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Gap Year Abroad

6 posts from August 2013


It's as easy as ABC

APRENDER- The verb for “to learn.” 

I’ve been in Chile for 28 days now, and still there is no shortage of this happening. One day while I was walking home from school, I saw an adorable little bookstore. Knowing that reading is a wonderful way to improve communication skills in a foreign language and also that libraries and book stores are practically nonexistent here, I was eager to stop in. I was even more excited when I noticed that the sign mentioned the word “cambiar” or to change (one of my new vocabulary words). From what I understood, this was a place books came to change lives-a used book store! But my Spanish abilities failed me yet again, and instead of finding a collection of used books, I found myself surrounded in a store completely filled with books about Jesus and God. Oops! I ended up satisfying my craving for literature later on that week at a market stand in Valparaiso.  I’m proud to say my first spanish book is La Principito (The Little Prince. Le Petit Prince).  

 On Saturday, a large group of exchange students from my university went to Santiago for the day. We stopped by the Palacio de La Moneda (where the president Sebastian Pinera works), we toured a couple of museums (with exhibits ranging from Africa to Antarctica to dead bodies), we visited one of the many famous churches (this one was called Catedral Metropolitana), we wandered through el Parque Forestal, and to end the day, we rode in an ascensor to the top of Cerro San Cristobal to watch the sun set. The city is enormous and busy busy busy. My culture teacher described my feelings best when she said she loves Santiago but only because she’s not living there; it’s definitely a place to visit. My favorite part of the day was either seeing the city from on top of the hill...


Or hugging a llama in the middle of a downtown market..


 Another day, I had one of those conversations that can change the course of life. Dramatic, I know. It was with another American, a young woman named Ahzha. She had stayed with the same family several years ago (I’m their 10th gringa!), and she and one other chico were the first gap year students to come to Chile through CIEE. It was inspiring to hear how good her spanish was, and we chatted about the family, the city, and our experiences (well at least mine thus far). She also shared her insight on what’s best to do on a Thursday night (an old salsa club that I might have to check out), what to do when the infamous culture shock attacks (like perhaps go for a stroll on the beach), which cities I should definitely travel to (Pucon!!), and how to make the @ on a spanish keyboard (trust me, it’s a lot harder than you’d think). She also introduced me to something called a TESL certificate (Teaching English as a Second Language). Considering how my plans for second semester are very much in the air, perhaps I’ll follow her footsteps yet again and become a teacher somewhere in South America. Could be cool, don’t you think? 


BAILAR- The verb for “to dance.” 

 After fourteen years of tights, leotards, mirrors, barres, first positions, releves and pas de chats, I’m finding I really miss dance class. This hole in my life has forced me to find new, inventive ways to get my fix of musical movement. A couple of times, when nobody else is home, I’ve used the living room as a stage and jammed out by myself for a little bit. It’s not quite the same, but I’m surviving. I also went to my first discotec with my host brother, one of his friends and my host cousin. It was an interesting experience with out a doubt, but a fun one too. We ran into some of my friends from the university and one of the guys who has connections with probably half the city by now got us into a select, list only club. “Ooooh” It was loud, crowded, and crazy! 

 On a bit more classy of a note, I’ve been learning the cueca here and there too. The cueca is the national dance of Chile, and apparently, in about two weeks I’m going to be very thankful I know it. (Chile’s independence day is September 18, and they celebrate hard). My sister Cata claims it looks like the mating dance between two chickens. Depending on who’s dancing, sometimes she’s spot on. I’ve seen a two couples who take cueca classes dance it, and they make it look graceful, and extremely flirty. Me? The chicken description, if I’m lucky. 

My first cueca class was on Friday with all the CIEE students. We had a culture day at this farm that was way out in the country, surrounded by mountains and green green green! It was probably the most serene scene I’ve seen thus far in Chile, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to adventure back sometime later this semester. Anyways, back to the dance. We all lined up, and for about an hour, tried to mimic our young teacher’s side step, or stomping rhythm pattern, or delicate twirling hand. There was a competition afterwards, and my dear friend Maggie and I did not win. What a surprise. But it was definitely a giggling worthy experience, and I had a lovely time. 

