“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”…so we went bungee jumping

This blog post is going to be a really fun one to write…I want to tell the world (or the three people that read my blog; thanks for sticking with me this long, y’all) about my trip to Peru. It was easily the coolest place I’ve ever been in my life, and I was lucky to be able to end the semester on such a high note.

The fun thing about the trip to Peru is that it highlights a couple personality quirks of mine. Well, it highlights one: my complete inability to plan. Kirsten and I went and bought our plane tickets together back in October, so up until about a week (well, four days days) before we left, we figured that was enough planning. Then we realized it was time to book hostels, buy train tickets, and confirm our entry to Machu Picchu (yes! THE Machu Picchu). So we holed ourselves up in a Starbucks (once an American, always an American) and got to work.

Somehow, everything worked out perfectly; it was easily the best vacation of my life. We left Santiago at 9:30 on Wednesday morning, and landed back in Santiago at 5:00 in the afternoon of the following Tuesday. In between were some of the most incredible days of my semester.

We decided to reserve one day at Machu Picchu, because our friends in Chile told us it’s possible to see everything without spending another $75 for a second day. The rest of the trip we spent in Cuzco, which is about 60 miles outside of Machu Picchu. It’s an absolutely gorgeous city…everything you think of when you think South America. As much as I love Santiago, it’s a huge city, so it doesn’t feel distinctly different from New York or any other large city in the US or Europe. Cuzco, however, feels really small (even though it’s huge!), with gorgeous architecture, old-looking roads, and beautiful community parks. Much like the Chilean coastal city of Valparaíso, Cuzco is built on hills, and everything just looks small-town and very un-American. Even the Starbucks and McDonald’s had the old-timey architecture, to mask the gringo-ness!

One of the plazas in Cuzco

The cathedral in Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas

The only bad thing about Cuzco is the altitude. As a Charleston girl used to living at/below sea level, the 3,400 meters (11,000 feet!) of altitude came as quite a shock. I ended up being alright, but for the first day and a half, I was pretty miserable. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and when I did, walking around left me so out of breath that I would have to sit down. Plus side, though: even though it was the rainy season, floods just don’t happen in Cuzco!

We found a free walking tour in Cuzco, run by a couple locals. They took us to some pretty awesome museums, including a chocolate museum, where the history of the cocoa plant is told, with a gorgeous view of Cuzco and the opportunity to make your own chocolate (we elected not to do this, because it was expensive). They also took us to a pisco (South American alcohol made exactly like vodka, but from grapes) factory and museum, a sushi restaurant, and an old-fashioned brewery on the outskirts of the city. Best part: free samples wherever we went!

That’s another thing about Peru: both the people and the food are the best I’ve ever encountered. The people are all so friendly, which made the trip a lot of fun. From the really nice hostel workers to the people we met on the streets, everyone seemed to be genuinely interested in us and didn’t even seem to mind my broken Spanish. And the food…WOW. For somebody picky like me, new countries are hard because I never know if I’m going to like the food. Should not have even been concerned; Peruvian food is probably the best food I’ve ever eaten. They could fry up a used gym sock and I’d eat it happily. I could not tell you how they managed to do it, but they managed to cook spinach in a way that was so good that I ate the whole thing and was sad when it was gone. And alpaca…I feel like a horrible person for eating some of my favorite South American animals, but I felt a little better with a belly full of alpaca steak. You will all be pleased to learn, however, that I elected not to try the guinea pig (cuy, in Spanish). I would have, but I heard they serve it whole like a roast pig…with the face attached and everything. So I stuck with my alpaca and spinach and was more than satisfied.

On Friday, we got up early to take a train out to Aguas Calientes, the small town (only about twice as big as Wofford!) on the other side of the mountain from Machu Picchu. It took three and a half hours to get to the town, but the extra time was so worth it. The train we took was a little more expensive than others, but it had enormous windows, which made for a gorgeous trip through the valley. We passed through the most beautiful parts of Peru on the way—farms, mountains, and rivers. We even passed directly through a rural town—I guess everyone there gets really excited for the train, because there were a bunch of little kids sitting by the train tracks waving to us.

A picture from the train

Once we got to Aguas Calientes, I really felt like we were in the middle of the Incan territories—well, minus all of the tourist attractions. There was a market selling handmade goods, a bunch of bridges connecting the two halves of the town, and, up the road a little bit, hot springs where we could all bathe. Our hostel was on the cheaper side of town, next to the football (soccer) fields where all of the locals go to play. Kirsten and I stopped by for an hour or so to watch; there were at least a hundred guys playing what looked like five games at once. We ate dinner at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant (whose alpaca was really good) and then set off to bed at 9pm (forsaking the enormous town-wide party in our hostel) so we could get up at 4am the next morning and head to the one, the only, Machu Picchu! (Forgive me; I had to say it like that in my head.)

Hands down, the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life. As an Egyptian friend of mine (who lives in America) said, Egypt is amazing because it’s man-made, the Grand Canyon is amazing because it’s naturally made, and Machu Picchu is doubly amazing because it is man-made in the center of a beautiful natural landscape. The main part of the city is built on a flat part within the mountains, with stairs and temples scattered throughout the surrounding peaks. It absolutely floors me that the city is still standing; it’s been so long since anybody lived there, but it’s so well made that it looks like they moved out last month.

The entirety of Machu Picchu, the ruins and the mountains, is built to look like a giant face. Here is a picture:

Machu Picchu

The “nose” of the face, the enormous mountain, is called Huayna Picchu, and if you pay a little extra, you can have the chance to climb to the top and see the ruins the way the Incas did from their temples. So of course, we paid, and showed up right at 7am (they only let 2500 people in the city every day, with 400 up on Huayna Picchu—200 at 7am and 200 at 11am). We elected to do the 4-hour hike up to the top and then back around to the other side of the mountain to see the caverns and temples.

Remember that volcano I climbed? This was almost worse. I’ve never been so tired in my life. The whole hike is on these ancient stone paths…that are all stairs. Sometimes we would look up and not be able to see where the stairs ended—and climbing down was almost worse! And sometimes the stairs would be right on the edge of a pretty steep fall, so for someone with a mild-to-severe fear of heights, it was fairly traumatic.

The stairs for Machu Picchu

Either way, those four hours were some of the most worthwhile of my life. I saw things that not everybody gets to see, and I can say I did it—and not even the easy way! Drawback to this method: some of the pictures at the top of the mountain show very clearly the sweat all over my Brad Paisley shirt (I made the hike with my two favorite pieces of clothing: my Brad Paisley t-shirt and my Notre Dame sweatshirt—still convinced that it’s me keeping the Irish going this season!). Either way, it was an unforgettable experience, and I’m glad we chose the longer hike.

View from the top!

When we got back down, we almost kissed the ground out of thankfulness for having survived the hike. It actually started to rain towards the end, and, always the worrier, I got pretty nervous about the rocks getting slippery and dangerous. Anyway, after showing our thanks to the sun god (the Incas were sun-worshippers), we set about exploring the rest of the city—after, of course, treating ourselves to some ice cream.

Our treat!

The city is purely amazing. I almost wished we’d spent that second day there, because I could have looked around forever. Here are a couple pictures…they say much more than I ever could:

The alpaca (or llama) watching the city

Playing in the city!

A hummingbird in the city…almost nothing to do with the city itself, but it was so cool I had to include it

A bunch of Peruvians came up to us and asked to take pictures with us…guess they don’t see many Americans around there

I was pretty thankful to get back to our hostel in Cuzco that night, though. After hiking Machu Picchu from 6am until 3pm, we took the train back to Cuzco (another three and a half hours) and then a taxi from the train station (actually on the outskirts of the city) to our hostel. We had visions of going out and exploring the nightlife, but after putting our stuff down in the hostel and sitting on our beds for about two minutes, all of those aspirations were gone. We slept from 10pm that night until 8am the next morning.

Waking up the morning after Machu Picchu was just plain rough. I was sore all over, plus the combination of nasty Peruvian water, sweating all day in Machu Picchu, and the friction from the backpack gave me a nasty skin infection. All of this resulted in my stumbling around the hostel (and around Cuzco) and getting laughed at by the entire hostel personnel. (I couldn’t bring myself to be mad though; they were all so nice and helpful, even offering me remedies for the soreness, that I couldn’t help but love them.)

As an additional surprise, I also woke up to the news that we were going bungee jumping. A friend of ours from Machu Picchu expressed interest in bungee jumping and asked us to help him find a place. In the interest of making friends, we got up early and headed (stumbled, in my case) over to the agency and planned a trip. Within two hours, we were in a taxi on our way to Action Valley, this extreme sports theme park on the outskirts of Cuzco.

My fear of heights had, believe it or not, NOT been cured by our trek the day before, so I was really nervous, (half) joking about what my friends should do in the event of my death. They told us that where we were going was the highest bungee jump in South America, measuring almost 400 feet. We get to the place, and, as if strapping us with rope and pushing us out of a metal cage wasn’t enough, we had to warm up first. So we’re running laps around the complex, stretching all of our muscles, and then it’s time.

