The End of the Semester!!
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.
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.
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.