5 Things I Didn’t Know About High-Altitude Living

A little over two months into Cusco, I can say with certainty that life at 11,200 feet comes with its own set of peculiarities. This isn’t the highest up we’ve ever been – Jorge and I had the pleasure of visiting Potosi, Bolivia once, the highest inhabited city in the world at 13,400 feet. But that was just for a couple days, and we were happy to get out of there and to lower climes. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at 11,000 feet:

1.) Cooking is a different experience. Have you guys ever noticed the separate cooking instructions for high-altitude locations on every box of pasta in history? I used to, and never thought much of it. I remember inquiring about this – why would the instructions differ at a higher elevation? – and was provided with the accurate scientific response that I have long since forgotten. (Doesn’t it all just boil down to ATOMS?) I conveniently forgot about this as Jorge and I settled into Cusco. The first several occasions we cooked pasta or rice, we spent an inordinate amount of time checking and re-checking the food. Why was it still so HARD? Hasn’t it been 7-9 minutes? Really it’s been almost 15 minutes…How can it not be ready yet? Oh yeah. HIGH-ALTITUDE.

See that arrow? It means something. 

2.) Hangovers reach a new level of raunchy. There must be some scientific explanation for this – dehydration occurs faster where there’s less oxygen because red blood cells need 1.5% of something and up here there’s only 0.1% and then oh yeah, MAGIC. Whatever the reason, I’m ashamed to admit that I once had a hangover once until 4PM after 3 (THREE) glasses of wine throughout the course of a very laid back—and LENGTHY–evening with friends. And it’s not because I’m almost thirty (even if it was strictly due to my age, it would still be an EMBARASSMENT). Be careful folks. Alcohol up here takes a different toll on the body. And you know why? It’s because of HIGH ALTITUDE.

3.) Moving around is more difficult. If your body is one of those randomly selected organisms that will be sensitive to high-altitude issues, surprise! Most things will suck. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with physical fitness, it’s just pure luck (or unluckiness). Visiting Potosi was by far the WORST – I got out of breath just brushing my teeth. In Cusco it’s not nearly as bad, especially since we’ve had ample time to acclimate, but a few aspects still stick out. If you’ll all remember, I used to live in Valparaiso which had comically steep streets that seemed, oftentimes, like a joke. Who would actually build a city so vertical, a city where most neighborhoods relied on ascensores just to get their groceries home? Well, Cusco has its fair share of inclines and hills, but it’s got nothing on Valpo. Which makes me feel particularly bad when I find myself out of breath here in Cusco after traversing a very minimal incline. And yes, that incline would be the equivalent of walking downhill in Valpo, but here? Steals your breath a little. Makes you feel pretty ridiculous until you remember OH YEAH…HIGH ALTITUDE.

4.) Thunderstorms aren’t just thunderstorms anymore. They are a full-body experience that gets you right into the middle of the storm cell, WITH NO FORGIVENESS. Plus, being this high up, you get the added benefit of strange snow-hail storms. In the middle of summer. Because it’s HIGH ALTITUDE!

5.) It’s pretty much always cold. I’ll go more into my geographic/weather pattern duncery in another post, but this high up, the extremes are more extreme. If the sun does come out in the middle of the day (which doesn’t always happen, not even in ‘summer’), it will be very hot, and you WILL get burnt. But then at night, you will need five blankets and a pair of alpaca booties and MAYBE THEN the only frozen item on your body will be your nose. For god’s sake, the alpacas here wear goggles and sometimes actual CLOTHING. That’s gotta tell you something…something like HIGH ALTITUDE!

Hey, Mr. Alpaca…can we borrow some of that fluff? Maybe for some traditional hats and sweaters?

There have been some other strange things going on around here too, though I can’t be sure if they’re related to the elevation or not. Either way, it seems safe to blame it on the altitude.

Is your boyfriend shedding chest hair at an unprecedented rate? Probably the altitude.  Does your tap water come out feeling like the literal refuse of a glacier? Might be the high altitude. Are people eating oven-roasted hamsters as a delicacy? Could also be the altitude. Are you suffering from painfully glorious mountain views nearly every moment of the day? The altitude may very well be the culprit. Have you recently scaled a mountain to reach a city that ancient people thought was a great idea to stick all the way up there? Now that one is DEFINITELY the altitude!

(Editor’s Note: I began writing this post when the sun was out in full force and I thought I might be able to take a trip to the market in my tank top, to get a little tanning in. It is now snow-hailing, and some of it is coming through our skylights, where it sits melting on our floor. A little message from the gods. High Altitude!)

A Sad Farewell to Valparaiso (or, The Last Border Run)

On April 1st, 2013, I wrote a post called “Introducing Valparaiso” where I talked about my first impressions of Valpo and why I was so excited to be living there.

On May 2nd, 2014, my partner Jorge and I will officially leave this city, and the entire country of Chile, for a very, very long time.

Leaving Valparaiso is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s Valparaiso. There’s actually no better city in Chile for someone like me, and while I’ve lived here I’ve finished two novels, published two short non-fiction stories, maintained and/or started three blogs, and written a heck of a lot in my personal journal.