Oddly enough, the run ended up being the hardest part of the entire morning—other than mustering up the courage to jump. They use mechanical pulleys to raise you up in a metal cage with an instructor, and then, once you receive a little bit of instruction, they open the door and have you go stand on this ledge. Then, they count to three and have you jump headfirst.

It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was so incredibly worth it. I screamed the whole way down (audibly, unfortunately), and the three minutes after I jumped were easily some of the most disorienting of my life. I wasn’t sure which way was up or down. All I know is that at the end of a couple minutes, I was gently set on the ground by some of the workers, and then it was Kirsten’s turn. There is some video out there of me, and the only words you can hear me say afterwards are, “I didn’t die!”

Definitely a solid afternoon.

Right after the jump

Upside down, on the tail end of the jump

Right after, with the adrenaline of not having fallen to my death pumping through my veins

Sunday night we went out to a salsa club. As many of you know, I handle myself with the grace of a semi-tranquilized elephant…being sore from Machu Picchu (and coming down from the adrenaline high of bungee jumping) made everything SO much better. Surprisingly, I enjoyed myself a lot. We were in a relatively popular club, for both locals and foreigners, so I got to meet a lot of people coming in and out, even though it was a Sunday night.

Dancing the salsaaa

Monday I spent the day being pretty lazy. I walked around some markets, bought a couple souvenirs and gifts for my family, and got ready for the plane on Tuesday. It sounds like sort of a lame ending, but it’s hard to top Machu Picchu, bungee jumping, and salsa dancing!

On Tuesday morning, we got up really early and flew back to Santiago, where I spent my last three days in South America. For more on the last couple days, read the blog post before this one, my pre-departure post!

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“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go”: Pre-Departure Post

There are a lot of choices you make in life, but your family isn’t one of them. Lucky for me, however, I was born into a pretty good one. For those of you who don’t know, I am a sister, daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of some of the finest men in our country—members of the United States Navy. (Not to leave out the better half of my ancestry, I am also a daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of some of the finest women in our country—Navy wives!) More so than ever before, I’m realizing how much being a “Navy kid” has affected my life and the way I see the world.

Since my dad was a submarine officer, we moved around all the time, every two or three years. I’ve lived in five different houses since I turned three, and I can’t remember the three before that—and those numbers don’t even count my grandparents’ houses or the apartments and hotels we lived in between moves. Long story short, my life has been pretty full of change. So as I’m sitting in my room in my host family’s house, with entirely-too-full-by-airplane-standards suitcases all around me, I’m reminded of each one of those moves.

I loved every single place I’ve lived. Leaving was heartbreaking, and every time we got new orders, I’d beg my dad to let us stay so we didn’t have to leave home. Of course, we always ended up moving anyway (apparently eight-year-olds don’t, in fact, have the right to make big family decisions), and, sooner or later, the next place became “home” too. I think the best thing about being a Navy child—and studying abroad—is that you learn to be at home wherever you are.

As my semester is coming to a close, I can honestly say that I’ve lived in Chile. I didn’t just travel here, and I didn’t just study here. Santiago has actually been my home. I’ve made friends, run errands, battled the public transportation system, and established a routine here. I know which phone company will get you a discount at the movie theater, how to yell at a cat in Spanish (this image brought to you by Peteco the devil cat, who is currently hiding under my bed after a rather severe scolding), and where to go for the best selection of ice cream flavors (it’s the Bravissimo near the corner of Pedro de Valdivia and 11 de Septiembre, by the way). When I got here in July, I wasn’t sure how I’d ever feel at home in such a strange place, but now I can’t imagine not having come here.

That’s not to say I’m not excited about heading back to the USA. After all, Moe’s is there. So are peanut butter, refrigerated milk, my swim team, and my dogs. Oh, and my family and friends…them too.

Actually, the more I think about it, I think I’m actually really ready to come back. It’s been an amazing semester, but I’m finally feeling like it’s time. I’ve been here for a semester. I don’t think I know everything there is to know about Santiago, by any means, and I don’t think this semester will be my last time going abroad…but still, it’s time. I’ve learned so, so much here. It’s been a truly amazing experience, and I don’t think I’m the same person I was when I got here on July 24. I’m a little more confident, a little more independent, and a lot happier.

When I say happier, I don’t mean that Santiago is by nature a happier place than Charleston; in fact, I believe exactly the opposite. I don’t like big cities, and nothing beats the friendly Charleston vibe. Plus, Charleston is by the coast—come on y’all, how do you beat that? (Plus I miss being able to say “y’all.”) I mean that I’ve figured out how to be happy where I am. Being a Navy kid taught me that if you choose to be happy in only one place, you spend entirely too much time being miserable everywhere else you end up going. Coming to Santiago brought that onto an international scale.

There are a lot of things about living in a big city that really frustrate me. I hate public transportation (call me a silver spoon child, I don’t even care), and if I never see a Chilean public bathroom again, it will be too soon (let me put it this way: you’re lucky if you find one that has either toilet paper or soap, let alone both). There are plenty of other things I could list that I am ready to say goodbye to, but I think somewhere along the way, I learned that it just isn’t worth it to do so. Despite all of the slight annoyances, I am truly happy here. I’ve been annoyed, yes. Irritated? Only every time I try to catch a bus. But one or two missed buses every now and then isn’t enough to make me hate Santiago—in fact, it makes it that much sweeter every time I actually come out ahead and get somewhere on time.

No place is perfect—not even (as sad as I am to have to admit it publicly) Charleston. I learned a long time ago that if you focus on the bad parts of one place, you miss out on all the great parts. Santiago may be a little difficult in terms of transportation and toilets, but it’s amazing in terms of history and people. I’ve learned so much about the world here, things that would have been impossible to learn in America. I’ve made friends with people I would never have spoken to in the United States, and had conversations I’d never imagined having. I’ve eaten food I’d never dreamed I would try (for more on that, read the blog post about Peru), and experienced things I’d never imagined possible for a girl from South Carolina. More than anything, I’ve learned to adjust to the things that are different…and actually enjoy the differences! Rather than avoid the less-than-attractive aspects of life in Santiago, I’ve tried to experience them, to really get a sense of what it’s like to live here (Which I think is the point of all of this…I would hate spending five months and end up still being a tourist). I mean, let’s be honest here anyway…not every aspect of life in America is perfect (if you disagree, go spend some time at the DMV or the post office, and then we’ll talk again).

When I first got here, it was a struggle to find peace with all of the changes and figure out how to be happy…and then I did, and ever since, it’s been unbelievably cool. Living here has made for some of the best, most eye-opening months of my life. But now that the time has come to leave, I’m making peace with that, too.

It was an adventure coming to Santiago, and it will be an adventure heading back home. I know I’m going to miss it here. I’m going to miss my host family and the amazing friends I’ve made. I’m REALLY going to miss the easy classes and the fun weekends. But Santiago is just a place. I lived in Santiago, but my life is not Santiago. Chile was an experience and, to be sure, a part of my life, but as for my life itself…Where that goes is up to me. And no matter where it goes, I’m pretty sure that I’ll have it in me to find my own place and be happy no matter where I am.

So where is my life going in the long run? I’m not sure. But for right now, it’s going back to Charleston. It’s going to beaches and sweetgrass baskets, to palm trees and Harris Teeter supermarkets, and, above all else, to the four most important people (and the four most important dogs) in the entire world.

Which, you know, is probably the best place it could be going.

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“It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right; I hope you had the time of your life.”

It’s been a while since I’ve written (what else is new though?), and I have a lot to say! Right now I’m sitting in the Starbucks trying to study for my finals, but the summer weather is making concentrating extremely difficult. (I should clarify…it’s not like I’d rather be outside; it’s just that it’s hot, which means that everyone wants Frappucinos, and the Frappucino machine is really loud.)

My family is here (my mom and sister, at least), and as much as I love them, they are wearing me out! I’ve spent four months here in Santiago (it will be officially four months on Saturday…time sure does fly), and I’ve probably seen more of Santiago with them in the three days that they’ve been here than I have in the three and a half months preceding their arrival. It’s been fun though, and I was so excited to see them at the airport when I picked them up on Saturday morning. I’m so lucky that they could visit and I could “show off” the first place I’ve ever lived completely on my own. It’s been interesting though; I didn’t realize how used to Santiago I’ve gotten until I saw how weird some things seemed to them.

It’s actually been a pretty busy couple weeks. In the past month, in addition to touring the city with my family, I’ve been on a few pretty amazing trips. I would call them “vacations,” but I try to reserve that word for relaxing getaways. My trips were nothing even resembling relaxing…

Three weeks ago, I went to San Pedro, this little town in the center of the Atacama Desert. I went with one other student from my program, and we spent the weekend touring the desert and seeing all of the important sights. And by seeing the important sights, I mean struggling through miles of desert terrain in a bus that was apparently made before the dawn of air conditioning, only to return at night to a hostel that didn’t see the need for warm water. Basic point? I flew back into Santiago on Monday morning after sleeping in an airport Sunday night, and then I skipped my morning class to take my first shower in three days.

