Chile, South America, Sudamerica, Uncategorized, Valparaíso

A Walk in the Twenties ~~Valparaíso, Chile


photos of the hillsides by Paul Quealy


I re-watched a movie recently, that reminded me of a walk I took, in the early morning hours, around Valparaíso, Chile, a couple of months ago.

Those familiar with Woody Allen movies surely know “Midnight in Paris”.

(If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this, run out and rent it, it’s great! And this is a spoiler alert.)

A despondent writer walks the streets of Paris, and at midnight, is transported back to the 1920’s, the era he’s longed for his whole life, to meet his artistic idols.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and all the other artists and writers of Paris between-the-wars.  He meets a beautiful woman from that time, but then finds that she in turn, yearns to escape the ’20’s to live in an even earlier time, La Belle Époque (what we in the U.S. call “The Gilded Age”).




I would love to visit Paris, or New York, during those long-ago eras.

And it turns out, another great place to stroll around, then and now:  Valparaíso.

During the Gilded Age, it was a major world port, called the “San Francisco of South America” — a key stopping point for Europe-to-Asia shipping, for clipper ships and steamers “sailing around the Horn” through the Straits of Magellan.

Valparaíso’s harbor handled a huge volume of lumber, wheat, beef, sugar, nitrates and saltpeter, copper and silver, as well as European cargoes bound for Asian markets, and vice-versa.

Farther back in time, in the 1850’s, there was a huge traffic in guano, at that time, being mined on the coasts and islands belonging to Peru and Chile, and then shipped to farmers in the U.S. and Europe.   At that time, guano (the dried accumulation of seabird droppings) was an incredibly valuable soil amendment.  Franklin Pierce,  reckoned to be one of our worst Presidents (although, of course, he’s moved up one slot recently) displayed a politician’s natural affinity for, let’s say, “fertilizer,” and signed the “Guano Islands Act of 1856,” allowing U.S. citizens to claim any unoccupied island, covered with centuries of bird manure, sometimes hundreds of feet thick, as a new, fragrant part of the United States, at least until we’d mined it out.  It was a proud moment for American statesmen, doing that voodoo, and bird doo, that they do so well.  But I digress.



The docks in the old days. Sometimes, these stereo cards are the only images that survive of a particular time and place. LOC. (I love these stereoscopic photos. Next fall, my sister will be going to college in the town where these cards were printed – Meadville, Pennsylvania.)


This was South America’s single most important Pacific seaport.  Immigrants from UK, Germany, Italy, and France poured in.  The cosmopolitan community grew and spread up the hillsides, with two dozen funiculars to carry people up the slopes.

Then, as historians like to say, something happened.

It was called “Teddy Roosevelt”.

In 1914, the Panana Canal began siphoning off the ships and trade.


The harbor, on a different, sunny day. Beautiful, and pretty empty of ships. Photo credit Paul Quealy

In recent years, the city is awake and bustling again, as a tourist destination, and a center for universities and the arts.  This is a vibrant, fun city, with art museums and amazing street art, too. And it’s still a seaport, of course, with fishing boats, and cruise ships, and the Chilean navy is based there, but it has nothing like the cargo traffic of Shanghai, Singapore, or Rotterdam.  Nowadays, the lesser ports in the U.S., like Savannah or even the much-diminished New York harbor, handle far more shipping.

A hundred years ago, when the fleets of cargo ships stopped coming, the rich folks started moving out, and in the old downtown, it’s as if the grand city drifted off to sleep in 1914, when the canal opened.

So, here in the land famous for poetry and “magic realism,” a perfect place for a bit of time-travel on a foggy morning.

Whistler. “Nocturne in blue and gold. Valparaiso Bay 1866”

People compare Valparaíso’s climate to that of San Francisco, basically pleasant and moderate, but also including frequent fogbanks rolling in from the ocean.  Whether it’s Yorkshire, Hong Kong, or the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I’ve always found fog to be conducive to a history walk. It quietens the roar of modern life, keeps the crowds indoors, gives an old-painting look to things, and acts as a theatrical scrim for old buildings.


