A WOMAN'S JOURNEY ROUND THE WORLD (1852)
by IDA PFEIFFER
Extracts from CHAPTER VI.
ARRIVAL AND RESIDENCE IN VALPARAISO. (2-17 March 1847)
APPEARANCE OF THE TOWN.
The appearance of Valparaiso is dull and monotonous. The town is laid out in two long streets at the foot of dreary hills, which look like gigantic masses of sand, but which really consist of large rocks covered with thin layers of earth and sand. On some of these hills are houses, and on one of them is the churchyard, which, combined with the wooden church towers, built in the Spanish style, relieves, in a slight degree, the wearisome uniformity of the prospect. Not less astounding than the deserted look of the port, was the miserably wretched landing-place, which is composed of a high wooden quay, about 100 feet long, stretching out into the sea, with narrow steps, like ladders, against the side. It was a most pitiable sight to see a lady attempting to go up or down ; all persons who were in the least weak or awkward, had to be let down with ropes.
The two principal streets are tolerably broad, and very much frequented, especially by horsemen. Every Chilean is born a horseman ; and some of their horses are such fine animals that you involuntarily stop to admire their proud action, their noble bearing, and the nice symmetry of their limbs.
The stirrups are curiously formed, consisting of long, heavy pieces of wood, hollowed out, and into which the rider places the tips of his feet. The spurs are remarkably large, and are often about four inches in diameter.
The houses are constructed completely in the European style, with flat Italian roofs. The more ancient buildings have only a ground floor, and are small and ugly, while most of the modem ones have a spacious and handsome first floor. The interior too, of the latter is generally very tasty. Large steps conduct into a lofty well- ventilated entrance-hall on the first floor, from which the visitor passes, through large glass doors, into the drawing-room and other apartments. The drawing-room is the pride, not only of every European who has settled in the country, but also of the Chileans, who often spend very large sums in the decorations. Heavy carpets cover all the floor; rich tapestry hangs against the walls; furniture and mirrors of the most costly description are procured from Europe ; and on the tables are strewed magnificent albums, adorned with the most artistic engravings. The elegant fire-places, however, convinced me that the winters here are not as mild as the inhabitants would fain have had me believe.
Of all the public buildings, the Theatre and the Exchange are the finest. The interior of the former is very neat, and contains a roomy pit and two galleries, portioned off as boxes. The inhabitants of the town patronise the theatre a great deal, but not so much on account of the Italian operas played there, as for the sake of possessing a common place of meeting. The ladies always come in full dress, and mutual visits are made in the boxes, all of which are very spacious, and beautifully furnished with mirrors, carpets, sofas, and chairs.
The second fine building, the Exchange, comprises a good-sized, cheerful hall, with convenient rooms adjoining. From the hall there is a pleasant view over the town and sea. The building belonging to the "German Club" contains some fine apartments, with reading and card rooms.
The only thing that pleased me about the churches were the towers, which consist of two or three octagons, placed one above the other, and each one supported by eight columns. They are composed of wood, the altars and pillars of the nave being of the same material. The nave itself presents rather a poor and naked appearance, occasioned in a great degree by the absence of sittings. The men stand, and the women bring with them little carpets, which they spread before them, and on which they either kneel or sit. Ladies in easy circumstances have their carpets brought by their maids. The cathedral is called La Matriz.
The public promenades of Valparaiso are not very pleasant, as most of the side-walks and roads are covered almost a foot deep with sand and dust, which the slightest breath of wind is sufficient to raise in thick clouds. After 10 o'clock in the morning, when the sea-breeze begins blowing, the whole town is very often enveloped by it. A great many persons are said to die here from diseases of the chest and lungs. The most frequented places of resort are Polanco and the lighthouse. Near the latter, especially, the prospect is very beautiful, extending, as it does, on a clear day, as far as some of the majestic snow-covered spurs of the Andes.
The streets, as I have already mentioned, are tolerably lively : peculiar omnibuses and cabriolets traverse them frequently. The fare from one end of the town to the other is one real (2½d.) There are also a great number of asses, mostly employed in carrying water and provisions.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF THE LOWER CLASSES.
The lower classes are remarkably ugly. The Chileans have a yellowish brown complexion, thick black hair, most unpleasant features, and such a peculiarly repulsive cast of countenance, that any physiognomist would straightway pronounce them to be robbers or pickpockets at the least. Captain Bell had told me a great deal of the extraordinary honesty of these people ; and, in his usual exaggerated manner, assured us that a person might leave a purse of gold lying in the street, with the certainty of finding it the next day on the same spot ; but, in spite of this, I must frankly confess, that for my own part, I should be rather fearful of meeting these honest creatures even by day, in a lonely spot, with the money in my pocket.