I exaggerate the bad parts; the trip was actually incredible. If you have a Facebook, check out my Atacama albums. It was easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and certainly NOTHING like I imagined a desert to be. It had mountains, lakes, rivers, geysers, volcanoes…and so many colors! I expected all orange and brown, but there was blue and white and green and purple and pink and…well, here are some pictures to explain it better.

One of the salt streams in the desert

Sunset over the mountains in Atacama

Sunset over Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) – oddly enough, we had a cloudy day in the desert

Atacama was really interesting because it was yet another opportunity to step outside the comfort zone. I am from the beach. I had never been to a desert in my life (unless you count Las Vegas—I don’t), and I was pretty sure that I would end up like this:

Minus the tacky tourist hat, of course.

However, I ended up having a lot of fun. I made sure to stay hydrated, so other than a slight sunburn, the heat never ended up being a problem. And for someone who isn’t the least bit outdoorsy, I actually managed to enjoy Mother Nature (as much as I’m able to). The two best outings we made were a hike through the mountains and a bike ride out to an ancient ruin town. (Let me explain: I don’t go hiking, and the last time I’d gone biking, I ran into a tree and got laughed at by the little girls I was babysitting.) I can’t believe how much I enjoyed being outside and seeing all that nature has to offer…as much as I love Santiago, it was nice to get out of the city and enjoy a little solitude.

I think the silence was what surprised me most about the desert…nobody around for miles

Now, what was the bad part of Atacama? I went hiking and biking and loved it…which led me to believe I could handle a hike in Pucón that was a little more extreme. Therefore, I thought it was a good idea to sign up to hike up an active volcano. WRONG. Stepping out of the comfort zone? Yes, but only if the comfort zone is situated on the top of a cliff from which one falls into the misery pit.

The Pucón trip was a lot bigger than our trip to Atacama. IES is affiliated with a local Catholic university, which has an organization for foreign students. They plan trips all the time, and when I got the Facebook invite to go to Pucón, I thought to myself, “You know what, why not?”

This is Pucón…one of my favorite pictures (because it has nothing to do with volcanoes)

About seven of my friends and I joined the trip (with 40 other students), so we had a great time. I signed up for the same activities as them, and ended up waking up at 6am on Saturday morning to go hike Mt. Villarica, an active volcano located right outside Pucón. We all showed up with our 2 liters of water, food for the hike, and clothes appropriate for the snowy summit. They told us it was supposed to be a 5 hour hike, so we were prepared for a difficult morning.

Mt. Villarica – the ACTIVE volcano we hiked up

I’m going to spare the details, but I’ll leave it at this: six hours later (during which I was sweating like a sinner in church, because even though it’s cold at the top of the mountain, a climb that is essentially a mile straight up gets the heart a-pumping), I reached the summit. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wanted to turn around at every single step, and almost cried when the guide told us we’d reached the top. I flung myself down into the snow at the summit and sat hypnotized by the sulfurous cloud of spew rising from the pit of the volcano, sure that I’d never been so mentally and physically exhausted in my life. I also didn’t know it yet, but the proximity to the sun, the reflection off the snow on the ground, and the almost complete lack of ozone in Chile made it so that I was about to have a blistering sunburn all over my face…causing me to retreat to my house back in Santiago like the Phantom of the Opera to his cave (and to wish for a mask like his).

You know, I should really appreciate the experience of climbing up the volcano—use it as a learning experience, metaphor for life, overcoming difficulties, or something meaningful like that. But it was exhausting and difficult, and the memory is still too fresh in my mind (and on my still-peeling face) to appreciate. However: this is probably my favorite Chile picture:

WE MADE IT

These trips have been amazing. I’m so, so, SO lucky to be here. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m in Chile—and I definitely am still in denial that I only have two and a half more weeks here (with six of those days spent in Peru). I just filled out the end-of-study-abroad questionnaire, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit sad.

Even though I still have a few more blog posts before this whole thing ends, some of my end thoughts are coming out here. I’ve changed so much this semester, in so many ways. I’m not afraid of traveling anymore, I’m a little less of a head case/nut job (but only a little), my Spanish has gotten a lot better, and I feel more capable of dealing with things on my own—while at the same time feeling more appreciative of the friends/family who help me through.

Unfortunately, part of me is afraid that “new/improved Ashleigh” is actually just “Chile Ashleigh,” and when I come home I’ll go back to being “America Ashleigh” (“downgraded Ashleigh”). I don’t want to say that I used Chile as an escape from things in the United States, because I love my family, friends, and life in South Carolina. However, it is true that a lot of the stuff that mattered in the United States just doesn’t matter anymore—and I’m learning that the things that still matter right now are the only things that ever really mattered in the first place.

I guess coming abroad has helped me see what’s important in life. My family means the world to me (the spontaneous tears when I saw my sister walking out of the airport gate kind of proved that). My faith (and weekly Mass) is what has kept me grounded this whole time in Chile. My friends matter, especially the ones I’ve managed to keep in touch with since coming here. My education, I’ve seen, is my way to change the world and make it a better place. Everything else takes a backseat—everything. (With the exception, of course, of Notre Dame Football. GO IRISH.)

Maybe that’s why I’m different now; I’ve stopped letting the insignificant stuff affect me so much. So I’m not afraid of coming back to America; I love it there! I suppose I just don’t want to come back and get caught up in all of the unimportant stuff again. I want to remember this feeling. I’m still in the process of figuring out who I am, of course, and where I’m going with my life, but in this moment right now I know what’s important to me—and, more importantly, what isn’t.

And, you know, for all the things I could have learned in Chile, I would say that that one’s pretty good.

P.S. Instead of a vocabulary lesson, I’m going to ask all of my (two and a half) readers to turn on ESPN at 8pm Eastern Time on Saturday, November 24 to watch the Notre Dame/USC game for Rivalry Week. My Irish are currently ranked number one in the nation, and this game will determine whether or not they head to the National Championship. Wish us luck—I’ll be watching from Chile. GO IRISH!!

Two of my favorite things…my family and Notre Dame.

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Springtime in Chile!

Remember when I talked about how it was so cold you could leave milk out on the counter without it going bad? Well, now it’s so hot that…well, it’s so hot that it’s reminding me of Charleston! (Even the humidity!) I guess I’ll blame the weather on my lack of blog posts…it’s been so lovely outside that I haven’t really wanted to be inside at all!

Finally some sunshine!

It is currently Tuesday, and I am on my second day back from a four day weekend. Wednesday, October 31st was Halloween, which they even celebrate here in Chile now! However, the more important day comes after: All Saints’ Day, on November 1st. I’m not going to go into too much detail about All Saints’ Day, because that’s not really my job, plus I’m sure you can find a better description on Google. Since Chile is still a very Catholic country, everybody gets the day off to go to Mass. And since this year All Saints’ Day was on a Thursday, they went ahead and gave us Friday off as well. (Well, plus November 2nd is All Souls’ Day; for a description of this feast day, please see my advice about All Saints’ Day.)

This long weekend ended up being a pretty good one. Since travel is extremely expensive on holiday weekends, I decided to stay in the city (I traveled to Atacama last weekend and am going to Pucón this weekend, so don’t worry; I’m not missing out TOO much). On Thursday I went to Mass and then walked around Santiago for a little bit; even though I’ve seen most of the sites, it was nice to see them again now that the weather is so nice.

On Friday I went to this really amazing zoo outside of the city; it is a lot bigger than the zoo in Santiago, and a lot nicer! The only bad part was the long line to buy tickets…but even that ended up being okay, because a couple of little kids in front of us in line heard me talking to a Chilean friend and, knowing that I wasn’t Chilean (probably because of my “typical gringa face.” Or my countless Spanish errors), came up to me and started asking me about the United States. It was adorable, and definitely made me miss my swim team kids. The zoo was bien entretenido (very entertaining)…definitely worth the train ride out of the city. Then, that night, I went to go see Paranormal Activity 4—proof that, no matter where I’m living, I will always be a dumb American, getting suckered into yet ANOTHER dragged-out scary movie series.

Saturday I visited Chile’s Museum of Human Rights, where the events of the golpe de estado (coup d’état) are presented from a perspective of human rights (for those of you who don’t know about that either, please Google it; even though I’ve learned a lot, I don’t know enough about it to be able to present it fairly). It was really interesting to me, to know that so many awful things happened in a country that I didn’t even know existed until an embarrassingly few years ago. More than anything, it made me very appreciative to live where I do, and it helped me to put things in perspective.

We have a pretty important election happening today in the United States, and it seems (at least by Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, my email account, and word on the streets—even in Chile) that people feel very strongly about its results. And even though I have my opinions and preferences about the way I want the election to go, I am comforted knowing that, no matter whose name is announced as the next president (at approximately 3am Chilean time, FYI), I am still a citizen of a free country where my rights are guaranteed by a Constitution and protected by the bravest men and women in the world. My support one way or the other in this election cannot jeopardize my safety or that of my family or friends…and for that, I am thankful. Moreover, I know that whoever gets elected, I still have the opportunity to make a life for myself and have the ability, as a citizen, to make the country a better place. That has not always been the case in Chile’s history, and, although things are improving here, my visit to the Museo de Derechos Humanos opened my eyes to the violence and persecution that have, unfortunately, played too big of a role in Chile’s history.

