In Spanish class we learned that the way to say goodbye is “Adios!” At least in Chile, though, that’s not how you do it. Everyone says “Chao!” as goodbye, and it’s accompanied by a kiss on the cheek, maybe a hug, cuídate, nos vemos!
Despedirse is something you do every time you leave a social gathering. And it’s required for everyone there. You have to go around the room and say goodbye to all the people you’re with before it’s okay to leave.
At the beginning of my time in Chile, this was really uncomfortable for me, because I wasn’t sure how to insert myself in someone’s conversation to say goodbye. I always felt like I was interrupting something. Or that I was holding up my family from leaving. The truth is, though, that they’re never in a hurry, and the cultural value of acknowledging others trumps the extra inconvenience.
For me, this shift in cultural values requires extra effort, and to be honest I’m still not the best at the practice of despedirse, but that’s something I want to keep working on until I have to leave.
The end of my study abroad program is coming up just on the horizon. We have a month and a week before we all part ways. I’m anticipating that this goodbye will be very difficult.
In my time here I have made a lot of wonderful friends. Both my amigos gringos and amigos chilenos have made a remarkable impact on me. I have been greeted with such kindness, invited into a new family, and accepted for who I am. I can share my heart and soul with the people I have met here, and for that I am so grateful.
IES Santiago offers a clinical observations program for future healthcare professionals. We explore the Chilean healthcare system by observing medical professionals in private and public hospitals, clinics, and health centers all around Santiago. Yesterday I observed in the neurology unit in Hospital Sótero del Río, a public hospital that provides care to 10% of Chile’s entire population! Here is one of the most impactful experiences that I have had thus far from the this week’s clinical observations:
It was a moment where the language barrier didn’t matter. It was as if the entire world stopped, even just for that split second in time. The regulated beeping of machines continued and brought me back into the reality of the present moment.
“Se falleció,” the nurse shared. I hadn’t even heard of that verb before, but the shared response of the hospital room was enough to know. Their faces dropped– every patient, kinesiologist, therapist, doctor, nurse, tech, and visitor. My own heart sunk, too, and it was a strange feeling. I had seen the patient in a coma just minutes before the news broke. I had no connection to her nor to her family. I didn’t even know the state of her condition and, yet, I could still feel the pain. It was a purely human moment.
The therapy sessions progressed, the conversations continued, and life at Hospital Sótero del Río went on, as it always does. I briefly departed my current observation to confirm what I thought was the situation. I went next door to the room of 6 neurology patients to find the loved ones of the deceased woman grasping onto her in the hospital bed, still so close and yet so far from her last breath. The nurses, tears in their eyes, continued their routine duties in preparation for the next patient to take her very place in the already-crowded room.
It felt so human. As future health professionals, we talk a lot about how to separate our feelings from our jobs and how to not bring our work home with us. We will evidently become a bit desensitized to the looks and groans of agonizing pain of our patients, even the sight of death of a patient whose life we have fought and cared for. In this moment, however, I don’t believe the nurses or doctors were worried about hiding their sadness or avoiding the emotions that were provoked. Instead, I saw sympathy and understanding. I saw gentle looks exchanged between medical personnel and the loved ones of the woman. I heard the booming noise of silence that resulted from a lack of any words that could have possibly alleviated the pain of the situation.
I, too, felt helpless. Even if I had the words in Spanish, I wouldn’t have been able to convey them in a way that could have helped anyone. There was no easy fix. Death is a reality of life, but it was a beautiful moment of unity and humanity that exists apart from language or culture. It was simply an aspect of “ser humano” (being human).
On Saturday I found myself eating tiny coconuts and sipping water from tiny shoe-shaped flowers. It was like a miniature tea party!
In fact, one of my favorite memories from childhood was the tiny tea-set that my sister and I shared. Even for 10-year-old fingers, it was teensy. And we would always drink tap water and eat baby goldfish. At that point in my life, real tea was a very grown-up concept.
Now, thanks to my roommate Sav, who introduced me to this drink and the constant presence of tea at our evening meals in Chile, I’m addicted. And a warm cup of tea was exactly what I was craving after Saturday’s adventures.
