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Parting Thoughts

Time August 26th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I got back to Viña Friday afternoon, and spent the next three days saying goodbye to the people in the programme who hadn’t yet left, having a really great night with my host family on Saturday and another wonderful day on Sunday. I said goodbye to some of the extended family that day, but we all hoped that it wasn’t a goodbye for good; more of a nos vemos, at some point in the future. The last day I said goodbye to Lukas – my younger host brother – Anabella – my host mother – and the three cats and two dogs – Atún, Ema, Cuchi, Bruma, and Punky. They’d all become my family. My Chilean family. Saying goodbye to them felt… surreal, especially as Joaquín was still driving me to the airport, so I wasn’t leaving them all at once. Saying goodbye to the house and all the people and animals living in it felt a little underwhelming at the time, but during the car ride to the airport I really started to realize that I wasn’t coming back. Not anytime soon at least (I do have plans to visit Peru and tour around Argentina at some point in the future and then hop into Chile for a quick visit). Saying goodbye to Joaquín, the person I’d become closest to during my time in Chile, was another depressing moment, which neither of us were particularly keen on prolonging. Of course we’d stay in touch, and I’d stay in touch with all of the family, but that knowledge never really seems to alleviate those in-the-moment feelings.

I met up with Kendall at the airport, who was taking the same flight back to Atlanta, and we talked a little bit about how we felt, as I think we both had this complicated mix of emotions that neither of really knew how to express. We both felt that 5 months in Chile was actually too short; too short to settle in, too short to see everything we wanted to see, too short for any number of reasons. Then again, I guess even a year would have been too short. Maybe even a lifetime wouldn’t have been sufficient.

On the other hand, we were both excited to see our families and the other people we hadn’t seen for some time, but maybe a little concerned as to whether we’d fall back into the swing of things quickly, or whether it would take some time to adjust. For me, it was more of the former; seeing my parents and the rest of my family again pretty much felt like a dose of normality, and though I could share my experiences in Chile with some of my family members who were willing to hear it, I didn’t really feel like anything had changed. I know some people describe their study-abroad experience as something monumental, something life-changing… but for me I think it reaffirmed quite a few things about myself that I wasn’t sure of before coming to Chile. I think I became more self-assured, more willing to open up and to share, and I’ve gained a greater appreciation of some of the impossibly stunning things this world contains. For all of that, I have to say an incredibly heartfelt thank you to my Chilean host family, for hosting me, feeing me a vide variety of delicious Chilean food, and for giving me the space and independence in the beginning that allowed me to feel comfortable in the house within the first few weeks, and to treat it like a home. They helped to make Viña del Mar feel like a home away from home, in many senses. I also feel as though the program directors, Pamela Martínez and Mark Sinclair deserve a mention, for knowing when to guide us and when to let us figure out our own way, and for always being there to chat if we had any questions or simply wanted to talk, which went a long way to making the program a success for me.

 

One other thought about my experience in Chile that remains after spending almost 6 weeks in Holland and having time to reflect and process a lot of my emotions, apart from that I was incredibly lucky and privileged to have had such a wonderful experience in many different ways, is this:

 

 

Nos vemos, Chile. Te lo juro.

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The Adventures of a Lifetime: Part 3

Time August 26th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

So, having finally reached La Paz, I realized I had completely accidentally picked out a hostel that was 3 minutes walking away from where the bus dropped me off. Convenient. The hostel itself was huge; there were four floors – the bottom floor had the reception, games area, and bar; the second and third floors had combined sleeping space for probably around 150 guests; and the fourth floor was where a free all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast was offered every morning. For a comfortable bed, the breakfast, hot showers throughout the day, and semi-functional internet: 49 bolivianos. About 7 dollars. Not too shabby, and neither was the view.

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My very first day in La Paz I spent… well, in bed, tired from having my entire day planned out for the few days that I decided to become well-acquainted with the hostel bed. I did, however, go out in the night to walk around La Paz for almost an hour, which, despite the stereotypes/warnings about how dangerous Bolivia can be, I found to be a very pleasant city to walk around in. Then again, being a male gringo might just have helped. In any case, that night I discovered that there was one street not too far away with lots of street vendors selling food that they cooked then and there and sold for around a dollar. I was beginning to realize that, as a well-off foreigner, Bolivia is a pretty damn cheap place to live. Also, a little later that night, I headed to the bar (did I mention the very low price for staying in this hostel also included a free beer) and ended up chatting for about 2 hours with this friendly French guy and a Quebecoise about a whole host of different things. This whole travelling alone thing was getting off to quite a good start.

The second day in La Paz (after, of course, taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast) I spent figuring out what I was going to do with the rest of my time in Bolivia (as a side note, it was honestly very refreshing to not travel with people anymore and to just be able to do what I wanted when I wanted to do it). A quick visit to the tour company located inside the hostel told me that they weren’t offering any tours to Lake Titicaca (the one thing that I knew I wanted to see), but they were offering bus tickets to Copacabana, from where I could take a ferry to any one of the islands located on Lake Titicaca. I decided to buy the ticket for the following morning, and then walked around a different part of La Paz in search of a restaurant for some lunch, which resulted in paying about 1.5 dollars for at a local place for some soup and a main dish including rice and grilled chicken.

After exploring the city a little more and wandering around all the little markets, I got some dinner from another street vendor and spent the night in the hostel chatting to some of the other people staying there, including this slightly crazy, slightly drunk but very friendly French lady who ended up buying me a couple of caipirinhas, and the two other people I was talking to the night before also showed up, along with a few Dutch people who, naturally, also happened to be staying at the hostel. It was.. a good night.

The following day I woke up at 7:30am and packed everything for the 2 days I would be spending at Lake Titicaca. On the bus ride over there there were some pretty impressive views of the landscape (I feel as though I’ve written this sentence about 300 times in slightly different ways when describing Bolivia):

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We had to get off the bus at this one place (I’ve forgotten the name) and had to cross part of the lake via ferry, and we got back on the bus at the other side for the last part of the journey to Copacabana. Once I reached there, I bought a ticket to the Isla del Sol, and ended up talking to a Chilean and two Colombians on the top of the boat that took us there. The view that day wasn’t really all that great, probably because it was grey and cloudy and I was tired and it all seemed a little… bleak, I guess.

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Upon reaching the Isla del Sol, I tagged along with this group who had a tour guide explaining some of the ruins and buildings and history of the Isla del Sol and of Lake Titicaca in general (he said that, according to local mythology, Lake Titicaca was once a fertile valley, where people were happy, knew neither hatred nor ambition, and lived forever. However, one day, some of the people living in the valley decided they wanted more, and tried to leave the valley and explore the nearby mountains, which were also gods. These mountain gods were so offended by what these individuals were doing – destroying paradise in a way – that they tried to cause the death of everyone in the valley. The most important god, the sun god Inti, cried because of this, and his tears filled the valley in 30 days, causing the lake to form. Only one man and one woman survived all of this: the first two Incas). We walked for an hour or so on the island, to the main part where all the accommodation was located, and stopped for a couple of pictures of the local animals on the way.

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Most people in the group had already figured out accommodation for the night, so when they all went off to their respective hotels I trampled around looking for a place to stay – not very easy considering a sizeable amount of hotels/hostels were closed. After probably an hour of looking, I found this tiny place which had rooms for 40 bolivianos a night. This room included a bed, and a chair. There was also a rock-hard pillow on the bed and the mattress was almost falling apart. At least it was a relatively cheap place to stay.

I spent most of the rest of the day indoors, not feeling particularly well and not particularly impressed by Lake Titicaca. It just seemed like this giant, reasonably pretty lake unfortunately situated in a country where the things around it were much more stunning. This feeling was only exacerbated at night, when I tried to find a place to eat dinner at about 7:15, 7:30pm and a lot of things were closed. Furthermore, the entire island seemed completely dead. I ended up being able to find this pizza place with pretty good food, and afterwards I went back to where I was staying and grumped around for the rest of the night.