So when I arrived, a bit foggy myself, after an overnight bus ride from Pucón, I was happy to step into a gray, misty morning, just before sunrise. The rain had just ended, the streets were wet, and it was still overcast and half-dark.







Walking through the historic district, down by the port, and the old-fashioned financial district, I was struck by just how empty it felt. When there was a break in the clouds, you could see the hillsides surrounding the city, as everyone notes, like a big amphitheater, jammed with tiers of houses, in beautiful colors, like a box of crayons.  There are still quite a few operational funiculars, going up the steep slopes.

But where I was walking, the streets were empty at that hour, the shops still shuttered, and the city felt old, grayed, and even slightly foreboding.

I was happy to see a Kodak sign, a reminder of back home in Upstate NY, and a time when our economy was thriving.

It was around this time I really began to pay attention to the stone-faced buildings, from Valpo’s boom years.  A lot of the blocks near the harbor have an early 20th century feel.  The Spanish conquistadors established a village here in the 1500’s, but most of the buildings I passed are late-Victorian or from the early 1900’s.  Earthquakes over the centuries, and a bombardment by the Spanish navy in 1866, destroyed many of the older buildings.  The worst destruction happened around the turn of the last century.

Over several months in 1906, a series of severe earthquakes hit all around the Pacific Rim, knocking down thousands of buildings, and killing thousands of people.  Columbia and Equador were hit first, followed by a tsunami, sixteen feet high. Then Taiwan, one of their worst, followed by the infamous San Francisco quake, that leveled almost the entire city.

An even more severe one (8.2) hit this city, and killed almost four thousand people. The cathedral and churches, museums and government buildings from the 1800’s were repaired and reassembled, so you see some neo-classical and beaux-artes styles, but near the harbor, blocks and blocks of buildings had been built on fill, just like lower Manhattan, and had to be created from scratch, so I was roaming around in a substantially post-1906 world.  The streets are sometimes curving, sometimes at angles, so there are some interesting angular buildings.

I looked around at the handsome old buildings in the mist, and decided I was taking a stroll in the, say, 1920’s.

The provincial government building, the Palacio Armada de Chile, is from 1910.  The national library, 1925.  Banks that wouldn’t look a tad out of place in the older parts of Manhattan lined the streets.  I passed the Bolsa de Comercio, the 1917 stock exchange, and the offices of El Mercurio. the oldest continuously published newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world.


I stopped to examine the statue of the winged messenger god, perched on the newspaper building.  Another reminder of home – there’s a similar statue of Mercury in Rochester, from 1881, that used to be on top of Kimball’s Peerless Tobacco Works.  Placed in storage for many years when the factory was torn down, it was then moved to the Lawyer’s Coop building. (Rochester loves the statue, although when this naked man was re-erected over the city, if you’ll pardon the expression, there was an intense, sometime cheeky debate over which part of town his derrière would face.)


One wing of the Palacio Baburizza. A 1917 Art Nouveau mansion, built for an Italian immigrant named Ottorino Zanelli, and then owned by a Croatian immigrant named Pascual Baburizza, overlooking the Paseo Yugoslavo.


A couple of blocks away, I caught a glimpse of a trolley going by. (As I found out later, it was actually a vintage trolleybus, from the ’50’s, rather than the ’20’s, but from a distance, it helped with the time-travel illusion.)

photo by Paul Quealy


Then something else caught my eye.

Off to the right, I caught a glimpse of a clock. Partially out of curiosity as to the time, and partially because it struck me as sort of familiar, I walked towards it.

If you’ve ever seen pre-WWI pictures of city streets, you’ll remember the webs of electric, telephone and telegraph wires overhead, from poles and brackets on buildings. Each phone and telegraph, was connected to an exchange by its own, individual copper wire, creating a crazy tangle overhead. A century ago, the larger U.S. cities began putting the wires underground.

But in Chile, the overhead wires for the electric trolleybuses, and some telephone lines are still strung over some of the streets, adding to the old-time feeling.  Philadephia and Boston are the only U.S. cities I’ve been in, where the trolleybuses still run.

