Why we travel

I mean, I can’t obviously give you THE answer. But I can talk about me!

I traveled in my first few weeks here for a weekend to Viña del Mar and Valparaíso. They’re two towns located on the coast, about 1.5 hours from Santiago; the bus ride between them takes about ten minutes. [OU also has an exchange program with the Universidad de Viña del Mar.]

This is Viña:

Viña del Mar

Plaza Vergara, Viña del Mar

It’s a resort town, founded in the late 1800s by Santiago elites who wanted a summertime beach getaway.

This is Valpo:

Cerro Artillería, Valparaíso

Cerro Bellavista, Valparaíso









It’s a port town, historically economically critical and culturally vibrant.


Honestly, I didn’t like Viña very much. As far as I’m concerned, it was just like any other resort town (in any country): there are restaurants, and casinos, and big hotels, and artesanal/souvenir shops, and a beach (and a Museo de Arte Precolombino that we didn’t go to). It was fun and definitely nice to spend a day at the beach while it was still summer, but there was nothing distinctive about the town for me. Also, it’s probably relevant that casinos and big hotels aren’t really my preferred choice for spending money to entertain myself in the first place.

Valparaíso, though, I loved. The houses are all painted and hanging precariously off the city’s hills, there seem to be more stairs than sidewalks, there’s street art and murals everywhere, the port is still busy every day, and I just really enjoy spending time there. It’s different, and endlessly fascinating. I went back there on Saturday with two of my good friends from Norway, to visit Pablo Neruda’s house (La Sebastiana) and conocer (lit. meet, know, be familiar with — a very elegant little verb) more of the city. It was great.

Most of my Brasilian friends, though, hated Valpo (and really liked Viña), saying, “It’s dirty. It’s falling apart. It looks like a favela (slum). We didn’t come here to Chile to see poverty; we already know that*. We came to see richness.”

*To be clear, I’m not saying that all (or most) Brasilians are impoverished (in fact, the poverty rate has declined by about 60% in the past decade). However, the 1980s-90s were economically extremely difficult for Brasil, and the continuing enormous income inequality in the country makes poverty there much more visible than in Chile.

So, how do I/should I react to that? What does that say about what I came to South America for? There are obviously several other justifications I could provide for my preference of cities (see above), but it’s these little remarks that slap me in the face, over and over, with how often I take for granted or just plainly don’t think about the basic inequality (economic and otherwise) that separates me from most of the rest of the world. It’s horrible, and thinking about it is one of the easiest ways to ruin my day — because not only is it unfair and unjust in its own right, but it also generally ends with me feeling crushingly guilty for having so unwittingly benefited from a global economic system that I have zero control over.

Does this preference for Valparaíso then peg me as just another gringa looking to gawk at a “less-developed” country (at least stereotypically)? Is it patronizing of me just to be interested?  At any rate, my desire to travel there seems to be driven by its difference from any city I’ve been to in the US, which certainly says something in itself.

And this is the part where I should write a post devoted to recognizing and elaborating and analyzing my privilege: as a United States citizen (more generally, as a “Westerner”), as a university student with a great scholarship whose parents are still paying her way, as a student with the financial and academic resources to study abroad at all, to name a few (there are many more, not the least of which is just being a white, straight girl from an upper-middle class family).

Unfortunately, because of time constraints, it’s not going to happen today.

Instead, with all this in mind and on my mind, I’m off to Bolivia!


One Response to “Why we travel”

  1. admin on June 16th, 2010 11:38 am

    Helen, I love this post.

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