The following day it was actually sunny when I woke up, and after buying some cookies and other breakfasty things at this local shop I walked around and was amazed at how the good weather changed how the lake looked.

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I walked for about 35, 40 minutes to the shores of Lake Titicaca, where I lay for an hour in the sun, enjoying the sound of the waves lapping on the beach, and for the first time thoroughly enjoying the surroundings.

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I finally left the beach, and realized I couldn’t find my way back to the path I had taken to get down; consequently, I ended up trampling on some vegetation for a good half an hour and finally found my way back to a path… only to realize that I was on the wrong part of the island. So, after taking a short break, I walked up most of the island again and got back to the main part of the island – meaning I was back at the same place I left off about 3 hours ago. I eventually found another path and, after 30 minutes of walking, finally found a place where I could buy a ticket back to Copacabana, which would be leaving in an hour or two, giving me plenty of time to find a place to eat lunch. I eventually settled on this restaurant where I ate local trout, which also had an utterly amazing view of the lake.

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On the boat back, there were these three small Bolivian children playing very amusing word games with each other, whilst I enjoyed the look of the sun glistening on the water.

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A few hours after getting back to Copacabana, I took a local bus back to La Paz, which was a little cheaper but also meant that, for the part where I got off the bus to go on the ferry on the way to Copacabana, the bus now drove onto the ferry whilst we stayed on the bus. The next 20, 25 minutes crossing a small part of the lake involved us going from side… to side… to side… to side… pretty much convinced we were all going to drown in that bus.

We survived that ordeal and eventually got back to La Paz at around 11pm, going back to the same lovely hostel and crashing there for the night.

I spent the next two days in La Paz not really doing all that much, taking my time once more to explore some other parts of the city I hadn’t yet been to and contemplating my journey so far. I decided that I had done enough that holiday, and seen enough, to reward myself with a day or so of relaxation and, well, laziness. I spent my final day in La Paz frantically trying to find transportation to the airport, because all of the main roads were blocked off due to this guy.

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The Pope was in Bolivia for three days, arriving at the same day I was leaving; as such, when I eventually did get to the airport, I was informed that my flight would be delayed by at least an hour and a half. That then turned to two hours, and two hours turned to three hours delay. I think the Bolivian authorities ordered that no planes could land or take off within an hour or so each way of the Pope’s arrival. This did, however, mean that all of the people waiting at the airport could see the Pope’s plane land, and could see all the commotion around the aircraft. Though it was quite an interesting experience being at the same airport as the Pope and seeing Bolivia go, well, completely crazy for his arrival, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the delay. It seems I’m not quite as important as the Pope.

My flight back to Chile was not to Santiago, but to Iquique, a coastal city in the north of Chile, where I would be spending a night and a day before flying on to Santiago. After finally landing in Chile, I had to wait a while at customs because some of the papers from the person in front of me weren’t in order; this gave me the chance to talk to another person waiting in the line, a German girl who, coincidentally, had made a reservation at the same hostel that I wanted to stay, and who had spent three years studying in Holland. We shared a taxi to the hostel (after being assaulted by about 7 different cab companies all claiming to offer the lowest rate), which turned out to be very close to the ocean. By the point I was checked in and found my room, it was almost midnight, so I showered and collapsed into bed.

The last day of my two-week trip had arrived! So, after sleeping in and taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi on offer, I picked up a map of Iquique at the reception of the hostel and made my way to the bus station (I had to buy a ticket to Calama, then take a taxi from there to the airport, from where I would fly back to Santiago) – this would have been a half-hour walk, but I stopped at various locations and ended up walking through this really pretty avenue that oddly reminded me of a Mediterranean city.

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I ate some ceviche and ají de gallina at a restaurant on the avenue (both Peruvian dishes, both ridiculously tasty), and eventually found the bus station a few hours after I’d set off. There was a bus going from Iquique to Calama at 23:30 that night, which would get me to the airport about 3 hours before my flight. After buying my ticket, I wandered around a lot more and came across this huge ship, and several enormous pelicans and other animals nearby.

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I eventually ate dinner outside that night on the same avenue (it was probably around 18ºC), treating myself to a couple of mojitos and enjoying the night life of Iquique, whilst a very hungry restaurant cat tried its best to eat all of the food off my plate. Sitting there at that restaurant, eating amazing food, having a cat for company and looking out on this wonderful avenue, made me realize in a way how lucky I was to have done everything that I did in those two weeks, to have seen the salt flats and the rugged, at times impossibly beautiful landscape of southern Bolivia, to explore San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings with friends and to wander around La Paz alone, walking around on impulses and whims and not having anything that I needed to do. This may sound a little cheesy, but that night in Iquique made it clear to me that I didn’t necessarily need anyone in my life right by me to make me happy, because I could live life by myself very well, and I had proved that.

I felt proud of myself, and that was a damn good way of ending my travels.

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The Adventures of a Lifetime: Part 2

Time August 17th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

So, after a pleasant few days in San Pedro de Atacama, I was picked up by a minibus and eventually was brought to a place where, happily, I could eat second breakfast. I also started chatting to the rest of the people in the group; a Spanish couple travelling through Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, and a group of friends including two Brazilians and an American travelling around lower South America. After breakfast, we passed through Chilean customs and then reached the border, which looked a little like this:

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Clearly security is of the highest order. I had to fill in two small papers, show my passport, and that was it. Into Bolivia I was!

After paying entrance to… I’m not sure whether it was a huge national reserve, a protected area, or whatever, but we had to pay an entrance fee… our journey through southern Bolivia started, in an old Toyota Land Cruiser, our large bags strapped to the top of the car, crossing through the Bolivian altiplano, seeing some of the most incredible things I have ever seen in my life. That day, we stopped of at the Laguna Blanca (these places have very creative names), Laguna Verde, and some geysers at almost 5km altitude before we stopped for lunch, all the while crossing through the Bolivian desert with the most idiotic smile on my face because this was something that I had always wanted to do. As you can see, the lagunas were pretty stunning.

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We also visited some actually hot springs this time, which also had a pretty striking view:

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We stopped for lunch at this place called the Hospedaje Nuevo Almanecer, which was basically this low building with beds and a common area where we were served food, and nothing else, though it served its purpose. After a two-hour break to recuperate from the altitude (I was feeling a little dizzy from time to time and my stomach wasn’t very happy either, but I didn’t feel any other effects of altitude sickness), we drove to this other nearby laguna, which was coloured red due to the microbacteria living in it, white due to salt deposits and other minerals, some other inexplicable colours, with pink flecks due to the flamingos residing in the laguna. It was honestly one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen.

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That marked the end of the first day of the tour, apart from an early dinner and a subsequent communal moving to the kitchen to watch the semifinals of the Copa América on this tiny, 30-year-old TV with lines running through it and a very crappy signal. It was very cozy.

 

The second day I felt a lot better (I had taken a pill the night before), and only had some odd pangs of dizziness every now and then over the next few days that told me my body was still becoming accustomed to the altitude. After saying goodbye to the local animals (what the hell are seagulls doing at that height like hello the sea is not at 4.5km altitude and Bolivia doesn’t even have a sea though don’t say that too loudly)), we started our second day.

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This day started off with a visit to these strange rock formations, which were really fun to climb up (probably not the safest thing but who really cares) and have a pretty great view of the surrounding area.

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Our journey continued with a trip to another laguna (we visited quite a few of these), to some ruins by the side of the road, and to this semi-frozen semi-lake thing which allowed for some pretty great pictures.

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After eating a lunch which included llama (pretty much tasted like regular beef), we drove for a couple of hours and stopped for a break to stretch our legs at this extensively rocky place, which was pretty cool to explore and, like LITERALLY EVERYHING in southern Bolivia, had a beautiful view.

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We then drove another couple of hours, past a herd of llamas and up this very steep valley, where at places the road was just about wide enough for our car to pass through, and if we were to veer off too much to one side we would plummet down in the ravine and probably never be heard from again. If you’ve ever seen documentaries about roads in certain countries and twist and wind and are very, very unsafe, you get the picture. After another couple of hours of driving (we probably drove around 400km this day, if not more), we eventually reached our destination for the night, a hostel made out of salt very close to the famous salt flats of Uyuni.

