An election abroad

Regardless of what your political views are, I think we can all agree this this election year was tumultuous to say the least. The election became more about the morality and character of the candidates rather than their views of issues. It has been incredibly fascinating to watch from afar as all the events of the last several months have unfolded. There is something to be said about removing yourself physically from the situation to give some perspective. Living in Chile while America fought each other over key issues such as immigration, gender discrimination, racial bias, and environmental change (just to name a few) has given me such a unique perspective on how these issues really are in our country in relation to another country.

I spent the last two months introducing myself to people and hearing the same response everytime “ah la futura presidenta de los Estados Unidos!” (ah, the future president of the United States) or “ah como Hillary Clinton!” (ah, like Hillary Clinton). I seriously got one of those two responses 2/3 of the time when I would introduce myself to someone or a group of people. It really showed me just how big the United States’ influence is around the world. Most people in the US could not tell you where Chile is on the map, much less who their current president is and yet almost everyone here knows our presidential candidates, and can voice an opinion on the election. The first thing everyone here wants to talk about is politics and most people will blatantly ask you which candidate you support. In the US there is a bit of taboo on just straight out asking at the dinner table “Hey, pass the salt oh and also who are you voting for in the presidential election?” But it is the absolute opposite here. Even when I expressed that I did not care to talk about politics or the candidates, the conversation always seemed to steer back there again. During many of my conversations with people about politics here, the most common theme was how the election would affect their lives because they realize just how big of an impact the president of the United States has on their small country. Many of them voiced their concerns for the effect of the election on Chile’s economy and other political issues in their country. Our choice in candidate is a global symbol for many things to many different people in so many more countries than we could ever imagine.

In an earlier blog post, I expressed the importance of global perspective. But after experiencing an election abroad, I have an even greater appreciation for the global perspective I have gained. The United States’ impact on the rest of the world is so grand and it is was impossible for me to fathom until I had people begging and pleading for me, a 20 year old, to vote. This experience has forever changed the way I will view politics in America because the reality is that it is not just politics in America, it is politics everywhere.

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Understanding importance

There is a certain gravity that comes along with being included in cultural events that hold significant meaning for the people in the society you have inserted yourself into. This semester has been a constant stream of important cultural events in which I have been graciously included in. Whether it is Independence Day celebrations here in Chile during Fiestas Patrias, visits to a tree with significant spiritual meaning for the Mapuche people, or most recently the opportunity to march with the Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires Argentina. Because I have studied these cultures, I understand the historical significance and context. But you can’t understand the gravity of the situation that these events hold for the people unless you actually go and experience them. When in Buenos Aires, I attended and participated in a march with the Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo. These women are the mothers and grandmothers of the 30,000 victims that were abducted, tortured, murdered, or forced to disappear at the hands of the government during the military dictatorship. I did a project on them last year in a Spanish class at Wofford and ever since have been fascinated by their work in relation to their family members and human rights. They have marched in the same plaza in front of the government house every Thursday since 1977. They still do this today pleading for the remains of their loved ones and in memory of the lives lost during the dictatorship. So needless to say, I was very excited to have the opportunity to join them in their march. I knew it was going to be an incredible thing to experience and witness, but I had in no way prepared myself for the emotional significance that this practice still holds. Seeing these women who are now in their upper 90s making the trek around the square when they have trouble simply standing all the while pleading for information about their children 40 years after the dictatorship ended was nothing short of incredible. You can get a glimpse into the pain they experience not knowing where their family is and stand with them in solidarity for human rights. The emotional gravity of this is something that unless you have experienced it, is impossible to fully comprehend. It is something that is felt and cannot be explained. Participating in events such as these and understanding the emotional, spiritual, or cultural gravity they hold in a different culture and society is one of the most important things you can do abroad because then you begin to identify with their sentiments, thoughts, and experiences. As you attempt to coexist in a culture so different from your own, being able to identify with the people through feelings is a very effective way to make connections with the culture.

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Chapod, Temuco, Chile

Chapod, Temuco,  Chile

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Chapod, Temuco, Chile

Chapod, Temuco, Chile

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“I think this is rock bottom”

Yesterday morning I woke up to the most dreadful text from my program mate. It reads: “So I have lice.”