Sunday was probably my worst day in Chile so far (and hopefully ever)…I ended up with some sort of stomach bug and spent all day in bed. I feel fantastic now, but two days ago I was pretty close to the most pathetic person in the world. My host family was really fantastic though, and for that I’m more grateful than I can say. My host brother is a surgeon, and within minutes of finding out I was sick, he had three different types of medicine, boiled water (so I didn’t have to drink the hard tap water), and plain pasta ready for me. My problem right now is, I don’t have enough Spanish vocabulary to tell him how much I appreciate everything he did for me…Even though technically our host families are supposed to take care of us, I know that I’m extremely lucky to have a family that was THAT nice to me when I was sick.

Now, as I said, I’ve been sick for the past couple days, and although I feel better, I’m still a little weak/tired (/lazy). So for this next part of the blog I’m going to ask you to make up your own segue between being sick and hospitals, because the next thing I’m going to talk about is going to be my adventures in my Clinical Observation Internship, the class I take with IES that allows us to shadow different departments at the hospitals in Chile.

Clinical Observation has been one of the most interesting parts of my study abroad experience. It has definitely been the most helpful; since the medical education in the United States is divided into undergrad and med school, it makes it hard for undergrads to actually get clinical experience—well, at least the kind of clinical experience we’ve been getting here. I have sat (stood, actually…for like three hours) in an OR with scrubs on, listened with a stethoscope to the lungs of somebody with tuberculosis (without a mask, unfortunately—apparently they don’t use them here), helped with a shift in an emergency room, and, on Thursday, will stand “south of the equator” to watch an actual birth.

What really gets me is how informal the medical system seems to be. The first day of my rotation was surgery. My classmate and I, with our white coats on, walked right into the surgery floor. Without asking us for identification or even verifying who we were, they rushed us into the changing rooms to get scrubs on so that we could begin viewing as soon as possible. During the surgeries, they were telling us all sorts of information: the patients’ names, conditions, and medical histories— as if HIPAA didn’t exist (note: here, it probably doesn’t). One of my friends even got to scrub in on a surgery and help with the suturing!

The emergency room was even stranger. For my ER shift, I visited a hospital on a poorer side of town, and I decided within two minutes of walking in the door to the hospital that, if I were ever to get sick in Chile, I would put this hospital last on my list of places to go. There were stray dogs walking in and out of the hospital at will, graffiti all over the walls (yes, inside the hospital!), and ominous looking people standing around the exits. However, the doctors were really great with me, and I learned a lot during my shift there. The emergency room, the doctors explained to me, wasn’t an ER like we would think about it in the US. In this particular hospital, there is a shortage of beds; anybody who doesn’t fit in a room upstairs gets an ER bed until room becomes available elsewhere. So where did the emergency patients go? In the hallway, of course! The ER was full of patients, some who had been there for hours and some for days. I shadowed the doctor as he went through the row of patients assigned to him, and with every patient, he opened the chart and read everything to me, explaining what was wrong with the patient, what he’d ordered for them, and what his expectations were. The patients were right in front of us the whole time, listening to the doctor explain all sorts of intimate medical details to me—and nobody seemed to mind! I’m never going to complain about the opportunity to learn something new, but it was really strange, being able to learn so much about someone so quickly.

Even though I was with doctors during the ER shift, the majority of the supervisors for the Clinical Observation shifts have been nurses. It’s been eye-opening to see what a major role they play in every single part of medical care. In surgery, for example, the nurses bring the patients in to the OR, talk to them as the anesthesiologists put them to sleep, and get them ready for surgery. The surgeons show up after the patients are long past asleep and leave right after they’re closed up. The anesthesiologists stay with them until they’ve woken up, and the nurses take over in Recuperation after that. In Hemodialysis, the nurses are pretty much in charge, minus the quick review/checkup done by a nephrologist at the beginning of the four hour treatment. The nurses have been the ones explaining everything to us, and I’m amazed at how much they know. They do so much with the patients and have an amazing amount of connection with them, and they still manage to have all of the medical stuff perfect. The well-roundedness of nurses is something that I think is taken for granted in the United States, but it’s something that should be aimed for by every medical professional. Watching the nurses during Clinical Observation is what has inspired me most to continue my pursuit of a medical education. If I’m ever a doctor, I can only hope that I can find it in me to imitate them and be as compassionate as I am educated.

Even though I’m not sure I’m allowed to know all of the stuff I’ve learned since I’ve started the Clinical Observation Internship, I have to admit, I’ve learned a ton. It’s been an incredible experience—one that I definitely couldn’t get in the United States (well, at least not without signing heavy amounts of paperwork and being at least a first-year med student). Much like everything else in Chile, it truly has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

VIVA CHILE

Vocab lesson for the day:

al tiro (or altiro) – “Right now.” It means at this very moment, or immediately. However, it’s also used kind of sarcastically, like when our host mom calls us for dinner, and my host brother says “Vengo altiro” (Coming right now!), it usually means in like 5 or 10min.

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And then, on a serious note…

Today isn’t going to be a fun blog post (and, after writing it, I realize that it’s a very long post). A lot’s happened since I last wrote; I felt my very first “earthquake” (in quotes because it was more of a tremble), I visited the zoo on the top of that hill I always talk about, and I visited a Mapuche community (the Mapuche are the most significant indigenous community still alive in Chile).

Yet as awesome as the past week has been, I’m not going to write about any of that. I’m going to write about what I did today.

For those of you who don’t know, I am pre-med at Wofford. As an aspiring physician, I picked the perfect place to study abroad. The IES program in Santiago has a Clinical Observation Internship, in which a group of us spends the first half of the semester learning about the healthcare system in Chile and the second half visiting local clinics and hospitals to observe the system in action. So far, it’s been really interesting, and I could write pages on the healthcare system in Chile (which is funny, because I sure couldn’t do that for the healthcare system in the United States…and by funny I mean sad…and by sad I mean I have a lot to learn before I actually become a doctor). But today was a “system in action” day, and we spent our morning visiting La Clínica Familia, a palliative care hospital in Santiago.

As a palliative care clinic, the hospital cares for terminally ill patients, the majority of whom have either cancer or HIV/AIDS (although there was one woman with Alzheimer’s there as well). As someone who is studying to be a pediatrician, I’ve always thought of being a doctor as making sick people better—to be told, on the first real day of observation, that every patient I was to see would soon die came as entirely too much of a shock to me.

The first thing we saw when we drove up to the clinic was the enormous bed of roses. It’s spring in Chile, and today was one of the nicest days I’ve spent here. The roses were in full bloom, in every color you could imagine; it was breathtaking. As we parked, I looked over to a magnificent view of the cordillera (the mountain range) under the bluest sky I can remember seeing. For a place that was sure to house such sadness, it sure seemed beautiful.

The first place we visited on the tour was the capilla (chapel). Although the chapel is nondenominational, Chile is a predominantly Catholic country, and the chapel was adorned as such. However, the woman in charge of the clinic (or at least in charge of us) pointed out two rather special features to us—the figures of Jesus and the ring of ribbons. There were two notable figures of Jesus: outside, above the entrance to the chapel, and inside, above the altar. The one outside was the crucified Jesus—skinny, haggard, and in pain. The one inside was the resurrected Jesus—adorned in white, smiling, and peaceful. The woman explained to us that the Jesus outside is how a lot of patients enter the chapel (and the clinic): tired, weary, and hurting. The Jesus inside the chapel signifies the peace that can be found in the chapel and at the clinic. The clinic focuses healing not the body, but the soul. The patients that end up at the clinic are past the power of medicine, so the clinic prepares them for the reality of what is to come, helps them make peace with themselves and their fate, and brings their families to that same peace so that the healing is shared among those that are left behind. The Jesus above the altar represents the healing experienced at the clinic.

And then, after showing us the Jesus figures, the woman lifted up a circular rack (like the ones you used to hide in at the clothes store, before your mom pulled you out by your ears and told you to behave, but smaller) with dozens, hundreds, of yellow ribbons hanging from it. Each ribbon, she explained carefully, represented a patient who had passed away at the clinic. I was in the back of the chapel, so I couldn’t see it too well, but she told us that each one had a name on it. And with that sobering thought in mind, we said a Padre Nuestro (Our Father) together and exited the chapel.

That’s when we headed up to the floor with the patients. We passed a sign that listed the basic rules for those who work at and visit the clinic. There were the basic rules: respecting the patients, not using cell phones, and washing hands. The last one, however, stuck out to me. It reminds everyone that the main goal of the clinic is what every worker and volunteer is supposed to promote: el amor (love) as the best and primary form of medicine.

