“Her Leopard Legs”

A Poem by the Chilean Writer Roberto Bolaño

I never thought of Roberto Bolaño as a poet before, but his collection entitled The Romantic Dogs set me straight on that score.

LUPE

She worked in la Guerrero, a few streets down from Julian’s,
and she was 17 and had lost a son.
The memory made her cry in that Hotel Trébol room,
spacious and dark, with bath and bidet, the perfect place
to live out a few years. The perfect place to write
a book of apocryphal memories or a collection
of horror poems. Lupe
was thin and had legs long and spotted
like a leopard.
The first time I didn’t even get an erection:
and I didn’t want to have an erection. Lupe spoke of her life
and of what, for her, was happiness.
When a week had passed, we saw each other again. I found her
on a corner alongside other little teenage whores,
propped against the fender of an old Cadillac.
I think we were glad to see each other. From then on
Lupe began telling me things about her life, sometimes crying,
sometimes fucking, almost always naked in bed,
staring at the ceiling, hand in hand.
Her son was born sick and Lupe promised la Virgen
that she’d leave her trade if her baby were cured.
She kept her promise a month or two, then had to go back.
Soon after, her son died, and Lupe said the fault
was her own for not keeping up her bargain with la Virgen.
La Virgen carried off the little angel, payment for a broken
     promise,
I didn’t know what to say.
I liked children, sure,
but I still had many years before I’d know
what it was to have a son.
And so I stayed quiet and thought about the eerie feel
Emerging from the silence of that hotel.
Either the walls were very thick or were the sole
     occupants
or the others didn’t open their mouths, not even to moan.
It was so easy to ride Lupe and feel like a man
and feel wretched. It was easy to get her
in your rhythm and it was easy to listen as she prattled on
about the latest horror films she’d seen
at Bucareli Theater.
Her leopard legs would wrap around my waist
and she’d sink her head into my chest, searching for my
nipples or my heartbeat.
This is the part of you I want to suck, she said to me
     one night.
What, Lupe? Your heart.

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs: 1980-1998 (New York: New Directions, 2006).

Places: Puerto Montt, Chile 2015

Puerto Montt in the Fog

This is the beginning of a new series based on places I have visited since 2001 and always illustrated by my own photographs. In common with all the places I decide to feature is my desire to go back and spend more time in the vicinity. I visited Puerto Montt briefly in 2015 on a trip I started in Buenos Aires, going on to Iguazu Falls (on the Argentina side), San Carlos de Bariloche, Puerto Varas, Valparaíso, and Santiago.

In her book Among the Cities, Jan Morris describes Puerto Montt as the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway. Actually, it continues on the Island of Chiloé across Reloncavi Sound as far as the town of Quellón, from which one could travel by ferry to Chaitén. The port was named after Manuel Montt, who was President of Chile from 1851 to 1861.

The Cathedral of Puerto Montt, Built Entirely of Native Alerce Wood

The Sea Creatures of Puerto Montt

The highlight of my visit to Puerto Montt was the incredible fish market, which Jan Morris described very picturesquely back in 1961:

And wettest, strangest, most southern, most remote, more alien than any melon-flower are the sea creatures of Puerto Montt, dredged through the rain out of the Pacific. There are heavy eels with muscular flanks, big flat fish like slabs of fat, giant clams, crinkled oysters by the million, mountains of spiky urchins, glistening and globular.

If I weren’t on a bus tour, I would have loved to stay for a giant seafood dinner, but I was scheduled to take an all-night TurBus sleeper to Valparaíso.

Unfinished Business

I would dearly love to go back to Puerto Montt for that seafood dinner, and then head across the sound to the Island of Chiloé, which is famous for its UNESCO-recognized wooden churches and wet forests. The Chilotes dispute with the Peruvians the development of the potato, which grows extensively on the island, and which is served with seafood in a local stew known as curanto.

