Watermelon and woman (15.06.10 – Santiago: city, La Chascona)

Overslept as I set my alarm clock to home time, even though it is 12 hours behind here! But not too late – woke up at 10am, had breakfast and felt very fresh from the flight the day before.

From the window in my room, I can see a tiny part of the Andean mountains.

Did a tour of the city on one of those open-roof tour buses. But finding the info centre for the tour and asking for more information about the tour took quite a while, mainly due to my inadequate proficiency in the language. It didn’t help that people speak really fast and a word can be elongated in parts, and totally eliminated in another, particularly in the last syllable: for example, “Valparaiso” becomes “bal-pa-ra-ease”, enunciated in a milidilisecond. Luckily those whom I have met were patient and helpful.

One of the highlights of the day was visiting Pablo Neruda’s home in Santiago, called La Chascona. This is not part of the bus tour, it is just that Pablo Neruda was one of the famous Chileans that I first heard of, that is, after Pinochet (somewhat infamously) and I’ve read some of his poems, and I was eager to see at least one of his houses which are exhibited to the public now. Incidentally, Pablo Neruda’s life had quite a brush with Pinochet’s militia regime. Branded as a communist, a lot of Neruda’s collectibles were taken away by the militia, and we were told in La Chascona there are no exhibits of books because they were all burned.

Today, La Chascona only has a fraction of Neruda’s eclectic collection. Still, a tour of this oddly-designed house with its peculiar bric bracs provides an intimate glimpse into the poet’s tastes and the circle of friends he hung out with, including Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso. The house is odd – as if it is “a toy house” and “not a functional house” as the tour guide described it:- parts of it are interiorally-designed like a ship, with windows shaped like pot holes, a bar counter that was originally from a ship (which is one of my favourite items in the house), low ceilings and tiny door frames – which inevitably attracted a head bump even at my height. Not very practical, considering Neruda was 6 feet tall! The entire house does not sit on a large land, but somewhat organically extends upwards on the slopes it sits. The different parts of the house can be reached from inside through secret passages (one of which is masqueraded as a cabinet door!), or from outside the house via stone paths lined with crooked handrails.

No photos are allowed in the house because of the numerous art works, some of which were gifts from his famous friends. But apparently the man didn’t just collect priceless things; there were also things that were found in flea markets. Like a pair of giant shoes and a giant alarm clock which were items of some commercial practicality (used by shop owners to show what they sell instead of using worded signs, in southern Chile during the old days of illiteracy), as our guide tells us. It is a rather unusual item to find in a home, but not at all out of place in this particular one.

Even the name of the house is unusual: Chascona – a word in Quechua rather than Spanish – meaning “messy hair woman” was so named by Neruda, for his third wife Matilda, who obviously does not have messy hair from the looks of the photos. But bear in mind that this is a man with fertile imagination and some say over-the-top romantics who wrote numerous odes even for inanimate objects, including his socks and olive oil. The watermelon is Neruda’s favourite fruit simply because eating the watermelon is like kissing the lips of a woman, so he says! (Just wondering: did Neruda know what “watermelon” sounds like in Mandarin?)

The guided tour of La Chascona is CLP$3500 (about US$7) and well worth it.

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