My Bustling and Colorful Walk to Class

It blows my mind that I have already spent two weeks in Valparaíso, Chile. The time has flown thanks to my wonderful host family and my extremely colorful walk to class. Living in the middle of the city of Valparaíso – commonly referred to as Valpo by the locals – has introduced me to many unique experiences and allowed me to immerse myself in a culture brand new to me.

Every morning, I am awakened by flocks of birds chirping as they fight for their food and by hordes of locals shouting as they sell any and every item you could possibly need. My walk to PUCV, the university I am attending while here in Chile, takes a short five minutes and covers only three blocks of the city, but it always feels as if I am walking through a whole new world.

Culture overwhelms me from the moment I step out of my door as street vendors approach me continuously, shouting the names and prices of random items they hope to sell, to the end of my first block. Cultural encounters continue as I move to the second block of my journey to school, which is by far my favorite. This block consists of tables and tables showcasing mounds of shiny, ripe, and juicy fruits and vegetables. As I walk, everything around me becomes a blur of yellows, oranges, reds, and greens. The area teems with life as people hustle to complete their early morning shopping. Here in Chile, it is tradition to buy only enough for two days maximum so that the food is always fresh (quite the opposite of most American families who shop to fill their fridges for weeks at a time). The sunlight reflecting the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables, the scents of fresh food, the shouts of local Spanish-speakers, and the feeling of Chileans hurriedly brushing up against me are some of the strongest sensations I experience as I attempt to scramble through the crowd. I eventually break through the masses and begin walking my third and final block.

The final block is flooded with college students passing time with friends between classes, soaking in the sun and breathing in the fresh air. I continue forward, approaching what seems to be an ancient castle, and find myself arriving at the beautiful Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. The single building before me is the home of knowledge. Of growth. Of challenge. Of opportunity. It is a place that has already challenged and encouraged me in so many ways, and I know it will continue to do so.

I never imagined it would be possible to experience so much culture in three short blocks. I’ve recognized that my walk to class is more than just a walk; it is a journey through the most beautiful chaos that I have ever experienced. These few minutes allow me to forget everything else, to be present, and to soak in the beauty of Valpo’s culture as I prepare myself for another full day of classes and adventures awaiting. And to think, this is just the beginning…

Hostels for the Holidays

This past Thanksgiving was the first time I have spent a major holiday away from my family. Chileans may be familiar with “el día de la acción de gracias,” but it is certainly not celebrated here. Seriously, I couldn’t even find a box of stuffing or a butter ball turkey on the shelf of the local supermarket. It was definitely strange to be away from home on such a significant holiday.

All semester I have pushed myself to learn and adapt to Chilean customs and traditions. This is something I really enjoy doing and is a large part of the study abroad experience, but it can be exhausting being out of your comfort zone for so long. Sometimes you just want someone who understands, who you don’t have to explain things to, and who relates to the feeling of misplacement and homesickness on a day like Thanksgiving.

Throughout Thanksgiving day,  I  yearned to be with my own family on one of my favorite holidays of the year. I even felt guilt for not being home– who else was going to make the sweet potato casserole, or set the table, or take care of all those leftovers in the fridge? I can’t even bear to think of how lonely the dessert table must have felt without its most loyal visitor.

Despite my wishes, I had set very low expectations for my Thanksgiving in Chile. It was supposed to be a travel day from Puerto Natales, Chile to Calafate, Argentina. However, we ended up not being able to get seats on any of the buses, so we learned mid-day that we would be stuck in Puerto Natales for another night. After scrambling for space in a hostel, we finally found a couple spots in a dorm and made our way over.

We set our things in our room, met our American roommates, and I hopped on Instagram and began scrolling through stories of food spreads, full plates, and family games. It was practically taunting, but was the dose of FOMO I needed to realize I didn’t have to miss out on one of my favorite holidays just because I wasn’t in the US.

We went to the grocery store, bought chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and ingredients for pebre, a Chilean salsa served at nearly every lunch (so maybe our meal wasn’t exactly “traditional,” but it worked for us!). After preparing everything in the hostel’s shared kitchen, we took our plates into the living area and joined the other guests snacking on salami, peanuts, and other trail snacks as they prepared for their Torres del Paine treks. Realizing we were all Americans, everyone raised a glass in the air and exchanged a “Happy Thanksgiving!”

It sure wasn’t my normal celebration, but I certainly was thankful.

