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Life in Valparaiso

Cereal x Vintage

In September of last year, we ran a travel writing competition, the Chatwin Project, in partnership with Vintage and Moleskine. Published below is the winning entry, titled "Life in Valparaiso", by Zoe Baillargeon.

The house on Nun Hill has five locks. Seven, if you count the two deadbolts on the front gate. Eight, with the standard lock on the iron grille. Twelve total, factoring in the back door locks as well. “Don’t worry, it’s just to be sure,” Tio says, handing you a set of keys to rival those of a groundskeeper. You triple-check every lock that first night. A dog howls. You shiver in your house of many locks. Welcome to Valparaiso.

The house on Nun Hill was built by a Spaniard fleeing Spain to escape a seminary destiny. A wanderer, a seeker. So, he built his home on Cerro Monjas: Nun Hill. A tad ironic. The hill has two churches at the bottom, and another two hills over within eyesight of the house. The wandering Spaniard became a cobbler instead.

The house on Nun Hill is twee, red, and unblemished by earthquakes. It, like most houses here, is built into the side of coastal hills that roll down from the Andes and bunch up against the shore like a scrunched-up rug; a frozen ripple. You get the impression that one good shake could send all the houses sliding into the sea. The living room walls are an anemic tan color, the bedroom a hostage-situation green, the bathroom and kitchen cramped. The cracked indoor drywall is the favored abode of Chile’s speedy and highly venomous corner spiders. If you think you’ve been bitten by one, don’t think. Go to the hospital.

The house has a tendency to collect black mold, and is frigid during winter and sweltering during the summer. You’re told that the rats are huge here and sometimes swim into homes through the toilets. You perch above the rim for weeks after receiving that fun piece of information.

Happiness lies further up the hill. La Felicidad, the local botilleria, open til all hours, shelves stocked with dusty bottles of pisco and wine alongside instant noodles and bags of chips. Many neighborhood drunks do find that happiness lies at the bottom of a bottle.

You become the neighborhood gringa, the stranger in the area where everyone knows everyone. But you don’t mind the whispers and glances. You got what you wanted. You wanted the house. You wanted it for the view. And such a view. Hills and ocean. Houses and light. You jangle the keys, admiring your dirty, ragged kingdom by the sea. The house on Nun Hill is yours, for now.

Valparaiso is called the San Francisco of South America. It has forty-two hills, which are really just five or six big hills with offshoots and appendages — terra firma tributaries. But forty-two sounds more impressive. Better for tourists.

You can tell the city used to feel important. It used to be the biggest port in South America, but then the Panama Canal happened. Now it sags against the hills, weary and abandoned by progress. Trash piles up on street corners, certain neighborhoods are avoided at night, and the city either can’t or won’t pay to restore its earthquake-shaken churches and monuments. But in the old buildings, in the artwork, the sunburnt smiling faces of the porteños, you glimpse the surviving beauty, like jewelry that just hasn’t been cleaned in a while. A little shine here and there.

The hills each have their own names, their own personalities. Like characters in a play, they’re an ensemble, but each serves a purpose. Nun Hill is unprepossessing and quiet, the wallflower that is also the bedrock. Solid and reliable.

You love Valparaiso for its houses. Germanesque, covered in brightly painted corrugated iron that pings in the rain and crinkles shadows like an accordion. The houses curl around streets like cats. Bunch together and then unfold like a pop-up book.

From your balcony, you can see all of it. To the left is the port, with its giant cranes that loom over cargo ships Legoed up with shipping containers. The Chilean Navy keeps a berth there — grey ships spiked with guns that look like bathtub toys from this distance. When their jewel, the Esmeralda, comes home from her tours, there’s such a hoopla. Every boat in the harbor lays on their horn.

