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Ode to Recreo

Time June 5th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 1 Comment by

The other day when I was walking home from the bus stop, I was struck by how familiar and comfortable Recreo, my neighborhood in Viña del Mar, feels to me now. What struck me was not just that I feel at home here, but more so that I feel as if I am a part of the neighborhood, instead of just some foreigner stuck in limbo between vacation and immigration. My walk home from the bus stop is essentially uphill the entire way, but I never get tired of it. I get off the bus at Viña’s biggest icon and tourist attraction, “El Reloj de Flores,” which is quite literally a clock composed of flowers planted on a hillside next to the ocean. Now, ironically, the Reloj de Flores was recently wiped from existence when a giant pine tree was uprooted and fell down the hillside in a miniature mudslide caused by the unprecedented torrential rain of the past two days. The precious monument was destroyed without a trace and they are now estimating that it will take around forty million dollars to fix it. In my opinion, not worth it for a circle of flowers, but to each his own.

Anyway, as I was saying, the other day when I was walking home, before that weekend of rain and the Reloj’s tragic death, I was struck by how much my neighborhood had really begun to feel like my neighborhood. I know every dog and cat and where they hang around, basking in the sun and begging for food or attention or both. I know every crack in the sidewalk, every piece of graffiti. When I come up the stairs from the main, I wave to the store owner on the corner who’s almost always standing outside enjoying the day and talking with friends. He and his wife came over on Easter when my Chilean mom’s boyfriend made enough paella to feed a small army. I recognize the homeless men drinking beer on the steps near the park. I smile at the old man who always walks his poodle down to the lookout at the same time that I come home for lunch each day. I know at exactly what point the smell of Papa John’s will drift to me as I walk up to Diego Portales and turn towards my street, Arturo Prat. It seems that Chile shares the U.S.’s traditional of naming streets after historical figures that no one really likes and whom, outside of the nationalistic bias of history books, seem to have done more harm than good.

I have subconsciously memorized the barks of each dog that will sound off in order as I pass by their respective houses on the way to my own. My favorite is the paradoxical German shepherd three doors down who always sits perched on the ledge of house’s fence like a cat and whose bark is surprisingly high-pitched for a pup of (at least) 80 pounds. When I get to my house and take out my keys, I no longer have to study them to see which one has less rust (that one goes to the gate, the other to the house) because I can feel the difference.

I often recognize faces of people I know as I am walking around the Recreo neighborhood and it makes me feel proud. The man at the local liquor store, whose parents sent him to grade school in the U.K. so that he could learn English, always likes to practice speaking with me when I come in for cheap wine. My friend Amelia’s Chilean host mom who owns a boutique next to the sushi place by the train station, who is probably the sweetest, happiest woman I have ever met. My eccentric history professor who I always see reading the newspaper in Café Recreo. The parking attendant that always smiles and says hello when I pass by. The group of neighborhood guys that looked after my friend Colin and I when we first got here and are always excited to see me. Friends that I’ve made, young and old. And not just the people I have met in Recreo, but all of the friends that I have made here, friends that I truly care about. Friends that I can’t imagine leaving in a month and potentially never seeing again. They have all impacted my life here and who I am because of it, in their own way.

I have always been a strong believer that who we are as people is a patchwork made up of the influences of the people we encounter in life and the ways in which they help shape our heart, some obviously more so than others. There is an African philosophy native to the Nguni tribe in southern Africa called Ubuntu which, if you know me well you’ve most likely heard me talk about. Directly translated it means, “I am because you are.” But it is a way of life founded upon the belief that our humanity is constructed and nurtured through relationship with others, that we are all intrinsically connected in this way and, therefore, we should treat one another with love, graciousness and respect.

In that moment, walking down the street to my house, I thought about the people that I’ve met here in Chile and all I could think of was how fortunate I feel to have had them contribute to the ever-growing patchwork of my humanity. My heart is full!