The second time was with students from the university. Since the class was outside in the chilly evening air, we warmed up with a traditional Mapuche dance. The girls part required a lot of hips moving in figure eights, and the guys part...well it had a lot of hip movement too, but I have no idea how to describe it. My years of dance did not prepare me enough for the Mapuche War Dance I guess. After we were warmed up and humbled, we learned the very basic movements. Much of it was repetition for me, but I didn’t mind learning again. I have a better understanding of the dance overall, but I don’t know if you could call my movements dancing yet. Guy meets girl. Walk arm and arm for a bit. Leaves girl and they both clap for a while, a syncopated beat. When the singing starts, make two s shape movements, make some half moons, stomp some feet, switch places, do a little jig, make another s, and end arm and arm again. In total, the dance lasts about 1.5 minutes. I’m optimistic about the cueca, because I’m pretty sure I could not be any worse at it. Can’t wait to learn more! (below you can see us doing the Mapuche War Dance) 


COCINAR- The verb for “to cook.” 

Cooking here is bonding in food form. How perfect! At the same culture day activity (the one on Friday with CIEE kids) I learned how to make sopaipillas. They’re that delicious, orange, deep fried pastry that’s popular on rainy days, and now that I have a basic understanding of the recipe, I’m going to be eating a lot more of them. This time we ate some of them with pevre, which is the Chilean salsa, and some of them with a dusting of powder sugar. I think I ate 6. It’s impressive really that nobody here uses recipes. When I help my host mother make lunch, she just throws whatever she thinks looks good into a pot and lets it simmer. One day, the stew looked a bit too watery to her, and to my surprise and initial horror, she grabbed some bread, soaked it in water, drained it a little bit and then stuck it in the soup. I was hesitant to try the bready, gooey, mixture, but of course, she knew what she was doing, and it was delicious. I’m hoping I’ll be able to have a collection of Chilean recipes by the time I return home, or at least an idea of what the ingredients are. 

One of Cata’s friends, came over with her mother one evening. Her mother loves to sew, and so she adjusted the waist of some pants I found at a thrift store (the green ones in the dancing picture above), while Karla (the friend), Cata, and I made lemon meringue pie. Amazing! Karla is a fantastic cook and an all around cheery person. I like her already. 


(Oh, also, my hair is purple! It was Cata's idea, and why not?)

My most recent cooking adventure could be described as book a success and a failure. Maggie (a CIEE gap friend), and two chicos from Spain came over to my house one evening to make scones. For whatever reason, the batter ended up being really liquidy, much more like brownie batter’s consistency than the stiff scone one, and so our “scones” resembled muffin tops, kind of purple-ish blobs. One of the guys, Daniel (they’re both named Daniel actually), and I both cut ourselves on the flour jar in that perfect way that doesn’t hurt but involves a lot of blood. That was the failure part. However, we all had a lovely time, and the final products ended up being quite tasty. Success :) 






Que es una corrida?

Today I learned a new word. Last week, one of the student mentors posted something about a running club and inquired if anybody was interested in joining. We emailed back and forth a couple of times (all in Spanish), and from what I understood, there was a group that was meeting on Sunday at Puerto. Perfect right? 

 So I woke up, threw on some running clothes under my make-shift pajamas, (it was too cold for just the t-shirt and shorts combination), grabbed some bread to go, and jogged down to the metro. Apparently the metro doesn’t like mornings (8:30 isn’t even that early..), and although I couldn’t read the pealing sign, the gates were locked and there was no metro in sight. No worries though; I decided I’d try my hand out on taking the micro (the little city buses). I’ve never gone on one alone before, and I didn’t really have the best idea as to where I was going (I only knew the metro stop), but I flagged down a micro anyways, paid the fee, and hopped on (thankfully it was the right micro!). There are no planned stops here, nor are there time schedules. I got off when the micro started to turn away from the Mar (the majority of my sense of direction is based off the mar), and I wandered around for a bit until I found some people wearing running attire. I followed them to the main plaza in Valparaiso, and much to my surprise, I found myself not at a meeting spot for a running club, but at a race! 