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The final day of the tour required us to get up at around 5:30, so that we could leave at around 6:30 and catch the sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni (for those who don’t know, it’s this enormous salt deposit, spanning about 190km in diameter, which, if it rains, gives you amazing reflections of the sky above. Sadly, it hadn’t rained). So, rather tired and sleep-deprived, I caught the sunrise on one of the most amazing landscapes on this world.

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After driving for about an hour on the salt deposits (I wasn’t quite sure how our guide, Nelson, knew where we were going, because literally every single direction looked the same to me), we reached this island near the middle of the Salar. Walking to the top of this cactus-filled island took about 30-40 minutes (factoring in time to catch your breath every now and then because of the altitude (I was probably also very out of shape, but the altitude’s a convenient excuse)), and gave me some pretty astonishing views.

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After spending a good hour and a half, two hours on that island, we drove for a bit to a new place and basically mucked around on the Salar and took 8 million photos (as you can play with size and distance to create really interesting effects and make it seem as though three very small people are trying to topple over a very large can of Pringles. As I wasn’t travelling in a group, I watched the other people do that whilst I sunbathed on the Salar).

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Leaving the Salar, we stopped off at a famous salt hotel located on the outskirts of the Salar, which had an enormous and incredibly impressive statue of the Dakar Rally, which would be held in northern Chile and Bolivia due to political unrest and instability where it is usually held in western Africa.

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The final part of the tour involved a visit to the outer regions of the town of Uyuni, where we could buy souvenirs (they had a T-shirt with the words llama sutra on it with llamas in, well… you get the idea). Finally, we were taken to a train graveyard – which was really quite depressing – and then brought into Uyuni, where we said goodbye to our wonderful guide Nelson, and were taken to a place to eat lunch. After that, we realized that every single person in our group wanted to take the night bus to La Paz, so we ended up hanging out in this hotel together (with internet) after buying our tickets (I ended up taking a pretty expensive bus as I preferred to have some comfort and safety over local Bolivian buses that may very well have been safe) until nightfall. The bus left at around 8pm (the lady told us that just the first four hours would be bumpy), and I got to La Paz safe and sound the morning of the 3rd of July, marking the start of the third part of my journey

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The Adventures of a Lifetime: Part 1

Time August 17th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

After a few days after my departure from Chile and of settling into the trusty old rhythm of lots of sleeping, drinking tea, and eating Dutch food, it seems like a good time to reflect upon my travels at the end of the semester. When looking back on it from the greenery and sunshine of Holland (it’s not actually raining for once), it seems like another world away, and quite strange to think that only a week ago I was still in Chile, and that two weeks ago I was admiring La Paz and all it had to offer. In any case, while it is quite lovely to be back in Holland and to be spoiled by my family once more, my two weeks in northern Chile and Bolivia were quite possibly the adventures of a lifetime. Clearly, I have to go back on another extended trip, this time to Peru, Argentina, back to Chile to visit my host family, and then maybe head off to Antarctica. You know, casually.

I left on this trip, however, the day after the farewell dinner on a flight to Calama (from Santiago). The view from the plane wasn’t too bad….

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From the airport, we headed on a little bus to San Pedro de Atacama, where I was staying with two friends for the first 3.5 days of my journey. We arrived at San Pedro at around 4pm, checked in to our hostel, and explored the incredibly touristy streets of San Pedro. We booked three tours for the next two days (which I found to be rather pricey for Chile, but they did include transport and food and guides and decent company…. but still, I feel as though there are many more incredible things to see in the area that are also less expensive), walked around for a bit (and wandered into this shop including the lovely llamas seen below), and ended up going to this cute little restaurant for a not-so-expensive dinner.

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The first full day we had planned included a trip from about 7:30 to 17:30, including breakfast and lunch, visits to a couple of lakes at altitude, an area with some pretty strange red rocks, and a visit to the flamingos at the Salar de Atacama. However, the trip itself didn’t exactly go as planned… about an hour into our bus ride to the lakes, our bus broke down. We were told that one of the cables was broken, and therefore the motor wouldn’t work, and on top of that we had no way to contact anyone as we were stranded halfway up the ride without service on our phones and no satellite phone because apparently those are “too expensive” for a profitable tourist company in San Pedro. In any case, whilst the guide and the driver were trying to figure out what to do, they set up breakfast on the side of the road, where we slowly froze to death waiting for a solution. As it was, after about 45 minutes of walking around and admiring the scenery, another bus ended up chugging by, which still had space for about 10 of the 30 people that were on our bus, so the three of us managed to stow aboard and continue our excursion with a different tour company. After visiting the lagunas altiplanicas, we were about to head to the second place on the tour, when we passed by the original bus that we were on going to the lagunas altiplanicas, so we hopped back on that bus and visited the lakes a second time. Eh, the view itself was worth it.

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After that, we drove about 1.5 hours (this was my biggest problem with all the tours: unfortunately, all the places are quite far apart, so it’s a lot of bus riding, picture taking, short explanation, and then back into the bus to do the exact same thing for a different place. It just all felt very touristy, and it felt wrong to hear more English or Portuguese than Spanish whilst walking in the streets of San Pedro) to the next place, which was the piedras rojas. This place was pretty cool too.

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After eating lunch at a local restaurant (ají de gallina, which is this amazing Peruvian dish), we headed to the Salar de Atacama, which is quite different from the far more famous Salar de Uyuni, as the Salar de Atacama gets its water from underground sources, which means it grows quite differently, as can be seen below (and my beautiful posing).

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The surrounding area and the local animals were also quite pretty:

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That was pretty much it for the first day; after dinner, we all tried to get some sleep as the following day we had to be ready at 4:30am for a tour to the geysers of Tatio. However, the tour company ended up picking us up at about 5:15am, meaning we could have had at least another half an hour of sleep. Grhghnrnnr.

Anyway, the geysers themselves, whilst quite interesting – especially seeing as they were at about 4.5km altitude – were just steaming along without any real eruptions, and as such didn’t really compare to the geysers I saw in Iceland (no, I swear I’m not spoiled or anything…)

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Afterwards, we were taken to the so-called “hot springs” at about the same altitude, which Kirsten and I did end up going in, though we soon found out why all the people were clustered in a very small part of the pool: the rest of it was freezing. And by freezing I mean probably around 25ºC, but considering it was only a few degrees above freezing outside the water, it just wasn’t pleasant.

We returned to San Pedro, ate lunch with this Chilean professor who we’d started talking to during the tour (who taught dance at an important university in Santiago where the students had, naturally, been on strike for a couple of weeks), and then headed off on the following tour of the Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna, where we would watch the sunset. The Valle de la Muerte is, obviously, known for there being literally no life around in a pretty large area (as such there isn’t… all that much to see… apart from this one panorama view of which the photos are below). However, salt does grow in that area, and at one point in the tour we were asked to be completely quiet and we could hear the salt crystals expanding and making weird clunky noises inside the rocks. After that, we walked up this pretty large hill (which actually wasn’t part of the tour) so that we could get a pretty spectacular view of the Valle de la Muerte, but unfortunately those pictures have disappeared from my laptop.

On that tour, we also started talking to this very friendly Australian (Nick) who would be staying in Chile for a couple of weeks, and two American friends (two Catholics called Mary and Joseph. Yep), and we chatted with the three of them throughout the whole tour and ended up eating dinner with them. But, back to the Valle de la Luna tour. It was quite busy, but we did end up getting a pretty decent, if not spectacular, view of the sunset that night.

Unfortunately, all of the pictures that I had of the sunset also seem to have disappeared.

After getting back to San Pedro, we went to dinner with our new friends, and met up with our friend Kiren, who had arrived at San Pedro that day with her family. Kirsten and I went for drinks with her and her family (her father studied at the same university my brother studied… small world), and when getting back to the hostel the receptionist invited us both our for a drink. It was quite a lovely night overall.

