Sunday, July 10, 2011

Valparaiso & Santiago

Back to suburbia then, but not before a sobering reminder of just how fucking long Chile is by way of a 24 hour bus ride from San Pedro to Valparaiso. The bus ride, however, despite my misgivings due to the distance, was a joy. Roomy seats, perfectly heated during the cold winter night, a sane driver who’s forbidden to drive for more than 5 hours and occasional snack bags handed out during the journey make it feel more like a train journey. There’s also a little clock where you can see the speed of the bus and, if you notice the driver is travelling above the 100km/h limit, you’re helpfully provided with his name and driver number on the same screen and encouraged to rat on him. Bizarre. Lacking a suitable rail infrastructure - now, if they’d been colonised by the Brits - Chile takes the bus industry very seriously indeed. The landscape is bleak yet absolutely beautiful, particularly by the light of the late evening sun. It’s the kind of setting where my mind can easily imagine Bono dragging a grumbling U2 behind him saying “Lads, heads up, there has to be a fucking Joshua Tree here somewhere.”
24 hours later, nary a Joshua Tree in sight and I’m in the country’s second city. Valparaiso is wonderful, managing simultaneously to be Chile’s capital of culture and menace. The city is a living, breathing art gallery - urban art gallery that is. There's clearly something in the water here as there's scarcely a wall unadorned with some type of graffiti. Then there are the hundreds of multi-coloured houses, piled high as far as the eye can see like some poorly assembled Lego set. They’re built on hills in a seemingly haphazard fashion, piled atop one another high into the hills which pour down into the Pacific. It isn’t a pretty city but it has character in spades. On arrival, the lady at the hostal seems to spend as much time telling me where not to go at night than she does telling me where to go during the day. The graffiti, though, takes the breath away - it’s everywhere and it’s impeccable. Banksy could well be mayor here.
Santiago is a mere two hours away and on the day I’m due to go there I have to wade my way through protesting students, riot police and not a little tear gas. The students are up in arms in Chile because the high cost of university education renders it impossible for many of them to pursue further education. They’ve been on strike for the past 2 months but the government stubbornly refuses to buckle. The protest I witnessed was utterly peaceful, wonderfully well organised yet still ended with police intervention. Democracies eh?
Santiago lacks the rough edges of Valparaiso, or so it seems in the three days I spend there, but it’s the most European city I’ve seen to date in South America. Bolivian cities are too poor to be European, San Pedro is too shit to be European, Valparaiso is too cool to be European, so it’s left to Santiago and it does it effortlessly well. Typing this now, I’m trying to think of an angle to take on Santiago, or to recount something interesting or unusual that happened there, but my mind’s a blank. It’s just another city; a big, elegant and ultra-modern city for sure, but not one that will live long in the memory.
One thing that should be noted about Chile, however, is the impenetrability of the language they speak. Yes, it’s Spanish, but in name only. It’s slurred, incoherent and completely ignores the pronunciation of certain letters, rendering it impossible to understand even the most basic responses. It’s frustrating, sure, especially coming so soon after the Bolivian drawl which was slow enough to allow you to take out your dictionary mid-sentence to figure out what they were saying.

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