How’s that for an inspiring place to live? No wonder so many artists flock here!

Furthermore, I met my love Jorge here. Under the unblinking gaze of the cerros, our relationship sputtered to life and flourished.

March 2013
March 2014

Now, over a year after meeting each other in the dim lighting of a Mexican restaurant called Taco Tony’s, Jorge and I are leaving it all behind to begin anew.

We’re leaving Tony’s magical tacos behind, as well as the salty air, the humid winters, the perpetual roil of dogs barking in the distance, the grit of urine and trash in street corners, the breathtaking street art, the winding hills too vertical to be safe for cars, surely; the colorful dots of homes that sprawl on hillsides for eons, the Pacific Ocean, the fresh fish gutted and displayed at market, the green trolley’s, the lumbering buses to Vina del Mar, the constant asados, and perhaps most importantly….our home and our friends.

One of many lunches at Pasaje Chileno

The king of the house — and the grill!


Jorge and I not only began our relationship here, we began our home here. We found this vagabond house empty and quiet in August and 2013, and since then we have filled it with laughter, music, gatherings, art and more. We’ve had countless asados here, as well as art nights, wine clubs, dinner parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, farewell parties, welcome parties, housewarming parties and more. We’ve outfitted it to be our recycled, built-from-scratch haven: with found pieces from the street, upcycled washing machines turned asado grill and light fixture, a complete urban garden bearing vegetables and heavenly basil.

This bad boy bore 7 tomatoes! Best part is, I never
even planted tomato — came from compost, baby!

Here long enough to grow a spice cabinet, too!

Maybe you’re asking, Okay, so why the hell are you leaving?

That’s the other side of this extremely heavy and attractive coin. In moving on from Valpo, we are paving the way to new Valpos.

Not that we strive to recreate our exact experience, or only move to cities that resemble Valpo (if that were the case, our next and only stop would be San Francisco!). But rather, we plan to continue drifting together and settling for a time in new places. Cities where we feel a connection, can start a little home, make some friends and family, and then move on to see more of the world.

Luckily, both of us have work that can be easily taken with us. As a hair stylist, Jorge is in demand wherever we go. I can’t count how many people throw themselves at him once they find out he can cut or color their hair.

And me, well, the writing and non-profit gig pack up quite nicely into whatever backpack I’m using at the moment.

We are both extremely sad to leave Valparaiso, but extremely excited for the unknown adventures that await us!

During the month of May, we will be traveling through Argentina to see Jorge’s family. In June, we’ll hit Bolivia, and make our way up through Peru to catch a flight from Lima to the USA in mid-June. And once we take a month in the States, meeting my side of the family, then it’s back to Peru to continue to passive vagabonding…

And the first city on deck is Cusco.

Goodbye, Chile! We love you, Valparaiso!

Salud to so many amazing friendships, memories, good times, 
and learning experiences in this beautiful city. 
You will forever be in our hearts.

Fire Clean-up in Valparaiso

You know what I’ve been sucking at doing lately? UPDATING THIS BLOG.

I apologize folks, especially to those of you who were waiting with bated breath to see via my blog that I had survived the recent fire in Valparaiso.

OK, that was nobody at all, but in case there was any doubt, I’M ALIVE. But here’s the scoop: the fire broke out on April 12th due to a wild fire in the brushy areas at the top part of a hill. Around that date, we had been experiencing some extremely fierce winds for just a couple days or so. This fire, with that wind, quickly spread and began to engulf houses.

The houses up in those parts, however, are some of the poorest. Lacking access to water, there was no way for firefighters to connect to fight the flames, but that was only when the trucks could get up there.

Strong winds. Densely packed houses made of wood. A terribly hungry fire.

I snapped this photo of the fire on Saturday night. Haunting, eerie glow from the flames. We counted 8 focal points.

 

It raged until Monday, recruiting not only every fire fighter in the city of Valparaiso (who, I should add, are all volunteer firefighters), but also helicopters and airplanes dumping water from above from both Chile and Argentina.

All told, over 12,500 people have been affected by this fire which, according to anyone you ask here, is by far the worst fire to ever hit Valparaiso.

And while it affected several of the 42 hills here, the effects have been felt by everyone. The entire night of Saturday and the whole day of Sunday saw a steady stream of ash raining onto houses throughout the city, including our patio. Any visit to the city center on those days felt similar to a post-apocalyptic movie scene. On Sunday, we saw the inky cloud of the fire drifting toward sea against the brilliantly clear blue sky.

Looking at the fire from Avenida Argentina

 

It has been a very painful and heartbreaking event to witness. Even though I am a foreigner, even though my house and hill were not affected, I consider Valparaiso my home. Watching the scene on Sunday brought tears to my eyes multiple times as I saw families fleeing the hills, all their belongings in duffel bags, as they sought refuge and the inevitable wait to find out just how much of everything they would lose.

Some people didn’t have time to pack. And others didn’t even have time to get out. This fire claimed the lives of 15 people.

Through the time since the fire, Jorge and I have been donating money, time, and possessions. We donated every extra bit of everything in this vagabond house last Sunday. Every time we go to a particular part of the center, we donate cleaning supplies to one of the many shelters set up for the people who lost their homes. And last Friday we went up into the hills with a friend to shovel out rubble from properties.

