Valparaíso: A Tale of Two Cities

December 30, 2010

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

At least, that’s how it felt upon arrival in Valparaíso after a few wonderful days in Santiago. Chile’s two main cities seemed as different as could be. After stepping off the bus in Chile’s “cultural capital” and seeing what greeted us there, we almost got right back on again.

Valparaíso is a port city, historically one of the major stops en route to North America, and still an important departure point for merchant ships, the Chilean navy, and cruises of all kinds. It has hustled and bustled for hundreds of years, and the streets are full of markets, young sailors in uniform and colourful people. They are also full of dirt and refuse of all kinds, and the stench of excrement (human and animal) hangs in the air. For the duration of our 2-day stay, the air was always filled with the sound of ship’s foghorns, people shouting as they hawked their Christmas wares, dozens of dogs howling and barking as they jockeyed for position in the city’s canine hierarchy, and car alarms screeching for what seemed like hours on end.

Valparaíso in all its glory

As we wandered around the winding, cobbled, hilly streets (some at close to a 40° angle or so), at first with our luggage, we attracted the stares of almost everyone. They would look me up and down as if they couldn’t determine whether they first wanted to rape or rob me. There was always the feeling of looking over your shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed by thieves, even in daylight, and of needing to have one hand on your possessions at all times. In the old town, we imagined that we would discover the bars, clubs, and restaurants that all the guidebooks had promised would be thriving and open until late, but by 10:30pm all we found were dark and deserted streets and shuttered buildings bearing “cerrado” (closed) signs.

Everything was run down. I shall have to brush up on the requirements and imposed limitations of bring a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the whole of the city has been designated as one. Perhaps they seek to preserve its “character” and prevent developments that would require building homes that don’t look as though they’ve been torn down and rebuilt five times, and are in the process of crumbling away before one’s eyes yet again.

I immediately noticed the numerous street dogs, which in Santiago had been ubiquitous but also seemingly pure bred and healthy if not totally clean. In Valparaíso, there were many more, and they all seemed to limp, a fact that did not reassure me considering the apparent lack of traffic lights and the exceedingly fast pace of the cars around the blind-cornered streets. My concern proved justified, as it was only the timely intervention of Hubs that prevented me from being hit by a bus travelling at about 100km/hour through a pedestrian crossing and ending up like the dogs – or, more likely, much worse off.

We didn’t love it.

To be fair, I am sure it was not as dangerous as I felt it was. I am sure that for locals, and some tourists who are comfortable with the language and have experience with similar places, it is charming and unexpected. It appears that we care not for Chilean-style “character.”

And were some high points. The city, taken collectively, is a visual treat. Houses of every conceivable colour seem to climb on top of each other as they ascend the hills in a jumbled mess. From our hotel window we could see thousands in every direction.

We visited La Sebastiana, one of the houses of celebrated Chilean poet (and Nobel Prize winner) Pablo Neruda, which was set high in the hills and looked over the whole of the city, still relatively undeveloped in a vertical sense, so the Pacific glimmered from every window. It is a quirky place, full of his collections, passions and obsessions (many of which I share, coincidentally): wall-sized maps, crime novels, fancy tablewear, stained glass doors, and naval paraphernalia. His convivial personality seemed to jump out of his possessions, and they told the story of a man who fully appreciated the good things in life, from material objects like comfortable chairs to entertaining his many friends, or drinking the superb Chilean wine he would give to foreign dignitaries when he was stationed in France as an ambassador. He invented a drink that he described in the style of a military battle, with some ingredients there merely as camouflage, others as thundering cavalry, and still more cast in the role of the conquered army. I don’t think I have ever felt as much that I would love to be someone’s friend after looking through his house as I did with Neruda.

La Sebastiana, Neruda's delightfully quirky house in Valpo

We also spent a lovely day in the neighbouring town of Viña del Mar, and the contrast couldn’t have been greater. Beautiful gardens, clean streets and a nice beach, where we spent a quiet day (giving me my second sunburn of the trip – ouch!). The metro that took us there was cheap, spotlessly clean, comfortable, and fast. (Incidentally, it was, ahem, light rail.) We were amused to see that the practice of adolescents kissing ferociously in public parks extended the whole country, as young people are less likely to move away from home at an age young enough to indulge in such pleasures in private. We norteamericanos must seem quite cold, in comparison.