*scratches head*

Because we are constantly in and out of schools of varying ages and income levels, there is a very likely chance that at some point during the trip one or all of us will contract it. With this in mind and my head slightly itchy, I automatically concluded that I was infected with lice and man this could not have come at worst time. In less than 24 hours I would leave from a two week excursion to Buenos Aires, Argentina, but not before I also finished my first 10 page research report on my own investigations and packed up my life in Santiago. I immediately texted my mom in the USA and told her what I feared. She responded like any mother would, with a list of details instructions of how to deal with this and a sad face emoji. After receiving this message, I burst into tears out of stress from school, travel, and now lice. So there I was, sitting in my bed not wanting to infect anywhere else in the house, eating my breakfast, completely alone in my house, sobbing about lice, in the middle of Santiago, Chile. I was simultaneously laughing at myself bawling about lice and just kept thinking to myself “wow this is rock bottom, I literally could not get lower than this right now.” All I wanted was to be at home with my all-knowing mom in my bed. Thankfully, I kept receiving reassuring messages from my host mom that everything would be fine and it could be easily taken care of. That accompanied by the outpouring of love I was receiving from my loved ones in the USA helped me pull myself together and be thankful it was just lice and not a parasite or Zika virus. I followed my mom’s instructions and went and bought lice shampoo and a comb, and thankfully my host mom was able to confirm that I did not actually have lice and was more than good to go for my trip to Buenos Aires.

I share this story because I think that everyone that goes abroad has a time like this. A time where they are stressed, worn down, scared, overwhelmed, and so so homesick. We are spending 3 months away from anything that is familiar, how could we go this long without having one or two or five (lol) of these moments. But the good news is that these are just moments, they are not the whole trip, they are not every day, and they come and go so fleetingly. And for every moment you have like this abroad, I promise you have a thousand unforgettably good ones.

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Unlikely places

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the south of Chile to the city of Temuco and more specifically the small pueblo of Chapod. We headed to Chapod to live with indigenous families study intercultural education between Chilean society and the indigenous Mapuche community. Prior to the trip, we had a group orientation on what to expect throughout the week. As my program director explained how our homes would be, what amenities we would have, and what Chapod is like, I was choking back tears and trying to keep my anxiety at bay. But throughout the week, I learned about the benefits of an adventurous spirit and what amazing experience unexpected opportunities can bring.

In their native language, Mapudungun, Mapuche literally means “people of the land;” Mapu meaning land and che meaning people. This reflects on their deep and personal connection to and through the earth in a spiritual and emotional way. They live a very different lifestyle than anything I have ever experienced before. Before the trip, my program director explained than some of the houses may not have indoor bathrooms or hot water for showers and that we would need to bring sleeping bags to protect us at night from possible fleas in addition to a very specific brand of bug repellent that we were to wear every day, all day. None of our homestays would have wifi which meant little contact with family and friends throughout the week. This orientation left me shaking in my boots for the journey I was about to embark on because I was going into such an unfamiliar situation. I packed my warmest clothes, my never-been-used before hiking boots, and all the bug repellent I could and headed for a completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience with the attitude that if I was going to do this, I was going to go all in and REALLY experience all of it to the fullest.

Upon arriving in Chapod and settling in with my host family, I was immediately put at ease because my homestay had an indoor bathroom AND a warm shower. This may not sound like much, but trust me when I say this is a serious luxury in Chapod. I had a host mom, dad, little sister, and little brother. They were so incredibly welcoming and loving. My house was incredibly clean and cozy, I was starting to wonder if my program director had mistakenly told us about a different place. I felt more comfortable in my homestay in Chapod than in my homestay in Santiago! And I bonded with my host family more in one week than I had the entirety of the first half of the semester in Santiago. Our days were filled with conversations around the dinner table about attitudes towards intercultural education and Mapuche philosophy. My afternoons included soccer games with my host siblings and laughing until our bellies hurt about our little host brother trying to kick the ball that was way too big for him and making sopaipillas with my host mom. Being loved on by a family was one of the most impactful parts of the whole trip. Their openness and willingness to share their culture and home is something I will forever be grateful for.

Throughout the week we had different seminars on Mapuche culture, philosophy, and the reality of the situation between the Mapuche people and the state of Chile. We also had the opportunity to help build a Ruka, a typical Mapuche gathering space that essentially a very large hut, with members of the community and to have several typical Mapuche meals. The conversations that I had with some men in the Mapuche community about interculturalism and open mindedness will forever be treasured in my mind.  After helping to construct the Ruka, the men in the community taught us how to play Palín, a Mapuche field game that is very similar to field hockey. Anyone that knows me knows that I am absolutely the least athletic person in the entire world, but by golly I gave it my all and had the time of my life and even managed to score two goals. The rest of the week was spent observing schools and speaking with students about their experiences with intercultural and bilingual education.

