May 1 – 3, 2011
May 1st is a holiday here and many of the stores and restaurants are closed. Sundays are kind of quiet anyway. But the holiday made this Sunday even more so. Or so it seemed until Alberto and I hauled our luggage onto the metro. So that’s where all the people were! It was another sardine ride to the bus station where Alberto and I could catch the bus to Viña del Mar. I was scheduled to do two schools in two days. I spent a lot of the bus ride working on the blog which, let me tell you, is a lot harder to maintain than I thought it would be. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how much effort my daughter spent in maintaining her blog, really well – pictures and all – for two plus years. Well, I appreciate it now!
Focusing on my blog takes me away from actually experiencing anything, which is one of the disadvantages of expression. But I thought to look up once in a while. I caught a glimpse of this vineyard. Chile is famous for it’s wines. Alberto and I have a couple of bottles waiting for us in the refrigerator, back in Santiago. For now, we are focused on Viña del Mar, about a two hour bus ride from Santiago.
Viña del Mar is a coastal town, affording me my first glimpse of the South Pacific. The weather there was quite different from Santiago: cold, foggy and gray. We settled ourselves into a shabby and desultory bed and breakfasty kind of place. My room had a somewhat gloomy view. Inside it sported dark, cyanotic blue walls. The window in the bathroom didn’t close all the way, so the 45° ambient night time temperature greeted my naked self in the mornings. The shower was the size of a coffin. The shower head (think garden hose) was at just about the right height if you were standing on the floor. Unfortunately the shower itself was located on a about a foot and a half above the floor, offering the bather an excellent opportunity to clean the lower rib cage. The water cycled chaotically through a 15° temperature difference which, due to the size of the shower stall, I was never able to avoid. The shower curtains were long enough to plug the drain if I wasn’t careful. The door slammed into the television every time I came out of the bathroom. And I don’t even watch TV. The bed was concave, the breakfast was Wonder bread and ham, and the whole place was redolent with cigarette smoke, much of it from the owners, Spanish ex-patriots who have found a new home in Chile. They were gracious and friendly and full of advice on where to go and where not to go. Their hospitality more than made up for the shortcomings of the actual building.
After establishing myself in my room and taking a bit of a rest, I headed toward the sea, sea, sea, to see what I could see, see, see. I found a park on the coast where there were some May Day activities going on in the chilly fog, including a puppet show. The fog obscured what would ordinarily been good views. Along the shore there were big rocks, many of which have little homilies or words of advice painted onto them. Bible verses are popular, but other wisdom is imparted as well. I wimped out on trying to order on my own at the crowded restaurant (Alberto and I came back later and had a delicious meal), and opted for walking around some more.
Crossing one of the many bridges in town I was struck by the absence of water in the river below. And really, without water, it’s not much of a river. Apparently there’s more later on the winter. In the meantime why not use the space for parking?
Late that night, after talking with Karen, I got word (through the internet) that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, nearly ten years after the events of 9/11. Alberto tells me there is a Spanish saying (loosely translated): “Killing the dog, does not get rid of rabies.” I don’t have the cure for rabies. I don’t know who does. But whatever the solution is, I’m pretty sure there will be more than killing dogs involved
The schools I am working at are the schools of the well to do. I’m acutely aware of the gaps between the haves and the have nots in this country. What surprises me is that I don’t think the difference is bigger in this country than in ours. On a global scale I’m a pretty lucky guy. I try to remember just how much of my health and wealth is based on good fortune and how much is due to my own effort. Being here is a good reminder of what a huge role good fortune has played in my life.
Monday I did a couple of shows for a German School. That is, they teach most of the subjects in Spanish, and secondarily the students are learning German. English is the consolation prize. Like I said the schoolsThe programs went well and since we finished up early Alberto and I had the opportunity to take the bus from Viña del Mar south to Valparaiso, home of one of my favorite poets and pride of Chile, Pablo Neruda. Since reading about his Valparaiso home in “The Lonely Planet,” I’ve been wanting to visit it. Now was my chance.
We disembarked near the port area of the city. Valparaiso is a much older looking town than Viña del Mar, which has the air of a trendy suburb. Valparaiso is the gritty, tougher and more experienced cousin. The downtown area in particular has an unbathed patina. Graffiti is ubiquitous in Chile, even in the wealthier areas. And much of the time it’s hard to tell exactly what is graffiti and what is a mural. Perhaps here the difference is academic. In any case downtown Valparaiso is thick with graffiti. The distinctive and antiquarian buildings are dirty and carry the knowledge of better days in their stance. We were approached initially by a friendly guy, with lots of questions, who seemed to want to hang with us. Neither Alberto nor I were particularly inclined to trust him. We shook him by indicating that we were headed for Cerro Alegre.
