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In Patagonia Day 43

April 1st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 43

In Valparaiso, the first time in a city for six weeks. Wandering Patagonia took me through a litany of fascinating but small towns—Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, El Calafate, El Chaltén, Castro, Puerto Varas, Pucón. Valparaiso is a true port, touched by the Beagle on its cruise with Darwin and visited by Herman Melville as a young sailor and also the port of origin for his fictionalized account of a slave ship uprising “Benito Cereno.” Today there are acres of concrete piers with multistory cranes casting long shadows over shipping containers stacked 10 high. The main part of the city is on a fairly flat band of land following the coast, looking very much like the earthquake uplifted land banding Wellington. There the high rises, corporate and government buildings, and warehouses fill in blocks relieved by the occasional park, including the imposing memorial in Sotomayor Square in the shadow of the Naval palace. I wandered through some of that area early Saturday morning from the bus, dodging the relics of some serious Good Friday debauchery. The port also accommodates tourists, and on this busy Easter weekend they swell the crowd.

I took the dollar harbor tour on one of the many elderly wooden boats (in some parts the paint was thicker than the wood). Though probably a city safety rule, it is a little disconcerting to see everyone wearing their life jackets before the boat pushes off from the pier. We coasted along the city to a point across the harbor where a decaying concrete dock provides habitat for some well-fed sea lions.

I’m sure they are oblivious to the fate of their ancestors at the hands of 19th century “sealers” like Amasa Delano, the other captain in Melville’s “Cereno” or the many inhabitants up and down the coasts pursuing skins and boiling blubber. Seeing the city from the water — as Ezra Pound would say “not as land looks on a map/ But as sea bord seen by men sailing”—shows how the city is formed and how the people live. Rising up from the lower level are a series of ridges, all covered with houses. Between ridges are deep ravines that effectively divide the city into segments. I walked up from the pier, climbing long steep stairs as the trolley was being repaired—many steep places are serviced by old vertical trolly cars—finding myself one ridge over from where I wanted to be, requiring my climbing to the very top of the high ridge and descending back into my neighborhood. Clearly affluence varies in relation to these different sections.

Superficially, this place that reminds me of Lisbon or Porto. Big fishing towns facing an ocean to the west, built on cliffs and steep hills making interesting levels. But some cultural differences make the comparison complicated. As always I found the best brew pub, and later a good seafood restaurant. The beer was great (including Jamaican Dream IPA which was green, really strange tasting and maybe a real 4/20 beer). And the fish was wonderful, but the staff in both places moved at a frenetic pace. Of course this is a holiday weekend and the city is packed with visitor (primarily from Santiago), and I understand the need for good, quick service, but both places made me nervous, wanting to finish quickly so the jumpy staff could fill the table with the next party. In Portugal, your table is yours—no one will hustle you out the door. The pace of life there is human, not economic. Perhaps I’m being unfair as it was a busy time, and I do love this city, particularly its out-of-kilter structures, sidewalk life, and of course the murals—pure delight.

T. Hugh Crawford