Chile was my first go-abroad destination….long-term that is. I signed up for a full semester, having no idea how trying that semester would be. I was a sophomore in college, and I couldn’t speak Spanish. I had been assured that I would be fluent after one month, so no problem, right? Hahahahahahaha! Have you ever successfully taken college level business classes taught in Spanish when you didn’t really speak Spanish? The key word there was “successfully”. I remember spending a whole day just trying to read one chapter in my text book using my handy dandy Spanish-English pocket dictionary. I also remember looking the same word up fifteen times before it finally stuck in my head. I wasn’t fluent after one month, but that is one heck of a way to get better at a language fast. Since I failed to do it while I was there, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my Chilean professors for passing me out of pity.
We lived in a charming home that had already seen its day in the sun, but the location was perfect, as it was situated in a beautiful old neighborhood just one block from the university. There were a lot of firsts for me in that house. It was the first time I had lived in a house with twelve other people from three different countries. It was the first time I had used a shower heated by a gas heater on the wall…and almost burnt my eyebrows off trying to light it (just ask for help if you don’t know what you’re doing). It was the first time I had warmed myself by a gas space heater and had to keep the windows open to avoid passing out from the fumes. They say putting orange peel in a cup on top of the heater absorbs the fumes, but I don’t know…. It was the house where I learned to drink coffee (with lots and lots of milk and sugar) and ate manjar for the first time, which is the most delicious caramel you will ever taste!
Santiago is a huge city. So, coming from a small town in Missouri, there were times it was overwhelming. But it really left an impression on me. I never felt unsafe, the streets were impeccably clean, and they have an excellent subway system. It couldn’t have been a better first, big-city experience for me. But with big cities comes fast-talkers (which didn’t help with the Spanish-learning situation). My go-to response was to just smile when someone spoke to me and I didn’t understand. This unfortunately doesn’t work well when you’ve been asked a question. It also didn’t help that Chileans have their own, very special set of slang that may be considered a language in itself. I just learned “entiendes” and now you’re telling me it’s “cachai”? Wait, what’s a “pololo"?…I thought he was your “novio". Hurry up, we need to go “ahora”…shoot, I have to say “al tiro” here. Ahhhhh! I joke, but I loved learning Chilean slang.
One of my main goals when I travel abroad it trying to blend in. This can be difficult in some countries, but I thought I had it made in Chile. There are plenty of people there with the same hair and skin color as mine. But no, they can tell. They said it was my nose that gave me away…not to mention that I hung around with a group of Americans. We swore over and over again to only speak Spanish amongst our group. We were going to learn Spanish!! Well, that would last about an hour, then we were back to English. Oh well, we had good intentions.
I really can’t say enough good things about Chile. I wish I could write a book that people would actually read, because that’s what it would take to fit it all in. I had the opportunity to visit the driest place in the world, the Atacama desert, which is in northern Chile, and the glacier filled waters of Puerto Natales in the south. I experienced the beauty of Viña del Mar, and the cosmopolitan way of life in Santiago. Each place was special and beautiful in its own way. I don’t think I ever met an unfriendly Chilean. I learned the art of a proper party in Chile, and with it developed a taste for Pisco Sour. I learned how to not be on time…which is not necessarily a bad thing for a person who needs to just learn to relax already (me). And I can still taste choripan and empanadas de pino. Really, just go there for yourself and find your favorite things. This country has so much to offer!