On the floor, there were about ten rooms, each with two or three beds, and each named after a Catholic saint. Not every bed was occupied, and there were even empty rooms. But what I remember most is the smell that instantly washed over us when we walked in. I remembered the last time I’d been in the visiting quarters of a hospital – the last time I saw my grandfather. I pushed that thought out of my mind as we were ushered into a waiting room that I assume is for families waiting to see loved ones. We were all kind of uncomfortable—I can’t speak for the others, but if they were anything like me, they were still thinking about that ring of yellow ribbons.

Nicolás, the nursing student from the university who was in charge of us (God bless him), introduced us to other nursing students, who were doing their internships at the clinic. They explained that what they liked best about working there was the opportunity to really connect with the patients and help them at a very difficult time. They told us how rewarding it is to help patients come to terms with their illnesses and reach a state of peace. After their explanation, we split up into groups and began visiting patients.

I was horrified. The people we visited were really, really sick…sicker than I’d imagined. And what really got me was that there wasn’t going to be any improvement for them. We met patients with terminal cancer, PML (a brain disease that arises when HIV/AIDS is left untreated for years), and various other terminal conditions. As we went around, I noticed the signs on the doors that indicated a schedule for moving patients (the nurses have to help patients change position so that they don’t develop ulcers and sores from lying in the same position all day), the supply closets that contained packs of adult diapers, and the thousands upon thousands of pain medications to make the process of dying a little easier. I saw patients that couldn’t speak, patients who were so thin that I was afraid that their bones would snap right in front of me, and patients who appeared to be wasting away in the beds in front of me.

We were instructed to walk in and introduce ourselves to the patients in the beds. As we all went through and said the usual (name, where in the US we’re from, why we’re in Chile), I couldn’t help but think, “Why?” I doubted any of these patients cared that I’m from Charleston, SC, or that I study biology at Wofford College. Why are we bothering them during a time when they’d probably rather be left alone? If I were in the bed, I’d demand a curtain and a television and chase all the gringos out of the room. (This was also the time that I figured out that I’m going to end up being the crabby old lady in the nursing home that yells at the candy stripers.) These people were incredibly sick, and I felt like a huge, awkward nuisance, intruding on what should have been a private time.

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I have a very limited experience with death. I lost my grandfather two and a half years ago, and even though I’ve thought about him every day since, I was fortunate in that I never saw him like I saw the patients today. I have only memories of him as being strong, funny, and hopeful. I am so blessed to have a family as healthy as mine is; however, that very luck made it so that today came as a huge shock. I actually had to excuse myself to go sit in the bathroom and pull myself together (I don’t think I’d ever seen my face that white before). I sat down, said a quick prayer for strength, and walked back out.

I came back and got ready to go into the next patient’s room when Nicolás pulled me aside to talk to me. He asked me if I was okay, and I responded that of course I was. He gave me a look, and I gave up. I said, “It’s just that I could never do this. It’s sad. It’s difficult. I can barely be here observing. But I’m fine. I’ll go in with everyone else.” He looked at me again and shook his head. “No, come with me.”

“I know this is hard, but you can’t understand how good and necessary it is until you talk to some more patients. I know how many yellow ribbons you saw, but you have to recognize the good of this place. Death is a part of life, of every life. This center helps people prepare for that stage in a way that brings them both grace and dignity.”

He brought me to the other side of the floor, to a room with a single bed in it. A woman in a pink nightgown was sitting up in bed, watching TV and finishing some meal or other. She had no hair, and I assumed that she had cancer. Nicolás and I walked in to talk to her. He introduced himself, and made me do the same. She told us her name was Julia. I noticed she didn’t speak very loudly, so I tried to pay attention. From what I understood, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which then spread in her chest to her lungs and then to her vocal cords (thus the difficulty in talking). We asked her a little bit about her life. She told me she has two children, a 22 year old and a 24 year old. When we asked about her grandson, she responded that he’s a bandido (a rascal, scamp—or, as my grandma would say, a holy terror). She was smiling and seemed to be proud to talk about her family. But the most interesting thing she said came after Nicolás asked her if there was anything else she’d like to share.

“Positivity. You have to stay positive. I fought a war with this cancer, and I’ve stayed strong. I haven’t lost as long as I stay positive.”

Nicolás looked at me to make sure I got it, and said, “Thank you, ma’am. It was nice meeting you, and thank you so much for talking to us.” Then he brought me out of the room and gave me yet another look, this one as if to say, “Now do you see?”

Up until then, I had been walking around the hospital seeing death everywhere, and this woman, who actually WAS dying, was seeing nothing but life. It was humbling, for sure, but even more than that, it helped me see the clinic (and palliative care in general) in a whole new way.

The next patient we visited was a man with an enormous tumor on the side of his face. It was covered by a bandage, but it had distorted the entirety of his face, and made speech difficult for him. Yet when I walked in with four other girls (and Nicolás, of course…I kind of became his fangirl after that), he told us all about his life. He is from the coastal city of Valparaíso, Chile, but spent years and years traveling throughout Europe and Asia—Sweden, Egypt, and Russia were the three places I remember him saying, but he listed at least ten more. He told us a few stories about his travels, and then he thanked us for listening to him.

Maybe we weren’t annoying the patients. Maybe they were excited for the chance to share a little bit about their lives, even if it was with complete strangers (and foreigners, to boot). Nicolás told us that talking and sharing can be very important in the process of preparing for the end. I don’t know much about that, but, in any case, it seemed like the patients enjoyed it.

We even got to see a therapy session. There was a young man with HIV/AIDS (only 30 years old) who, when Nicolás met him, only weighed 29 kilograms (64 pounds) and couldn’t move, not even to change position in his hospital bed. When we saw him today, he was moving his own wheelchair to the therapy room, and weighed closer to 100 pounds (still not much, but what an improvement!). In the therapy session, the physical therapist helped him walk a short distance, turn around, and walk back. He was told to sit on a giant ball and balance himself on a beam with first one hand, then the other. For the whole time I was at the clinic, he didn’t say a word, but I saw the faintest trace of a smile as he managed to balance without either hand for a couple seconds (to the delight of the therapist). It was small, but I suppose that improvement is improvement, even in the worst conditions. Nicolás told us that if the patients improve enough, they can be moved to other types of care facilities that aren’t necessarily palliative. It was nice to end the visit to the floor on a hopeful note…I’ll never forget the half-smile on John’s face.

(Also weird. The song “Highway to Hell” was playing during the therapy session. I realize that most people in the clinic don’t understand the English lyrics and that it is a pretty good song to get yourself fired up, but…really?)

That’s about all I have for the patient floor. After that, we walked around the grounds for a bit. The clinic has facilities where families of patients can stay, to be closer to their loved ones. The houses are beautiful and are surrounded by the same roses that enchanted me at the beginning of the visit. I even saw a little jungle gym (for Julia’s bandido and other grandchildren, I’m assuming). A little further down were the rooms where the social workers and counselors meet with the families. It really felt like, in all aspects, the clinic cares for the patients and their families. Even the grounds of the center seem to bring tranquility.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I got in the van to go to a clinic for terminal patients. I don’t even know what I’m feeling about it now. I’m still trying to sort through everything I saw today. I still don’t know if I could ever work in palliative care, but I left La Clínica Familia today with a greater appreciation for the people who do. I’m coming to realize that palliative care is not about death; it’s about celebrating life in all its stages and bringing dignity to people at every stage of life.

I think before, I was afraid of palliative care because I thought it would be sad to work so closely with death. Now, I’m thinking that it’s not a sadness thing; it’s a strength thing. I feel like it would take a lot of strength to see so many people in so much pain and recognize the peace within the pain and the joy beyond the suffering. I feel like it would take a lot of courage to get up, come back, and do that every day. I’m not sure I have that strength or that courage.

I know this blog is supposed to be about my experiences abroad and not about life and death and faith. But every day I’m here, I’m learning something, something that helps me see the world a bit differently. And what’s really amazing is that it’s the same in the United States. People get sick and die everywhere, and it’s awful and sad everywhere; that’s what makes palliative care so necessary. The father of two of my swim team girls is a hospice/palliative care doctor, and I’ve always kind of wondered why he loves his job so much. I don’t understand how he’s able to come to swim meets and laugh and joke around with me and the other coaches when, at work, he deals with death every day. I think maybe he’s come to understand something that I’m still struggling with…exactly what that is, I’m not sure (as I said, I’m still struggling with it).

Maybe it’s something about understanding that life is to be appreciated and lived to the fullest in every moment. Maybe it’s having the firm belief that there is something more after our time on Earth. Maybe it’s just knowing how profoundly that type of work can touch a person’s life. I’m not sure. All I know is that the work done by both him and the people I met today (and caregivers at other palliative care facilities) is both necessary and utterly amazing. They are necessary and utterly amazing.

And my last thought for the day? The world is lucky to have people like them.

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“Live and learn, so you can learn to live”

As embarrassed as I am to admit it, my main way of contact with America is Facebook. My News Feed is how I catch up on what music is popular, what TV shows are coming back for the new season (It was hard, and not necessarily legal, but I found a way to keep up with all my shows), what movies I’m missing, and, most importantly, what my friends and family are up to.