The next day was my last full day in San Pedro, and I dedicated it to first procrastinating and then actually writing a final essay for one of my history classes (which I ended up finishing at about 11pm that night, thereby finishing my semester!!), though Nick, Kirsten and I (Gabriel had left earlier that morning) did rent bikes to see some ruins nearby, which also had a pretty impressive view of the surrounding area.

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That night, Kirsten and I went to dinner with Nick and watched Chile beat Peru in the Copa América, and afterwards we met with Kiren again and had a sleepover in her hotel by way of spending our last night together. That was it for Chile: I had booked a 3-day tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, Bolivia, including lodging and food, which would leave the following morning. That morning, I said farewell to Kiren and Kirsten (they both live in Pennsylvania so hopefully I could visit them at some point), and waited for the bus to pick me up to go Uyuni. And waited a little bit longer. And a little bit longer. At one point, the receptionist said that, as Kiren’s family had actually paid for breakfast and didn’t eat it because they had a tour starting early in the morning, I could eat a free continental breakfast with bacon and eggs and bread and tea and other lovely wonderful things. I eventually got picked up only 45 minutes late, right after finishing breakfast, and thus started my trip to Bolivia.

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The End of the Semester!!

Time July 10th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

So, with the amount of time that has passed since the last blog post I wrote, the semester has actually ended! As such, I’m currently touring around northern Chile and Bolivia, and am writing this blog post during a very, very bumpy bus ride from Uyuni to La Paz, after a couple of pretty fun days in San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile, and then a couple of incredible days traversing across the desert of southern Bolivia and seeing the most ridiculously beautiful landscapes, such as pink flamingos in red lakes, iced-over white lakes in front of snow-topped volcanoes, hot springs at more than 4km altitude, and, of course, the salt plats of Uyuni (sidenote: I am now done with my travels and will dedicate the next blog post to writing about and sharing 7000 pictures of my journeys). However, before really talking about those experiences, I feel I should talk a little bit about the rather hectic and chaotic nature of the end of the semester.

The end of the semester was a little different from the overall experience I had in Chile, for a couple of reasons. First, to be completely honest, the amount of work throughout the semester was pretty low compared to the average amount of work I would have in the US. As such, suddenly having about 3 large essays to write, 2 large presentations, and 2 final videos with a combined total of 25 minutes all in the space of 2 weeks was a little bit overwhelming. Fortunately, my older host brother was in pretty much the same predicament, so we spent quite a few nights doing work together and motivating each other to get our work done, which was also quite the nice experience. Suffering with other people always seems to make things more bearable.

However, a more important reason for the slight weirdness of the last few weeks of the semester was that the students of La Católica, the university where I had my classes, went on strike multiple times and for different lengths of time each time. Furthermore, the strikes were sometimes university-wide, and sometimes only pertained to a specfic subject. The carreras, or majors/departments of history, social work, and philosophy were all on strike for at least the last four weeks of my semester, which meant that the one history class I had with Chilean students ended up not being held for the last four weeks, and that our syllabus also had to change completely. As such, instead of an essay and a final oral presentation, we ended up having one meeting in the last few weeks with only the exchange students taking the class to determine that there would only be one final essay and after that we would be done. Many other students from the IFSA-Butler program ended up having to make similar arrangements with their professors, which meant deadlines were constantly changing, it wasn’t always clear which part of the syllabus we still had to do, and other such trifles.

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With regards to why the students actually went on strike in the first place, I’ve heard multiple reasons, and the importance of the reasons seems to differ depending on who you talk to, though the overarching demand has always been one for a high-quality, public, free education, especially at university level. Other reasons have included the violence of the police or armed forces towards students during student protests/mobilizations (there was one particular incident where a military vehicle shot an extremely high-pressure dose of water at a student waking across a street, and this student was literally launched backwards into the wall, which caused him to enter into a coma. There was another incident a little while after that where, after a student protest, two students were putting up posters on a house and the son of the owner of the house came out and shot and killed them both. Whist this incident itself wasn’t the direct reason for some of the student strikes, this incident and the media coverage it received does show how students are criminalized by the media how students are being portrayed as unruly youths who don’t appreciate what they have and are protesting for no good reason, whereas all of my experiences talking with these students has shown me that they know very well what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what changes they hope to create through their actions). However, the one thing that I still don’t quite understand is how going on strike will have an actual effect. The students are going on strike to pressure the government to effect changes that improve the pretty unfortunate state of the Chilean university system for anyone who doesn’t have that much money. However, I don’t really see why the government actually has to do anything; to me, going on strike doesn’t seem to pressure the government and actually force them to do something, especially considering the lack of reaction by the government and the lack of change since the first wave of student protests in 2006. In 2011, students all across the country went on strike for months on end and ended up “taking over” the university – basically sleeping there, eating there, and making sure that no one could get in or out, as a manner of showing their extreme anger and disappointment in the education system – and when the government finally sat down with the leaders of the student protests and promised to “change” and give in to part of the students’ demands, nothing really ended up changing, and four years afterwards they are now in the same situation, though less and less people have any trust in the government that anything will really change. On the other hand, it is quite uplifting to see that the Chilean people as a whole seem to recognize the need, and have a desire, for real change, as seen through a drastic change to the constitution of 1980, created under the dictatorship and which still is immensely powerful as a legal document in stopping the change that most people want to see.

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On a completely different note, we also had two farewell dinners; one at an Italian restaurant with the professors from the classes that IFSA-Butler offers, and one larger one with all the host families and entertainment. The first farewell dinner with just the professors was a pretty relaxing evening, as we were taken to an Italian restaurant and basically chatted amongst ourselves whilst eating food, which was very pleasant. The night before the formal farewell dinner with all the host families, my host family took me out to dinner at another Italian restaurant in Viña del Mar, which had really delicious pizza which we devoured whilst watching Chile play Uruguay in the Copa America, Watching that match in a restaurant with almost only Chileans and football-crazy waiters was a pretty great experience, especially the… energetic reaction of the waiters when Chile finally scored. That was a lovely night, and fortunately I have a full weekend with my host family when I get back from my travels to have a slightly less formal and probably slightly more drunk night of saying goodbye. (Sidenote: the bus has stopped on the side of the road for no discernible reason and I am a little bit worried). Being away from them for a while on my travels has made me realize that I actually really miss them, and that it will be really difficult saying goodbye to them (some of the other people who left earlier have told me that it was incredibly emotional and that everyone was crying so… I have that to look forward to…), though of course it will be nice to see my Dutch family and my parents after being away for almost 5 months. The sentiment that I’m going to miss my host family was emphasized by the second, larger farewell dinner, where each student of the program could bring three members of their host family to a large dinner, with some mini-empanadas as appetizer and multiple desserts made by the students and their families. Throughout the evening, the program directors showed some of the videos the students had made for the exploring community & culture class that answered the question “What, for me, does integration mean?”. After that, a few of the students demonstrated their singing/dancing/magic trick/other talents, and at the very end they showed a 20-minute long video that Pamela, one of the program directors, had compiled, encompassing our entire semester and incorporating student and host family photos, which resulted in a very lovely and very moving 20 minutes that made me realize how much I will miss Chile and all the people that I have met. It didn’t really always feel like it, and sometimes I was fed up with Chile and with some aspects of living there, but I truly hope I can return one day, see my host family, and to just go back to a place that really does mean a lot to me and that has felt more and more like home over the past few months.

 

For now, though, I guess I’ll have to settle for travelling through Bolivia and having a wonderful last weekend with my host family afterwards.

 

It could be worse.

