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.

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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.

More Backstory….

This article gets at one of the main reasons why I fled the USA in order to live abroad: I Am Not My Job.

While I wasn’t coming from an area as ridiculously expensive as NYC, I find the USA to be expensive in general, and my life there included some necessary evils in order to maintain a functional, productive life. (cars, mainly).

I was in the camp that pursued the day job and relegated my passions to spare time. Which, as anyone with a semi-professional 9-5 can attest, means that you’re working far more than 40 hours per week, most likely commuting, and very little of that leftover energy typically goes toward passion-promoting activities. You just wanna sit the hell down when you have the chance.

Which is why my novels went untouched for years and my writing craft totally withered into a crusty shell of its former glory. My dreams were still there, but the time to accomplish them continued to evaporate as the years marched on. The majority of my available energy went into common domestic tasks, socializing with friends, and getting my yoga done (and not even religiously).

The move abroad was necessary for me to feel like I was finally getting a chance to focus. Ditch some of the responsibilities that felt, to me, like they were clogging my plumbing (insurance bills, car maintenance expenses, buying gas) instead of allowing safe passage of goals and inspiration. Some people can feel this way perfectly fine in their hometown or adult landscape. I, however, did not. I felt constantly “busy” and never “productive”, as the author mentions in her article. And I needed, desperately, to make a change to more productive and far less busy.

My move to Chile has afforded me this. In a huge way. Although it’s a relatively expensive Latin American country, my lifestyle costs are minimal, and I am for the first time living in a way that feels authentic to me. Now when someone asks me what I do, my answer is “I am a writer.” I still have a day job (though sometimes writing IS the day job), but the difference is that I feel confident and secure in responding this way because my passion has finally taken precedence in my daily life.

The author of the article says she doesn’t advocate that everyone move to the mountains like she did, but hopes that other young creatives can begin to consider different home bases as they seek to pursue their craft. And while I don’t think moving to the mountains (or the seaside…or South America…or Chile, for example) is hard and fast necessary, I DO recommend such a move. Move to the Catskills, or the Andes, or Costa Rica, or into a strange commune on the other side of the US, or into a distant uncle’s cabin in Oregon, or to the freakin’ Phillipines. Try it. See what happens. Because if such a move or adventure is possible, your creativity can only improve because of it. I did have to move my home base to be able to milk the sweet teat of creativity. And look at what has come sputtering forth: heinous analogies.

Now that I’ve got some of my creative goals underway and I know more of what it feels like to be living a creative life as opposed to waiting for the weekends to maybe re-visit that old story I stopped working on five years ago, I feel confident that I can someday come back to my home country and effectively be a creative writer.

Maybe not quite yet, though.

But someday.

Sharing Forks and Sitting on the Floor: Thanksgiving in A Vagabond House

I live in what I affectionately term a “Vagabond House”.

This is a house which is rented for 3 months or more (sometimes up to a year) by bonafide transients, typically (and in my case) foreigners without legal residency in the host country and with plans to move forward to some destination once said lease is up.

Due to the nature of the “vagabond house”, it doesn’t make sense to invest in too much furniture, because we’ll just have to sell it. We have a stove, a washer, a fridge, mattresses, and some left over surfaces from whoever lived here before. Also, we bought one couch and 12 plastic chairs.

Everything else we have in here was constructed by us (i.e. Jorge, or Martin and Amanda….okay, mostly just not me) from dumpster diving acquisitions: a side table which Jorge nailed together from disparate found pieces, which he and I then lovingly painted wild colors; multiple crates that now hold tomato, chard and kale plants; decorative items such as the rusty children’s bike that hangs suspended from our ceiling, etc.

While the Vagabond House doesn’t have everything in a material sense, it has everything we need. (Well, a real French Press might be nice, but…hey. Vagabonds can’t be choosers.)

But the key word there is “we”; the 5 of us that live in this house.

The Vagabond House doesn’t have everything to accommodate the oh, let’s say, 15 guests who are planning on showing up at your door for an Ex-Patriot Orphan Friendsgiving.

When my friend Peter and I were talking about Thanksgiving plans back in early November, it was a natural decision – yes, the feast must be here!  We have a very large house with an established reputation for fun times and hosting. Despite the lack of accoutrements for said wildly-large-Thanksgiving-feast, I told myself, “Hey. It’ll be fine. It’ll work out somehow.”