This week, I noticed that a lot of Wofford students have received their study-abroad acceptance letters. I am so excited for them; I remember how amazing it was receiving that email (I received mine on my phone in the middle of physics lab—it was the most interesting information I received all semester). Coming to Chile, for me at least, really has been a dream come true. Now, as jealous as I am of them (I want to come back next semester!), I think I’ll make this blog post in honor of them. Here is my list of “Things I Wish I Knew before Coming to Chile.”

1. The water in Chile is different from the water in the United States. It’s harder, which means it has a higher mineral content (thank you, Wikipedia), and for the grand majority of things, it makes no difference—you can drink it, wash dishes with it, and shower in it. For your hair though, it can pose some pretty ugly problems (yes, I’m going to talk about hair). Now, granted, my hair is always dry from over-washing, chlorine, and too much sun, but the hard water has taken quite a toll. What I would suggest for girls coming to Chile for interim or next semester is bringing a leave-in conditioner, or an extra-strength additional conditioning treatment. It’s probably too late for me, but save yourselves!

2. Everyone tells you that study abroad classes are a joke. They are wrong. As I’ve said before, I’ve been taking two classes with my program (a Spanish class and a Clinical Observation Internship) and two with the Chilean university (a religion class and an art class). The IES classes require some studying, but all in all, they aren’t terrible. The university classes are a little more complicated, but so far, I’ve done really well with my theology class. My art class, however, is horrible. It is three hours every Thursday afternoon (after four hours of the Clinical Observation class), with a teacher who speaks no English, and with a bunch of students who don’t speak to me. Moreover, I’m almost convinced I failed the first test, which was on Thursday. HOWEVER. I still maintain that it wasn’t my fault…I studied concepts, themes, and overarching ideas, and the first question asked, “Please write down the four points of the quote we read in class five weeks ago.”

3. Your study abroad center is an absolute godsend. After I failed that art test, I went right to my study abroad center to talk to the academic advisor. (Okay, to be fair, that’s not exactly how it happened. First, I went home, stress-ate an entire can of Pringles, and wondered how badly I could do in the class without dropping my GPA so much that I wouldn’t be accepted by any post-grad programs…everybody is allowed a freak-out once in a while.) When I sat down with Angela, I explained as best I could (in Spanish) that I couldn’t continue with the class. I explained to her that if I thought I could pull my grade up, I would be more than happy to finish the class, but with two grades left for the semester and a very unhelpful professor, I was positive that I wouldn’t be able to. Within five minutes, she had a plan worked out for me; she would drop the art class from my schedule, no problems, and add me into another Spanish class with IES (I’m taking a Medical Spanish class, but there is also an option for a grammar class). I will be spending the next two or three weeks making up all the work from the first half of the semester, but if my other option is sitting through that art class one more day, then I say bring on the work. I am so grateful for my study abroad center for making this so easy for me; I am amazed at how helpful they are, and I’m lucky that I chose IES! For anybody going abroad with a program like IES: USE them! They know what they’re talking about, and they’ve been doing this for a long time. They don’t want you to fail or be stressed out the entire semester; they want you to learn a lot, but they also understand that most of the learning you do abroad (and the most important learning you do) is outside the classroom. Which brings me to my next point.

4. You’re in a foreign country…take advantage of it! You are going to be seeing things you may never get the chance to see again, do things you’ll only get to do once, and meeting people you’d never meet otherwise. Take these opportunities as they come, and do as much as you possibly can. If that means planning a trip with some friends, heading out to a fair where nobody speaks English, or even just sitting down and having a conversation with your host family, then do it! This week, I planned three trips for the rest of the semester. First, I’m going to the desert San Pedro de Atacama, one of the most famous and beautiful places in Chile, with one other person from my program. Then, two weeks later, I’m spending the weekend with a group of 40 exchange students in Pucón, a southern city with lakes, volcanoes, and thermal springs. Finally, at the very end of the semester, after my last exam, I’m going to PERU! Kirsten and I are flying up to Cuzco for a couple days, and then spending two days hiking around Machu Picchu, the site of some really incredible Incan ruins. It should be an awesome trip, and I’m so excited for the summer, to make these trips a little more comfortable (I’m looking at the window at a gray, cold, rainy day). I’m excited to explore a little more of South America—these are trips I’ll never be able to take again. And even when I’m in Santiago, I try to take opportunities like that—I’ve been to some extremely Chilean concerts where I’m the only gringa (with Chilean friends there, to keep me safe, of course), eaten food I’d never imagined trying, and learned a TON of Spanish. Most importantly, I’ve met some pretty fantastic people along the way. I am determined to have no regrets when I go back to the United States. (Well, maybe some regrets, travel-wise. I don’t want to see EVERYTHING now; then I won’t have a reason to come back later!)

5. Find your routine. For the first half of the semester, I only had class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays…I was free to roam around Santiago as I pleased on Tuesdays and during the weekends. It’s always hard to establish a routine, but in this culture it’s especially hard—in Chile, the culture is just more relaxed. At first, I had a hard time shaking off the notion that Chile is just a vacation from reality, but now that I have my routine down, it finally feels like everyday life. Classes are good for keeping me firmly planted in reality, but sometimes that’s just not enough. I set aside every Sunday as my gas station day (blogging, homework, etc.), and every Sunday night for church! It doesn’t seem like much, but it helps me keep focused on what I have to do for the week and plan the rest of my week accordingly.

6. Use your resources. Yes, I kind of already said this, when I mentioned how awesome the study abroad programs are. But the more time I’m here, the more I realize how many resources I have here. There’s my American friends who’ve already been to Santiago, who have helped me find the best ways to plan trips, my Chilean friends who help me find the cool, less-touristy things to do around Santiago, and my host family who feeds me, gives me advice, and makes sure I’m safe. There’s also my real family in the States, who will always listen to me when I get a little homesick, and my friends in the States who remind me that, even though I’ve got my home down here, I’ll still have a home at Wofford when I come back. Since we’ve all grown up with the Internet, it’s not as amazing to us, but sometimes I’m just overwhelmed thinking how close I am to all of these people, even though some of them are so far away. We live in some pretty fantastic times…take advantage of all the resources you have!

And, finally…

7. Bring an umbrella. Or a rain jacket. I didn’t, and we’re on day two of straight rain. The walk to Mass should be FUN.

Spanish lesson for the day…

calzón chino – This is a slang expression that literally means “Chinese underwear” but actually means “wedgie.” Yes, like those really uncomfortable things you’d get from bullies on the playground (or from big brothers at home). I’m not sure why it’s Chinese underwear…probably some subtle Chilean racism at play here.

guatón – This is a play on the Chilean word for stomach, “guata.” It means “fat man.” The word for a woman is “guatona.” It’s kind of rude how often this word is used by Chileans to describe other people, but there is an amazing restaurant called “El Guatón” where you can buy a sandwich that’s bigger than my head! It’s enough for four people to share, but we usually split it between two of us. (I’m always hungry here. I’ll turn into a “guatona” by the time I come back!)

la raja – literally this means “the butt-crack,” but it’s used to describe anything that’s good. (By the way, one of the most hilarious interactions I’ve had with my host mom was her trying to explain to me that it means “butt-crack.” Gestures were included.) If something is “la raja,” it means “It rocks!” It’s not a bad word, but it definitely falls into the category of slang and probably shouldn’t be used around professors, bosses, friends’ parents, etc. (The thing about my host family is they think it’s so funny when I use Chilean slang that I can pretty much say whatever bad words I want, and they just laugh and laugh…I don’t take advantage of it too much, but it was an especially helpful characteristic when I was trying to learn the difference between good words and bad words. And they do the same with me! A couple weeks ago my host brother used a really nasty English word at the table, and even though I was offended, it was really too funny to take seriously.)

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Falling in Love with Chile: A Photographic Journey

It comes to attention that I have done a TON in Chile, but the only things I write about are classes and day to day life in Santiago–plus, you know, once in a while, humiliation. So this post is going to be some photos that I’ve taken (or stolen from friends) of the various trips I’ve taken and things I’ve seen!

Small hint – if you click on each picture, you’ll see the full size image. I’m still rusty at this adding pictures to my blogs, so I’m sorry for how awkward it looks!

First off, skiing in the Andes. We went at the beginning of August, right as the optimum skiing season was ending. It was just BEAUTIFUL, a great day for skiing…or so they told me. It was my first time trying to ski, so I spent most of my time sitting on the ground and staring up at the sky, praying for a sudden burst of coordination. My prayers weren’t answered, but I did get some great photos from the mountains. If nothing else, at least I can say my first time skiing was in the Andes!

Skiing Picture

Snow-Capped Andes Mountains

Proof that I was actually there, with ski gear

The next trip wasn’t actually a trip. It was a hike, within the city, up El Cerro San Cristóbal. It’s a hill in the very center of the city, with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. We hiked up it on Friday morning. It’s absolutely beautiful, and was a great way to start off our weekend!

El Cerro San Cristóbal

A rooster hiding in the trees on the hill - proof that 10am actually IS the crack of dawn

Flowers on the hill

It's spring in Chile!