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Human Rights Violations under Pinochet: An Excursion to Santiago

Time June 1st, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

As I alluded to in my previous post, we spent one Saturday visiting Santiago, more specifically the Museo de la Memoria, the general cemetery, and Villa Grimaldi; three places that, today, commemorate the myriad atrocities committed by the military regime under general Augusto Pinochet between 1973-1990. It was an incredibly powerful, moving, shocking, infuriating, and sometimes downright depressing experience to see what people are capable of doing to each other and how this gets replicated in every part of the world. For a better understanding of what all these places we visited actually signify, I imagine a very brief, very simplified historical description of this time period might be in order. Read More »

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A Peek at Mapuche Life – a 5-day Trip to Southern Chile

Time May 15th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It seems as though the semester has finally started (yes, after about 2 months of classes… exams, essays, and lots of other important work are finally starting to make my life miserable). However, this gives me the opportunity to procrastinate on actual work and catch up a little more on what’s been happening the past month after Torres del Paine. I’m writing this blog post in the bus on the way to Santiago for the day, where we’re going to visit a museum, a graveyard, and an ex-torture centre that all bring to light the atrocities and the extensive human rights violations committed during the dictatorship under Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1990. Obviously, those years of terror have left their mark on Chile and the consciousness of the Chilean people, especially considering the huge numbers of “detenidos desaparecidos” – people who were arrested by the military regime and promptly never heard of again. I hope to learn more about what happened then, and will probably dedicate my next blog post to talking a little more about the dictatorship and its myriad consequences, but for now I’ll rewind a little bit to my second trip down south. Read More »

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Me Faltan Palabras

Time May 4th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Umm.. I really meant to write about my trip to Patagonia a rather long time ago, but I’ve ended up neglecting this lovely blog for far too long… and as such almost a month has passed. Good job self. Anyway, even though my trip to Patagonia was more than a month ago, so much of it remains clear to me. It was honestly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was the best holiday I’ve ever had (sorry, parents), and I was happy for five days straight (if you know me, you’ll realize this literally never happens). Me faltan palabras, I don’t have the words to describe the incredulity of the scenery there, nor do the many pictures that I took even remotely do justice to the ridiculous beauty of Chilean Patagonia.

Having said all of that, I’ll still do my best to detail what happened that week. I left my house in Viña early in the morning on Sunday, March 30, met up with the four other girls – Kirsten, Kendall, Holly, and Jennie – at the Valparaíso bus station, and arrived at Santiago airport two buses later and two hours early. Our journey got off to a pretty great start when we got some doughnuts at the airport and Holly, who had ordered three, somehow ended up with five doughnuts in her bag. More food for us! After waiting for a decent amount of time in the airport, we could finally board and be on our way. It rather surprised me that there was a large group of elderly French people, all also making their way to Torres del Paine. This led to a rather interesting conversation between the stewardess, who spoke Spanish and a little English, and a Frenchman sitting in the emergency exit seat who only spoke French, where the stewardess was trying to ascertain whether he was comfortable being in the emergency exit seat and whether he was capable of helping should anything happen. After a minute of rather futile conversation, the stewardess gave up and said to herself “vale, en caso de emergencia, vamos a explotar todos”. Kind of high on the list of things you don’t really want to hear from the airplane personnel…

Anyway, we fortunately didn’t experience any problems, and, about half an hour out of Punta Arenas, we got our first view of Patagonia.

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From the airport at Punta Arenas, we had to take a bus to Puerto Natales, where we stayed the night at a local hostel (it’s kind of impressive how cheap those things are.. we paid about $15 for the night and that included a free shower and breakfast), and took another bus at 7:30 the next morning that went to Torres del Paine. This bus was, amusingly, filled with the same French people that were on our flight to Punta Arenas. After another 2 hours, we finally got to the Parque Nacional las Torres and got our first actual view of our surroundings for the next few days.

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I’m pretty sure it was about 3 degrees and cold and windy… but hey, we were super excited to be there nevertheless.

After checking in to the park, paying the entrance free, and receiving our map and pass, we took another bus to our hostel, Hostería Las Torres (here’s a map: http://www.fsexpeditions.com/booking_hiker/torres_del_paine_map.html – Hostería Las Torres is at the right-most point of the red W. Our plan for the next few days was as follows: stay at Las Torres Monday night, hike up to the Mirador de Las Torres and back on Tuesday, stay at Las Torres Tuesday night, hike to Campamento Los Cuernos on Wednesday and stay the night there, hike up the Valle Frances for a bit on Thursday before heading back down and going all the way to Refugio Paine Grande, stay there Thursday night, then take the catamaran from there across Pehoé Lake on Friday and get picked up on the opposite side by the bus Friday afternoon to start the long trek back).

We dumped our stuff at the hostel, ate lunch, and then, seeing as we had the entire afternoon free, started to walk towards Campamento Serón, in order to test how we felt about hiking/whether our shoes were good/whether we would die of cold/just to have a general test run before the actual hiking would start. I knew that day that the other days would be incredible because, whilst hiking, I just didn’t know where to look. Everything was so extraordinarily beautiful. So stunning. The pictures I tried to take (whilst you should definitely check them out on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/vincent.sterel/media_set?set=a.10153234500394294.1073741831.795774293&type=3) if you haven’t) didn’t really capture what it was like. I just felt so.. free. I was walking around in this magical world, without any responsibilities, without really having to worry about anything apart from planting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the fact that I was actually living this. I was actually in Patagonia, having this experience.

Dinner in the hostels was also always a very fun occasion. Everybody would get together in this main room and people would end up sitting wherever and having conversations with other random people, which creates this very friendly atmosphere (“gezellig” would be the Dutch word, but sadly there isn’t an English equivalent) where you get to know people from all over the world and with completely different kinds of experiences. Our group got to know these two French guys (I think they were in their late twenties) with whom we became friends over the next few days, I chatted with this British couple about something or other, and every night we would meet different people from different countries who were all incredibly friendly.

The next day, Tuesday, we (minus Kendall who had contracted food poisoning during the night) started our hike up to the Mirador de las Torres in rather cold and windy weather. In the beginning of our hike it became rather apparent that Kirsten and I preferred to walk at a somewhat faster pace than the other two, so we decided after a few hours that we would split up in groups of two, and that way none of us would be annoyed that the others were going too fast/slowing the rest down. In any case, on our hike, we all got a little separated, and I ended up walking next to this very kind English lady and getting to know her whilst climbing up this pretty damn steep mountain.

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When we arrived at Camping Chileno, about halfway to the Mirador de las Torres, we heard from some people that the Mirador – the place where you get the best view of the impressive granite towers/peaks/columns after which the place is named – was actually closed because of the rather crappy weather conditions. Whoop. After warming up a little inside the Camping, and eating some of the packed lunch that the hostel gave us every day, Kirsten and I decided we wanted to head on regardless of the weather conditions, because we still wanted to see as much as possible, whereas Jennie and Holly chose to head back as the weather was looking a lot better in that direction (side note: the weather changed pretty much every 20 minutes, from super windy to mildly rainy to peacefully quiet to random flurries of snow. This also ensured that the scenery and the view of the lakes and the mountains constantly changed, and I kept wanting to take more pictures of everything because it was all slightly different from how it looked before and it was just so incredibly magical). Anyway, on our hike up to the Mirador de las Torres I met this very nice Dutch lady with whom I chatted for a bit, and after passing her Kirsten and I ended up in this winter wonderland; it was snowing very softly, there was no wind, and it was all so incredibly and so peacefully quiet.

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When we got to the base of the final climb to the Mirador, there was no one there to tell us that it was closed or that we couldn’t go up. We had already pretty much made up our minds to keep going on when two other hikers, who had just come from the Mirador, told us that everything was open and we could go on, even though the weather was pretty horrible up there. As such, we kept on going, and at first the path was perfectly walkable, if a little bit slippery (seeing as we were basically walking upstream). However, after about 25 minutes of that, the last 20 minutes of the climb were rather more difficult; at times the path was simply a whole load of slippery, snow-covered rocks that we had to traverse carefully for fear of slipping and quite possibly breaking something/falling down the entire mountainside. This is more or less what that part looked like:

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The weather was getting worse and worse and the visibility was also not exactly superb, but still we kept on going, with encouragement from other hikers who were coming back down from the Mirador, and eventually we got to the top, where we really didn’t see anything of the granite towers, but there was still this rather stunning, green-coloured lake casually located at the already impressive vantage point.