We went higher up into the hills than I’ve ever been before. I’ve never seen Valpo from these angles.

 

Assessing the damage.

 

Helping to dig out the burnt remains of a man’s house.

 

We didn’t know him, we just found them and offered to help.

I’m no delicate flower but I’m also not a burly woodsman. The shoveling was back breaking work. We were at it for three hours and my body hurt for days, not to mention the two shiny blisters I got from the shoveling. We made real progress there at the man’s house, starting with a deep, drifting pile of ash, dust, dirt, and broken remains of his belongings. By the time we left, we had hit the earthen floor of what used to be his kitchen. The ash entered our eyes and mouths despite the face masks and sunglasses. There was no way to escape it.

Participating in the volunteer efforts and being around to see the ways in which Valparaiso has responded to this crisis has been uplifting and wholly inspiring. The city has come together in the truest sense of the word. People sprang into action from day one, and thank god, because there are so many victims of this fire.

And not just people victims either. Here’s an area for wounded strays — they were adopting them out once they’d been cleaned and treated.

 

 

Jorge and I after shoveling rubble last Friday. We found soot in our nostrils and ears for at least the next two days.

 

Just seeing the solidarity of the portenos each and every time I leave my house is such an insanely beautiful sight. When we went on Friday, there was no lack of support among volunteers. It didn’t matter where we were from, who we were with: we were there to help. Formalities weren’t exchanged, only directions toward where to help and gentle questions of whether we needed water or food. Water was passed around freely as we worked, mandarin oranges and then actual packed lunches handed out by some lady, who knows where she came from or who she was with, just one of the many angels of the relief efforts.

By last Friday, reconstruction had already begun for some people. This is an effort that will continue for quite a long time. Thankfully, there are so many people to help, and so many individuals and companies alike that are giving time, money and efforts to help those affected by the catastrophe.

Valpo won’t only be fine, it will be stronger and better.

FUERZA VALPO!

Sunday Funday, Disfrumino No-Fomingo!

Valparaiso has 42 hills.

I have no idea who saw this naked area way back when and thought, “Hey, let’s build millions of buildings on these cliff-like hills and generally inhabit the ravines and valleys formed by these typically uninhabitable areas.” Seriously, kudos. Because most houses here are on stilts and everyone is apparently okay with that.

Anyway, the hills follow the natural ravines of the topography, so at least discerning where one cerro ends and another begins follows some sort of logic.

Although I’ve lived in Valparaiso for almost a year, I haven’t been to all of the cerros. I probably won’t go to all of them, to be honest. People live here all their lives and don’t get to all of them. But this past Sunday, Jorge and I took a trip to a new destination: Cerro Cordillera and Cerro Toro.

Here’s a map that doesn’t even show any of the places we went on Sunday! Instead, see where I live, where my yoga studio is, and an unhelpful vague arrow gesturing in the vicinity of Cerro Cordillera!

Cerro Cordillera and Cerro Toro are further south in Valparaiso. There are touristic parts of Cordillera including the Naval Museum and some ascensores over there, but both cerros have a reputation for being kind of dangerous in certain areas for tourists.
However, my friend Peter has been living here for 3 years and knows all the ins and outs of the place. He and his partner Seba offered to host a brunch at their house in Cordillera, with a delightful post-brunch sightseeing walk afterward (with helpful knowledge about what parts to avoid). How could we say no? Armed with friends as tour guides and one (or two…) mimosas in the early afternoon, I knew this was the perfect chance to get to know Cordillera and not get robbed.

Okay, this might just look like a bunch of crap, but look closer: It’s an abandoned/exploded?/decrepit house, but upstairs is a girl’s room. Almost perfectly preserved. Very eerie.

View as we ascend Cerro Cordillera.

Amantes

Our Sunday Funday/Disfrumingo group! Jorge, Peter the host, Paul the friend and neighbor, and Rayelle, the visiting artist and Spanish student!

Something I love about Valparaiso is the constant stream of interesting characters that come through. It’s a city that attracts artists of all types, and has for generations. I don’t know if it’s the views from above, the spell the ocean casts, or that carnivorous fog I wrote about once that lures people in, but there’s something here that artists can’t resist. Add to that mix a constantly revolving door of exchange students, a sprinkle of ex-pats from all over the world (especially USA and Spain…), and you have a recipe for Valparaiso, one of the most consistently interesting cities in the world.
Boredom is not an option, and there’s never a lack of people to get to know. Jorge and I are active in the Couchsurfing community in Valparaiso, which brings even more interesting people to our door. To date, we’ve hosted poets, artists, chefs, and more, all of whom have appraised the views, the hills, the sunsets, the grit and sighed, “Ahhh, Valparaiso.”
On this particular Sunday Funday/Disfrumingo (our brunch attempt to combine the words Disfrutar/Enjoy and Domingo/Sunday), I met Rayelle, a young artist from Nebraska who came to conquer Spanish, and no doubt absorb the artistic essence that courses the streets of this city like rainwater down a hill. We got to look at her sketchbook — a delightfully intimate peek into another person’s brain, like reading their journal or catching someone behaving when they think they’re alone — and she gifted Jorge and I a drawing of our choice.

