Story written by Emily Cabot.
On August 19th 2016, I said my goodbyes to my parents, and boarded a plane with one other student from Grand Valley. We were about to spend the next four months living and learning in a foreign country, a hemisphere away from my home. We arrived in Chile after 20 hours of flying to catch a bus to Chillan, our new home until December. I lived in a quaint house with one woman. She has three kids, all older and living in the capital of Santiago. Chillan was a smaller city, comparable in size to Grand Rapids but much smaller buildings. I would catch a local bus, called micros, that stopped right in front of my house each day to class.
Chile’s government is still relatively young since facing a dictatorship in the late 1900’s. The people’s solution to show discontentment to the government was to protest. My class schedule was delayed by a month after my arrival due to protests concerning education in years past. There was also an occasion that the country’s garbage system protested, leading to piles of trash in the streets until the government subsided and agreed to pay the workers more. It was incredible to see real problems and how a country different than my own tries to fix them.
My host mom one of the sweetest women I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Since I was the only one living in the house with her, we quickly grew close. She had a dachshund named Pelly who also became a loyal friend. Erika loved to make sure I had enough to eat, always piling on mountains of rice to my plate. In Chile, the largest meal of the day is lunch, almuerzo, followed by a small meal, once, that consists of tea and bread with meats, jams, and butter. This new eating schedule was strange to get used to compared to my hectic, eat on the run, schedule in Michigan. I quickly grew to love it though, as meals were times to share with family and friends, to take a break and share in laughter and conversation.
Learning the language while abroad was the most challenging thing I’ve had to do. In Chile it is not sufficient to simply learn Spanish. I had been studying Spanish for 6 years before I stepped foot in South America, but Chileans don’t speak Spanish. Their conversation is riddled with slang words, chileanismos, and this strange word addition “po”. Most of the time I was trying to decipher the colloquialisms from the language I learned in the classroom. But that’s the beauty of immersion in a country. Learning a language is mostly learning the culture and mannerisms that accompany the words. One of my favorite things to do was to go on excursions with my host mom to her friends and listen while they gossiped over tea and cakes.
Another difference that I needed to grow accustomed to was the pace of Chileans. Everyone walked slow, was late, and no one seemed like they were in a rush. Life in the United States is always go, go, go to meetings, and class, and friends, and studying. Once I grew accustomed to this change, I was able to take some time and really enjoy the simple things around me.
One of my favorite things about Chile, aside the wonderful people who live there, is the natural beauty it has. It was only an hour and half drive to the ocean in one direction, and the mountains in the other. The landscapes are breathtaking with the Atacama desert in the north and the Patagonia mountains in the south. I fell in love with backpacking and hiking during my time here. Something about the land there inspired me and I feel a stronger connection to the Earth because of it.
While I was learning all of these amazing things about Chile, the people, and the environment, I also learned an incredible amount about myself. A large part of personality is the way we say our words, the choice of words, and intention are huge factors when it comes to conveying your thoughts to another person. When you don’t know the correct words and have to make due, your personality is often muddled. While abroad, I learned I was patient and quiet. I became more of an observer than a participator. It was also extremely gratifying when I eventually gained enough confidence to be able to carry an entire conversation.
I also learned there is power in nonverbal communication. Love is a universal language. My host mom introduced me to her entire family throughout the time I was there. My host sister also got married while I was there, which really solidified the bonds I felt with this family. She always said there was something special about our relationship. I could feel those things, and will always think of her as a second mother to me.
Other than going to the wedding, I was also able to experience a few birthdays, a graduation, and a baptism. I was right in the middle of the cultural celebrations that were similar to my own, but also completely different. I really saw cultural phenomena of a country completely different than my own. Yet at the same time were all people, who want to love, travel, and experience new things.
My experience abroad literally changed my life. I learned more than I thought was possible. The impacts people had on me and the memories I made will be with me forever. I hope to go back in a year or two and see more of the continent that has half of my heart.