Santiago and Valparaiso
You know, you try to be a responsible "journalist" and write an educational blog about history and nature and new cultures but then, in the end, all the uneducated masses really want is toilet humor (see previous comments). You should all be ashamed of yourselves. For all the people who wanted more about the girl with the digestive problems, thanks a lot, because you jinxed me. I walked into my random hostel in Santiago, Chile, and who happens to be my friendly dorm neighbor, but Toilet Girl TG herself. Nooooooooo! We ended up going out for meals together and, over a nice dinner, I got the full and uncensored details of what south american food can do to your stomach. I will be happy to email these details to any jerk that wants them.
Santiago is a relatively normal city with a beautiful centro of European style buildings and plazas that seem to succeed in covering its troubled past. The Paseo Ahumada, a long cobblestone pedestrian walkway, leads up to the Plaza de Armas, a large open air plaza with benches, trees, and artist stands, all bordered in by a gorgeous iglesia (church), the national post office, and various impressive museos (museums). Santiago is in the unfortunate position of having to compete with Buenos Aires, backpacker-wise, and most young tourists wave it off but I actually liked it. I arrived in Casa Roja, a mansion-converted hostel with high renaissance style ceilings and walls of bright yellow and blue, got settled in, and walked down the street to the vegetable stand where the old lady sold me some tomatoes and peppers (for Israeli salad of course!) and a bag of her homemade cabbage salad and sent me off, but not before lecturing me about: 1) carrying Argentinian money, and 2) travelling alone. Don`t worry, mama, I seem to have 150 different mamas yelling at me down here. The Chileans are mainly mestizos, a mix of the Spanish colonizers and the indigenous people. This is very different from Argentina, where 90% of people are of European decent and which has a very small indigenous population because of the Conquista del Desierto which killed most of them.
So the first day in Chile was spent walking in the centro, eating pineapple popsicles while watching the townfolk dance the cueca, the traditional dance of the country. It is a folk dance where all the old people twirl a white handkerchief in the air while courting each other in dance as huasos (cowboys) strum guitars in the background. It is very festive. After two (2) pineapple popsicles and one (1) bag of potato chips (ahhh...vacation), I walked to the end of the centro and climbed the Torre Mirador, a castle turned into a lookout point that oversees all of the city. I eventually met Michael, a French nurse overseeing health projects in rural Chile, and we had some hot chocolate at the intersection of Paris and Londres, two charming cobblestone streets that are blessed with nice big trees that sleepily protect you from the afternoon sun. It was getting dark so I headed back to the hostel, had some sushi with TG (see above), and then went out on the town with TG and Michael. We walked around Bella Vista, the boheme part of town where all the young people get drunk on pisco, the national alcoholic drink that tastes like a mix of 3 parts propane and 2 parts acetone, roughly. Please don`t try to make it at home.
On the way back, we ran into huge groups of skinheads and Michael explained that this was quite common in Santiago ever since the fall of the dictatorship. The young people were so desperate to express themselves that many turned to radical and/or facist movements as an outlet, without a real understanding of what these movements signify. At times like these, it's difficult for me to decide what to tell people my nationality is. Having my pick of the US and Israel, probably two of the most hated governments in the world, I always have to gauge which country will draw a less strong response. But most people I talk to are smart enough to know the difference between politics and people. That is, they like Americans but not the US govt...Israelis, but not the Israeli govt.
The next day, I visited the National Museo and got my first real sense of the strange identity of post-dictatorship Chile. The museo covered the country`s history from indigenous times of the Mapuches and Aymaras right up until 1973 when the Moneda (presidential headquarters) was bombed in a military coup, killing President Allende (this was also ALLEGEDLY backed by the CIA, you´re right Mr Sarat, I do have to be a responsible journalist). After that, the exhibit ended. The history museum ended its history in 1973. Absolutely no mention of the last 30 years and the only place where I saw the name Pinochet was on a plaque at the entrance dedicating the museum to him. So in the end, it seems that a surprising number of Chileans are still pro Pinochet...if you walk into some old people`s homes, you will see a picture of him hung on the wall. And the other Chileans, well, those that were not exiled, tortured, or disappeared during his term, remain quiet on the subject. In reality, neither side talks. This is just my sense of the country from talking to foreigners living here (you can`t exactly ask the locals). Of course, I`m an outsider who doesn`t know a whole lot, AND I`ve been here one week. Not exactly an expert
This blog is getting more and more serious, huh. Okay, let`s go back to fun things! I visited the Chilean stock exchange which I was expecting to be a flurry of sharp stockbrokers yelling angrily into white phones but was actually two old guys having coffee in a big empty room full of Dell computers. I was going to sit and watch them for a while to see if anything would happen but it was a bit awkward, just the three of us (can YOU guess which one was the third wheel?) so I left. I also ate Chinese food on my last night in Santiago. It took me exactly 12 minutes to describe Chicken Chow Mein. This is what happens when you have an Israeli American girl trying to speak spanish to Chinese Chilean old people. In the end, I got fried noodles with mushrooms. Hmmm. The next day, I caught a bus to Valparaiso, 2 hours north.
Valparaiso is easily the most beautiful city I've seen on this trip. A historic port that has survived many natural disasters, its colorful flurry of little houses were randomly built on steep hills that overlook the gorgeous bay. A great way to access these historic neighborhoods at the peak is to, get this, take these ancient ascensores (outdoor elevators) to the top. The elevators are pulled up the hill by a creaky pulley system and when you get to the top, you can walk around the cluster of sunny old houses, hippie art galleries, and cobblestone streets. This is exactly what I did my first day in Valparaiso, taking in the great views of the port and fish markets below. Back at hostel El Yoyo, owned by 22 year old Californian named Russ, we cooked, watched movies, made fish dinners, and just relaxed, which was so nice after so much travelling. Russ and employee Alejandro (Colombia) entertained us nightly by telling us funny stories of the hostel-renovation process: painting and hammering by day, protecting the palace by night, chasing burglars down the street with no clothes on, broken wine bottle in hand (Valparaiso while beautiful is one of the most dangerous cities in Chile). See this link for photos.
The next day, I went with Alejandro to La Sebastiana, one of poet Pablo Neruda's lesser known houses. The house was at the very top of a hill, facing the glorious bay leading out to the Pacific Ocean. Each sunny room had an eclectic mix of everything Neruda had collected during his travels around the world: seashell tables, marble plates, wood carvings, glass goblets, and everything colorful you could imagine. Every room had huge bay windows that let the bright sun in, illuminating strange paintings, interesting corners, inverted bathroom mirrors. It was really awesome. Neruda loved the house so much that he wrote a beautiful poem for it, laying it on top of his table in the attic that served as his study. http://www.lasebastiana-neruda.cl/
After La Sebastiana, I went with Peter (Germany) for some empanadas and then a boat tour of the harbor, where Peter almost succeeded in getting us a free tour of the Chilean navy prison by taking pictures of the Chilean navy boats (strictly prohibited. stupid boys.) At night, I went to a karaoke bar and watched some pisco-drunk Chileans sing tearfully along to cheesy spanish love songs. I was able to follow along after a while and we sang with all our heart, until it was time to go home. And then the next day, after spending 3 whole days in Valparaiso, it was time to move on. Next stop, Horcon, a desolate fishing village 3 hours north. This was where my strategy of not having a guidebook, or a map of the country, backfired in a major way...whoops.