I came to the Dominica Hostel in Santiago with two weeks worth of laundry fresh clothing, but thanks to my self-proclaimed professional traveler friend, my luggage had narrowed significantly to a small duffle, including only 3 shirts that I didn’t care about but secretly favored. I threw the bag under the stairs and ignored the others in the nearby living room who were ignoring me. Exhausted by picking out known Spanish words overheard by those I pretended to ignore, I meandered down to the kitchen for a second breakfast with a more amicable group. Twenty minutes later, I was on a bus to Valparaiso with new friends.
The urban bus station emptied out into a desolate environment of urban filth and deserted dogs, further discredited by buildings, whose foundation still had noticeable cracks and gaps from the earthquake a year before. But a few turned corners and palm trees later, the scene had quickly shifted to a lively port town surrounded by its twenty-something hills, covered in houses displayed in a fantastic array of heights, sizes and hues.
I knew Valparaiso was a place that many visit, but I wasn’t expecting the sloping streets to be so crowded. As we were making our first accent up hill one, a cyclist flew off the gazebo, over our heads and down a ramp that I hadn’t noticed before. Cerro Abajo is an urban downhill race that brings mountain bikers from all over the world to ride the challenging hills of Valparaiso, and we were right in the midst of it, and definitely on the wrong side of the orange tape. Hiking further up the hill, we were finally able to discern the race path from the rest of the narrow street, until the orange tape would seem to tie off at a doorstep or a wall, and I would assume that perhaps this is where the race started. Then a whistle would blow, the crowd would hold cameras to the sky, and a biker would fly off the roof, land past the doorstep and continue the path set by the orange tape. We were fooled several times after, as the jumps got higher and seemingly less believable until someone appeared out of the sky and back on the set path to disprove our simplified minds.
We eventually found the starting line and joined other tourists and dogs at a pier wall, which overlooked the entire point, with ships and barges passing busily below. I had seen so many dogs lying apathetically in the streets, from the time I arrived in Chile, and the dog lover in me would collapse each time. Pretending that they all had homes and loving owners waiting for them kept me walking past. I had avoided contact with them in fear that they may be dangerous, but once I was told otherwise, I found myself breaking multiple travel rules in a short time.
I only had to look into Juanpi's eyes for a short moment to know we would be the best of friends. He skipped with me up and down the pier as tourists oohed and awed at our instant connection. I thanked him with a rather generous scratch behind the ear, and his eyes opened wide and his eyebrows softened—a humble response I thought, until he rolled onto his back, bearing a stomach in need of a rub. This time, my eyes softened, and unaware of the dirt, oil and hair collecting on my hands and fingernails, I pretended Juanpi was my own dog at home in my backyard, scratching out any memory of any fly that had ever tickled him. I wrestled him to the city ground and growled in his face, and he responded with a long lick from chin to forehead. My new friends, disgusted by my actions, strongly suggested I stop, and threatened to walk away.
“Ciao, Juanpi. perro bueno. I’ll miss you.” Either my pronunciation was way off, or Juanpi didn’t want to say goodbye. The scratching triggered an unconditional attachment, and Juanpi and his girlfriend became two more travel companions, which completed our temporary Valparaisian family.
After an exhausting steep trudge and a sampling of antibacterial gel from everyone in my group, we stopped at the top of yet another hill inside one of many seafood restaurants for a late lunch. Juanpi and his girlfriend waited patiently outside. There I learned more about my new travel friends: a collection of nannies, students and a motorcyclist from all over who had been traveling for months. Logan was the motorcyclist making his way through South America with others he met along the way until his motorcycle broke down. He was waiting in Santiago for nearly a month for a spare BMW part to be sent from Germany. I couldn’t believe his patience. I was almost embarrassed to admit that I was only going to be in Chile for a few weeks.
After a satisfying meal of fresh fish, rice and a soft-boiled egg splayed over it all, we made our way toward the Pablo Neruda house. Throughout our journey, there were several gorgeous paintings on the walls. The locals called it graffiti, but it was so well done that I didn’t want to attribute a negative name to so many beautiful pieces of work.
We passed a man with 7 or 8 dogs following close behind him. I started to laugh, knowing just how he had acquired his canine entourage.
We walked faster past him, thinking nothing of our dogs crossing paths until I heard my little Juanpi give a threatening growl to the others, and then we were suddenly amongst a pack of angry dogs with only two in our defense. When a set of teeth brushed my leg, the allure of having a pair of loyal guard dogs to defend us disintegrated quickly. We ran ahead leaning into our knees up the hill with the intention of losing the dogs but they proved to be endlessly persevering. We stopped in little art shops and went out alternate exits, but they found us. We went down steep winding stairs that initially frightened Juanpi, but his attachment to me forced him to face his fear, lucky for me.
I felt guilty for wanting to abandon him, just as he had been sometime before, but the reality that he would never leave made me want to run even faster. It turned into a cruel game, like trying to lose your annoying little brother in a shopping mall. When we arrived at the Pablo Neruda house, they followed us through the gates as usual. I shrugged at the guards, when they looked at me and explained that dogs weren’t allowed. “Then don’t let them in,” I grimaced.
The outside of the house had been restructured to look like a dull museum, but the inside of the house was breath-taking. Neruda’s various collections and house arrangement depicted a clever persona that painted a clear portrait of who I always imagined he was through his poetry. I was immediately drawn to his love for the water and was reminded of my surf trip that was close ahead. We exited the house in peace and almost forgot about the dogs, when Logan quietly nudged his head at Juanpi’s girlfriend whose loyalty had been distracted by a large woman, tempting the dog with food and head scratches, while they both posed for a photo. Juanpi was nowhere to be found, so we made a quick escape, and the guard locked the gates behind us. Closing time had worked favorably.
For the next hour we would be looking behind us, stressed that Juanpi would find us again. We stopped for a snack, and chose to eat inside in case Juanpi had followed our scent.
It was getting late, but we hadn’t yet taken one of the many notorious free elevators, so we hastily squeezed that in, the old screeching death box traveling up a vertical un-climbable cliff to the top of what we would declare our last hill of Valpo. Knowing that the only other way down was a long and steady trail to the bottom, we decidedly forgot about our canine stalkers.
The misty blue sunlit scene made the view down at the pier seem vapid. And of course, waiting patiently at the top of the cliff underneath a park bench, was my forever-loyal friend, Juanpi. We were instantly on our backs with laughter over his miraculous appearance and joked about him showing up back in Santiago.
Unlike the states, the suburbs of Valparaiso were more dangerous and more prone to pick pockets, and it was getting dark now, so we headed back with Juanpi walking in front of me, ready to protect with my approval. He followed us all the way to the bus station entrance, where we left him waiting patiently outside with a hopeful smile, and he will undoubtedly remain there until I come back.