Great Expectations

“Estoy convencido de que un paisaje no nos habla o nos habla poco, la culpa es nuestra, de nosotros, que no sabemos verlo, escucharlo.” – Claudio Magris

(I am convinced that when a place doesn’t speak to us or speaks to us little, the fault is ours that we do not know how to see it, listen to it.)

If Valparaiso was a fictional character, it would be Miss Havisham. The former crown jewel of Chile, it sits on the hills staring wistfully at its dusty wedding dress, rotted cake, and stopped clocks, and waits for its return to glory. There is no denying that Valparaiso could be one of the most attractive cities in the world if only the entire place could be refurbished. Extreme City Makeover, anyone? Someone get ABC on line one and Ty Pennington’s agent on two.

From far away the hills do look enchanting with their clusters of brightly painted houses. But when you walk the streets you can see that many of these beautiful 19th century buildings are crumbling and falling into disrepair; it’s a heartbreaking sight. You can see too the few remaining funiculars that run up the hills and imagine what they would have looked like when they were first built—gleaming carriages climbing towards the sky. Now most of the funiculars sit abandoned and rusted. And adding to the already present air of decay is the city’s enormous stray animal problem.

Stray dogs in the less urban, more open areas like El Calafate and El Chalten are one thing. These dogs always seem happy and playful, bounding after birds, playfully nipping at each other or sleeping contentedly under the shade of a tree. They look healthy and robust. City dogs are quite another story, especially when the problem is as out of control as it is in Valparaiso. These dogs are a pitiful sight. Most of them are underweight, some of them have horrible cases of mange. There are thousands of them swarming the streets looking for food and cowering in doorways and in corners trying to get a bit of sleep. All of them look weary and downtrodden. I remember a puppy that we saw several times on the street. It could only have been about 6 months old, but it had the look of an antique stuffed toy that had been worn out. One day we saw it trying in vain to lick the last bit of yogurt from a cup that had been discarded on the sidewalk. It kept frantically licking and licking at the cup and I just couldn’t stand to watch. Homelessness, whether it is of the human or the animal variety, tends to make you feel like you have no right to enjoy yourself while others are suffering.

But down the road about five miles is Valparaiso’s younger sister, Viña Del Mar, who seems to look at Valparaiso and say, “Oh, really. Would you do something to fix yourself up? Put on some makeup and maybe change your clothes?”

Viña Del Mar does not have the cultural background that Valparaiso has, but it is cleaner and has nicer beaches and several very well-kept parks. I think that the main reason that we were attracted to Viña Del Mar was that it was a sort of escape from the big city. We had been staying in much smaller towns and hiking every day for almost two months and then all of a sudden we were smack in the middle of a real city. The beaches and parks in Viña Del Mar were less crowded and a bit more tranquil so we were able to get away from the seething streets of Valparaiso.

There were some bright spots during our time in Valparaiso. We found a fabulous used bookstore called Cummings 1 (only one copy of The Da Vinci Code on the shelves) where we got an unthinkable deal trading in our books. We had a delicious and huge plate of chorrillanas—french fries topped with fried eggs, chorizo, onion, and steak. And every once in a while while we were wandering aimlessly through the city we would find a gem: a little park, a restored building. But for the most part, we were ready after a couple of days to move on. I didn’t understand the rave reviews that the guidebooks gave to this city that was clearly not in its prime. But on the last day Adam wasn’t feeling well and I decided to walk up the hill and take a look at Pablo Neruda’s house. And that changed everything.

Often I have had the experience of visiting a poet’s house and instantly gaining a greater understanding of his poetry: Wordsworth’s view of the Lake District from Rydal Mount, Jeffers’s view of the craggy beaches of Carmel from Tor House. But I’ve never had the current flow the other way, that is that the poetry helped me to better understand the place that it was coming from.

The afternoon sky was a chalky gray and a mist too fine to be rain but too heavy to be ignored was descending from the clouds. I walked slowly up the steep winding street past a hundred colors: the graffiti murals adorning the concrete walls; the houses and store fronts painted bright turquoise, green, pink, yellow; a spray of fuschia hanging lazily over a fence; all leaping out against the gray mist and fog.

Almost in a trance, I continued toward the poets’ corner that memorialized Pablo Neruda and several others. I read on the plaque below the statue of Neruda an excerpt from his “Oda a Valparaiso”:

Valparaiso,

qué disparate eres,

qué loco,

qué cabeza con cerros,

desgreñada,

no acabas de peinarte,

nunca tuviste tiempo de vestirte

(Loosely translated by me)

Valparaiso,

what an absurdity you are,

how mad you are

with your head of disheveled hills

that you haven’t lately combed,

never had time to dress

I paused for a moment to reflect on that and then kept climbing up the street until I reached La Sebastiana: Pablo’s house.

I walked through the gate and peered up at the house and then out at the vista. And just like that the realization hit me like having the wind knocked out of me and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. After almost four days in the city I was finally able to see it, to hear it in the way that Neruda experienced it.

I didn’t go inside the house; I didn’t need to. All of the seething, the longing, the yearning, the veiled beauty that alternately oozes and explodes from his poetry, here it was in front of me. This was not the same Valparaiso that I had been looking at for the past four days. This Valparaiso was not decrepit or sagging, a jilted lover forever brooding on the past. It was vibrant, bubbling over with expectation, waiting for no man. It was as if I had been looking at the city through a pinhole and suddenly the pinhole had burst wide open and a whole vast image had been thrust upon me.

But the pinhole can’t stay wide open forever. These glimpses into the previously unseen have a way of slipping through one’s fingers more quickly than they can be written down or even fully understood. Only an hour later these fleeting, diaphanous insights had retreated to the far corners of my memory leaving me with only a tinge of remembrance. But more important than what I actually saw standing there where Neruda had stood hundreds of times before, was the experience of seeing; that is enough to stick with me, to permanently alter my perceptions about the city.

At first I lamented that this epiphany came so late in my stay in Valparaiso. Wouldn’t I have enjoyed the city more if I had come up here to Pablo’s house first? But I think no. I like the idea of remembering the sight of Valparaiso as if in a hazy dream, exactly the way that I saw it on that placid, gray afternoon.

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