A day in the life of a gringa in Chile

I have been living in Valparaiso, Chile for almost 2 months now and I am finally starting to settle in to a routine here. When I say routine, I don’t mean the same ordinary schedule on a day to day basis. That’s almost impossible in Chile where new, strange, and wonderful things seem to happen every day. Just today I saw a man walking a pack mule through the middle of the city and a street performer juggling fire in an intersection.

However, I am starting to become accustomed to Chilean life, or, as close as I can get to accustomed as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 5’7″ extranjera. Living with a Chilean family has given me a deep insight into typical Chilean life and allowed me to partake in their routines as well. The following is a description of my Thursday:

8:30am – Wake up and stay in bed for 5 minutes convincing myself to roll out of my covers and brave the biting chill of my apartment in the morning. It’s winter here and there’s no central heating in my building (and in most buildings in Chile). Instead, Chileans bundle up and drink lots of tea.

I’ve learned to adapt quickly. I hop out of bed and scurry to the kitchen to heat up some water.

8:45am – My parents are still in bed and the house is quiet so I make myself breakfast: oatmeal, an apple, and Nescafé® – the national instant coffee of Chile. Long gone are the days of the strong artisanal roasted coffee of the Pacific Northwest.

9:20am – Kiss my parents goodbye (one kiss, or rather a notion of a kiss, on the left cheek – as is custom in Chile) and run out the door to catch la micro (the bus). My first class is 25 mins away in the town next to mine. Unlike in the U.S., Chileans don’t live on their college campus. Instead, commuting is an everyday part of life for students here.

9:25 am – Catch la Micro.

This is an event in itself. The buses here have no designated schedule. Instead, its a game of chance. I count on pure luck and hope for an empty bus. This flaky system works surprisingly well as I rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes for my bus.

a full bus. With the way the bus drivers whip around corners and come to halting stops, standing on the micro is a full body workout.

a full bus. With the way the bus drivers whip around corners and come to halting stops, standing on the micro is a full body workout. I literally broke a sweat the last time I did it.

10:05am – 1:15pm – Class (Social Psychology). I attend a Chilean University so all of my classes are taught in Spanish and most are with Chilean students. I am one of three gringas in this class of 30+ Chilean students and the professor takes no pity on us. I only understand about 60% of lecture because she talks so quickly. The Chileans in the class say they can barely keep up. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking signing up for a psychology class in Spanish with absolutely no background in psychology. However, its a great chance to test how much my Spanish is improving. About 6 weeks ago I only understood about 25% of the lecture, so at least that’s something.

1:20pm – Hurry to the closest bus stop to catch la micro. My classes are spread out in buildings across two towns and I only have about 30 minutes to get back to Valparaiso for my next class (to think I used to complain about walking 10 mins across the UPS campus).

I hop on the bus. A man gets on at the next stop and shoves a three pack of band-aids into my hand. He returns to the front of the bus to preach about the everyday importance and necessity of band-aids and how we could improve our day-to-day medical preparedness for only 100 pesos. Although compelling, I choose to save my money and continue living recklessly without band-aids. I give them back to him on his way out as he moves on the the next bus.

This scenario happens almost everyday. I have heard short, passionate speeches given by bus entreprenuers on everything from nail clippers to books on meditation.

2:10pm – I arrive 10 minutes late to my next class – as I do every Thursday. My professor doesn’t mind. Time in Chile is more or less a suggestion. The whole country generally runs half an hour late.

3:30pm – I buy a big slice of my favorite cake from the school cafe for my walk home. It costs 250 pesos (40¢). I eat half then give the rest to one of the surprisingly fat street dogs on the corner. Valparaiso is filled with stray dogs and they are well cared for by the residents here. Its not uncommon to see makeshift dog shelters along the road complete with food and water.

The dogs return the favor in their own way. They often accompany me when I’m walking home late from a night out with my friends, or simply let me pet them when I’m having a down day.

one of the many thriving street dogs of Valparaiso

one of the many thriving street dogs of Valparaiso

My walk home is long (about 1 mile). But I don’t mind. The dogs are cute and the path is beautiful, lined with palm trees and old colonial buildings from the times when Valparaiso was the largest port in South America.

"El Arco Británico" a gift given to Valparaiso from Britain in the early 1900s. I walk by the arch everyday on my way home from school. Oddly enough I have never seen anyone walk under it (including the man in this picture). I have an irrational fear of walking under it myself as I feel like its an unspoken rule that no one does it.

“El Arco Británico”
a gift given to Valparaiso from Britain in the early 1900s. I walk by the arch everyday on my way home from school. Oddly enough I have never seen anyone walk under it (including the man in this picture). I have an irrational fear of walking under it myself.

4:00pm – I return to my apartment and eat late lunch with my family. It’s winter so we usually eat soups or stews. Today my mom makes La Casuela: a traditional Chilean stew with meat, corn, pumpkin, potato, various other vegetables and a little pasta. It’s warm, comforting, and reminds me of the wholesome soups my mom used to make me on cold winter days like today.

