Monday, July 1, 2013

373 Days

On June 23rd 2012 I said goodbye to my family, friends, and country for my year in Chile. I remember landing in Santiago feeling in a daze, just going through customs and finding a shuttle to get into the city. From that day on there was never a dull experience...
It is a bit overwhelming to think about all that can happen in a year when you put yourself into a completely new setting. Your adjust your comfort zone if you step out of it enough times. There was certainly a lot of stepping out first semester. For one thing navigating a spanish speaking country, even more a country where the spanish is so unique that they dubb it "Chileno" is a frustrating yet ultimately rewarding challenge. I will never forget  one of the first meals with my host family when my host mom asked if I wanted marrow and I was completely lost as to what that was until she enunciated máS arroZ (more rice)...for a while it was moments like this that left me frustrated with Chilean spanish. With time I've come to really enjoy it...the "po" splashed at the end of some words, the funny slang, and the constant swallowing of consonants. Some Chileans will tell you they speak terribly, but I beg to differ. I'm proud to say I speak "Chileno." Another experience was finding a new group of friends, something I hadn't had to do since freshmen year of college. I found comfort in the forty or so people in my study abroad group, and a handful of them I got really close to. Through our travels throughout Chile and random adventures in Santiago we bonded. And travel I did...I had the amazing opportunity to see much of what Chile has to offer. I have literally explored Chile north to south, from Arica to Punta Arenas.
In between semesters I was lucky enough to have three of my family members visit. My sister and I shared an unforgettable adventure in Peru and a once in a lifetime experience Couchsurfing in  Valparaiso for New Years. With my Dad, I was able to experience the beauty of Torres del Paine National Park on a ten-day trek. Finally, my Mom came and although our time together was only a week we shared just as many memories as the other visits. I was able to introduce her to my Chilean family I met in Maintencillo doing help exchange. When I lived with this family my spanish skills did not only improve drastically compared to the semester before (2 weeks of pure spanish does wonders), but I formed a bond with them that will last a lifetime.
Second semester brought a new, yet rewarding set of challenges. Many of the friends I made in my program had left after one semester. This forced me to obtain a new level of independence I had not achieved the previous semester. I moved out of my homestay and found a house to share with other international students, which gave me the opportunity to connect with both people outside of my country and Chile. I also got more involved in my host university by joining the Activities Commission of a volunteer organization I had participated in over summer. For the first time I was the only foreigner in a room full of Chileans, something that I had never truly experienced first semester.
I want to finish this post by answering the two most common questions I have been asked here. First, many Chileans will ask me "Viniste sola? (Did you come alone?)" I find myself answering that question with a "yes...but" and soon I launch into an explanation that although I technically came alone, that solitarily was quickly erased.I have made friendships, some lasting and perhaps some not but both worth making. Even the strangers I come across briefly can bring comfort, such as the elderly man who walked me to where I needed to go one of my first days in Chile as I navigated the streets of Santiago in a panic. So maybe I didn't have the comfort of family and friends I had been with for years, but there was never a moment I felt alone. It just goes to show no matter where you are in the world there are more people looking out for you than you think. And that becomes the answer to the other big question... "Por qué Chile? (Why Chile?)." Of course I had the prepared response of bettering my spanish, experiencing a new culture,etc. That's a given. But the true response is the fact that I have made important connections in a foreign environment heightens their significance. I have had to overcome language barriers,cultural mishaps, and reconsiderations of my personal values. In the end I leave calling Chile my second home.
See you July 3rd La Crescenta! Y Chile...¡nos vemos más pronto que tarde!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Proyecta UC Round 2-Las Palmas!

