The harbour was the richest of all, the goal, celebrated in song. The scissor snip of Panama put it back in its place. It’s still a harbour.
Valparaíso, Chile, population 300,000. It still lives on, and lives well. A busy city lives with it at the foot of the hills.
On top, a cluster of villages, one per hill… 42 hills, 42 villages. Another world.
Two worlds linked by ramps, stairways, funiculars.
What we mispronounce as Valparaiso is Val Para – Iso, the Vale of Paradise. Paradise for the sailors who named it, or the last stop before it.
The sun works wonders every noon. The women parade in full sail.
Bridges end in the sky. All the houses are triangular. Stairs stop halfway… you either climb or fly.
Poverty isn’t itself in the sun, nor are funiculars.
This is the city’s lie. Its lie is the sun, its truth the sea.
A city created, forged by sailors. English traces: the great banks, the triumphal arches, the lion rampant, the Salvation Army, and a low grade whisky.
France’s contribution was piracy and culture.
The Spaniards baptised, converted, and wedded the city… which left them for the Dutch. Infidelity goes on.
The city is full of souvenirs: the souvenirs of sailors, from Casablanca or Singapore. Houses become souvenirs of ships, and then become ships themselves.
Up and down, up and up, down and up… A one legged man is climbing the stairs. He counts the steps. You need a sound heart and memory.
The ramp is faster than the stair. Going down is faster. You laugh as you go. You pant as you climb. It’s fun and tiring, abominable and inhuman, ridiculous and weird.
Too many people up above, too few below. Later it changes.
Ceaseless capture and recapture. It’s like war or manoeuvres, with attacks, raids, breakthroughs, victories, and retreats… with an occasional truce.
Fish keep you from starving by the sea. But fish don’t fly.
Funiculars again! They’re very picturesque. The people on the top depend on them. They can’t bring up everything… water, for instance. Yet laundry flutters. Girls are in white. What price, white blouses, clean faces, when water’s scarce? What price the simplest things, washing and cooking? What price the will to live? What price happiness?
Everything goes by funicular. There are few accidents but many breakdowns. Then the life of the hill breaks down too. Drivers and conductors see the whole city unreal, with its adventures and secrets. They are the museum keepers of the hills.
The hills have names like Baron, Butterfly, Nuns and Milkmaids. The higher the poorer, with the poorest at the top. Big iron houses girdle each hill. How can people live with the hills against them? Children walk to save a penny. They need water, gas, a school, sewage, a clinic.
Above all, water. Some have found an answer with iron and rope, but all have the same problems. The citizen’s council meeting: “Something must be done.”
Fire doesn’t like to stop. Every man is a fireman here. The wooden houses and high winds. It blows hard on top: good for laundry but not for lungs. But the air is pure and clean. The air of the hills is like the city’s look, like the look of this calm polite people, fond of animals, and whom you can’t help looking at with the same friendly eyes.
Horsemen surround this seamen’s city. The butcher’s shop is called “Buffalo Bill.”
At Viña del Mar a horse has won a big race. After five years he has to play the city’s game. “Buffalo Bill” is waiting for his meat. A black cross is the sign of death, and his eyelids flutter – he knows.
But men don’t, or don’t want to. They believe in immortality, in a tightly stopped bottle. Something will remain. When they are worried, instinct drives them to heat and light.
And this is another feature of the city – blood and its memory. Memory of corsairs: Hawkins, Drake, Joris de Spilbergen, torture and pillage. The Spaniards, torture and colonial oppression for centuries.
Fires, the elements taking over man’s work. After fire, the sea, storms, Jules Verne ships and shipwrecks. And the dance goes on. England supports Chile. Isabella II bombards the city. Then it’s the earth’s turn: earthquakes, deluges, fires. Such was the lot of this peaceful people. And it wasn’t over.
But what ever is? The sirens still sing in the harbour. They wait expectantly, wait and listen. Neither the language of flags nor the movement of ships translate the city’s past. But regret for yesterday can be flight from today. On these hills, which will soon see the great kite championship, the future is to win decent houses, gain justice… that is today’s adventure. Adventure of another kind… You can play at builders as well as at pirates.