The Driest Place on Earth

I’m still trying to process all of the wonders that I experienced in the Atacama Desert.

Day 1: We arrived to our hostel and immediately went for a stroll through the small, desert town of San Pedro. The dirt roads are lined with companies offering tours to all of the attractions, ice cream shops, and rows and rows of small shops full of colorful, handmade souvenirs. We booked our tours for our 5-day trip, expectant of each place we would be able to visit.

Day 2: Tour of “Las Lagunas Escondidas”, the Hidden Lagoons. After about an hour and a half long drive into the middle of nowhere, with only sand dunes surrounding us, we arrived to the 7 magical hidden lagoons. Salt covered the surfaces around the lagoons, making it seem as if we were in the Arctic looking at snow and ice. We had the chance to swim in one of the lagoons, but it wasn’t a typical swim. This lagoon has such a high salt content that we were able to float. We relaxed in the lagoon as we escaped to cool down from the burning desert sun for awhile. It was a magical experience.

Day 3: Tour of “Piedras Rojas”, Red Rocks. A drive through the Atacama Desert with frequent stops at look-out points to observe lagoons and other beautiful and unique landscapes. This tour also included a stop to a salt flat with a special lagoon inhabited by three distinct species of flamingos. There are only 6 species in the entire world, and three of them live at this lagoon in Chile! We got to observe the elegant movements of the flamingos, although most of them were eating the entire time we were there (flamingos eat for 16 hours each day!). We learned that flamingos are actually born white/grey and only become pink due to their diet of shrimp and algae, which is high in carotenoid pigments and eventually change their color. Therefore, younger flamingos are practically entirely white/grey.

Day 4: During the day, we embarked on a self-guided tour to “Valle de la Luna”, Moon Valley. We biked a total of 18 miles to see the wonders that this place had to offer. A huge salt cave is the biggest attraction, and we wandered through and examined the crazy, intricate and unique formations of the salt particles in each part of this massive cave. Hiking ginormous sand dunes, more biking, and extreme sweat were also key parts of our journey.

In the evening we did an Astronomy Tour, because the Atacama Desert is the best place in the entire world for astronomy! Due to its extremely high elevation and its dryness (after all, it is the driest place on earth, with the exception of the poles), it is an ideal place to examine the huge night sky full of twinkling and flashing stars, and bright, steady planets. At one point, we were able to see three planets at the same time. It was the first time in my life that the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” had meaning for me. I am still in awe of the miraculous canvas that is our night sky.

Day 5: Tour of the “Tatio Geysers”. A 4 a.m wake up was necessary for our trip to the third-largest field of geysers in the entire world, and it was so worth it. We watched the sunrise through the steam of these powerful, yet gentle geysers. One of the geysers is usually inactive and sits as a calm geyser until the land underneath heats to a certain level and it explodes, shooting a fountain of steady water into the air for a few seconds, and then becoming calm again, preparing to explode a few minutes later. The final part of this day was spent in a natural hot spring, relaxing and warming up after an extremely cold morning in the high altitude of these Tatio Geysers.

Being in the Atacama Desert for five days reminded me of the importance of finding beauty in bare things that might not initially seem exciting- to search for the hidden gems and the flowing water buried deep within the dry sand dunes of the desert — because the beauty does exist and it is pretty miraculous.

Ministerio de Fe

Chile. Venezuela. United States. Peru. Mexico. Dominican Republic. Haiti. Japan. China. El Salvador. Brazil. Spain. Argentina. All of these countries are represented in my church in Valparaíso. It is a Protestant Christian church that truly makes me feel right at home. It has been a wonderful way to make Chilean friends and always have people to turn to when I face the common struggles that come with studying in a foreign country. The people of my church have welcomed me with so much love and support and have truly shaped my semester in Chile.

The diversity within the congregation of Ministerio de Fe is something that I appreciate and value so deeply. Recently, our church organized an intercultural reunion where we focused on praying for the nations and getting a taste of new cultures. When I say taste, I mean taste. Every country created a stand where they decorated, dressed in the typical clothing of the country, and prepared and served traditional foods. After the service, all of the booths opened and the entire congregation could walk around our sanctuary and get a small idea of new cultures and begin to appreciate how distinct and special each one truly is.

I obviously represented the United States. My friend, Katrina, and I proudly wore our flannels, braids, and boots while we served our traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Coke floats (they don’t have root beer here, so Coke had to do). We decorated with red, white, and blue, and tried to give people a tiny glace into our culture.