I had subsequently opportunities of convincing myself of the fallaciousness of the captain's opinion, for I often met with convicts, chained together, and employed in the public buildings and cleaning the roads. The windows and doors, too, are secured with bolts and bars in a manner almost unknown in any town of Europe. At night, in all the streets, and on all the hills which are inhabited, are parties of police, who call out to one another in exactly the same manner that the advanced posts do during a campaign. Mounted patrols also traverse the town in every direction, and persons returning alone from the theatre or from a party, often engage their services to conduct them home. Burglariously [interesting neologism, Ed.] entering a house is punished with death. All these precautions do not, most decidedly, argue much for the honesty of the people.
I will take this opportunity of mentioning a scene, of which I was myself an eye-witness, as it happened before my window. A little boy was carrying a number of plates and dishes on a board, when the latter unluckily slipped from his grasp, and all the crockery lay in fragments at his feet. At first, the poor fellow was so frightened that he stood like a column, gazing with a fixed look at the pieces, and then began to cry most bitterly. The passers-by stopped, it is true, to look at the unfortunate child, but did not evince the least compassion ; they laughed, and went on. In any other place, they would have raised a little subscription, or at least pitied and consoled him, but certainly would not have seen anything to laugh at. The circumstance is of itself a mere trifle, but it is exactly by such trifles that we are often enabled to form a true estimate of people's real characters.
Another adventure, also, but of quite a different and most horrible kind, happened during my stay in Valparaiso.
As I have already remarked, it is the custom here, as well as in many countries of Europe, to sentence criminals to hard labour on public works. One of the convicts endeavoured to bribe his gaoler to let him escape, and so far succeeded that the latter promised on his paying an ounce (17 Spanish dollars — £3 8s.) to give him an opportunity for flight. The prisoners are allowed every morning and afternoon to receive the visits of their friends and relations, and likewise to accept provisions from them. The wife of the convict in question profited by this regulation to bring her husband the necessary money ; and on receiving this, the gaoler arranged matters so that on the next morning the convict was not fastened to the same chain with a fellow-criminal, as is usually the case, but could walk alone, and thus easily get clear off, more especially as the spot in which they worked was a very lonely one.
The whole affair was very cunningly arranged, but either the gaoler changed his mind, or, perhaps, from the beginning had intended to act as he did — he fired at the fugitive, and shot him dead.
It is very seldom that any pure descendants of the original inhabitants are to be seen; we met with only two. They struck me as very similar to the Puris of Brazil, except that they have not such small ugly-shaped eyes. In this country there are no slaves.
The dress of the Chileans is quite in the European taste, especially as regards the women. The only difference with the men is that, instead of a coat, they frequently wear the Poncho, which is composed of two pieces of cloth or merino, each about one ell broad and two ells long. The two pieces are sewn together, with the exception of an opening in the middle for the head to pass through ; the whole garment reaches down to the hips, and resembles a square cape. The Poncho is worn of all colours, green, blue, bright red, &c., and looks very handsome, especially when embroidered all round with coloured silk, which is the case when the wearer is opulent. In the streets, the women invariably wear large scarfs, which they draw over their heads in church.
My intention, on coming to Chile, was to stop for a few weeks in order to have time for an excursion to the capital, Santiago, and after that to proceed to China, as I had been told in Rio Janeiro that there was a ship from Valparaiso to China every month. Unfortunately this was not the case. I found that vessels bound to that country were very seldom to be met with, but that there happened to be one at that moment, which would sail in five or six days. I was generally advised not to lose the opportunity, but rather to abandon my design of visiting Santiago. I reflected for a little, and agreed to do so, although with a heavy heart ; and in order to avoid all disappointment, immediately went to the captain, who offered to take me for 200 Spanish dollars (£40). I agreed, and had five days left, which I determined to spend in carefully examining Valparaiso and its environs. I should have had plenty of time to pay Santiago a flying visit, since it is only 130 miles from Valparaiso, but the expenses would have been very heavy, as there is no public conveyance, and consequently I should have been obliged to hire a carriage for myself. Besides this, I should have derived but little satisfaction from the mere superficial impressions which would have been all I could have obtained of either town.
I contented myself, therefore, with Valparaiso alone. I toiled industriously up the surrounding hills and mountains, visited the huts of the lower classes, witnessed their national dances, &c., determined that here at least I would become acquainted with everything.
On some of the hills, especially on the Cerro Alegre, there are the most lovely country-houses, with elegant gardens, and a most beautiful view over the sea. The prospect inland is not so fine, as chains of tall, naked, ugly mountains rise up behind the hills, and completely shut in the scene.