At first I was completely overwhelmed and wanted nothing more than to turn around and go right home. Races are always chaotic, and this one was even more so, especially since I had no idea what was going on or what I should do. 'I can’t race. I didn’t register earlier and I only have a the equivalent of two dollars. Plus I probably can't even find the registration tent. Bummmmmer.' Except as I was walking back towards where I had come from, I saw people writing, the typical last minute registration process. I causally watched for a while and learned that not only was the process was incredibly easy, but almost nobody pre-registered, and it was completely free. There went that excuse. A woman handed me a registration form, and having no other choice really, I began to fill it out, looking over other people’s shoulders when I didn’t know what the questions were asking. I don’t currently have a Chilean ID here, and when I saw that we needed to have one, once again I was greattttttly disappointed. 'Darn. Guess I’ll just have to go back to my warm house'. But it turns out they don’t even look at the registration forms, for the moment I stopped writing, the same woman whisked away the uncompleted form and handed me a couple of pins and a racing bib. According to my bib, I had about 45 minutes before the start and....I was running a 10K. Now just to clarify, I’ve run a total of TWO times since I left the United States and neither of them were serious, and I’ve run a total of ONE 10K race ever in my life. So here I am, standing in a plaza crowded with other runners, most of which are speaking Spanish with their running friends and wearing actual running or racing attire, and I am all by myself, about to run 6 miles. Also, it’s chilly, foggy and misty. Cool. 

No time for self pity though as this scrawny Chilean man came up to me and began speaking to me in rapid Spanish. I explained that I'd only been here for two weeks and that I have no clue what’s going on. “No problema!” he promised. “Tu peudes correr con migo!” I met the rest of his family, and together we all warmed up, stretched and then just ran around and around and around. Right before the start of the 10K, he wished me luck and disappeared up into the front of the pack. “Adios chica!!”

Again, I was alone, but here is what I love about running (and music, and biking, and soccer, and braiding hair etc). After the Spanish count down finished, and the gun went off, it didn’t matter that I was dressed differently (I left my pjs-“warm-ups”-at a tent specifically for things like that, but I still was wearing shorts and a t-shirt). It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak/understand Spanish perfectly. It didn’t even matter that I was the only gringa in the entire crowd. When the gun went off, I was part of the group. I love the beginning of races (especially when I'm not actually racing-just running), and this time was even better because it was clear at that moment that we were all there for the same reason: our common love for running. I was no longer an outsider. 

 My time was not anything impressive, and I didn’t place in my age group (18-35 years), but I had a wonderful, wonderful run. I adore the Wisconsin countryside for running, but if anything were to compete with that, it would be the scenery here, the city line along the coast, the ships, the port, the hills. Early on in my run, I found somebody with a similar stride and a pace I liked, and I latched on. We didn’t exchange a single word, but when I sped up or slowed down, he matched my pace once again. He was only doing the 5K though, so eventually I was on my own. Near the end, I ran behind a boy cheering on his girlfriend, and I enjoyed listening to his encouragement, taking notes on good phrases to use for when I start volunteering. About 1K from the end, the man who warmed up with me met me along the course. He had finished 4th in his age group and was on a cool down! Anyways, he ran along side me a bit, pushing me to push myself. I definitely appreciated his kindness. 

A couple of differences I noticed during my run. Here, I was in the minority, being a girl and wearing shorts and not only because it was chilly. However, there’s no need to worry cross country boys; the guys here wear short shorts, and because girls here usually wear leggings while they’re exercising (or they just don’t exercise at all), the male shorts were the shortest. Less people were listening to music during the race, but everybody was wearing sport specific clothing. T-shirt material did not exist. There was a surprising lack of cheering from bystanders (I didn’t see anybody actually), and my guess is that that supports the idea that Chileans are shy until they know somebody-something the tourguide told us a while ago. There was no real timing system, except for the first couple of finishers. I only have an estimate of my time from when I glanced up at the clock before crossing the finish line. The race was put on by a Universidad, and I learned that that’s the normal (the free part is normal too-cool, right?!). Since there are street dogs here (and lots of them too), sometimes I had a friendly, four legged running buddy.   

After I finished, I grabbed a water and a banana, said goodbye to my new running friend, and headed home. I had left a note for my host mom that I would be home around 11:30, but because the race started later, I thought I should let her know that I was okay and coming home late. (This is for you mother and grandmother) I know enough Spanish to talk to a carabinero (Chilean police officer), explain my situation, and talk to my host mom on the phone in Spanish. There is no need to worry about me here :) When I got home, I was greeted with an huge, sweaty (on my part) hug and an even bigger meal. Yum! 

My casual run turned out to be quite the surprise, experience and adventure, but I'm glad it happened. Hopefully I’ll be able to run in another Chilean race soon, for now I know a “corrida” is more than just a training run; it’s a race! 

