso, Chile, we would have to take the metro to the bus station, followed by a two hour bus ride, followed by a trolley ride, followed by an ascensor ride (more to come on the ascensor's). And, we would both have to endure the next five hours of travel with massive hangovers. We fell into our usual roles, Christina as navigator and I as captain, and surprisingly we made it to Valparaiso without a single hiccup. God must have smiled down upon us that day, because with only shoddy directions in hybrid English/Spanish, I had my doubts that we would make it to Valpo on time and in once piece.

View from the hill near our hostel.

Just a small stop while walking.

We arrived at the bus station in Valparaiso and waddled down the streets with our overstuffed rucksacks to catch the nearby trolley. Like everything else in Valparaiso that we would eventually lay eyes on, the trolleys were old, really old. The one we hopped on must have been in service since the 1940's as we crawled down the streets of Valpo, every nut, bolt, window, door, and latch etc., sounded off in a symphony of squeaks, screeches and rattles. When we got to "Aduana", we hopped off and ventured across the street to catch the ascensor. Valparaiso is a port city that hugs the steep hills of a small nook along the Chilean coast. It serves as both a major naval hub and an artery for freight shipping. Stepping onto the street and taking my first good look at the city, I felt as if I had stepped onto the set of a movie. The houses nestled tightly against the hills of Valparaiso create a kaleidoscope of colors. The hills serve as the canvas and the houses paint it with a palette of bright blues, yellows, oranges, peaches and pastels. The city began in the 1500s but during the California gold rush, Valparaiso exploded with growth, serving as a brief stop for eastern Europeans, Asians and everyone else chasing their dreams of gold to America. As if overnight, Valparaiso became a booming port town. Immigrants and others capitalizing on the success of those passing through began swooping up land and building houses as quickly as they could construct them. There was no formal city planning until later in the 20th century (after a devastating earthquake). And as such, houses are stacked precariously in the hills like a set of brightly colored, odd shaped legos, connected through a maze of alleyways, passageways and stairwells, in effect bringing to life one of M.C. Escher’s famous illustrations. Because most of the buildings in Valparaiso were done before city planning was in place, the street system has little rhyme or reason, resulting in dead ends, turn abouts and looptie-loops galore. In 2004, the city was deemed a UNESCO world heritage site for their "Ascensors" and it has since found a page in most tourist guide books and a significant boom from all of the money. Valparaiso is a city perched firmly at a 45 degree angle. Only a very small portion lies on flat ground, so if you want to get anywhere, you have to head for the highlands. To do so, you grab an Ascensor. An Ascensor is no more than a small wooden passenger cabin set on rails that ascends at a snail’s pace to the top of most major neighborhoods in Valparaiso. For the cost of 200 pesos (about 40 cents), you can save your legs and your back for more important things and catch a rickety ascensor to the top of most barrios. During Chile’s earthquake in February 2010, many of the 100 year old ascencors met their maker. But, although many are currently in repair, there is still a dozen or so operating around the city. You will have no doubt that you are taking an antiquated and ancient form of transportation when you set foot in an ascensor. In fact, you may even question whether walking would have been a better decision.


