Day 05 : Accidental Prat

Wednesday 21 May 2014

It’s possibly a question for probability statisticians to muse on, about how regularly I seem to be in a city and accidentally find something big happening there. Had I paid more attention I probably should have known, but I didn’t, so, er, I didn’t.
When I left the hostel this morning around 9.40am, there was virtually no-one around on the streets, and nothing appeared to be open. This didn’t really faze me that much since I’d noted the same in Santiago – Chileans seem to start late and end late (a lifestyle I could well be happy with). However it was the barricades on the road that made me think something was amiss, and when I got to the main square in the town centre, it was closed off and there were all manner of military police milling around.
Turns out that May 21st is a kind of ‘holiday day’ in Chile – it’s ‘Navy Day’. The main square (and some of the streets surrounding it) were closed off because they were being used for a military parade and wreath-laying ceremony. Navy Day celebrates the Chilean Navy, with specific emphasis on a chap called Arturo Prat, a lawyer-cum-naval-officer who in 1879 was decisively beaten and killed during a naval battle in the ‘War of the Pacific’ between Chile and Peru/Bolivia. However his bravery galvanised the Chilean people and forces, who went on to win the war (the consequences of which were that Bolivia lost access to the sea).
Inconveniently, I was trying to get across that square to pick up a walking tour … Fortunately, it being the same company as the ones in Santiago, the tour guides were wearing similar ‘where’s wally’-type tops, so one of them was easy to spot when I was walking around the barricades a few streets away.

Despite the overnight torrential rain, and the chaos in the city centre, the walking tour did indeed take place, albeit with only a couple of us punters (an Irish couple on holiday, and a Dane-cum-American who was taking a few days off from her job teaching English to kids in the Elqui Valley – needless to say she gave me a couple of hints and tips as that’s where I’m headed to next). The two tour guides were even more bouncy than the ones in Santiago.
Valparaiso is quite a hilly city – approximately 40 of them, although some are more populous than others. Each of the hills has its own little character; so a couple are artsy, one bohemian, one near the port is pretty much the no-go area. Part of the city is also a UNESCO world heritage site, due to the layout, design, and colour of the houses – some of which is due to residents snaffling things off boats (eg the corrugated metal used as ballast on boats has been added to the outside of a lot of the houses to make then rain-resistant, whilst the houses are oft painted with left-over paint from ships, hence why the houses are all different colours). Much of those hillsides are also covered with small alleyways, which adds to the charm, although making it tough to fight fires – which are more common than you’d hope because of the wild and wonderful electricity cabling (and people illegally ‘connecting’ to the network).
As noted yesterday, many of these alleyways are covered in street art – it turns out that residents offer their walls to street artists to brighten them up a little, and to prevent the same walls being used by graffiti ‘taggers’ (there’s a tacit understanding between the two).
As for transport up and down the hills, Valparaiso uniquely has a series of ‘funiculars’, that run up/down several of them. They’re pretty cheap (100 pesos ether way, excepting one in the centre that’s 300), and are owned by the city council, making them apparently the only public transport in the whole of South America (everything else is privately-run). They’re pretty old, need a lot of maintenance, and run on electricity, but they seem to work, and are a lot easier than walking up the hills. They don’t, however, go all the way to the top of the hills …
(As an aside, over in the East of the city centre, near the bus station, there’s one that’s vertical. A lift, yes).

When the tour finished, we tried to head back in the direction of the hostels but we wouldn’t as the military police wouldn’t let us. It seems that they were protecting against some kind of demonstration.
Not only is 21 May a national day in Chile, but on that day the President gives an address, similar to the USA’s ‘State of the Union’ speech. She gives it in Valparaiso, which means that today had the potential to be quite tense. It’s quite strange to be surrounded by armed police, and I haven’t decided still if it made me feel secure or not.

I needed to head to the bus station, to buy a bus ticket for tomorrow’s trip to La Serena, and the Dane (Rebecca) wanted to head that way too, so I ended up having a companion for the rest of the day, which makes a change from travelling alone – indeed it turns out she was staying in the same hostel as me too, having arrived stupidly early this morning. The bus station was also closed (for the same reasons) but would soon re-open so we had a little wander around the local area.
In the rain. On the way to the bus station it started to drizzle, but quickly turned torrential. By the time we got back to the hostel we were absolutely soaked; fortunately the hostel had a heater in the main living space we could stand in front of.

On the tour, we’d walked very close to the hostel and the tour guide had pointed out a nice local Chilean restaurant that sold microbeers. Naturally therefore I forwent my pepper/onion/chilli/tagliatelle stir-fry and went there instead – and the beer was pretty good as well. Decided I could save my next hostel-cooking-experience for tomorrow.

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