Saturday, February 20, 2010

Osorno and Valparaiso


There are a lot of places to visit in Chile between Isle Chiloé and Santiago. Puerto Montt, Pucon, and Concepcion to name a few.. but Osorno - who knows? Possibly the first time I told Kaitlin I wanted to go to South America, I put my finger on Osorno. Before arriving, I knew just as much about the place as I did in that moment back in Columbia, South Carolina.

Osorno is not the place for everyone. It was the place for us in that moment, the perfect place. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and after dropping our bags at our hospedaje, decided to walk around a bit.

Bolstered by street food every where, we continued wandering until we found a suspension bridge over a thick copper-tinted river. We crossed and headed up a dusty hill. I wanted to head back to the town center, but Kaitlin lobbied to continue down what looked to me to be just another dirt path in the woods.

After a minute down this path it was clear there was some sort of park in the area. Couples cuddling, families out together, all walking in the same direction. We followed them forward and soon heard music in the distance. Not five minutes later we found ourselves in the heart of a massive folk festival. Mapuche folk music blasting from a stage, all sorts of grilled meat on sticks and in buns, beverages I had never imagined and still can't quite describe, and loads of artisan wares..including some truly unique wood carvings.

We circled the fair before settling at a table with a good view of the stage - ordered a pitcher of beer and were informed that the concert would start any moment. I made a point to do so then, and I will do so again now..

Traveling with Kaitlin has not always been easy. Surely and pair will at times feel hindered by the other, it is human nature. But those times when you relent, when you let someone else follow their intuition and it bares fruit - that is an incredible thing.

We wore smiles for the remainder of the evening as we finished our pitcher entertained by the Mapuche band and a curious toddler that kept flirting with us.

The next day we revisited the country festival, ate more, drank more, and then left to explore other parts of the city. We walked from one side of Osorno to the other- stopping at the Catholic cemetery, the German bakery, Club Provincial Osorno's stadium (which I walked right into unmolested), and all through the suburbs in between.


Another instance where I have thought and thought about how to explain what happened to us... Over our three and a half days in Valparaiso we ran the gauntlet of possible experiences in South America, the high and the low.

Our overnight bus from Osorno arrived in Santiago around ten in the morning with another hour and a half left to go before our final destination in Valparaiso. We dropped our bags in the Yo-Yo Hostel on Ecuador, it was immediately apparent that we were back in the "party hostel" scene, but after a few weeks of hospedajes - it was a welcome change to be around people our age again.

The night bus strategy* left us no choice but to go out and explore after checking in and dropping our bags.

*"sleeping" on a bus combines the need to move location and lodging, essentially a free nights lodging - which for two people traveling for an extended period of time in Chile can keep a few hundred dollars in the coffer*

Our bravado swept us out the door, without consulting the receptionist or a map - as was our usual custom, down the hill aimlessly. We squeezed through narrow streets with steady traffic - a mixture of work-a-day pedestrians and tourists. With the Pacific as our only compass we eventually found ourselves in Sotomayor Square with naval uniforms striding in and out of offices and bermuda shorted tourists snapping away at the hills with their gaudy Nikons. We sat on the steps of the wharf as too many families were loaded onto too small skiffs.

From there we decided we'd head up a hill and try to find a local place to grab a bite to eat. In the absence of any prior directions..or even a map.. we continued west along Serrano until turning south up what appeared to us to be the first "decent" hill - Ave. San Francisco.

After a block or so, it was becoming evident this hill was different than others. Less business, less pedestrians, but we had a mission at the moment. Another block more and we found a nice little dive for pizza. It was a cute little family place where the grandparents did the cooking and the grandchild moaned in fits after being scolded for locking the cat in a cabinet.

We chewed happily while we discussed our next move. Ultimately, we decided to continue up the hill to see if it would eventually connect with our hill. We were bolstered and pleasantly surprised to find the bill was LESS than we expected - quite the anomaly from our experience, and so we chugged up a few blocks with smiles.

It had been some time since we'd seen much in the way of business or foot traffic. I was feeling a big unnerved as locals peered at us from their balconies. Another block and we could see an intersecting road with buses, so we continued on.

At that intersection it seemed unlikely the road would connect with our hill and as the overall dodgey nature of the area set in - we finally decided to make our way back down the hill. Not two blocks later, two gentlemen started talking to us from a half-block away, "Hey! You Chileno?! No? German? English? French?" We walked faster and ignored them as they crossed our path and continued down somewhere unknown.

