|After 3 1/2 days breathing the Santiago smog, I decided to try out my navigational skills to get across the city to the bus station and get a ticket to Valparaiso ("Valpo," in hosteller slang). Which was really quite easy; Santiago is laid out in a fairly orderly and logical pattern, with a color-coded Metro system much like Washington D.C.'s. Unfortunately for my left foot (sprained from overuse during a hike to Cerro San Cristobal- in sandals), I jumped the gun and got off the Metro 5 stops early, at Universidad de Chile instead of Universidad de Santiago. D'oh! It wasn't a bad walk, despite the heat, and my foot had been feeling better as of that morning, so I decided against just shelling out the 90 cents or so to get back on the Metro. All well and good; got some ice cream, found the bus station, got a window seat for the bus leaving in 10 minutes, got my backpack stowed and away we go. Picked up a seatmate at the next stop- a middle-aged elementary school teacher who lives in Valpo- and we spent the next hour or so chatting about the town, its history and socioeconomic peculiarities, where I'm from, where I'm going, am I really traveling all by myself, gosh that can be dangerous for a single woman, etc. I was able to understand her better than most Chileans, probably because she was using her "teacher voice" with me, the same way she talks to her kindergarteners, I imagine.
As we left Santiago, I got to see more of the outskirts of the city (suburbs, industrial warehouses, etc.) pressed up against the lower slopes of the coastal mountains, which this time of year are quite brown and dry and rocky, with cacti and little shrubby gray-green plants. It reminded me quite a bit of the scenery leaving...El Paso. But in short order, we'd gone through a tunnel in the first set of mountains (hills? They certainly don't measure up to the Andes), and came out into a pretty little agricultural valley, with fields of corn, vineyards, eucalyptus and cottonwood trees, olive and peach groves, bougainvillea and oleander. In short, a lot like large swaths of...Central & Southern California. The last ridge we crossed before starting down into Valpo was mostly pine forest (highly susceptible to wildfires, my seatmate told me), brushed by coastal fog, kind of like...Northern California. But despite some superficial similarities (steep hills, active port, lots of tourists, turn-of-the-century architecture, streetcars, lots of fog, prone to earthquakes), the feel of the city is very different than San Francisco, its most obvious counterpart. Finally, it feels like I'm someplace that doesn't remind me of anyplace else! Actually, that's not entirely true, there were definitely parts of Santiago that didn't remind me of anyplace else, but in general it felt a lot like Mexico City (the parts I've been to, anyway).
In spite of the morning's hike to the Santiago bus station, my foot was still feeling OK when we got to Valpo. The hostel I'd made a reservation at is 5 blocks from the bus station, and they let me check in even though it was 3 hours earlier than I'd said on the reservation website. The place is run by a very nice couple, an Australian man and his Chilean wife, and gets a lot of English speakers (at least compared to the hostel in Santiago). I got settled in, then decided to at least go down to the waterfront, find a decent city map, and get some lunch (or more accurately in local parlance, "once," literally translating as "eleven," even though it's typically eaten in the afternoon; more like high tea). It's about 10 degrees cooler here than in Santiago, thanks to the coastal breeze, and it was a very nice walk, past stupendous, soaring late-nineteenth century architecture squished up next to very modern glass-fronted buildings and burnt-out shells that look like perfect spots for heroin junkies to congregate. Valpo is first and foremost a working port, although the tourists are trying hard to take over. Got my map from the local tourist info booth, and sat on the pier with a flaky, caramel-coated pastry/cookie thing from a street vendor (haven't yet had any bad food here- most of it's wonderful. And have I mentioned the ice cream? It's everywhere!). Watched the seagulls fight with pigeons over scraps of food. Watched the giant cranes unload cargo containers from a giant Middle Eastern Ship (its name was in Arabic, anyway). Watched the stevedores (on an ice cream break) offer lewd commentary to passing women, and local boat owners compete to drum up business for harbor tours. By then, my foot was definitely complaining more loudly, and I thought it would be wise to not go tearing off all over the hills of the town at that point. The primary residential areas of Valpo are up in the hills overlooking the much flatter port/downtown business district; some houses are perched right on what are basically cliffs. A series of "ascensores"- part railroad, part elevator, built between 1883 and 1915- get people up and down the steepest bits, and are a big tourist draw. Instead I made my way back to the hostel, and by the time I got within about 6 blocks I was hobbling and probably whimpering just a little. Laid low yesterday evening (foot propped up on a chair in the lounge area, watching "The Simpsons" in Spanish), and the foot is still sore and swollen this morning, although the deep reddish bruise along the outside edge seems to be dissipating. I don't feel like I can be a terribly effective tourist on one foot, so I'm not entirely sure what today will bring. Perhaps a trip to a pharmacy to find an ankle/foot brace, and an electronics store to find a cable to download pictures from my camera- apparently the one I brought doesn't necessarily fit the USB ports on all computers, although I haven't tried it on the computer at this new hostel. Hopefully will get that resolved soon so I can put some photos up on this site! More to follow- if I'm crippled, probably a lot more, although it will be mostly me bitching and moaning about my foot. I'll try not to become too insufferable. Chao!