About Sarah Petrillo

A gringa studying abroad in Valparaiso, Chile for the fall 2017 semester.


Two weeks ago on a warm, lazy Saturday, a Facebook notification popped up on my newsfeed saying there was a spring festival going on in my town. I texted my friend Elena and we decided to go together. Before leaving my house I looked up the location on google maps: “Cerro Merced – 52min walk”. It was far but we had time to kill and it was a beautiful day to be outside.

We met in the bustling city center, following my map up the steep, long, touristy hill where Pablo Neruda lived. At this point we were hot, sweaty, and tired but we kept on following the hill up, higher and higher. Just when we thought it would end another hill would open up in front of us, seemingly never-ending.

“Just a little bit more,” I kept on assuring Elena, “it’s just up this hill”. I’m not really sure when it happened, but as we climbed higher the concrete sidewalks turned into dirt paths, the noisy commotion of the city turned into birds chirping, and the sea of colorful houses turned into rolling green hills sown with makeshift shacks. Like magic, the chaotic port town of Valparaiso had become a tranquil countryside that I never knew existed. The hills that I looked up at every day, in a town that I thought I knew so well, contained a whole other world – foreign to me. After getting a few weird looks from locals and a conversation with a helpful Chilean man we realized that my map had steered us wrong – this was not Cerro Merced and we were not going to find a spring festival. Our 52 min walk had become an epic 4 hour city-mountaineering adventure.

The deceivingly small hills of Valparaiso

The small yet enormous hills of Valparaiso

Remembering the warning from my study-abroad program to not go “too high” up in the hills, we turned around and started our journey home. Somewhere in the hazy border between city and countryside Elena stopped and looked back at me, wide-eyed,


I turned around and out of nowhere appeared two men on horseback, surrounded by a sea of barking dogs, nonchalantly weaving through parked cars on the street.

The city cowboys hauling produce down the hill

City cowboys hauling produce down the hill

I stared at them in awe, only managing to get out the phrase “Chile magic” 

Elena nodded: “Chile. . . mágico”

The next day I told my Chilean friend about my adventure. He shrugged it off, acting like the magic of the city in which he lives is no big deal. And the thing is, for him, and the other Chileans that live here, it really isn’t. The bizarre, fantastic things I experience here is everyday life for them – mundane.

Right now in my class on Latin American short stories we are learning about magical realism: a literary genre popularized in Latin America during the early- mid 20th century. In magical realism, the fantastic becomes mundane. Characters encounter angels, bake magical cakes, and have paranormal powers but no one acknowledges these magical elements as strange or out of place. They are treated as ordinary.

Being in Chile, I can’t help but to feel like the country is a book on magical realism and I am the reader. I seem to have fantastic, bizarre encounters every day but I am the only one in awe. No one else seems to see the magic around them.

Take my daily commute for example: when I hop on the bus (called “las micros” by the locals) I never know what I might encounter. I have been serenaded by hippies with guitars, enjoyed the original raps of a middle aged man with a boombox, and have even been entertained by full bands. If I am lucky, an interpretive story teller might hop on the bus and enthusiastically act out an epic, action packed short story. Sometimes, when I get on the bus, I am greeted with blacklights, blasting reggeaton music, and light up graphics of strippers- usually complete with an uncomfortable-looking old lady just trying to get home from the store.

Public transportation is at the heart of most of the magic I have experienced in this country. Entering a micro is like entering into a new world – an isolated vessle where the rules of time, space, and society seemingly don´t apply; anything could happen. In Chile, the normally mundane act of riding a bus is an everyday magical experience, to the point where I actually look forward to my daily commute to school.

Walking through the city is another magical part of my day. The city of Valparaiso is filled with large, colorful, psychedelic murals that accompany me wherever I go. It´s not uncommon to turn onto a new street and be delightfully greeted by stunning new art. In Valparaiso it is almost impossible for your eyes to get bored, there always seems to be something beautiful to look at – even the garbage trucks are painted with murals.

