Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Viña del Mar, Valparaíso, and Chile's central Coast

Strangers are friends you haven't met yet.

When I told a dear German friend of mine that I was going to be in S. America, starting off in Santiago, she immediately put me in touch with her friend Macarena and said we absolutely must meet, saying, among other things, that we are both nice and have had similar love lives. With that kind of recommendation, how could we not love each other? :-) Sure enough, meeting Maca was like meeting an old friend. An old friend with a beachfront condo in a place that was high on my list of "places you must go while in Chile".

View from Maca's place, Valparaíso on the horizon.
The big X's are the guard wire to keep people from falling
off the building.

Maca picked me up at the bus station in Viña del Mar following a two-hour bus ride that cost all of $4USD (my first experience with the South American Megabus system, and I was sold), and took me to her home which had incredible night views of the glittering coastline and we drank wine and swapped life stories.

The next day while Maca worked, I was let loose to explore the area. I took a local bus to Valparaíso, a city so unique a large chunk of it is a UNESCO world heritage site, with crazy colorful shacks and beautiful homes perched at all angles on the tens of hills that make up the port area. The place is an absolute maze of narrow alleyway staircases, funicular trains, steeply winding roads, box-like cheerful-looking dwellings, and incredible street art at every turn.

View over the Port of Valparaíso, looking toward Viña del Mar, the Andes towering in the background

Crazy, colorful, hilly Valpo
Street art adding to Valpo's color
A particularly cute street dog

More photos from Valparaíso in the Photo Album

Of course, I got lost on the way back. Not in the labyrinth that is Valparaíso, but on what should have been a perfectly navigable local bus ride back to Maca's house.

Substory: Bus Misadventure in Concón

Problem was, there are two routes to the village she lives in, and I took the wrong one. When the bus blew past what I thought should have been the turn up the hill to take me to where I caught the bus from, I got concerned. When we blew around a big corner and suddenly were skipping through fishing villages, I got even more concerned. The bus driver, however, was fully unconcerned, assured me in Spanish (I thought) that he would be turning around up the hill later and I'd get to where I was going just fine (this turned out to be a wrong translation of whatever it was he was gesticulating at me), sat me up front, and proceeded to point out all the local wildlife (sea lions and pelicans!). About 20 mins later, he dropped me off at a corner, having spent all of the change I had on that one bus ride, what I estimated was a several mile walk away from where Maca lived (and at this point I was, of course, late to meet her). He pointed to a guy getting off and said what I thought was "this guy will show you how to get there."

The "get there" guy was a nightmare. As soon as the bus pulled away, he started speaking rapidfire Spanish while grabbing at my arm and getting uncomfortably up in my face. I couldn't understand a single word, and when I explained this and asked him to slow down, he just got louder and faster. Frustrated, I attempted to communicate that I needed to go, but he was determined not to let me. He flagged down a bus, at which point I became hopeful that he was trying to help me after all, but I had no money for the bus and communicated that. He laughed, shoved me onto the bus, paid the driver, got in after me, herded me into a seat and sat down next to me. The loud fast in-my-face one-way conversation continued, getting louder and faster and more up in my business, now accompanied by wild gesticulating, which also made no sense to me. Whatever he was saying, I eventually noticed that the woman across the bus aisle from us was frantically waving and mouthing "no" (with that universal librarian finger-wagging motion) at me. At that point I was thoroughly concerned. So when he stopped the bus and insisted I get off with him, I refused. I knew I was nowhere close to where I wanted to be, the woman was clearly indicating that following him was a terrible idea, and the initial "this guy is bad news" feeling had grown to giant fire alarm bells. So despite the yelling, the grabbing my arm, and bus driver getting irritated, I stayed put and kept repeating, "no". Finally he got off the bus and left, cursing and gesticulating at me as he went. I was so relieved that he left; I had been trying to figure out how to get out of the situation without him following me to Maca's place. If there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's not to let strange men follow you home.

I was an inch away from tears, but the woman motioned me over, asked me if I spoke English, then chided me for following strange men onto a bus, told me to stay away from strangers. Point taken. At that point I could see Maca's condo and when the bus got close, I thanked the woman for the warning, hopped off the bus, and scurried to Maca's place. Wow, was I relieved to get there. A good lesson to learn early though: don't get on a bus unless you are sure you know where it's going, have a map, don't blindly follow strangers, carry an emergency phone, and make sure to have cash and bus fare at all times.

Maca checking up on kids at the Viña del Mar orphanage
But anyhow, made it safe and sound, and Maca swept me into her car to go to an orphanage where she (a pediatrician) volunteers. Orphanages are by definition a sad affair, but the place here seemed so friendly and well-run, and the kids were so sweet and seemed so happy that it didn't seem nearly as sad as 'Orphanage' sounds. Apparently kids often get adopted, but Chile has an interesting system where if you want to adopt a child, you apply, but cannot chose to adopt a specific child.

After the orphanage we returned home for a good old-fashioned girls' night complete with excellent wine (is there anything else in Chile?), excellent music, generous helpings of sushi, and lots of laughs. Just like at home. Girlfriendsarethebestfriends! <3

Overall lesson of the trip: Strangers truly can be dear friends you just haven't met yet. Except the creepy guys you meet on the bus.

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