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Confessions from South America

 I journeyed through parts of South America- Chile, Peru, Ecuador and , Central America’s Panama Canal- encountering moments of self-acknowledgement, feeling expressively like, “I’m living now!” This three week breather was essential air, following months at a frantic pace. And, I relished roaming through Santiago, Valparaiso, the Casablanca wine region and Arica, Chile; inspecting the ruins of Tambo, Colorado; visiting a Peruvian hacienda and Lima’s historical city center; taking in a demonstration of Ecuadorian plant weaving techniques; and experiencing the unparalleled and phenomenal voyage through the Panama Canal. However, I concede that it was the introduction to the works of Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda, in an afternoon visit to his former home, “Casa Isla Negra,” that affected me most.  What’s more, from the moment I heard his deathbed admission, I thoroughly embraced it: “I confess that I have lived.

 

Who wouldn’t accept the exquisiteness and wisdom of his renowned love sonnets? For example:  “Love is not about property, diamonds and gifts. It’s about sharing your very self with the world around you…” But, it’s some of his uncommon and extraordinary compositions that were the ultimate affirmation of who he was.  Consider selected of verses from Die Slowly:

 

 

He who becomes a slave of habit,

Who follows the same route every day,

Who never changes pace,

Who does not risk and change the color of his clothes,

Who does not speak and does not experience,

Dies slowly.

 

He or she who shuns passion,

Who prefers black on white,

Dotting ones “it’s” rather than a bundle

Of emotions, the kind that make your eyes glimmer,

That turns a yawn into a smile,

That makes the heart pound in the face of mistakes and feelings,

Dies slowly.

 

He who does not travel, who does not read,

Who does not listen to music,

Who does not find grace in himself,

She who does not find grace in herself,

Dies slowly…

 

On Isla Negra, in “Casa Isla Negra”, I fell in love with Pablo Neruda. Was it because of the room filled with a collection of eye-catching butterflies from around the world; the chamber dedicated to sea shells of varied sizes, shapes, and colors from everywhere; the awe-inspiring views of the South Pacific, with a direct line of sight of the meticulously positioned “cantos rodados negras” on the shore; or, was it because of the blue, antique row boat where Neruda assembled his best friends for evening cocktails? Hmm, I guess the sum total of how he lived was too powerful, surrounding himself with the many eclectic adornments that pleased him the most; existing in and out of exile; embracing the politics of his belief; being who he was, regardless… On his own small island, he followed his dreams and risked uncertainty. He lived.

 

Traveling northwest from Santiago into the heralded Casablanca wine region, one of the world’s longest mountain ranges, the Andes, was persistently to my right. The range, completely dividing South America, from North to South, cuts through seven countries- Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, and is the site of the world’s largest gold mine. Even more, mines supplying more than half of the world’s copper from Chile and Peru are situated in the Andes. Awed, while taking in these surroundings, my mission for this day was, merely, to visit the wine valley where laudable qualities of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grape varieties are grown.  Remarkably, the effect of the valley’s location, which is nearest to the equator than any European vineyard, is mitigated by a cooler temperature precipitated by the Pacific oceanic influence. The result, Casablanca wines are stars. In particular, crisp Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays, plus marvelous reds- Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Merlot- originate from the relatively newer vines of the region. Viticulture, at wineries like, Bodegas, RE; Vinamar de Casablanca; Kingston Family Vineyards and Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Chardonnay, has culminated in impressive young, but premier wines. My choice for high technology wine-making exposure and an outstanding wine tasting experience was the equally adept Veramonte Winery, where I found the Carmenere, the Red Blend and the Rose Syrah to my taste. “Bienvenido a disfrutar,” they said there and, I admit that I did.

 

Something magical occurred upon return from Casablanca!  Whoa, back up, back up, I have to lay some groundwork.  Sitting in a wharf-side restaurant along the Mediterranean in St. Tropez, years ago, a young woman, with a captivating presence, passed us by.  Quick paced, flowing hair, gaucho hat, and jeans tucked in boots, she bedazzled the onlookers with her mesmerizing appeal and jaw-dropping, ethnically patterned poncho.   For years, I searched for this poncho in every feasible place that I visited. Nearly, every friend that traveled to South America, Mexico and Guatemala returned with a poncho, hoping to match my expectations, to no avail. Disembarking from my wine valley tour, in front of Piedras Australes, a Santiago lapis store and factory, 15 years later, I went inside.  And, “voilà ”, there it was, just like magic. Reluctantly, I accepted that I’m too mature, to replicate the look but, I do have the spirit, the hat and the poncho!

 

Oh yes, my trip was on a roll. From there, I trekked across the capital city of Santiago by foot, bus and taxis, marveling at its surprisingly cosmopolitan appearance; absorbing history; and, noting the blend of tradition and modernism.  In fact, Santiago nicely contrasts its historical city center, accommodating the 18th century Metropolitan Cathedral; Plaza de Armas (the main square); the Museo Historica Nacional; and, Palacio de la Audienca Palace, with glass skyscrapers, the Museo Nacional Bellas Artes, and  bustling financial activity. The panoramic viewpoints from Santa Lucia Hill are awesome. Cultural exposure and nightlife options are endless. I completed my time in Santiago with dinner; a traditional show of La Tirana and Cueca (Araucanan), Easter Island Polynesian dances; and, a little amateur Salsa dancing for me.  It’s true, Santiago was a more fulfilling experience than I expected.

