By Jared Allard
The city of Valparaíso is disorder—a profound confusion. The city raised itself out of the sea and haphazardly launched itself into its great cerros that jet up from the shore. Its streets betray you at every turn. You could walk an eternity through the curving streets and find yourself exactly where you began. The stairs lead to nowhere. Alleyways are entrances to mazes. The ascensores defy gravity. It is city of color and street art, but neither the words nor the murals provide a map. The hills are mountains in disguised. Climb and climb, but you will never see the top. The bumpy metro trains and buses surely must be operated by eight-armed drivers. A street vendor yells out to you, a group of pinguino students laughs behind you as they waddle down the street, a street dog is your constant companion. The noise and the masses and patchwork design all culminate in what one can only consider bohemian charm. Often, I found myself standing at one of the Valparaíso’s miradores overlooking the harbor and the shining sea. I knew I would miss this place but it hadn’t really sunk in yet. I’d whistle to a stray dog and walk home.
I learned the city’s name comes from the colonial era when the immigrants in Santiago, Chile’s great capitol, heard tales of a city of paradise on the sea. “Va al paraíso” became a common phrase, and, eventually, the people combined the words shortening it to Valparaíso. And now it’s often shortened to simply Valpo. It was a center for trade, government, and education. My university, La pontificia universidad católica de Valparaíso, was located there, and I lived in the neighboring city of Viña del Mar. It is a place with a more modern design, a resort town known for its music festival, flower clock, hotels, casino, and summer beaches. Both of these cities became my home. I walked their streets and learned some of their secrets.
But when I first arrived in Santiago in February, all that was a mystery to me—an unimaginable future reality. I remember boarding the plane in Atlanta not knowing exactly what to expect, only being sure that in nine hours I would be on another continent. So when the plane landed and we were released onto Chilean soil, it was an overwhelming feeling. Adventure was in the air as the Americans slowly gathered together at the baggage claim: “are you studying abroad?’ and “ISA Chile, right?” When all the bags were collected, we headed through customs—the first source of social anxiety. The customs agents spoke to us in Spanish so we were forced to explain, in Spanish, that we were no smuggling plant products into the country (a significant problem in Chile). On the other side of customs, we were greeted by my program director. In Chile, and in many parts of Latin America, the customary greeting is some form of kissing on the cheek, which is not the case in the US. In Chile, males and females and typically all females exchange a kiss on the cheek when greeting each other. This being said, I was not expecting the director of my program to kiss each of us on the cheek (and there were 52 of us!), but she did.
Standing in the airport in Santiago, I began to learn so much about the US as well. Yes, being abroad is about experiencing another culture and learning about a foreign country. However, travelling with people as diverse and interesting as the people in my program enlightened me to the fact that the US is a big place. At that point, little did I know how close I would get with these people and just how many adventures we would be involved with together.
We spent four crazy days and three nights in Santiago: touring, sightseeing and becoming educated on the Chilean culture and life. Then it was time to take the hour and a half bus ride to our new homes Viña or Valpo, and it was time to become part of a new family. This was the moment everyone had been talking about—one that we each had our concerns about. Just who were these people that were going to care for us? The landscape between Santiago and Viña provided a distraction from the emotions I was feeling. It was dry and arid and mountains lined the road. When everything turned greener and our bus crested one last hill, we saw the awe-inspiring sight of the city in the hills and a glimmering view of the vast Pacific Ocean.
Finally, the bus stopped and the director herded us into a room, and one by one they called us through the doorway. When it was my turn, my host mom came scurrying to get me. She was a complete stranger at that time, but she still hugged me and would not let me carry my suitcase. She was surprised by how much I could understand her Spanish, which made me wonder how it would have gone if I didn’t understand her at all. We piled into a car and headed to my new home. One of my favorite quotes of hers from the whole trip was something she said to me that day, translated to: “This car ride is like the birthing process. When we get to the house, I will have given birth to you as one of my sons.” From that moment on, I was her son.
I met the rest of the family. Viviana was my host mom, Encarnación was her mom, Gonzalo and Paulo were two of her five biological children, Mikey was an American living with them, and together we were a family. There would be later additions like Maite, a Chilean girl from La Serena who came to Viña for school, and Aaron, another guy from my program who moved into our house after some unforeseen circumstances. I never imagined the relationships I would build with these complete strangers. Staying up late talking and joking with my host brothers, spending an untold amount of time talking with my host mom about a myriad of strange topics, talking about the latest episode of the teleserie with the grandma, all became parts of my daily reality. I soon learned our house was a petri dish for languages, which lead to a mix of multi-lingual puns and the white tiles in the kitchen being covered in marker as messages in multiple different languages were written all over the walls.
I also had time to explore the rest of the country. We went to Pucón on the edge of Patagonia were I went whitewater rafting for the first time and solidified the bonds with my friends from the program. I have one particular memory of about 20 of us sitting in our cabin watching Titanic in Spanish. A month later, three friends and I trekked to Patagonia to the Nation Park of Torres del Paine. Here I saw sights that post cards could not do justice. I remember hiking between the mountains and feeling dwarfed by the natural beauty. We were guided by a park ranger Luis who we were very grateful to have met. He helped us see everything we wanted and more. We spent five, sunny days hiking and camping in the park, which for Patagonia is unusual. This was a cosmic trade-off, however, for when I trekked to Atacama—the driest desert in the world, supposedly. It rained twice, snowed, and sand stormed for two days. Even though much of the trip was spent inside the hostel, I can say I saw the Atacama Desert covered in 4cm of snow—something unseen for over 100 years.
When I wasn’t travelling the country or spending time with my host family, I was most likely in class. Chilean university is different from that in the US. To start with, the grading scale is on a 1-7 ranking. Secondly, you declare a career, not a major, and upon graduation you will be considered qualified for that career. A third difference is that they do cancel classes more often than we do in the US. Class was cancelled once because of a big earthquake in the north. We spent a night under tsunami warning, and many fled to higher ground. Even though no tsunami arrived, the universities were conscientious that many students had not been at home all night.
In April, a massive forest fire entered Valpo and ran through the upper sectors of the hills damaging thousands of homes and displacing many. The response was unbelievable. Everyday citizens went to the hills to clean the rubble. University organizers ended up cancelling class because they knew the majority of students were going to skip classes to help volunteer. My host university became a hub for volunteerism and food and clothing collection. I myself worked several days in different locations in the hills, clearing the rubble and passing out food, water, and other necessities. I’ll never forget standing atop a hill and looking down at the burnt and collapsed buildings below. But what will really stand out in my mind is the lines of volunteers hiking up carrying Chilean flags and supplies.
These are the things I miss now that I am back in the US: mountains, ocean and beaches, ships in the harbor, brightly painted buildings, street dogs, Chilean Spanish, kisses on the cheek, earthquakes, Chilean family and friends, friends from my program and everything that cannot be expressed in words alone. To conclude, I remember a museum that was near my school. It was an old, immobile train justly called “El tren más lento del mundo.” It was a museum that houses items washed up on the beach. Thinking back to it now, I connect with that place in a way. I feel like I washed up on the shore of Chile. I had no real direction; I had just arrived. But I found a place, a home, people to care for me, and truly unbelievable friends. I hope that one day soon I will be able to find myself in Chile. Yes, my body took a 9-hour plane ride home, but I know my heart is riding the World’s Slowest Train back to the US.