La casuela

La casuela

Everyone is there for lunch: my mom (Alicia), my dad (Carlos), my sister (Carolina), my cousin (Patricia), and the housekeeper (Tina). We’re all crammed together at a small table in my parents room. We have a dining room but everyone prefers to eat here for informal family meals. My mom says its more intimate. Plus there’s a TV which we always watch while eating. Chileans love TV.

Lunch is long. In general we spend a lot of time at the table throughout the day, talking, laughing, crying, catching up. Family is an important part of Chilean culture so family time makes up a large part of the day.

5:00pm – Siesta.

I asked my mom once if Chileans have siesta – she said no, but she takes one anyway. I gladly follow her lead.

6:00pm – I go out to check out the artisan street fair by my house. The city streets are constantly lined with street vendors selling everything from kleenex to fresh empanadas. It seems like I can’t walk anywhere without coincidentally shopping on the way. My bank account suffers but my stomach does not.

Street vendors in front of my apartment

Street vendors in front of my apartment

8:00pm – Once (pronounced: Ohn-say). Once is small meal at the end of the day usually consisting of bread, cheese, meat, jam, and tea. The name once literally translates to “eleven” however we rarely eat that late. My family and I sit down at the same small table in my parents room while watching our favorite Chilean telenovela. Before coming to Chile I was never a fan of melodramatic soap operas. However, after two months of watching them every night I find myself deeply invested in the characters lives and genuinely disappointed when I miss an episode.

Again, we spend a lot of time at the table talking and eating. The small plastic table next to my parents bed seems to hold this family together.

10:00pm – My friends invite me out to a Cervecería (alehouse). We drink artisan beer at 2000 pesos/pint (about $3 USD). After, we go get empanadas from a street vendor. By now its past 11pm on a Thursday night and the streets are full of people. For most Chileans, the night is just beginning. It’s typical to stay out past 5am.

My friends invite me out dancing but I have an early morning so I decide to head home.

my friend Neto and his beer. Although I may miss the PNW coffee, I am certainly not deprived of good beer in Chile.

My friend Neto and his beer. Although I may miss the coffee of the PNW, I certainly do not miss the bitter IPAs. I prefer the sweeter, smoother taste of Chilean beer.

12:00pm – I get back to my apartment and hop in bed. I check my phone which says I have walked over seven miles today. In general, I walk a lot more here than I do in the U.S. My first couple weeks here I went to bed with sore legs every night. Walking is a primary form of transportation for Chileans because many don’t own cars, including my family.

Before I fall asleep I think about home. I miss it, but at the same time Chile is, in so many ways, my new home. My routine here feels familiar and comfortable and I find myself amazed at how quickly I have adapted to so much new in so little time. I still struggle with the language and cultural barriers everyday, and I know by that there is no way I will ever be fully integrated into Chilean society. But that’s not the reason I came. I came for many reasons, but one of the biggest was push myself out of my comfort zone, to challenge myself to survive amidst a language and culture foreign to me.

Now, two months in, I realize that I am comfortable here. Of course the past two months have been filled with ups and downs and incredible difficulties that have challenged me and will continue to challenge me in ways I didn’t know possible. However, despite all of this I have found a sense of home here – a new comfort zone that I didn’t know could exist outside of my life in the States. My family, my friends, my classmates, and even the street dogs have accepted me as their own. The street names, landmarks, and bus lines have become ingrained into my head. The sounds of the language and the feeling of Spanish words rolling off my tongue have become familiar.

I have found my routine.



Riding the Bus

Today was my first day of classes! I am very excited to begin my life as a student in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program. It’s actually not too different from living at school. Except the language… and customs…… people ……… currency……….. most things……… there’s no water fountains in any of the buildings? ……………..

While this is very exciting, I want to use this first post, and generally my section of this blog to advise any UPS students who may want to study abroad in Europe, and especially in Budapest, with either in the AIT computer science program, or the mathematics program. In particular I want to discuss public transportation.

Public transit has always fascinated me. I always wonder about the relationship between the economy of a city or a country, and the quality of the public transit system. I will not be discussing any of these questions, nor have I done any research… Instead, I will talk about the practical realities of using public transportation in Europe.

Public transportation can be scary for people who aren’t used to it. The rush hour crowds, the stress of running late. Especially if everything is in a different language, it can be extremely confusing, and difficult to ask directions. But public transportation can be a vital part of your time abroad in Europe.

For people who are used to taking lots of trains or buses, the information in this post may all be familiar. But for people who aren’t used to using public transit, there can be a learning curve; not just in learning the different train lines, but with actually getting used to the large number of complete strangers you may have to be uncomfortably close to.