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La magia del sur

Time May 24th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 1 Comment by

My ten-day adventure hiking through the Patagonia mountains in the extreme south of Chile and Argentina was without a doubt the most physically-challenging, but also the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. We started with the W trail of Torres del Paine national park outside of Puerto Natales, Chile with three nights and four days of hiking through every type of terrain imaginable and camping in freezing temperatures. Due to poor planning, we ended up embarking on our trip at the end of high season, and going into the low season, which starts on May 1st. In the end of April and beginning of May begins the transition into the winter months in the Patagonia and, for this season, the park has much stricter rules and regulations for hikers because of the added danger (and liability) of the more volatile weather. Although this made things significantly more difficult from a planning perspective, it was totally worth it to be able to experience the trail during the fall season with the colors of the changing leaves. The combination of the white snowy peaks of the mountains against the black rock of their bases, the translucent blue of glacial ice in the distance and the blazing oranges and reds of the trees left me feeling dizzy and drunk on the incomprehensible beauty around me.

I went into the trip with the intention of writing in the tent every night so that I could capture every memory, every feeling at it’s very freshest point of expression. But after we set up camp and made dinner at the end of each day, I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to zip up my sleeping bag, much less express my thoughts in a coherent and appealing manner. Conversations amongst ourselves and the other backpackers that we met in the communal cooking areas of the campsites were an amusing jumble of obvious statements and delirious, winding stories tumbling from exhaustion-clouded brains. Luckily, the basic introductions usually carried us over until we could get food in our stomachs, which helped immensely with the amount of brain power available to donate to conversation. Most of the people we met on the trail were around our age, many of them also students, and within our interactions existed a kind of raw, childish excitement, like we were all just a bunch of overgrown kids running around splashing in creeks and looking for adventure. The adrenaline high we rode through the trees formed bonds of shared incredulity, bonds I won’t soon forget. Read More »

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Cultural adjustment or bust

Time May 8th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 4 Comments by

Valparaiso has begun to feel more and more like home. I have yet to experience the fall after the high that the IFSA program directors warned us to expect. I think they referred to it as the readjustment stage or something along those lines. A name for when the initial charm of all things new and exciting begins to take on a stale flavor in your mouth. You are no longer so overwhelmed by the thrill of change and, thus, no longer blinded to the not-so-charming aspects of your new home. This transition creates a “low period” until you are able to reach “full cultural adjustment.” This can take on a number of forms (homesickness, anger, frustration) and differs widely based on the person, or so they say.
But, for me, I think I genuinely skipped this stage. This is not to say that I am blind to the litter on the street or deaf to the (at times exceedingly vulgar) catcalls of construction workers, and I definitely no longer walk around with a giant smile plastered on my face all the time like I did for the first few weeks. But I have yet to experience anything that I think could be described as a low period. Overall, I have continued to feel very fortunate and serene in my new home. I feel a certain satisfaction in having gotten to know the city well enough to appreciate the ugly alongside the beautiful. I never experienced any striking moments of culture shock. Every day has been so full of new things to experience and people to meet that I haven’t had time to think about being homesick. For this reason, I am a bit nervous that my culture shock will come when I return to the U.S. in July and my world shrinks back to size. Read More »

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Gringa’s first earthquake

Time May 8th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 1 Comment by

About two weeks ago, I experienced my first real earthquake here in Chile and, I have to say, it was much more terrifying than I had anticipated. For some reason, I had never really understood the panic about earthquakes. I mean, as long as no buildings collapse, it’s just a little vibration, right? Wrong. As it turns out, I am not a huge fan of them. There’s something deeply unsettling about the fact that the earth, which we often conceptualize to be the most physically stable thing in our lives, can suddenly begin to move underfoot.
I was walking back to my house with a friend when it happened. It probably only lasted for about 20 seconds in total but it felt like longer as we watched the cement buildings around us shake. Strangely enough, my first reaction was equal parts fear and excitement, as if all of that raw energy traveling through the earth’s tectonic plates had continued on through the soles of my feet and up my spine, terrifying yet strangely intoxicating. There was no visible damage where we were standing, so my friend and I shrugged it off and went on our way. I became more unsettled, however, when people started coming out of their houses onto the street and asking us if we were alright. Everyone was wide-eyed and tight lipped and their anxiety made my own heart begin to race.
The streets of my neighborhood suddenly felt eerily unfamiliar. The air cracked with a kind of strange anticipation, as if houses and residents alike were holding their breath to see what might happen next. The only sounds to be heard were the chorus of car alarms going off from the tremors and the dial tones of my neighbors’ phones as they called their loved ones across town. One man told us that we should save our water in case it got shut off and recommended that we go straight home. As the aftershocks started and the tsunami evacuation alarm sounded, the initial ignorant excitement of my first earthquake faded and I decided that he was probably right. Read More »