Let me back up.
On Saturday, my study abroad program took an excursion to La Campana National Park. It’s a magical place just a bus ride away from Valparaiso, where the ecosystem changes suddenly to remind me of Jurassic times.
Doesn’t it seem like dinosaurs would live here? I kept expecting a pterodactyl to come swooping by. This mix of vegetation has been here for hundreds of thousands of years, and the palm trees, or palmeras, are a species unique to Chile. Their presence here has to do with the microclimate in the national park, which receives a lot of rain.
I learned all these things from our tour guides, who were an incredible source of knowledge about the national park. They pointed out tons of wildlife, patiently answering all my questions about rocks and woodpecker species.
The part about the rain, though, I picked up on pretty fast. It was raining all day, starting just after we unloaded the bus in the parking lot. By the time we got back, about 5 hours later, we were slipping and sliding down the muddy hills.
On the plus side, the rain made the waterfall that we went to see absolutely gorgeous! Our guides noted that there was more water rushing down it than they had ever seen.
The rain also allowed us to see some more secretive birds, a tarantula, and flowers that would have closed up otherwise. These adorable bell-shaped yellow flowers generally last about a day, but with the rain, they were filled up to the brim. And they were the perfect shape to take a little sip out of!
The tiny coconuts that made up the other half of my tea party were from the Chilean palmera. They’re about the size of a quarter. Our tour guide found one on the ground and split it open with a rock. They don’t have water inside, but the fleshy white part tastes just like any other coconut!
Overall, I had a wonderful time in the land of the dinosaurs! Despite the rain and the cold, it was an amazing place to visit. And on the way back, we stopped at an authentic Chilean restaurant to warm up with a cazuela (a typical brothy soup) and, of course, some tea.
School is different here. For example, my art class today was a field trip to the south of Chile. We spent about 9 hours in train, and 3 in bus so we could appreciate a mural painted in the small town of Chillán.
We weren’t allowed to take photos of the mural we went to visit, but here’s one from outside the library where it was located.
I went with my 5-person class, made up of students from 4 different countries. Funnily enough, none of them are Chilean. Apparently the exchange students are more interested in learning about Chilean art than they are.
Regardless, the topic of education came up while we were waiting for the train. I was very curious; “como es la educación en tu país?” (What is school like in your country?)
I learned that in Ireland, computer science students learn at a slower pace than their Chilean counterparts. In Colombia, few scholarships are available, and most majors last 5 years. In Mexico, community service and internships are required for all degrees.
One thing we all agreed on is that school is different here. For me, one of the biggest changes to get used to has been their grading system. In Chile, they use a scale from 1-7, with a 4 being a passing grade. Most students strive for 4’s, rather than 7’s, which are rarely handed out.
This is not the same as our inflated grading system in the United States. A 4.0 GPA is the ideal back home, and was achieved by at least 15% of my high school class. The GPA is also an important measure in terms of deciding a student’s future. However, here, the important thing is that you get a degree. Employers don’t care much about the grades you get in school, just that you pass.
This leads to highly different cultural attitudes about school. At Hope, which is admittedly more academically rigorous, there’s a fixation on the exact number you are given and a competition to out-perform other students. In Chile, though, there’s a relaxed nature about school, and much less of a student’s identity is wrapped up in their performance.
This is also likely related to the fact that most Chilean university students still live at home. They participate a lot in family life. Though they are less independent, they often have responsibilities that have nothing to do with their schoolwork. My classmates have to run errands to buy things for their parents or pay the bills. This is something I never have encountered with American classmates, but I think it helps create a balance in life where school isn’t all-consuming.
There are other differences, like the way professors communicate, the structure (and sometimes lack of structure) of classes, and the frequency with which my classes meet. Now that I’m about half-way through my semester, I think I’m adjusted to this Chilean version of school. And I like it a lot.
I’ve had fun opportunities to travel; I’m working in groups with Chilean students; we visited the aquarium for marine biology; I crushed my first big exam; I got a compliment on my Spanish after a nerve-wracking presentation. All these things and more are what make studying abroad totally worth it!