Cities in New York State abandoned streetcars and trolley systems many decades ago, most of them gone before WWII.  But in the early ’50’s, Valparaíso bucked the trend, installed this system…and the original 1950’s vehicles are still running somehow.


And, so, when I went around the corner, and saw through the fog, an odd, almost triangular building, with trolley wires crossing overhead, on a street that looked like old-time Manhattan, it suddenly felt like I was walking in a Gilded Age incarnation of New York City. The angular building reminded me of a miniature six-story Flatiron.



(In reality, an example of how we compress and blur events in the past. I checked and found that in NYC, the wires went underground sooner than most places, following a disastrous blizzard in March 1888. So the telephone/telegraph wires were gone before the very modern, 22-story Flatiron went up in 1902.  NYC went on to embrace subways, and phased out trolleys.)

The building I was walking toward, as I later learned, was the Reloj Turri, completed 1924, in the French Neoclassical style. Like the Flatiron, it drives a wedge between two streets. It’s one of the city’s landmarks, topped by one of its oldest functioning clocks.

Later in the morning, Valpo began to come to life, and my fantasy stroll through the Nineteen-Twenties was fading out. But next to the tower, I wandered into the café of an old, elegant hotel. They served caffè italiano, instead of the usual instant Nescafe, and had wonderful pastries, and offered lots of newspapers.  I wished I had a linen suit and a Panama hat.  But seated in the quiet turn-of-the-century hotel, I sat back like a rich boulevardier, eating pastries, drinking excellent coffee, reading the papers, and watching the people slowly strolling by, and stayed immersed in my daydream of the ’20’s for just a bit longer.

I didn’t get to go back in time and meet Hemingway or Dalí, and it was only a few hours, before the city woke up, and got noisy again. But when I think of Valparaíso, it is these images and feelings from that foggy early morning, that surface in my mind. A taste of a city as it once was, and a feeling like nostalgia, for a prior incarnation of Valparaíso, and New York, too, that I would have liked to walk around.

The Flatiron in 1905. LOC

Chile, Halloween, Pucón, Uncategorized

Night Noises of Pucón. An Early Halloween Post.


Once upon a midnight dreary… came a tapping…rapping at my chamber door… A ghastly grim and ancient Ibis wandering from the Nightly shore… Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

I grew up in a sleepy rural part of New York State, that most people have never heard of.   It is pretty quiet.

A dirt track, on the edge of town, where go-karts used to generate a droning sound, audible all over the village on Saturday nights, went bust, years ago.  There’s only a subdued hum from the highway going through town;  the semis stick to the Thruway, five or six miles north of here.  The faint gunshots, from hunters, or the farm boys target-shooting with their knockoff AK-47’s, in the old quarry across the canal, end by sunset.   Occasionally, you can hear cheering and honking during high school football games, or snowmobiles whining around the fields during the winter.  But most nights, the only sounds are crickets, frogs, and cicadas.

Once in a while, you’ll hear a whippoorwill or mockingbird, or an owl quietly hooting, but we don’t have nightingales.  From a pine tree at one of my grandmother’s houses, you’d sometimes be bothered by a pair of Mourning Doves, no one’s favorite.

Then I went to College, where the dorms blared music, and spent a semester in Hong Kong — bustling with all-night markets and traffic, throngs of people 24/7, clanking air conditioners — endless light and sound.   A semester at an English university brought recitals of Disney tunes at 3am, by drunken rugby players in the back alley, complete with a percussion section, as they tripped over the dustbins.

chile-volcano2Currently I’m living in a small city, more like a large village really, in the Lake District of central Chile.

And in winter, the natural sounds of Pucón are louder than any place I’ve ever been in before.

I stay in a hostel, built around and above my host family’s house.  La familia is nice — a large, extended family with many children, aunts, uncles and others coming in and out, but during the winter, I often have the hostel to myself, and my hosts are pretty quiet really.  Even the youngest, who careens around all day, nonstop, crashing into things and laughing maniacally, settles down by nine.


