Valparaiso--the sloping, brash, circular city that reaches out of the rugged Chilean coast and stretches its fingers over the hills above, all careening waves and jagged rocks met with rounded, worn cobblestone streets-- the city that darts upward so dramatically its founders built outdoor elevators called funinculars to help locals get around--a port city. A poetic city. Here, brightly painted victorian houses roost precariously on cliffs, overlooking the flowers that cling magnificently to the cliff walls, making enormous natural vertical gardens, pops of pink and yellow and green on the brown red rocks. Color and danger intertwine in this city like no other, each balancing the other.
It's grimy, and it's gorgeous. The people are hardened by the steep, winding, uneven roads they have to traverse, the steely naval culture kept alive by the active port in the heart of the city, and the cold, whipping winds off the Pacific. Yet they're soft in the way people are when you're surrounded by such beauty. They're kind. They're a hearty, good people.
They're also incredibly hard on thieves, but more on that in a minute.
After riding the bus west for two hours from the Santiago airport, I saw it. Valparaiso. It was foreign, it was bright, somewhat poor, and so very different. I found a cab and spent the afternoon in one of the "cerros," the hills that define the neighborhoods. I was staying in an old, periwinkle, creaky Victorian home, owned by four generations of Valparaisians -- I never could tell how many of them there were, the house was so tall. A tiny blue-eyed cat and two dogs lived in the courtyard, and they were my instant friends. I made my way to the fourth, and top story of this sturdy blue ghost of a house, with panoramic views of the water and the city. It was a romantic day, lounging in the top floor of this blue and natural wood wonder with its colored glass and timeless views of the bay. It was also a slow day, of listening to the wind creak the sides of the house in early spring as I slept off my plane flight.
I petted the cat and practiced my rusty Spanish, and went out wandering using my skills riding in a shared cab (colectivos--a shared cab system so befuddling I never did quite get the hang), and went twilight touristing and taking photographs. It was dreamy. I was enchanted already. I was in South America, walking on old streets, luxuriating in just how spectacularly unique and exotic it felt. But I was moving slowly, hungry, my senses inundated to saturation.
Before I left for Chile, I did extensive research on the food scene in Valparaiso. I read and memorized articles such as this one and this one, and mapped them all out on paper with great care, starring each and giving myself directions. It was my vacation, damnit, and I was determined to eat well. Of course, I didn't know then that the Chilean aversion to all pepper and spice would make that desire unfulfillable, but on night one, I was going to have homemade squid ink pasta, and I was going to love it. I wandered toward my restaurant, lost but unafraid, jet lagged, and overjoyed.
And then I was robbed.
It was in this fevered state for Valparaisan cuisine that I saw him. Tall, lean, and running straight for me from across the street, an asshole thief out to do harm in my happiest state! I jerked back with a "NO!" as he grabbed my purse, the one with my carefully created custom map, my Kate Spade wallet I saved for three months for, and my brand new passport. Clearly at 7pm I thought I was safer than I was. Save the scolding, I've already heard it. So I pulled back, the "NO! NO! NOOOOOs" sounding like they came from somebody else, somebody both louder and wilder than I felt. I kicked. We pulled. The bag ripped. I fell forward onto the unforgiving streets so hard I have a bruise the size of a baseball two weeks later.
I had always assumed that if it came time for the "fight" or "flight" response that I would fly, but nope. Well, I did, but toward the danger, which my Chilean friend Maria later told me was "very very stupid." (When you don't know much English, you don't mince words.)
On the street, from the depths of my long-forgotten Spanish classes came the phrase "ayuda me," or "help me," and I found my footing and chased after my passport with all the rigor I had, screaming my one Spanish phrase like a banshee, blowing the whistle on this asshole.