More than a tourist

Well, that’s a wrap! I have finished my classes and exams and am off to do my own personal travel for the next month! I am currently writing from Puerto Natales (check me out on a map, I’m practically a skip and a hop from Antarctica!), which is a touristy city that the Torres del Paine trekkers base out of. I, too, will start an 8-day backpacking trip tomorrow, so I have spent the past three days preparing, packing, and meeting fellow trail mates.

Although I am still in Chile, I haven’t heard this much English since I was departing Detroit-Metro Airport back in July. Walking into stores, ordering at restaurants and cafés, and meeting fellow tourists— it’s assumed that English is the mutual language. Although I used to find comfort in the Chileans and extranjeros that spoke English, I have become quite stubborn with insisting on Spanish.

Being blonde-haired, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed, it is no secret that Spanish is not my first language. I have learned not to take offense when spoken to in English, but rather, see it as a kind attempt to communicate and connect with me in the way that seems fit. However, it is an act of self-confidence and discipline to reply in Spanish. I have found that when I do this, natives take interest… they realize I am not like any other tourist. It begins the conversation with where I’m from and where I learned Spanish, and I get to tell them about how I studied in Santiago all semester and am now spending the time traveling and getting to know other parts of the country. They are captivated and humbled, and I think more than anything it makes them proud to be where they are from. It is a special connection and a mutual understanding of the other. I am not just another tourist.

Climb on!

Prior to coming to Chile, I had planned on enrolling in a class at a Chilean university, in addition to taking classes with other study abroad students at IES. Although I decided to take all my courses through IES, I still wanted to find a way to get involved with Chilean university life. Initially, I enjoyed the empty planner and free nights to do as I pleased. However, the transition of being very involved at Hope to coming to a country that had no expectations or obligations for me was a tough one.

La Universidad Católica does a great job of welcoming and including international students (yes, even those who aren’t actually taking classes there, like me). There are plenty of free on-campus events, groups that offer trips and tours around Chile, and even an exchange partner program to practice Spanish with a Chilean Student practicing their English. Even more, the University offers “talleres,” which are just like intramurals. Being a Hope Intramural Volleyball Champion two years running (yeah, it was the less- competitive league…), I was ready to bump, set, and spike it with some Chileans. However, it ended up that the only option that fit into my schedule was the rock-climbing class, so I signed up!

For those of you who are not climbers, let’s just say that my annual summer camp wall climb did not necessarily give me the “climbing experience” that some of the Chileans in my class presented. The two course instructors were professional climbers and had just gotten back from a 3-month climbing trip in Spain! However, most students in the class didn’t have any experience either, and on the first day of class, they equally struggled to find a pair of climbing shoes that didn’t turn their toes into pigeon feet.

Throughout the semester, I climbed every Tuesday and Thursday. Not only was it enjoyable to be active and learn a new sport that I would be able to take back to the States with me, but climbing is relaxing enough that you can engage in conversation while off the wall. Secondly, climbing is not a sport you can do on your own! While on the wall, taking route and learning to belay in Spanish was not easy, but it certainly progressed my listening skills! Lastly, this experience really connected me into a Chilean community. Friends that I met climbing invited me to come camping, celebrate Fiestas Patrias, and go out on the weekends together! Making a Chilean community was certainly not as cookie-cut as Playfair and ice breakers at Hope, but my climbing community invited me in as one of their own!

So, a piece of advice to all those who plan to study abroad, don’t let your friendships and community be confined to the classroom! Go out and try something new. The best people you can find are those who share your passions, and it is an organic connection point that really begins a friendship. Climb on!

Es una Broooma

I’m anticipating that when I get home, people will ask me what my favorite thing about Chile was. My answer for them will be this: the sound that Chileans make as they’re waiting for you to get their joke. It’s a very specific “aaaaah,” and it’s shared by basically everyone I’ve met! I love this particularity of their culture, and I appreciate that I’ve gotten to experience it on the daily.

Chileans have a remarkable sense of humor. They are always making jokes and teasing one another lightheartedly. My house, the church, and even my classes are absolutely full of laughter.

My two-year old brother loves to play pranks and poke fun at the rest of our family. He has a catch-phrase that he says all the time: “es una broma,” which means, “it’s a joke.” Or, with his cute baby-talk, it generally comes out more like “es una brooooooma.” I think it’s the cutest thing ever! Here’s a quick video:

The sense of humor is also present in their language. Chileans have added many words and phrases to the Spanish that I learned, which makes it their own unique dialect. As we say in my phonetics class, they speak chileno, not español.

