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.
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:
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.
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?”
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.
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:
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!!