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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Chile (Part 8): Visiting Pablo Neruda's Second House - La Sebastiana In Valparaiso

Photo by OMGEsteban

Note: It's better for you to read
before you start reading this entry:

21st of August, 2007, Day 8.

The Santiago International Film Festival (SANFIC) had ended the night before.

One by one, the guests left. Hu Shu, and Marina (the Argentinean producer who went to Neruda's house with me days earlier), taking the same bus to the airport.

And then, the Canadian filmmaker, Scott, who philosophized with me the meaning of filmmaking and film festivals under the starry sky. He left too.

I bade them all adieu.

Hu Shu had warned me that one would be lonely if he remained after the end of a film festival, he had to say goodbye to all, and then find something to do by himself. That was the fate I ended up with after extending my stay in Chile.

Two days earlier, Hu Shu had gone off to the fabled Valparaiso, Chile's most important seaport and 'Cultural Capital', the place Pablo Neruda called the 'Ocean's Sweetheart'. So beautiful and steeped with cultural and historical importance that the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. He came back at night and told me that I had to go there no matter what. He also added that one of Pablo Neruda's houses was there too.

To go to Valparaiso, one would have to take a 2-hour bus ride. I was initially reluctant to do that. Traveling so far in a foreign place? What happens if I cannot return to Santiago in time? Do I have to incur more expenses by spending a night in Valparaiso?

But being who I am, who lived for adventures and explorations in solitude, I threw all caution into the wind and immediately went to the bus terminal (via metro). And from there, I took a bus to Valparaiso (for a 2-hour ride, bus ticket was seriously very cheap, just a couple of US dollars).

And I went, it was 3:30pm. Reading my Cryptonomicon by Neil Gaiman for a while, and then looking out the window at the scenery, with nothing but the humming sound of the bus engine, it wasn't long before I fell asleep.

I was awakened by the loud voice of the bus conductor, informing to everyone that we've reached Valparaiso. Looking at the watch, it was already after five in the evening. When I stepped out of the bus, I felt a chill and realized that the place was actually cooler than Santiago, then after stepping out of the Valparaiso bus terminal, I was shocked.

All these while, based on the description from Hu Shu, and others, along with skimming through Valparaiso's wiki entry (link provided when I first mention the city in this entry), I had assumed the place to be a tiny little town situated along the coast. That the main places of the city would only be few blocks away from one another, and that I could just WALK to Pablo Neruda's other house from the Valparaiso bus terminal.

So when Valparaiso turned out to be a bustling, busy little city of its own, I felt slightly daunted.

I had to act fast before the sun had set! Quickly, I made my way through a large park, towards were the taxis were waiting.

"Can you take me to PABLO NERUDA'S HOUSE?" I asked a taxi driver, raising my voice and slowing down my speech when I mentioned Pablo Neruda, hoping that even if he didn't know English, he would understand the name.

The taxi driver looked at me blankly and spoke something in Spanish, he seemed confused.

"PABLO NERUDA!" I struggled in exasperation.

He frowned.

I sighed inwardly and wanted to walk away, but he asked me to stop and then handed me a piece of paper. I knew he wanted me to write the name of the place I wanted to go, so I wrote...


The man's face immediately lit up.

"AH! PABLO NERUDA!" He exclaimed, his pronunciation of the 'd' in Neruda's name sounded like 'h', so Neruda sounded like NERUHA.

"Si! Pablo NeruHA!" I was proud of myself and hopped into the taxi.

Inside the taxi, we communicated through fragments of Spanish and English words, and then sign language, he suggested to me that I should have brought a map, I agreed.

As the taxi was bringing me to my destination, I started to actually see Valparaiso more clearly, the city built upon a dozen of steep hillsides overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the hillside quirky, colourful houses.

I've never seen anything like this before.

Photo by Bracani Antonio

Photo by ···Farewell···

The taxi took me up to one of the hills, and I found myself standing in front of LA SEBASTIANA, another one of Neruda's houses.

Standing in front of La Sebastiana
I found myself standing in front of La Sebastiana

Built on top of the hill, the poet had often stayed in Valparaiso during New Year's Eve, and from this house, he would watch the traditional fireworks show, said to be the biggest in South America.

The house was named by Neruda in honour of its first proprietor and builder, Sebastián Collao. Noting how Neruda had always named his houses, I began playing with the idea of going home and naming my own house SWIFTY'S DIGS but I'm sure my parents would object.