IMG_0395 - Version 2

La Serena and Beyond

One backpack stuffed with clothes, shoes, and my toothbrush and toothpaste. One bus ticket that cost 12.000 (or the equivalent of about $24). One small bag with my papers and folders from the Spanish classes I’d just finished. Three of new best friends: Hazel, Maggie and Tommy. All together we boarded a coach bus (the main means of city to city transportation here), and off we went. For just over eight hours (a bit longer than expected due to traffic), we chatted, listened to music, and watched the countryside fly past on the right and the vast, sparkling blue ocean stretch on forever on the left. At one point, while the sun was setting, and we were passing through a small but brightly painted town, with blue mountains as a backdrop and a forest of greenery lining the sides, a Coldplay song came on. Chris Martin’s voice sang loud and clear, “And we live in a beautiful world (Yeah we do, yeah we do). We live in a beautiful world.” I couldn’t have agreed more. 


It was Wednesday afternoon, and the four of us were leaving Vina del Mar for our first student run adventure. Classes had finished for the day, and Thursday was something wonderful called a Feriado celebrating the Asunción de la Virgen. Because Chile is a Catholic country, most businesses, stores, and schools were closed for the day including our universidad, which translated to a long weekend for us. Our planning would best be described as last minute and not thorough, but nevertheless, we were on our way. Destination: LA SERENA! 

La Serena is located north of Vina. It’s the second oldest city in Chile, and the entire western side of the city is beach. However, because it’s still winter here, the weather was not as beach like as I was secretly hoping, and there wasn’t the usual tourist crowd.  We, courtesy of one of my travel comrades, stayed in a resort hotel, right on the beach, with a pool, a trampoline (may or may not have tried it out..), free (or already paid for) breakfast buffet, free drinks, and a suite. It was classy.  (Here is the view from our balcony.)


La Serena is best known for its observatories and a valley called Valle de Elqui. Unfortunately, because we weren’t able to decipher the local bus system before, and because we didn’t have much time in the city, we didn’t make the 60k journey to see either. (Guess I’ll just have to go again..!) Our trip was by no means a failure though, and we had much to do, much to see, and much fun in general. We went to a museum both days. The first one was a well known archeological museum where we read tons of signs in Spanish, saw an incredible amount of tribal art work and pots and everyday items, learned about shrinking heads (and saw some too!), befriended the museum puppy, and found the only other Moai that’s not on Easter Island. (Some of you may remember from earlier, I mentioned that there were only two Moai not on the island. Apparently this one didn’t like the weather in Europe, and so it returned to Chile. By accident, we found both!) The other museum we went to was in the house of one of Chile’s presidents. The first floor covered Gabriel Gonzalez Videla’s life and his legacy in office. He was president from 1946 until 1952, and he helped to draft the Chilean constitution that is still used today. The rest of the house (it was huge) was full of art work. I learned a decent amount from reading (or attempting to in most cases), and I discovered something new about myself too; I really like paintings of onions. (Here is...a picture of a painting of onions!) 


We ate lunch at local restaurants, and we participated in the traditional Chilean meal called onces which is similar to tea time plus a light meal. One afternoon we walked around the downtown of the city which was adorable and full of local shops. We explored stands of homemade crafts, checked out what kind of store Ripleys was (the store where there are massive protests in Vina del Mar), listened to some live street jazz, and enjoyed the atmosphere of a bustling Chilean city. The other day we went for a long walk, up a long hill, out of the downtown area. There, the houses were all one story and small, and they reminded me of my initial preconception of where I’d be living. From what I’ve seen in Vina, Leguna Verde, and La Serena and on the long drives I’ve been on, Chile is definitely first world and third world at the same time. There is an incredible amount of contrast in income levels and lifestyles, and it’s interesting to see because they are right next door to eachother. I definitely want to see and learn more, especially in relation to how this impacts Chilean life and culture. Anyways, back to the walk. At the top of the hill, we found a park and had a delicious picnic lunch. The view was beautiful! And at least in my opinion, it was completely worth the walk.  We probably covered 6 miles that afternoon which warranted, we decided, a night of relaxation and Spanish TV. (Below is a photo of where we had lunch-with my friend Maggie sitting on the fence. And below that is the light house near our hotel)




Communication usually wasn’t difficult, and between the four of us, our Spanish was enough. There was one time when the waitress really struggled, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t our fault, especially since when Hazel ordered a coffee, she brought out a can of instant powder and a class of hot water. That restaurant was interesting to say the least, but it introduced us to Chilean soap operas, so there’s the silver lining (if you’re into waaaay to much drama). On our way to La Serena, we got off at the wrong stop, but thanks to Tommy, we made it back on the bus before it left us 88k from where we wanted to be. On the way back, it turned out that our tickets were for Sunday, not Friday like we thought we bought, but again we were lucky, and we were able to exchange them easily. Other than that, everything went smoothly. We all agreed when we returned to Vina at 6am on Saturday, that it was a wonderful trip :) 


