Christmas in Valparaiso

Last year we were staying on a piranha farm in Northern Thailand, and Christmas day actually involved a pretty gruelling Thai boxing class….This year was not to be so strenuous! This year we would be indulging in cocktails, wine, food and street art in the enigmatic city of Valparaiso, Chile.

It is the 6th largest city in the country, yet the greater Valparaiso Metropolitan Area is the second most populous, and it lies just 70 miles from Santiago. Today it is the most important port in Chile, and indeed is one of the most important South Pacific ports, but a far cry from its signifiance pre Panama Canal. In the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, earning it the names “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. All of this would change with the opening of the mighty Panama Canal-which had a huge impact on the ship traffic that Valparaiso would see, and ergo the port based economy took a heavy fall.Since then Valparaiso has reinvented itself, its myriad of mazy streets providing inspiration for artistic and cultural expression. In 2003 the historic quarter was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its improvised urban design and unique hop scotch of hillside architecture sprawling away from the coast. It’s difficult to put into words the landscape that you are faced with upon arrival, the city literally leaps from the sea and crawls up the surrounding hillsides. A series of 26 old and rickety funiculars are scattered around the city giving your legs the option to circumnavigate the steep inclines that you face at every corner! Street art meets your gaze everywhere, a lot of it breathtaking, but equally so much of the grafitti is just a collection of banal tags. This explosion of colour on the walls, combines with the crazy streets and perilously balanced buildings certainly gives the city something of an ‘edge’, especially when placed against the contrast of previous experiences in the sleepy town of EL Monte, and the modern and cosmopolitan Santiago. But this is something that the city never denies, in fact this edginess is positively embraced. Probably the best way to describe to you Valparaiso is to quote the famous Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, a hugely influential figure in Chile-and someone who had quite a magnificent home on the hillsides of Valparaiso. On visiting his home, one of the things that you have to do while visiting the city, you apprecite what an eye for design and detail that he must have had, plus the fact tht he was a bit of  party animal-with a pretty cool bar just off his living room! Wonderful art deco design features, couple with the most superb panoramic views of the quagmire of streets falling away down the hillside to the docks nestled far below-the perfect fodder for artistic inspiration I would think:

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Molly Allison-Baker)

VALPARAÍSO,
what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
hills,
that you never finish
combing.
Never
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
naked
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.

(read the full version of the translated poem here)

Christmas turned out to be a funny time to be in the city, the streets much quieter and calmer than we were expecting-as it transpired it was the perfect time to go on a tour of discovery of the balmy alleys and streets, in search of some of the much lauded graffiti that adorns the walls, roofs and passageways around the city…What you find is a myriad of amazing artwork:

I was reaching for my camera at every turn, always eyes wide open, a smile at the corners of my mouth. Valparaiso certainly isn’t a pretty city, but it is captivating!
As for Christmas day, we had rented an apartment for the festive period, so with the opportunity to use a kitchen we did what seemed most apt…..Cocktails, red wine, beer and steak and chips!

Aside from street art and steak, we travelled up the coast a little to Viña del Mar-the neighbouring seaside resort, a little bit like the younger yet more responsible sister…Which fails to charm in the same way as the gritty streets of Valpo-but would serve a purpose should you be seeking some beach time and a swanky night out!

Getting back to Valparaiso and I cannot help but feel that our experience of the city was somewhat an oddity-the Christmas period giving the whole place a much more lazy and sedate feel than the reports I hear from others. I think if you were to visit at New Year you would get an entirely different perspective-but for us a few days in our little apartment were perfect, a very Merry Christmas!

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My, it’s a bit Chile…

Argentina fading in the wing mirrors, and the magnificent Andes looming ahead, it could mean only one thing-we were bound for Chile. Absolutely my favourite border crossing to date-from Mendoza it’s a 7 hour bus journey to get to Santiago, straight over the Andes, and it’s absolutely fabulous. You begin with a drive through the flat lands and vineyards of Mendoza region before you soon start climbing up the mountainside and dipping in and out of tunnels as you twist and turn up to the majestic mountain range that runs pretty much the entire length of the border between Chile and Argentina, as well as running through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. It’s the highest mountain range outside Asia, over 4000 miles long, and as you make your way towards the border you pass by the mighty Mount Aconcagua, which at it’s peak rises to an elevation of about 6,961m and is the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere. It was breath-taking just to get near it on a bus journey, and just a week following our journey one of our friends was actually going to be climbing it! Just another 15km or so on from passing the mountain and you reach the border, where you have to step off the bus into snow and icy winds; obviously I was wearing shorts and t-shirt and was completely unprepared for exiting at the border, a schoolboy error some may say! The border crossing itself was extremely straight forward, although worth noting that Chile has extremely strict controls on what you can travel into the country with-so definitely worth checking what you have in your bags before making the crossing, otherwise the danger of a hefty fine. Specifically you can’t take any organic materials across the border, no honey, fruit, vegetables…as well as your stash of weapons and drugs!!
So, safely through the border we started the descent from the border via a series of no fewer than 27 switchbacks! Quite the introduction to Chile!

Before we knew it we were arriving in the thriving metropolis that is Santiago, time for a week of sight seeing in the capital before our next volunteer placement in El Monte. We weren’t simply going to be wondering the busy city street though, as is our eagerness to learn Spanish, we soon found ourselves a week long Spanish language course to see whether we could give ourselves a little bit of a kick start. Queue 5 hours a day in a hot classroom getting somewhat frustrated with my inability to just pick up a language with no problems…Obviously Jo was much better prepared than I was, and certainly got to grips with more than I have managed.

