Returning to Valparaiso

Returning to Valparaiso

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“The Developing World” is an abstract concept for those of us who live in the “developed world”.  If you had visited many American or European cities 10 years ago and returned today, you won’t notice much of a difference.  The world we live in is what it is.  The changes in our world are incremental, not total as the news tells us is happening throughout the developing world.  We’re told entire cities and countries have completely changed in unimaginable ways, but if you visit for the first time it’s hard to grasp what it once was.  Every block, maybe even every building, has changed.  Until I got to Valparaiso, Chile, I couldn’t really connect with how development changes things…then I walked down my old street.

This was once my corner.  The house on the right, the one with the bicycle, was where I called home while studying in Chile.  After one semester living with a host family in  a more modern part of the city, I chose to move to an artist quarter seemingly fallen from another era.  It was seedy.  It was dangerous.  Rent was cheap, inspiration easy, and history rich.  All in all, it was the perfect place for aspiring artists, short on cash and trying to make something of themselves. Of course I was an interloper, I wasn’t an artist, I just loved the vibe, the homes-cum-studios-cum-galleries-cum-discos.  Predictably for the neighborhood my house was owned by a starving artist, Manolo, who turned our garage into a gallery.  Always looking to make a buck, Manolo rented out our apartment to be used in a soap opera, when he assumed we wouldn’t be around.  This was my little place in the world.

On the best days the houses above would have passed as dilapidated.  They seemed to cling to the hills for dear life just as the occupants did.  Today though that’s not the case, they have been restored, many completely remodeled into gorgeous homes full of the old character without the fear of sliding into the bay below.  One such house was directly across the street from our house.  I assumed it was abandoned and hoped when, not if, it collapsed we wouldn’t be harmed.  Today that house is a boutique hotel with rooms renting from $150-200 per night…to put that into perspective I paid $150/month to live across the street in 2003.  Everything in the neighborhood followed this path to go from dilapidated to deluxe.

Cerro Alegre literally translates to “happy hill” where the only way to get around is to climb and descend stairs.  These stairwells used to be trash strewn, urine stained, shady experiences, especially after dark. Now though they’ve been transformed into beautiful streetart covered installations.  The thrill of the stairways, where many of my friends were robbed, has been replaced with wonderful places to wander and explore.

When I was a kid there were few places to eat up on this hill, but today that’s changed.  The restaurant below, Cafe Vinilo, was a bohemian hangout that you expected van Gogh to walk through the door at any moment has become a real restaurant.  Formerly it served cheap liquor and not haute cuisine grilled cheese sandwiches, today the menu is strewn with yuppie food that my friends would have mocked (probably because they couldn’t afford it).  It’s great to see everyone doing better, but the grittiness, the feeling like the place hadn’t changed since being built by 1800’s sailors on shore leave has been lost.  Walking the hill I no longer felt like I was walking the pages of McTeague.

Not all has changed though.  The market below, old truck and all, seems to be exactly as it was when I would stumble out to buy vegetables…because there was nowhere else to get food.  I am certain that the same couple still runs this market, providing an element of timelessness within a changed scenery.

Valparaiso is a place of many memories for me.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but just I grew up, so did the city.  The memories and relationships survive, such as my first semester host parents who got to meet my wife, ten years after I left.

YOUR TURN: Have you returned to a place after being away for years to find a place completely changed?  Share your stories in the comments below.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.
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