May 18, 2012

Six Months in Santiago, Chile.

By M.S. DeChelle.

One of the most memorable experiences I had was studying in Santiago, Chile during my sophomore year of college. I was there for six months, taking courses through an international exchange consortium. Although this was not my first time traveling to Chile (I had previously lived 8 hours south of Santiago during high school), this was the first time that I would be all on my own in a foreign country as an adult. I speak Spanish, so I wasn't worried about not knowing the language, but I'd forgotten a lot of "Chilenismos" (Chilean slang) and was worried I wouldn't be able to relate much with Chileans that were my age!

Since I was an undergraduate student, it was really easy for me to find an exchange program that would be place me in Santiago. All I did was a short Google search for exchange programs, and picked the program (USAC) that best suited my needs. Since I only wanted to go for a semester, this program was excellent, as it only lasted six months and ended in the summertime! The program was fairly inexpensive (around 5,000 airfare not included) and I was immediately put into contact with other students who were going on the program.

My experience was tons of fun! We were such a big group of International Students (from Guyana, Australia, China, etc.) that we always stood out, which was a good thing. Everyone wanted to be friends with the "cool international kids", so we were always traveling to different states or going to lots of parties. It wasn't all about partying, though, we also studied a lot and many people who had NO Spanish were able to hold lengthy conversations in the language. I was perceived extremely well as a Black American. Most people were curious about my history and my family, and most wanted to know the history of Black Americans in the US. Of course I got the stereotypical, "can you sing" and "are you related to Whitney Houston" comments, but they were not said out of malice, but genuine curiosity. Another interesting fact about Santiago, was most people assumed that I was not American, but Brazilian. Because Brazil is so close to Chile, many Brazilians in Chile or Chileans who spoke Portuguese would come up to me speaking Portuguese!

I would definitely visit again! Santiago is such a metropolitan city, with various diverse people and sites. Traveling from Santiago to major volcanoes, Easter Island and historic churches is very easy. First class bus tickets that allow full room to lay down run roughly 30-50 dollars with food included, and air plane tickets in country don't get much more expensive. If you're looking to experience a city akin to Europe, but without the expense or touristy feel, that I wholeheartedly recommend traveling to Chile!

My most favorite "must see" attraction was the hot springs located about an hour outside Santiago. Visitors usually spend roughly two days there. I went and shared a cabin with 4 friends. It was a beautiful cabin overlooking the springs and the mountains. After visiting the springs, we took a six hour horse ride through the foothills of the Andes mountains. It was a little scary, but also exhilarating. I could see the entire village down below! One thing to be careful of is the time schedule: buses only run a certain times and dates, so be sure to look up the correct time, we almost got left behind because we thought another bus would be coming! Imagine that! Another "must see" would have to be Volcán Villarica, located about 8 hours south of Santiago. This volcano is active, and takes about 4 hours to climb. Once we got to the top, little bits of molten rock shot up in the air! Don't worry, we were a safe distance away! One of my friends even kept one of the rocks as a memento!

Because I'd lived in Chile before, I didn't have any instances of "culture shock" outside the normal want for certain items from the US. One of the biggest cultural differences that my friends were shocked by was the extreme disparity between rich and poor. You would see Mercedes Benz cars driving past a family of homeless people sitting on the edge of the sidewalk. There would be a man begging in the doorway of a very rich housing complex. It takes a little getting used to. Also, if volunteering is part of your travel plan, there are plenty of organizations that allow foreign volunteers to stop by and help out. I volunteered at a local orphanage a couple times while I was in Chile.

I was treated fairly well. One thing that was a little putting off were the stares that I received. One place where I was treated especially well was in the small town of Siete Tazas, which holds 7 waterfalls. The people there were extremely nice and were genuinely interested in my story and that of my friends. One area that I would suggest staying away from is the giant party district called "Suecia". There were several reports of murders, stabbings and even gunfights in this area while I was in Santiago, Chile. If you want to party, I'd suggest going to local restaurants, hotels or asking around for open invite parties. These events were much more fun and a lot safer! I was also treated very well in the local shopping districts. There were no instances of racism or being denied service.

One thing that I'd wish I'd known before coming to Chile, however, was the proximity and availability of external travel. There are buses that run literally in every direction. If you're able to do a little research before you travel to Chile, you might be able to find easy and cheap trips to Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil or Peru! I believe that Chileans are an honest, open people who have had relatively little experience with Black people. They are keenly interested in hearing of our experiences and learning more about us!