Saturday, December 31, 2016

lost in paradise

Like many Americans, I'd been mispronouncing Valparaíso, without realizing there's extra syllable. It's Val-para-I-so, short for valle del para-diso or valley of paradise. And even though I've only just arrived on the last day of the year, I see what they mean.

Valparaiso is the coolest place to be on New Year's Eve in South America. Rio apparently gives it a run for the money, but everyone else is here. Double-decker buses left Santiago every 2 minutes in a crazy scramble that would be comical or horrifying in another country. Friendly guides in chartreuse asked every few minutes if they could help me find my bus, which would arrive at Gates 6 through 11, or 1 through 11.

A tall friendly Canadian asked if I was staying in Valparaiso and what I intended to do there. Drink champagne? "If you like poetry, Pablo had a house there." I loved his casual romantic name dropping, like Pablo was an old pal from school. This bus situation, I said. "Yeah," he agreed. "It's a real clusterfuck."
Valpo feels a lot like San Francisco, a port built on a series of steep hills, bohemian, with troles and exuberant streetart.
As I walked up the hill to my delightful B&B, where I'm renting a cubbyhole with bunkbeds at New Year's markup, a woman in a doorway smiled and gave me a souvenir: a blue caracole (snail) on a stick. As good an omen of the new year as any.
Later I was walking around taking photos of the exuberant murals (I first learned of Valparaiso because I'd seen pictures of the streetart on Twitter), and ran into Sole, who works at the B&B on weekends. She invited me in for a celebratory drink. Here we are in our mascaras. I joked that her apartment was like a veritable United Nations.
Sole also gave me 12 grapes so that I could eat one for each month of 2017, to bring me luck. I first learned of this tradition, and the ubiquitous yellow underwear, from Eduardo in Mexico City, where you're supposed to eat one grape for each toll as the clock strikes 12.
The most beautiful tradition is environmentally suspect. People buy orange paper lanterns and set them on fire, which makes them float through the sky, burning up the disappointments of the past year. They go by the romantic name globos del deseos.
They fly high and glide down, hauntingly. Before the fireworks, the sky was full of them. This one landed in front of me, like a still-beating heart.

The crowd assembled at 11:45 to watch the fireworks spectacular shot from boats on the bay. Young and very old, everyone is here. "Chi chi chi/le le le/¡Viva Chilé!" everyone shouts. Then it starts.
Lots of kids are armed with silly string and tubes of confetti. Meanwhile this dude brought his iPad.
A beautiful night, and a great place to welcome the new year, with new friends. May the coming year bring you felicidad y paz.

Friday, December 30, 2016


(A few days ago…)
Alejandro picks us up as the golden hour is starting to fade in Pisco Elqui. Elqui Valley and the state of Coquimbo is the Ruta de las Estrellas: the route of the stars, because of its dry air and very clear skies. The biggest telescopes are to the north in the Atacama desert, but Elqui Valley has a bunch of smaller telescopes for research and for tourists.

We aren't going to any of these. Instead, we pull up to the very end of the dirt road, in a natural bowl created by the high mountains, some of them over 12,000 feet high. We're close to the Argentine border. I've circled Alcohuaz on the map below.
Jorge and Anita greet us, and Jorge makes a fire. Our eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. Jorge points out Venus and Mars. Then we look at a variety of constellations near and far through the telescope.
We're outside long enough to see the stars move, thanks to the earth's rotation. I get my best glimpse yet at the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds, with the Southern Cross, the most famous of Austral constellations.

I've been looking at the stars through my skylight back at the hotel, and on 4 am walks to the bathroom which a hundred yards away. The previous night I saw Jupiter, the brightest object in the sky. (I know this thanks to the Star Walk app on my phone, and wifi from the hotel pool bar.)

