Arrival in Chile

My experience in Chile started on July 23rd, 2009. I left Minnesota with mixed feelings of apprehension, nervousness, and sadness but also extreme excitement. I traveled alone, nearly opposite of lightly, and with much on my mind. Still everything went smoothly and I arrived in Santiago after just about a half of a day of flying (my flight had two legs separated by a lay-over in Texas).

I landed in Santiago a little after 7am, where the temperature was 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It took only a few minutes to find my bags and get through immigration despite my awkward Spanish. As soon as you leave the customs area you get bombarded by a pack of insistent taxi drivers who don't believe you when you say you have a ride. In addition to them, I was greeted by an older gentleman in a brown suede jacket, tidy looking tie, and scarf with neatly combed white hair and round glasses; he worked for PUCV and had a sign with four names on it, one of them mine.

The trip to Valparaíso/Viña del mar took around an hour and a half. Two other American girls in the exchange program rode with me. Our chauffeur talked a lot about Chile and this and that as drove by it. I picked up most of what he was saying but was so tired that a lot went right through my ears without really reaching my brain. He talked mostly about fruit and the origin of street names. In Viña, the other two girls got dropped off first in big apartment buildings, just a handful of blocks from each other. My host house was a little bit further away in a quieter area with more houses than apartments and shops. We got to my house, which was surrounded by a tall cement wall and were enthusiastically greeted by one of my hosts, Cecilia, who heartily welcomed me and took me inside. She gave me a tour and introduced me to the family "help" - the cook and really, the life blood of the house, Armando, a man in his late 50's who had been with the family for over 20 years.

After I carried my ridiculously heavy suitcases up to my room and got my bearings a little, Cecilia took me on a drive in her little white car all around Valpo. It was really nice, she showed me where to catch the micros (buses) to get to school, the big ocean port, the financial district, the congress, some old buildings, some quaint little streets, etc. From the very beginning I was struck by these cities. Viña and Valpo are so picturesque. The buildings are all colorful and each one has its own distinct character. The streets wind about somewhat illogically in certain parts of the city, especially in Valpo and are, in a lot of cases perched up on steep hills giving the whole area a much more three-dimensional feeling than elsewhere. On my first day there I was already reporting home about how charming and almost poetic I found it.

After our drive, we came home for lunch and Cecilia introduced me to her sister, Veronica, my other host. Cecelia was in her mid fifties and worked as an accountant or broker or something (I never actually understood). Veronica was in her late 50's and spent most of her time restoring antiques to be sold in her friend's shop downtown. Neither of them were married so with Armando it was just the four of us. From the beginning everyone was very welcoming to me, willing to answer questions and help me get situated. On my second day the three of us took a drive down to Reñaca, the next town down the coast- a major tourist hub during the summer months.

By Chilean standards the house I stayed in was nice and relatively large. The house was clean and nicely furnished. There were antiques and random pieces of art everywhere and a little yard with some really beautiful flowers and a small in-ground pool. Being on the coast, Viña was warmer than the 30 degrees into which I arrived in Santiago but it was definitely cold and the house had no central heat which made it feel very chilled for the first 2 months that I was there. My own bedroom had a little desk and a TV in it. The desk proved exceedingly useful as nobody spent much time in the common areas of the house except for lunch but the TV got demoted to the closet for taking up too much room and never being used. Unlike some of the other exchange students, I had access to a relatively stable wi-fi connection at my house which proved to be extremely convenient especially for homework, entertainment during the cold early days, and generally connecting with home via facebook, email, and late night skype sessions when everyone else in the house was sleeping.

During my first few days in Chile I did very little. It was cold outside and I didn't have any friends there yet. I got there almost a week before orientation so I had nothing I needed to go to in the first place. I was itching to get out and "experience Chile" but at the same time having a few days to learn my house a little and sort of ease into everything was probably a constructive, healthy way to begin. The first few days somewhere new can feel like being hit by a truck. You're tired from traveling, from trying to think in a different language, and just generally from the consumption of all things new. Being so excited for so long about the trip, I never took the time to stop and think about how hard it is, especially at first, to be thousands of miles away from the people who love you most, especially in the beginning before you feel much love in your new surroundings. I didn't actually get depressed but it was certainly more taxing than I had previously thought and I had some definite low moments. I just kept reminding myself how badly I had wanted it all and that it was only a matter of time before Chile started to feel like a new home. That along with encouragement from Minnesota really got me through the first few days.

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