Valparaiso Vagabonds – A Year in Valpo
A year ago I was home in Sydney, packing a year’s worth of clothes. Now, I’m in Valparaiso, where I’ve called home for the past year, packing all my treasured memories, ready to fly back to Australia.
I had travelled to Chile before and was quite familiar with the sociocultural context. However, I had never lived in Chile, and this was by far my biggest fear. Coming from a comfortable, developed country, where we have access to anything we wish to pursue, I was worried that moving to a developing country would come as a culture shock. I moved to Valparaiso for a year for study purposes. We were able to choose where we wanted to accommodate, and having family here in Chile, I opted for the cheapest option, as I knew I wouldn’t have to pay rent. However, the cheapest option meant experiencing the real life here in Valparaiso, living in one of the Cerros of Valparaiso, Cerro Los Placeres. The demographics are quite simple to understand. The further up in the hills you live, the sketchier the environment is, and well, Cerro Los Placeres is basically as high as you can get. But, it was the best decision I could have made. I came across many exchange students in my first semester of University here, and they all lived in the centre of Viña, smack bang where all the action happens, right next to the mall and all the funky cafes, and about a 5 minute walk from the University. I lived a 20-minute bus ride away. These students couldn’t even imagine what real life Valparaiso was like, as they seemed to lock themselves in this little Viña bubble. People always seem to make the comparison between Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Valpo is the Bohemian, artsy, hippy capital of Chile. Viña is one of the touristic capitals, where everyone comes to spend summer, and the plazas are filled with well-groomed trees and pretty lights. Valpo is raw, real. Viña is gorgeous, awing. Nonetheless, you cannot come to Chile and not stop over both beautiful cities. They’re about a 5-minute bus ride away from each other yet the differences are many. I was lucky to be able to experience the best of both worlds. My host University was located in Viña del Mar, constructed on a hill to itself, overlooking the whole city. And on the weekends, I journeyed through the colourful, graffiti streets of Valparaiso.
Street dogs – “Los Perros Callejeros”
There were five things we were told at the University’s Orientation Day, kind of like a Guide to Chile 101: be extremely careful when carrying valuables, be careful with la araña de rincón, be careful with Gypsies, do not panic with earthquakes, and…watch out for dogs. The street dogs of Valparaiso have become part of the scenery. These dogs live most part of their lives on the streets, regardless of whether they have an owner. A month upon arriving, we were given a University task where we had to reflect on what had impacted us the most, making cross-cultural comparisons, of this new place we called home. There is definitely one thing that stands out. All I remember was getting off the airport transfer in front of the house I would be staying in for the next year, and seeing a good six or so dogs scattered on the street ahead of me. I am not an animal person. I never have been. I have nothing against them. I’m just not a fan, so you can imagine how difficult it was getting used to the street dogs on every corner. For the past year, I have walked past the same dogs every day, becoming accustomed to them, rightly so, as I was the one entering their habitat, therefore I was the one that had to get used to the idea. I have come to realise that that is the mentality that one needs in order to travel and experience to the fullest. We must be open to other ideas, cultures and lifestyles. We must never fear what is different, but accept it and appreciate it as it is.
The Real Chile
There are definitely downers of having chosen to live in a lower socioeconomic sector of Valparaiso. Yes, there is a lot of theft. You definitely have to be very careful with your belongings! Surprisingly, though, throughout this whole year the only thing I have had stolen is my mobile phone…once! I say this to anyone that asks me about safety here – as long as you are not caught off-guard, and you are aware of the public space around you (besides the obvious “don’t walk alone at night”), then you really have nothing to worry about. It’s all about not tempting the thief. Valparaiso is renowned for being the more dangerous city, in comparison to Viña, something like the “ghetto”. However, life in the Cerros is different, and I don’t think there is comparison. I don’t just say that because I live here, but the people are so warm and welcoming that you never want to leave. I have an Australian friend that had the chance to spend a lot of time with friends and family, and now that we have less than a month left to go back home, he texted me saying “I’m going to miss those long nights, barbecues and beer, chatting the night away outside your neighbours house”. It seems like the less you have, the more you want to share.
I was super scared upon making the decision to leave my immediate family and close friends behind before coming on this wild adventure, but this year has been the most amazing year yet! If you ever get the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, whether it be for a week, a month, or a year, grab the opportunity with both hands and go for the ride. Experiencing new cultures and mixing with different people is the most fulfilling thing one can do. Oh, and if you ever get the chance to experience the authentic side of a culture, choose it over the touristic, you’ll see things you may otherwise never have seen! I have a year’s worth of crazy travel stories to share, as I definitely did not just stay in Valparaiso!