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We had the rather silly idea of eating some of our lunch up there, but the wind was so cold that after 15 minutes we were both utterly freezing that we realized we really needed to get moving. The weather had gotten so bad that we ended up climbing down the mountain in a snowstorm, which was honestly quite scary, but we had met two very friendly Czech individuals and a host of other people who were also making the descent, so at least we didn’t feel as though we were alone in our battle against the elements.

It took us another four hours or so to get all the way back to our hostel, and by that time both of us were exhausted, but that journey up to the Mirador de las Torres will stay with me forever; even if the view there wasn’t the picture you see on the postcards, the very fact that we climbed all the way up there, IN A SNOWSTORM (we later found out that they closed the Mirador again right after we left because the weather was so bad that it was unsafe to go up there), actually made me ridiculously proud of myself and made me feel as though I had achieved something.

 

The following day was our first day of hiking with all of our stuff (as we were staying at a different hostel that night), but we had a relatively short (only 11km) walk to the Refugio. It was very rainy that day, which meant the start of our group’s love affair with trash bags:

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This was a very cheap yet very effective way of making sure that neither us nor our bags got wet, and I also we also looked very stylish. Especially me:

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In any case, the walk to the Refugio took us around this beautiful lake – with some really beautiful flora – and Kirsten, Kendall and I made good time and got there quite early, at about 2:30pm (we started our walks around 8:30, 8:45 in the morning most days).

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The hostel itself was freezing – it was probably just a little bit warmer inside than outside – but despite that we spent the day relaxing inside, seeing people come in whom we had met on our hikes, playing cards, and just generally taking a well-deserved break from strenuous activity. At dinner, Kendall, Kirsten and I ended up swapping more life stories and getting to know each other even better, whilst Holly and Jennie talked to these two very amicable Dutch guys who turned out to be couple (whom I ended up talking to for a bit during breakfast the next day and when we ran into them whilst hiking). All in all, it was a somewhat more relaxing day than most.

The last full day, Thursday, ended up being our longest day of hiking, where we walked about 19km in total from the Refugio los Cuernos, up the Valle del Francés, and then all the way down to Refugio Paine Grande. The walk leading up to the Valle del Francés also offered us some pretty stunning views of the mountains:

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When we got to the Campamento Italiano, we talked with the park ranger there who told us that most of the way up to the Valle del Francés was closed because of the extreme wind and snow and general danger that both of those things pose. However, we could still walk up for about 30-40 minutes, up to the first Mirador, and get some pretty good views of the glacier, so after stopping to eat lunch, Kendall, Kirsten and I made the trek up whilst Holly and Jennie took some more time to eat lunch and would follow us shortly. The climb itself up to the first Mirador was also pretty damn steep and quite harsh on my poor knees, though all of that was mitigated by the fact that we ended up trundling through another winter wonderland.

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I also got this pretty cool view of the glacier after crossing this spectacular waterfall that was sadly too obscured by branches for me to take a good picture:

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After walking back and taking another break at the Campamento Italiano for some more food (the packed lunches always consisted of a large sandwich, a large bag of nuts, water, a chocolate bar, a cereal bar, and either and apple or an orange), we started on the last two hours of our walk to the Refugio. Most of this walk was rather flat (as much as anything can be “flat” in Patagonia), though this one part, which was a good 100 metres, was pretty much swampland where the mud engulfed by hiking boots no matter where I tried to step. That part wasn’t fun.

In any case, at around 5pm Kirsten and I arrived at the Refugio (the other three arrived about 40 minutes afterwards), and when we were checking in we were told there would be this other couple staying in the room as well for the night. When we walked in to the room, the room appeared empty, so we started chatting and dumping our stuff and in general making a reasonable amount of noise, until some movement occurred from under the blankets of one of the other beds and two groggy heads appeared from under the mound of warmth and told us that they had been napping. Awkward. However, they actually turned out to be incredibly friendly people, and during dinner they ended up telling us about how they met and how they got engaged and when the wedding was going to be and it was just in general a very happy dinner.

The last day, we took our time eating breakfast and relaxed in the Refugio for a bit, before Kirsten, Holly and I decided to take an hour-long walk in the area as our final steps in Patagonia. That day ended up being the first sunny day that we had had, which made me rather want to stay there for another few days and hike when the weather wasn’t grey and miserable. However, we ended up taking the catamaran at around noon, which gave us some pretty stunning final views of Torres del Paine, including this one:

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Two buses, a 10-hour stay at the airport, a flight, and another 3 buses later, I got back to my house in Viña exhausted, but it had all been more than worth it. Just being surrounded by nature, without access to internet, without really having to worry about materialistic/real-world concerns, was just so. Incredibly. Amazing. I got to know some really great people and got to know the people in my program a lot better too, and also learnt quite a bit about myself hiking up and down all those mountains. I was proud of myself, and proud of my body for walking more than 60km in those four days, and I honestly wanted to stay there and hike for another few days, even another few weeks. I loved it there, and I hope one day I can go back and stay there for longer.

 

Goodbye, Torres del Paine. You will be missed.

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On classes, buses, doctors, unsafe roofs, and what they all have in common

Time March 23rd, 2015 in 2015 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Welp I’ve been in Chile for an entire month already.

To be honest, it’s been pretty good so far. I’ve settled into my classes well, feel as though I’m part of the family and all that jazz. I also felt very accomplished today when I added credit to my phone (which, as far as I know, you have to do at a supermarket of some sort – you can’t just dial a number and add credit and avoid talking to people. Sadly) and had a perfectly normal conversation with the cashier, and I actually understood everything she was saying. Progress!

Anyway, I’m writing this post on the balcony of my house, with a view of the ocean to my left, a view of one of my host family’s cats alternating between grooming itself and pleading with me to feed it further to my left, and a view of some towels drying on a clothes rack in front of me. Ideal blog-writing conditions…?

 

CLASSES (this is the only boring subtitle I promise)

I just had my first three weeks of classes, which have gone well overall, discounting the beginning. Monday, the (supposed) first day of classes, I was going to have my first ever class of journalism, in Curauma, a small city/village/semi-unattractive location about 35 minutes away from Viña del Mar. Having somehow managed to take the right micro (that’s what they call the buses here – more on those later), I got to Curauma on time for my class, and also didn’t have too much trouble finding the classroom. The only problem was, however, that when I walked past the classroom, there was nobody in there. There was also nobody waiting outside. Clearly, class wasn’t being held there at that time. After some searching, I found the receptionists’ offices, where they proceeded to tell me that, seeing as this was a class for fifth-year-students, they were currently doing an internship of some sort as part of this class, and that the class wouldn’t start until the end of March/beginning of April, and that I would be better off finding a different class.

Cool.

That was also my only class for the day, so I eventually found a micro that would take me back to Viña, and then, purely by accident, managed to get off at the exact right stop. I got back to my house and opened up my laptop to find an email waiting for me, saying that some classes would start a little later. Ahem. Amongst these classes was, of course, my planned journalism class. Though we were warned during orientation that communication and timing in Chile was less efficient/far more relaxed than in the US or in the western world in general, it was still a rather frustrating and disheartening start to my first (non-)day of classes. As we had been asked to register for around 10 classes during orientation, I had some backup classes which I could take instead, one of which I am taking now, which is the contemporary history of Chile. I went to that class on Tuesday as my first actual class (it was at 8:15am in the centre of Viña del Mar, a 20-25 minutes walk away, so Tuesdays require me to get up at the ungodly hour of 7:15am. Woe is me), and I was relieved to find out that I could understand the vast majority of what the professor said – he also seemed to be cognizant of the fact that there were international students in the class who can’t always follow the incredible speed with which Chileans tend to speak. We also had our first class of Spanish – with only students from the IFSA-Butler program – where we discussed an unsavoury part of the Chilean machista culture; piropos, or catcalls. In Chile, sadly, it is quite normal, even expected at times, for Chilean men to catcall at women, and we discussed our experiences regarding catcalls and what could possibly be done to try to change the Chilean man’s mindset. Later on in the class, we will discuss other parts of Chilean society and culture through texts and critical essays written by Chileans on Chilean society, which I think will actually be highly interesting.