But here, in a stunningly beautiful place, next to a sparkling lake, in the shadow of the Andes and a spectacular nine thousand foot snow-covered volcano, it’s harder to sleep than anywhere I’ve been before.

Perhaps it’s the winter weather, not especially cold, compared to home, but often unrelentingly gray and rainy, which has been blamed for the region’s high suicide rate.  Perhaps it’s a psycho-electrical effect  on my brain cells, from the unfamiliar pull of the volcanic region and the southern magnetic pole.  But despite all the natural beauty, there is something unsettling and almost unworldly about Chile during the winter.

For creatures like us, mostly dependent on sight, noise is amplified at night.  And the hostel, a weird echo chamber, exaggerates the weather.  Once inside, it seems like wind storms and rain almost constantly buffet my little fragile house, and as soon as I step outside, there is sun and calm. I go back in, and it sounds like the storm of the century is sweeping in.

My hostel is wooden, casually minimalistic in construction, added as a kind of afterthought-second-story, precariously hanging over the house below. Rickety and probably a fire hazard.

Some of my light comes from a plastic sky roof, loosely bolted into the tin roof.  So, when it rains, it reverberates like a thousand drums; and the wind threatens to rip the corrugated tin and plastic panels off the roof. I watch them twitch and rattle in the storms, and wonder just how long before it comes flying off or crashing down.

Threatening sounds echo off the angular roof.  Sound is reflected strangely. If someone is walking down the hallway, it sounds exactly as if they are walking on my roof.

There are few street lights, and most people heat with wood, creating a smoky haze. At night, this is a very dark town, and you cannot see your hand in front of your face.  And that is when the howling winds start to tear at the roof, while rain batters it – deafening and threatening.  During the winter here, it isn’t a pleasant pitter-patter of rain on tin, like you get on a warm spring day – this seems more like some horror movie, where the denizens of a haunted hostel attack and devour visitors once the storm strikes!

At least the House of Usher sank into its bog quietly, in a reserved, British sort of way, without all this demonic clamor.

The din is compounded by the pervasive and never-ceasing uneasiness you feel when you learn the history of this region.  We are surrounded by the sites of graves from centuries of Mapuche-Spanish conflict, and victims of a great drought, one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history, and Pinochet’s police state.  There are active volcanoes, and at night, all in all, it seems pretty likely that some angry spirits are out, looking for blood.

And on top of that, the dogs.

The strays of Pucón, apart from a few Labradors, are very large wolf-like animals – and I like them all.  They’ve proven to be sweet and friendly. After a couple of days here, trying to find my way to work, one of them seemed to recognize that I was lost, and walked along with me, until I got to the school.  He showed up every morning after that to walk with me.  Even though they’re strays, the community feeds them and gives them blankets in cold weather.

But at night, they roam the town.  You see their glowing eyes in the dark, like the Hound of the Baskervilles, and during the worst of the storms, when it thunders, they howl.

So picture:  lying in bed, already feeling uneasy as the building shakes and vibrates, rain is smashing down on the roof, the wind slams the plastic panels against the tin, and the tin against the wood rafters — and then there’s the sound of footsteps above you, like someone insane is walking around up there in the lightning storm.  And then dogs begin howling and baying like wolves from the depths of hell.

All this heap needs is a soundtrack playing the “Danse Macabre” and “Mephisto Waltz”.

Even the birds hereabouts are creepy at night.  During the daytime, there are beautiful green parakeets near the lake, and all sorts of ducks, geese, and diving birds on the lake.  In the hills around town, the Roadside Hawks are very handsome little guys.  But at night…

When I first arrived here, after an 12-hour bus ride from Santiago, pretty exhausted, I lay down, but with the rain bashing down on the tin roof, I couldn’t sleep.  Then, during a lull in the rain, there was a weird, unholy keening.

It sounds like…out there in the darkness…a bagpiper is dying.


But not…quite…dead.  Trying to finish his last Lament.  “A Haggis Fell Upon His Head, An’ Now My Love Is Deid,” or “The EU’s Ga’n Awa’ O’er the Sea, And So’s Our Economee,” or something like that.