Tired and slightly travel weary after a full day of travel and only a few hours of sleep, Christina decided to take a nap once we found our hostel and I ventured out to explore the new city. I sat atop Avenida de Artilleria and as a weathered man played the accordion in the background, I watched the loading dock below as the cranes worked methodically and stacked the multicolored containers on the cargo ships in a series of seamless calculated movements. After an hour of a slightly hypnotic state driven by the tick-tock movements of the crane and having watched the sun lower in the sky and change ever so slightly the color of the houses stacked on the hills, I headed to a slightly touristy cafe to grab a coffee in an attempt to awaken from my slumber. After a thick espresso, I ordered two empanadas with Shrimps (as they always say in S. America) and queso to go and high-tailed it back to the hostel.
Sitting indian-style on the floor in our rather posh hostel, Christina and I threw back the empanadas in record time (at this point, we had likely consumed 30+ empanadas a piece during our travels).  Afterwards, we both readied ourselves to hit the showers, a ritual we had both become quite familiar with after a month on the road. The showers in S. America vary greatly in their degree of shittiness. To date, we have yet to encounter a shower both sound in its architecture and safe in its dispersement of water. I have thought seriously about returning to S. America after this trip and pursuing a career in “Shower Architecture”. I could build an empire and people would look at me as I had created both the wheel and fire in one fell swoop. Take one look at the showers we’ve frequented and you’ll quickly understand that there is nowhere to go but up. Our current shower at Hostel Portobello was tied for first place in the competition for shitty showers. Most bathrooms in S. America have a squeegee on a broom handle resting in the corner specifically for shower clean up, as doors are used sparingly and only a small lip prohibits water from spewing freely out of your tiny box and onto the surrounding floor. These showers are often not so bad, because at the very least, they allow enough room for a large man such as myself to wash his entire body without actually having to exit the shower to do so. But, if you happen to catch a shower that actually has doors, you must resign yourself to washing only your upper half and you better pray that you do not drop the soap, or it will remain there until you exit the shower and are able to bend down and pick it up. In the last month, Christina and I have only had the luxury of a few hot showers. And, on those occasions fear of third degree burns often kept us from actually enjoying the luxury of hot water.
After surviving our showers, Christina and I headed for the hills of the Cerro Alegre barrio in search of Poble Nuo, a restaurant our hostel owner had recommended. The Cerro Alegre and Concepcion barrios make up some of the most beautiful parts of Valparaiso. They are both lined with countless cafes and art shops. And, as you wind your way up and down the countless hills, you will no doubt find yourself questioning whether what you are seeing is actually real, or if you somehow fell asleep and in your dream, ended up in some multicolored Latin American snow globe, just waiting to be turned upside-down. Christina arrived at Poble Nuo at nearly 10:00 and, as usual, Christina and I had arrived a full hour before the dinner rush and were the only people in the restaurant. We drank a delicious bottle of Carmenere and threw back someone’s cruel attempt at tapas before calling it a night. The next morning, at the advice of some travel mates we met while trekking, we had scheduled a walking tour of Valparaiso with the famous “Bobby Turman”. And, we had plans to meet up with two of our best friends, Carla and Eric, who were in Valparaiso as part of their belated S. American honeymoon.
The next morning, we woke up early, had the usual S. American breakfast consisting of a small roll and jam before heading out to the Pata-Pata hostel to meet Bobby (our guide), Carla and Eric. There was a lot of hype leading up to our walking tour, as our former travel mates had given Bobby and his tour soaring reviews. I had convinced to Carla and Eric to come along, so I was hoping that the hype was true.  Nearly 10 hours into our supposed walking tour, I had not a single doubt in my mind.

Christina, Clay, Carla and Eric on the walking tour.
Typical Valpo. 

Ain't it pretty?

Valpo pre-city planning.

We met Bobby outside of Pata-Pata at 12:00 to begin our four hour walking tour. Bobby is about 5 foot 8 inches, built like an NFL fullback with looks resembling Hootie (from the Blowfish) except with dreads. Bobby hails from Baltimore and his story struck a very familiar chord with me. Bobby was a mortgage broker for eight years and made his first visit to Chile to help out a friend in need. And, after getting out from behind the desk and experiencing the Chilean way of life, he decided he had had enough. Like me, he realized that life can pass you by rather quickly and a life behind a desk and a computer is not the future he had every envisioned for himself. So, he came back to the States, sold all of his belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Chile. He spent two years in Santiago before heading to Valparaiso, where he has been conducting walking tours for the last two years. He has since found his niche and after meeting countless local artists in Santiago and Valpo, has begun a career as an art broker, bringing the modestly priced work of Chilean artists to those in the States willing to pay top dollar.
Bobby is the type of guy who could make friends with a stranger passing by. Few Americans visit Valparaiso, so Bobby was excited to take out a group of Gringo’s and talk shop about the States and all that he’s missed. Not five minutes into our tour, we had all hit it off and I knew we were in for a good day. As we climbed the endless hills of Valparaiso, Bobby would give our calves a break every few blocks as he stopped us to explain things of cultural and historical significance. He took us through the “Open Sky Museum” a collection of murals painted on buildings that a have been preserved and turned into a makeshift museum. As we stumbled down the sidewalk, we came across a man wearing a white coat that was no longer white, but instead, bared the remnants of a life behind the brush. The man in the painter’s coat was a friend of Bobby’s and as we walked by, he was working a series of small murals depicting the Valparaiso landscape, an image he had likely painted a million times over. After a brief introduction, Bobby led us around the corner to show us one of Mario’s pieces. Spanning nearly an entire city block, and multiple flights of stairs, Mario had covered every square inch of available space with colorful acrylic paint depicting the same area in which we were standing. My group of friends and I did a double take as we hopped up and down the stairs marveling at the detail within the detail. As unique as it is, a piece of art like this did not stand out in Valparaiso. In fact, it fits right in. Valparaiso is itself a giant canvas; one sprawling work of continual art. Each corner, each alleyway is covered in a series of unconnected works of art, murals done in every style and often decades apart; working together to form a giant mosaic from countless thousands of painted walls.