That’s not to say we didn’t manage to explore the city-Santiago is a vibrant, busy, thriving and colourful city, with a whole load of awesome museums and enchanting street culture to charm and seduce you. From the multi coloured buildings lining the streets in the  district of Bellavista, housing numerous bars and restaurants for late night entertainment; to the many green spaces and museums that provide a platform for arts and cultural expression-it really does seem to have something for everyone. Not forgetting the backdrop of the Andes to put things in a different perspective. Amazingly, as of the census from 2002, a massive 35% of the population of Chile live in the capital-which certainly makes for interesting etiquette on the metro during rush hour!

Basically Santiago proved to be a wonderful introduction to Chile, next stop the sleepy town of El Monte and a few weeks volunteering at ‘The Anthill’…And what a surprise that turned out to be!

Phnom Penh again, ready to teach in Cambodia

We left Nha Trang by train and made our way back to Ho Chi Minh, a journey that looked destined not to happen as our original train had crashed and a number of people had been killed-not the greatest thing to find out when you arrive at the train station! During the chaos, we bumped into a couple and their son whom we had met during our final days diving, they had very recently relocated to Ho Chi Minh from Australia and had hit Nha Trang for a few days before their work was due to begin. It’s always great to share times of uncertainty with others, and eventually we managed to negotiate ourselves onto a night train later that day. The journey itself turned out to be much longer than expected, but with the aid of engaging company the time passed painlessly and soon we staggered bleary eyed into Ho Chi Minh once again. Given the extended train journey and the uncertainty in times of arrival, we decided to stay the night in Ho Chi Minh again before catching the bus to Phnom Penh-and so we returned to the Blue River Hotel where we had spent so much time over the last six weeks.

Catching the bus the next day and we were overjoyed to be greeted by a disco bus, chandeliers included-it seemed only right that we would be leaving Vietnam in such a beast! It was the very definition of kitsch, and with the complementary Vietnamese egg pastries we settled in to the relatively short journey of 6 hours to Cambodia.

Chandeliers?!?! Of course!

Chandeliers?!?! Of course!

Egg pastries, water and a Danish...Simple pleasures!

Egg pastries, water and a Danish…Simple pleasures!

No grumbles here, the journey went absolutely fine, the only amusement coming at the border crossing where you get harried and hurried along with no idea about what’s going on. Various people taking your passport and then seemingly passing it around to anyone in a uniform to check-quite confusing, but as with pretty much every travel experience that we’ve had-it all worked out in the end. By now even my usual travel anxieties have been numbed, not entirely, but I am noticeably more relaxed than I was before our adventure.

Prior to leaving for South East Asia, both Jo and I completed an online TEFL qualification-with a view to finding volunteer work to help us extend our time here, while not spending too much money, and getting some invaluable experience for future opportunities. Not long after leaving Cambodia in November we had done just that-we secured ourselves a volunteer role with an organisation called SOLS 24/7.

The organisation is pretty impressive, you just have to take some time to look at their website and you will see that they have schools across Malaysia, East Timor, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Their provincial program focuses on teaching English to anyone, no matter your age or financial situation-their belief is that a basic grasp of English should be available to everyone. Furthermore, at their main centres they offer opportunities to study in their ‘Science of Life Studies’ program, offering a comprehensive life and business skills course, at a minimal cost, to people who want to improve their future prospects. Indeed at the main centre in Phnom Penh it is claimed that they have a 100% success rate in their students getting employment on the day that they graduate. That’s a pretty impressive statistic, bearing in mind that, at the time of writing, there were approximately 300 students studying there.

The organisation was founded by a Malaysian gent referred to by everyone as ‘Big Teacher’, he writes and develops all of the courses that they teach. At the core of their programs is their English language teaching system, with which they look to get students speaking English within three months. It is a very simple concept based on teaching a number of formulas, system words and a limited vocabulary. Once the students have grasped the basics, it is up to them to build out their repertoire.
We didn’t get to meet ‘Big Teacher’, however he is certainly held in high regard by everyone who knew him, and he was recently one of ten candidates in contention for the Nobel Prize for teaching.

The main centre for Sols 24/7 in Cambodia is based just outside the centre of Phnom Penh, so we afforded ourselves a weekend in the capital before getting down to the serious business of teaching English for the first time. It was great to return to the Cambodian capital, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but we have grown extremely fond of it and were looking forward to negotiating the frenetic and unforgiving streets once again. We took the chance to explore even further, and soon found an area that was lined with funky street cafes and bars, as well as a couple of nearby bakeries-result!

While scanning the local papers in one of the afore mentioned bakeries, we came across a review for a local arts festival being advertised in the Lakeside area of the city. For those of you that don’t know, there is no lake in Phnom Penh anymore, around five years ago the government sold the land for development and drained the lake-ergo the popular tourist hub found itself relocated to riverside, and the area became something of a forgotten jewel of the city. The guesthouses here are cheap and cheerful, the area has something of a rough reputation, but based on our experience it is a lovely place to base yourself while in Phnom Penh. The discovery of this arts festival was something of a hurrah moment, so we eagerly went along to see how the locals were looking to boost its popularity once again. What we discovered was an awesome street festival with various circus performers, graffiti artists and upcoming local music and dance groups-it was superb. The atmosphere was great, a real community spirit working together to dispel the myths that have sprouted up about the area. It felt like good things were happening in Phnom Penh, and we couldn’t be happier about it!
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Having had a few days of socialising and ‘freedom’, now it was our turn to try and do something constructive, and to find out whether we had the necessary skills to engage with students looking to study the English language.