I was also asked to pray for Mexico, Peru, and the United States. I was able to stand in front of my entire congregation and pray in a foreign language for the deep needs of countries nearby. It was nerve-wracking and I wanted to turn down the opportunity, but at the end, it felt so good, broke so many fears that I had, gave me confidence in my Spanish, and stretched me more than I had imagined.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/299857461

Being a part of a church here in Valparaíso has blessed me tremendously and helps me to better understand Chilean culture as a whole. I have been able to form deep relationships with Chileans, but also with people that come from all over the world. I have been stretched to use my Spanish at all times and to engage with people that come from cultures very different than my own. Diversity is such a beautiful thing and I am so thankful that I get to contribute to the diversity of Ministerio de Fe. There’s not many things better than being welcomed with love into a new community, and having the chance to learn and teach at the same time.

Must’ve Been a Fairytale

A magical place. Massive green trees and extremely colorful flowers. A stone path leading to every building. Wooden cabins adorned with fire places and jacuzzis. The constant aroma of a campfire.

Our Cabin!

My program, CIEE, planned a trip for us to Pucón (I prefer to call it “Fairytale Town”) where we had the privilege to stay at a charming campsite just outside the city. Our first day there, we visited a Mapuche community (the indigenous people of Chile) and spent the day learning about the their simple lifestyle, their vision of the cosmos, and their deification of nature. The Mapuche women prepared a massive bonfire for us, a common tradition practiced with guests, inside one of their very important buildings. We listened as they shared about their culture and religious beliefs, which seem to be intertwined with each and every part of their daily lives. The experience was incredibly interesting and, as Chile’s roots lie in the Mapuche community, it helped us further value and understand the country, and its indigenous people, as a whole.

Mapuche Community!

On our second day in Pucón, we embarked on a tour of various lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and nature reserves. The most fascinating part of this day, for many reasons, was the Mapocho River. It’s original Mapuche name is Mapu chuco, which means water that penetrates the land. With aggressive rapids and water as clear as glass, this unique river flows in the opposite direction of every other river in Chile. We also toured the Futaleufú River, one of the premier whitewater rivers in the world, where I fulfilled a dream of mine that I will discuss later. It is fed by glacial snow and is often referred to as “a landscape painted by God”. The source of this turquoise river is located across the border in Argentina, but nearly the entire river runs through Chilean land. For years, the two countries have debated about which country owns the river. It once belonged to the Chileans, backed by the argument that it runs primarily through their land and ends in a lake on their side, but it now belongs to the Argentinians because the river’s source is within the borders of their land. (I’m going to be honest, I’m still trying to decide if it is fully valid to say that I was in Argentina because I entered the river… I think I’ll say yes).

In the Futaleufú River, I fulfilled a dream of mine… I went white water rafting! It was exhilarating, terrifying, freezing, and life-changing all at the same time. Despite the freezing rain that decided to make a guest appearance on our journey, it was an unforgettable afternoon. I was slightly nervous due to the fact that all safety procedures were given in Spanish, and I was almost positive that at least one person in my group didn’t understand some crucial part of the explanation. However, no one fell out of the raft, no paddles were lost, and no instances of getting stuck between rocks or trees occurred. We did run into approximately four large rocks and had to assume our emergency position, all the while hoping we wouldn’t die, twice… Yet, we conquered the challenge and it felt incredible. Now I can say that I went rafting in an extremely beautiful and clear river, with powerfully strong rapids, flowing in the opposite direction of all other rivers, located in Chile but belonging to Argentina… I’d say that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

As I said, the trip was magical. Even strolling through Pucón was enchanting. We walked streets full of large ice cream shops and vendors selling handmade crafts. We observed families congregated at the lake with their sweet treats in hand. We saw wooden street signs bearing images of volcanoes and gazed at the city’s backdrop of snowy mountains. As the sun shone down and the scent of bonfire lingered, I couldn’t help but question if I was dreaming. I could live in Pucón, without a doubt. Who knows? Maybe I will…

Lo Logramos!

Four hours up and five hours down…

An exhaustingly magnificent hike up La Campana, a beautiful mountain situated 2000 meters above sea level.

The guides say that it takes the average person 5 hours to reach the top, so why did it only take us 4? Well, please, let me explain.

Our incredibly exhausting journey began at 10:00 in the morning when we started to hike. They notified us that the first part, 3.2 miles, should take about two and a half hours to complete, but then they broke the news… “You must arrive to La Mina, the end of part one, before 12:00 p.m if you would like to continue and trek to the top”. They wished us luck, chuckled, and we doubtfully began our journey.

  

Here’s the thing. They say that the first part is the “easy” part, so when we were dying on our way to La Mina, we had no idea what was waiting for us on the second “actually hard” part. My legs began to feel like they were on fire as I took step after step, up the “easy” steep hills of dirt and jumped over the occasional large rocks blocking my path.

