Life on the Other Side of the Mountains
Hello, friends and family! I just returned last Tuesday from Santiago de Chile, where I made new friends, experienced culture shock, and felt the slightest bit of homesickness for the first time during my study abroad experience. Monday was feriado (holiday) here in Argentina, so I decided to spend 4 days in Chile. A bass studio from Santiago came to Mendoza a couple of weekends ago to do an “exchange” with our studio in Mendoza, and I was able to get to know several of the Chilean bass students. Before they left, I had five people, including the Chilean bass professor, offer for me to stay in their homes whenever I wanted to visit Chile. Although I had only met these kids three days earlier, I decided to trust them, and to take their offer for a free homestay during my vacation to Santiago. I stayed with Javier, one of the students, and his family (parents, 22-year old sister and 17-year old brother). The weekend was such an enriching experience! I was able to practice my Spanish a LOT, because the family didn’t know hardly any English, and I had the opportunity to see not only all of Santiago but also meet many other music students in Chile, and attend orchestra rehearsals of the National Youth Orchestra of Chile.
A few of the highlights from my trip included touring Pablo Neruda’s Santiago home (it was huge, and really gorgeous!), visiting the museum of fine arts, museum of Latin American art, and a museum of Chilean history, which included an exhibit on the Pinochet dictatorship and Chilean colonial life. I also went inside two huge churches/cathedrals, and visited several parks, plazas, and ferias (outdoor markets selling used goods or hand-made crafts) I saw both theaters where the professional orchestras play, and I visited the conservatory where the other bass students go to school. On Friday, we ran into a large protest on one of the main streets in Santiago. They were protesting the national holiday, “Day of the Races,” which is supposed to celebrate Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, but is now a very controversial holiday due to the extermination of native peoples in the years that followed Christopher Columbus’s journey. We decided to skip that area of the city, because Javier said that the police and/or protestors often use tear gas to control the situation/make a point. Instead, we went to this fantastic little ice cream place, where I tried rose-flavored ice cream (it literally tasted like I was eating a flower…) and “miel del ulmo”, which is apparently honey from some kind of tree in Chile.
It was so nice to have someone who was familiar with the city to navigate the subway and bus system for me! It was also a relief to have someone that spoke “Chilean,” because let me tell you what, the Chileans speak an entirely different Spanish from that of Argentina or the “universal” Spanish that I learned growing up in school. It was extremely difficult to understand anyone in Santiago, because not only did they speak twice as fast as the Mendocinos, but also because they have their own slang words for everything, and seemingly-made-up conjugations of verbs. The other big culture shock was the money conversion! 500 Chilean pesos is roughly equal to USD $1, so meals cost several thousands of pesos. The math to convert the money as well as to give the correct change was time consuming, especially with such high numbers in Spanish! I was a little rusty with my numbers before going to Chile, but I was reminded of them very quickly with all of the computation. The Chilean pesos are very bright and colorful, similar to Monopoly money. It’s also interesting that the smaller bills (1,000, 2,000, 5,000) are literally smaller in size that the bigger bills (10,000, 20,000) and made of a different texture.
Santiago/Chile is much more similar to the United States than Mendoza/Argentina, mostly due to their economy. Chile has many of the same imports as the U.S., which makes products made/available in the U.S. easily accessible in Chile, unlike in Argentina, where there are strict rules on imports and many more products are made domestically. People were driving new cars of all brands; Apple products were much more common, and one day, Javier’s family bought U.S.-imported ice cream. All of the similar products at the stores, the same cars on the streets, and living with a family very similar to my own made me a little homesick, but that feeling of missing home didn’t last long, and I was soon very anxious to get back to Mendoza again, where there are a lot less people and congestion, the air is a little fresher, and the way of life is much more laid back.
Going through customs at the border by myself was a terrifying experience, but everything went very smoothly and I thankfully did not have any problems. First, a border officer came onto the bus and instructed all of us to take everything with us and line up outside of the bus. Once we were lined up, we were taken to a small room (with everyone still in a single-file line) with skinny metal tables. In a way, I felt like some sort of prisoner. Two border-patrol dogs came up to each person individually to smell us, I assume for drugs or bombs. I think the border patrol officers were either really bored or super suspicious, because they kept instructing the dogs to smell us over and over again. I had the homemade peanut butter cookies in my backpack (see previous post) to bring to Javier’s family, and one of the dogs nudged my bag a few times, and kept returning to my side, which made me extremely nervous. I obviously didn’t have any drugs or bombs on me, but I am pretty sure that the dog was hungry and could smell my cookies! After we stood in between the metal tables with border patrol officers all around us, they began to scan our bags. If there was anything suspicious in a bag, the officer would hold it up and ask whose bag it was. The owner of the bag would raise their hand and be escorted out of line by another officer for questioning or to open the bag for further inspection. The officer asked me to open my backpack, but after she saw that all I had was music and cookies, she quickly became uninterested.
Although the experience was filled with anxiety, I am really happy that I decided to do it alone. Now, I feel even more confident in myself to travel, whether it be alone or with others, to any destination.