I took a nap when I got home, and when I woke up around 9, I was surprised to hear the voices of young children. Surprise! My host Uncle and two of his children were staying with us for the weekend. The girls are twins, 7 years old, and I’m pretty sure they never stop talking. Everything worked out though, because although I understood very little of their rapid spew of Spanish, (especially when they were both talking at the same time!) it didn’t matter; they never paused or asked to see if I was understanding. On the rare occasion when they did ask me a question, it was basic and much slower, and I could answer. Score. It was also nice to spend the afternoon with them at the beach, because children are the same everywhere. We played with the waves, chasing them and getting soaked when we didn’t run fast enough. We went for a mini hike and rock scramble along the shore to find enough sea shells to fill both my coat pockets. We ate Chilean cheese puffs with a garnish of sand. And we giggled. None of that needs more than the basic Spanish I have, so I was set. That night dinner conversation happened. My mother often had to re-explain things at a much slower pace, and Cata translated a word here and there, but I was part of the family and part of the talk. And that’s more than I could ever ask for. (Here is a photo of me and the twins at the beach near our house)  IMG_0391

So there you have it, my first long weekend in Chile up until Saturday night. We just finished Letters to Iwo Jima (in Japanese of course with Spanish subtitles), and I’m finishing up writing before bedtime. I've had a couple of moments where I've been frustrated because I can't understand, but as a whole, I'm still so new to the language and culture that I love it all, even the struggles of speaking. Also, if you ever have any questions, or if there’s anything you want to know more about, please don’t hesitate to ask :) 




Holi Uri!

For the entire first day, I thought my family’s dog was named Holi. Turns out it’s actually Uri, and holi is the “hey” way of saying hi to friends. So, HOLI AMIGOS! 

I’ve officially been in Vina del Mar, Chile, South America for one full week. In the past seven days, I’ve had my fair share of adventures, and I’ve discovered how much I’m going to love it here (and how much I already do). 

Based off what I’m experiencing now, what I’ve been told I’ll feel in the future, and what I’m hoping to feel at the end, Uri’s laying down ritual seems to be an appropriate metaphor for my time in Chile. Here’s a photo of him enjoying my bed (he’s probably in it much more often than I am these days).


Metaphorically, I’ve found the spot I eventually want to comfortably lay down in, and I’m circling around it for the very first time. Everything is foreign. All of my senses are on overdrive, trying to take in as much as possible, and my head feels like it’s full of a tangled mess of Spanish; everything is a first. 

I watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean in Chile for the first time while roller blading with my host sister Cata and her friend Trini. There’s a lovely path near our house that follows the shore of the Mar, and we skated parallel to the sun’s last rays, listening to the waves crashing. I went out to eat with my host family for the first time at a little restaurant on the coast, and I ordered an empanada and some soup, both filled with various seafoods. Although I had no idea what I was eating, both dishes were “rico” or delicious. (below is a photo of Mariscal Caliente--the soup)


I read my first Spanish book, never mind that its intended audience was 13 years my junior. It was about a lion that was the king of a forest. Beautiful plot and great character development, as I’m sure you can imagine. I had my first Pisco, which is a strong alcoholic drink made from grapes that is extremely popular in Chile. Pisco sour tastes a bit like nail polish remover, but piscola (pisco and coca cola) isn’t too bad. On Monday, I took my first Spanish test ever. It was similar to what I was expecting and consisted of Estar vs Ser, reading comprehension, a writing section and lots and lots of verb conjugations and tenses. I also had an oral Spanish exam which was easier than the written one. One of the Spanish teachers asked me approximately 10 questions like where I’m from, what I like to do, why I choose Chile, etc. Then she asked how long I had been studying spanish. You should have seen her face. She proceeded to ask the same question, except slower, twice more, and I had to explain that yes, I could understand the question; I have never taken a Spanish class. Another evening I got lost for the first time, and my twenty-five minute walk home ended up being two hours long and involved a dead phone, three conversations with local people, a Colectivo (which is a mix between a bus and a taxi-it’s a car, but it has fairly fixed route), and about five minutes of terror. 

