Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oda a un Poeta Chileno

I thought I'd use this blog post to inflict some bad poetry on you that I wrote just for the occasion.  Then I thought better of it, and decided to share the work of a much better poet than I, whose house I visited today in Santiago:

Day-colored wine,
Night-colored wine,
Wine with purple feet
Or wine with topaz blood,
Starry child of earth,
Wine, smooth
As a golden sword,
As lascivious velvet,
Wine, spiral-seashelled
And full of wonder,
Never has one goblet contained you.
-- Ode to Wine - Pablo Neruda

Ah, I feel so cultured now.  I've read some of Neruda's work before -- I have his sonnets (at home) translated in English, with the Spanish original on the facing pages, and it is fascinating to read the two side by side.  I'm ever so slightly better at making sense of the English version, but, oh, the Spanish sounds divine even when I don't know the meaning of all the words.

I am in Santiago, if I haven't already told you -- oh, right, I think I already told you about my hostel misadventures upon arrival.  I spent yesterday taking care of some practical things:  first, I undertook a journey to the neighbourhood of Providencia for English language bookstores in search of a travel guide for Bolivia.  Simple enough task, but I was shocked at the price of books in Chile -- I'd expected English language might be a little bit more, but $30 for a used (well-used, at that) book?  Even the Spanish-language books were outrageously expensive; apparently there's a 19% tax on books here.

Second task was to mail some stuff home -- full travel journals, souvenirs, and the like -- in an effort to lighten my backpack and avoid any risk of losing or damaging them on the road.  The Correo Central (main post office) is a grand and elegant building, and I got a good look around while I waited in line for at least two hours.  Then spent about another half hour trying to negotiate the transaction; I swear all my Spanish (such as it is) flew right out of my head that afternoon, as I struggled with the simplest of points!  But it all got done in the end -- I think -- and with luck my packages are on their way back to Canada.

Third task was the most fun -- booking a flight and place to stay in Easter Island!!  Whoo-hoo!  Yep, I'm on my way, baby, and I fly off early Friday morning, returning next Tuesday (the 18th).  It isn't going to be cheap -- just the flight and a place to stay are costing me about $1,000 -- but it's cheaper than trying to do it later from home as a separate vacation, and hey, when am I ever going to happen to be in the neighbourhood with the time to go?  ("In the neighbourhood" being defined very loosely, as Easter Island -- Isla de Pascua -- is about 3,700 km away.  But the only point of land closer than Chile is Pitcairn Island to the west, at 1,900 km from Easter Island and a long, long way from anywhere else.)

The rest of the day was the usual stuff -- making dinner, washing clothes, hanging out in the sunshine in the big back patio of the hostel.  They even have a pool, which I haven't yet tried; days are pretty warm, but I'm not sure it's quite bathing suit weather.

Today I actually got to see something of the city other than the post office and a few bookstores.  My neigbhourhood of Barrio Brasil is walkable from downtown, and the metro is so efficient that it's ridiculously easy to get around to places further afield.  Transit isn't as cheap as Buenos Aires -- but at 3 times the price, it's still only about $1 a ride and covers the entire city.  And Santiago is very safe; there is almost nowhere that you shouldn't ramble around alone.  The biggest hazard you'll face is the smog (more on that later).

I discovered an antique funicular than runs up Cerro San Cristobal, the hill that towers over the centre of the city.  After a slow, rattling ride up, I wandered around in the sunshine for a while -- the top of the hill is devoted to parkland, a zoo, and an outdoor church with the largest statue of Mary that I've ever seen at (22 metres high).  In theory, there should be fantastic views of the city and the mountains encircling it, but the smog is painfully evident -- take a look at this to see just how thick the blanket of pollution is:

(Then I thought I`d spend the rest of the afternoon walking around breathing in that air?  What on earth was I thinking?)

I also went to visit Pablo Neruda`s house in the neighbourhood of Bellavista (hence the literary offering at the start of this post) -- his second home, built for the woman who eventually became his third wife.  At the time he built her the house, he was still married to the second wife, but that`s a minor point, isn`t it?  It`s a delightful spot, anyway; designed to evoke the look and feel of a ship, it would have, in its day, commanded majestic views of the Andes.  (Now, of course, the view is largely obscured by skyscrapers and smog.)  There are 3 bars on the property -- just to uphold the stereotype that writing and alcoholism go together -- and an eclectic display of his possessions.  Among them are the medals awarded to Neruda, most notably the Nobel prize for literature in 1971.

The house isn`t quite as he left it, as it was raided and trashed by Pinochet`s troops after the 1973 coup; Neruda was a dangerous left-wing sympathizer and too high profile -- he had been politically active since his 20`s and served as ambassador in the Far east at the tender age of 24 -- so to protect the state Pinochet`s men burned his classic works of literature and flooded his home.  (Uh-uh, totally logical.  Military dictatorships are so wise.)  Neruda`s widow -- the mistress-turned-third-wife Mathilde -- returned to live there after his death (he died two weeks after the coup) and restored the house as part of his legacy.  The books, however, could not be saved.

My final stop before meandering home was the Museo de Arte Precolombino, just off the central square of Plaza de Armas, to check out their fascinating collection of artefacts from 4,500 years of civilization in Latin America, including mummies that pre-date Egypt`s by centuries.  Now I`m back at the hostel, procrastinating about making dinner -- I`m just not in the mood for rice and beans and vegetables (which is what I have).  I could go for a thick, juicy, bacon cheeseburger right now.  With a glass of malbec to wash it down ... mmmmmm.

Tomorrow I`m off to Valparaiso, I think -- it`s a couple of hours north of Santiago by bus, and has a reputation as the bohemian capital of Chile.  Neruda had another home here -- his first one, I think -- so I might go check that out too.  Had thought about going to one of the nearby wineries, but since I`ve just come from wine country I think I`d like to do something different. 

Then I`m off to Easter Island!  Not only do I get to go somewhere I have long wanted to see, but it`s going to be a very welcome break ... I`m getting a little travel-lagged and it`ll be nice to chill out on a tropical island for a little while.

P.S.  How much better still does that poem sound in Spanish ...

Vino color de día,
vino color de noche,
vino con pies de púrpura
o sangre de topacio,
estrellado hijo
de la tierra,
vino, liso
como una espada de oro,
como un desordenado terciopelo,
vino encaracolado
y suspendido,
nunca has cabido en una copa


  1. I love Pablo Neruda,
    First met his work in a writing class – I had a fiction writing instructor who says every writer worth her/his salt should read Neruda. Even if you don't want to be a poet, you can learn from him.
    Reminds me, I must go hunt out my Neruda book and read some again!

  2. I know what you mean ... he is one of those writers I read just to marvel at the way he uses language (well, maybe I'm marvelling at the translator's use of language, but whatever). I love some novelists who are also poets just for that reason -- I can read Michael Ondaatje, or Anne Michaels, and lose track of the story completely just because I am so in awe of the way they can put words together that just sing.

    Maybe with about 500 years more practice, I'll get there too ...