The symbol for the Sun, with hands. There’s something creepy and all-knowing in that dot in the middle.

Typical Valpo: Cluster of cables in every shot.

Overlooking Valpo from a different angle…this time, from Cerro Cordillera!

Jorge tries to catch a trolley before it drives off.

A view of the Valpo port, where an enormous cruise ship is docked. At first glance, it looks like a huge building. Because it essentially is one. Only, it floats.

Quite a successful DisfruminoSundayFundayNoFomingo. As I seem to be a crappy sightseer once I live in a place (my recent trip to Puerto Varas was another example of this; during our 3 days there, I did more sightseeing than I had in five months living there), this bright and beautiful day got my ass to a couple new areas and key touristic sights that might have otherwise gone un-visited.

Lessons in Valpo

“There’s a couple things you need to know about Valpo,” a friend said the other night, after we found ourselves whining about the city over glasses of wine. She’s lived here for years, and to boot is Chilean, so that gives her a certain correctness in complaining about the place, a respectability that I am unable to achieve as a freshly-minted ex-pat.

“They cut off the water,” she said, “and the garbage workers go on strike.”

Both of these ‘Valpo Highlights’ have been common occurrences lately. It started with the water. A couple weeks ago, I get a friendly message from a Chilean friend saying, “HEY. They’re going to cut off the water today at 6pm! It’ll be back the next day at 6pm. Make sure you save water! Besitos!”

[insert lengthy pause here]

I’m sorry, what? The water will be gone? Who is doing this? The city can’t CUT OFF the water. That’s impossible! 24 hours without water, for an entire city? Valpo, are you nuts? 

She was right. Come evening time, all faucets had been reduced to a sorry sputtering drizzle of droplets and then…nothing. The water was gone! Seriously, Valpo??? And without even informing your citizens!

The water came back around the next day as scheduled. But then, a week later, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. The same Chilean friend warned me in enough time for me and my roommates to get showers and stow plenty of water for coffee-making, pasta boiling and more. We’re 5 people in this house now, so it’s more critical to know in advance.

But wait, readers! There’s more.

Valparaiso is known for being rather dirty. Some describe it as ‘filthy.’ I would instead say it has a gritty charm. Sure, there are scrapes of dog poop on every street, the understandable clash between pedestrians and the enormous amount of stray dogs in the city. Wisps of plastic and paper float through the streets at all times, every day. Certain corners reek of urine, I won’t lie.

Common trash buildup in the city.
Is the trash just a physical expression of street art?

BUT IT’S VALPO! Half of it’s charm lay in the aura of port-city disrepair.

Garbage disposal is a bit different here. In fact, there’s a system that I still scarcely understand, seemingly composed mostly of word-of-mouth and blind faith. I will attempt to explain the system to the best of my ability, but please be aware that aspects of this may be wildly inaccurate.

For starter’s, you don’t need to call a trash company and pay for service, because there just IS trash service in Valpo. On certain nights, you must leave all of your trash on your front stoop (or at a designated point outside your building if you live in a place with multiple houses/apartments). But not EVERY night, because they only come certain nights, and this information is only available by asking your neighbors. When you wake up, the trash will be gone. People appear in the night to whisk it away, though I’m still not sure if this is accomplished via truck pickup, hired roaming hobos, wild packs of dogs, or obliteration via laser from some of those warships sitting in the harbor.

At any rate, the trash disappears. Usually.

Because sometimes the garbage pickup workers (or hobos, or dogs, or laser beams) go on strike. Which means that all of that unsightly trash you left on your stoop at night will still be there in the morning. And then it bakes all day in the sun. And then the dogs come and poke around. And then one of them finds a hole and steals all of the remains from your asado the other night, leaving a trail of asado scraps and other awkward things you threw away knowing nobody would ever see but is suddenly on display for a quarter mile outside of your house. Like those To-Do lists proclaiming a need for rugs, tampons and soy milk, and other notes to self like “FINISH THE NEW WEBSITE ALREADY”.

Garbage workers striking in Valpo is an annoyance itself, but what it does to the city is heinous. This week, they went on strike for maybe the second time since I’ve lived here. I noticed this only because during my noon-time walk through the city center, there were far more stacks and piles and crumbling pyramids of trash bags than in common. Usually, there are none — during the day. Night time is different, since that’s when everyone telepathically decides to toss, which makes for a striking visual difference depending on when you arrive to Valpo for the first time. Your first impression will be either gritty charm (prior to 8pm) or chaotic, heathen decadence (after 8pm).

The piles of trash lasted for a couple days, and then, governed by the same mystical forces that dictate the water shut off, everything was gone and clean this morning. Including all of my panicked To-Do lists and notes to self.

I’m happy to have water again, and a clean(ish) front stoop. I still don’t know when the garbage workers come — it doesn’t help that when I ask Jorge, who is the Bearer of Garbage Knowledge for this household, he responds “Monday, Wednesday, Saturday…no, no, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday. No wait….Monday, Thursday, Saturday” — but I remain strong in my faith that when I leave my tidy plastic bag of sundry trash on my front stoop, it will eventually disappear, whether by force of stray dogs or mysterious garbage workers that materialize during the night.