In Castro we had been called "GRINGOS!" by a group of young adults from across the street, but their tone was juvenile, these men were aggressive.

So we began to briskly retrace our steps. But the sporadic maze and our hightened state led us down a wrong turn. We came back out only to see that there were two men following us - two men I had seen when we first left the restaurant. We continued down the path we had taken, opting (wrongly) to take the desolate alley from the walk up, rather than the busier street only two blocks over. Less than halfway down that alley we heard running behind us. Before we could turn to see what it was, the two men (though they couldn't have been older than us) were infront of us - one holding a small knife.

Between the shouts of "Money! Money!", the knife infront of me, and the hands fumbling through my pockets - I didn't really feel that scared..only when I looked over at the other guy searching Kaitlin did I realize it was real, but by that time they were running up the hill with twenty mil (about $40 US).

We had maintained the habit of carrying little cash and no important documents, but we had failed in the biggest areas. I have hesitated to write about this incident, because I think it is what many people expect and it only perpetuates the perception by mentioning it. But the truth is, aside from the systemic problems in the area itself, it is gallant tourists who are to blame for incidents such as these. The same crime takes place in the richest nation in the world, because people think that their passport or their money or their past experience will exempt them from considering their surroundings.

We walked back to the hostel in silence. Kaitlin napped. I zoned out watching television and drinking water, just trying to forget how stupid we had been.

That evening we met an English couple while making dinner and ended up staying up with them for quite a while talking about soccer, music, and on and on..

The next morning I woke up early in a feverish state. In a daze I became violently ill, able to leave bed only for the bathroom. After about two hours, there was nothing left in me and I slipped in and out of sleep. I eventually awoke, but was still too weak to leave the bed. While Kaitlin nursed me with water, ginger ale, and crackers - I deduced that the water must have been the culprit. Though I have had the tap water everywhere we have been thus far, I hadn't gulped it down like I did the day before. Clearly, I overloaded.

Later that day I was able to make it out of bed and up our hill to see the brighter side of Valparaiso...

We stopped for a vista of the port city and then sat for a while having a cafe, but that was about all I could handle. The next day, with my legs stronger, we could explore a bit..

Valparaiso is alive. With graffiti everywhere there are countless characters sprawled over every wall in any color and style. Neruda's city seems to have embraced these murals as guardians and have designated public spaces for artists to develop their craft.

One such place is Ex-Carcel, an old prison that has been reclaimed as a public space for people to practice whatever art they wish. Kaitlin and I spent a few hours exploring the space, marveling at the contrast of prison cells with faded pin-ups still pasted to the ceiling and fifteen foot murals depicting scenes of struggle, freedom, joy, etc...

The next day we rode one of Valpariso's famous ascensors, rode it back down the hill, and continued on with the things we normally enjoy. Walking around the local markets, smelling and tasting.

On the streets of the outside market in the Old Town we found street vendors eating what looked to be a delicious concoction of corn meal and meat. We stopped to ask a woman who was helping attend a fish stall, what exactly it was..

While explaining to Kaitlin she scooped a forkful and lifted it to Kaitlin's mouth. Have some. I was next. It was a mixture of cornmeal and various meats, still mysterious, but delicious. We thanked her as she directed us to her family friend that was selling them.

While we scooped our own mouthfuls in the nearby plaza... I couldn't help but marvel at that woman. Her eagerness to share. So content. Oblivious to our accent or gringo attire. Beautiful woman - I won't forget you.

We passed the rest of the day with a trip up to Pablo Neruda's house on the hill. The tour was certainly interesting, but I think we both left with more questions than answers about the man who is so important to Valparaiso, Chile, and South America as a whole. Ultimately, the author lives in his words, not in the stuff he keeps and how people interpret those possessions.

Our last stop in Valparaiso was a beautiful orange bed and breakfast on a hill overlooking the entire city. With a local porter and a pisco sour we waxed philosophical as we tend to do every so often.. patting ourselves on the back a bit, but also preparing for more difficult decisions ahead.


But what lay ahead at this time, we hoped, was a return to calm. Easier times. We had weathered the worst of Valparaiso and were now a night bus away from familiar and tranquil Argentina..

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