It was around one day before Thanksgiving that I realized that it might not actually work out. My guest list was 20+ people, with an established rule that “any American who doesn’t have a place to spend the holiday is welcome to come”, which meant that the 20+ people could swell considerably, depending on how many adrift Americans were found.

Aside from the 20+ guests, I realized something else: only 5 of us live in the house. Which means we bought/inherited our dinnerware based on this number. We have 4 coffee mugs, 9 regular glasses, and 2 wine glasses. There were less than 10 each of forks, spoons and knives; two pots for boiling water; one large casserole dish type thing that wasn’t a casserole dish but could be used as one; and one large bowl for mixing and serving purposes. Furthermore, we have 8 large dinner plates, 6 bowls, and one tiny plate that isn’t good for anything except, well, a pat of butter.

The math in my head went something like this: 6 + 5 + 9! / 17 – 4(x) + 33 =…..DRASTIC SHORTAGE.

The solution? Strongly urge people to bring their own cups. And silverware. And go buy a couple more casserole dishes.

I did these things, and on the morning of our Thanksgiving, we started baking and preparing extra early in preparation for the hassles of transferring dishes into holding bays while certain things were used and then unoccupied and then eventually re-transferred and…phew.

But I didn’t mention the best part—the Chilean stoves. Instead of clearly-defined temperature marks and an ability to know the difference between broil and bake, the Chilean Gas Oven features an infuriating knob with no lines, no numbers, and no indicator as to whether or not you are scorching the crap out of your casserole or just lightly heating it for 12 hours. “Turning it on” requires a terrifying 10 seconds of sticking open flame into two inconveniently placed holes where, once it lights, sometimes you can smell your eyebrows burning.

But you know what? Despite the shortage of items, implements and objects typically associated with Thanksgiving-Without-A-Hitch, despite not having an electric stove or any idea if I was baking at 245 degrees or 750 degrees….it worked out perfectly.

I made a literal vat of homemade mashed potatoes, the Bradford-Famous Corn Crop, AND vegan stuffing. Not to mention Amanda put TWO turkeys into the Chilean Thinly-Veiled-Inferno Oven, and neither were scorched, singed, or lightly caressed by heat for half a day.

Corn Crap Close-Up

It was a wholly successful Ex-Patriot Thanksgiving: made somewhat easier by the fact that the final count came to 17.

My general premise was as follows: any attending American should bring a homemade and/or beloved home dish, and all non –Americans bring something for drinking purposes. This way, we maintain the “typical food” of the holiday while nobody breaks the bank on supplying beverages for so many people. In addition to what Amanda and I created, we also were treated to the following dishes: a basic salad, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, bread pudding, cheesecake, home made bread, and pumpkin pie with cream. Oh – and a crap ton of wine.

Not too shabby, right?

I don’t know if I would have ever agreed to host even 17 people in the USA prior to moving abroad, much less the original estimate of over 20. I think I might have been too overwhelmed by a perceived “lack” of things for such a big number.

But this year, as I saw the number of guests climb and the number of dinner plates remain resolutely at 8, what became very clear to me was the following idea, which has permeated my life abroad as I follow the regular rhythms of life under very different circumstances:  if I have something to share and you have something to share, we can make something work. Thanksgiving 2013 proved to me just how far you can go with far less than what you’re accustomed to.

Sure, most of my guests were sitting on the floor (re: vagabond housing), leaning against the wall, or otherwise disobeying every rule your grandmother ever set forth for proper dinner etiquette on a holiday. I mean, for god’s sake, there was no autumn leaf-themed napkins!

But we were happy as hell. Delicious food, excellent company, and just enough spoons to go around.

Digging in!

Me and Chelsea went first — no need to delay, we Americans know what to get extras on first.

Happy International Orphan Friendsgiving!

And like every Thanksgiving in the States…there’s always leftovers, no matter how much you stress about feeding everyone. We had enough turkey and potatoes left over to have a Thanksgiving on the Ocean the next day!!

Thanks for a great GraciasDando, Valpo!

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.

De Vuelta: Chile

Hey readers – I’m back in Chile! This means that:

  1. Chilean Immigration Officials let me into the country without issue (this is always stressful, even though I am not smuggling drugs, do not intend to overstay any visas, and am extremely compliant when it comes to international law)
  2. I have an ample supply of red beans and Mr. Smith’s coffee to tide me over for a (short amount of) time, and
  3. I’m back to ex-patriot living!

