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Valparaíso is the perfect microcosm of life – messy, smelly, and painfully beautiful like your first heartbreak. The gas delivery man’s banging out a tune on the propane tanks, a message in Morse code, tells you to get out of bed, look yourself in the mirror, and try again.

The porteños, or port dwellers, are known for their perfect blend of nostalgia and joie de vivre. Here are a people accustomed to battling the ocean day after day for time immemorial. The wins and losses are kept tally in cemeteries, back-alley bars and lovers’ lips. In the Cemetery of Dissidents, stray dogs guard the crypts of ancient Englishmen and their Chilean mistresses. “Náufrago,” reads tomb after tomb – shipwreck.

If santiaguinos deem porteños “rough around the edges,” it is because life’s jaws don’t chew you up and then spit you out with rounder, softer edges like human sea glass. They leave wounds – sometimes jagged ones. Instead of hiding their scars, porteñostattoo them on legs, arms, necks, and trade scar stories like Blackbeard and his pirate cronies.


At the Ex-Cárcel, an old prison now converted into a public park, a group of teenagers dances to a kultrun beat, enacting a fight scene representing Mapuche resistance. Lower on the hill, someone blows the whistle on an abandoned train car – some baron’s get-richer-quick endeavor that never panned out in this uneven terrain. A man with a bottle stumbles by and spits on the teenagers’ shoes. Pablo Neruda’s old house winks at us from a little further down the coast.

It dawns on me that I was in this exact spot two years ago. It was here at the ex-cárcel that we saw the Great Fire of Valparaíso start – at first it was a thin, coal line in the distance, then ash started to rain down on us as it billowed up into a mushroom cloud. Thousands upon thousands of homes were destroyed. Then came the relief effort – we volunteered at shelters, we gathered food, clothes, diapers, we picked through the rubble in the hills to find cats and dogs. I remember going to the store with my former partner, then my friend, to buy cans of soup, pasta, pads, tampons, and toothpaste for people who lost everything. We were broke students and parting with our few lukas was hard, but it felt good to do something, anything, to help.

And the city was rebuilt.

Not all of it, of course. There are still empty patches of land were homes once stood. In fact, there are still mountains of debris where buildings fell from the 2010 earthquake. The people seem to tolerate such shrines not as eyesores, but as historical relics.


Maybe not everything is meant to be rebuilt.

Looking back at the last two years of my own life, I realize how much I’ve grown as a person. The process hasn’t been painless. Falling in love, traveling around Peru and Bolivia in broken-down buses with chickens, finishing my last year of college, heartbreak, a few miserable jobs, and one colonoscopy later, here I am.

I’m a planner. I’ve always liked to be organized and have a rough outline of the next stages of my life, a neat little list so I could check off each box as I went.

I have no plan now. I’m throwing my hat in the ring for things like grad school, scholarships, and grants. I want to do a million different things. I want to write, to do yoga, to travel, to make delicious vegan food, to hike, to do research, to help others, and to have the type of friends who laugh at my terrible jokes at 3:00 am.


As I write this, there’s a protest going on outside my window against the AFP with live Cumbia music. I should be studying for the GRE, but I close my eyes and listen, rapt. “La tierra no se vende,” a woman sings.

I would like to end on this note:

One of my favorite spoken word poets said, “The breaking is the holiest part.”

Maybe not everything is meant to be put back together – a gutted, abandoned train car, an earthquake-stricken building, the galley of a sunken ship collecting barnacles at the bottom of the sea. All testaments that we were here, we tried, and we will try again.



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