Anyway, unlike the previous Neruda house I visited, LA CHASCONA, the tour in SAN SEBASTIANA was a self-guided one. After buying myself a ticket, the guy at the entrance asked:

"Inglais? Espanyol?"

And I answered:


The guy handed me a folder.

The first page was a brief introduction and history of SAN SEBASTIANA, the rest were descriptions of the rooms and items that adorned the place.

You are looking at a sofa where Pablo Neruda used to sit and write his poems, lean forward and look closely, you will see some smudges of green ink.

I leaned forward and looked closely at a sofa, I saw some smudges of green ink.

Now, look left, you will see 19th century paintings collected by Neruda.

I looked left, and saw 19th century paintings collected by Neruda.

Exit the living room on the right door, you will see Neruda's toilet on your left.

I exited through the right door, and saw Neruda's toilet on my left.

Well, you get the idea.

So basically, that was how I went through the entire tour, going through the numerous floors in his house, until I reached the tower on top. (note: Neruda shared the house with the married couple of Marie Martner and Francisco Velasco, the couple took the first two floors, Neruda took the top two floors and the tower, Martner and Velasco were robbed)

At the top floor of La Sebastiana

It was his office. (you can see his desk in the photo above)

The sun was about to set, I marveled at the magnificent view and immediately tried to snap a few photos:

View of Valparaiso from the top of La Sebastiana
View of Valparaiso from the top of La Sebastiana

View of Valparaiso from the top of La Sebastiana 2
View of Valparaiso from the top of La Sebastiana 2

View of Valparaiso from the top of La Sebastiana 3
View of Valparaiso from the top of La Sebastiana 3

I sighed, my photos couldn't do the actual scenery any justice.

The sun had set, the museum house was about to close, I hurriedly made my way out of La Sebastiana, found a stall selling souvenirs, made some quick purchase, and then took taxi downhill. (This time, the driver spoke English)

I was walked through Valparaiso's labyrinth of streets and cobblestone alleyways. Looking at the lines of shops and cafes, finding a place to have my dinner before I return to Santiago. At night, the place was beautiful. Briefly reminded of Fremantle at night, yet different. I took photos again.

Streets of Valparaiso At Night

Streets of Valparaiso At Night 2

I returned to Santiago in time (the metro stations close at 11pm, I had to take the commuter train to go back to my hotel).

I surfed the Net and tried to find out more about La Sebastiana.

When I visited the first Neruda house with Marina, she had only mentioned that he had one other house 'away from Santiago', and the house 'was very beautiful'. She was right, and I was thankful that I managed to visit La Sebastiana, thanks to my great resourcefulness and wits. After all, how many could have survived such a journey, short as it may be, when he could barely speak Spanish?

To my surprise, I found out then that Neruda actually had a total of THREE houses in Chile, and I had only visited two.

The last house was called ISLA NEGRA, the place where he and his wife, Mathilde were buried.

I leaned back against my chair and contemplated.

One more day left in Chile.

Do I have time to visit the last Neruda house?

Can I complete my Neruda pilgrimage?

But then, I stopped thinking, I couldn't. Perhaps I was still drunken with stupour caused by the intoxicating scenery of Valparaiso.

Photo by KBcitas

Photo by Bracani Antonio

Photo by Bracani Antonio

A poem Neruda wrote about Valparaiso.

Amo, Valparaíso, cuanto encierras...

AMO, Valparaíso, cuanto encierras,
y cuanto irradias, novia del océano,
hasta más lejos de tu nimbo sordo.
Amo la luz violeta con que acudes
al marinero en la noche del mar,
y entonces eres -rosa de azahares-
luminosa y desnuda, fuego y niebla.
Que nadie venga con un martillo turbio
a golpear lo que amo, a defenderte:
nadie sino mi ser por tus secretos:
nadie sino mi voz por tus abiertas
hileras de rocío, por tus escalones
en donde la maternidad salobre
del mar te besa, nadie sino mis labios
en tu corona fría de sirena,
elevada en el aire de la altura,
oceánico amor, Valparaíso,
reina de todas las costas del mundo,
verdadera central de olas y barcos,
eres en mí como la luna o como
la dirección del aire en la arboleda.
Amo tus criminales callejones,
tu luna de puñal sobre los cerros,
y entre tus plazas la marinería
revistiendo de azul la primavera.

Que se entienda, te pido, puerto mío,
que yo tengo derecho
a escribirte lo bueno y lo malvado
y soy como las lámparas amargas
cuando iluminan las botellas rotas.