Years ago I took a 5-week astronomy class at the Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. It was after hours, and we got to sit in the old planetarium, while Walt, the voice of the planetarium, taught us about the best-known constellations for each season. On the 5th week, we went to the Southern Hemisphere, the first time I had traveled south of the equator. I've since been below the equator many times, in New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, and Peru. But this is the brightest I've ever seen the Magellanic Clouds.

In English and Spanish, Jorge and Anita tell us the various myths of the constellations, from the indigenous Mapuche people to Greek and Lakota myths for the Pleiades. Orion, of course, is upside down in Chile. So are Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins.

I see several shooting stars, gone before I'm even sure they were there, and wish fervently on them.

One cluster reminds me of a kaleidoscope. It's a pristine night. I tell Anita and Jorge about astronomy week at Bryce Canyon, which I happened upon this June. It turns out Anita has been to the United States—she spent a semester at University of Nevada: Reno! Long before she was interested in the stars. She agrees, Nevada felt like northern Chile.

I hope, Anita says, that the milky way is still here for my grandchildren. The ones that aren't born yet. I hope so too.

Adrienne Rich's Planetarium:
I am bombarded yet         I stand

I have been standing all my life in the   
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most   
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep      so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15   
years to travel through me  

derechos humanos

I have only two days in Santiago, and only one must see: el Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos, the Museum Remembering Human Rights, which walks through the election of Allende in 1970 and subsequent coup by Pinochet in 1973, which led to the suspension of the rule of law and widespread repression and torture for 15 years. Political parties were outlawed.
Salvador Allende was a socialist. He won election by 1%, met initially by jubilance from women and workers, though by 73, he was facing a miner's strike and huge economic obstacles. His greatest ally was Fidel Castro. 

Fidel: La unica verdad is la realidad. (The one truth is reality.)

While Allende died at his own hand after the military bombed the government palace and his guards abandoned him, CIA covert operations helped Pinochet rise to power. (Apologies for the oversimplification of Chilean history. American ignorance about world affairs doesn't suit us in the case.
This heartbreaking poem Estadio Chile by beloved folk singer Victor Jara asks where the world is. He wrote it on September 15th, 4 days after the tanks arrived, while being held with 5000 others in the stadium at the university where he taught theater. He was murdered the following day.

We are 5000 just in this small part of the city. 

Does the world not notice our absence? 
How do Mexico, Cuba, and the world ignore our cries?

40 some years later, Victor Jara received a semblance of justice, as a Florida jury convicted his murderer.

We watched in silence videos of troops arriving in Santiago on the morning of September 11 and of mass arrests across the country.

How is it possible, to secure a country 2600 miles long? But the sad answer is that the Andes, which protected Chile from invasion for hundreds of years after the Spanish conquest, also made it easy to isolate 9 million people, three quarters of them in urban areas. The Navy was under Pinochet's command.

The newspapers of the time are especially revealing. They are also frighteningly familiar.

The museum and archives preserve many accounts of torture by survivors, and some artwork. There are arpilleras, story quilts, made by local women and allies elsewhere. ¿Donde esta? the women ask about the disappeared. Where are they?

I was especially struck by video of a woman who brought her young son and teenaged daughter to lay a red flower marking where her husband had been killed--on an ordinary looking green in the center of Santiago. The police approached her as a friend took photographs, and began to harass her. She stood her ground, reminding them it was her country too, that she had the right to mourn her husband, that they were responsible, that they had no right to touch her. Eventually she laid her flower, as the police crunched up the poster. The people disappeared but have not been forgotten.

No photos are allowed inside the museum, so I took notes, with a pen. A theater poster advertised los payasos de la esperanza (the clowns of hope): a floppu shoe, a fake nose, a paper, pen, and candles.

Exiles—those wealthy enough to leave for Europe, other countries in Latin America, the United States—continued to bring awareness about the coup and dictatorship nationally.