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Debajo de tu piel vive la luna

Time April 4th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 3 Comments by

How to describe Valparaiso? Well, the golden-tongued prodigy, Pablo Neruda, lived here for most of his life and even he was at a loss for words at times so I am not sure that I can. All I can say is that I have absolutely, irrevocably fallen in love with this place and the surge of excitement that it gives me every time I look around. And how easy it must be to fall in love living by the sea, to fall in love with yourself, with others, with the electric motion of the ocean’s waves. Everything feels so galvanized, so full of sights and sounds that intoxicate the soul. Somehow, I feel infinitely more alive than I ever did in the U.S. Every part of me, every molecule, vibrates with delicious energy; every simple thought and feeling consumes me. Perhaps it is just the enormous potential for growth that living in a new place has presented, or perhaps there really is something magical about living by the sea.

Probably the only real worry that I had about coming to live here was that I would not be able to develop my Spanish well enough to make friends that wanted to spend time with me, not just in an effort to include the white girl, but because they genuinely enjoyed my company. I know this may seem like a silly thing to be worried about and I am confident in my ability to communicate in Spanish, but there is an added difficulty when it comes to expressing yourself well enough to foster relationships with people across language barriers. This requires so much more than simply translating words in your head. It requires enough depth of emotion and understanding to form memories and bonds which is hard enough to accomplish in your own language, much less someone else’s.

I was nervous that I would not be able to keep up in conversations between native speakers and that, because of this, they would feel burdened by my presence to speak slowly or simply. I was also worried that my somewhat limited vocabulary would make me seem dull or uninteresting because, as funny as I am (not) in English, it is exponentially harder to be funny in Spanish as my bad jokes and sarcasm don’t always translate well.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to make friends compared to what I had built up to be in my head. At first I often became frustrated with myself when I would have trouble explaining something to one of my Chilean friends, but their graciousness and patience have taught me how to be more patient with myself. I feel very fortunate to have found such caring friends so far who also keep me from failing all of my classes.

Last weekend, some of the kids from the IFSA-Butler group and I decided to go hiking for a long weekend in a national park called Siete Tazas, about a five hour journey from Valparaiso. We camped in the park for two nights and three days and spent the entire time climbing around astonishing rock formations, jumping into exhilaratingly frigid natural pools and admiring the most breathtaking view of the stars I think I have ever seen. On the last day, one of the park rangers helped us crawl through a barbed wire fence to get to a part of the park with another chain of crystal-clear pools that is normally off limits to hikers. After finding it and jumping in, a few of us decided to swim farther down the stream where the water deepened and traveled through a massive cave-like overhang of rock. Our excitement quickly turned to fear as we swam through near pitch black waters and began to consider the potential creatures that could have been swimming along with us. Thankfully, by the time we started panicking we had reached the other end of the overhang and climbed out of the water onto the jagged rocks and into the sun.

We took a few minutes to bask in the glow of our adventurous accomplishment and, after being warmed up by the sun, we weren’t too keen on jumping into the freezing water again to swim back to our group. So we decided to try to climb over the rocks to get back through the cave instead of swimming the entire way with our unknown freshwater friends. As we were climbing over the slick rocks, half of the time on all-fours just to keep our balance, I heard my friend shriek and looked down to see that my outstretched hand was about two feet away from a massive tarantula. Yep, you heard me. A tarantula. Not behind glass at the wildlife center where they should be…on the ground. Right in front of me.

My friend’s shriek passed down the line of us like a game of telephone until it reached my friend, Colin, who screamed and then asked why we were screaming. After we had evacuated the area we pointed out the tarantula to him and I immediately started to hyperventilate as the reality of the situation set in. If there was one tarantula, then that meant the possible existence of more tarantulas. That meant that I was currently in a location where tarantulas existed in real life, outside of glass aquariums. Suddenly, the icy stream water and its mysterious inhabitants didn’t seem so unappealing. We all immediately jumped in and swam back to find our friends. When we found them a few minutes later, panting and wild with adrenaline, we eagerly told them the story of what we had done. While all of the other exchange students were equally as astonished by our bravery, the one Chilean in our group just laughed and said the tarantulas in the area were harmless and that she used to play with them as a kid. Feeling a bit deflated by her lack of appreciation for the near-death experience that we had just narrowly survived, I politely informed her that playing with tarantulas was one cultural difference that I was never going to assimilate to.

