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Packing Advice: Leave the Guitar, Bring the Song

Time February 24th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

With less than 24 hours until my flight, I am still not worrying about what to bring to Santiago. Having already lived there for a semester makes packing more of a chore than a stressor.

Instead, I’m thinking about what to bring from Chile (as well as what I will leave behind) once I finish my second and final semester of study abroad in July.

The first one ended in December with tearful farewells to my Chilean friends, teachers and family. I left behind thank-you gifts, wrecked boots, an alternate personality specific to Santiago, and much more. I brought back a bottle of wine, two notebooks full of field notes, enough motivation to attend the Minneapolis Board of Education’s public meetings and much, much more.

There are plenty of lists telling travelers what to leave and what to bring, so I have a different kind of answer to the packing question. I want to explain the there-and-back-again story of study abroad via guitars. Yes, guitars — you know, the things that I strum to seem more creative and deep.

We’ll start with this one.

Like most acoustic guitars in Chile, this fine specimen is a Spanish guitar. It has six nylon strings, twelve frets that clear the body and no strap — typical for guitars of the modern classical build. Let’s call it Ramírez.

I first met Ramírez in September. One day I came home from a comparative education seminar at Universidad Alberto Hurtado to find him sitting in my spot at the kitchen table next to my host mother and brother. Knowing I write songs (and overestimating my skill), they had asked a friend to lend us her dust-collector of a guitar.

Or at least that was their story. Little did I know they had bought Ramírez used. (And that’s just one of many times my host family went out of their way to make me feel at home.)

Though my host mother had hoped for living room serenades on par with her Whitney Houston CDs, I could only stumble through chord progressions and hum half-forgotten melodies in my off-pitch, nasally voice. What else would you expect from a shoddy musician playing an unfamiliar instrument?

The frets had no markers, so my eyes learned to recognize chord shapes on their own. The string tension was low, so my muscles learned to press hard without bending notes. The neck was wide, so my pinky learned to stretch into what used to be an easy position.

Despite all of Ramírez’ idiosyncrasies, I adapted. Come December, my repertoire included several classic Chilean songs, including “Paramar” by Los Prisioneros. That particular song took a week to learn — a week of morning bus rides spent listening to the track on repeat, memorizing the melody, mouthing the lyrics with just enough restraint to not make my fellow passengers uncomfortable, plus a week of evening “study breaks” spent studying the song, first playing along with the recording, then by myself with the guitar. Mimicking the song forms and rhyme schemes of Chilean artists, I even drafted a few ditties of my own in Spanish.

And somewhere along the way — somewhere between acquiring the Victor Jara songbook and finishing “Choca Puño” (my first Spanish-language song) — I started to forget, at least sometimes, about my other guitar in Minnesota.

Sure, it has six strings and a soundhole just like Ramírez, but the similarities end there. The frets are marked, the strings are tight and the neck is half as wide. What’s more, as each guitar should, it has its own name: Martin.

When Martin and I were reunited during winter break, we played the songs I had learned with Ramírez, but it took a bit of practice first. Just as I had adapted to Ramírez’s idiosyncrasies, I  adjusted my technique according to the particular contours of Martin’s fourteen-fret, non-cutaway, Sitka spruce body. Of course some songs sounded hollow without that original Ramírez flair, but others came alive thanks to Martin’s unique twang.

Last semester I learned so many songs while sitting in my spot at the kitchen table (not to mention while interviewing teachers in the schoolyard and marching in the streets of Santiago) that it would be a shame to not bring them back stateside. “Paramar” by Los Prisioneros is just one example. Other “songs” of mine include Chilean idioms and a critical analysis of free market education reforms. Sure, I change the tune to suit a U.S. audience, but the songs are still worth singing.

So, if you’re a study abroad student or a traveler of any stripe willing to listen to a guitar noob like me, here’s my advice: When you must leave the guitar, remember to bring the songs.