View from the hill

My gorgeous city! Santiago, as seen from the top of the hill

The last trip we took was to the beach! (If you click on that link, you will hear one of the dumbest songs ever. It is a song that uses both Spanish and English, performed by a Dutch singer, The language used is on a kindergarten level, in both languages…but it’s catchy!) On Saturday, we took a day trip out to Viña del Mar, a gorgeous coastal city located next to the important Chilean port city Valparaíso. The plan was to hit up both cities, but once we got to Viña, we just didn’t want to leave! Since the weather is warming up, it was the perfect day. Plus we saw Mike Sheffey, a fellow Wofford student studying in Viña/Valpo with a different program. (To read his blog, click here.) We got some great pictures!

Wofford Students in Viña

Wofford students next to El Reloj de Flores (Flower Clock)

The coast of Viña del Mar

Sunset

Sunset over the Pacific - my first one EVER

Nighttime on the water

If I ever come back to Chile, I'm living in this city

It’s been a beautiful, beautiful two months in Chile, and I am more fortunate than I can say. For the next two and a half months, I’m working on planning trips to Buenos Aires, El Valle del Elqui (one of the best places in the world to see stars), Pucon (a southern city with hot springs, hiking, and white water rafting), and Macchu Picchu (the famous Inca ruins).

Needless to say – more pictures to come!

Quick vocab lesson…

Andar a lo gringo – to go commando…or, in technical terms, to go without underwear. This has not yet had a useful application in my day-to-day Spanish, but it’s one of those phrases I want to keep on hand in case the occasion ever DOES arise.

Okay, that’s all I have today…I’ve been sitting on that phrase for the three weeks since I learned it, and I’m too excited about using it to think of any more!

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Chicken Soup for the Micro User’s Soul

I promised that my blog posts would be few and far between, and since it’s been more than two weeks since I last posted, I suppose I’m keeping that promise pretty well. Now, I’m sure everyone’s on the edge of their seats wondering just exactly what I’m up to here in Santiago, and to fulfill your curiosity, here is a new blog post about my daily struggles with the Chilean micro system. (In case any of you are curious, I am in my gas station again, eating Chinese takeout from the restaurant across the street and munching on some Oreos. And yes, I am getting strange looks.)

Before coming to Chile, I’d never been on a bus—you know, other than the school bus (which I don’t think counts, mostly because I’ve tried to erase every bus-related recollection from my memory). I just wish someone had told me what the micro system would be like, to make the adjustment a bit easier. For my blog post, I am going to do what nobody was truly able to do—give an insider scoop on getting from Point A to Point B in Santiago, Chile!

In thinking of how to set this particular post up, I decided to compare the Chilean micro to something at home, to make my stories a little more relevant. I am lucky enough to be from the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina, a city right on the coast. I spend most of my summers out on the water, and I will never forget the summer I learned to water ski. It was probably the most frustrating summer of my life; I sat on the boat and watched as my brother and sister got up and skied with what seemed like no effort, and meanwhile I was falling over myself left and right (and backwards and forwards). The more I think about the micro system and all the difficulties I’ve been having, the more similarities I find between skiing and using the buses in Chile. So without further ado, here is my crash course (pun NOT intended, although completely appropriate) on the Chilean micro system.

1. Feet placement! When you ski, you have to keep your feet pointed so that the skis are always pointed up and out…otherwise, you end up with a face full of water. I’ve found that keeping your feet firmly planted is important on the micro as well—but in this case, it’s to avoid the dreaded face-full of dirty bus floor. I’ve had the most success standing sideways with one foot towards the front of the bus and one towards the back. That way, you can brace yourself against sharp braking with the front foot, and against quick accelerating with the back one. It’s very technical, just like skiing—and, just like skiing, it prevents wipeouts!

2. Bend those knees! My mom used to scream this at me from the boat when I was skiing. As she explained, your knees act as shock absorbers, allowing you to better handle the rough terrain (or something like that…this was usually getting shouted at me as I was trying to clear my head from the face full of water, mentioned in step 1). These natural shock absorbers come in VERY handy on the bus. You never know what the bus is going to run over—speed bumps, poorly paved roads, the occasional Chilean who didn’t get out of the road in time…you know. But keep your knees bent, and you’re ready for anything!

3. Note the mood of the driver. When I ski, it’s usually my dad driving the boat. Now, 95% of the time, there are no problems…he’ll avoid the rough water so I can stay up for as long as possible. It’s that 5% of the time that’s a little scary. I could swear I see this little smile on my dad’s face as he revs the engine and speeds off into what looks like the wake of an aircraft carrier, with me in tow, frantically holding on. (To be fair, I imagine that watching me wipe out is HILARIOUS…plus I’m usually the one egging him on when it’s my brother or sister in back.) As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to gauge his moods so that I know which rides are going to be troublesome. It’s like that on the micro. Sometimes the drivers are super nice; if you tell them your stop, they’ll let you know when to get off so you don’t get lost. There are drivers who will let you on at red lights, or stop at unsanctioned paraderos (stops) just to make sure you don’t miss the bus. Other times, they remind me that evil DOES exist in the world. I had a driver shut the door in my face and not let me get on the bus, even though I ran up ten feet behind the last person who got on the bus. Another driver drove straight by the stop, completely ignoring me AND the five other people flagging the bus down. I’ve had a driver reading the paper WHILE driving the route, another one stop for a smoke break in the middle of the route, and countless others cackle as they send me tumbling down the aisle. A crabby driver isn’t worth getting off the bus for, but it’s something to keep in mind…always know what the driver is doing and how that will affect your micro experience.

4. Make a plan. Yes, skiing isn’t that complicated. But before you get out on the water, there is some sort of preparation involved…bringing life jackets, checking weather conditions, and making sure the boat is turned the right way (nothing like trying to get up AND turn around at the same time). With the micros, it’s no different. Transantiago.cl is the website I use to plan my routes. I put in where I am and where I want to go, and it gives me which buses to take, where to get off, and which connections I’ll need. Also, I bring hand sanitizer to avoid the dreaded “micro hands.”

5. Watch out for other people. On skis, you mostly just need to make sure you’re clear of other boats. On the micro, it’s a little more complicated. My least favorite Chileans with whom to share public transportation are the little old ladies. They may look sweet and grandmotherly, but they’re RUDE. While I find it perfectly acceptable to nudge people when they won’t get out of the way of the door when you’re trying to get off the bus, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been shoved aside so an old lady could get off the bus before me at my same stop! Then again, I also can’t count the number of times I’ve accidentally fallen into other people (incidents such as these led to the development of rules 1, 2, and 3, as it were), so I suppose I’m just as much as fault. Basically, my rule on the bus is the same as my rule out on the water—give everyone else their space, and hope the rude people get eaten by sharks! (Seriously, just joking, I’m really not that terrible of a person.)

6. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. This is never more evident out on the water than when a huge boat comes by and ruins a perfect run with an enormous wake, and never more evident in Chile than when you watch three buses pass you by within five minutes. I made a new game up…counting the number of buses I miss every morning during the two minutes it takes me to walk from my apartment complex to my bus stop. For whatever reason, in Chile, three buses will pass within five minutes of each other, then none will pass for fifteen. It makes no sense, but, well…there’s not a lot you can do but show up early to the bus stop!

7. Know when to get off. This is the final piece of advice I have. Staying up on skis longer than you are able leads to some pretty awful wipeouts in some unexpected places. Missing your stop on the micro can be disastrous as well. Whether on skis or on the micro, make sure you don’t overstay your welcome—otherwise you end up bass-ackward in the middle of somewhere you probably don’t want to be.

And now that you are all micro-ready, I suppose it’s time to teach you all some new public transportation vocabulary!

Permiso – Literally, “permission.” However, here it’s used more like “excuse me.” There is a joke among Americans in my program that goes “Permiso PUSH!” It’s funny because it’s true. After you hear “permiso,” you have approximately 0.8 seconds to hop on out of the way, before you get SHOVED out of the way (more often than not by little old Chilean ladies, who are secretly ferocious).

taco – Traffic. If there is a lot of taco, the micros are ten times worse than usual! In trying to visit a friend (less than two and a half from my house) during rush hour, I spent an hour on the bus (with at least 60 other people, on a bus meant for 30 or 40, tops). The best thing to go is get where you need to go BEFORE traffic picks up, or walk if at all possible!

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“En las estrellas, tus ojos ver, cuando tus fotos me siento a ver”

Let me first explain the title of the post. Every student at Wofford who takes 200 level Spanish has to memorize this one song by Juanes (who is kind of like the Justin Timberlake of the Latin American world, except without the embarrassing foray into boy band-ery). The song is called “Fotografía,” which of course means “Photograph.” Since this blog post is solely photos, I thought it would be appropriate.

(Oh, and translated, the lyrics mean “In the stars, I see your eyes, when I sit down to look at your photos.” Much prettier in Spanish, if you ask me.)

Alright, without further ado, pictures!

