So I’m finally living in Chile! Welcome to my blog, where I’ll keep you updated on my adventures abroad for the next five months. As a participant in CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), I’m living with a Chilean family in Viña del Mar and attending Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, a nearby coastal city. I’ve actually already been here for three weeks, but with a constant whirlwind of activity, I haven’t had much time to sit down and contemplate my experiences thus far. Finally, classes are in full swing and I’ve fallen into a rhythm of daily life. This blog will likely be sprawling because of all the things I’ve managed to cram into a few weeks, but I’ll try to outline the more exciting moments of my life in Chile thus far.
To begin with what I consider the core of my experience abroad, I’ll tell you a bit about my home stay. My Chilean family has been wonderfully loving and warm (and actually, most Chileans I’ve met have similar traits), making me feel immediately comfortable in my new home. It’s protocol here when you meet new people to exchange a kiss on the right cheek. And when you say goodbye. And, if someone new enters the room (or a bar, or even a group of people standing around, etc), social norms call for that person to circulate and introduce themselves to everyone with a kiss. This ritual certainly speaks to the affectionate culture I’ve encountered here in Chile.
Anyways, back to my family—it’s composed of a mom, nanny, three brothers, two dogs, five cats, and some fish. Needless to say, my house stays lively! My two younger brothers, Antonio (9) and Renato (7), attend colegio (elementary school) nearby. My older brother, Nico, I haven’t actually met yet because he’s a traveling musician, playing in streets and buses, currently in Ecuador. Nadie sabe when this free spirit will return, but I hope to meet him before I leave! I also have adorable grandparents who live nearby (we go there for hours of conversation and “almuerzo” or “asado” most weekends), and loads of cousins, aunts, uncles and extended family. I met what seemed like twenty different people at my grandparents the day I moved in, which was quite a riot. Especially since Chilean Spanish is exceedingly different than what I’ve studied at UPS.
When I first arrived I was able to cheat in my conversations a bit. An American student named Ali, who had lived with my family two semesters ago, returned to Chile to live with our family while doing research for her thesis, and she helped translate the rapid fire questions from my relatives. Ali also introduced me to her friends, showed me around Viña, and answered my multitude of questions about life in Chile (which is both similar and vastly different from everything I’ve known, a rather indescribable concept). Ali is back in the United States now, but she left me feeling completely at ease with my family and surroundings. In fact, I’m still waiting to be homesick (and hoping I’ll somehow evade this ache for the familiar). Meeting Chileans has been easier than I initially thought, and conversations flow surprisingly smoothly, albeit my frequent stumbling in Spanish and the difficulty in understanding a thick Chilean accent.
I also have a group of adventurous extranjeros (in this case, American) friends from my program, and thought we haven’t even strayed that far from our city, we’ve come to know a bit of Chile’s strikingly exotic landscape. Highlights have been the sand dunes, where it’s popular to sand board and stay late for drinks and the sunset, and La Campana, a beautiful national park in the nearby city of Olmué, only an hour’s train ride away. I’ve also toured La Sebastiana, one of three of Pablo Neruda’s homes in Chile, and some of the amazing graffiti on the streets and hills of Valparaíso. But my favorite thing to do is the most simple: head down to the beach (a ten minute walk from my house) with a few amigos to enjoy the sun during the afternoon or watch the sunset in the evening. Frequently we’ll be graced by the company of a seal, Peruvian flautist, surfers, scuba divers, and/or a bottle of Chilean vino.
And now, a word on the things that may fall into what I find a somewhat annoying term: culture shock. “Sentiste el temblor?” (“Did you feel the earthquake tremor?”) my host mom asked me last week as I was heading out the door to meet friends downtown. I didn’t, but apparently if there’s a tremor and you are sitting down, chances are you’ll feel it. “Tranquilo,” (“stay calm”) she says, and she adds that if there are more tremors, people on the streets may make a commotion, but I shouldn’t worry. As you may know, the area of Chile I’m living in was not affected too badly by the earthquake, but evidence remains in the cracks in the walls of many buildings. Apparently, the worst part about the earthquake in this area was the breakdown of communication; cell phones and internet didn’t work for an extended period of time. Although living in an active seismic zone is rather unnerving, most people I’ve talked to have a calm attitude concerning earthquakes. After all, it’s not exactly an occurrence any of us have control over. The potential for a tsunami is also a topic of concern, but I’ve attended various presentations on safety protocol and have explicit instructions from my host mom to book it up the hill to my grandparent’s house if there is a tsunami warning.
In addition to national disasters, I’ve been warned that the street dogs of Chile are occasionally a danger. Although I’m always inclined to pet the average twenty dogs per block I see every day, I know people who have been bitten, chased, or flea-ridden from these adorable residents. So far, I haven’t had any problems, but in the back of my mind is a story from friend who was cornered by a group of over a dozen growling dogs a few blocks from home and was forced to jump in a taxi to evade what he claimed could have turned into a mauling.
However, I must digress from the topic of angry dogs and terremottos, because in my opinion, Chile is overall a safe place, especially the city I’m living in. In fact, the scariest thing I’ve encountered personally has been gas-powered hot water. Every time I want to shower, I need to light a pilot above a large gas tank, and have a limited number of seconds to get the pilot to light. Despite feeling nervous each time I light a match, I have to reassure myself that if this is the scariest situation I’ve been in so far, I’m lucky. I’ll try to post an update on my classes and more adventures in the next couple weeks! Que te vayas bien.