Atacama and Altiplano

Political Demonstration in La Paz, Bolivia

Still on lockdown from the quarantine, I am dreaming of a vacation that includes Peru, the northern tip of Chile, and the Altiplano region of Bolivia. I may be too old for this trip (at age 76), but I continue to collect information. In terms of transportation, it involves a round trip flight from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru.

There are three legs to this trip.

First I head south in two or three stages to Tacna, Peru, which is on the border with Chile and its Atacama Desert, and over the border to Arica. The stages might include Paracas, Huacachina, and (most definitely) Arequipa.

From Arica, I head northeast to the Bolivian border, possibly stopping at Putre and the Parque Nacional Lauca. From this point until the end of the trip, I am at high altitude, from twelve to fifteen thousand feet (between 3600 and 4600 meters). I will be subject to soroche, or altitude sickness. I will have to use coca leaves and an alkaloid to keep me from becoming seriously ill.

Chile’s Atacama Desert, Which Receives No Rain To Speak Of

From Arica to La Paz, Bolivia is only seven hours by bus, continuing on my northeasterly direction.

I will recover from my bus ride for a few days in La Paz, possibly seeing the ruins at Tiwanaku. Then I head northwest to Copacabana, where I will be on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I will spend a night on the Isla del Sol, and take a bus to Puno in Peru. From Puno, I will take either a bus or train to Cusco, where I will see several local Inca ruins (though not necessarily Macchu Pichu, which I saw in 2015). From Cusco, I fly to Lima and eventually back to Los Angeles.

The Whole Trip Is in the Extreme Southwest of This Map

What interests me in this area are, in addition to the mountains and deserts, the cultures of the mountain peoples living in the area. Originally, I was very interested in the Inca, but then I realized that they were not as advanced as I had thought. One exception: Their stonework is amazing. Also, this is the area from which the Spanish conquistadores extracted most of their wealth, leaving behind some incredible churches full of gold, silver, and incredible paintings.

If it turns out I am too old for this trip, I will reluctantly skip Bolivia and continue to head southward in Chile until I reach Santiago.

“Resurrection”

Lake Balatón with Tihany Abbey, Burial Place of Magyar Kings

In 1977, I went to Hungary and Czechoslovakia (before it was split into two countries) with my mother and father. We spent a couple of days in a hostel on the shores of Lake Balatón, one of the largest in Europe. I remember it as a large but shallow lake in which one could walk out a half mile before getting in over your head. The average depth of the lake is only about 3 meters. The cafés around the lake served a kind of carp called, in Hungarian, ponty (that’s only a single syllable, which can be pronounced only by Hungarians).

I was delighted to find this poem by the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño, which mentions the lake:

Resurrection

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
Consider it from below:
a diver
innocent
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

Those last few lines pack a punch, which I am still trying to figure out. Maybe the original Spanish will help:

un buzo
inocente
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad.
La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo muerto
en el ojo de Dios.

Or maybe it won’t help. But that’s what poetry is all about. Coming back to it again and again until everything seems to click into place.

Not a Connoisseur (Accent on the 2nd Syllable)

It Was Just a Phase I Was Going Through

I have fallen out of love with wine. Oh, when I was younger, I thought that it would be very cool if I were knowledgeable about wine and showed everyone what good taste I had. Right next to the company where I worked, there was a Vendome Wine & Liquors, and I tried mightily to read up on vintages and varietals, and to be the guy who showed up at the party with the most interesting wine.

My biggest coup was to find several 18th century Madeiras. It was a bit of a rip-off, because only a small portion of each bottle dated back two centuries, but the bottle stated that it was a 1756 (or whatever) vintage. It was all right, I suppose, but now Madeira is a bit too sweet for my taste.

Now my brother is a genuine wine connoisseur (with the accent on the last syllable). He actually has a wine cooler at home set to the ideal temperature, rarely varying more than a degree or two of optimal.