House Hunting in Valpo: An Update

Readers, as it turns out, putting up a post about the difficulty of finding a house in Valpo was all it took to seal the deal.

I must have offended the housing market on some level because the housing option #4 I mentioned in my last post turned out to be the One For Us. Not only did the deal seal easily, we didn’t have to fight, prod, poke, or otherwise manipulate to get it done. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little surprised.

I live in this house with my boyfriend Jorge and two others (another couple) — Martin and Amanda. We are officially residents of Cerro Carcel (Jail Hill…it’s not as bad as it sounds, really — it’s only named that because the old city jail was here until the city grew so large they had to relocate it further up into the hills. Now the old jail is a cultural center), on a little winding (and sometimes vertical) street that has an abundance of street art, greenery, and ocean views.

I am happy. We are happy.

HERE ARE SOME PHOTOS!!

My bedroom. Seafoam green walls, ample sunlight, and lots of room for writing, yoga and happy pondering.

The enclosed patio. The house came with mandalas painted onto the walls. That’s a pretty good sign, right?

Jorge, looking out from out front door to the Valpo scene beyond.

Our landlord is beyond cool — he is considerate, “green”, friendly and communicative. Furthermore, not only did the house come with mandalas (something I’ve been harping on for Art Nights here in Valpo for over a month), but it also came with a butt-baring gnome painted on the bathroom wall and a fully-loaded compost bin on the patio. SAY WHAT???? Oh — you mean the compost bin I’ve been lamenting leaving in Ohio for almost a year now? It’s here in front of my face? Okay. Fine.

On another note, the house is unfurnished, which seems like a problem in both financial and backpacker terms, but I’ll explain why it isn’t. Here’s a list for our listicle-oriented eyes:

1. We are 4. There4(fore), we are splitting costs 4 ways. MATH, I KNOW! But when you break down the basics — some sofas, a fridge, stove, washer, and various household accessories — and split it between 4 people, the price is quite economical. Plus everything is used and found via the equivalent of craigslist here in Chile. What it adds up to, for my math-deficient readers, is: Quite The Deal.

2. We signed a 6 month lease. This means we’ll be renting and living here for 6 months (obviously), but the cost of investing in Objects For The House evens out over time. In renting and investing in Objects For This House, I am still saving money overall compared to what I was paying for a furnished ROOM before.

3. We are transients. This means that while we are renting a house and settling in, it’s “for a time”. We have not closed the doors to future moves, endeavors, ideas or adventures. The 6 month lease can be extended if we decide, or it ends there. All of the Objects For This House are being selected with this goal in mind — that they are for our use, for a time, until we decide that we no longer want to be here — in Valpo, in Chile, in South America, etc. They can be resold, gifted, or left on the side of a street.

This venture in fact has been part of my overarching goal of the Ex-Patriot Drift: to go forth, to discover, to settle in, and then move on. To continually cultivate that which nourishes me, to find this source in new places, new settings…and then to let it go. I have long suffered from an attachment to Objects, Places, Routines and More. Part of my work here involves cultivating sacred home spaces, pouring love and attention and work into them, and then…leaving them.

This doesn’t mean, however, that my time anywhere has a limit. While my Ex-Patriot Drift includes various countries and cities over time, I do not have a plan. I feel the need to stress this, because what ultimately guides me is what feels right. If I end up staying in Valpo three more months or three more years, then so be it — if I’m following my heart, the wind, good consciousness or whatever you want to call it, that’s all I can ask for in this life.

In several more months, I will know what the next step will be. But for now, I’m excited to upcycle, recycle, compost, and create new collaborative works within the walls of this delightful house in Cerro Carcel.

And, for those of you reading who feel like buying a plane ticket to Chile, your room is already waiting for you.

House Hunting in Valpo: A Modern Day Horror Story

When I first came to Valparaiso, renting the temporary house of my dreams seemed like an attainable fantasy. There were room rental signs dangling from every telephone post in a 5 mile radius, spectacular views of the ocean and the surrounding city from almost every point in the city, and the university-centered city is no stranger to transients who rent and disappear. I found my current place within a week, signed the contract, and moved in.

Note: this is not where I live, but it qualifies as one of those
Long Term Ideal Fantasy Houses. Also I frequently go to this
yellow house and drink wine on the terrace. 

I’ve been living in my current apartment since April, and in this time I’ve come to realize that the next phase of my Chilean Living Situation is ready to begin. The reasons are varied.

