Monday, 6 June 2011

Isla Negra and Valparaiso

Getting to the Central Bus Station couldn't be easier from where I'm staying: fifty yards to the metro station Universidad Católica, then eight stops direction San Pablo and Bob's your uncle, you're there. Then again, time was on my side and I was really curious to have a look at Gustave Eiffel's Estación Central, just one stop before the Busopolis, so out I hopped. It is a jewel, beautifully symmetric and flanked with palm trees. What's more, it's tiny when you consider that Santiago is home to seven million people. The only services which run are suburban commuter trains and a line to Callán, about eight hours to the south. There's a special offer there for the equivalent of €15 return, so that'll be something to do the next time I'm here. Trains really are the soul of a country in the way that coaches could never be. Anyhow, in the absence of a good old push-me-pull-you to Pablo Neruda's gaff I decided to walk the one stop to the bus station, and it was then I was reminded where I was. As soon as I left the station area, the Third World hit me right between the eyes. Boarding the Avenida Bernardo O'Higgins were rows upon rows of the kind of shops you see in documentaries about drug traffickers in Honduras or some such. The faces of the locals were etched with struggle and resignation, the majority of the shops crumbling or boarded up. The deafening roar of the traffic and the exhaust fumes were overwhelming, even at 9.30 on a Sunday morning. My blond hair and comparative tallness started to get the odd, questioning look so I did what I always do in these types of cases: I walk around as if I owned the place. You'll be amazed how people will leave you alone if you seem to know your way around. I reached the bus station not a moment too soon and got a return ticket to Isla Negra on a Pullman bus which was leaving five minutes later. If you've never travelled by bus in Chile (they're actually what the British call coaches) then I have to tell you it's a delightful experience. The stock is new and clean, the service courteous and punctual. My three-hour round trip cost €10 (CLP$7000) and there was even a bonus later on, but I'll get to that, later.

I settled down into my comfortable seat and the bus drew off. We went through the run-down western suburbs of the city before hitting the motorway and the sun decided to come out. The landscape could have been around Barcelona or Los Angeles, it was absolutely identical. You still get the feel of being amongst the pioneers when you see the little bodegas by the side of the road; wealth, here, is unequally distributed; you've got Mayfair and Thamesmead with little in between. After stopping at a few almost Wild West-like towns we got to Isla Negra at around 11.30. It's a village composed of a main street with shops and restaurants, virtually all the housing overlooking the sea. A little sign indicating a dirt track showed me where Pablo Neruda's house was, so off I set:

It's not a David Bailey, I know. The house was a little further down:

That's more the little café-restaurant behind. The light was dreadful. Here's another view of the house:

The original house, to the left, is only about 70 square metres, so he built the 'boat' on the right to house his collections of pretty much everything known to mankind: shells, ships in bottles, masks, butterflies etc etc. Goodness only knows when he found the time to write. The coastline is ruggedly attractive:

...even if it doesn't compete with the Giant's Causeway or the Amalfi Coast. Our guide was excellent, really taking time to explain everything and answer as many questions as we could come up with. I got Mrs. F a collection of his poems, the Antología Fundamental, which is as good a place as any to start.

By now it was time for lunch. The restaurant looked quite good, but I wanted to try my luck with a local joint, so I hiked back up the hill into the town, and it was then the lustre started to fade. The only problem with the seaside is that it attracts chavs. This is the same the world over. I suppose in Latin America they're called 'chavez' and they were certainly out in force this afternoon. When all is said and done, it was a bit like having Dickens' house in the middle of Blackpool. Isla Negra is much smaller but the social and material detritus that seaside resorts excrete makes any stay beyond the absolute minimum complete torture for me. I found a little local restaurant, ordered my lunch and started to read the paper. The Chileans started to come in to eat around two o'clock and one particular couple caught my eye. It was a father with his maybe five-year-old son. The lad had a lollipop in his mouth and the first thing to appear on the table was a pair of bottles of Fanta. Honestly, love this country as I might, but they can't teach Britain anything about eating habits. It's a bit like a latino Rotherham.

It was still pretty early when I paid up and left so I decided to get the first bus going anywhere and then see later. Within ten seconds a bus to Valparaiso turned up so I decided to go for it, after all. I'd had a few gulps of good sea air and now the Gods had clearly decided it was time for me to live the romance of that grainy photo taken through the rain-lashed windscreen so many years before. The weather even tried to play ball: the first raindrops I'd seen since arriving started to run down the windscreen. I dozed off and woke up on the outskirts to Valparaiso, a seaside city, a cross between a shanty town and Malibu with the most enormous market running about half a mile east to west leading up to the central bus station. Walking around outside, I have seldom felt so foreign or so conspicuous, so I flipped into Russian oligarch mode. The amazing market continued into the main square so I wandered in to see what kind of bric-a-brac merits a price tag in this part of the world. For the most part, you could have been anywhere, but the amount of German books, magazines and artefacts on sale was rather fascinating, particularly as all the books were stamped as having belonged to the Deutscher Verein Valparaiso, the Valparaiso German Club. I bought a cushion cover and a stole for Mrs. F, both hand-made by a lady from the north, the stole being made of Alpaca wool. It's apparently a Chilean ruminant which is in danger of extinction. If you're unfamiliar with them, here are a few pictures:

The last one's just had a haircut, in case you were wondering. So, with a bit of local arts 'n' crafts in my bag along with a few more pairs of cheap socks and a hand of bananas, it was time to find the sea. Unfortunately, the most direct route to the sea was via Valparaiso's version of South Central LA, so I decided to just call it a day and go 'home'. I was hoping my return ticket from Isla Negra  would be accepted, but the bus driver was having none of it, insisting I buy another ticket. The nice chap at the booth agreed to change it, free of charge, for a single from Valparaiso to Santiago, so that turned out nicely. The bus was packed and I nodded off shortly after we pulled out of the station. One quick metro trip back to Universidad Católica and I was soon boiling the kettle for a welcome cup of tea. All in all, a lovely day out. I still don't know anything about Pablo Neruda aside from the fact he loved to collect things and clearly didn't see the best parts of Valparaiso, but there's time for all these things; life hasn't finished, yet.

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