Day eight has arrived and I am now practically part of the furniture here in Valparaiso. People have begun to notice that I am still wondering round over a week later, which makes them curious. Valparaiso is a transient place, travellers stay for short periods, and tourists even shorter.
I have decided to capitalise on this curiosity and using the little Spanish I know, a cheesy grin and the help of the few English and sometimes french speakers here, I have been asking questions. These questions have concentrated, today, in the creative artisan community that is plentiful here in Valparaiso.
The first place I went was a little jewellers, he makes all manner of jewellery from silver and precious stones, such as lapis lazuli (which is only found in Chile and Afghanistan). Luckily he spoke English well, so I shared with him why I was there and then him and another local customer told me there views on the city. For them it is dangerous and poor. He confirmed what I had felt about the proximity of wealth to poverty here. On road will have wealthy houses or hotels, four streets over will have empty buildings with squatters or railings over the windows to keep undesirables out. He says things have changed since UNESCO, but not enough. He is proud of his city, but fearful for its future. I took some pictures with his permission to show my dad (who is also a jeweller, working in a similar way in the UK). With that, and a warning about being alone, don’t go out alone at night, hide my jeweller and stay safe, I went on my way.
The next stop was to a small gallery. I had met the owner earlier in day while climbing some steps, he again had warned me about stepping out alone at dusk, I must not use the steps! Chileans have shown great concern for me during this experience, they have wanted me to have a nice trip. Unmarred by the negative impression of a street crime. I appreciate this, however I’m under no illusion that this is not because of my gender. Once noticed, people think that it is odd I’m travelling alone, pitying looks from the girls in the boat from Peru. Or puzzling looks from the Chilean cook, she is lovely but can’t understand why no husband or children with me. I can understand this, Valparaiso is a city but when it comes to gender roles we may aswell be in rural France. The women here do not push prams, they carry their babies in slings, wrapped in blankets. Women are maternal and do not travel alone. I am an oddity to them.
In the art gallery Christian, the owner, talked to me a lot about Valparaiso. He had lived in the states for 12 years, and was able to make comparisons to San Francisco and LA. Many people make the connection between SF and here, I think maybe it’s the hills! We talked about the poverty locally, as we had discussed crime. The correlation appears to be that the poorest live on the outskirts of the city, up in the hills. As he said they get e best views but the worst facilities and housing. He felt that street art had helped give Valparaiso hope, it made a grey place vibrant.
He compared Valparaiso to Vina del Mar, the wealthier city further north on the coast. That area was the bohemian area about ten years ago. But they built a mall, like you can find in any city in the world, and it killed off the bohemian artistic culture. This found its way to Valparaiso, small artisan shops popped up and street art protected by UNESCO as developers do not see restoration as a profitable undertaking here. He was hopeful for Valparaiso and it’s future. Noting that the street art is the pulse of the city, the blood that runs through the streets.
The final artisan stop was the leather shop. Here I stumbled upon a master craftsman and his apprentice, making designer bags, designed by the craftsman’s nephew. They are situated right in the heart of the graffiti and street art main area in Valparaiso, and are actually the only business in this area. They like the street art, saying it brings business to them as people (like me) are snapping the graffiti they may pop in. He also talked to me about the creativity of the people there, but how it also highlighted the multicultural aspects of the city, with artists coming from all over the world to paint there.
All three different craftsmen felt that the street art added to the local area. Bringing together a fractured community and making it a more interesting place to live. However each warned of great poverty and the absolute destitution of some of the residents of the city. Many of the murals of the city talk about a proud people, with a mixed past. It is possible that the financial crisis will be the next story told on the walls of Valparaiso. Or perhaps it already is…