A teeny woman (from here on called Teeny Woman) heard me, came out of her apartment and started chasing him, the Asshole Thief. Then a man came out of his shop and started chasing A.T. Then a teenager came from her apartment and started screaming and chasing him while shouting in Spanish. He turned a corner and I lost him, unaccustomed to running up steep cobblestone hills in boots. Asshole Thief! I slowed and realized I was shaking--feeling pain, dull and throbbing, starting to grow in the hand that had fought for my purse. My only thoughts other than the pain: my cab cash, my address, my passport. Cab cash. Address. Passport. Money, home, passage to the USA, all in the hands of a lanky foreign purse snatcher. So much for squid ink pasta. How would I get back home without a passport, and how would I get to the Victorian ghost house without a map?
The fear and the pain started to set in, and everyone was yelling at me in Spanish. 7pm is early for Chileans, and everybody was out. I was mentally too slow even to register how overwhelmed I was. And then two things happened: At this point, a crowd was starting to form, and they were all talking to me in español muy muy rapido when a man named Miguel came from a bar on the corner and hustled me inside, the bar on the corner and mercy, he spoke English. I figured, well, I have no money but I won't turn down ice. I hadn't realized it, but I had been robbed in front of my future favorite spot in Valpo, Brecon's South American Irish Pub.
Then, Teeny Woman reappeared from the crowd like a genie, holding my purse, contents intact. WHAT? Teeny Woman took down big Asshole Thief? I still don't know how she did it, but I learned: don't mess with even Teeny Chilean women. This night was getting ridiculous.
Here's the biggest problem with not speaking the language where you travel: there's no effective way of saying "thank you." No amount of muchas gracias-ing could express how lucky, just how fucking lucky and grateful I felt for Teeny Woman chasing down Asshole Thief and getting my passport back with her magic Teeny powers. But I did my best. "MU-CH-AS GRA-C-IAS!! I said incredibly loudly, as if volume showed just how grateful I was. Woman was Chilean, not deaf. My bad.
Teeny Woman disappeared back into her apartment or genie bottle or angel cloud, I was left inside Brecon's with a throbbing hand and the police to deal with, because oh yeah, four of them had showed up. Here's how this conversation went:
Me, to bartender: I need a drink, the strongest.
Bartender Tom: Ok
Police: Rapid Spanish rapid spanish rapid spanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanish
Me, again to bartender: Do you know Spanish?
Bartender Tom: No, I'm Welsh. I've lived here a week.
Me to police: Lo siento, no comprendo, lo siento, mi español esta muy mal....
Police to me: Rapid Spanish rapid spanish rapid spanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanish
Bilinguel Miguel, holding ice in a rag: Rapid Spanish rapid spanish rapid spanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanish they want to know what happened.
Me, to Bilinguel Miguel: A man stole my purse.
Miguel to police: Rapid Spanish rapid spanish rapid spanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanish (I feel like he was saying a lot more than "a man stole her purse.") They want to know details.
Me throughly embarrassed I couldn't remember more: I don't know, he ran up and stole my purse! Teeny Woman saved me.
On and on this went for about 15 minutes while Bartender Tom prepared my terremoto with whiskey, Bilingual Miguel and the owner, Tony, who joined him speaking to the police, and the police responding in rapid Spanish, and me just staring wide eyed, clutching my ripped purse dealing with all the feelings and nobody understanding, literally.
Bilingual Miguel to me: They want to take you to the police station.
Me to Miguel: You have to be crAzY lOcO Miguel. I'm not getting in a car with a bunch of MEN who don't speak English.
Miguel and Tony to me: You kinda have to.
Me: I DO NOT.
M & T: You do, or else they will never catch the man. We must keep our city safe. Do it for us.
Me, defeated, probably too easily: Will you save me my drink, Tom?
Reader, may I just go ahead and tell you what it's like to ride in a police car with four spanish speaking police men, winding at top speeds with the sirens on on the loco winding roller coaster streets of Valpo? It was like this:
The guys: Rapid Spanish rapid spanish rapid spanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanishrapidspanish --- stop to look at me --- jajajjajajajajajajaja!!!
I didn't feel self conscious at all. I couldn't tell what was causing my nausea: my hand, my hunger, the way that dude drove on the winding streets, or my embarrassment.
