Just north of Valparaiso is the town of Viña Del Mar. David, who I had latched on to since Santiago, and I walked to this town along the coast. We ate freshly caught, super-tasty fish and fries at one of the small shops along the beach. Or maybe it was at the wharf, where there were many fishing boats, fisher-people, and a whole bunch of greedy sea lions and seagulls fighting for the parts thrown to them.
We argued for a bit about what it meant to be a traveller and if a traveller really was more interesting than a tourist. That is, whether it was the place that was interesting or the person, whether travel was about the thing being observed or about the observer. It was a topic we would return to repeatedly in different forms over the next few weeks.
Coming to Viña Del Mar from Valparaiso feels like suddenly stepping into your cleaner friend’s living room. The buildings are more modern, there are McDonalds’ and KFCs, the parks are clean, there are expensive hotels and restaurants along the palm-tree-lined waterfront, and BMWs and Mercedes’ share space with collectivos and buses on the road.
Downtown Viña is replete with shopping malls, stores of high-end brands, and street performers of an unusually high quality. Somewhere close to downtown is the Mercado-central (Central Market), always a good bet for good, cheap food, and fresh produce.
Valparaiso has energy, positivity, and street art, while Viña has beaches. They are not the best beaches or the cleanest beaches in the world, but they are good and they are clean. Walking by the sea or sitting on the sand, and watching locals and tourists being friendly and familiar with the ocean, is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.
I was still apprehensive about not knowing Spanish as I went into Viña. I had gotten lucky in Valparaiso, meeting friendly and unreasonably nice people. But what would I do now, in this (relatively) big, flashy city? The city itself seemed like it didn’t want me there, with its clean roads and high-rise apartment buildings. I was also beginning to feel like I was being a bother to David, interrupting his conversations all the time for translations.
My stay in Viña happened to coincide with a long weekend in Argentina. Consequently, the hostel we were staying at was full of people from Mendoza, a town across the border with a direct connection by bus to Viña. The first person to strike my eye was a beautiful, brown-eyed, red-haired girl who had excellent posture, both while standing and sitting. Her name was Chisella and I think she was a lawyer. We communicated mostly through sign language and smiles, which is to say, we did not communicate much.
One of the guys who worked at the hostel was Argentinian as well. He really tried to talk to me in order to practice his English, but seemed terribly shy, even more so than me. His girlfriend, who was a Chilean English teacher, told me that it was all an act, and that once he got drunk, he would shower me with the full extent of his vocabulary. She turned out to be right.
He introduced me to the famous Chilean drink, melon-con-vino (melon with wine): you take a musk melon, scoop out the flesh, and fill it with white wine. As the night passes, the wine takes on the flavour of the melon, and after the wine is over, you still have some melon to scoop out and eat. What a brilliant idea: first you have melon-infused wine, and then you have wine-infused melon. As you drink and savour more of this pleasant melony white wine, you find that your few words of Spanish go much further than you thought they were capable of.
One day, in the hostel, I met a girl who spoke broken English and was an ardent student of the Art of Living foundation. Mendoza had its own guru, apparently, the head of the local power structure, who she adored. We had a few pleasantly arrhythmic conversations about Indian philosophy and yoga. I found it amazing that I was in South America discussing yoga with a stranger, but I didn’t know then that this would not be the last time, not by a long shot.
Viña was also where David and I ran into Travis, a 19-year old who said he was 21, from Canada, who knew even less Spanish than me (and I knew maybe ten words). Him and I bonded over being the only people who the other one could talk to, and he ended up becoming our travel companion for the next few weeks. Shy in conversation at the beginning, very sensitive to judgments about his age, and very bold once drunk, he was always open to trying anything, but rarely suggested anything himself, a characteristic that reminded me very strongly of me. He worked in Canada in the Summers and travelled in the Winters. I remember thinking how hard it would be for someone from India to do something like that.
Along with Travis, we befriended Carla, a punk rocking, skateboarding, tattooed, affectionate graduate student from Mendoza, who liked beer more than wine. She went out one day and came back with a mini accordion that then she proceeded to play with abandon, instantly making me a fan.
There was a constant buzz of chatter and conversation in the hostel. The outdoor benches were always full of laughter and talk, almost all in Spanish. I would sit there, reading and letting these friendly sounds flow peacefully around me, looking up once in a while when someone tried to talk to me, or when I caught a word I understood.
