Friday, May 18, 2007

OJOS nuevos: viaje al valparaíso

After plastic cups of chocolate milk, marraqueta bread with butter, and a short nap, four teenage girls, the subdirector of the hogar, two extra volunteers and I filed off the bus at the terminal in Valparaíso. Full of anticipation, none of the four young women had ever visited the city before; this would also be the first time our taller had ever left the Santiago city limits. I had passed out the cameras on the bus so the girls could document the two hour ride, and as we left the terminal to the east of the city everyone was smiling and chatting with excitement. Briefly explaining the purported reputation of Valparaíso as being unique in its beauty but dangerous in its layout– tiny, winding streets ideal for quick robberies– the girls tucked their cameras safely out of sight and grabbed each otheŕs arms as we headed towards the center.

I didn’t even see it happen, really. We were waiting at a stoplight, and as I turned around to join the conversation a man ran into the center of our group, bumping into a few girls and then took off running. Still close to the bustling crowds around the bus terminal, he blended in and we lost him quickly as he darted between trucks, cars and street vendors. One fo my girls looked down to see the camera strap around her neck dangling empty, and I became instantly filled with rage at the implications of the episode. Besides the fact that we only have a limited number of cameras and resources, the camera could potentially be replaced. But this particular girl sometimes has difficulty feeling motivated to participate in group activities. Now she felt irresponsible, she felt she was to blame, and she didn’t think she wanted to take pictures that day; of all the people to rob, I wish it wouldn’t have been her.

The best thing for us to do was to forget about the camera. There was nothing we could do but continue with our day and hoping she would change her mind, I explained that we could all share cameras and take turns with the video camera I had brought as well. We quickly moved on. Even though the late morning dulled the city with gloomy clouds and a brisk chill, the newness of the city brought everyone’s spirits up. But even in just the first plaza we crossed, the girls shuffled around exploring every detail in the tiled patterns in the ground, the carved women of the fountain, the people sitting on the benches with the morning newspaper or with their kids.

Valparaíso is a coastal city with a historically important port. In the late 19th century, ships traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific, through the Strait of Magellan, would stop in Valparaíso, which is one of the reasons for its international influences and cultural vitality which it still retains to this day. The city rolls over hills and tucks into corners, a series of acensores assisting with the steep inclines. We spent the first part of our day strolling through the city over to the port, and during this walk the clouds completely broke and we arrived at the ocean with the sun. The ships mesmerized the girls, we sat on the cement steps and watched the waves bounce the smaller boats around like toys.

After the port, we decided to climb one of the hills; it was much more my decision than anyone else’s, and I definitely had to do a lot of encouraging to get us all the way to the top. The panorama of the bay spread out before us with saturated colors and deep shadows. Sidewalks and pathways wound around sharp corners and stopped and started whenever they felt like it. The graffiti along the way intrigued everyone– we definitely have our fair share of graffiti in Santiago, but here there were also many murals and more artistic designs and scenes. With everything new and interesting before them, they took pictures constantly. We had to have stopped every 5 meters as someone found some detail or reflection of interest. I tried very much to encourage more portraiture, but only the oldest participant really ever found the courage to stick her camera right into the faces of strangers and capture them for just a moment.

We took an acensor down, and even though there are drastic differences between these teenage girls and the ones from my past in the Chicago suburbs, there are still many similarities. The old, rickity wooden elevator jerked into motion and set off a series of high pitched squeals that kept me laughing the whole way down. The ride was definitely worth the $2.80 investment. With an hour to spare before we needed to catch the bus home, we found an amusement park set up in another plaza. Before I knew it, a highly competitive game of foosball had erupted and had all of my girls and the volunteers playing and jumping around. We watched little kids waving to their moms and dads from plastic horses riding in circles, and I wondered if these girls had ever been able to do that before. When they caught sight of the swings, these teenagers, with their black sweatshirts and matching fingernails, with their eyeliner and tough attitudes, revealed that they’re still kids. They swung with smiles on their faces, they swung in all seriousness, watching something I couldn’t see, beyond the plaza, beyond the hills. We took turns pushing them, I took their photos as they flew past.

By the time we looked at the clock we had to sprint all the way back to the bus terminal. Gasping for breath we settled into our seats and fell asleep as the sun set outside the giant windows of the bus. If you ask me if the trip was a success I would ask you how you measure success. Did they take amazing photos? Incidentally, they did. Did a camera get stolen? Unfortunately yes, but later in the day this young woman did decide to take photos, when she regained some confidence, and so we don’t even mention the camera. Everyone was safe. We shared jokes, our photography, the pain of walking uphill forever, and hard-boiled eggs. For me, I know without a doubt that it was a success, that the girls had an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Please visit flickr to see our photographs from this trip.