Many of the “chilenismos” have to do with animals, which is pretty fun. For example, young men are called cabros (goats) and hacer una vaca (cow) is to raise money. Another one of my favorites is echarse el burro, which means to lose motivation to do something.

One thing Chileans do is call each other names. A lot are endearing nicknames–there’s the classic mi’jita (mi  hijita), cariño, or amor that even people in the grocery store will call you. There’s also modifications of your given name– I’ve gotten Moni, Mo, and Moquita. My friends are Isa Pizza and Juan Papa (to incorporate food). And also Chileans often use adjectives ironically, like feo (ugly) or gordito (fat). When I first heard my friend Rodrigo talking about his daughter, la gordita, I remember being shocked. But it’s actually a term of endearment, some light teasing. A reminder not to take everything people say completely seriously.

I tend to be an over-thinker and I value pondering deep life questions. But simply being in another culture has brought a lot of that to mind. So I’m thankful that I get the chance every day to laugh it off, take joy in relationships, and watch Camilo’s face light up when we fall for another one of his pranks.

What does it mean to be mujer?

Today I let myself cry about the gender inequality I see in our world. I felt a little silly sitting on a park bench with the tears streaming down my face, but I think this issue is something that needs to be recognized and deserves to be cried about.

My tears were spurred by an encounter I had with two older men as I was leaving my literature class. Just outside the university, one yelled at me, “Hola linda! You speak English? What is your name?” I ignored him and kept walking. However, that catcall seemed to give permission to the man beside me to start talking to me, also asking where I was from and telling me about his business. Despite my refusal to respond or even make eye contact, he kept pestering me until we reached a corner. There, I turned to avoid him and take a different route.

But why should I have to change my walk home from school? I should be able to feel safe on the streets. I was fuming and frustrated that those men had the power to make me feel so vulnerable and targeted.

The other problem with that encounter is that it wasn’t just a one-time, isolated thing. Catcalls happen to me almost daily here, and my foreign friends have experienced the same thing. In fact, I was coming from my literatura latinoamericana class, where we had just finished sharing our experiences of gender roles. To close the unit on feminist literature, my profesora asked us all to write down moments where we saw gender roles play out. The sad thing was, every person in the class had those experiences. We talked about guys acting aggressively in bars, male coworkers getting paid more than female counterparts, “mansplaining,” family members giving stereotypical gender-based gifts, and of course, the plethora of catcalling.

In Spanish, the things people yell are considered piropos, and the phenomena is generally called acoso callejero (street harassment). El machismo is how they describe this gender-unequal society, where men are over-masculinized and women are relegated to the home. They also have a word for crimes against women, los femicidios, where women are actually targeted for their gender.

While I’m frustrated that these are things that happen here, I’m glad there are words that describe this experience. I feel like in Chile, it’s something I can talk about and process freely. The other day I had a really good conversation about catcalling and gender roles with a male Chilean friend. He was so sympathetic and the first thing he wanted to do was tell his other guy friends about the things I’d experienced. That made me really happy because it’s something people are realizing needs to change.

Here, the conversation about feminism is happening. Perhaps because gender inequality is more evident. However, when it’s subtle, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Back home, women experience the same things, though often it’s disguised as something that’s normal.

Emma Watson said, “we think that we live in a post-feminist society, where we don’t need feminism anymore, but actually that’s really disconcerting.” There are a lot of things that happen to women that they blame on themselves because they don’t see the bigger narrative. We need feminism; we need to talk about the things that women experience that should not be normal.

That’s why I’m sharing my story. It’s frustrating that this encounter happened to me. I don’t think it should be normal, and I don’t think it’s right that all the time women feel targeted or unsafe like I did today. Hopefully, together we can create a society that affirms the dignity of all its members. The first step, though, is joining the conversation.

Here’s a photo of two women that I consider to be some of the most powerful Chilean women ever. On the right is our pastora, Oriana, who has had to face a lot of criticism being a female leader in the church. My host mom Rocío is on the left, and she is working on her doctorate in environmental law. I wrote an interview question for her the other day: “what is it like being mujer and abogada (lawyer)?” and it occurred to me that this would never be asked of a man, since they are assumed to dominate this career path and don’t have the same occupational challenges related to gender.