 

Valparaiso presented itself exactly as depicted in literature and online. That was my assessment after taking a car from Santiago, northwest, and then through the serpentine, graffiti and street art laden mazes and neighborhoods that led to my charming Valparaiso hotel, Sutherland House. I had chosen this lodging because of its local appeal and noted hillside and coastal viewpoints; however, getting to my room was a hurdle, as the hotel was perched on a steep hill, requiring an uphill climb with luggage, then no elevator leading to my tiny third floor room. The city’s landscape felt chaotic, I’d say and, bemused by its unusual setting, I found it challenging to get a grip on my bearings.  Still, I made it to the bustling port- a main seaport of the South Pacific; one of the 16 treasured funiculars- Ascensor Concepcion; Neruda’s Valparaiso residence; Iglesia de la Matria; through Cerro Concepcion, the historic quarter of the city; the Cerro Bellavista residential area; and, past many intensely colored houses, before heading to the boardwalk of coastal Vina del Mar.

 

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Valparaiso made me reflect on the Montmartre area of Paris, as I encountered painters, weavers, poets and others from the artist community, while finding my way during the next couple of days- particularly in the wharf area where their works were in process or exhibited on easels, sidewalks and booths. My favorite Chilean poet, Neruda, explained this unconventional city in an unconventional way: “Valparaiso, how absurd you are…you haven’t combed your hair, you never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.”  Proudly, they say there, “Anything goes in Valparaiso!

 

Onward, boarding my cruise vessel in San Antonio, heading north, my mission continued: See and absorb all things possible. Real Ciudad San Marcos de Arica (Arica, Chile), the location of the largest silver mine, Potosi, exposed a contentious past, involving pirates, privateers (like Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Thomas Cavendish) and, change in civic control from Chilean to Bolivian and back again. Following stops at:

  • the Lluta Geoglyphs- abstract designs of humans and found in the Atacama Desert (the world’s driest desert and source of the largest supply of sodium nitrate);

  • Museoa Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, where the lives and culture of historical inhabitants are showcased, including artifacts, details of ritual killings and well-preserved mummies pre-dating the Egyptian Golden Aged; and

  • the San Marcos Cathedral, main cathedral of Arica,

 

a traditional “welcome ceremony” conducted in the midst of the Atacama Desert, was a curious affair.  

 

Initially, disappointed by my inability to arrange a last minute jaunt to Machu Picchu, I regrouped quickly and made the most of my days in Peru.  Fascinated by the well-preserved, 15th Century, Inca Ruins of Tambo Colorado, near Pisco, I began to feel like all had not gone awry, having failed to find my way to the “lost city of the Incas.” In Tambo, Colorado, amazingly, the Inca adobe and Tapia-rammed earth complex was largely unaffected by the centuries that had gone by.

 

At Peruvian Hacienda Mamacona, near Lima, I discovered a new skill- horse whisperer! I’d just witnessed the splendid performances of the Peruvian Paso Horse and Afro-Peruvian dancers on the ranch’s gorgeously landscaped estate. Known for its agreeable ride, naturally acquired four-beat stride and, Andalusian heritage, I was drawn to a particular horse, wearied from its magnificent display of artistry.   Speaking softly, with eye contact and a gentle manner, I communicated and made a friend!

 

The Old Temple, Temple of the Sun, Temple of Urpi Wachack and Temple of the Moon comprised the Pachacamac Temple, dating back to 300 AD, and were parts of one of the most significant ceremonial gathering places for Pre-Hispanic America.  Captured during the Spanish Conquest, Atahualpa, the Inca’s last Emperor, was freed when ransom was paid with gold from this sacred place.

 

Now, I submit that I’ve been challenged to get all the names and spellings of people and places correct on this journey. However, I did thrust forward. Historical and colorful Lima eradicated the pressure to keep up.  Resilient is the appropriate descriptor, I believe, for this enduring UNESCO city. Having survived ominous earthquakes, foreboding warfare, and the rise and fall of civilizations, Lima, today, is sophisticated, fashionable, and cultural mecca, full of vitality and nightlife. In the historic center, characterized by colonial facades, the famed Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor), Palacio Arzobispal, Palacio De Gobierno (President’s residence), Choco Museo, and the Cathedral de Lima are situated. While I found time to also see San Isidro, Lima’s financial center and most affluent neighborhood, and Miraflores, the commercial core and location of numerous restaurants, shops, nightclubs and the renowned “Kissing Park,” I accept that I haven’t yet seen enough of Lima.

 

Again, sailing north and crossing the equator into Ecuador, another UNESCO Heritage city was on the itinerary. In Manta, the birthplace of the Panama hat, the most impressive Ecuadorian excursion was to an artisan shop where locals proceeded with the daily chore of adroitly weaving the treasured brimmed straw hats from the dried fibers of the indigenous Carludovica plant, with weavers consistently standing in strenuous bent-over positions.

 

For many years, I’d aspired to pass through the 50 mile Panama Canal from the North Pacific Ocean through the Caribbean Sea and onto the Atlantic Ocean: To witness the most astounding technology- locks lifting and lowering massive ships above sea level to allow transit of cargo and cruise vessels from one ocean to another, saving 7,872 miles by circumventing the southern route around Chile’s Cape Horn.  Slowly moving past a simultaneously transferring adjacent ship; sweltering Panama; Noriega’s final prison home along the Panamanian coast; and, politically evolving Cuba, surely, I felt, all this must be an illusion. Yes, I did this trip on my own initiative. And, no, I didn’t wait because, at the appropriate time, I want to passionately confess, like Neruda, that I, too, have “lived.

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