My walks through the city always include interactions with the street dogs: the most successful hustlers of Chile. Except for their dirty coats you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a street dog and house dog. They are surprisingly fat and happy, due to the fact that the whole town comes together in unspoken solidarity to care for them. These dogs know how to navigate the city better than I do. I have witnessed dogs wait for the green light at the crosswalks and even ride the micro to the produce market (where they have full access to all the rejected food). I am convinced these dogs have magical powers.

Magic also manifests regularly in Chile’s determined dedication to fútbol. One time I made the mistake of showing up to class during a national soccer game. Me and the only other gringa in the class were the sole ones there. Class had been cancelled without warning because, duh, how could anyone come to class when the fate of Chile’s international dignity is at stake? On my way back home the streets, which are usually bustling with people and traffic, were silent and almost completely empty. The whole country had magically disappeared. It felt wrong to be outside, almost as if the rapture had occurred and I was the only one left.

Even the physical terrain of Chile holds magic. Almost every week I have felt an earthquake, or as the locals call them, “temblors”. The word earthquake or “terremoto” is only deemed worthy of use for magnitudes 7.0 or greater. Earthquakes here are so common that when they do happen nobody seems to care, other than the occasional “ay chucha!” (oh sh**!) from my host dad when the movement messes up his electrical drawing plans for work. In Chile, talking about last night’s earthquake is like talking about the weather. The usual response to “did you feel the earthquake last night?” is “nah, I slept through it,” at which point I find myself lying by saying “yeah, me too,” pretending as if I didn’t wake up terrified, ready to run out the door, and going over tsunami evacuation plans in my head. Unlike me, the whole country has an incredibly relaxed attitude towards weekly reminders of looming natural disasters.

a map of all of the earthquakes in my region within the past 20 days

a map of all of the earthquakes in my region within the past 20 days

However, these weekly terrors are also reminders of the awesome powers of the earth and the beauty that the movement of the terrain creates. Thanks to its seismic activity (and science that I won’t get into) Chile has an astonishingly diverse terrain. The geography of Chile is magic in itself. If you were to travel the whole country from north to south you would go from the driest desert on earth to gigantic glaciers and ice-fields,  with almost every climate imaginable in between.

The mystical "Valle de la Luna" in the Atacama desert

The mystical and appropriately named “Valle de la Luna” in the Atacama desert

Valle Ocoa - home of the endangered Chilean Palm

Valle del Ocoa – home of the endangered Chilean Palm

With all of these fantastic and magical experiences I can’t help but to be completely enamored with this country. Every day I am bewildered by the new, bizarre and strange aspects of Chilean culture. Chileans, on the other hand, are unastounded. Don’t get me wrong, they have a lot of pride and love for their country, but they aren’t naive – they will be quick to point out its flaws:

“There’s a lot of poverty in the city, especially far up in the hills,”

“The micros are too unpredictable, we need a better transportation system”

“There’s too many street dogs, its out of hand.”

They are critical of their society – immune to the everyday magic that exists here.

But then I remember a couple years back when my family hosted an exchange student. She was amazed and entranced by U.S. culture. Small things that I took for granted everyday would nearly bring her to tears in awe. At that point I would just laugh because I didn’t really understand how my everyday life could seem so glamorous and fascinating when to me it was just normal and mundane.

Now I get it.

The thing is, my everyday, mundane life is magical. Maybe not to me, but it is to someone else who is unfamiliar with my country, my culture, and my routine. When you get used to that routine, you start to take those everyday magical aspects of your life for granted.

I think that may be one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to travel: to get out of our routine, to experience the fascinating and enchanting routine of another, and to find the everyday magic in their lives.

But if its magic were looking for, we shouldn’t be so quick to look past ourselves.

I know when I get back to the states I will probably mold right back into my ordinary routine. Life won’t be nearly as enchanting as it is here. No more party micro rides, no more hustling street dogs, no more daily street art, and certainly no more weekly earthquakes. But that doesn’t mean an end to the magic. As I readjust to U.S. life I am going to try my hardest to not just settle back into the ordinary. I am going to make a point to find the bizarre and fantastic in my life because now I know that magic exists – and not only in Chile. If there’s one thing Chile has taught me, it’s that we all live fantastic, bizarre, and magical lives, we just don’t always have the right perspective to see it.


