THREE YEARS IN CHILI (1854)
by LORETTA MERWIN
GOING TO THE POLANCO.
There is a pleasure-garden in the eastern part of the city, much resorted to by all classes — not because the place has many attractions, but because there is no other means of varying the monotony of existence within this semi-circle of hills, where you cannot drive in more than one direction without climbing some acclivity. I always enjoyed my after-dinner rides to the Polanco (as the garden is called), from the novel life I was sure to encounter on the way.
Descending the steep rocky gorge, by which, from our residence, we reach the streets, we beckon to a passing birlochero, in whose vehicle we seat ourselves with the direction, "Vaya al Polanco," and away we go over the badly paved road at a full gallop. You are jolted against your neighbor, you knock your bonnet against the side, you bound against the top ; but you are riding for pleasure, and so grasping a strap, and bracing your feet, you endeavor to enjoy the exercise, consoling yourself with the reflection that it will help you to digest your dinner.
The first person we notice is an old huaso, mounted on a fine horse, with his wife behind him. He wears a bright poncho and straw hat. Her dress is a gay calico, a shawl, and a Panama hat. The horse's bridle is finely plated, with a continuation of the reins fringed at the end — which serves the double purpose of whipping the horse, or lashing any unlucky cur within reach. The bridle-bit is powerful enough to break the horse's jaw ; and on the saddle are five or six shaggy pillones, or woolen cloths, which almost cover his thighs. The rowels of the huaso's spurs are as large as tea-plates ; his stirrups are made of a block of carved wood six or eight inches in diameter — forming a complete protection for the feet in passing through rocky gorges and mountain defiles.
THE LASSO — EARLY PRACTICE.
On one side of the saddle hangs a coiled lasso, made fast to the saddle. The lasso is made of twisted hide about as thick as one's thumb, and some fifty or sixty feet in length, with a slip-noose at the end ; the mounted huaso is never without it. The skill and precision with which it is thrown is surprising. When the huaso desires to catch an animal while running, he takes the coil of the lasso in his right hand, puts his horse at full speed, and whirling his lasso to give it momentum, hurls its loop around the neck, horns, or leg of the animal, with as much certainty as a skilful ball-player sends his ball. The horse is trained, so that the instant the lasso leaves his riders' hand, he stops and braces himself, to bear the strain of the captured animal. The men are bred to this exercise from infancy ; and there is not a ragamuffin boy old enough to walk, but is forever practicing his art on poultry, dogs, goats, and sheep, or any small animal that comes in his way. One day, while walking on the Playa Ancha, we saw one of these little wretches throw his lasso over the head of a passing water-carrier, whom he dragged, half choked, from his donkey. The urchin dropped his lasso and ran for life, while the aguatero relieved his feelings with all the expletives in the language.
Hurrying onward to the Polanco, we meet and pass other birlochos, gentlemen in gay ponchos, mounted on prancing horses ; drunken sailors galloping the street at a breakneck pace, knowing little of horsemanship and caring less ; and huasos on mules and donkeys with panniers of fruit and vegetables.
Here is a peon, with a long pole over his shoulder, from which hang bunches of tallow candles, velas de sebo ; and there another with a bundle of country brooms, made of broom-corn tied about the end of a rough stick. On our left, we have just passed an hombre, with a number of gay feather dusters made from the plumage of the South American ostrich ; just before us is a man carrying two elegant robes of guanaco skins — a soft, fine fur, buff and white, brought from the Straits of Magellan, and used here in winter to rest the feet on ; coming toward us is another with a robe of ostrich skins, with gray and white feathers some four inches in length. These are also from the Straits, and are used for the same purposes as the guanaco skins.
At the corners, organ-grinders with monkeys, discourse music to the delighted populace — more fortunate than the troubadours of the north, for instead of being continually routed by the police, they are here absolutely paid by the authorities. We pass men seated on the ground, with broad shallow baskets containing cakes and dulces for sale. By and by, as it grows dark, they will light small lanterns, and doze over their wares till bedtime.
PULPERIAS — PEOPLE — POLICE.
Near the garden we cross a bridge that spans a wide deep sewer, now nearly dry, but which, in the rainy season, is a raging torrent. On one side of the estero stands a row of mean houses, pulperias, where they sell the liquors of the country ; and despachos, where all sorts of meat, vegetables and fruits may be had. The sidewalks are unpaved, and the doors stand wide open, discovering the filthy earthen floors of the interior, always a little lower than the street — where unwashed, uncombed buyers and sellers are chaffing together, half-naked, squalid children are playing, and fat, greasy women are seated on the ground twanging guitars.
We returned to the city just as a detachment of the police in the Plaza del Orden were being detailed to their different beats for the night. The policemen are divided into two forces, the Vigilantes, who preserve order during the day, and the Serenos, who watch by night. They are uniformed in coarse blue cloth ; a part of each watch is mounted, and are all armed with sabres. The vigilantes go to their beats at daylight, and are authorized to arrest everyone violating the peace or public decency, and to keep the streets clean and orderly. One is usually placed at the intersection of every two streets.
EFFICIENCY OF THE POLICE.
At twilight the serenos are marched to the relief of the vigilantes. The sereno is never allowed to leave his beat, on any account, until a comrade has responded to his whistle. A householder may send him to call a priest or physician, but if either of these reside outside of his district, he must pass the message through his comrades. The sereno examines the street-doors of the houses, and if they are not properly secured, he notifies the residents.
After ten o'clock, he cries the hour, describing the weather in a prolonged sing-song tone ; and the presence of belated persons is announced by whistles, sounding from sereno to sereno, to put all on the alert.
The number and efficiency of the police afford comparative security ; and, on the whole, I think life and property are safer in the midnight streets of Valparaiso than in many cities of the United States. In street encounters with the disorderly and drunken, the police use their sabres without mercy. In regard to their qualities as censors of cleanliness and decency, they are not so efficient, being ignorant of what cleanliness and decency are, exactly.
DOGS OF VALPARAISO.
Dogs are one of the pests of the city. They are of all kinds and colors, from the tiny white Lucia poodle (the pet of the parlor, washed, combed and flea-d every morning), down to the mongrel cur of mangy constitution and unsightly aspect. They roam about the streets and lie in the doorways ; and hundreds that have no masters, live wild on the hills, and gather their food by night from the offal thrown on the beach. One day, to our great horror, a donkey fell dead near our door; but the hungry dogs pounced upon him, and in less than twelve hours no vestige of the deceased remained. Of course, the greater part of these dogs belong to the very poor ; and every hillside hovel harbors two or three great half-starved brutes, the terror of every passer-by.
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