Building or canvas?  Why not both?

One of Valpo's many artists.

After a few hours of walking, everyone had worked up an appetite and Bobby promised to take us to a place that would not disappoint. Twenty minutes later, we arrived in a small alley tucked discreetly between two buildings. As we rounded the corner, we arrived to a small crowd standing outside the “J.M. Cruz Casino and Social.” Everyone had come to this small hole in the wall for one reason. In fact, as it turns out, there is only one reason to go the J.M Cruz Casino and Social, because they only serve a single dish: The Churillana. After nearly four hours of walking, Bobby had given much hype to the Churillana; touting it both as an authentic Chilean dish and a once in a lifetime dining experience. As we worked our way through the line and into the restaurant, it was clear that J.M. Cruz Casino and Social was not a place for outsiders. The restaurant was about the size of a small box car with nearly every inch of wall space plastered with pictures patrons had posted. As the waitress greeted Bobby, it was clear this was not his first rodeo. In fact, before arriving at the restaurant, Bobby had promised us that this Churillana was the last one he would consume in his lifetime. We sat down at our table, which had collected thousands of signatures from Churillana fans in its lifetime. J.M. Cruz Casino and Social has been open for 64 years and is the original home of the Churillana, the only thing in which it serves.  What is the Churillana? The Churillana is a heaping mound of French fries, served for either two or three people and smothered in grilled onions, gravy and topped with copious amounts of freshly grilled sirloin and scrambled eggs with aji hot sauce on the side. Bobby ordered a round of beers for our group and everyone’s eyes lit up in amazement as the steaming piles of unctuous goodness hit the table. Our conversation quickly fell silent and everyone nodded in approval as we threw back endless forks full of Churillana. It was no longer a wonder to anyone of us why this place had become and remained famous.

The Churillana 
After another round of beers, we all hit the road in search of another bar, even though our tour with Bobby had long since passed its four hour time limit. But slightly buzzed and completely gorged on Churillana, we were all having a wonderful day and I think Bobby enjoyed the company of some fellow Americans. Next, with Bobby too, took us to one of his favorite bars: La Playa. Most Chileans don’t begin partying until much later in the night, so with the exception of a few locals watching soccer, we made up the majority of the crowd in La Playa. We sat around the table for the next two hours philosophizing about life and drinking liters of Escudo, the standard Chilean pilsner. Six Liters of Escudo later, we decided we should all head home and shower off our buzz before heading out for dinner. Having thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company throughout the day, we planned to meet up with Bobby later in the evening to a bit of bar hopping. A few hours later, sun kissed, tired and still kind of buzzed from the day’s activities, we reconvened outside of Carla and Eric’s hotel to enjoy some more beers and conversations at Bobby’s favorite bars. Two hours later, having finally gotten our appetite back after the Churillana wore off, we bid farewell to Bobby and decided to find some dinner. We headed out for dinner without a plan, which, as I’ve learned, can sometimes have bad results when you are in a foreign country and do not know your way around. We stumbled into a cafe that looked nice enough, but after reading the menu and deciding it was way overpriced, we decided to look elsewhere. As we walked out the door, the owner, who was clearly insulted by our abrupt about-face, ran out the door and pointed us in the direction of the nearest McDonalds. We were all insulted, but decided to divert our attention to some of the friendly street dogs as we searched for another restaurant. At nearly 11:00, we came upon a small cafe and art gallery, where we grabbed a bottle of wine and some cheese trays. Christina and I said our goodbyes to Eric and Carla, but we were hopeful we would run into them again in Mendoza, Argentina. On the way home, as had become our custom in many dodgy cities, Christina and I convinced as many street dogs as possible to follow us home. It’s strange how quickly street dogs will become protective of you if they sense you are kind and willing to feed them food. And, after hearing countless stories of robbery from Bobby that day, not to mention the one where he was mugged and his date stabbed after coming home from the bar a bit pickled and trying to fight off their attackers; Christina and I would take all the extra protection we could get while walking down the shady Bustamante Street.  Having arrived back at our hostel, Christina ran inside and grabbed some stale breakfast rolls for the dogs and we hit the sack. We spent the next day sitting at a cafe overlooking the bay doing some trip planning and catching up with the real world. The next day we would have to catch an eight hour bus to Mendoza, Argentina. But, we were sad to leave Valparaiso. What a great town, what a great experience, what great people. Thanks for following this Journey.



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