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.



Anxiety Abroad: Travel from the perspective of an anxious college kid

I was born a worrier. I can’t remember ever making a decision without thoroughly examining every single thing that could possibly go wrong – no matter how extreme. I remember when I was a little kid and my parents would leave home to go get groceries I would worry about them getting into a car crash and never coming back. My imagination would run wild with visions of seeing my mom in a hospital bed and moving to Ohio to live with my grandparents. If someone knocked on the door while they were gone I would hide under my bed, scared that they were there to rob me. I always had a tendency to jump to the worst conclusions no matter how ridiculous they were, and that habit carried over into my adulthood.

Now, if I am on my own I am very rarely in the present. My mind has a tendency to wander, to think about the past and the future: everything that has gone wrong and everything that could go wrong; and that is exactly what was happening last Monday when I stepped on a plane to study abroad in Valparaiso, Chile for five months. As you can imagine, for a person like me who tends to be a nervous wreck… I was a nervous wreck. Of course I was excited and thankful to be going on this journey, but at the same time my mind was endlessly racing. I had never crossed a border by myself before, I had never lived with another family before, I had never touched foot in South America. Plus it’s junior year – the year everything seemed to come together: my new love of Tacoma, my school routine, my relationships with my friends, my boyfriend, my professors. It was all familiar – it felt like home.

Just as I was getting comfortable with my new life at Puget Sound, I was leaving everything I knew. I would have to start all over again in a new country with a new language and new family and friends. I was terrified. . . and thrilled. . . and sad. . . and incredibly happy. This is what I wanted right? A new country, new experiences, time to grow and change. But as I was stepping onto that plane, a million doubts were running through my mind and at this point, there was no turning back.  

Nine hours, two cups of wine, and a couple of desperate attempts at sleep later, my plane began its final descent into Santiago, Chile. I was exhausted and excited and nervous, going over the instructions I had been told for getting through customs and meeting up with my group. Would I get there on time? Would I be able to find them? What happens if they don’t let me in the country? I opened up the window on the plane and immediately all my worries melted away. The Andes mountains spanned for miles out in front of me, their snow-capped ridges lit up by the warmth of the sunrise. I sat in awe, realizing that I was going to be able to call this country and all of its beauty my home for the next five months. For the first time that day I felt ready to take on the journey ahead of me.

The Andes mountains

The Andes mountains from my airplane window 

When I stepped off the plane, any sense of calm had completely vanished. The airport was complete chaos with people rushing to get their bags and long winding lines forming for customs. Airport security could barely control the crowds around them. Plus, everyone was suddenly speaking in rapid Spanish. I was in shock. Every ounce of energy and brainpower I had left was focused on the present: on quickly translating, navigating where to go, what to do, how to get there. However, in this chaos I found a new sense of calm. Everything was so new and exciting and stimulating that I had no time to worry. I had to be on my toes in order to survive.

This inner calm has continued for my first week here. The new language, new town, new people, and new culture are vitalizing. I am constantly learning and experiencing new things. My mind has no time to wander anymore. I am completely and utterly immersed in the present.

For a person like me who is constantly anxious you would expect me to hate travel. It’s full of the new and unknown and millions of things that could go wrong. But I actually love it. In fact, I thrive in it. All of the new stimuli, from the cuisine to the multicolored houses and even being catcalled on the street, force me to be in the present. I think that’s the beauty of travel; it reawakens your mind and body by forcing you out of your routine and into a world of constant excitement and stimulation. Oddly enough all of this new stimuli is somewhat meditative as it holds me in-the-moment and has reintroduced me to the gift of now. 

Completos - hot dogs served with avocado, tomato, onions, and mayo. A traditional Chilean food

Completos – A traditional Chilean food – Hot dogs served with avocado, tomato, onions, and mayo. We had this for Sunday lunch.

A mural on the streets of Valparaiso.

One of many murals on the colorful streets of Valparaiso.