It was during one of these conversations, as I was buried deep in my kindle, that someone passed me a cup. It had what looked like hot water, a lot of tea leaves, and a metal straw in it. I felt the warmth of the cup and I looked questioningly at the guy who had given it to me. He told me I had to take a few sips. “Cool,” I said and sucked through the straw. The liquid tasted like a kind, earthy, and gentle green tea. It was refreshing and pleasant. I passed it back, saying “Thank you”.
Someone else at the table told me that according to tradition, I wasn’t supposed to thank the host-guy unless I didn’t want any more. I immediately took back my words.
That moment was when Mate and I first met.
Mate (pronounced maa-Tay) is a drink made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. The way it works is: you have a Mate gourd (called the Mate). Fill it to two-thirds with the yerba leaves. Shake it, closing the gourd with your palm, to get the dust out. Stick the straw (called Bombilla) in there so the filter end is all the way into the gourd.
Fill it with hot, but not boiling, water. I was later told by my Mate Teacher in Mendoza, that you should put your finger in the water and count to five. If you can make it to five but are slightly uncomfortable, the temperature is just right. If you see a bubbly surface now, all is good in the world. Slurp through the straw. Once it’s done, fill it again and pass it on to your friend.
Mate is designed to be shared, or if you’re alone, to be consumed slowly through the day. The locals always seemed to be carrying around a thermos, and all the mate equipment, wherever they were. In a few weeks, I had bought my own equipment that I handled with a pretentious care.
Making the Mate, talking about it, drinking it, sharing it, having an opinion on what brand is better (I’ve forgotten now, of course, but the packaging was red and black), and what kind is better (no added flavours, but add orange peel yourself); I completely bought into the Mate life. Low calories, the leaves are biodegradable, and here’s no other garbage!
If there’s one thing I would give up coffee for, it is this.
Also staying at our hostel, was Eliana, a fifty-five year old lady who had just quit her job, and was deciding what to do with her life. She looked like a saint-in-training. She was an ardent devotee of Osho’s philosophy and had visited the ashrams in Pune for a year when she had been younger (and breastfeeding, she added). Her hair was completely white. She always spoke in the same smooth, flowing voice, giving off an air of calm, even if she was arguing about something. I was always a bit uncomfortable in her presence. She appeared to be filtering her thoughts through a sieve that only allowed words that couldn’t contradict the peace and calm she said she had learned from Osho.
Our next destination on our journey North was La Serena, another beach town with less riches and more beaches. Eliana offered to drive us in her car, provided we would be the ones driving. On the way, she said we would stop for “the best empanadas in Chile”, and we did, about half an hour north of Viña. The empanadas truly were delicious, even though they were deep fried. They had a golden brown crisp exterior, a hot and soft interior, and the right amount of filling. Eliana stayed a few days in La Serena, and then went in a different direction from David and me.
Meeting people while travelling requires a certain trust in strangers that comes naturally to me, maybe to a fault. But it also requires you to bring down your barriers to friendship rapidly, sometimes over the course of just a few hours. That does not come naturally to me at all; I rarely even talk about the weather with people I have just met. But I think I was getting the hang of it: making friends, having surprisingly intimate conversations with them, and then going different ways. The melon-con-vino and the smiling people certainly helped.
Viña is walking distance (maybe six kilometres) from Valparaiso. However, there are trains that run along the coast that stop at both towns. There are also direct buses from Santiago for people who can’t handle all the positivity and energy of Valpo.
Try to allocate time for people-watching here, because the beaches are full of people having fun. The water is a little rough, though, and swimming was prohibited on most, but not all, of the days I was there. The streets have amazing street performers. There was one mime who was stopping traffic and teasing almost every driver that came along. Most took his jokes in good humour, but some sped off in a huff, only to be stopped again by real traffic just a few metres down the road. There was one puppeteer who sang duets by himself, including a duet version of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was so great that I almost bought his CD.
There are plenty of expensive hotels in Vina, and not many hostels, as far as I could tell. The hostel I stayed at, Pepe Hostel, was crowded, reasonably clean, and very welcoming.
There is this famous sand dune that people talk about, and some castle I remember walking by and being told is famous for something. I wish I had taken a picture.