Perhaps the reason I no longer drink wine is that the medications I take—anyway, most of them—may not be taken with alcohol. And, as a diabetic, I know that alcohol turns into sugar in the body. So I rarely drink anything alcoholic with my meals. Yesterday’s lunch was an exception: I had some British hard cider, which was quite good. And when it is blisteringly hot, I will occasionally drink a beer.

As for wine, that is, for me, so 1970s that I generally avoid it. It was all well and good when I had people to share it with, but Martine doesn’t drink wine either, and if I open a bottle, what do I do with what I don’t finish? Put in in the refrigerator? That kind of wrecks the taste.

The last time I enjoined wine was three years ago when I was in Valparaiso, Chile. The Bed & Breakfast where I was staying had a wine tasting of reds and whites from the nearby Casablanca Valley. They were all pretty good. So maybe, it’s not so much that I don’t like wine as that the circumstances of my life as it is lived have irrevocably changed.

 

The Three Houses of the Poet

Isla Negra Where Neruda and His Wife Are Buried

Isla Negra Where Neruda and His Wife Are Buried

I haven’t written about South America lately, so I decided to return to it. If my visit to Chile seems haphazard and unplanned (Puerto Varas to Valparaíso to Santiago), it is because my sightseeing goals were, to say the least, abstruse. Remember, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Argentina if it weren’t for my readings of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Juan José Saer, and César Aira. My favorite Chilean writer is the poet Pablo Neruda. So I went to Chile to visit his three houses.

It’s not really abstruse, I guess, because Neruda was not only a great poet; he was also a great domestic architect and designer. He had some money to work with because he was not only a poet, but served various diplomatic posts, particularly in Mexico.

The first house I visited was at Isla Negra, about an hour south of Valparaíso. It was my favorite of the three, located as it is on a nice stretch of beach. Also it was not trashed by Pinochet’s fascist supporters after Salvador Allende fell, like La Chascona in Santiago was. Isla Negra seems to go on forever, with quirky bars, dining rooms, nautical and railroad themes, and fascinating collectibles.

La Sebastiana in Valparaíso

La Sebastiana in Valparaíso

High on a hill, on Avenida Alemania, with a sweeping view of Valparaíso’s bay, is the towering La Sebastiana. Like Isla Negra, it still has all the original furnishings, with the poet’s quirky love of nautical themes. On the day I went, the house was full of French tourists.

Santiago’s La Chascona

Santiago’s La Chascona

Finally, in the city’s ritzy Bellavista area is La Chascona, which means “messy hair.” The reference is to wife Matilde Urrutia’s hair. This house is tucked against a hill and does not have any sweeping views the way the other two houses do. Although the original furnishings were trashed in 1973 by fascisti supporting dictator General Augusto Pinochet, Matilde managed to salvage many of her late husband’s original decorations, such that one scarcely notices the damage that had been done.

 

Dining with the Bomberos

One of the Best Places to Eat in Chile is the Main Fire Station in Valparaiso

One of the Best Places to Eat in Chile is the Main Fire Station in Valparaiso

One of the best places to have good wholesome food in Chile is at the local firehouse. I put this truism to the test in Valparaiso, where I had a delicious meal consisting of chicken consommé, salad, fried fish, rice, and a fruit dessert at the main fire station in Valparaiso—for only 3,000 pesos (that’s less than five dollars).

I believe my waiter was one of the firemen (he’s shown standing in the background in the above photo). The food was straightforward; there were no other tourists in attendance; and the place was immaculately clean.

The word bombero sounds vaguely menacing in English, probably because it looks like “bomber.” Rest assured that I do not make a practice of dining with terrorists. Chilean firemen is a different story altogether.