While in Chapod, I found an appreciation for not having a plan, for the unexpected, for wandering through random fields and finding hidden bridges over forgotten lagoons, and for learning to live like someone else. I truly lived in the moment, took dives into unknown situations, and put myself out there into slightly uncomfortable situations to further my experience and I could not be more grateful. Chapod, you taught me more about life in one week than I could have ever asked for. While abroad it is so important to keep your heart, your mind, and your eyes open because you just might find this kind of life changing experience in the most unlikely of places.

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Choosing the right program

When searching for a study abroad program, I focused on several different factors. Some of those factors included what would challenge me, what would help me to improve my Spanish the most, and what would have the greatest impact on my future as a student and then as a professional, but more importantly in my everyday life. After lots of searching, I decided on the program I am currently in: School of International Training- Comparative Education and Social Change, Chile. This choice was not easy or comfortable and in a lot of ways was a foreshadowing of what my actual time in Chile would be like. This program would definitely challenge me in ways I could not have even imagined. And in the program’s efforts to challenge me, my Spanish has grown immeasurably. This last one was the hardest to decide on because I knew that whichever abroad program I chose, I would never be the same. But now, 3 weeks in to my time here in Santiago, I am absolutely sure that I made the best decision for me and the experiences I was looking for abroad.

I knew that when I made my decision to study in Chile that I would be saying goodbye to any opportunity of studying near to my friends. This may not seem like a feat for some people, but for me it was a very difficult decision to make and it is currently a hard reality to deal with. If I have learned nothing else so far (which I most certainly have), it is that I love my people. I love my family and my friends and what makes experiences wonderful for me is not what I am actually doing, but who I am doing it with. I did not realize that it was the people around me who brought me my joy rather than what I was doing. This time away from my people has definitely challenged me to evaluate where my happiness stems from and to figure out how to make my own.

When I first arrived in Chile, I was very confident in my Spanish skills. I have been taking it since the 6th grade and this is my major, so it should be easy right?! Wrong. So so so very wrong. Chilean’s are known throughout Latin America for speaking incredibly fast, using their own words for things like avocado and traffic, and very poor grammar. It only took me a few days to realize that just because you know all the rules of a language does not mean that you know the language. It has been a long frustrating road so far of not being able to keep up with conversations at my host family’s dinner table, misinterpretation, and not being able to fully express myself the way I would normally do in English. But slowly, I am comprehending more, able to crack jokes every once in a while with my host family, and am more confident in my speaking skills. Without this program, I would still only know classroom Spanish.

This last point on my must have checklist for my abroad program was the most important to me. I knew when choosing this program that it would not provide me with a “typical abroad experience.” But wow oh wow am I glad it has not. This past Friday, my program mates and I had the opportunity to travel to a very historic, but poverty stricken neighborhood of Santiago and teach in a public school. At La Escuela La Victoria, we paired off and taught classes of different ages about the United States and our culture while simultaneously having a cultural exchange with the Chilean students. I have never been greeted so warmly and with such enthusiasm as the teachers, administrators, and students greeted us as school on Friday morning. To be in a school with so much life and to be surrounded by students that wanted to be taught and teachers that were invested in their students’ lives as much as they were their educations was truly inspiring. I was reminded from them about why educators do what they do. Being at that school, teaching those students made all the challenges, hardships, and everything else from this trip disappear. And that is how I know that I chose the right study abroad program.

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The importance of global perspective

