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Chilean Chronicles, Part 4: The Colors of Valparaiso

Valparaiso explodes in brilliant, luminous, and pastel colors everywhere you turn. The buildings. The worker's clothes. The street art. The garage doors. The skyline as the sun falls in the late afternoon.
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Valparaiso explodes in brilliant, luminous, and pastel colors everywhere you turn.

The buildings.

The worker's clothes.

The street art.

The garage doors.

The skyline as the sun falls in the late afternoon.

The murals and graffiti that seem to spring up, like roots through concrete, throughout the seaport city that has been a harbor for centuries.

Even the dogs.

The city that seems like a cross between the hilly, twisting streets of San Francisco and ocean view of Haifa, Israel was the first place we visited outside of the Santiago area.

It's got a gritty side, to be sure.

Scores of abandoned dogs leave their droppings everywhere in the city. We saw two dogs feasting on rotted meat they had ripped open from garbage bags.

And when Dunreith and I asked them about where to get an empanada, a pair of adolescent girls told us that an area where we had planned to go was "Super peligro."

Super dangerous.

But, still, those colors.

We arrived around noon.

After an engaging conversation with yet another of Marjorie Agosin's seemingly unending stream of cousins, it was approaching two o'clock and we hadn't eaten lunch.

We walked up a street that, like many in Valparaiso, wound around, rather than going in a straight line, to Almacen Nacional, a restaurant recommended by the Ibis hotel at which we were staying and a place where we received a 10 percent discount.

More colors.

From the bright blue painting on the wall of a couple in bed, to the bar, which was a symphony in muted tones, to the green zucchini soup topped with a slice of the vegetable, to the flaming red hair of the woman at the table next to us to the pink lipstick our waitress wore.

We had a meal with service that could charitably be called relaxed, then ambled around Avenida Alemania, or Germany, taking in panoramic views of the harbor until we arrived at La Sebastiana, the second of fabled poet Pablo Neruda's homes we've seen since arriving here 15 days ago.

The information in the audio guide was sparse compared with the rich descriptions we had received from Alejandra Fritz at La Chascona, Neruda's home in Santiago's Bella Vista neighborhood.

Nevertheless, the house inspired a similar, if deeper yet slightly emotionally subdued, understanding not just of Neruda's fantastic life, but his incessant capacity for creativity.

This sensibility manifested itself in his inventing names for his houses, in the pieces of furniture like the fireplace he designed for La Sebastiana, in the deliberate placement of the items he collected from every conceivable corner of the world, and in the disguises, sometimes multiple in the same evening, that he would don as he served drinks in the treasured spot behind the bar in which only he could stand.

Indeed, the poet's attitude toward his house, which he considered a toy in which he liked to play all day long, was a reflection of a desire for endless invention.

A chronology filled with black and white photos and text stretched across a half dozen poster boards on the first floor and helped flesh out the central passions and key moments in Neruda's life. These included early pictures when he was young and had a full head of hair, shots of him with the full beard he grew when he was "clandestino," or hidden, and images of him delivering "Yo acuso," the memorable speech he gave in 1948 in which he channeled Emile Zola and denounced the state's repressive, anticommunist actions.

The audio, the pictures and the home itself all reinforced Neruda's visceral connection to the Chilean people, both in his description of his daily work -- I am not different than the laborer who works with bricks, he said. I just work with words -- and in his statement that he was another branch of the great human tree.

The sun started to make its inexorable descent.

Dunreith suggested that we go back in a more direct way that took us down uneven stairs, through little traveled pathways and past a mother kneeling to tie her son's sneakers and dusty workers standing wearily on the front steps of their homes.

A trio of young men whose picture I had taken on the way down thanked me.

One thrust an open beer toward me and asked me if I wanted it.

I'm with my woman, I said pointing to Dunreith, who had walked ahead, as she often does when I am using the camera.

But if not, then yes.

We laughed.

Coca Cola? Another asked as I moved past them.

We all laughed again.

A street lamp and telephone wire framed the streaks of pink that poked over the top of the buildings before the sun disappeared for the evening.

We continued walking through a dicey area, drawn through it by the insistent thumping of bass drums. A crowd had gathered in a town square to hear a local youth band perform. Five girls shimmied provocatively in the front row.

The yellow-shirted leader in the middle of the group raised his arms as if in victory. Everyone in the band shouted, "Val-pa-ra-i-so!" The crowd burst into applause and started to disperse into the darkness of the night that enveloped the city like a glove.

Dunreith found a supermarket, where we bought fruit and red wine to keep alive our streak of drinking every night in Chile. She stopped on the street near the hotel to buy a colorful assortment of mints and jellied candies.

Drink, dessert and rest, if not dinner, awaited, just hundreds of yards away.