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.