At the risk of sounding whiny and totally hashtag firstworldproblems, let’s look at a summary of Why I Want To Move Immediately:

1. This place receives no direct sunlight. Not a big deal, until winter hits and sometimes the frigid outside air is warmer than your bedroom.
2. Things break on a mysterious schedule. Once the shower stops leaking, the calefon is down for a week (re: no hot showers), then the toilet starts running, followed by lights that just…stop working.
3. My landlord makes things up as she goes along. No, really. She does. When I signed my contract, I was told verbally that gas was included, to find out two months later that I had to foot the $100 gas bill myself, only to be told 2 weeks ago that gas IS included. That’s just for starters.
4. New rules appear out of nowhere. Most notably, in the form of a framed list that greeted me when I came back from the United States, including rules prohibiting the use of space heaters. The other day I was told we can’t have people over after midnight. It continues to get progressively dictatorial.
5. I want a friendly, private space. The setup of this apartment and it’s ever-increasing amount of rules creates a non-friendly, walking-on-eggshells environment. The energy of a special home space is important to me, which means not feeling like I’m going to be scolded at every turn for having a friend here at 12:03am or because they caught me using the space heater. Furthermore the landlord enters our house all the time, without knocking, without warning, and this tends to present problems when I’m either in a towel on my way to the shower or using the aforementioned illegal space heater.

All in all, renting rooms in Valparaiso is wildly utilized and the easiest option, but it means that you are first and foremost living in someone else’s space. Not just ‘borrowing’ it while you pay for it, like in the US, but honestly occupying someone else’s space with no real sense of inhabiting it. Back home, renting an apartment is like getting the only set of keys to a house and the landlord turns to leave and says, “Well, this is yours for a year, have fun! I’ll check back in 12 months” and then they disappear into the sunset and you only talk to them on Rent Day each month.

 In Valpo, my experience has been more like the landlord peeks her head in every couple of days to make sure the sofa still looks good and the desk isn’t being used for bread-making, and any infraction on her idea of how the space should be used is corrected via More Framed Rules. It reiterates the underlying theme: THIS IS NOT OUR SPACE. I am paying for my room — only. That means that my *cough* ridiculously overpriced *cough* rent allows me omniscient governance of my bedroom. Common areas are indeed governed by the Eye of Sauron landlord, however she sees fit, no matter how much my roommates and I agree that we like the table better over there or prefer to use the electric oven as opposed to the gas oven.

Hence the new and urgent search for a house. I began skimming classifieds several weeks ago, pleased at the amount of houses available in the area. This will be a breeze, I thought. Wrong.

My expectations aren’t that high, I swear. I’ll take the shanty on the right, even.
 Just as long as I have room for my yoga mat. 
Oh, and a patio and a view of the ocean. 
And spacious rooms. ….And lots of sunlight. 
(On second thought, I’ll take the yellow house pictured earlier.)

It seems Chile, at least in Valparaiso, has developed a lackadaisical renter’s culture. The U.S. is much more straightforward: see listing, visit apartment, sign contract and talk deposit, move in on set date. Here, the process is similar, but imbued with a lot more ambiguity and a ton of un-returned phone calls. I’m not entirely sure the house visits aren’t just a discrete psychological evaluation on the part of the landlords. I’ll go through each experience we’ve had and explain each frustrating and confusing demise.

House 1: Two story, master bedroom with balcony, 2 other bedrooms with panoramic sea view, huge kitchen back yard, asado area, beautifully remodeled, safe neighborhood, easy access to everything, and, the kicker, it came with a dog named Lola. AKA: Shannon’s Valpo Dream House.
Why it ended poorly: The landlords seemed happy with our situation and income, and we made a plan to meet Monday and sign the contract at noon. SCORE! Monday comes and they ignore our phone calls until 5pm. When we finally get them on the phone, they say they’ve decided not to rent the house. BUT LOLA IS WAITING FOR US!!!

House 2: Four bedroom, well-lit, brightly painted, no patio, wood floors, even closer than House 1, excellent safe neighborhood, and with a fun view of the downstairs neighbor’s bathroom.
Why it ended poorly: The house didn’t convince us; we kept it as a back-up option. Watching the downstairs neighbor take a piss seemed like a selling point at first, but we thought twice on that.

House 3: Very high up in the hill but doable, ridiculous amount of sunlight, amazing view of the sea, no patio, enormous living room and office area, 2 bedrooms, huge kitchen, safe neighborhood, huge rooms in general.
Why it ended poorly: The landlord was extremely kind and friendly. We left all our paperwork with him, in an effort to seal the deal and prove to him how responsible and serious we are. He assured us several times, enthusiastically, that we were first in line for the house. SCORE! We planned to meet Thursday and show the house to the other two roommates who couldn’t join us on the initial viewing. Thursday rolls around and he can’t meet up. Friday rolls around and he’s MIA. Finally we coax it out of him via text that he’s had a family emergency. We collectively feel bad about pestering him. Then later we find out he’s waiting on the response of a foreign family. We collectively feel slighted and bitter. We’d been demoted from first place without being informed, waiting to make other important housing arrangements based on this response. We are still waiting final word on this one.

House 4: Tucked into a little alleyway off of a fun, artistic road about halfway between House 2 and House 3, safe area, two bedrooms with good sun, 2 bedrooms with no windows, big kitchen/living area, indoor patio with sunlight, comes with artwork already painted onto the walls and an abnormally tiny entryway to the bathroom that opens up into a regularly-sized bathroom.
Why it ended poorly: To be determined

House 5: Right next House 4, a smallish but wildly stylish renovated apartment, stone walls, cozy kitchen area, 1 bedroom, and a huge terrace that made my knees go weak, also with a fantastic view of the ocean and ample sunbathing opportunity.
Why it ended poorly: To be determined

Houses 4 and 5 are currently up for grabs. The landlord seems great, and we once again have a plan to send him all our documents and await a decision. We are supposed to know by Wednesday. While we are excited and hopeful, we are all very aware that this could end poorly.