And, best of all, we had a homey retreat, just in time for Christmas. Our lovely B&B came with a kind proprietor who baked us cake and gingerbread cookies, and we watched Christmas-related Disney movies with her young child as we waited for midnight to come so they could open presents. The owner got us some too – magnets to remind us of our stay. As we descended the cobbled streets with our bags yet again, this time at 7:15 on Christmas morning on our way to the bus station, they were absent of anything but the dogs. The early morning sun shone almost horizontally and lit up the streets, and our suitcase wheels were loud in the holiday-induced silence. It was almost a different city entirely. Character comes in many forms, and it is the people that make (or break) a place – or do both simultaneously.


Santiago: A Surprisingly Familiar City

December 26, 2010

It is perhaps good that I have been remiss in writing much of our travels in South America thus far, because it is only since we arrived in Argentina yesterday that I am able to speak of the differences between it and what we have seen in Chile.

It is almost as if we have traversed three continents in our travels, instead of just two countries. We first wanted to come to South America — to Argentina specifically — because we had heard that it was the “perfect European honeymoon, at half the cost” (or twice the length, as we are doing). Everyone told us that the architecture, the culture, and the people would seem strangely European as well, but with the added advantages of massive steaks and tango dancing. What more could one ask? Nada.

Arriving in Santiago to 33° weather, we certainly felt that we were somewhere very different. Santiago is a lovely city, with colours bursting from the trees and plants that line its almost exclusively one-way streets, beautiful homes and gardens, and kind people who help point lost turistas like us in the right direction. It is very clean and feels safe, despite the high walls and security gates that front every property.

Flora on Cerro Santa Lucía

We stayed in the delightful, modern neighbourhood of Providencia, in a beautiful B&B run by Chileans who had lived for years in New Zealand and Australia, and who were willing to speak to us for hours with pride about their country’s history, politics, food and drink (which is fantastic). Their wines are very cheap at about $5 a bottle and top-notch, especially a new variety of grape we have discovered called Carménère, which was originally from France but has since disappeared there only to flourish in the temperate climate of Chile’s central valley. And the bread. Oh, the bread. It is shaped like a French roll, with the crustiness of a baguette, and is so delicious that it is consumed at every meal, with jams, fruits, cheeses, meats, and butter, or simply on its own. Everybody in Chile eats it, and so the government regulates its contents, legislating added vitamins to ensure that it is healthy.

But it is not Europe, something we only discovered after a day or two when we realized what it was that had been in the back of our minds and could put it into words. In fact, we found, putting aside the weather and all the associated effects of living life outside more, that it was very much like Toronto. It was jarring to be in a place so foreign to us and yet in many ways so familiar. Part of being a tourist and adopting, as many scholars have called it, the “tourist gaze,” is constantly comparing how the things we see are similar to and different from home. As tourists, we adopt a position of ignorance by necessity, simultaneously resenting and hiding behind our feeling of being outsiders. Most tourists want to live “as the locals do,” and spend a few days living a life that is not theirs, but it is always difficult to overcome differences in language or customs and really understand. We of course were no different, and in seeking to understand we could not help but try to find the gaps between our assumptions of the country and the reality.

Most surprising was that we did not find as many gaps as we had thought we would. The people, though they have the darker, almost Mediterranean, colouring of South Americans, dress similarly to Canadians. They were quite modest in their dress, in fact, with most wearing suits and pants despite the heat, instead of sundresses like mine. The contrast immediately upon reaching Mendoza made this even more plain, as all the mendocinos look like fashion models. Santiago, in contrast, is a working city, and a city to live in, much like Toronto. There were no siestas, as we had expected, and we were surprised not to find many restaurants at all open after 10:00, at what we had been told was the time everyone just started to eat. On our last evening, in fact, we had to retreat to a bar that plied us with several varieties of pisco sour, because we couldn’t find another open kitchen. (This was not all bad.)

On our third day in the city, we took a bike tour in the afternoon heat, called “Parks and Politics,” led by a travelling American from Colorado (younger than we are) who had lived in the city but three months. Not exactly what we had expected, but he was knowledgeable enough and, unsurprisingly, spoke English that we could understand. It seems many Chileans don’t speak it at all, so he had managed to secure the job easily.