Twenty minutes later at the police station, I'm greeted thusly:
Police one: You...look...like...movie girl. But she's dead.
Me: Which one?
Police one: I find her.
Me: You speak English?
Police one: SI! Brittany Murphy!
I'm having faith already.
All went smoothly at the police station, other than the clear language barrier, and the news that apparently after being robbed I look like Brittany Murphy.
One robbery, two clown car rides, and three hours after my normal dinnertime, I left with a fancy criminal report in spanish and proceeded to drink my teramoto and eat french fries for dinner. Not quite squid ink pasta, but alas. I was just happy to speak some English to Tom from Wales with a Texas tattoo (he spent 10 years in Houston!) and Bilingual Miguel who said "we think we know who robbed you. Stop in tomorrow."
Then I took a cab home, showered and slept. That part is boring.
So the next day, I looked at pretty things. Here's the montage part of our story.
I'm a pretty independent person. I spent the whole second day getting around Valipariso despite the language barrier and my swollen, throbbing hand, but by 5pm when I caught myself talking aloud to a bird at Pablo Neruda's house, it was time to go speak English to somebody.
BACK TO TEMPLEMAN STREET, THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
It was an odd sensation walking down the same street, pacific blue as a backdrop down the steep hill, looking so unassuming I wondered if I had invented the whole thing. Turns out, I had not. The owner Guillermo, or Tony, as I called him for reasons I can't remember now, was working the bar.
Me: Hi Tony!
Tony: Hola Ana, how's the hand?
Me: Mi mano esta mal. (I tried my best.)
Tony: You need to work on your Spanish. I know who robbed you last night. He parks cars in the neighborhood.
Me: Oh, like a valet?
Tony: No. Not like a valet. These guys in Valpo tell you where to park, and you pay them to make sure that nobody (meaning the parkers themselves I guess) don't break into your car while you shop.
Me, feeling like that's the must suspicious job ever: OK.
I fought in the Bosnian war for Chile. I was shot by a sniper in the shoulder, and won medals of honor. When I got home from the war, I opened Breckon's, and want to make tourists happy and teach them about Chile. I keep my medals locked in the cabinet behind the bar. Two nights ago, men broke in and stole my medals. I'm already set to find these men.
Me: Was it the same guy?
Tony: No, but he and a couple of other men snatch purses in the area and sell what they can at markets. I will go to these markets to try and find my medals, and will see purses.
Me: So what happens now that you know who did it? Call the police?
Tony with a VERY serious look: I will take care of it.
Me: HUH? What does that mean?
CLEARLY THE GODFATHER DID NOT PREPARE ME FOR THIS MOMENT.
Tony: I'll take care of it. He won't be stealing again.
Me on the inside: Oh my good lord. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Have I met the mafia don of Valparaiso? Is Asshole Thief going to suffer?
Me on the outside: Sooooo you know where he lives?
Tony: I do. Let me pour you a Carmenère. (subtext: drop it so you don't become an accessory).
I still don't know what happened to Asshole Thief or to Tony and his mission for his medals, but I do know that if you own a pub in Valparaiso that is across from a youth hostel, you don't want your potential patrons getting robbed outside. I am a little concerned for A.T. because Tony is the real deal. He's also kind, charming, speaks excellent English, makes a fantastic pisco sour, and treats his bartenders and customers with integrity, but do. not. cross. him. I kinda hope A.Thief still has knees, despite his clumsy thievery and dubitable career choice. Or maybe I don't.
Valparaiso is, by all measures, a wonderful city. I highly recommend you go here, speak to the lovely people (if you don't speak Spanish head straight to Brecons), take a ride in a collectivo taxi, see Pablo's house, put your feet in the Pacific, and for goodness's sake don't be like me. Carry your cash in your bra or hidden pocket and leave the passport at home so Asshole Sorta Valet Thieves don't try and rob you, fail, and possibly get maimed.