Valparaiso. A port city of cliff-hanger houses. Stairs instead of sidewalks. Bright, crazy wall murals lining narrow alleys and roadways. Homeless dogs with dreadlocks. We spend two days wandering and climbing two of the city’s steep hills: Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción. Yes, the many hills separated by deep ravines have names. You can walk from one to the other.
We’ve come to explore: an art gallery with a monster theme (left-over from Halloween), a sweets shop, La Dulcería, which advertises via white ants painted along the sidewalks, port and bay views from hillside promenades and terraces, streets of grand 19th century homes built by foreign merchants – English, Scottish, German. A Scottish great uncle of mine had settled here. I want to visit the Cementerio de los Disidentes, Dissidents’ Cemetery, where non-Catholic foreigners were buried. I’d been here once before and spied a tombstone with his family name, Riddell.
We easily find the grave and snap photos of the names inscribed on the pink-toned stone. I’m excited. This is definitely the family, but not my great uncle, Robert. Checking my hand-written family tree, I learn it’s the grave of his brother, Thomas, a daughter and his wife. Thomas came from Midlothian, Scotland and died in Valparaiso in 1880.
Headless angels and lopsided tombstones tell of the many earthquakes that have shaken up this quiet hillside. We visit the office where 80 year-old Señora Teresa, the administrator’s mother, is eager to help us search for more names. She has my son pull heavy, brown, dusty record books from a shelf. She turns the pages scanning the handwritten grave numbers and names, though she actually knows the names and location of most cemetery dwellers. She’s worked here for thirty-nine years. A living record book.
We then cross the narrow lane to the Catholic cemetery and wander about reading the inscribed names, wondering about their lives. I sit to rest on the edge of a dry fountain, its paint peeling. My son takes a seat by me. Strange. We look at each other. Is the fountain shifting under our weight? It only takes a few seconds to realize it isn’t the fountain that is moving. I announce, “Earthquake!” The rolling movement doesn’t last long, so “tremor” is more accurate. A fitting exclamation mark for a cemetery visit.
We follow narrow lanes and head for the Paseo Atkinson to view the city at night. The lights twinkle. Then in a shadowy corner comes a growl. Black dogs at night run the risk of getting stepped on. All the strays look related or – is this the same one we saw earlier who has decided to follow us? Both my son and I are softies for abandoned dogs. He must have caught our scent.