Valparaiso and the Fourth World
May 20th, 2006
Traveling, there are some places you fall quickly and stupidly in love with.
Valparaiso, Chile's historical and once-again great port, sits in a protected
cove North and West of Santiago. The lair of indomitable poet Pablo Neruda,
the city stubbornly crawls up steep hills that flank the ocean. It's a realm
of cobblestones, plaster and tin -- shifting, crumbling and rusting in aesthetic
concert. The patina of graceful aging elevates the city above its gritty port and
often dusty streets. UNESCO flagged the entire municipality as a world heritage
site. Pablo called her "the cleanest of the filthy cities" and as I wait to ride
up to Cerro Concepcion on the city's oldest ascensor (hillside elevator),
I am grinning like a fool and planning my next caress of her curving streets.
Valparaiso is so endearing because it's fallen into my "fourth world." Traveling,
really, is a cheap way to time travel. I don't claim the idea -- Neal Stevenson
wrote, "the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed." Every
community, every locale falls into beat with a certain era. Villages in India, no
electricity (pre-1900), the simple woodfire stoves in Patagonian kitchens (1960), or
Manhattan clubs with metrosexuals (2010). The fourth world, though
it has its respective epoch, isn't about time, it's about incorruptability. Charm
and identity that are unique and endearing. Stubborn. At equilibrium but unassimilated.
When you hear, "you should have seen Cinque Terre 20 years ago" or "Laos is the
new Thailand", the speakers are grasping at moments they had in the fourth world, before
these places succumbed to massive influxes of tourist money and consumerism. When traveling,
it is the only precious commodity. Tourism has tendrils, and constantly creeps outward.
Whether or not a place can resist the temptation of easy money, it might, might just
survive longer than Cancun. Sooner or later, every destination faces the all-important
dilemma -- whether or not to sell t-shirts and key chains bearing its name. Usually, once
that happens, this special kernel is lost. But not always. Some places are hardy and
tough, and can resist. To visit, you can straddle the time warp, and look both backward
and forward, into a hopeful future, where locals have a real life that can sustain them.
(Valpo, a fully modern city, doesn't suffer from tourism dependence.)
Here's an example: though Valparaiso is famous for its paired elevator boxes that deliver
residents up steep hills, a bit of new history caught my eye as well. In the middle of
the city, on one of its prominent hills, sat the prison. In the prison, sat common and
political criminals. Until 1999. The city closed down the prison, and a darker chapter
of Latin American political incarceration. Now, the "ex-carcel" has blossomed as a
community art center, with dozens of non-profits, and even an "experimental circus".
Despite the Renaissance, history isn't forgotten -- cells still wear magazine gals on
their walls, fading and peeling slowly, undisturbed. Cell doors are open, in case you
want to look backward in time, rather than forward. History and the city´s modern
creative spirit mingle well.. like a good stew. It's not something I can find just
So, I'm sipping a cafe in the basement of a 1920s house, where a local has decided to set up
an impromptu movie theater. Well, I just gotta smile, and hope I find more places
that have been so lucky.