I planned to spend my final week in Chile's elegant capital Santiago exploring the Museo de Artes Visuales, the ritzy outlying neighborhoods, and the Parque Forestal, the last sites on my to-see list. I mentally prepared to leave my leafy and sunny Providencia neighborhood and the comfort of my bustling host family for a new city -- Viña del Mar.
I'd made finding an apartment my mission, having arrived to a foreign continent with only four weeks to locate housing in a city two hours away with no prior knowledge of price ranges, neighborhoods, transportation or lease contracts. After weeks of frantically searching through Internet postings and interrogating professors that culminated in a rushed visit to the resort city of Viña, I'd found an apartment in a new tower (by an artificial lake!) half a block away from the beach. With a pool, a gym and sweeping ocean view from two generous patios, everything about it was luxe.
The Feb. 27 earthquake didn't severely affect anyone I know -- I only heard stories about co-workers and cousins whose families had lost everything in the South. However, after the natural disaster I soon realized that my year in Chile wouldn't go as planned. My host family insisted I remain hunkered in the house during the following days. Even though that seismic night passed without any panic or tears on my part, I've felt like I'm carrying a heavy backpack ever since. I'm grateful rather than fearful, but living with a family dealing with post traumatic stress and the constant flow of damning news reports took its toll.
Four days before my planned move to the coast of Viña del Mar to start classes at the Universidad Católica de Valparaiso I got the news that I'd have to look for another place to live. I felt so incredibly alone. I now had to find a room in an apartment with strangers, in a hectic period when shaken-up residents in apartment towers were scramming to move into solid houses and residents of older houses were quickly renting modern apartments; when the few students who hadn't solidified their housing plans months earlier had returned home to be with their families rather than staying in their university city to show their apartments to potential roommates.
But I made it my life's goal to move myself to school on time, spending my days staring at the computer screen and making bus trips back and forth between the two cities. I visited some houses that should have been condemned, with putrid, horror-movie worthy rooms, but I also met some of the most hospitable people I've ever encountered. They'd offer me a bed in their house until I found a place. After I told them I wasn't interested in their apartment they'd still insist in showing me around the city to the other rooms on my list. And they all gave me their phone numbers in case I ever needed anything.
Monday (only two days late) I moved into an apartment, not in the modern beach city of Viña del Mar as planned, but in the gritty neighboring historic port city of Valparaíso. The apartment is small but comfortable and modern. The terrace with the bay view and the familiar American kitchenette sold me. I'm eagerly waiting for my Chilean roommate to move back in next week. The surrounding neighborhood is not a place I should ever be walking through alone at night, and that's disconcerting. But the main highway connecting Valparaíso to its sister city Viña is right outside my front door, with transportation at all hours. I'm hoping that the earthquake repairs in the building happen soon because I miss hot water and more than one functioning elevator would be convenient. But I can't complain when half of the city went without any water the past three days, and further south people are homeless.
I'm still soaking up Valparaíso. The surrounding hills I've explored (so far I've opted to climb up the impossible staircases and vertical streets instead of paying for the antique elevators, an indication of masochistic tendencies, perhaps?) have confirmed the adjective 'breathtaking' that I've read in every guidebook. The spectacular views of the bay and the ramshackle city built on the surrounding hillsides are bewitching. The quirky and colorful neighborhoods spilling on the hilltops are World Heritage sites, and besides their official historic value they have a bohemian charm and energy like no other place I've traveled. These are streets with proper multi-colored British mansions with flower boxes lined near hippie-ish cafes. Streets with elegant restaurants on steep slopes that end in a flamboyant graffiti wall murals leading to 19th century Anglican churches or eccentric castle-mansions turned museums. And did I mention the views?
As far as the center of Valparaíso, well it's grungy, compatible with the disagreeable image the average North American has of a South American city. Ugly modern (Valpo was the epicenter of the devastating 1906 quake and before that victim of a Spanish naval attack) buildings stand beside decrepit Victorian palaces from the port's glory days. My favorite guidebook cliche, "crumbling grandeur" was written for this city. There's too many abandoned warehouses, stray dogs and litter for my taste, but maybe this jewel (in the rough) of the Pacific will win me over before the year's up. For now braving the streets isn't a pleasant stroll. My wrist is sore from clutching my bag so tightly. The maniacal buses, called micros, are a third-world experience. But on a brighter note, my daily routine now includes a trip to the intimidating city market to stock up on the rainbow mountains of gleaming produce on sale for mere cents and a stop by the bakery for fresh bread.
Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here. I have the next nine months to figure out why.