On Wednesday, all of the exchange students at UVM (Universidad Vina del Mar) went on a tour of Valapariso, and I got to experience the city for the first time. There is an incredible mix of old and new, of colors and darkness, of money and poverty, of clean and dirty. It is romantic. Beautiful. Shocking.



In some places, the streets are incredibly winding, bumpy, and steep, and I cannot imagine driving on them. We walked through a lot of alleys which used to be streets in the past but are far too skinny for any modern day vehicle. Our tour guide explained that Valparaiso is defined by its port history. One example of this the construction of the majority of the houses. 


As you can see in the photo above, the outside walls are covered in scrap metal. When the city was first constructed, one of the most available materials was the scrap metal in the bottom of incoming ships, used for balance and discarded when the cargo was unloaded. However, because the metal rusted quickly, the people coated their walls in protective paints leftover from various projects in the port. Thus, the tradition of color was born, and it continues to thrive today. 

Some houses look as if they’re completely unlivable, destroyed by earthquakes and neglect, but yet there are still signs of people living there, like clothing out to dry and food on the window sills. It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever seen before. Valparaiso is also coated in street art and graffiti. There are some walls painted with typical teenage markings, but the vast majority is beautiful and intricate and impressive. Here is a photo of me and my favorite mural thus far. It’s very Van Gogh like. 


I experienced my first rainy day in Chile another day, and as a result I got to try a delicious bakery good that apparently everybody eats on rainy days. Cata bought it for me at a local bakery on our walk to my orientation, and it was orange-ish, flat-ish and 100% deep fried. Its name was sopaipilla. (so-pa-pe-ya). It wasn’t sweet, and it wasn’t really salty either, but I liked it. That same night, I bought my first drink at a local bar called Cafe Journal. It was a pina colada, and although this is slightly embarrassing, I must admit I prefer the taste of virgin pina coladas (they're more like smoothies!). (Below is Hazel and I at Cafe Journal. She ordered a strawberry daiquiri.)


On Thursday we had our first volunteer orientation for something called Adapta Chile. I’ll be sure to share more information about the program and what we're doing once it actually starts. My favorite part of the orientation though was “listening” to a lecture from a Chilean man who was deaf (sordo), because it was fascinating and reminded me of a really long game of charades with a few broken Spanish words thrown in for good measure. I learned that Chilean sign language is different, even the alphabet, and I learned how to say a couple of words in Chilean sign language. For “Chile,” use your right hand and act as if you’re flicking something off the left side of your chest, starting with your thumb up and ending with your palm down. For “United States,” weave your fingers like your folding your hands in your lap, but instead of making a ball, make a little wall with your thumbs up, and then move this in a circle in front of you. Yesterday I took my first siesta (in Chile), and it was absolutely wonderful, and I climbed the local sand dunes for the first time too, equally wonderful. 


I've seen (and walked through) my first protest in Chile; it’s been going on for three days. Every time I walk to the universidad, I pass right through the middle of a crowd of protesters congregated in front of Banco Ripley. Some are asking for money with little trays fill of coins, but the majority are blowing into these noise horns which are surprisingly loud for their small size. It’s an impressive sight and an even more impressive sound. (I felt a bit awkward taking a photo of the people, so for now, this casual walking snipe will have to do)


On Saturday, my sister’s school had a “feria” or market, and the night before, she asked if I would help her cook something to sell. She wanted something American, and so began my first adventures in a Chilean kitchen, baking American desserts, but Chilean style. Here, at least in my host family’s kitchen, there’s very little food storage. Most foods are bought on a day to day basis, and the grocery stores near my house don’t have some foods like baking chocolate or brown sugar. Nevertheless, Cata and I made brownies and two types of scones. We were surprisingly successful considering we had no measuring cups or scales or any means of precision, and there was some improvisation with ingredients. 

And finally today. My host family and I drove about 40 minutes into the country to have a Chilean barbecue with some friends. (Here's a photo I took on our drive out there. Cata really likes this photo, and while giggling, she pointed out that it's perfect for South America because it has a micro in it.)


