day trips and developments in Chile
10.04.2010 - 10.10.2010 75 °F
Four-day weekend here in Chile thanks to dear old Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colón as they say down south). They actually celebrate Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) here, which has a broader connotation about mixed heritage and harmony between ethnicities. Unfortunately I have to spend tomorrow writing a paper (nine pages in Spanish, five more than I've ever written in this language before), but I did take advantage of the break by getting lots of sleep and taking a day trip to Valparaíso. Valpo, as those who are hip and with it say, is a major Chilean port and the country's second largest city. It was more important during Spanish rule for trade reasons, but near the time of independence the Chileans started developing Santiago to counter the Spanish-controlled port. When the Panama Canal was opened, Valparaíso went into a depression that led to its reputation as a crime-ridden city. The central market was pretty chaotic and we had to suffer more cat-calls then usual as the newest thing in automobiles is to have your horn make whistling noises, but overall it felt safer than everyone had warned.
What it's really known for, though, is its graffiti. It's actually more appropriately called street art; although there is some that looks like what you'd see in the US, most of the paintings are beautiful and give the city a really vibrant feel. Once again, my friend Erica and I got to take advantage of the hospitality of Chileans. We started the day wandering along the railroad not really knowing what to do, but when we asked a group of three college-aged students how to get to the city center, they decided that what we needed wasn't directions, but a tour. From the downtown area along the water, every street leads up (at about a 70 degree incline!) into the hills where the houses are bundled. For about two hours, we meandered through streets and down alleys, hopping from one hill to the next, admiring the old mansions, paintings, and views of the port. A lot of the alleys were nothing more than abandoned buildings and crumbling stone, but it strangely added to the charm and romanticism of the city; the order-within-disorder and beauty-from-chaos feel is what struck me most about Valparaíso. That, and the fact that all of the wealthy residents built their mansions further into the hills so that they could keep an eye out for pirates.
After our guides had had enough of us, Erica and I headed to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda's third house. Strange that I've made it a point to see all three houses of a poet whose work I've never read. Similar to the other two, La Sebastiana is full of a random collection of gifts and trinkets, but it felt a loss less cluttered. Turns out the clutter is key, though, as I didn't like this house nearly as much as La Chascona or Isla Negra.
Unfortunately, we didn't get to ride the Ascensores (trolleys that run up and down the hills) that Valparaíso is famous for because apparently only one of them was in working condition. After a hard-on-the-knees walk down the hill, we wandered through the center of town, passing some plazas, an art show, and an outdoors mass/concert, on our way to dinner. Our waiter was a little rude, but that was my only complaint for the day.
Today we celebrated the fourth birthday of my host niece with a very large asado (barbeque). I didn't realize the party was going to be such a production, and now I'm feeling a little guilty for not having brought a gift. But it was a beautiful day with good food and great music, and Sundays always feel nice when the week doesn't start until Tuesday.
I also had a great week of classes, and finally felt like I learned something. In case you're interested, here are a few of the issues and debates developing in Chile right now:
1. Teachers face such bad conditions and are so undervalued by society that there is a major shortage. So few people enter the career that President Piñera has started a program that gives anyone who commits to study in education a free education, a free semester abroad, and more spending money on top of that.
2. The policy's not having the intended results because the education departments of most skills are of very poor quality and certification systems are weak. Teachers' unions are also basically powerless.
3. The mines in the North (Chile's wealth) require a huge amount of energy, but instead of using all that sun up there in the desert they are destroying vegetation in Patagonia in the South for biofuel.
4. (related to--probably causing--number three) The mines, the energy company, and the intermediaries are all owned by foreigners.
5. Patagonia has been largely ignored by the State in the past, but they are now trying to build a road to connect it with the rest of the country. Problem is, Douglas Tompkins (founder of The North Face from the US) owns a whole lot of that part of the world. In the 80s, he started buying up property from individual farmers and piecing it together to create his own national park for conservation purposes. He's blocked the building of the road for a while, which conservationists like but Chile does not; they resent the gringo for interfering in Chile's development and preventing the unification their country. Not to mention all the companies he pissed off. All sorts of conspiracy theories sprung up about Tompkins and he reported receiving death threats.
6. Tompkins started turning over some land and it looks like the road is going to happen, but he was successful in pushing the plan for the road to the coast instead of cutting through the center, which will limit the environmental damage.
7. Easter Island is trying to gain independence from Chile. The original inhabitants were Polynesian, so there have always been questions about cultural ties to the mainland, and the Rapa Nui are complaining that they are facing cultural and linguistic oppression and a lack of representation. There is a big issue with Chile having a very centralized government even though the different regions are like separate worlds (from desert to mountains to icebergs), but I think independence is a pretty silly idea. Easter Island only has like 3,000 inhabitants, and its earliest populations completely destroyed the ecosystem building their statues (they cut down all the trees for the wood needed to transport the carved stones), so there isn't much of a possibility of them thriving on their own.
8. So with very few people and no resources, why would Chile care about Easter Island anyway? It does bring in some tourism money, but the main reason is that it gives Chile control over an expanse of ocean almost the size of the US, and since the marines are a pretty powerful entity here it's not likely that they'll let the island slip away.
9. On a less serious note, energy is so expensive that people don't decorate their houses for Christmas. I don't know how Chileans expect to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas without lights and snow. Good thing I'm getting out of here before that!
I also thought I'd show you a picture of the lemon. This lemon has been sitting in that glass of water since the day I arrived. It can't be for decoration purposes because Magaly has never taken it out of the cupboard, but I just can't think of what its doing there. I keep meaning to ask.