A friend in Valpo once told me, after learning about our search for a house, that it was a nearly impossible feat. I almost didn’t believe him, fully confident that the amount of listings I’d found online had to be indicative of an easy rental process. Furthermore, I thought the straightforward and relatively transparent rental procedure was common practice among first(ish) world countries.

But he’s right. Houses 4 and 5 may not be the end of the line, or anywhere close to it. The tapestry of confusing landlord behavior continues to grow evermore complex. Who knows when we’ll find that house that finally sticks to us. Until then, we are prepared for any amount of frustrating dead-ends, creative wheedling and incomprehensible disappearances on behalf of the landlords involved.

Valpo Photo Update!

Jill and I do things apart from writing, working, and making obscene noises…believe it or not.

Here’s some evidence for the non-believers!

Jill, just before a group meal at the ol’ Casa.
She is smirking because she is about to eat
vegetarian red bean stew and homemade German bread. 
ShanFace on a beach in Vina del Mar.
Satisfied due to outwitting the weather that, by all
signs that morning, should have sucked 110% more than it did.
Our first editing meeting in Valpo was mildly successful.
We were slightly distracted by the view and the ugly faces.

A stylistic pause for a picture during Wanderings
in Cerro Alegre. 

A whole crapload of pet food remnants.
Made epic by the graffiti of the Chile country code. 

“This isn’t degrading, right? I’m just standing how it feels natural.”

Views from the cemetery. 

Lock that crap up.

 
Jill and I during her first visit to Taco Tony’s.
Neither of us remember this photo.
(Just kidding – we half remember it.)

More wandering and street art in Cerro Alegre

Introducing: Valparaiso, Chile

Every person I talked to about Valparaiso prior to my trip north told me the same thing: “You…are going…to LOVE IT.”

When multiple people echo the same sentiment from a variety of sources (from total strangers to trusted friends), it’s hard to ignore it. Furthermore, people that know me down here tended to add, in a lower voice with a meaningful look, “Shannon, you will fall in love. It’s the perfect city to live in and be a writer.”

Okay, I thought. Fine. Let’s do it. Give it a go. I decided to combine my Birthday Easter Island trip with an exploratory mission to Valparaiso, stay there for a week and see what happens. I went prepared to hate it, but also prepared to love it. Really, I was open to whatever. I had a loose plan to move to Valparaiso post-Puerto Varas (god knows I’m not sticking around for the frigid winter down here), so I was hoping I’d fall in love like everyone was certain I would, but I was also prepared to come up with a plan B on the fly if I went and found out it was a miserable, disgusting, awful, dirty city that just didn’t have the charm everyone else saw.

So I went. I found Amanda in Santiago after Easter Island, we took a day bus to Valpo, and began our explorations.

The street art in Valparaiso is incredible, completely unique,
astounding, breathtaking, and poignant. Not to mention really freaking cool.
 
The first thing I noticed about Valpo was twofold: the sea air, and the amount of people. We had arrived to a big city, with buses, people filling the sidewalks, tall buildings, and that unmistakable energy of a port city.
Valparaiso is dangerous, huh? I guess we’ll wear our thug faces to ward off attacks.
 
Valparaiso is centered around the sea-level pleno, where most of the government buildings, banks, big commerce and the port are found. Then sprawling up and around that center, away from the sea, are the 42 cerros (hills) that give Valpo that sparkling, multi-colored, extremely vertical backdrop. Based on my world travels, I would best describe the city as a Guanajuato, Mexico -style Vertical Venice. Add in a healthy dose of collaborative art that covers almost 90% of the city, a bustling port that lends a certain grit and open-sea worldliness, and you have Valparaiso.
The street art serves a purpose. It’s not just for shock and awe,
it’s to prevent the taggers from defacing the buildings.
People hire artists to cover their outer walls in order to
avoid that messy, sporadic tagging common to big cities.
 
What Valparaiso accomplishes, perhaps without intending to, is a small-town feel within a relatively big city. Valpo isn’t the biggest in the country – it’s about the 6th biggest city, and Valpo proper has around 300,000 residents – but it’s big enough to have veganism options, while still retaining an easy-to-understand city layout. By day four there I felt I had a grasp on where I was going. At the close of week one, I was directing others how to get around. That doesn’t include the cerros, necessarily – those, in fact, can be quite confusing and irritating to navigate, especially once you get off the beaten track and decide to “try out the staircase” in a particular area. Chances are you’ll end up several streets over from where you intended, and Amanda and I found an actual vertical street on our trek to Pablo Neruda’s house one day. I’m not sure how cars kept all four wheels on the ground. Driving in Valpo is not something I’ll be trying. Ever.
Valpo girl? Almost.
 