Coming back to Chile presented an interesting internal conflict. I was sad to leave home, my family, my friends, the SUMMER, the excessive amount of To-Go coffee available and the ease of acquiring hummus (see previous post about Ex-Pat Livability Standards); but at the same time, I was re-energized and excited to embark upon continued South American Adventures. My time at home was a nourishing and much-needed break for me. I am totally invigorated and bursting with motivation and ideas for not only continuing life down south, but making it unbelievably great.

That being said, Chile was a bit salty about my Winter Avoidance Tactics. So upon my return, it had a few surprises planned for me. Just so that I didn’t forget what I had left in the southern hemisphere. Sure, fly home and go north for “the summer”,Chile muttered. But when you get back, I’ll make sure you remember how it really is down here.

Not actually Valparaiso, but, I mean, sometimes it feels like this. And maybe I’m living naked and half-frozen on that island. (I should quit complaining — I’m from Ohio for god’s sake)

Things Chile Passive-Aggressively Reminded Me Of Since Returning:

  • The freakin’ gas. My roommates and I have had a number of issues with the gas here at our apartment. There once was a week-long period where we bathed using the hot-water contraption (like, for warming up water for tea) and a crock pot. When I left, I thought the latest potential-gas-leak issue had been resolved. Upon my return, I found out that the gas leak issues had multiplied. We only had to go outside to turn on the pilot light for showers before – now, we have to open and close it for cooking as well. And if we forget to close it, the gas smell gets so bad that the neighbors come knocking. This makes me think twice about turning on the stove for re-heating my coffee. The landlord keeps saying someone will come to fix it. BUT WHEN?
  • The freakin’ winter. Yep, I’m wearing parkas again. And my hands and feet are frozen all the time. The daytime sunshine is lovely and conducive to wearing only a short sleeve t-shirt. But, lest you all forget, our apartment doesn’t receive direct sunlight. And since my return, I found out my landlord posted a new set of “house rules” that expressly prohibits the use of space heaters, which was my only link to sanity prior to leaving. *cough*………*looks around*…Sorry, but…I’m using my space heater.
  • The freakin’ water. Washing dishes and hands and faces with warm water is such a luxury. The country is very resource-conservation-minded, which is awesome. But when you’re already walking around as a relatively solid American Block of Ice, the thought of applying any of that frigid water to extremities is terrifying. Even if it’s just to rinse a glass.
  • The freakin’ Spanish. That’s right, my Chilean Spanish Skills dwindled ever-so-slightly while I was cavorting about in the northern hemisphere. Even a little rust on the ole Wheel of Spanish Comprehension is a dire forecast, especially in this country. But don’t worry, my ear is adjusting. Slowly.

All this might just be the whining of an American girl who left summer at its high point and is now back to wearing parkas in August. My return has been nothing short of spectacular – this first week back has been more jampacked with fun, events, activities and new people than my entire time in Chile prior. I made a conscious effort to start getting involved in Valpo, and the returns have been amazing. The amount of art, gatherings, communities and more in this city is incredible. Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve mingled with Chilean poets, seen impromptu live music sessions, seen a super chileno Musical Comedy that made me laugh so hard I cried, been to a yoga class, went to a wallet-making upcycle workshop, attended a Couchsurfing meet-up event where I met a whole slew of lovely people, and have been host to several group meals/asados in my home (the good energy and cooking helps warms the place up, too).

A group lunch featuring America, England, Germany and France.
Also featuring carrot ginger soup, garlic flatbread, 
avocado/tomato salad and Chilean wine.
 
Me and couchsurfer Karen went to a workshop and made 
some of these (ours are in the mix above).
They’re made out of old milk cartons, tape, 
glue, random decorations and love.
And of course, daring cats mixed with street art. 
It feels really good to be back, Chile. Thank you for receiving me with metaphorically-warm-yet-technically-very-cold arms. I am looking forward to spring, and maybe, just maybe, I can take off these winter socks sometime soon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying all these awesome people and energies. Deal?