Hello All,
I wanted to give an update on what has to have been one of my best weekends in Chile. This past Monday and Tuesday were holidays, so I obviously wanted to take advantage of the break! Back in summertime I did a volunteer project through my host university. I enjoyed it so much that I signed up for the fall project as well. It was half the number of days, however it was just as if not more fun and rewarding.
We were sent to a region about 2 hours south of Santiago called Pichidegua, and the town for our group of ten within this region was called Las Palmas (the palms). We ended up getting in Friday night close to midnight, but the president of the town was still happily waiting for us to give us the key to the house we stayed in. It was very closed quarters for a group of ten, but at least it had running water (wasn't so lucky with this in summer...the well had dried up).
The next few days were busy, but amazing. We ended up constructing a small play set, soccer goals, and a few benches in the plaza. Within five minutes of beginning construction people from the community came from all corners to help us. Honestly, there were some points when there were more community members working than us! The best helper was hands down the two year old who toddled over to me with his plastic shovel and started scooping dirt out of the hole I was digging for a tree.
When we weren't constructing we had workshops and activities with the community. We had a Bingo Night, a workshop on household remedies for cuts,burns, etc., and meals. The whole weekend we ended up cooking only once! One of the days, they all pitched in to do a barbecue for us...needless to say I was not hungry once that whole weekend.
The kids in the community were just adorable and there was a pretty big age range. I felt like I was reliving my childhood a bit with them. You know all the songs you sing in elementary school with a circle? Well, they are about ten times cuter in Spanish.
The last night of the project our team had our closing thoughts, finishing with the passing on of the flag. Each community has a flag with the university logo and the name of the community, and the group has to come to a consensus for who will take the flag with them...and they gave it to me! It was one of those moments that has made the past eleven months here so worth it. Learning a new language and adjusting to a different culture is never easy. On the other end of the spectrum, the host country faces an equal if not greater challenge of wondering how to treat the outsider. Therefore, I have a lot of respect for this young group of Chileans who were able to make me feel so comfortable and even speak about my admirable qualities. I feel like I definitely had not reached this point after only one semester, where it was a novelty to spend time with a group of Chileans without other gringos and/or foreigners present. Also, within ten seconds of a conversation last semester the question "Where are you from?" came up.Now, I have had the opportunity to spend days on end with a Chilean community. Even more, people didn't pick up that I was a foreigner right away. It would come up later in a conversation and the response would usually be something along the lines of "Oh well I thought I heard an accent..." The funniest moment is when one of the young boys in the community said a bad word and I turned shocked and asked  Qué dijiste?!(What'd you say?!) and he said back "Oh it's from a you understand English pretty well or something?" I laughed and said "Well, I sure hope so...I'm from the U.S.!" The looks on their faces were hilarious. Afterwards, I was quite a hit with the kids who were begging me to teach them bad words in English, although they already knew a shocking amount from the movies they had seen.
I'll leave two pieces of advice for study abroad here then. Stay a year if you can, especially in a non-English speaking country. Part of fluency in another language isn't just mastering how to put together a series of grammatically correct sentence.It's understanding pop culture references, idioms, and slang and being able to use them in a conversation. It's knowing how another culture's sense of humor functions so you can actually tell a joke that will make the locals laugh instead of looking onto a room of blank stares. My next piece of advice is step out of the box and away from your travel book when you have a long weekend before you. Go to a small town instead of a big city. Participate in a volunteer project or even local events pertaining to the holiday you have off. I love traveling just as much as any study abroad participant. But after one semester and another one before me I stepped back and figured out what I really wanted. Last semester, my breaks were spent with my American friends, seeing many beautiful sites in Chile. We formed a special bond through our travels and we met people from all over the world in every hostel. This semester, I realized I wanted less "go,go,go" and an ability to really integrate myself with Chileans. A volunteer project like the one I did allowed me to spend a whole weekend getting to know a Chilean community and peers from my host university.
When I got home from the project there was a reminder that my experience is coming to a close. My soon to be roommate and great friend had signed up for classes for me, so the schedule was in front of me on my student account. It just it strange to think that in a little over one month I will be home and in four months I will be back at UC Irvine. I am getting really anxious to see my family, friends, dog, house, and just everything that was familiar to me the first twenty years of my life. At the same time, I have come to be familiar with Chile more than I could have imagined I would. So what's  important now is to live in the moment and enjoy the opportunities I have in the weeks to come. My life in the U.S. will always be there for me, but I only have so much time for my life in Chile.
Las Palmas