The “easy” part

There was no stopping us. We had our minds set on getting to the top, so we only had one choice – we were going to do this two and half hour “easy” part of the hike in two hours. No problem at all. With essentially no rest breaks, little time to chat, and no opportunities to eat, we made our way to La Mina! And guess what time we arrived?

11:57 a.m.!

Three whole minutes to spare.

We were so proud of ourselves and so excited to sit, rest, breathe, drink some water, and eat a snack… but then came the next messenger of bad news (the park guards) to tell us that if we wanted to go to the top, we had to depart in that very moment. He also let us know that it typically takes two and a half hours to conquer this part, 1.25 miles, however we must begin to descend at 2:00 p.m, regardless of whether or not we make it to the top. So what did we do? We took one look at each other and in unison shouted “Vamos!” and we continued on. I looked up and began to tremble in fear, unsure of how I would ever make it to the top. The activity quickly changed from hiking to full on rock climbing, arms and all, folks.

We continued on.

Jumping onto huge rocks and pulling our entire body weight up with our arms. Dripping with enough sweat to fill a bathtub. Balancing with our arms out like an eagle. Laughing every few seconds at how impossible the task in front of us seemed. But we persevered.

After what I thought was a broken ankle, many tears, a ton of laughter, loads of sweat, a bit of frustration, and a whole lot of perseverance, together, fashionably late (Chilean style), at 2:05 p.m we arrived at the tippy top of this 2000-meter mountain. I was greeted with an astounding panoramic view of the ginormous Andes Mountains and the glistening Pacific Ocean. I was speechless – partially because I could no longer breathe, and partially because the view I was soaking in was truly astonishing and overwhelming.

Lo logramos! (We did it!) and it was definitely worth the blood, sweat, and tears (there surprisingly wasn’t actually any blood, but sweat and tears just doesn’t sound as good). I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the beauty of this country, and my view from the top of La Campana really helped me to do just that.  Viva Chile!

 

Fiestas Patrias in Chile!

 

“What are your plans for the 18th?” “Are you ready for the 18th?” “I’m so excited for the 18th!”

People were exploding with excitement about THE 18th as I sat in confusion. All I thought was, “Can someone please clarify what in the world THE 18th is?”

Very quickly I was able to understand all of these phrases being thrown around among crowds of Chileans and the meaning of THE 18th.

During the week of September 18th, the streets of Valparaíso explode with Chilean flags, people dancing La Cueca (the national dance of Chile), massive amounts of grilled meat (“Asados”), and so much joy, as Chile celebrates its independence (similar to the 4th of July in the United States). However, it is not just a one-day celebration; rather the entire week is considered a holiday and everything closes, giving everyone the chance to celebrate. It is clearly known by every Chilean that THE 18th refers to the 18th of September, regardless of what time of year you mention the 18th.  And I was blessed enough to experience THE 18th for myself.

“Fondas” or “Ramadas” (essentially what we know as fairs, but with way more food and way more people) take place every day of the week, and every hour of every day. There are rides, games, drinks, food, and hand-made crafts covering every centimeter of the space that has been designated for this crazy celebration. The micros (the city transportation) fill with people at every hour of every day hustling to these celebrations to simply enjoy time with family and friends, and of course, to dance La Cueca.

La Cueca is another sign that “fiestas patrias” (the week of celebration) has arrived. There is an insane amount of Cueca music being played in every place in Chile, as people dance the night away… and the day… because it’s really always a good time to dance La Cueca. All celebrations will incorporate some designated time and space to participate in this dance. I had the opportunity to learn La Cueca and participate in the Chilean celebration through this form of dance (which by the way, I did not do very well, because I wouldn’t consider myself a dancer haha). However, I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity to learn about and try to understand the Chilean culture and appreciate the things that they value and that are unique to them.

The smell of “asado” fills the air on every street of the city as families, friends, schools, churches, and any and every person gather in small groups to enjoy massive amounts of deliciously grilled meat. “Asados” are an important part of this week in Chile, as they create space for Chileans to converse, share, and enjoy time together.

The 18th will always have a deeper significance for me after this week in Chile, and for that I am very grateful! Viva Chile!

Fun fact about the 18th and 19th in Chile: There is a law that states that every house, business, and building must clearly hang the Chilean flag outside during these two days, and if they don’t, they can be fined. Chile takes this celebration very seriously and wants every person to take part and be involved.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Faithful friends. Furry animals. Fluorescent sun. Fearless snakes. Fierce lions. Fascinating toucans. A day spent at “Parque Safari” filled with new adventures and unforgettable moments.

