Wow as you’re reading this, I’ve landed in Chile and have been here for a few weeks. While details about flights will be brief, more important is what I took away from this experience. My itinerary for the day was a two-hour flight from Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD) to J. F. Kennedy Airport (JFK). A brief layover, then a 10-hour flight to Santiago Chile Airport (SCL). My flight from JFK to SCL was a red eye and I would land at 6 am the following day. I love flying and was really looking forward to the trip.
At 9 am, my mom, sister, boyfriend, and I got on the road for ORD. I enjoyed the three-hour car ride together but saying goodbye was much harder than expected. Honestly, all the excitement and confidence I had been feeling for the past few months disappeared as we pulled up to the airport. After saying goodbye and passing security, I was alone for the first time. As I stood watching planes land and take off from my gate, I had a shocking thought: what if I canceled my trip? “You could,” I thought to myself, “Mom’s still probably close by, no one would blame you for changing your mind.” Doubt settled in as I began arguing with myself: “Are you willing to throw away months of preparation? How embarrassing. How disappointing.” At that moment I felt something deeper than doubt, all my fears and anxieties hit me at once. I began to panic. In desperation, I did the only thing that ever truly brings me comfort. “God is with me,” I repeated in my mind. Although the fear didn’t disappear, I grasped onto the sliver of peace I encounter each time I call his name. It was enough to get me moving. I took a deep breath and boarded the plane to JFK. “God is with me.” In less than two hours, we landed smoothly in The Big Apple.
By this time, the realization that I was leaving the US was settling in. Throughout the airport, I heard quick conversations in Spanish, Italian, and French. One of the reasons for this trip was to improve my conversational and comprehensive Spanish skills. In anticipation of this trip, I translated nearly every aspect of my life into Spanish. I was looking forward to immersing myself in the language and culture, but when I reached my connecting gate, I was extremely frustrated and humbled to find that I couldn’t form a comprehensible sentence. I had been so confident in my Spanish before we left, reading books and listening to podcasts in Spanish. Even so, traveling in a different language challenged everything I thought I knew and prepared for in the months before. Things I had forgotten to consider like reading signs, listening to instructions, gate numbers, and flight changes take a bit more attention and energy when they’re in another language. To say the least, I was exhausted. I was looking forward to taking a long nap on the plane.
I made it to my gate in time to board and stuffed my overflowing backpack into the overhead bin before squeezing into the middle seat. I scrolled through the personal tablet to choose a movie, then decided to rest instead. I sat in my chair, eyes closed, for what felt like hours only to realize we hadn’t taken off yet. My mind was buzzing. Even though I couldn’t keep my eyes open, sleep evaded me. “God is with me.” Again I repeated the words in my head until I drifted into sleep. I was awoken only three times, twice for meals from the stewardess and once for my bladder. I mumbled the basic “si” or “no” every once in a while but for the most part, I was a silent observer. When I did try to speak, my tongue was heavy.
Right on schedule, we landed at 6 am and I was extremely hungry. I jumped onto the airport WIFI to update my family I had arrived safely and gave a heads up to my host mother that I would be arriving soon.
After shuffling through customs and a flustering conversation with the border police about why I didn’t have my student visa, I was approved to enter Chile! I felt a bit more confident as I walked through the gates and thought to myself “maybe I can do this”… until a security dog jumped on my backpack. “¡Ven aca!” called the security guard and I hope my mask hid part of my horrified expression. “God is with me.” The officer led me to a separate area and began rummaging through my bag. The culprit: two mandarin oranges and a handful of carrots. Whoops, remember when I said I’d share with you my humbling moments? Yup, this was one of them.
This was yet another frustrating encounter with my limited Spanish. The officer had asked me basic questions like: “Can I look through your bag?”, “Are there any weapons in here?”, and “You can’t enter with these.” Only, I was too mortified to answer. He threw away my food and said I was free to go. I clumsily stuffed my things back into my bag and hurried to the exit.
By this time, a classmate I ran into as I was exiting my plane had made it through customs as well. Together, we found our IES guide and a few more classmates. Although it was our first time meeting in person, I was glad to see at least a few familiar faces. When we exited the airport, it was 8 am. Phew, nearly 24 hours of travel, but I had made it!
Thankfully my flights went smoothly and I am now safe in Chile, but wow, what a rollercoaster of emotions. After so many embarrassing and discouraging encounters with my Spanish in one day, I have to remind myself it’s a learning process. I know there will by many more in the months to come and I’m trying to have grace. While it’s humbling to admit, I have a greater appreciation for the people that navigate through life in an unfamiliar language each day. Each moment I am learning something new, stay tuned to hear how my first week of orientation and homestay went!