Wednesday included another three classes, the first one this time at the more student-friendly time of 10:05am. My first class, which has so far been the most challenging but also very enlightening and actually quite fun, was the Sociopolitical History of Latin America in the 20th century, which is also a class solely for IFSA-Butler students. So far in the class, we have talked about how Latin America society in general was founded upon a racist, classist ideology, with whites at the top and indigenous peoples at the bottom (not really so different from the rest of the world), and how the concepts of modernity, modernization, colonization, colonialism, coloniality (apparently that’s a word too and means something different from colonization and colonialism), globality, and globalization have affected the socio-political and economic development of the various Latin American countries. To be honest, it’s only slightly less complicated than it sounds. I am, however, learning a lot about Chile and Latin America in general, which so far has been a pretty great experience.

The second class I was planning on taking was a religion course called Social Morality, but after around six minutes in the classroom I could tell it really wasn’t a good idea to stick with the class. The professor, whilst very amicable, spent a lot of time talking about his children and about other stuff that, as far as I could tell, had very little to do with anything class-related. The class itself was also more pedagogy-oriented, which is also not really my field. Consequently, I dropped out of that class and decided to take advantage of an internship opportunity. This “class”, Chilean Society and Community Action, meets once a week to discuss our internship experiences, and uses those experiences to look at different aspects of Chilean culture and how the community/NGOs are trying to plug some gaps caused by governmental policies/a lack of resources/other reasons. I will be working with an organization called SERPAJ (Servicio, Paz y Justicia), which, in broad terms, works with children and teenagers from poor backgrounds or from high-risk families, and aims to improve their self-esteem and social skills through workshops and recreational activities.

 

*Gulp*

 

It sounds quite daunting, though I don’t yet know what my exact responsibilities will be. I am both excited and rather scared, as I have not really done something like this before, but I feel like it would be a very good experience to have no matter what, and would further immerse me in Chilean culture.

Lastly, I am also taking a “community and culture” class (some of my classes sound very similar… I’m pretty much just going to learn about Latin American history and Chilean culture for the next few months. I could have just said that instead of describing the classes in great detail, but oh well), which consists of discussions amongst the group about specific cultural practices and the ways in which we relate to them, and also contains some presentations and talks by people from different parts of Valparaíso-an society. All in all, I think my classes provide me with a good mixture of the different histories and different cultures of Latin America, and actually help in explaining certain aspects of day-to-day life and in allow me to better understand the culture in which I am living.

 

 

SHORT EXPOSÉ ON MICROS AND WHY, ONE DAY, THEY MAY KILL YOU

And now for something completely different, namely Chilean public transport. As a very brief background before I launch into the murderous antics of micro drivers, there are three main kinds of public transport in Chile: micros, small-ish buses that usually go between Valparaíso and Viña del Mar and tend to stay more on the flat parts of the cities; colectivos, which are cars that function on the same principle as buses in that they have a fixed rate and a fixed route but tend to go into the cerros, or hills (but can only carry 4 people at once); and radiotaxis, which are the same as your average taxis. There’s also a metro and a trolley system, but I’ll leave those aside for now.

Most people in Valparaíso/Viña del Mar, and almost every student, take the micro to go wherever they need to go. It is, by Western standards rather cheap, especially for students – who get discounts for nearly everything – I usually pay 150 pesos for each trip, which corresponds to $0.234, or €0.219. At times, the driver is very friendly, actually gives you your ticket, and doesn’t exceed the speed limit too much. Other times, however, the driver manages to transform a rickety old bus into an exhilarating (if slightly terrifying) rollercoaster. As there are an incredible amount of micros driving around Valparaíso, the streets aren’t always entirely safe. However, this also means that some of the drivers end up racing each other. Actually not kidding. They try to overtake each other on the turns, break so late that it always seems as though they’re going to crash into something, and always stop very suddenly when they need to drop off or pick up passengers (they don’t even always fully stop when you need to disembark; I had to get out whilst the micro was still driving at quite a high speed, and ended up half-falling out of the micro and landing on a knee that had already seen many a concrete road). Furthermore, some of the micros are more than willing to drop you off/pick you up at any random point in the street – one dropped me off in the middle of a busy road whilst the traffic light was about to turn green. Not fun.

All of this might seem not too dangerous, but the micros lack one thing that even rollercoasters have: seatbelts.

 

Goodbye cruel world.

 

As such, Chilean public transport has, at times, made me fear for my life. However, I still believe that having an aggressive micro driver racing other aggressive micro drivers, all the while picking up and dropping off passengers without fully stopping, is quite the experience.

 

 

CHILEAN TIME FOR CHILEAN LUNCH

That weekend, we had a large picnic at a popular botanical garden in Viña del Mar for the students in the program and all their host families. I believe we were told to be their at around 11, 11:30, but this usually means the earliest you should arrive there at 12:15 – in fact, I think some people might consider it rude if you show up less than an hour ‘late’. Evidently, punctuality isn’t considered important in Chile (which does have its uses). When I got there with my host family, about half the people were already there, and everyone was chatting and the host families were getting to know each other and it was really quite a nice atmosphere.

(I was going to have some photos here, but my phone seems to have deleted them all. Why life.)

After an hour or so, some more people started showing up, and each family started to unpack and lay out the food they had brought with them on the picnic tables. In the meantime, we were shown how to play some typical Chilean games (the names of which I have mostly forgotten), including one where you had to throw a small disc from a certain distance as close to a piece of thread as possible.

Whilst this was happening, it started to become clear what exactly a Chilean picnic entailed. As far as I could tell, every single family had brought huge chunks of red meat and chicken along to be grilled on some type of open air grill that is apparently very common in Chile and in most other South American countries. The amusing part was, however, that each family seemed to have brought food for double the amount of people, which resulted in many different families asking other families if they wanted some food, who were trying to accomplish the exact same thing. In any case, lunch was very filling, and took a good three hours to set up, cook, eat, cook more, eat more, cook more, eat more, have tea, have more drinks, maybe eat a little more… as I said before, the Chileans that I have met here in Viña del Mar and Valparaíso don’t really care about time and are very relaxed about when things start and when they finish, which has been very refreshing for the most part.

More games were played after lunch, including tug of war, and this other game that I felt wasn’t really explained to us fully, and probably for good reason, else I would have found someone else to take my place. What I understood from the description was that four of us were competing against each other in this game. In order to win, we had to first carry an egg on a spoon in our mouth to the first… let’s call it a station… and we weren’t allowed to use our hands. Someone was waiting for us at that station, and they took the spoon plus egg from us, and we had to pick up a sweet at the bottom of a small bowl filled with water, again without using our hands. As such, I dove into the bowl face-first and managed to pick up the sweet with my teeth. Having done that and given the sweet to another waiting person, there was a second bowl at another station a little further away with another sweet. Before the game started, I naïvely thought that this bowl would also be filled with water (I guess it was rather oafish of me to not have reconnoitred the entirety of this game), yet when I got there it became clear that the second bowl wasn’t filled with water but with…… flour.

 

 

 

My initial reaction: I DID NOT SIGN UP FOR THIS SHIT

 

 

 

My second reaction: DUNKS ENTIRE FACE IN FLOUR

 

 

 

After finding the sweet, we had to hurry back to the picnic bench and sit on a balloon to pop it in order to complete the game (this game got weirder and weirder…). Here is a picture of the winner and yours truly at the end of this “game”.

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(photo credits to Bridget Feldmann)

 

We played a few other games before moving to a grassy patch in order to play a game of ‘pichanga’, also known as a football match. Those who didn’t want to play sought the shade, and one person had brought a guitar with them, so whilst some poor souls slaved away in the sun running after a ball, the more sensible people chatted and played music and sang and did sensible things. These excursions are honestly a great way to share and get to know each other a little better, and I’m glad there are more of them dotted throughout the semester.