As soon as I got to Valparaiso and realized that I would, in fact, love to stay there, live there, and perhaps base a writing career there, I set to work looking at apartments. I ended up finding a majority of the leads from signs posted around the touristy cerros. Valparaiso is a university city as well, so there is a constant flow of transients, both Chilean and foreign, coming to stay for weeks or semesters or years. There is a huge renter culture in Valpo, and it became quickly apparent that me finding a place to live for any amount of time would be no problem. All that remained was finding the right place to live.
Calle Ecuador – the nightlife hotspot.
With over 20 bars to choose from, this street is
hopping pretty much every night. And the drink specials never end.
 
Being an American from a relatively small town, I am highly acclimatized to privacy, ample living quarters, and quiet. The Chilean style, however, is quite different. It seems most families will rent out rooms in their house to students or transients, welcoming the flow of new faces and energy without a second thought. I’m not sure if the primary motive is extra income, the feel of a full house, or both, but I definitely have found that most Chileans prefer to live with others, even complete strangers, as opposed to living alone. I quickly shed my original idea of “finding an apartment to myself”. Maybe someday, when I can afford to buy out a whole house to myself, but for now, shared living it is. I checked out four places before I found the one that, after 20 seconds, I said, “LA QUIERO” (I want it).
My new bedroom, complete with two windows, a desk, a bookcase, and a closet.
Not to mention a sweet view of sprawling, sparkling Valparaiso.
I EVEN HAVE A DOOR! A step up from Puerto Varas, for sure.

Being that I’m a 2__ year old lady, I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel confident in demanding a certain something from my living situation. No longer can I cram myself and my belongings into an unforgivingly small cube of a dorm room (unless it’s a hostel, and only for a few nights); no longer will I go for the cheapest option, conditions be damned (unless, again, it’s a hostel, and only for a few nights, and I’m broke); and furthermore, I have NEEDS- space to lay my yoga mat, appropriate sun for meditation/contemplation, a desk for my laptop and work environment. My bedroom is my office essentially – for nonprofit work, for writing articles, for writing novels, for translating and copyediting – so having the room to breathe, think and work is crucial. I know this now because I haven’t had it since I moved to Chile. And now, I’m demanding it.

Amanda makes herself comfortable on the couch in the shared living room.
Bad Chilean soap operas come included with the cost of rent.
 
Valparaiso is cool because it’s a gritty, artsy port city, but other lifestyles are within easy reach on the same coastline. Just 10 minutes away from Valpo Center sits Vina del Mar, a newer, slightly classier city that caters more to tourism and family life. It features taller, bigger apartment complexes, better beaches, and fancier options…essentially the Small Suburban Brother of Valpo. In fact, that’s where American tourists may be pleased (or dismayed) to find both Ruby Tuesday’s and Starbucks. (I, for one, was thrilled to visit Starbucks. I never imagined I’d be so excited for drip coffee. When I get back to the States, I’ll boycott it again I promise.)
On Renaca beach, just a bit beyond Vina del Mar.
A father and child in the evening sun on Renaca beach. 
 
Valparaiso used to be Chile’s number one port city; it’s still one of the most important seaports in Chile, but now the seaport of San Antonio takes the number one spot. The influence of the sea-faring life in Valpo is palpable; open-air seafood markets abound, the smell of fish and sticky salt hangs on the coastline, and amongst the hostels in the city center it’s hard not to run into a sailor or two. In fact, on the last night in my first hostel, I recorded English phrases for a Chilean ship captain who was taking a test to obtain certification to sail internationally; one important aspect being able to announce things in English to both passengers and other ships. It was fun getting a look into the life of  sailor, including some of the terminology unique to ship captains. The guy was really friendly and took the time to explain why they say certain things, how the ship is laid out, etc. He’s also traveled quite extensively around Chile and we talked (actually, gushed) for a long time about Easter Island.
View from our walk toward the Pablo Neruda house/museum.
 
Looking up the ascensor Reina Victoria,
which passes right next to my NEW PATIO!
 
Another thing Valparaiso is famous for is the abundance of ascensores, the cable cars that lift you from one level of the city to another. It’s helpful for avoiding the sometimes-vertical and always-rigorous climbs up the winding streets. I still wonder how the hell anyone managed to build a city on these hills. The houses are so jampacked and sprawling, it’s a curious feat to think how many people per square mile are stuffed into the houses on the hillsides. I think this also lends to the small-town feel of the city: you don’t have to go far to get from one end to the other, but there sure are a lot of bodies in between!
Wandering around Cerro Alegre, one of the best-known tourist areas.

I am thrilled to consider myself a resident of Valparaiso soon (even if the government of Chile might disagree with the term ‘resident’). I plan to move by the end of the week, with all of my belongings in tow, and begin inhabiting my new space in Cerro Alegre. It’s not hard to see why Pablo Neruda loved the city so much, nor why he used it so extensively as inspiration for his works and poetry. I plan to be extracting the same creative juices from the air and the sea. Let’s hope the Valpo sights, smells and sounds can similarly infuse my words with that special, time-transcending, port-city magic.


Check out The Best Travel Backpacks before your next trip! Especially if you’re on your way to Chile, or want to swing by Easter Island, I always go with Lonely Planet: Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island (Travel Guide)