By Brietta Hague

The road goes up and up and up.  It passes through narrow alleys and piss-soaked gutters and places where ragged nights have been spent by toothless beggars.   There is dried blood here and there on the edges of grimy, grey concrete pillars.  Washing hangs from small tin-roofed balconies.  There is space enough for your steps to echo and sound very lonely.  Grim corners are turned and you find yourself on small plateaus with stone balustrades that allow a glimpse of the distant, fogged harbour.  Your steps are slow and laboured.  You have chosen not to use the ancient ascensors (rickety wooden carriages which crawl on rails bypassing the myriad steps). 

The sun is waking dark passageways, spotlighting a spill of bougainvillea encircling a small leatherwork studio.   A sluggish cat with eyes that have seen through you does not move in its sunlit corner behind the wrought iron window box. As you stop and capture his slit-eyed gaze with your camera you almost hear his hissed thought bubble – “Gringo turis!!” Then the ugliest dog in the world hooks up with you.   His ugliness is of a complacent kind. His jut-jawed, gap-toothed mouth smiles up at you with a grotesque loveliness.  His matted, pink-scarred and flea-bitten coat is good enough for him, does its job and he doesn’t care if you flinch as he rubs up against you.  You’ll call him “Muy Feo Perro” and he is following you to wherever you are going.  It’s a good morning for a trot and sniff expedition with a gringo who knows nothing and is walking a path of discovery.  Other meandering strays quickly cross to the opposite side of the street as soon as they see you and your doggie compañero – is this a good thing?  Or is it a not so good thing?  Time will tell.

You teeter along a small sidewalk made up of a series of steep steps sidling against a brown-red painted wall (not enough room for you and the dog – but he still squeezes his scabby sides between you and the wall in a game he has made up to see who can race to the top first).  Tall canna lilies, wide burnt-orange feathery blossoms on fleshy stems of maroon festoon the garden area between the walkway on this side of the street and the other blue and purple-walled side.

The ancient walls painted in fresh lavender, pale blue, pink and yellow are the canvasses for murals and stencil artworks which are full of wit, imagination and sometimes sheer genius.  It has you stopping, photographing, laughing and scrutinising.  It sucks you into looking closer at the little stuff – a tiny stencil of your…perro?

The morning is hushed and languorous; you can sense cleaning being done and rubbish being moved and signs being readied for breakfasting tourists.  You have moved from the city crush of Valparaiso below – the shuttered shop fronts, sleeping piles of street-weary dogs, the hot dog signs and the fishy, salty smell of the harbour and have found the upper quarters.  Galleries and artisan workshops are still mostly closed and cafes have just begun to wake and send coffee smells into the noses of early risers. The calamitous rows of perched houses call you to come further.  This is the way to Pablo Neruda’s “La Sebastiana” – one of three homes he owned in Chile. 

The sky comes closer as you puff and pant and rest more often.  The vista unfolds and becomes a panorama.  The harbour parades its ships and commerce.  The street widens somewhat and dark trees hold hands in strategically placed parks – places to rest and have a drink of agua.  Suddenly you are struck by the South American flavour of this place.  This is exactly what you thought you would find in Chile.  The country’s unfettered, colourful and passionate soul is bare here.  Ramshackle tin shacks and broken weatherboard shanties snuggle up against the white wall of a rich stone mansion.  Huge, ancient cacti stand guard at gateways. You want to capture this in you mind and in photos, so you click away.  You are beginning to become beguiled and you are tempted to give up all you have back home and become a hill dweller of Cerro Bellavista – even the most modest and crazy of these houses will be just fine – as long as you could wake to that view and to those colours.  You could make art and sell it to the tourists!  Teach the Chileans how to make really healthy snack food!!

Ah…..here you are – a school brass band is practicing a sombre march in a shady playground and Muy Feo Perro’s feet and, in fact, yours have begun to move to the slow beat. It has been a long walk and along the way you lost your perro friend when he decided to sit and lick his balls in the middle of the road but here he is back and pleased to be your grinning guide over the last few metres.  “La Sabastiana”.  You can almost imagine Pablo Neruda arriving at this place in the 1950’s – looking out on a monumental morning, after walking up the long upward pathways.  He sees a half built house and thinks – “I shall finish this house.  It will look like a ship and its prow will be turned towards the ocean.  It is from here I shall sail my thoughts.”  Pablo finished the house.  He woke to that view and those colours.

 “La Sebastiana” is now a museum where you can find out more about the great poet and statesman, or you might just want to look.  From this vantage point the city of Valparaiso, Chile speaks to you in a language you truly understand.  The one you find in high places looking down upon the world – one you find at the top of a road that goes up and up and up.