First, a little background on why I am a big fan of public transit. (Two big reasons are that cars are evil metal killing machines, and public transit is much better for the environment, but those are secondary.) The main reason is my personal reliance on public transit. I live in Oakland, but I went to high school in San Francisco. For those (few) UPS students who are not from the bay area, these are two adjacent cities, and this required me to take a train and a bus nearly every morning for four years. As a result, I had some sort of odd Stockholm syndrome attachment to the San Fransisco public bus and tram system (MUNI, as in municipal transportation), and thought it was amazing. Especially since the public transit systems in many of the neighboring cities and other places I have been to are terrible (I mean, Sound Transit is nice, but you know). The only public transit better than MUNI that I had seen were the Portland street cars, or so I thought. But after visiting Europe for a few weeks, I realized that most public transit in the US is total garbage somewhat lacking in comparison.

My parents used my semester abroad as an excuse to plan a short tour of Europe. As a result, I got to see first-hand several public transit systems. London, famously has the underground, which was pretty remarkable (except for all of the stairs). In Amsterdam, they have something similar to Portland street cars. Unlike Portland however, the longest I ever waited for a train was 6 minutes. Paris also has a great underground metro system. In San Francisco on the other hand, I remember waiting for the 44 (a MUNI bus) for 44 minutes, and laughing at the irony. Of course, I was also pretty pissed.

But anyway, here are the major similarities between good public transit systems:

  • All of the train or metro lines are color coded as well as numbered and named. This seems to be a very universal system for public transit systems, even in the US.
  • The name of a train or metro line almost always refers to the first and last stops the train makes. This gives you just enough information to uniquely determine which stops you can get to from your current station or stop. e.g. If I need to take the red line toward Déli pályaudvar, this tell me that this train will stop at all of the stops along the red line in the direction of Déli pályaudvar.
  • Often a single public transit system will include multiple modes of transportation, for example buses and trams. In this case, the name of a line will often indicate the mode of transport. Here in Budapest, the red line toward Déli pályaudvar, is actually the M2, as in the second Metro line towards Déli pályaudvar. This reduces confusion since there is also a number 2 tram or street car line. But these have different stop names, and are yellow lines.

Remember, Google Maps is your friend! Occasionally the names of the stop will be partially in English, and it can be quite stressful when the name almost matches the name on your phone, but not quite. It’s ok, Google is just trying to be helpful and instead is giving you terrible anxiety.

But, remember Google is based in California. As a result, they have a very good grasp of public transit in the United States, including places to transfer. In Budapest, however, there are so many different options (bus, tram, train, cable car, boat(!?)) that Google maps simply cannot always give a good route to your destination. If you have some free time, especially if it’s a weekday say around 11am or 2pm, take some time to just ride around to different places. explore the different systems. I was lucky to have around a week to get used to the city and its public transportation. Since my parents were staying at a hotel, and I already had an apartment, this was a good excuse for me to take the public transit system back and forth. After a while, I started to notice that Google maps was not actually giving me the best route. Or even a good one. For example it might suggest taking a train, but then getting off and taking a long bus ride, when I knew for a fact that I could just transfer from the M2 line to the M4 line.

While the naming convention is nice and is an easy way to uniquely determine which direction a train is headed, it often doesn’t actually help. Usually I have no idea if the station I am trying to get to is in one direction or the other. Instead, I recommend looking up (if you can) which station is right after the station you are currently in. But otherwise, there should be a (clearly labeled) map, usually only showing the lines which stop at your current station.

Here are some other things to keep in mind about buying tickets:

  • The ticket vending stations almost always have an option for English. If you don’t see the word “English”, you will see different country flags. Occasionally you will see a US flag, but usually you will see a British flag (which, by the way looks like this).
  • You will probably be encouraged to do this by your program, but buying a monthly pass (if available) is always going to be a better option than buying a new ticket each time. This is strangely not always true in the US.
  • Make sure you look understand how to actually use your ticket. Most underground train systems have an electronic gate. So you either scan or insert your ticket into a slot, and you are allowed to enter. If you insert the ticket into a slot, you usually have to take the ticket with you onto the train. However, on buses, trams, or street cars, you may simply scan the ticket once you get on. Often you do not have to show your ticket to a person. Instead, you are required to have the ticket on you at all times on the off chance that a ticket inspector shows up. Not having your ticket, or having an invalid ticket will lead to a fine.

One thing to note about the last bullet point. In Budapest almost all of this is different. If you buy a single use ticket, on every mode of transport, there is a little machine with a slot to “validate” your ticket. However, if you get the recommended monthly pass, you don’t need to do any of this. Instead, you simply always carry your pass and some form of picture ID on you with a number associated. Your school ID for example. When you buy the monthly pass, you will enter your ID number, say your school ID, and this number is printed onto the ticket. Then, on most modes of transport, you simply carry your pass and ID on you, ready to prove to the ticket inspectors that you did in fact buy this monthly pass. The one very odd exception are the metro lines. At every staircase or escalator, there will be a few people in uniform standing around. You then simply flash your pass to them and they let you by. That’s right, there is no physical barrier to the underground train system. This is the only system I have every seem like this.

I really believe that, while it can be terribly confusing at first, getting a good grasp of the public transport system is very liberating. Instead of always taking the same few routes, being able to get around the city without staring at your phone gives a nice safety net and a wonderful opportunity to explore places you otherwise might not have thought to.