My first time in Chile, I arrived alone in Santiago with a walking boot and a backpack. I put down the backpack and limped over the cobblestone streets of Bellavista to visit La Chascona, the Santiago house of Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I began translating, with immediacy and fervor in the lobby of hostels I stayed at, on the side of highways I hitchhiked, under the vestibule of the tent I slept in, Veinte Poemas de Amor, y Una Cancion Desperada (Twenty Love Poems, and One Song of Despair). I picked up new phrases, blancas colinas (white hills), las viejas hélices del crepúsculo (the old propellers of dawn). I hoped that by learning his poems, I might learn to speak Spanish like a poet. Or at least, learn about this southern country from a man who claimed, as he traveled away from it, that his bones lived in Chile.
Days later, I took a bus to Valparaiso, with lines of grapevines blurring out my window below the contoured ridges of the Andes. I went to visit his Valparaiso home, La Sebastiana. I wandered around the large tables where he hosted artists and politicians, looking through multicolored glass bottles on windowsills to the sea behind the glass. Neruda was a communist. La Sebastiana house was looted after the military coup in 1973 overthrew the socialist regime, shortly after Neruda’s death.
I moved south with his poems. I curled up by the window in itchy wool blankets in homes of farmers near Temuco; I babysat sheep and small children on the island of Chiloe; I rafted down the white froth of the rapids in Rio Futaleufu. I looked for the country in the small places, where women trade seeds, where fields are tilled with hand tools, where ranchers make homemade alcoholic cider (chicha) and brand their cows with a big party (a terrifying event to witness while inside of the ring). Like Neruda writes, I had “no task but to live;” I had “no family but the road.”
My second time in Chile, I came with a specific task (report, write) and a family of sorts (a gaggle of 17 student journalists). The landscape was shifting, as it had in Neruda’s lifetime, with clouds of tear gas hiding protester’s faces in the streets of Valparaiso, not far from the orange and blue walls of La Sebastiana. A new generation of activists lamented with posters, not poems, the centralization, privatization, the injustices of this southern country.
I bought a used, coverless copy of Cien Sonetos (100 Sonnets) and Veinte Poemas de Amor, y Una Cancion Desperada on the street on my way home from one of our long table dinners in Santiago, and kept it at the bottom of my backpack when I headed south again. I translated words when I needed to. He seemed so sad, sometimes–maybe because of his wife or lover, maybe because of his lost childhood in southern Chile, maybe because the country he so loved exiled him, maybe because, at the end of his life, he knew his country would soon swing back towards a military dictatorship.
When I came north from the forests, the day before I switched hemispheres, I made my last pilgrimage to his third house, Isla Negra, on the cliffs above the “wild coast” with its “tumultuous oceanic movement.” Over a late lunch on a porch suspended over the rocky coast, I translated more of his sonnets, flipping through my red Larousse dictionary, finger pointing to a word in the yellowing, coverless copy of his poems. My eyes glazed over the ceviche and pisco sour, drifting towards the sea. I realized that no matter how many poems I obsessed over, I could never know his Chile. His poems were a translation of his world, and my translation of his language a collection of fragmented phrases that sounded nice (unquiet stones; feathery telegraph.). But I did learn a few things––from his poems, my months in Chile, my interviews with Chileans, and my adventures with the gaggle of Globalistas, all clad in their brightly colored scarves, scribbling in their leather moleskin notebooks.
I learned about nalka, a wild rhubarb plant in the Valdivian forest, and calafate, the yellow berry plant rumored to bewitch any consumer to return to Patagonia. I learned about asados, the slow, allday barbecues, and maté, the hot herbal drink sipped through straws. I learned about how to kiss only one cheek (right on right), and how to add “po” to the end of any word to Chileanize my Spanish. And I think we all–our traveling family of student journalists–learned about the movement in Chile, about this country so full of protests and change as we briefly drifted through una tierra en marcha.
Editor-in-Chief, The Yale Globalist