My program in Chile is focused on comparing the education systems in different parts of Latin America and the social changes that occurred to develop the societies into what they are today. In studying these things, we have focused a lot on the human rights violations during the military dictatorship specifically in Chile during its 17 year reign. Learning about the history of Chile has been very enlightening yet somewhat disturbing.
Chile’s military dictatorship which was headed by Augusto Pinochet took place between the years 1973-1990. On September 11, 1973 a military coup majorly financed and resourced by the United States against the socialist government headed by elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, successfully established the military dictatorship that would change the lives of Chileans for more than 17 years. During his reign, Pinochet established a new constitution that seriously lacked in providing civil rights to the general public. But allowed (and continually allows) amnesty for many of the military personnel, police, and civil police who were involved in torturing, assassinating, and forcing disappearances of citizens that supported the communist and socialist regime that ruled prior to the military coup. The U.S. had just 20 years before this aided in the end of the Holocaust, yet assisted Pinochet and the military regime monetarily and with resources while Pinochet committed similar atrocities and gross violations of human rights such as concentration camps, detention centers that hid mass torture, and much more. For me, what was even more devastating than learning about all the atrocious acts that were committed, was learning that the United States had a role in assisting the dictator into power. Not a single one of my history classes in the United States has ever focused on the history of Latin America, but we obviously were involved. It pains me to know that I did not know this part of my own country’s history.
But while, there were many, many violations of human rights, there are still a lot of Chilean citizens that continually support Pinochet.
I have had the wonderful opportunity to live with a family here in Santiago. This family happens to be in favor of the military dictatorship, the US’ involvement, and Pinochet. They are fiercely capitalist and believe that without the US’ involvement or the coup, that a civil war would have broken out and the cost of life would have been much higher. They also believe that the economy in Chile is much better for having a free market which Pinochet instituted. They understand that Pinochet committed a lot of atrocities, but hold the belief that Chile is better for having had Pinochet as a leader. It was interesting to hear things from a different perspective and their justifications for Pinochet’s rule.
This situation is just one of the reasons why global perspective and travel are so important, without it we may miss out on a part of history or only get one side of the story. In learning about all the things I have not previously learned in my schools in America, I have a more complete history of the world. We often say that we learn history to ensure that the bad things do not occur again, but how can we ensure that if the only history we are getting is from one country’s perspective? In getting information from multiple sides about the military dictatorship and the United States’ involvement in it, I was able to form my own opinion about the event rather than just accepting that the side who told the story was right. I am so thankful for the mountains of global perspective I have already obtained in my short two and half weeks here so far. I can only imagine how much more it will develop in the next few months.

 

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Santiago, Chile

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Estoy aqui

I made it! After a long 9 hour flight, I finally made it to Santiago. There had been so much anticipation and planning leading up to this trip that it does not even feel like I am actually here and it is really happening. After stepping off the plane, I was immediately bombarded with the fact that I did not know what I was doing. I have never traveled by myself, let alone to another country! I had to fill out my claims form by myself, go through immigration, customs, get a taxi (which in Latin America is both easy and difficult at the same time), and make my way to the hostel all by myself. When I got through immigration and customs and looked towards the doors to leave the airport, I felt myself tense up in preparation for what I was about to do, venture into a foreign country completely alone. As the doors opened to the outside I was engulfed in the chilly winter air, the smell of a booming city with a pollution problem, a hundred men shouting at me telling me that I had made the wrong decision for my taxi, and a lot of people assuming that I did not speak Spanish and therefore could not understand them. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. But once I got to my hostel and checked in and I had a moment to sit down and reflect on my travels, I realized for the first time that I strong enough to do all this on my own, that I could go to a foreign country and make my way around. I finally felt comfortable in this journey.

I have spent the last several days with my program on an orientation trip to Algarrobo, Chile. It is a beach town just a short drive from Santiago. There we were better able to acclimate ourselves with certain aspects of Chile before trying to take on the big city. I have come to realize that there are many aspects of Chile that are the same as what I am used to, but there are also many small things that I never even thought about because they are so natural for me that I never considered that they would be different.

1. It is Winter now in Chile. It is warmish during the days, but in the mornings and evenings it is very chilly (pun intended). In Chile, gas and electricity are very expensive so businesses, houses, schools, hotels, etc. do not use heat very often or at all! It was so strange to walk into a building after being outside and having it be the same (if not colder) temperature! This is a small thing, but something I never imagined would have been different.
2. Chilean people eat a lot of bread. Bread for breakfast, cake in between breakfast and lunch, bread for lunch, cake for Once, and bread for dinner. SO MUCH BREAD. We keep hearing that there is only one big meal of the day, but we have had 3 big meals everyday with lots of snacks in between. Perhaps my idea of a meal is just not yet aligned with las Chilenas.
3. In their culture, Gringa is a term of endearment. Usually a word that connotes a rich white person, here it is used here to describe anyone with blonde hair and lighter skin. They use it for their friends, little children in the street, etc. as a term of endearment.

With noticing these small differences, I am beginning to appreciate each one as well. The Chilean culture so far has been so beautiful and I can’t wait to see what other small things I am able to discover.

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