Shift the gaze slightly left from the port and you see the tourist area, Cerros Alegre and Concepcion. That’s where they have the street art, the cobblestones, the best preserved historic houses (graffiti-free, of course), the views of the rainbowed hills, fanned out on both sides. The lethargic funiculars still run for the tourists, crawling up the hills, creaking ominously. This is the memento section, the exit through the giftshop. The snowglobe of the past; clean, pretty, contained. Everything just so.

There is another Valparaiso; a town in Indiana. Landlocked. You want to go there someday, just to see what it’s like. A Valparaiso of suburbia; dogs on leashes; “howdy, neighbor!”; high school football. Ticky tacky. Hillsides of little boxes, side by side, hugging, bunched together. You have hillsides of little boxes here too — just different boxes. A world apart.

A Valparaiso with no uncontained artwork that erupts on walls; no delicious but questionable street food, no Spanish that spills from the mouth like water. That’s not Valparaiso. Your Valparaiso. It couldn’t be as colorful. As vibrant. It couldn’t have the salt and wind and screech of gulls. The vibrancy and hunger. The stench of history and fish. The quintessence. You love the Valpo outside your window. You can never know it fully, never take it to bed. It’s crazy and bohemian and oh-so real. The city feels like a Joni Mitchell song: ethereal, melancholy, hopeful.

Back to the view. To the right are Viña del Mar, Reñaca, Con-Con; resort towns with nothing really of distinction except money, streets free of dog shit, and Western chains. Good for homesickness, bad for assimilation.

Directly in front of you at the bottom of your hill is a factory that makes instant coffee. When it releases its steam twice a day, the hill is drenched in its sharp, acrylic scent. You didn’t know this at first; you just thought one of your neighbors really liked instant coffee. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. Most Chileans do.

Also below you: a grid of old houses and apartment buildings with full-color ads on their sides, several small plazas, an old theater that is now a trinket market. A panaderia, fragrant with marraquetas and berlins. Pharmacy, grocery store, street vendors hawking nearly anything you could need to survive.

Beyond all that, the ocean. Chilled and cobalt blue, shivering in the eucalyptus wind. The fastest way up the hills is to take the stairways, squeezed between houses. There is a saying in Chile that women in Valparaiso have the best legs and potos from walking up and down the hills. You believe it. Your legs and ass have never looked better.

The houses on your hill, Nun Hill, are lived in by families who’ve been there for generations. They keep to themselves, like most Chileans do. But they are kind, and don’t party too late. Whenever there is a soccer game, you know if there is a goal or a foul based on the shouts and screams. Once, the house across the way hired a jazz quartet for a summer party. You sat outside, drinking wine, and listening to jazz under a starry night sky while looking out at the city spread before you like a miniature train set with lights and moving parts, and it was one of the most contented moments in your life.

There are street dogs here, like most places in Chile. They tear into garbage bags and in the morning the neighborhood has to walk past its own refuse, strewn in the street. There can be no secrets, no hidden vices.

Most of the street dogs pick barrios and stay, adopted by the whole neighborhood. Our neighborhood had such a dog for a while. Her name was Coca. A tan and white mutt. We all gave her food, water, and made her shelters in our yards from the rain. She would run up to greet us on the street when we came home, tongue lolling. I still wonder what happened to her.

It’s easy to be jaded by Valpo. It wears at you. The sense of feeling left behind, neglected. But that was the point, wasn’t it? You can fall between the cracks here, like the man who built the house on Nun Hill. You can hunker down, watch the world go by. The beautiful, crazy, chaotic world, brought on churning ships; you watch it all from your balcony, on the hill that smells like instant coffee, in the little house that protects misfits and outcasts.

In Chile, they have a word for you. A patiperra. A wandering dog. A wanderer. A traveler. You left a home before. You savor the freedom, the lack of a leash. You scratch your itches and seek somewhere different for new food, new people, a new you. Lift your leg against a street lamp and call that patch of concrete yours. But even a wandering dog likes to find a home every now and again. That’s why you found yourself here, in the house on Nun Hill.

Life in Valparaiso
Life in Valparaiso

Further reading