South America Trip Day 11 – Valparaiso, Chile

Woke up in the chill of the early morning in our time capsule of a room at the Foresta. It looked like a spare room in my Grandmas house, and smelt similar too. As I came around after 3 hours sleep or so I realised the extent to which I was hungover. Breakfast of tea and toast on the balcony upstairs in the fresh air did little to bring me round. I felt dizzy, my heart was palpitating, and the combination of 10 days of very little sleep and of very high alcohol consumption and no chance to recover from jet-lag were now taking their agonising toll. Still, we had made the decision to escape Santiago and the riots – I mean, protests – today and go to Valparaiso, a port city 120km out of Santiago, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And so we set off into a bustling Santiago morning and down into the depths of the subway.

Subways are not good places for the horribly hungover. Claustrophobia began to creep over me like a blanketing fog, and I began hyper-ventilating due to the panic attacks setting in. It didn’t help that hundreds and hundreds of students were down here too, chanting and waving banners, heading off to designated meeting spots to begin their vehement protest. Alex bought the tickets – I was too busy looking for an exit in case the nausea became too much. We got through the gate and down into the subway – a real subway, the kind that is gritty and gray, with graffiti on the walls, and trains announced by the scraping and screeching of metal on metal. We got on, somehow pushing ourselves into the mass of bodies before the doors closed, and then we were trapped like sardines in a can. Alex had pacified me by saying the station we needed – where we were to get the bus – was 2 stops away. In reality, it was 8 stops. It was all I could do not to collapse onto the floor, close my eyes, and give up the chase and go to either heaven or hell. We arrived eventually, and here there were even more students, drums were rolling, excitement was building. We bought tickets for the next bus to Valparaiso.

At last, the chance to get some shut-eye had arrived. I regretted feeling like this, not being able to see the views of Chile on my way to the coast. Curse the Irish man living inside me! I shut my eyes the whole way there. When we arrived, 2 hours after leaving Santiago, we were offered a tour of parts of the city by a tout working for one of the tour agencies at the bus station. It was only a ‘half tour’ however, as he informed us that most of the city today is ‘off limits’ due to the student protests. We couldn’t escape them! “Don’t go left when you leave the station. There are riot police everywhere. Tear gas, fighting in the streets, burning cars. It’s gonna be pretty ugly.” Welcome to Valparaiso! And so, we turned left.

It was incredibly misty, and eerily quiet. Riot police were everywhere. Shops were closed, shutters down, doors barricaded. A deserted, spooky atmosphere. As we strolled on towards the cathedral we finally saw life – loud bangs at first, then an endless stream of protesters with large banners, drums, horns, music, cheer, smiley faces – more a carnival atmosphere than anything. We joined in, it was impossible to go against the sea of people anyway. It was fun. There were points where large sections of people stopped, creating a gap in front. After 30 seconds, a signal was given, and everyone sprinted forward, laughing. It was all good-natured, and most probably making a point to the government – students want for-profit education to stop, for teachers to be paid more so better quality teachers are attracted to the profession, for education to be available to everyone, not just those with money. It’s deeper than that, though. The divide between rich and poor has been widening even more as of late. This protest is about that too.

Alex and I sprinted up a side street to get away and try to see some sites. The sky was clearing slightly now, and we could see the hills over the centro, narrow streets stretching up lined with colourful little houses and shacks, many made of corrugated iron, and these shanty-like hill areas are one of the reasons Valparaiso is famous, and a magnet for photographers. Alex and I headed up one of the cobbled streets, Cerro Bellavista, impossibly steep, past the amazingly colourful little houses, and we came to the museo de La Sebastiana, where Pablo Neruda, the famous poet, politician and diplomat lived. He bought the house in 1961. Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and is rightly respected all over Chile. The house/museum is lovely – small but steep, with around 5 floors, commanding excellent views over the houses around and below, leading down to the sea. Unfortunately, the mist had decided to roll in again, so Alex and I were denied the opportunity for the wonderful view.

We headed down to the impressive blue Armado de Chile building, a naval building, which sits at the opposite side of the square to a monument. We stopped here for a hot chocolate, which made me feel a little better – I was still really suffering from the night before. We then strode on to get one of the famous ascensors – the famous lifts that go up the hills. We got on one of the only ones running after randomly buying some socks from the market as we still hadn’t had time to do laundry, and from here we could enjoy wonderful views of the surrounding hills on one side, and the port on the other, with a few fierce-looking naval vessels docked. It was a lovely day now, the sun was poking through, and Valparaiso seemed like a wonderful bohemian place, rustic and charming.

We walked back through Centro and realised that, while we’d been up in the hills, chaos had been reigning down below. What I first thought was mist in the weirdly quiet downtown area was actually teargas. Some protesters turned rioters were busy trying to tear down roadsigns and setting fire to cars. Riot police were regrouping a little further up. Debris littered the road. Some youths were being chased through the streets by police. All hell had broken loose here. We found a small pancho place with the TV on – the situation was much worse in Santiago. Thousands of people were fighting, battling with police, throwing petrol bombs, and destroying anything they deemed government property. So it would be out of the frying pan into the fire. We got to bus station – sprinted to the bus station as tear gas was stinging our eyes, and hopped on the bus to Santiago.

It was all quiet in Santiago. The calm after the storm. Back at Foresta and in our street-side room though, we heard a strange sound, hundreds of pots and pans being hit by spoons. It was the students, making a statement – we are poor – the government is taking all our money. It was haunting in a way, like something from an Oliver Twist movie on those dark, misty, Dickensian streets. The students were regrouping, and they would fight again tomorrow.

Alex and I had a can of Cristal, a shower and a change, and headed to Constitution once again for dinner in a pizzeria. What attracted us to the place was the fantastic flamenco show inside, and the general busyness of the place. We weren’t allowed to sit inside though, despite there being a table for 4. We had to sit outside, there weren’t enough of us. They were willing to gamble on the table for 4 being taken soon. It wasn’t, and Alex and I felt bitterly cold outside looking in at the empty table in a prime position in front of the show, and bitter when the waiter added a cheeky tip charge, written in his own hand, to the bill. Alex, not one to splash case needlessly, got the waiter to take it off. I’m glad one of us is willing to stand up to such things. There would be no tip for being treated like second-rate citizens. With increased wealth in such places then, comes increased aloofness. No longer are we allowed to sit where we like. We are assigned a table, based on our looks, gender or class, and treated with contempt by waiters on $10 an hour who think they’re Gods gift to life in general, and customers are far beneath them. Hilarious, if you think about it.

A bad start to our second and last evening in Chile, then. We then hit the same bar area we did the night before, but had run out of enthusiasm in the bitterly cold night, and we had a flight to Paraguay to catch in the morning, so we had a surprisingly early night. Chile was good, but we needed to give it more time. Still, such a taste will only have me coming back for more one day. I never got the chance to explore Santiago properly, after all. Still, a rushed trip is better than no trip at all, and I would do it justice next time, when I returned.

Author: Neil

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