Valparaiso Contrasts

When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Valparaiso on Chile’s Pacific coast was transformed from being a major seaport for ships voyaging between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to something of a backwater.

UNESCO recognised Valparaiso’s old quarter and its faded glory as a World Heritage Site and the city is undergoing a resurgence in terms of art, culture, education and tourism, as well as building on its maritime strengths.

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Attempts to describe Valparaiso promote contradictory observations. Perhaps the city is a contradiction.

Houses seem to tumble down steep slopes, literally sometimes. Those clothed in rusted corrugated iron adjoin newly painted ones of the brightest colours; faded opulent timber houses nestle ornately within very modest localities. Elegant cobbled streets and lanes join weedy and seedy ones. Locals use stairways and colourful ascensores (funiculars or elevators) to negotiate the slopes.

Colour is everywhere: painted buildings are joined by commissioned public art and random graffiti to provide a vast palette of hue, subjects and thought.

Danger hovers over Valparaiso, as the area is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city, four months after San Francisco was similarly razed.

My feeble attempts to encapsulate something of  Valparaiso have been saved by Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Noble Laureate in Literature, who wrote Oda a Valparaiso. Neruda was a sometime resident of the city, and a visit to his home (La Sebastiana) is a feature of experiencing Valpo.

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

VALPARAÍSO,
what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
hills,
that you never finish
combing.
Never
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
naked
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.
The earthquake caught you,
and you ran
crazedly,
you broke your fingernails.
The waters and the stones
the sidewalks,
the sea,
the night,
all were shaken.
You slept
on the ground,
tired
from your navigation,
and the furious
earth
lifted its waves
more tempestuous
than a marine gale.
The dust
covered up
your eyes.
The flames
burned your shoes.
The solid houses
of the bankers
trembled
like injured whales,
while above,
the houses of the poor
jumped
into the void
like imprisoned
birds
who test their wings
and fall to the ground.

Soon,
Valparaíso,
sailor,
you forget
about your tears.
You return
to hanging your dwellings,
to painting doors
green,
and windows
yellow.
You transform
everything into a boat.
You are
the patched-up prow
of a small
brave
ship.
The foamy crown
of the tempest.
Your ropes that sing
and the ocean light
that makes the shirts
and flags tremble
with your indestructible swaying.

Dark
star
you are
from far away.
In the height of the coast
you shine
and soon
you surrender
your hidden fire.
The rocking
of your muffled alleys,
the uninhibitedness
of your movement,
the clarity
of your seamanship.
Here I conclude
this ode,
Valparaíso:
so little
like a destitute
undershirt,
hanging
raggedly in your windows
rocking
in the wind
of the ocean,
saturated
with all
the sorrows
of your land,
receiving
the dew
of the seas, the kiss
of the wide irritable ocean
that with all its strength
beats against your stones.
It couldn’t
knock you down,
because within your southern chest
are tattooed:
struggle,
hope,
solidarity
and happiness
like anchors
that withstand
the waves of the earth.

(translated by Hermitina – http://hermitina.com/oda-a-valparaiso/)

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘V’.

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Published by

retrostuart

I like to travel while having a base from which to roam. Home is a small farm on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, where I grow organic vegetables and fruit, keep a few chooks (chickens) and Dexter cattle. The place offers some country peace and quiet, and wildlife, as well as quick access to the inner suburbs of the city for my regular contrasting visits. I enjoy walking, camping, swimming and snorkelling, photography, reading, listening to and playing music, and good food and wine. A major flaw in my character is being susceptible to sales of air flights.

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