I'm alone in my 12th-floor apartment. Through the curtains I can see the city lights spreading over the hills and reflecting on the ocean. I've closed the glass doors to block out the howling traffic and squawking seagulls. I sip a glass of fine Chilean wine (from a bargain $6 bottle) and bite into the bread I picked up at the packed bakery on my way home from class this evening smeared with the 25-cent avocado I bought at the market yesterday. A professor told me that Chileans are the world's second largest consumers of bread, after France.
I can only laugh when I remember my daily routine in college included a solo run through downtown Charleston, in shorts no less. Now the idea of stepping outside my front door with an iPod is hilarious. It's hard to imagine I used to march around in a skirt and heels. Or how I wore bags that didn't strap across my chest and whipped out my wallet with abandon rather than scrounging coins out of my pocket. I fantasize about buying myself a big diamond ring when I get back to the States and flashing it daily.
Yesterday on the bus I blinked when I saw a rat running across a telephone wire. Later from my patio I spotted a large mammal wriggling in the ocean, which my roommate's friends confirmed was a sea lion. I'm not so sure because it looked bigger than the cars whizzing by on Avenida Errazuriz. Then at 10 p.m. I passed a group of transvestite prostitutes huddled on the corner two blocks from my apartment tower. In the building across the street I could see college students listening to a lecture on the second floor. (Valparaíso alone has nine universities, and a there's a slew of other institutions of higher education in the surrounding region.)
Downtown Valparaíso shady men who act like they've never seen a pair of green eyes barrel me with piropos, hisses and comments. They don't mind urinating, spitting and scratching themselves in the street either. My feet are always dirty and calloused from the already filthy, now earthquake shattered sidewalks. The other night I walked along the coast of the tidier, less intimidating city of Viña del Mar with a friend, passing the apartment I almost rented and thinking about what could have been.
But just when I decide I don't want to inhale another breath of fumes from cruddy cars or trip over another pile of grime, Valparaíso casts its spell on me. When I climb up a cerro and catch a glimpse of the cerulean bay and the ramshackle spread of colorful houses below, I almost have to catch my breath.
Last week a friend (a potential roommate I met in Santiago) led me around the city, where she's studied law the past five years. First we made a trip to the market to pick up the ingredients for our lunch of assorted baked vegetables over multi-grain rice with salad. We took the precarious antique elevators up the hills and admired the decaying mansions and graffiti murals. We visited Nobel-prize winning poet (and Chilean national hero) Pablo Neruda's whimsical house, La Sebastiana. The panoramic vistas would inspire anyone to write a few lines of verse.
After a steep descent back down to el plan (the flat city center) we stopped for a long browse in a thrift store loaded with antiques, where I bought a chocolate suede '70s era purse for $4. When we passed the port we jumped on an almost private boat tour of the bay in the golden evening sun, gazing out at the miles of sandy and rugged coast and the massive sea lions napping on the rocks.
On the way home we stopped at a couple of university-run, avant-guarde cultural centers because the official museums and art galleries remain closed indefinitely after the earthquake. Catalina pointed out her favorite cafes, bars, used bookstores and bakeries. We wandered past an artisan market along a dusty could-be-elegant plaza and took a break at the hip bohemian bar El Ritual to share some banana-orange-infused red wine.
Then we said chao, and I walked up the dozen flights of stairs (the one functioning elevator in the 27-story tower has to be strained, and I'm practicing in case I move to a hill with staircases) to my comfortable and modern apartment with a breezy balcony and my closet-sized bedroom with an ocean view. My roommate is a 24-year-old Chilean design student in the Universidad de Valparaíso who's always giving me directions to my far-flung classes and teaching me modismos, Chilean slang.
So when I'm not busing between cities to my classes, I take refuge from the dizzying streets of Valpo in my little kitchen -- roasting beets, carrots, and zucchini; caramelizing pumpkin with curry and ginger; or reading a Gabriel Marquez novel at the bar. (Notice I'm not cooking with recipes because apparently it's not a Chilean custom to use measuring cups or spoons or even scales to measure grams.) My mornings start with 30 minutes on a rickety elliptical, watching the ships on the sparkling aqua water through the open window in the little room by the pool my condominium calls the gimnasio. (A list of statistics we read in one of my classes found that something like 90 percent of Chileans don't work out on a regular basis. Yet somehow they've avoided the obesity epidemic, more impressive still as they're rumored to be the world's third largest consumers of mayo.)
In the meantime I practice rolling my r's with the phrase Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, Rápido corren los carros, los carros del ferrocarril. I can't leave Chile without mastering the Hispanic alveolar trill. I'm contemplating small pleasures, like how I finally found Febreeze, in Jumbo, the Chilean version of Wal-Mart. I'm the freak non-smoker among Chilean students, and now I can socialize without doing laundry everyday.
Now if I could only locate some soy milk. Or an affordable perculator or French press. The powdered Nescafe they serve here just doesn't cut it.
Rotary update: Six weeks after my February arrival to Chile I've made my first Rotarian contact -- One historic earthquake, a chaotic tsunami alert and dozens of aftershocks later. Dr. Dan Martínez invited me to his refined home on a main avenue in Viña del Mar for an elegant Chilean once, evening tea, with his wife Telma, 24-year-old granddaughter and her friend. I exchanged numbers with the two younger women who also study at the Universidad Católica, the second-most prestigious university in the country. Dan and Telma gave me a little flag from their club and showed me pictures from their trips to international Rotary conferences in the States. Now I'm waiting for an invitation to one of their club meetings so I can make my Rotary debut and give my third (of a required seven) presentation.