Tales from Valparaiso (and beyond) No. 6

It was Ann's birthday on Sunday, and, rather too much at the last minute, as it turned out, we decided to get out of town for the weekend. Trouble was, so had everyone else, because All Saints and All Souls is treated as an important public holiday. After a morning at the computer I eventually found a hotel in Quintero with a room for the weekend – only a half-hour or so bus ride away. It turned out to be in a beautiful location on a cliff with wide views of breaking waves. It even had a swimming pool in which we swam each day – followed each time by a long hot bath, something we hadn't had since arriving in Chile – not because it wouldn't, theoretically, be possible at our flat (now that we've bought a plug) but because it would seem over-extravagant with the Calor gas. The food at the hotel, which we sampled the first evening and each morning, was mediocre; the worst thing, however, was the muzak – the worst kind, remorseless but fascinating (A Day in the Life on pan-pipes). We spent the weekend walking (Ann reminded me that during a row I had once thrown at her: “All you ever want to do is walk!”), visiting small beaches and deciding, apart from one quick immersion, not to swim on account of the cold, the over-turbulent waves, but above all because the sea looked so very polluted. Quintero is on a peninsula, very beautiful but, much of it, incredibly run down. One our first day the girl at the hotel desk, when asked if there was a coastal path around the peninsula, told us that we shouldn't go on any of the local beaches: “It's a public holiday – people will be down on the beaches getting drunk – it would be very dangerous for you to go there”. As we explored the various beaches it became a joke to identify the “drunks” - a man reading a book, a family having a picnic, someone taking their dog for a walk. The next day a friendly woman in a village shop, near a bleak-looking estate, complained of the delinquency there (“they're all on drugs”) and blamed it on “democracy”. She also tried to persuade us to take a taxi, partly so that we didn't get mugged (the new game became spot-the-drug-addict) and partly because she couldn't believe that we really wanted to walk the four or so kilometres to the next beach.

We arrived back on Monday in time for me to teach my one English pupil at our local café. We talked about Eigg and about the new Scottish Land Reform Act, and she spontaneously told me about the attempted land reforms in Chile in the sixties – a parallel I had wanted to pursue, but which I was delighted she brought up herself – she's in her last year at school. Then on to a ceilidh at El Pajorito, a nearby bar – pipes, whistles, bodhrans, fiddles, German lute, banjo. I was invited into the circle, which was mildly embarrassing as I only knew a very few of the tunes. It was physically impossible to escape, however, so I was left either trying to half pick up each tune as it went round (like the one tone-deaf singer in a church congregation) or chuntering along playing chords with the guitars with the occasional half-hearted attempt at counter-melody on the D string – which, hopefully, no-one heard. Luis to my right, playing what he told me was a German lute, kept calling out keys - “D major!” - “E minor!” - though knowing which key we were in was not really my problem. From time to time players announced tunes in an English which I usually couldn't decipher, so that I couldn't look them up in the book either. It was a fun evening nevertheless, and a little sequence of reels which Dexter and I played, just us and the rhythm section, drew some applause. We drank wine with strawberry juice and chatted with various musicians and friends – meeting, for example, Adriana's boss, a Russian homeopath called Alla. Dexter went as an angel, Adriana with a crimson wig. Dexter kindly lent me one of those big floppy St Patrick's Day hats, which I dutifully wore all evening. Luis was a pirate. It was busy and smoky and, as we walked home, Ann described it as “yet another Bongo Club”.

About a week ago, one our way to see what turned out to be a stunning Chilean film from the sixties called “Los Testigos” (“The Witnesses”), we passed a sign for an English language school, so I went up to investigate, introducing myself as “an English teacher” looking for work (well, I do have an English degree). The outcome is that I'm probably starting work there on Tuesday – the more mainstream language schools had been wary of my lack of documentation (I have to be elusive here in case the staff of the department for foreign workers here get to read this).

Yesterday I spent a pleasant couple of hours arranging one of Valentina's songs, “Guitarra Mia”, on my laptop in a café in Cerro Alegre which has not only wi-fi, but real coffee too; a wander back through town, lunch at a German restaurant which was run by overt Nazis for many years, I had been told, and is still full of German military knick-knacks - and a poetry round table at Arturo's, where Sergio gave a talk on symbolism and Ann arrived hotfoot from work just in time for Maria Paz's delicious cake.

Robert McFall

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