Reflections on Valparaíso from Afar

We were introduced to the city under thick grey cloud. It presented a dismaying vision of ramshackle shabbiness and disorder. In bright sunlight the place is transformed. It’s still the higgledy piggledy city but now it’s playful. The crowds of houses tumbling down the big steep hills look as if they were built by some giant kid with coloured blocks idly amusing themselves and seing how high and how precariously they could pile them before they topple over.

The graffiti is all over the place. Everything from a hasty and arcane calligraphic spasm to a carefully planned and executed mural ten storeys high. The effect is cumulative. You feel the individual items were never meant to be seen in isolation. They make up one whole oeuvre covering the entire city. The colours clash then harmonise with the blue sky. A dizzying perspective is accentuated by the lines of one mural, negated by another. A chasm of a passageway is painted vibrant viridian to frame the coloured houses beyond.

The graffiti’s improvisatory style is carried on by the houses themselves. Their kaleidoscopic colours add to the visual feast. The hillsides are bewildering mosaics. Everywhere there are clashes or compliments of colour. At sunset the dying light harmonises them. The panorama around the bay becomes a subtle pastel nocturne in pinks and mauves. In the morning sun they are energised and squabble youthfully. When you pass cafes and shops you are frequently accosted by music much of it, unsurprisingly, latin dance music. You can convince yourself that the colours of the city pulse in a kinaesthetic empathy with the ambient beat.

Dogs wander freely throughout the city. At first the sheer number of them is daunting. But this is no feral pack of urban sub-wolves. Almost all look well fed and groomed. Some are well dressed dogs in coats. There are even dandies in chic collars, cravats and bandanas. They are almost always amiable and laid back. They may show interest in you but it is open-minded curiosity. They are not xenophobic. Only on a couple of occasions did they show any aggression towards us and that was mild and short lived. An unfortunate but necessary canine formality one felt. These are people-oriented beasts as I suppose they have to be. Wherever there is a throng of people there is an accompanying layer of dogs. That is a better term than pack which suggests the active and purposeful. Your Valparaíso dog has neither of those vices.

Cats are present too. Not in the same numbers and not on the street. We saw remarkably few cats at ground level. That stratum is sewn up by the dogs, it’s their turf. The cats’ ecosphere is, by and large, several stories up. They play at Where’s Wally as you look down from some viewpoint onto a chaotic perspective of roofs. They can be seen making perilous traverses on high ledges. They peer down with serene disdain from high windows. On at least one occasion we saw a cat contemptuously taunting a group of dogs fenced in a yard. We did see one smartly turned out calico cat sitting with great self possession outside a shop near the naval museum. Possibly a retired sea cat. He was very well turned out, ship shape and Valparaíso fashion you might say. But in general dogs hold the streets, cats the rooftops.

There is a joyfully vagabond army of young street artists and artisans. A freemasonry of bearded, guitar players, freewheeling girls in many colours, urban gypsies truanting, one suspects in many cases, from their middle class upbringing. Most are darkly tanned and tattooed. Baubles, bangles, necklaces and beads. And a very often a folding table and perhaps a folio for these are aspiring commercial folk. They sell geometric, neat colour-in fantasy cityscapes. Dream pictures with dream animals. Ethnic jewellery, much of it very attractive if a little pricy. The older generation of artists seem to specialise in neon hued perspectives of the tumbled city and its bay. Obviously the tourist is the target. In sharp contrast to the capital not a jugo de naranja seller is to be seen.

The funiculars are living fossils. All polished old wood and metal with the paint worn away and clickety old turnstiles. Everything a little, shaky a little creaky. You pay your $300 and take a seat on the wooden bench. Wait while the Chilenos come from the street to fill it up. Smart businessmen in grey suits, shiny black shoes and fashionable check scarves. A long haired youth very quiet and polite with a striking profile who one could easily imagine in Hernán Cortés’ ranks. A fashionable city girl whose face might have come from an Aztec monument glued to her phone. An older, somewhat more substantial señora with her shopping. The rusty rails rise in front of you at a fierce angle. A shake a judder and up we go. The motor’s vibrations transmitted through the traction wires. These looked thick and strong when we got in but as the street falls rapidly away and the sunlight fills the cabin they take on a rather flimsier look. Then the rooftops fall away and other steep streets come into view. Then you’re at the top. Old wood and iron and the turnstile’s clickety-click. You exit onto another level of the colourful mosaic.

There are the unexpected views you get in any steep place. Leeds and Scarborough have this quality. You turn a corner of a dingy, everyday street and are suddenly presented with a splendid vista. The Castle headland in Scarborough. A dramatic cloudscape over the Aire Valley in Leeds. In Valparaíso it happens with dizzying frequency. At every turn another steep perspective up or down, Another burst of colourful graffiti, a chasm-like alley framing an impossible tumble of buildings on a precipitous hillside. And always a glimpse or more of the sea, the great sweeping bay and the blue sky.

The cafes and restaurants are a treat to walk into. All those we visited even the ones in dodgy looking areas with slightly grotty exteriors and languidly prowling perros were clean, neat, welcoming. The people serving were quietly courteous, genuinely friendly and willing to help. They were delighted when Alison spoke to them in Spanish. Willing to speak slowly if necessary and explain subtle points of the language. The coffees and food they served were generally very good or excellent, the prices nothing exorbitant. They seemed to regard themselves as ambassadors for the city.

The stark contrasts are extreme here. In all cities now you have a juxtaposition of the well off and the poor. The sumptuous and the grotty. The salubrious and the shitheap. An affluent area is a block away from one that is poor and derelict. Perhaps this is exaggerated in South America. There are fine houses here, well tended gardens big cars, prominent security systems and these are cheek by jowl with depressingly decayed houses or even ones which have just fallen apart and are rotting like teeth in an otherwise healthy mouth.You don’t have to walk a block, they’re side by side.

But there are concenratrations of poverty too. The hills on which the city are built are cut by many steep ravines. These are frequently infested by fantastic structures of corrugated iron in various states of oxidation and salvaged wood of all descriptions. These are augmented by recycled pieces of metalwork which have undergone a kickstart program as railings for balconies or stairs, external clothes horses, mini alotment fences. Their appearance on the steep slopes is fantastical. Kublai Khan’s Xanadu in its anti-manifestation. Planning? Health and Safety? Que? What are they? I would hesitate to enter one of these in any circumstances. In an active earthquake zone that people actually live here day to day is mind boggling.

Pablo Neruda’s house rises serenely above the chaotic mosaic of the surroundings. An anti-shanty. You feel that it shares the freewheeling spiritual outlook of the shacks in the ravines but has been executed with the panache of an urbane and sophisticated taste. Backed up by plenty of money of course.  Apparently its five stories afforded the best view in the city at one time. It has been overtaken by urban growth up the hill since the nineteen fifties but it is still magnificent in Neruda’s own quirky way. The man is a national icon and treasure of course. Perhaps his love of fun, fantasy, all things offbeat and the good things of life as well as his reflective outlook characterise the best of this chaotic and appealing oddball city.