This spoke loudly to me:

The museum is free to all, and you are welcomed with a quote from Michelle Bachelet, who is serving a second term as President, and whose background as a survivor of torture, exile, and advocate for women and human rights in the United Nations, deserves a deeper look.
No podemos cambiar nuestra pasado 
Solo nos queda apprender de lo vivido
Esta es nuestra responsibilidad y nuestra desafio.

(We cannot change our past. We can only learn from what has been lived. This is our responsibility and our challenge.)

Nunca mas, we say, again and again. Never again. When will we really mean it? How will we stop the descent into fascism before it's too late?


Time to rewatch Patricio Guzman's epic and essential Battle for Chile.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


It's hard to miss Destilleria Pisco Mistral: it's opposite the square in a town that's only 4 or 5 blocks. Tour buses are parked in front. The next tour in English wasn't for an hour, so I joined a tour in Spanish. Fortunately I've been to enough wineries and distilleries that I wasn't too lost.
Half of the tour is devoted to a distillery museum. 
These udders from a cow were used to carry water.
Saddle bags for collecting grapes.
This is the old cellar for aging. I was curious how the bottles withstand earthquakes, but Chileans assured me that the country is accustombrada to terremotos and plans accordingly.
We tasted some ripe muscatel grapes off the vine.
 This antique harvester came from the United States.
Modern distillery tanks remind me of bathyspheres. Copper is expensive, so it's only used on the top.
Pisco is aged in these tanks. They smelled really good.
Appropriately, we sampled aged pisco in the temperate barrel room.
At the end of the tour, Carmen turned on an instructional film, which to my amusement was narrated in first-person Pisco. 
 After lunch, I stopped by the bar for my free Pisco sour.
There's another Pisco distillery either 2K or 4K from town, reportedly a better one. I asked Christin if there was a collectivo or bus. No, she said, your options are walk, bike, or hitchhike. I was tempted except for the heat. You can see why they say agua es vida ("water is life").
Back at the pool in front of my room, the bartender poured two samples from Nichos distillery. They were like grappa: guaranteed to kill germs for the rest of your life. Maybe I'll stick to wine and cocktails.

Monday, December 26, 2016

high desert days

I took the bus to Pisco Elqui, winding and climbing through the arid but fertile Elqui Valley.
Pisco Elqui is about 1200 meters above sea level. 
Except for the occasional stream and watered grapevines, it reminds me of Western Nevada. 

Huge, steep mountains. Mineral-rich soil and turquoise reservoirs.
There’s some argument over whether Peru or Chile lays claim to Pisco. I’m not taking sides. 
Chile has a large wine industry, mostly table wine exported to the US and Europe. I’ve been doing my part, drinking my share of Carmeniere.
Pisco Elqui itself is a tiny sunny haven. I’m staying at an eco-lodge in a room called Suspiro. There are ripe plums and apricots (damasco) and quinces on all the trees and a friendly bartender whipping up Pisco sours by the miniature pool. 

Next door at the Jardin Secreto, you can get your aura cleansed. Massajes are tempting.
The area is well known for astronomy, with several observatories. I can’t wait to see the stars tonight. My room has a big skylight.

This mural was in the bus station in Vicuña. I do not know why there's a UFO. (Edited: Elqui Valley has a reputation among latter day hippies, Ayurvedic practitioners, and seekers. Not my scene.)
I’d promised Doro I’d write about Gabriela Mistral, who came from this area and was the first Latin American to win the Nobel prize for Literature in 1945. 

She was a fascinating, complex woman who eventually left Chile for Europe and California. 

An early feminist icon. Beloved still.

Honored here on the 5000 peso note. 

I’ll definitely be reading her work and learning more about her the next few days. One friend explained she had to leave that small town and live abroad, because she was gay. 

Meanwhile here's a poem to get you started:

The treasure at the heart of the rose
is your own heart's treasure
Scatter it as the rose does:
your pain becomes hers to measure.
Scatter it in a song
or in one great love's desire.
Do not resist the rose
lest you burn in its fire.