The tour involved battling rush-hour traffic (at Christmas) through the downtown core, and I will mention that Toronto bikers should come to Santiago if they want to see what a city that has no bike lanes feels like. (Incidentally, the suburbs and neighbourhoods outside of the central area all have dedicated bike paths, but in the city proper we were on our own with only our large bicycles, bells, and evident tourist status to shield us from the simultaneous aggression and creative response to red lights of Santiago’s drivers.) Again, it was much more American than European. The buildings, many of which had been rebuilt after each of the earthquakes in Chile’s history, stood firm but looked modern, with a few exceptions (the national library, some government buildings, universities) which were in a slightly crumbling colonial style.

Our guide explained that the drivers would be kind to us because they would see that we were tourists and would simply be glad that we were there and not in Argentina. I felt that this was likely a more honest statement than we would get from a native, and a telling one too. We did not know what to expect from Chile before we came, and when we told people about our trip, they would mostly only comment on Argentina and all its charms. It seems that Chile has only recently become a destination for those who enjoy world-class travel. In the 20 or so years since it secured its democracy again after years of military dictatorship, it has made great — and oft-unremarked — strides. It has a booming economy, buoyed by copper exports (recall the famous miners) but also fabulous produce and wine and specialty crops like jojoba beans, which are apparantly much used by NASA as well as in skin creams. (I can’t speculate as to why.) And Chile is now a country with an immigrant population, which is presenting a host of new problems and some national reflection that had never occurred before. The influx of Peruvians has apparently sparked a wave of protests that labour is being ‘stolen’ from native Chileans, one that is quite familiar to us in North America and Europe. The city of 7 million, surrounded on all sides by stunning mountain ranges, and already home to 45% of Chile’s population, will have to determine how to grow yet more as it becomes a more attractive place to live.

La Moneda, presidential palace

I suspect in some ways that Chile’s relationship with Argentina mirrors that of Canada and the US: part admiration, part resentment of its history as a greater world power, and a small part humourous derision – of the vast amounts of food (not a problem for us), of its famed Mendozan wineries being owned by Chilean companies, and of its people being poorer generally, thus explaining how Argentina came to be “cheap” compared with Chile (we got the double meaning of the word). Perhaps they are small victories secured to compensate for a history of being looked down upon by visiting Argentinians, or ignored entirely, or perhaps we will discover some of them to have merit.

We shall see.

Note: Please excuse any strange formatting, small fonts, and the lack of pictures. All to be rectified once I find a browser that cooperates with me.

Silence and Schematics: The Things You Don’t See

December 16, 2010

In my last post I wrote about context and perspective in mapping, and the biases that are inherent in the information presented in different kinds of maps. Biases, of course, can be dangerous because we generally trust the information maps give us. They are more powerful for their apparent objectivity. The science behind them is sound, we think – after all, cartography is based on empirical data.

But just as maps can inform us, they can also make us ignorant – of context, of specific details, and of what we don’t know – even while they’re giving us other information. It isn’t just what we see in the frame that matters, but also what we don’t see, what’s left out. In conveying information, art can be as important as accuracy, and sometimes even more so.

Most early maps contained a lot of information. When little was known about the area beyond what had been explored, cartographers would create a sense of danger and excitement by inserting allegorical images, fantastical creatures, or mythical mountain ranges. They would decorate the frames with pictorial Biblical references, or symbols of their nation’s prowess at exploration and conquest.

A very busy map of Africa from the 1600s

In the above (relatively complete!) map of Africa from the 1600s, note the prevalence of mountain ranges and large rivers (that don’t really exist) and the animal drawings used to take up space. Also note the many decorations of ships in the ocean around the frame (side note: web address watermark not included on the original). What is silent? The cartographer’s ignorance – about the interior topography and other geographical markers. But a casual observer then would not have known this.

It was considered a great leap forward when in 1759 cartographers – influenced by French mapmaker Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville and the Enlightenment tradition dictating that all maps be empirically verifiable – begun to leave blank spaces if precise information about parts of the areas they were mapping was unclear. The practice served to encourage new forays into the “unconquered” and “uninhabited” areas they depicted to determine, for example, the as-yet undiscovered mouths of rivers or the potential treasure/glory/conquest that lay beyond established borders. But primarily these blank spaces lent increasing credibility to what was shown (whether it was accurate or not), by silencing everything else.