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Losing signal and finding connections

Time March 22nd, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | No Comments by

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The rest of our travels passed in a blur of long bus rides, new experiences and adrenaline. We often went without wifi or service for days at a time and when we did have internet connection, it was not strong enough to work on my computer. Although this made it difficult to blog, it allowed me to take a step back from the comfort and personal value that I had been conditioned to place in my phone as a means to connect with the people around me. Not having access to internet reminded me that the way to truly connect with the world and with others expands far beyond a two by five-inch screen. This, it seems to me, is perhaps the most widely acknowledged yet rarely practiced idea relating to our relationship with technology today. We all make jokes about walking around like zombies with our heads bent into our phones and as soon as the laughter stops we go right back to refreshing our Instagram pages every ten minutes looking for posts and connections to people that we barely even know beyond the realm of social media. And why? Because it has become a social construct that is engrained so deeply within us that it’s difficult to truly understand it as a type of addiction until we are forced from it by one thing or the other. For me, I was amazed by how many times I would be traveling through rural Paraguay or Bolivia and I would unlock my iPhone and stare at the screen or start to open Facebook, knowing full well that I didn’t have service or internet connection. My hands moved automatically out of habit and it took a frustratingly long time to decondition myself but, once I was able to, I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom and simplicity in being able to enjoy each moment without distractions. Read More »

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Triumphs and trials in the Islands

Time February 28th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 1 Comment by

The transition from staying with my friend and her family to traveling on my own with a limited budget was a bit rough at first. But I have been glad to have my travel buddy with me to do all of the tourist activities that I missed out on in my first week in Cartagena. Not to mention he has successfully restored my confidence in my Spanish-speaking ability by comparison to his own. No longer able to rely on others to communicate for me, I have felt dually electrified and terrified by the challenge that traveling alone has posed and, more so, by the effect that is has had on me. Within a few days, I began to feel Spanish words and phrases coming to my mind with increasing speed and clarity. Within a week, I had my first dream in Spanish (Shakira took me shopping – it was awesome, she says that red is my color).

Our first day as tourists in Cartagena was spent on the beach in Boca Grande where I learned that laying in the equatorial sun at mid-day means multiple sun screen applications always. Later, we went downtown for a free walking tour of the oldest part of Cartagena. There are free walking tours offered in most every major city in South America and I strongly recommend them as the tour guides are extremely passionate about their cities. In Cartagena, free tours are offered in Spanish and English. We over confidently joined the Spanish group and ended up quietly slipping away to join the English one after five minutes of sheer confusion. As it turns out we don’t have much of a repertoire when it comes to Latin American history vocabulary. After two hours of learning about Colombian history and architecture, our guide ended the tour with an impassioned speech about his love for his country and how proud he is that Colombia’s international reputation is evolving from a country wrought with corruption and violence to a country of beautiful landscapes, rich culture and loving people. Read More »

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Colombian charm: an introduction to my travel blog

Time January 25th, 2017 in 2017 Spring, Chile | 1 Comment by

It is difficult to believe that it has already been over two weeks since I left the United States behind for six months of traveling through South America and studying in Valparaiso, Chile. Although there has been plenty to write about, I have been hesitant to start this blog documenting my study abroad experience until now. Admittedly, part of that decision was motivated by how often Colombian whiskey has impaired my ability to put pen to paper over the few weeks. But, more importantly, I am unsure how to document my travels in a way that is compelling, not only to my friends and family but to people who do not have a personal interest in my journey abroad.

In a world so deeply divided by greed and hatred, my hope for this blog is that I am able to write about my travels in a way that encourages people to understand and celebrate our differences as people with the recognition that they are greatly outnumbered by our similarities. I believe that the primary responsibility of the modern writer should be to restore faith in the power of our human solidarity to reach across divisions of race, religion, gender or ideology to bring peace and prosperity. Read More »

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