I love seeing places for the first time, especially if there hasn't been time to research them. It somehow reveals more depth, complexity and colour as on this particular day when I joined two fellow travellers on a road trip to Valparaiso, a coastal town ninety minutes' drive north west of the Chilean capital of Santiago.
My brother and I had recently decided on a short rendezvous in Chile, him on a work assignment all the way from Australia and I mid epic journey trough the Peruvian Amazon. Due to scheduling we only had a few days together which we spent walking the streets of Santiago and taking in the scenery of the majestic Andes. For our last day together we decided to fly blind, a colleague of Ettienne’s had rented a car and offered to show us the coastal town of Valparaiso.
We arrived early on a Monday morning and at the foot of the winding road that leads you into the old town were met with a lively and colourful second-hand market – it seemed to be where everything from the Eighties went to be sold off to their new forever homes. This is the kind of place you visit not looking for anything but somehow end up leaving with everything. Vintage leather belts circa 1971, all sorts of crystals (real & not so real) and subtitled copies of old blockbusters across all the genres you could imagine (Pistola Superior!). I managed to hold myself back only making a modest purchase of needle & thread, on a budget and with an eye for practicality whilst travelling long term those are the kinds of rock ‘n roll choices you make.
Our travel companion seemed to remember from a visit to the area many moons ago that the historic center would be the best place to park and ‘walk the town’ from. It also happens to be a few blocks from an ancient but functioning funicular that would take us up the hillside to see the panoramic views of the working harbour. We lingered a while at the beautifully maintained historic buildings in the town square but is was the gritty back streets with its exceptionally striking street art that caught my eye. In this World Heritage Site graffiti is an honoured art form and artists are supported by City Hall, the use of this medium dating back to the 1970’s as a form of political protest and in the present day the center of an annual competition which rewards the top artists with materials to produce more of what they love.
Capturing these creative achievements was one of the two major highlights of the day for me. The other awaited in Vina del Mar, a ten minute drive along the coast to the contemporary part of town. A plethora of mid lunch-rush restaurants promising the best ceviche in Chile, the manicured parks and tree-lined avenues adorned with weekenders seeking out the sun and sea.
After our meal, with no particular goal in mind other than to be present and enjoy the last few hours before our drive back to the airport, we strolled toward a busy market place. It was here where, in a clearing, a young man was producing the most strikingly beautiful (delicate and intense all at once) sound using various instruments including Tibetan singing bowls and a lone didgeridoo. I was incredibly moved and as I knelt to give him the change I had on me my eye caught the artwork laid out in front of him. It was the lyrics to an icaro – a Quechuan word for the healing songs used in ayahuasca ceremonies – embroidered onto cloth so weathered it was clear it was symbolically placed and not for profit. We made eye contact and when I mouthed ‘ayahuasca’ to him he smiled in acknowledgement. It felt good to have met, only for a moment, a kindred spirit so far away from the Amazon which had become my home the last few months. I stood there absorbing the sound before moving on to find my brother.
Our weekend in Chile was slowly drawing to a close. We spent some time lingering on the packed beach watching the people who had gathered in small groups to soak up the late afternoon sun. Soon it was time for the two-hour journey back to Santiago to catch our flights back to where we came from. It seemed as if I had been here for weeks and I felt immense gratitude for this spontaneous rendezvous which was halfway around the world for both of us. A few hours later we hugged goodbye awkwardly, the parting message I had rehearsed a few minutes earlier long gone. I walked away knowing that the silence had said what I didn’t, and realized that the years of chastising myself for the not verbalizing my feelings were behind me…