The downtown of Valparaiso is surrounded by Cerros - hills that are effectively neighborhoods - that you get to either by climbing an unimaginably large number of steep stairs or by taking one of the many Ascensores that are sprinkled throughout the city. During last week’s show at Villa Maria school, we ran into a teacher who told us she had an aunt (Josefina) and uncle (Pato) who ran an ice cream parlor in Cerro Alegre and we promised to look them up. So after a quick meal of really delicious and amazingly fresh sea food, we began the search for the Ascensor that would get us to the right Cerro. Valparaiso is a warren of streets, alleys and stairways and finding the ascensores is not easy. After a couple of misguided attempts we finally found the little nook wherein was located our desired ascensor and up we went. Then it was a question of finding the ice cream parlor. All we had was a name. But eventually we found a store keeper (with a great sign out front!) who knew of it and was able to send us in the right direction.
We met Uncle Pato, a man of real bonhomie who encouraged his young, female ice cream server to give me a scoop of his favorite flavor. I don’t remember what it was, but he insisted that it was a powerful aphrodisiac. I demurred and went for one of the chocolate flavors EVEN THOUGH tiramisu flavor was available here too. I like to think of myself as being open minded.
Uncle Pato’s niece gave us spiffy directions to Pablo Neruda’s home, which was donated to the public by his widow and has since become a museum. It was a long walk between cerros and it gave us lots of opportunities to see more of the city. By now the sun was starting to make an appearance and the day seemed brighter and cheerier. One of the houses we passed had bee hives, which you could see right behind the signs advertising fresh honey. There were lots more mural/graffiti examples and we saw one house with its own private ascensor. There were plenty of signs on the power poles indicating the direction to the Neruda museum. Alberto and I kept seeing people that looked like tourists (backpacks, water bottles) and we were sure they were headed the same place we were. It was about a half hour walk down Avenida Alemania (German Avenue, I guess this was the day for things German) to Neruda’s house/museum which, as it turned out, was closed on Mondays. Damn.
Well, resilience is the traveler’s best friend. We decided to walk down the hill back to the bus and head to our quarters del dia. It was a long walk. And we’d already been walking quite a ways. So we were glad to see the bus. This was naïve. The bus ride actually turned out to be more rigorous than the walk. It was packed and we had to stand while we crawled through rush hour traffic, rocking from side to side on rough and sloped streets, inching our way back to Viña del Mar. It was good to get back to the flop house. Fatigue makes any bed look good. I made a nest in the bed, plugged the computer into the wall, and the lamp next to me disassembled itself into two pieces. There was a spark and all of lights in the room went out. Not to worry. Apparently this has happened before. A quick flip of the switch and everything is fine. I folded myself in half, and lay down. Later Alberto and I headed for the sea for our supper and came right back for an early bed time.
Today I was at a school that was not immersion in nature. In other words, English is merely a subject there. This school also pitched me my youngest students yet. So I was a little worried. My anxiety level went up when I arrived at the school. All of the schools have been wealthy. But this place was a palace. Their media center (where I was interviewed for a program to be broadcast later on the school radio station) also included a blue screen room for their video projects.
But my work area was the auditorium. One is introduced to this swank little theater by the mural on the outside wall suggesting the Altamira Cave Paintings in Spain. Inside are 150 soft cushy seats, a small but very nice stage, a tech booth and a sound and light technician. Working with an unknown sound and light tech is always a scary proposition and today was no exception. Each time I did the show he got more excited about the theatrical possibilities my presentation offered, even though he really didn’t speak English so he didn’t have a very good idea of what my presentation offered. By the third show there were sudden inexplicable bursts of reverb coming through the speakers and the lights were flashing on and off, strobe like, giving my stories the ability to induce epileptic fits.
But the students were fun and our host turned out to be a really first rate photographer and grabbed a bunch of pictures that I think I’ll be able to use for future promotion. He also gave us a ride back to our hotel, which saved Alberto the taxi fare. Then it was a walk to the bus station and the trip back to good old Santiago where, by the way, it’s gotten much warmer!