I peer out the window, but don’t see anything ghostly in a kilt.  Or any sinister crones ’round a cauldron with curséd kazoos.

But then, wait, there is something moving on the rooftop opposite my window.


It’s a bird, with a long, curving beak.  And it’s making a god-awful unhappy sound, like it was in deep mourning.  And extremely constipated.

This was my introduction to the Black-Faced Ibis of South America.

Edgar Allen Poe had his raven, the Ancient Mariner his albatross, Hitchcock his homicidal gulls.

Me, ibises.  Why did it have to be ibises.






Thoth. Not much worshiped anymore, and feeling a bit blue. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tut, Tut, it’s raining birds

Yes, there are ibises here.  And they are horrible.  What normal birds sing funeral dirges at night during a lightning storm?

If you’ve ever looked at those old stone Egyptian carvings, full of hieroglyphics and weird half-human creatures, there’s an ibis-headed god sometimes called Thoth.

Thoth was the patron of magic, math, and accounting among other things, so you know right away, he’s gotta be maladjusted.

I won’t even get into his other hobby, weighing human hearts.


M0001949EB Wall carving, gods Thoth and Horus Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Wall carving, gods Thoth and Horus pouring the water of life over the King, Temple of Komombo, Egypt Half-tone Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

“What hath night to do with sleep?”


And so, getting back to the midnight revels in Chile — since I’d never seen an ibis outside a zoo, or mummy exhibit, I thought ibises lived in Egypt.

I believe, that the Black-Faced Ibises feel this way, too.  Misplaced and resentful.  Chile is not the warm Nile delta, they’re not worshiped here, there are no pyramids, and they are pissed.


When I looked them up, some birder described them as “highly sociable.”  I guess you could say, that Charles Manson liked to have people all around him, too.  Ibises are also intensely territorial.  One night, I woke up to find two of them fighting to the death on the rooftop across from my window.  The larger one, in a “highly sociable” way, snapped the neck of the other, and then slammed its body again and again on the roof, to make sure it was dead.

These birds are just plain creepy, and their ominous, mournful song really does sound like a creepy dirge. They stare at me.  Even during storms, when it sounds like the winds of Satan are blowing my roof off, and all other birds have vanished, the ibises sit on my window ledge and stare at me, as if watching for me to die so they can come and peck out my eyes. The dogs howl, the winds try to cave in the small weak hostel, and the creepy birds start their eerie dirge.

So this is the kind of crap that haunts the nights around here.  And this is why I come to school exhausted.


I wrote this as my first diary entry from Pucón, and re-reading it, it sounds a bit…overwrought?  feverish?  As it turned out, I wasn’t just feeling creeped-out, I actually was feverish, and having a flare-up of a medical problem.  So I took the bus down to Valdivia, where there’s a hospital, had some tests, pills, antibiotics, etc. and feel a lot better now.  And spring is on the way.

Feeling much more like myself, but sticking to the story, sorry, at night, this is still the noisiest Halloween-kind-of-place I’ve ever been.

Love my school, the students, the teachers, the stray dogs, the Andes, and my host family.  And man, all God’s creatures got a place in the choir, and no doubt I’m invoking the wrath of Thoth, the Audubon Society, and the Ghost of Roger Tory Peterson, but I don’t care, I still hate these wretched Black-Faced Ibises.

When I cannot sleep, I send emails to KFC, praising the bird’s flavor and low fat content, hoping they’ll take the hint.

In a museum in Holland, there’s an ancient papyrus, listing all the calamities that finished off Egypt’s Old Kingdom (long before Moses) and one of the curses?  “Men behaving as wild ibises.”

And at Saqqara, in Egypt, they say they’ve found a million and a half of them, mummified.  The historians think this has deep religious significance.

Personally, I think they just got on everybody’s nerves.

And I also think ol’ Pharaoh had the right idea.  Wrap ’em up tight & stick ’em in a sand dune.

Over and out, from me and the Weird Birds of Doom, here at Night on Bald Mountain, Chile.