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essays | places | Chile

Valparaíso / TV, Tsunami, Fire, Neruda and the Quintessence of Hills & Timing

ups and downs: a poetic matter of perspective


   We arrived long after dark. The guesthouse was hidden behind many a curve somewhere on a black hill, of which Valparaíso maybe had one too many just then. Upon arrival, the owner ushered us into a small, rustic room where a vintage TV set sat on a wooden table to remind me of my childhood or to entertain whoever passed through this establishment.

It brought back my first memory of my 30-years older cousin, or rather her house, and more specifically the notion that there was no TV in it and how perplexed I was by this obvious hole in her household and life. That’s how engrained an institution TV was for me back then and I thought knowing the TV program inside out was just general knowledge. Yet, the older I’ve gotten, the more this machine of mass distraction has lost its power over me. Time has pivoted perspective and 180 degrees later I cannot imagine a life with TV anymore. Watching the occasional movie or show has long shifted into realms of internet choice, while the rigid TV program is extinct in my world. Looking back onto five years of travel by now, it cannot be more than five hours sweetened by good old-fashioned TV I look back onto. It’s not like I demonize the telly, but either there was no TV where I lived or there were more entertaining distractions.

"Such is the wavefunction of human life. And we can surf that wave, but never own it."

Still, there was no denying that this little TV set was the unanimous center of attention right now with eight eyes between us fully devoted to it: an 8.2 earthquake off the Chilean Pacific coast was sending a Tsunami right our way and suddenly we felt a gust of appreciation for every meter our journey had led us up the raven hill. Valparaíso was spared for the most part that night, until ten days later it was not. What has become known as the Great Fire of Valparaíso left some 11.000 inhabitants homeless on the very hills that had sheltered them from the Tsunami. Within a matter of days, water had claimed the foothills and fire consumed the peaks, and the theatric interplay of elemental opposites was more on the nose than any Greek tragedy.

It’s all ups and downs with the hills and the waves and the flames, and a matter of perspective and timing isn’t it? Quite literally so in this case of course. But any up, no matter how up, is ultimately a precursor for a down and vice versa. Such is the wavefunction of human life. And the higher the up, and the lower the down, the more we stand to lose or gain. And we can surf that wave, but never own it. Most of us want to be on its crest, but it takes some duck diving to get there and sometimes some drowning and you can never really ride the crest for too long without falling off. Those that strike a healthy balance in the center of the wave ride it the longest, and while their ride is never as elevating or crushing, nor as spectacular or formative, the middle between good and bad is still its own place and for those who like it there, it is more than OK, while those who indulge the extremes perceive the balance as flatlining. Wherever we end up, there is no setting up camp along the wave and the sea accepts no claim laid to it, forcing our feelings and consequences into perpetual, circumstantial nomadism. And I cannot imagine a simpler or more beautiful way to phrase the quintessence of timing as this quote by grand poet Neruda himself: “Hoy es hoy y ayer se fue, no hay duda” (Today is today and yesterday is gone, there is no doubt).

"And so the historic quarter of Valparaíso keeps sitting there atop the hills to merge sheet metal with hue, the ocean with a view and paint with poetry."

Life went on in the seaport. And so the historic quarter of Valparaíso keeps sitting there atop the hills to merge sheet metal with hue, the ocean with a view and paint with poetry. No wonder that Valparaíso was Neruda's home of choice – guided by emotion but not without reason – and has birthed a plethora of other artists. Our ascends from the harbor into the cluster of hills led us past the entire spectrum of colors dressing the facades. Offbeat galleries took turns with parks that eyed the deep-blue Pacific and flamboyant bars annexed to brick breweries. Life seemed to be good here, usually.