Their family friends live in an adorable house in Leguna Verde. Leguna Verde is the name of the hill their house is on, because here, rather than identifying with a neighborhood, people identify their home area by which hill its on. For lunch, we had a Chilean Barbecue, and I tried choripan for the first time; I think it’s my current favorite food here (although it’s an extremely close and hard decision). Choripan is a certain type of amazing meat in the middle of toasted Chilean bread. You may think it’s similar to a hot dog, but if you’re going to make that comparison, please keep in mind that this is 38498273498203489 times better. After eating our weight in all natural, all organic, all local foods, Cata, two sisters from Santiago and I went for a walk in the woods, looking at the shacks, the houses, the trees, the Mar. (Here is a photo of Choripan and the other delicious grilled foods and a couple of other photos I took during our walk) 



I’m currently battling my first sore throat, headache combination, but with my tea with lemon and honey, my new fuzzy slippers, a cat in my lap, a homemade blanket across my legs, a chilean cream puff like pastery in my tummy, and a toasty, fire heated room, I really can’t complain too much. And I think I’m going to win. Good thing too, for tomorrow is yet another first--my first day of school!!!




“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” -Deepak Chopra 


Exactly one week and two days ago I was standing in the Chilean embassy in Washington, DC talking with the cultural advisor Alvaro explaining to him the incredible journey I was about to embark on. His enthusiasm about Chilean culture and the friendly people was infectious. As I walked around the small exhibit looking at the beautiful, colorful photos from a Chilean festival I could hardly wait to be in Chile. And now here I am in Valparaíso, Chile beginning my new life as a student at the Universidad Viña del Mar and community service volunteer! 


(Chilean Embassy in Washington DC!)

Leaving was certainly not easy. This is definitely the biggest change I’ve encountered in my life, so it was super hard to prepare emotionally. I’ve grown up in the same place with pretty much the same people my whole entire life, so although I love trying new things, the thought of jumping into a completely new culture was overwhelming to say the least. Leaving my friends and family who have supported me was extremely difficult, but I kept in mind that it would be worth it because I believe with extreme change comes extreme growth. 


The first two days after we arrived were kind of slow. Of course meeting all the other students was exciting because we learned pretty fast we mesh really well as a group. But the first couple days we were all definitely tired from traveling and just anxious to meet our host families. Prior to leaving the US we still had not been told who our host families would be, so for me on top of exhaustion from travel and a bit of immediate culture shock, hearing about my host family was a lot to take in. Would my host family be able to understand me? Would I be able to understand them? Will I feel completely alone in the house because of the language barrier?

 Once I met my host mom everything seemed to change. My host mom, Maru and her good friend Marcela, who is hosting another CIEE student, Hazel, welcomed us with a big hug. They brought us to each of our houses to drop off our stuff before taking us to this amazing cafe right on the water where we ate ice cream and watched the sunset right over the ocean. We then went home, and I met my brother Cristóbal, who is 12 and my sister Francisca (Fran), who is 15. We ate dinner and talked and I was surprised at how much I could understand. Of course I’m still slow when I try to talk, but they are always so patient and helpful.

 On Sunday my family took me to the beach, 10 minutes from my house, and we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.  It was absolutely beautiful. I could hardly believe this is where I am living for the next five months!

 Here’s one of the billions of pictures I took that evening. 


On Tuesday all the international students studying at Universidad Viña del Mar took a tour of Valparaíso. Valparaíso is a port city so we began by taking a boat around the port area and saw Valparaíso from the ocean!

Photo 1

Fun fact: On the boat we also saw some lobos marinos, which directly translates to sea wolf, but are more commonly known as sea lions!

 The city is very hilly so we took an elevator car type thing, very common, to an overlook where we were able to see a lot of Valparaíso as well as Viña.

Another fun fact: Our tour guide told us the city is categorized by its hills, so instead of asking what area you live in you ask what hill you live on! 

Photo 2



We then walked through the streets, up and down long alley ways, seeing the colorful houses and captivating street art that make up the dazzling city of Valparaíso. 

Photo 1

We ended the tour with this incredible view of the city at night, what a city!

Photo 2-1

It’s crazy how it’s only been a week but I’m already loving living the city life. Classes at the Universidad start on Monday so I’m excited to get into the swing of things.

Ciao for now! 


WWWWW and H???

August 1st-- A new month, a new language, a new country, a new lifestyle. It all begins today. 


WHO: Me, Katerina Stephan, a recent high school graduate, looking for some adventure, a revived love for learning outside of the traditional classroom setting, new friends, a clearer sense of self, and memories that will last a lifetime. I am 18 years old. 

WHAT: I am taking what one of my dear friends once described as a “leap year” (more commonly known as a gap year). This means that rather than heading off to college, I am postponing my freshman year and doing something not directly connected to my future US college. For the next five months, I’ll be participating in a gap year program through an organization known as CIEE. They are a nonprofit, non-governmental international exchange program (for more information:, and they have programs for working, internships, teaching, and studying (all abroad) and for a variety of ages. 