The adventures of the day began with our first Safari where we piled onto what seemed to be an army truck – a truck with cages surrounding us completely. We had the opportunity to enter the home of many roaming lions, hungry after a long night without food. We drove into the exhibit and immediately, chink, thump, clatter.We looked up to see the paws of a heavy lion taking large and powerful steps on top of the cage of the truck. The guide was holding what seemed to be full, raw 18-ounce ribeye steaks for the lion to devour. We got to examine the detail of its paws, feel its fuzzy fur, and watch him roar. It was quite the up close and personal experience, and it was incredible to learn about this large and beautiful animal.

For our second Safari we rode in a trailer that was open and had feeding troughs on the sides, filled with grains for the animals to eat. We entered into the next exhibit and had the opportunity to pet, feed, and even kiss zebras, sheep, deer, giraffes, donkeys, cebraznos, and some other unidentifiable creatures, all while trying to avoid the angry spit of the jealous llamas (Don’t worry, we didn’t kiss the llamas!)

Great question. A cebrazno is a mix between a donkey and a zebra — strange, right? There are only cebraznos left in the entire world and two of them happen to reside in this safari in Chile, and I had the opportunity to feed and pet them. It was truly a magical experience.

Cebrazno!

The day was filled with many other adventurous moments. I had the opportunity to hold a beautiful toucan that was rescued from an abusive situation and is now the biggest and best photo opportunity in all of “Parque Safari”. I was also able to swallow my fear and let a giant snake wrap around my neck and arms. Although I was a bit terrified, it was awesome to feel its skin and hang out with him for a few minutes! Haha.

My close Chilean friend, Isa, and I also went kayaking in a small pond type thing where there were ducks swimming around us and the donkeys, zebras, sheep, and cebraznos were nearby wandering and watching us go in circles. It was a time full of smiles, laughter, and so much joy.

We concluded our time at “Parque Safari” by eating a famous anticucho, which is essentially a Chilean Shish Kabob, filled with only meat. We loaded onto our bus and began our 3-hour bus ride back to Valparaíso, telling stories and laughing about our day the whole way home.

Anticuchos!

 

 

Food, Food, and More Food.

Chileans not only eat a variety of different meals than we eat in the United States, they also have a slightly different meal schedule. A day in Chilean life still calls for three complete meals; however, lunch is to be the largest meal of the day – and I mean very, very large. Lunch is typically the only meal during which meat is served, making it an exciting time of the day for someone who loves meat as much as I do! In most traditional Chilean households, the mom only cooks one meal a day, normally lunch, served at 2 or 3 o’clock. This clearly leaves a pretty large gap of time between breakfast, which is eaten around 8 o’clock in the morning, and the afternoon meal. And no, snacking is not really a habit here in Chile, meaning you patiently wait until lunchtime to eat.

Meals are almost always served and eaten with the entire family present, with lunch lasting anytime between one and three hours. Families value this time together, seeing it as an excellent opportunity to share about their days and enjoy one another’s company. Coming from the U.S., this was quite the adjustment for me, as I had become accustomed to quick meals in Phelps or in fast food drive-throughs! Although a challenge at first, lunch is now one of my favorite periods of the day. I truly value this time with my wonderful host family.

Breakfast in Chile usually consists of tea or coffee, hot bread with jelly, sweet fruit, and, occasionally, eggs. However, every once in a while, you may be served a sandwich or salad for breakfast. Although I find it normal to eat certain foods at certain times, Chileans do not seem to feel the same; any food is fair game for any meal. Yet, a typical dinner happens to be almost identical to a typical breakfast: some type of bread with some type of topping (whether it be jelly again or chicken-flavored spread), veggies, and tea. An unreal amount of bread is served and consumed in Chile. Chileans view bread just as I know Mexicans view tortillas… like precious gold.

Two staple meals unique to Chilean culture are empanadas and chorrillana. Empanadas are large masa (dough) pockets, deep-fried and stuffed to the brim with an assortment of cheese, meat, veggies, olives, and many other ingredients, served to your liking. Buying empanadas on the street is a regular practice here in Chile, and they are extremely cheap! Empanadas are a must for anyone visiting this beautiful country.

Of all the meals I have been served thus far, chorrillana is my personal favorite and my new obsession. Essentially, it is a massive pile of salty French fries loaded with glorious goodness. The fries are topped with juicy strips of beef, salchicha (they say it’s sausage, but I am 99% sure it’s just chopped up hot dogs), onions, and scrambled eggs. As if that weren’t delicious enough, chorrillana is always paired with mayo. Chileans value mayo like Americans value ranch, so I’ve learned that mayo can and does go well with absolutely everything. EVERYTHING.

EMPANADAS!
CHORRILLANA!

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.