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

10 Reasons Why I Will Probably Never Leave Valparaiso

The city is great, folks. I encourage everyone in my life, anyone I’ve ever met, all friends current and old and not-yet-known, to come visit me. And potentially move in with me. And join me for a vegetarian asado. Here are some reasons why this might just be the ex-pat haven I’ve been craving my entire life:

1. There are Ashtanga Yoga classes. Back in 2011, I started a state-wide search for Ashtanga Yoga classes in Ohio. The nearest option was somewhere in Cincinnati, a breezy 5-hour commute one-way. No thanks. I was appalled, as well, that the liberal oasis of Oberlin didn’t even have any options. I was even willing to commute to Cleveland once weekly just for a chance to be instructed in the rigorous ways of the Primary Series, exorbitant gas prices and all. No dice. Here in Valparaiso, I walk out of my cerro and ten minutes into the center and there is a wafish, taut man with exceedingly short shorts and a yogi beard waiting for me with Om’s, chants, and a precise knowledge of the Primary Series. SCORE.

2. Vegetables are cheap. And every Wednesday and Saturday, there is an enormous farmer’s market on the other side of town that sells veggies by the kilo for ridiculously cheap prices. Furthermore, there’s a man in a turban outside the supermarket on my side of town that sells whole-grain bread and soy burgers. We frequently lock eyes and I give him a silent nod of appreciation. Not to mention the variety of other alternative characters selling soy-based products on the street whenever I walk anywhere. SCORE.

3. This view.

PINK-HUED SCORE.

4. I do not need a car. Public transportation is good here – buses, taxis, etc – and walking distances to wherever I want to go are manageable on foot as well. It’s a biggish city, but it doesn’t feel like it. 15 minutes walking and you can get just about anywhere within the city center. (Some people roll around on bikes but let’s be real, apart from the 3-second downhill thrill of any ones of the cerro roads, that’s just crazy talk.) ECO SCORE.

5. There is a surplus of quaint, locally-owned coffee shops. This provides a revolving door of opportunities for me to escape from my daily life, hole up in a new (or frequently-visited) locale, sip super-strong coffee and immerse myself into writing projects. JITTERY SCORE.

6. The hilliness of the cerros is a natural work out. A recent Chilean acquaintance commented that the streets of the cerros in Valpo are so steep that by the end of your route you’re clawing your way up on all fours. This is pretty close to the truth. A natural byproduct of the terrain, however, is impeccable glutes. And damn fine hamstrings. MUSCULAR SCORE.

7. I am a $5 bus ride from Santiago. The capital of Chile sits about an hour and a half to the east — getting to and from the airport is cake, and daytrips to Santiago are easy and cheap (unless I spend a crapton of pesos on new clothes I don’t technically need)…..TRANSPORTATION SCORE.

8. Valparaiso attracts weirdos. I mean this in the best way possible. I consider myself among the weirdo ranks here, and I delight in all the colorful, oddly-shaved, sometimes-studded-and-leathered individuals I find wandering the streets here. There’s musicians, writers, poets, artists, students, sailors, businessmen, families, tourists, and more. Plus the punk scene is alive and well, which isn’t something I originally thought I’d care about, but whenever I see the punks roaming the streets it’s secretly thrilling, like a middle schooler wandering the halls of the high school and catching sight of all the cool seniors. Except these seniors have really pointy blue mohawks, clomp around in huge boots and maybe didn’t finish school or possibly participate in the underground anarchy network. DOUBLE SCORE WITH SPRINKLES ON TOP AND A SEPTUM PIERCING.

9. There’s a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs and bilingual people. On top of that, Chile has one of the best economies of South America. It’s growing, and fast. This is a great place to be an entrepreneur, and Chile attracts a lot of people looking to invest in ecological, engineering and architectural projects all over the country. The Puerto Varas area was huge for that type of entrepreneurial migration. Though I’m not looking to start wind farms or invest in the salmon industry, there’s a certain sense here that “if you want to start it, you can do it”. Something like the American Dream drifting south, new laws and regulations are being implemented that both support and foster new ideas in the business world, making upstarts and new businesses way easier to create than ever before. Furthermore, with the amount of ex-pats starting and operating businesses all over the country (and indeed, in many other areas of Latin America), it keeps my eventual coffeeshop/cafe flame going strong. This would be the place to try it, too. MEGA OPPORTUNITY AND POTENTIALLY LUCRATIVE SCORE.

10. I feel freakin’ good here. There’s really no explanation behind it except I feel at home here, and called to here, in a way that I haven’t experienced before in other cities and places. That could change – maybe in three months, or maybe in 30 years – but regardless, I’m going to attempt to make it here as long as I can/want/am financially able to/it makes sense. For now, all I can really do is follow that which feels right and natural. And that is to continue on here in the lovely Valpo. Something awaits me here…or maybe I’ve already gone and found it.

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)