Since I’m based in Spain, I have a lot of experience traveling around and documenting nuances of European life. While I absolutely love writing about cobblestone streets, Ryanair destinations and strong espresso traditions, I’d like to highlight experiences from other parts of the globe. So I’m thrilled to introduce a new weekly series to my blog, In Other Wor(l)ds, where I’ll feature young female expats, either former or current, who have lived, traveled, or worked for a substantial period of time in a non-European country. First up, my dear friend Maya (who may teach English in Basque Country next year, fingers crossed!):
Maya Martinez is a 22 year-old recent graduate of UCSB, where she majored in Global Studies. She currently lives in Berkeley, CA, and works as an assistant teacher with a science education program for elementary school children. In June of 2011, she moved to South to Santiago for 13 months to study abroad in Chile for the entirety of her junior year of college.
On Choosing Chile: I chose to study abroad in Chile because I wanted to do a “full immersion,” i.e. taking all of my classes in Spanish at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. I also knew that I wanted to go somewhere other than Europe, so I Google-imaged (yes, I just made that a verb) Chile, and I was hooked. I had never been to South America and the allure of a new place definitely contributed to my decision to go there.
On Chilean Spanish: I had studied Spanish for four years in high school and about two years at UCSB before leaving. I thought myself fairly fluent, but when I arrived in Chile I realized they speak a completely different version of Spanish than what I had learned. At first there was absolutely a language barrier, but after a few months, I picked up the chilenismos and found that I was able to keep up with conversations.
Chilean Spanish is so unlike any other Spanish that essentially all of the vocabulary is slang. My favorite word I learned there was probably “filo.” It’s kind of like “Whatever, screw it, doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it.” I just think it’s fun to say: “Yapo, tengo un montón de tarea, pero filo, vamos a carretear.” (I just realized that there’s more than one slang term in there. Translation: Yeah, I have a ton of homework, but whatever, let’s party.)
On Food: The food was the biggest culture shock! That sounds bizarre, but it was so true. Just so we are clear, Chilean food is nothing like Mexican food. There are no tortillas, no salsas, no spicy anything! It’s kind of like eating in the Midwest: meat and potatoes and salt and white bread. I love my time in Chile, but their culinary tradition is not the strongest.
Food basically rules my life and this was one aspect of my study abroad in Chile that was a total let-down. Obviously I still stuffed my face and gained the “abroad 20” (I’m coining that term), but Chile is not exactly known for its cuisine. That being said, empanadas are pretty amazing. Each place has their own way of making them, but my favorites were from a little tiny restaurant in the beach town of Con Con.
Produce in Chile was surprisingly cheap. At the giant farmer’s market, you could buy enough food to last you weeks on hardly anything. Supermarkets, on the other hand, tended to be pretty pricey, especially for American must-haves like peanut butter. I was also shocked at the price of coffee. First off, you couldn’t find actual coffee almost anywhere–it was all instant. Gross! Starbucks, however, sold some beans, and there were times when I just had to bite the bullet, because exams were coming up and all I wanted was real coffee.
On Meeting the Locals: One thing that took me by surprise was how warm and loving the Chilean people were. Just in general, they are incredibly giving people and are willing to help you out, even if they have never met you before. However, it was actually pretty hard to make Chilean friends. In one of my classes we studied the social structure of Chile and how most Chileans tend to have very few close friends, but they have known them their whole life and view them as family. That was definitely a contrast to how our social structure works, where we tend to have expansive friend networks; theirs is a lot more close-knit. In the end I did make a few good Chilean friends, but I definitely had to make a lot of the effort.
On Public Displays of Affection: There is so much PDA everywhere in Chile! We’re not just talking angsty pre-teens who have nowhere but the public park to make out—no no, this is people of all ages. One of my funniest experiences was sitting on the metro and directly to my left was a young couple making out fairly aggressively and directly to my right was a middle aged couple doing the exact same thing! There I was, sandwiched in the middle of these two couples that were all over each other and the only thing stopping it from turning into a 5-person orgy was me, awkwardly squished in the middle. Of course, no one else on the metro even took notice, because that behavior’s so normal here.
On Traveling Throughout Chile: There are SO many amazing places in Chile; the geography is just incredible. From Patagonia to the Lake District to the Atacama Desert, it’s just so diverse! If I had to pick one favorite place, though, I would probably say Chiloé. It’s an island in the southern part of Chile and there is something about that place that was just magical. It’s said to have a big witchcraft history, but whatever it was, it sure put a spell on me.
Traveling through Chile is so easy. Bus travel is definitely the way to go: cheap, comfortable, convenient, AND a great way to see the countryside. Chile has so much to offer that you will find yourself eager to travel the entire country from north to south. Your personality and interests certainly play into where you should travel to or settle down. Due to Chile’s diversity, pretty much everything is available: Santiago is a huge city, the north is super dry and really in touch with its indigenous side, the lake-district and Patagonia are an outdoors(wo)man’s paradise, and Viña/Valpo/Pichilemu are perfect for those who can’t live without the beach.
Chile is such a hidden gem. When people think traveling in South America, they think Argentina or Machu Picchu in Peru, but Chile has so much to offer! Patagonia doesn’t just exist in the South of Argentina; in fact, half of Patagonia is in Chile, and it’s the better half! If you like being active and outdoors, Chile is the place to go. Santiago is the launch point for everything, but don’t feel obligated to stay there for more than a few days if the great outdoors is what you really want to see.
On Being a Female Traveler in Chile: I felt so safe when I was there. Granted I’m a brunette and half Latina, so I didn’t stick out as much as some, but in general I think it’s a safe place for women to travel. Chile is incredibly modern and arguably the most stable nation in South America (Uruguay makes a convincing argument as well). In Santiago, I truly felt that the worst thing that could have happened to me was getting pick-pocketed. I never felt like I was physically in danger. The same general rules apply though, i.e. don’t walk down dark sketchy alleys while inebriated. The locals are super nice and are always willing to help you out. Chilenos are pretty shy, but as long as you initiate the interaction, they are really responsive.
P.S. Prepare for a lot of cat calls. I almost forgot to mention that because it’s just so normal there. If you don’t respond though, nothing happens and everyone can just go on with their day.
On Take-Homes from a Year Abroad: Returning to the U.S. and really feeling like I could say I was fluent was incredibly rewarding. The first time someone asked me for directions AND I was able to respond to give them correct directions was one of my favorite memories from my study abroad in Chile.
I don’t know if I would move back to Chile in the future; it’s not out of the question, but if I did, it definitely would not be back to Santiago. It was a great study abroad experience, but I couldn’t handle the hustle and bustle big-city lifestyle for much longer than a year.
But Chile should absolutely be on everyone’s list of destinations. It’s so hard to put into words. The people are incredible, the natural landscape is gorgeous, it’s stable and safe. Why wouldn’t you visit? For that I have no answer. If you go to South America and don’t hit at lease something in Chile, you are selling yourself short and seriously missing out.
Thank you, Maya!! Your study abroad in Chile sounds amazing, and you’ve just added to my wanderlust!!