 

 

 

LIVE JAZZ MUSIC VS. CREEPY DOCTOR OUTFITS

(I’m writing this part of the blog at a slightly different time and my drunk neighbours are singing rather loudly and progressively less in tune. Vaguely tempted to go over and introduce myself.) Anyway, a few days after the botanical garden excursion, a bunch of us headed to La Piedra Feliz – a bar in Valparaíso where live bands play every single night, and each night corresponds to a different genre of music. That night, there was a live jazz performance by a group of three men, and whilst jazz is not really my favourite kind of music, they still provided a very nice atmosphere to chat and drink a little and generally relax (one of the three was also completely rocking out to his own music which was both funny and kind of adorable). However, what really made that night for me was that, after an hour or so of very nice music, conversation, and relaxation, four of us decided to head up to the roof. Whilst walking up the various stairs to the roof it became quite clear that going up to the roof probably wasn’t entirely legal, as the floors got sketchier and less illuminated and just generally started looking more and more ramshackle the higher we went. This culminated in us taking a tiny spiral staircase up to the last floor and then climbing a small ladder that lead to this tiny vent or window-ish thing (I couldn’t see what it was, that’s how dark it was inside) that had to be pushed open in order to get onto the roof. When we got onto the roof itself, the metal creaked under our feet, which really quite strongly suggests we shouldn’t have been up there. However, the view was more than worth it. As the bar is situated very close to the sea, we had an incredible view of the sea in front of us, and behind us was the entirety of Valparaíso, spread out like a theatre in a play that we were performing (sidenote: Valparaíso is built remarkably like an amphitheatre, with the sea being the centre of attention). We stayed up on the roof for a while, enjoying the clean air and talking about some pretty emotional things (I guess conversations have a tendency to get a little heavier after a few drinks when sitting on the roof enjoying such a stunning vista), and I’m pretty sure that’s a night I’ll never forget.

The following night showed us a rather different aspect of study abroad. There was a party for all the international exchange students, which was a very fun occasion until it turned into a very fun but very very strange occasion. We’d started the night off at a bar in Viña del Mar, where we also met some other Chilean people and got to know them a little bit better. After that, we took the micro to the place where the party was being held, and danced for a bit and drank for a bit and just generally had a very good time. Then, at around 3:15am, a few minutes before we were planning on leaving, around four or five people wearing doctor’s outfits (one of them was also wearing a very creepy white wig) started milling around and taking promotional pictures with the people dancing. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, the pictures that they took involved two nurses emptying the syringes (filled with sprite, I was told) they were holding into the mouth of the person they were taking the picture with (there are pictures of this, but in the interest of people’s privacy I won’t share them here). So, a good night overall, but a very, VERY weird end.

 

That’s it for this post, apart from a short announcement: I’M GOING TO TORRES DEL PAINE IN 10 DAYS TIME. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a really large and really incredible national park, with mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers, in Chilean southern Patagonia. I’m going 5 full days with other people from the IFSA-Butler group, and we’ll be hiking along different parts of the Torres and staying in different areas of the national park most nights. It should be an astonishing few days.

 

 

Pues, until next time.

 

 

Ciao.

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Yet Another Fire in Valparaíso

Time March 16th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Though, quite a bit has happened in the past fourteen days, I think it would be more fitting to talk a little about what happened yesterday, Friday 13 March, when a huge fire burnt down significant amounts of forest in Valparaíso – roughly in the same area where there was a huge fire April 15 last year which destroyed almost 3000 homes, left around 11,000 homeless, injured more than 500, and cost 15 people their lives. Fortunately, they were able to contain the fire this year and ensure it did not reach the populated regions of Valparaíso, though almost 5000 people were nevertheless evacuated from their houses as a precaution. I will write another blog post in a few days time discussing the past two weeks in detail, but for now I’ll stick with describing what happened on Friday.

For me, the first thing that alerted me that something was amiss was when I walked outside to sit in the garden and take advantage of the sunshine, but the sky was darker than normal. Looking up, I saw that most of the sky was orange, or a combination of orange and grey. There was an acrid smell in the air. Something was burning.

 

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When I went back inside, my host mother told me that there was “un fuego. Un fuego enorme.” We went up to the balcony to get a better look at the sky, where the pungent smell of burnt land was even worse, and where we could see giant orange-grey clouds of smoke billowing across the skies at high speed, which was scary yet highly impressive and oddly majestic.

 

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My host family and I watched the news anxiously, following the latest developments, and I tried to stay in contact with the fellow students in the program (made difficult by the fact that the internet had semi-collapsed). After a while, however, it became clear that they had started to gain some measure of control over the fire (although one expert on the TV created some consternation when he pointed out that the Valparaíso firefighters had little experience in dealing with fires of these intensity, especially at night, and that he had little faith in them. So much for words of comfort). In any case, I received an email from the resident director of IFSA-Butler that everyone was alright and that the worst was over (as a sidenote, I found it rather ironic that the email was very calm for the most part apart from the bit begging us to STAY CALM NO MATTER WHAT). Phew. As of now, the air still smells very burnt, but as far as consequences of a forest fire go it could have been much, much worse….

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The Passion of the Multitudes

Time March 2nd, 2015 in 2015 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

So much has happened already. It’s so strange to think that I’ve only been here for less than two weeks, yet it feels as though I’ve been exposed to at least two months worth of information and cultural immersion, and that I’ve known the friends that I have made here for a lot longer than just eleven days – though I guess that’s what happens when you (are forced to) spend nearly every waking moment with them in the first few days. I’m currently sitting outside, drinking tea, and one of my host family’s cats is keeping me company, washing itself rather inelegantly (by the way, its name is Atún. Translation: tuna).

Welcome to my life in Chile.

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Pre-Departure Musings

Time February 17th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Umm.. wow, okay, so the time has actually come for to go to Chile for almost 5 whole months.. which means it’s time to write this pre-departure post! For anyone reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I guess I should introduce myself. I’m Vincent, 21 years old, and I’m from the Netherlands, though I grew up in Dubai and now live in some weird combination of Shanghai, Holland, and Hamilton, NY. I am a Middle Eastern Studies major and Latin American studies minor (which is partially why I’m going to Chile. I also just really want to go to Chile) at Colgate University. I’ll be going to Valparaíso, Chile, studying at the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV for short) and staying with a (hopefully) wonderful host family in Viña del Mar. Jokes aside, I had some contact with my host mother and she seems like a lovely person, and I’m honestly really excited to meet her, her children, and her two cats and dogs (she has a German Shepherd named PUNKY. HOW ADORABLE IS THAT).

Regarding some pre-departure thoughts, I guess some of the usual worries that I imagine plague students going abroad for the first time aren’t really applicable to me, as going to university in the U.S. already counts as “abroad”; as such, I’m not really very worried about spending time away from my parents or my family (sorry, mum and dad), and after spending almost a month and a half in Shanghai where I know few people and don’t really have all that much to do, I feel more than ready to start my life back up again. Fortunately, one of my neighbours is actually from Valparaíso, and her father-in-law actually taught for 30 years at the PUCV before retiring last year (small world, huh). She was incredibly kind and offered to help out in any way she could, and she told me a little about Valparaíso and about the people there, which I think has made me feel a little more prepared regarding what to expect from local people and the local lifestyle. The two Chileans I have met so far have been extraordinarily kind and helpful, and I hope that that’s a good omen for things to come (or, I might just have been spoiled and will end up bitterly disappointed. Who knows.)

I hope to be blogging semi-regularly about my experiences in Chile, both for my own benefit and because I want to give other people the option of reading first-hand, from students, how amazing a study abroad experience can really be. I’m honestly incredibly excited to go to Chile and I’m ready to make it an amazing experience (note to self: let’s see how long we can keep this optimism going).

Now, all that’s left to do: packing, and four lovely long flights.

Until next time!

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