The Lakes Crossing

From Bariloche Over the Andes to Chile

From Bariloche Over the Andes to Chile

There are a number of border crossings between Argentina and Chile. One of the most picturesque is the so-called “Lakes Crossing,” known in Spanish as the CruceAndino. It takes almost eleven hours and consists of three boat rides and four bus rides. They are as follows:

  • BUS from San Carlos de Bariloche to Puerto Pañuelos on Lago Nahuel Huapi
  • CATAMARAN from Puerto Pañuelos to Puerto Blest
  • BUS from Puerto Blest to Puerto Alegre on Lago Frias
  • BOAT from Puerto Alegre to Puerto Frias, where you will officially exit from Argentina
  • BUS from Puerto Frias to Puerto Peulla on Lago Todos Santos, where you will officially enter Chile, and where you can stretch the trip to two days by staying in a hotel (I didn’t)
  • CATAMARAN from Puerto Peulla to Petrohué
  • BUS from Petrohué to Puerto Varas right past the Calbuco Volcano, which erupted three times this spring

Puerto Peulla on Chile’s Lago Todos Santos

Puerto Peulla on Chile’s Lago Todos Santos

I had thought that crossing the Andes here would involve altitude sickness, but it didn’t. I do not believe this route got much higher than 3,000-4,000 feet. Although while on Lago Frias, it seemed we were way up high, we weren’t. All in all, it was very comfortable and well organized, considering all the handoffs between buses and boats.

The only thing that was odd was that I never received a Chilean tourist card at Peulla, where I entered the country. When I left Chile from Santiago’s Benitez Airport, I had to go to another window so that the PDI (investigative police) generated one for me based on my passport stamps. In any case, it was worth the slight inconvenience.

 

The Magical Forest

A Forest of Chilean Myrtles at Los Arrayanes National Park

A Forest of Chilean Myrtles at Los Arrayanes National Park

One of the sights I most wanted to see on my recent trip to Argentina and Chile was Los Arrayanes National Park on the Quetrihué Peninsula. We arrived there on a fantastic old boat (more about which in a future post) from Puerto Panuelos near San Carlos Bariloche.

There is a prevalent myth that Disney was inspired by the look of the Luma apiculata (Chilean Myrtle) trees for his cartoon feature Bambi (1942); but, alas, Disney did not visit Argentina until three years later. Still, it is possible that he knew of and was inspired by the forest before his visit.

These trees with their orange-colored bark grow only in the Patagonian Lakes District of Argentina and Chile between 33° and 45° South Latitude. They range from 33 to 49 feet (10 to 15 meters) tall.

Typically it is possible to take a tour to Los Arrayanes which also includes Isla Victoria on Lago Nahuel Huapi, where one can see Sequoias and Ponderosa Pines imported from California over a century ago.

 

Restlessness

My Vacation Is Getting Closer

My Vacation Is Getting Closer

In the last few weeks before my vacation, I am feeling restless. All other things aside, here are the books I plan to read before the month is over:

  • Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside-Down. Revolutionary movements in 17th century England.
  • Guy de Maupassant, Afloat. For my French literature group on Yahoo!
  • Pablo Neruda, Canto General. I plan to visit the poet’s houses in Chile.
  • Macedonio Fernandez, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, by a friend and hero of Jorge Luis Borges.
  • John Lynch, San Martin: Argentine Soldier, American Hero. A biography of the Founding Father of Argentina.
  • Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays, Vol. 1, 1920-1925.

And that’s probably half of what I will end up reading this month. Only, it’s always more difficult when one faces a deadline. One thing I will not do is stuff my suitcase full of books, nor concrete blocks either. While I am traveling, I will be reading exclusively from my two Kindles.

As usual, I have a dental emergency just before my vacation. Two small pyramidal chunks of tooth came loose the other day, so I will have to go to the dentist tomorrow. Plus I have two medical appointments this month.

Most of my shopping is done, but I will need a new belt: My old one fell to pieces a couple weeks ago. Plus I will have to get some mosquito repellent (for the Iguasu Falls area), and possibly a two-pocket shirt if I can find one. Oh, and I’m sure I’ll find a couple of other things I will need, or at least feel I’ll need.

The picture above is by Paulo Zerbato and nicely expresses what I am feeling right now.