The huts of the poor people are miserably bad, being mostly built of clay and wood, and threatening to fall down every moment. I hardly ventured to enter them, thinking that the interior was of a piece with the exterior, and was consequently astonished at seeing not only good beds, chairs, and tables, but very often elegant little altars adorned with flowers. The inmates, too, were far from being badly dressed, and the linen hung out before many of these hovels struck me as superior to much that I had seen at the windows of some of the most elegant houses situated in the principal streets of the towns of Sicily.
THE EATING HOUSES OF POLANCO.
A very good idea of the manners and customs of the people may be easily obtained by strolling, on Sundays and fête days, near Polanco, and visiting the eating-houses.
I will introduce my reader to one of these places. In one corner, on the ground, burns a fierce fire, surrounded by innumerable pots and pans, between which are wooden spits with beef and pork, simmering and roasting in the most enticing manner. An ungainly wooden framework, with a long broad plank on it, occupies the middle of the room, and is covered with a cloth whose original colour it would be an impossibility to determine. This is the table at which the guests sit. During the dinner itself the old patriarchal customs are observed, with this difference, that not only do all the guests eat out of one dish, but that all the eatables are served up in one, and one only. Beans and rice, potatoes and roast beef, Paradise apples and onions, &c., &c., lie quietly side by side, and are devoured in the deepest silence. At the end of the repast, a goblet, filled with wine, or sometimes merely water, is passed from hand to hand, and after this had gone round, the company begin to talk. In the evening dancing is vigorously pursued to the music of a guitar ; unfortunately, it was Lent during my visit, when all public amusements are prohibited. The people themselves, however, were not so particular, and were only too ready, for a few reaux [plural of real (coinage), Ed.], to go through the Zamacueca and Refalosa — the national dances of the country. I had soon seen sufficient ; the gestures and movements of the dancers were beyond all description unbecoming, and I could but pity the children, whose natural modesty cannot fail to be nipped in the bud by witnessing the performance of these dances.
THE CHERUB (ANGELITO).
I was equally displeased with a remarkable custom prevalent here, in accordance with which the death of a little child is celebrated by its parents as a grand festival. They name the deceased child an angelito, (little angel), and adorn it in every possible way. Its eyes are not closed, but, on the contrary, opened as wide as possible, and its cheeks are painted red ; it is then dressed out in the finest clothes, crowned with flowers, and placed in a little chair in a kind of niche, which also is ornamented with flowers. The relations and neighbours then come and wish the parents joy at possessing such an angel ; and, during the first night, the parents, relations, and friends execute the wildest dances, and feast in the most joyous fashion before the angelito. I heard that in the country it was not unusual for the parents to carry the little coffin to the churchyard themselves, followed by the relations with the brandy bottle in their hands, and giving vent to their joy in the most outrageous manner.
A merchant told me that one of his friends, who holds a judicial appointment, had, a short time previous, been called to decide a curious case. A grave-digger was carrying one of these deceased angels to the churchyard, when he stepped into a tavern to take a dram. The landlord inquired what he had got under his poncho, and on learning that it was an angelito, offered him two reaux for it. The gravedigger consented ; the landlord quickly arranged a niche with flowers in the drinking-room, and then hastened to inform the whole neighbourhood what a treasure he had got. They all came, admired the little angel, and drank and feasted in its honour. But the parents also soon heard of it, hurried down to the tavern, took away their child, and had the landlord brought before the magistrate. On hearing the case, the latter could scarcely restrain from laughing, but arranged the matter amicably, as such a crime was not mentioned in the statute book.
The manner in which patients are conveyed to the hospital here is very remarkable. They are placed upon a simple wooden armchair, with one band fastened in front of them to prevent their falling off, and another beneath for them to place their feet on — a most horrible sight when the sick person is so weak that he can no longer hold himself in an upright posture.
I was not a little astonished on hearing that, in this country, where there is yet no post, or, indeed, any regular means of conveyance from one place to another, a railroad was about being constructed from here to Santiago. The work has been undertaken by an English company, and the necessary measurements already begun. As the localities are very mountainous, the railroad will have to make considerable windings, in order to profit by the level tracts, and this will occasion an enormous outlay, quite out of proportion to the present state of trade or the amount of passenger traffic. At present, there are not more than two or three vehicles a-day from one place to the other, and if by chance ten or fifteen passengers come from Santiago to Valparaiso, the thing is talked of over the whole town. This has given rise to the belief that the construction of a railroad has merely been seized on as an excuse, in order to enable those concerned to search about the country undisturbed for gold and silver.
As Valparaiso is situated to the south of the Equator, and, as is well known, the seasons of the southern hemisphere are exactly the contrary of those of the northern, it was now autumn. I saw (34° South latitude) almost the same kinds of fruits and vegetables as those we have in Germany, especially grapes and melons. The apples and pears were not so good nor so abundant as with us.
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