It’s been just over two months since I arrived here in Santiago. Although things still feel new, exciting, and sometimes terrifying each and every day, I also realize that I have found comfort and routine living in the city.
Lots of these realizations have come as I packed up my belongings into a bag, yet again! A few weeks ago my host mom and I moved into a new apartment. Here is my ode of to my initial haven of safety and familiarity, my apartment in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento:
As I walk home from a day of classes at IES, I tap the “forward” button on Spotify, still jamming to my American folk/indie pop faves from the States. Judah & the Lion drown out the sounds of the city and the route home has become muscle memory. I approach the gate to Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the gate is opened for me, I am no longer a stranger here.
I approach building E and smoothly open the door, scoffing to myself in memories of the first few days of rumbling through my ring of 7 keys and having to call my host mom on my prepaid flip phone to open up the door.
I slip off my shoes and right into my slippers, give a “besito” to my mom, and flip on the kettle to warm up with my favorite (and classically Chilean) Ceylon tea.
I plug in my space heater and warm up within my 7 layers of blankets (thanks, ma!). The Chilean winter no longer bothers me, and I have newfound joy in cuddling into my safe little space.
To the apartment where I first found calamity in the shock of big city life, thank you for your quaintness that forced me into growing conversation and active listening. I am refreshed by the simplicity of limited space and belongings — my dresser and closet fit exactly what I needed and no more. Thank you for the peaceful escape I experienced after walking through your doors, especially after the long days of Chilenismos and a frustratingly small Spanish vocabulary. Thank you for a place to call my own in a city full of people that know I don’t belong.
Here’s to you, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, you were good to me!
Los poetas odiamos el odio y hacemos guerra a la guerra — Pablo Neruda
“Pablo Neruda es un Gran Chileno,” our history professor told us. Looking at his life and his world, I’m convinced. Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet, writer, politician, and professor, but what Chileans love most about him, I think, is his personality.
He was a collector of many things, with a lot of personality quirks. For example, he always wrote in green ink pens, and he had a train relocated to his front yard.
So far, I have visited two of his houses (there were three) and have been very impressed by his whimsical style. I’m inspired by his fun approach to life, and his belief that “la risa es el lenguaje del alma,” or “laughter is the language of the soul.” Honestly, this makes sense coming from a poet who wrote odes to kitchen objects and various fruits.
I’ve been working on a few Neruda-inspired poems this semester that I wanted to share with you. I’m generally nervous about sharing my poetry, but I’m also reminded by Neruda not to take myself so seriously. 🙂 Ok, here it goes:
Laughter is sweet
Like that first crunch of empanada dough,
An easy way to break through the initial awkwardness
Is there a national dance in the US? No, claro, los gringos aren’t very good at dancing.
This was my excuse this weekend when I was asked that question. But the truth is, Chileans aren’t always good at dancing either. It doesn’t stop them from trying, though.
Chile’s national dance, called the cueca, is an obligatory part of every fiestas patrias celebration. For five days, the entire country gets excited about their national traditions. People dress up as huasos and chinitas, eat a lot of empanadas and choripán, and drink a lot of wine. This weekend, I went to a lot of parties where the cueca was danced.
This unique Chilean dance tells the story of the conquest of a woman. It’s danced in parejas, a boy and a girl. At first, the girl acts shy. They circle around each other, coming near and turning away. The guy is supposed to follow her around and stomp near her feet. Finally, at the end of the dance, he sticks out his arm to ask for another. Most times, the girl hooks his arm in his and the audience applauds. I learned that if she wants, though, she can throw her pañuelo on the ground and walk away.
The pañuelos are an important component of the cueca. They are little handkerchiefs that the dancers have to hold in their hands and twirl around. I made sure to have my pañuelo before the festivities began, but Chileans aren’t always that prepared. They improvise pañuelos all the time. It could be a napkin, a scarf, maybe some toilet paper.
In the end, it makes for a pretty unique spectacle. I love watching the Chileans stomp around, twirling their mismatched pañuelos and getting into the character of the dance.
Ask me to dance, though, and I’m a little more hesitant.