Accentuating some pieces of information over others with emphasis and silence grew in popularity even further as the centuries progressed. The most common world map we see, for example, privileges the northern hemisphere over the southern through the use of Mercator’s projection. It also puts the Western world – whether Europe or North America – in the centre of the frame, relegating all other areas to the peripheries.

"The Queen's Dominions at the End of the Nineteenth Century"

In the map above, the bright red colour of Britain’s imperial territories contrasts with the neutral colour of other lands. Islands of small geographical significance jump from the page with red underlines and heavy black labels indicating that they are strategic refuelling outposts, places that ship spices back to Britain, or simply more territory in red. Mercator’s projection is used to great effect, enlarging North America even above the bounds of the map’s frame, at the expense of the southern hemisphere.

It is all intended to provide a sense of a vast, interconnected Empire. While looking at this, viewers might fail to notice the absence of information not related to Britain’s imperial conquest. About other lands, the map is relatively silent, because they are not the focus.

Maps are now used for all kinds of things – everything from directions to websites or thoughts. The proliferation of maps has tended to swell the number of those used for a single purpose, and the trend seems to be toward more specificity but less context.

Consider subway maps, most of which are a legacy from the modernist era. They fall squarely into the “art” over “accuracy” way of conveying information, and are characterized by highly stylized lines, multiple colours and use of sans-serif fonts. The most famous, of course, is Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground, which dates to 1931. Its genius lies in its abstraction, its ability to draw order in the form of clean and easy-to-read visuals from the confusion and complexity of the actual system. Compare the official underground map with the actual map of the subway stations from above the ground:

Schematic Tube Map, Zone 1


Tube Lines Mapped to Actual Geography

It takes a certain genius to create schematic subway map order from chaos; no doubt this is the reason these maps are such iconic art pieces, found on buttons, t-shirts, and posters the world over. It’s fascinating to me that they are so simple and so focused – and yet divorced from the actual geography they represent. Almost every major city is the same.


Paris Metro

Paris Metro

Washington DC:

Washington DC Metro

Washington DC Metro


Moscow Subway Map - Like an Alien Creature

Even maps of New York City’s frenzied system are relatively simple. But sometimes accuracy wins out over art. In 1975, the New York City transit authority determined that the map they had been using to that point was too much so, and commissioned something that would line up more with the streets above ground. (You will find a fascinating interview with the designer of the 1979 map, which was only just retired a few years ago, as well as several old subway maps from NYC, here.) Yet even this more “accurate” and “realistic” new map has some deviations from reality: Manhattan, and lower Manhattan in particular, have been expanded to accommodate the landmarks and subway lines that all seem to converge there; Brooklyn and the other boroughs are made relatively smaller than their actual size.
It would seem that for clarity or for a great story, some alteration is always necessary, and a bit of silence too. No map designed to emphasize transit lines could hope to show every street, and of course designers realize this.  People are perhaps more willing to put up with silence and abstraction in maps now because they are used to it, and because maps are not expected to be geographically accurate to be authoritative.  It’s an interesting trend that points to our increasing ability to cope with the abstraction and de-contextualization of cartography, even as the broader minimalist modernism movement appears to be winding down (the ever-popular clean lines of IKEA products notwithstanding). What does it mean for the future of maps? Will the definition of a map become ever-broader as we incorporate variations from site maps to schematics? Or do we need a new name for this kind of information vehicle altogether?

This post is part two of a three-part series on the past, present and future of mapping. Check back for a wrap-up later this week.

Mapping in Three Dimensions

December 14, 2010

It’s standard fare these days to think of maps as political tools, each with its own particular bias or bent. From Mercator’s projection to Greenwich Mean Time, what we see in maps is often exactly what we have been conditioned to see by generations of cartographers and a tradition of Western mapping that prioritizes specific views, divisions, and perspectives. J.B. Harley, a preeminent scholar of maps, characterized cartography as a language, with the cartographer in a significant position of power over the viewer. Yet maps are changing. No longer static lines on a canvas, they can now be seen and experienced with modern tools like GPS and Google Maps. In this first post in my series on modern mapping, I’m going to zero in on a specific element of maps and how we read them that is changing rapidly: perspective.


