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Valparaiso: Behind the Facade

In Spring 2015 by Madeleine WattenbargerLeave a Comment

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetIn Valparaíso, the streets of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción throb with color. The Chilean coastal city, once the primary port for all of South America, is known for its abundant graffiti and colorful houses. On the hills, or cerros, hedging the town center, or plan, are scattered countless brightly adorned homes. Some were built by squatters who, per Chile’s squatter rights laws, legally acquired the land beneath their homes after several years of residency. Others bespeak the legacy of wealthy European expats importing their architecture to the South American landscape: well-preserved Victorian facades painted in lively pastels.


I’m spending two months in the town next door, Viña del Mar, the bourgeois counterpart to Valpo’s combination of bohemians, tourists and working-class locals. I find myself enchanted by Valparaíso’s hills and art, its hidden boutiques with handmade silver jewelry or lamb’s-wool sweaters or soaps. On these two adjacent hills, Alegre and Concepción, rise a bevy of photogenic views towards the plan and the sea. The steep inclines beguile walking visitors with old, creaky funiculars and narrow staircases. The stairs are painted in bright colors, decorated like piano keys or inscribed with quirky maxims. Every surface begs a second glance, or a third, or a photo.


Each time I turn a corner, I’m awed by what lays ahead of me: an under-the-sea scene covering a high wall, a shop sign created from bicycle wheels, a flower garden where I expected a paved road. Valparaíso is pure scenery. It’s one of the most stunning manmade sights I’ve ever seen. A labyrinth of aesthetic delight. An ornamental wonderland. A camera-happy tourist’s dream. And said camera-happy tourists abound, swarming and hanging from every curb.


Away from Valparaíso’s ornamented walls lies a city whose interiors tell a different story. When the Panama Canal was built, Valparaíso fell into poverty, its port no longer essential to trade in the Americas. The city has seen ample devastation since then. Like the rest of the country, it suffered dramatically during the Pinochet military dictatorship, when graffiti began to appear as a form of political commentary. The last five years have seen a dramatic earthquake, which in February 2010 displaced seven percent of Valparaíso’s population from their homes, and unquenchable wildfires, which last April devoured over 2,500 houses. About a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and the city holds one-third of the country’s slums.


Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetThese facts throw the tourist’s experience of Valpo into an uncomfortable juxtaposition. I’m acutely aware of the artifice of my experience here. My love of Valpo is all exteriors, all surfaces, all outsides, superficial in every sense of the word.


On my first day in Valparaíso, I feel like Dorothy landing in Oz. I photograph lavishly, pausing every few steps to take in my surroundings. After snapping pictures of one graffiti-lined staircase I’ve just ascended, I turn to confront a startling sign hanging on a door: “TOURISM IS THE DEVIL,” it proclaims in English, all caps, white block letters on black. Below it, in hand-drawn letters, reads, “Valparaíso no es escenografía. Respeta al barrio y a los vecinos,” or “Valparaíso is not scenery. Respect the neighborhood and the neighbors.”


A few days later, I take a walking tour of the city, and the guide stops to point out this same house. My two fellow tourists, one from the US and one from Hong Kong, chortle and snap pictures of the door. A few steps ahead, a mural exclaims, “Sr. Turista, no se vuelve loco sacando fotos!” — “Mr. Tourist, don’t go crazy taking photos!” I’m torn by the irony. I feel chastised. I put my camera away. The guide, a Valpo native, assures us that most people in the city appreciate tourists. The kindness of everyone I meet seems to corroborate this claim, but those signs haunt me. What are the effects of making someone else’s home my wonderland, my Oz, my exotic garden? When I take a photo, I wonder, what else am I taking?


Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetThe tension between visible cosmopolitan glamour and unseen urban plight exists almost everywhere in the world. Every city contains two cities: vibrant, historical Philadelphia is also classist, racially divided Philadelphia. Because I’m a US citizen who’s able to travel, I’m privy to the bright side of almost anywhere I live or visit. This is uncomfortable. As a tourist, I want the glamour, not the plight. I don’t want the plight to exist, because its existence questions the authenticity of my experience.


In some sense, the tourist experience is necessarily one of artifice. Ironically, though, tourism usually tells a story about authenticity. Particularly as young, politically savvy budget travelers, we dream of plumbing the depths of the city. We hope to transcend the obviously curated experiences of the stereotypical fanny pack-wearing gringo travelers; we want to discover the real city, the ecosystem beyond the stage set, and find it just as enchanting. We want to return home with tales that you won’t find in guidebooks. In glamorizing the undiscovered, we draw a dichotomy between authentic and artificial travel experiences: this isn’t our parents’ tourism. We imagine becoming just like locals — except transient. We venerate the locals. The point of being a local, though, is that you’re not transient. You pay taxes. You file insurance claims after an earthquake. Everything we love eventually will end up in guidebooks.


Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetUltimately, then, the categories of authenticity and artifice don’t hold up. There probably is an invisible city, but in truth, we don’t really want to experience it, either in our homes or in other places. The authenticity of the invisible city’s slums is irrelevant. We should know better than to fetishize them.
Our desire for authenticity comes, in part, from guilt at our touristic footprints. We’re embarrassed to be pigeonholed as ignorant gringos or insensitive foreigners. Better, perhaps, to acknowledge our foreignness with humility and to tread with respect. I am a stranger, and I hope to be a good one. Scenery or not, these cerros are not my own.


On my walking tour, the guide points out a building where the nineteenth-century façade has been meticulously preserved, to ironic effect: when I walk closer, I see that a totally different house sits about a foot behind the ornate old walls. It’s not even connected. It’s nothing more than a stage set, strictly an exterior. Behind it, however, someone lives.

Madeleine WattenbargerValparaiso: Behind the Facade

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