Chilean sojourn

On a visit to two of Chile’s cities, Maya Jayapal gathers historical wartime anecdotes and writes about the antics of the literary gaint, Pablo Neruda...


Is it possible to gather so many impressions in a country after a brief three-day visit? Obviously it is, and even if I had not been so much in love with Pablo Neruda, I would still have had a yearning to go back to Chile.

We were at the tail end of a South America trip, having traversed, again briefly, brash Brazil, elegant Buenos Aires and beautiful Patagonia with a totally inert day in Uruguay. Chile came as a starburst, mellow yet shining, with a hint of cinnamon from its trading days. We visited only Santiago (Chile’s capital) and Valparaiso with a quick run through Viña del Mar, called the ‘spoilt daughter of Valparaiso’, but there are sufficient impressions in my mental kitbag to create a landscape that I would gladly experience again.

Square story

The city’s European heritage is evident in its central square called the Plaza de Armas, or the Weapons Square, which lies about five blocks south of the Rio Mapocho, which bisects the city, according to our guide Maria Elena, she of the tumbling locks, superb self-confidence and slightly risqué humour. The square is a nest of tree-lined paths, shady palms, small squares and interesting buildings of political and social significance. Spanish colonial conquistadores laid out their settlements in a military grid around a plaza. It is said that people took refuge here during wars and were supplied with arms to defend themselves.

It was bustling at that time of the evening, when a motley crowd of people were gawking, hawking goods, watching, or just being watched. There soapbox orators were wooing curious crowds, garrulous old men were passing the time of day or sitting lost and hunched in their own memories, impressive horsemen (police?) as regal as the statue of the founder Pedro de Valdivia on his bronze horse in the middle of the square, bystanders looking at the giant Madonna drawn on the ground by an artist. Meanwhile, the impressive buildings around the square stand like silent sentinels, the church with its opulent altars and statues glistening palely in the dark, the pastel pink post office and the museum that had an Indian man as its guard.

Valparaiso was a different picture altogether, with its winding stairways and paths, its colourful houses and its fantastic views of the ocean. Valparaiso talked to me through its musicians sitting on the floor, with silver Indian anklets faintly tinkling in the air, drumming on metal wok-like vessels with indentations, its shops with art objects, the invariably blue lapis lazuli jewellery, the art galleries, all with their own enchanting, limitless views of the sea. And, wherever we went the faintly erotic Guantanamera strain followed us. 

The mural-lined crooked streets of Valparaiso were something else. A two-and-a-half hour drive from Santiago, the booming port was left to rust and wither after the Panama Canal changed route in 1914. Today, its 2,64,000 residents cling to the old-world architecture and steep streets of the South American San Francisco. And if you are tired, you can take the city’s iconic funiculars.

Graffiti has become a fine art to represent raw talent; tortured faces, a cup of wine balanced on mammoth breasts, one solitary foot, huge and ornately decorated and in between, a curiosity to my eyes, mantras in Sanskrit. The explanation was vague and yet possible. Indian sailors visited the beach here when ships stopped over.

Writer’s den

The biggest lure of all, which I missed, was Pablo Neruda’s house. There is a charming story about how he came to build it here. During his dangerous years of hiding with a poor sailor, a plan was hatched whereby he would have a suit stitched in the style of Rhett Butler’s in Gone With the Wind. So, when he stepped off into Ecuador, where he was originally intended for, he would look like a distinguished gentleman. The plan was scrapped, but Neruda fell in love with the city. The rest is history.

It’s a series of hills arising from the sea, and the houses seem to cling to the hill-side, a cluster of blue, rust and ochre houses with dramatic murals on every street. Neruda’s house is in the middle of a ring of hills and looks as if it were thrown and landed precisely there. It resembles a ship, narrow and serpentine, with many corridors. The city tugs at the heartstrings in just three days. Like MacArthur, I shall return someday.
 To quote Neruda:
I went to the window: Valparaiso opened aThousandTrembling eyelids, the nocturnalSea air entered my mouth,The lights from the hills, the tremorOf the maritime moon on the water,Darkness like monarchyAdorned with green diamonds,All the new repose that life offered me.

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