A delightful aerial view map of the St. George Campus in 1932 (From the University of Toronto Archives)

Consider: when you think of a map, you likely think of an aerial, “bird’s eye” view of a terrain, probably subdivided by political boundaries into nations, states, provinces, or other political entities. Land is probably marked as green. Water is blue.  It’s probably centred on Europe or North America. This marks you (and me) as a student of fairly recent Western-style cartography. The method of representing the world through political divisions dates to the era of the rise of the nation-state, but the predominance of the aerial view is also a legacy of the nineteenth century and grew with the rise of scientific cartography. Imperial cartographers, often at the forefront of discovery and seizure of territory, derived much of their feeling of superiority over the populations that inhabited the lands they discovered from what they perceived as their more advanced cartographic knowledge.

To geographers who could explore, measure, name and represent large areas of land in two dimensions, ownership was the logical next step, and a natural right. Organizing territory in this way made sense, and particularly reinforced (for example) the British obsession with characterizing and arranging things. Their power was often exerted even by the act of mapping itself.  Imperial mapmakers used tools and methodology that colonial populations rarely understood, which in the minds of cartographers clearly legitimized the modernizing imperial mission. To the British, a nation that could not identify its own resources, borders and population through mapping could legitimately be colonized by one that could, as various historians from Ian Barrow to Anne McClintock (of Freudian Imperial Leather fame) have explored.  To map using scientific methods was to differentiate colonizer from colonized and project Western “progress” onto the landscape – and its peoples – through logical and rational classification and categorization.

The Great Trigonometric Survey of India

A view of India while undergoing the "Great Trigonometric Survey" in the 19th Century, at the zenith of British Imperial scientific cartography (from the Utah Education Network)


The irony, of course, is that science has caused the imperial map of two dimensions to become almost obsolete for practical purposes. Of course, people still pore over maps, hang them on their walls as artefacts, and even sometimes use them to find their way, but the way we actually use maps has shifted.

Native populations in what would later become colonial territories (for example, in Africa) had their own ways of categorizing and describing territory. Boundaries ran along tribal lines, and were dynamic and flexible as tribal lands changed. Rivers – often unexplored to their full extent, in the absence of a British fixation with discovering their mouths and sources – could have a variety of names as they passed through different stages of their existence, from a spring to rapids to a wide oasis on a dry savannah that changed with the season. Geographical markers made sense and were referenced in terms of local context and use, not neat aerial classification at a high level. Above all, land was experienced in three dimensions, as humans really see it, not as birds do. Native peoples were closer to the lands they lived on without the distance of science, and experienced its fluctuations and nuances deeply.

Today we appear to want maps to be more this way. With distance may come power, but with experience comes understanding. I was repeatedly tripped up by a new GPS system last weekend that depicted the area I was driving through in three dimensions. Apparently this form of navigating is far more popular than a bird’s-eye view equivalent. Drivers can feel more a part of the territory through which they are driving – and there is the added benefit of a textual overlay with street names and important markers.

Mapping UofT in Three Dimensions

Mapping UofT in Three Dimensions

And there is little distance at all with applications like Google Earth and Google Maps. With Street View, people can experience geographies without ever having been there. They can effect an instant déjà-vu and familiarize themselves with territory before arriving, enabling familiarity without experience. Mapping has returned to three dimensions.

But what are the costs? I can’t help but think of two articles I read in the last year, one of which described the “barbell” effect of living in a city, where we tend to know the areas in which we live and work, with little knowledge of the neighbourhoods in between. The other referred to the rise of GPS as sounding a death knell for getting lost, a tragedy because it forestalls ever getting to know an area to which we are not explicitly travelling. (Clearly this author had never experienced a faulty GPS that landed him in a sketchy parking garage 40 minutes from the movie theatre he had intended to visit, as I have.) Nonetheless, being lost can be an experience of discovery. But how often do we look to explore areas on Google Maps with which we aren’t already familiar?

We now have a scientific three-dimensional view, in some ways the best of both worlds. But it may be that we lose the overall sense of continuity that a scientific, small-scale map brings while also losing the sense of connectedness and local context that comes with intimate knowledge of a certain small piece of territory.

I started this post talking about bias and manipulation by cartographers. With the variety of perspectives we can simultaneously employ now, much of that manipulation has disappeared. What we choose to see and seek out is now up to us, and the bias has become less the cartographer’s than our own. We’ll learn in time which one obscures more.

This post is part one of a three-part series on the past, present and future of mapping. Stay tuned.