This first one is the view from my apartment window (it used to be my bedroom, but I moved into a different room in the apartment). It’s also the first picture I took in Chile!

This next one is a view of Santiago from the top of El Cerro Santa Lucía. Santiago has awful pollution problems, so it’s not a fantastic picture, but I love it. This is my city!

This is a picture of some graffiti I saw on the street. It’s nothing major, but the public art is one of my favorite things about the city. It’s considered so ugly in most places in America, but here, it’s a major form of public expression.

This is Valparaíso. We went there my first weekend in Santiago (and a smaller group of us is going again in two weeks!). It’s a gorgeous city, with a ton of graffiti and really bright colors.

Viña del Mar is the city al lado de (right next to) Valpo (nickname for Valparaíso). This is a picture of the first time I’ve ever touched the Pacific Ocean…well, other than Hawaii. But I was little and don’t remember. We were lucky that it was so gorgeous for our beach outing!

The mountains are really pretty, especially after the rain gets the pollution out of the air. Charleston girls don’t see the mountains very often, that’s for sure! (Excuse the Wilson sporting goods store.)

However, one thing I do recognize? Palm trees!

This is a nothing special, just the bridge a couple blocks from my house, but it was on one of the (unfortunately very rare) perfectly sunny days in Santiago. Also unfortunately, I took this picture on my way to study the beautiful Sunday away.

I would be silly not to include pictures of the famous Peteco, our devil cat. (I say devil cat only because he might actually be the devil incarnate…but I actually kind of like him.)

Now, for my last picture, I’ll include a photo of some of my favorite people in Chile…La Kirsten and Cristian. Having Chilean friends has made the whole study abroad experience worthwhile; if I wanted to spend my entire semester with Americans, I would have stayed in America. I’ve learned more Spanish from spending time with Chileans my age than from all seven years of my Spanish classes put together.

And, a Spanish lesson.

“fresco”: Fresh, but not like fruit. It’s more used like “sassy.” For example, when we sit down to eat dinner, only to find Peteco ready to eat in one of our chairs….”Peteco, ¡qué fresco!”

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“And it’s fine by me, if we never leave. We can live like this forever, it’s fine by me”

Let me set the scene for you, readers. It is 3:22 p.m. in Santiago, Chile (that’s right, the time is different; as of last Saturday night, Chile is one hour ahead of South Carolina time). I am sitting in front of my computer with a bottle of water and a giant Hershey bar, listening to a non-stop playlist of Counting Crows, Santana, and Ed Sheeran, and sitting in my new favorite study spot – the Spacio Uno gas station two blocks from my house. Yeah, I said it—a gas station. It seems weird, but really, it’s the best place to study. Gas stations here are a lot different than in the States; they are like what you would get if you mixed a Starbucks with a Wendy’s with a…well, a gas station. Plus this particular one has free wi-fi, so, you know, it’s pretty much heaven.

I realize it seems a bit strange, hanging out in a gas station, but to be honest, a lot of the stuff that’s happened to me in the last six and a half weeks has been a little strange. Since I don’t have anything specific to talk about today, I think I’ll just ramble on about my strange Chilean experiences. Close encounters of the foreign kind, I’ll call it.

(Note: I would be embarrassed about all of this if it happened in the United States, but it’s Chile. I’m a foreigner for the first time in my life, and I’m enjoying every bit of it!)

Story #1: The Bus

After class on Thursday, I went to Kirsten’s house to do homework (which, unfortunately, means “to eat an entire bag of Doritos and sit on Facebook for three hours”). Since she lives in a different comuna than I do, I have to take a bus to get home. I leave her house at 9:00, and of course, get lost on my way to the bus stop…but no worries, my natural sense of direction (ha, ha) kicks in after a few minutes and I walk up to the bus stop—only to watch three of my buses surge past. Slightly annoyed (but more resigned to the fact that the Chilean micro system will ALWAYS get the better of me), I sit down on the bench and waitefor the next bus.

After ten or fifteen minutes of waiting (in a safe area, fortunately), I get on the bus, and, to my relief, there is a seat available on the bus. It’s not that I really need to sit down; it’s more like I feel bad when I stand up and inevitably smack everyone on the bus with my enormous backpack. Plus the backpack throws off my balance, when I’m already convinced that Santiago bus drivers set a quota for how many people they can send flying per bus ride (the best was when the bus driver slammed on the gas as I bent over to pick up my dropped phone…first legitimate somersault I’ve ever done).

I’m sitting on the bus when a friend notices me and comes over to talk to me (let me first say that he probably saw me bouncing my head and singing along to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z before he said hello), and we exchange the usual pleasantries. As we’re talking, I notice a man with clown makeup board the bus. I think nothing of it; it’s completely normal in Santiago for performers to hop on buses and try to collect tip money from travelers (Kirsten and I have decided that we’re going to start singing on the bus to avoid paying bus fare…videos coming never).

That is, I think nothing of it until he starts talking to me. That’s when I look around and realize I’m the only gringa on the bus. I try to tell the clown I’m Chilean so he’ll leave me alone, but he is having none of that (eh, it was worth a shot). He tells me he is a maricón (rude word for a homosexual), then decides to compare our tastes in men. He asks me how I’m liking Chilean men, asks me if I prefer my men older or younger, and asks me when I’m getting myself a Chilean boyfriend. At this point, everyone is staring at me and smirking, my face is BRIGHT red, and I’m desperately looking out the window and praying that my stop is coming soon. Once I see the white building that means my stop is coming up, I mash the orange button (the button that tells the bus driver to stop…because if you don’t push it, you’re not getting off the bus!), and run off the bus, barely saying goodbye to my friend. For a socially awkward person like me, having a bus full of people stare at you is hell on earth—and my cheeks were on fire to prove it.

Well, as it turns out, I only have one really good story in me today. Here are some other completely random observations/happenings though!

1. Sometimes I feel like men here have never seen a white girl. They act like we’re aliens! When Kirsten and I walk down the street together, it’s not uncommon for men to stare at us or whistle at us. However, what WAS uncommon was the group of men who gave us a standing ovation on the street…and the men who came up to us at a restaurant and demanded that we take pictures with them…and the other men who took pictures of us without our knowledge/permission at a club.

2. Although my Spanish is starting to get better now (to the point where I saw a movie in Spanish yesterday and actually understood it), at first I would just smile and nod whenever I didn’t understand something. This got me into some uncomfortable situations…believe it or not, not every question is a yes/no question! (I also accidentally told somebody that I do drugs…then spent the next hour trying to explain to him that I’m not a druggie…I’m just so bad at Spanish that I didn’t understand the question.)

3. I discovered that the best food in Chile can’t be found in supermarkets or restaurants—it’s in carts on the side of the road! Best find so far? A cart where, for one US dollar, you buy a large helping of meat on a stick. In theory, it’s gross, but in practice…well, it’s still pretty gross. But it’s delicious!

4. Speaking of food, the best part of having Chilean friends with apartments is that they let us cook for them whenever we want—as long as they get to eat too! The other night, Kirsten and I made a typical American breakfast: pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon (I actually cooked a significant portion of it myself, if you can believe it). We thought it was delicious, especially when we put chocolate chips in the pancakes—but I’m not sure our friends felt the same. They complained that it’s weird to have salty food (bacon) with sweet food (chocolate chips). We told them to shut their mouths and broaden their horizons, though, so we didn’t hear any complaints after that!

5. Today at lunch, I found out that Elvis isn’t dead. He’s actually alive and well, living one country over, in Argentina! Amazing, the things you learn in a foreign country.

6. One of my favorite parts about being friends with Kirsten is her host family. Her host parents have a 3 year old granddaughter named Matilde (“Mati”), who is just adorable. She’s too afraid to talk to me—which is just as well, because I have no idea how to talk to a child in Spanish. Seeing her really makes me miss coaching and my swim team kids though!

7. I think I finally stopped looking completely out of place—sometimes, people even come up to me and ask me for directions! Unfortunately, even though I don’t look it, I always FEEL completely out of place, so usually I just say “No sé” or (my preferred way of handling it) point in a random direction and giggle to myself as they walk off.

I think that’s all I have for today. I’m sorry this blog post was kind of all over the place—I’m just not in the right mood to focus on any one subject…plus I’m all out of chocolate! But, before I leave, some Chilean Spanish lessons:

“pololo/polola”: The Chilean word for boyfriend/girlfriend. “But, Ashleigh, we learned in Spanish class that the word for boyfriend is ‘novio’!” I know, I know. But here, a “novio” is a fiancé. “Pololo” is a little less serious, but still a defined relationship, perfectly appropriate to change your Facebook relationship status for. “Pololear” is the verb form of it, meaning to date somebody.

Example: Most people who’ve been to Chile say the best way to improve your Spanish is to find a Chilean pololo!

“fome”: Pronounced “foe-may,” this is a word for something that’s really boring. Classes are fome, writing essays about the Chilean healthcare system is fome (guess what I’m doing later?), and this blog post is probably very fome.

Example: I have to write an essay about the Chilean healthcare system… ¡Qué fome!

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