 My particular program has landed me in Chile. I’ll be studying Spanish at the local Universidad, taking a culture specific class and then filling my afternoons with community service. Weekends are purposely left free of responsibility with the expectation that the students will plan their own adventures to go where ever and do whatever pleases them (within some reason). There is a brief crash course tomorrow, but the majority of specifics will be uncovered starting next Monday during a week long orientation. I’ll share more details when I know them. 

 WHERE: Vina del Mar, Chile! This may surprise some of you, as I’ve been saying Valparaiso when asked before. However, it turns out that the actual city I’ll be living in and studying in is called Vina del Mar (Valparaiso is the region and the city right next door). I can see Valparaiso from Vina del Mar, so the two cities are extremely close to eachother. There’s no clear dividing line between them either. Santiago, the capital of Chile, is about an hour and a half away by car.

According to the gentleman sitting next to me on the plane, Chile is the England of South America. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, so I’ll leave it open to your own interpretation as well. I also learned that it’s the longest country in the world. 

WHEN: I left the United States (from Miami), at 11:15pm on July 31st. CIEE’s program ends on the 13th of December, but I’ll return home a couple weeks later. I’m hoping to travel around a little bit, and my family is coming down to visit for the holidays. (Already excited for that!) Basically, I’ll be out of the country for 5 months. Still processing that...

HOW: This is a surprisingly easy question to answer. I’d been tossing the idea of a gap year around for the past couple of years, and by the middle of my senior year (right around the time I was applying to colleges actually), I decided for sure that I wanted to take one. The next step was where and what. Through conversations with several friends and family, I narrowed my search to a Spanish speaking country and a study/service learning program. CIEE then was the perfect match, and Chile sounded different enough from the US to truly push my boundaries while still allowing my mother to feel moderately calm about my safety. Moderately. From there, all I had to do was fill out an application and write an essay or two (easy after all those college apps), and voila! Here I am. 

WHY: I saved this question for last as it is the most difficult for me to explain. There really is no concrete reason or ah-ha moment that lead me here. Part of it was that I love traveling. I love going to new places, meeting new people, and learning new lifestyles. I find I learn the most about myself when I know nothing else. I’m excited to experience the “ohmygoodnessthisisallsonewandcrazy!” feeling.

But at the same time, I wanted to settle into a new community. Here, I’ll be more than just a tourist. I’ll be studying with Chileans, playing sports with other students, working along side other volunteers, helping local organizations, cooking and cleaning in my new house, shopping for clothes and groceries, and fully living life like a Chilean. The way I see it, it’s the best of both worlds, a little bit of everything, exactly how I like it. I know how short life can be, and I know as I get older, I’ll have more and more responsibilities. Right now, I’m at a time in my life when I can put everything aside and leave. So why not? 

I’m hoping when I come back to the United States, I’ll struggle with English because I’ll be so used to Spanish. I’m hoping to be able to cook enough Chilean meals for at least a week. I’m hoping I’ll have eaten so much new and delicious food that I’ll need to run for the rest of my life. I’m hoping I’ll fully become part of another family, so much so, that I can call my host mother, mom without a second thought. I’m hoping I’ll learn learn the city, so that no matter where I go, I always know how to get home-through walking or public transportation. I’m hoping I’ll make friendships that will last a lifetime. I’m hoping I’ll be able to study hard and party harder (within reason of course). And I’m hoping I’ll leave my mark here; I want to leave a positive reputation for Americans where ever I can, and I want to make a difference where ever I volunteer. 

 Thank you to everyone who has supported me already and helped me get to where I am today, both mentally and physically (CHILE!!). 

I owe a special thank you to my cross country coach Peter for telling me to go for it, to my Aunt Linda for helping me choose a program practical for what I wanted to do, to Marcy Smith for helping me with gap year paper work and college stuff, and above all to my mother for helping me every step of the way. She is the best mother a girl could have, and without her, none of this would be possible. 

 And now that my plane is about to land, here’s to an adventure of a lifetime. Much love to anybody and everybody who is reading this, and cheers! 

Gap Bloggers

  • Eva - Gap Year Abroad in Japan
  • Eamon - Gap Year Abroad in Spain
  • Sage - Gap Year Abroad in China
  • Kira - Gap Year Abroad in France
  • Smith - Gap Year Abroad in Chile
  • Maddy - Gap Year Abroad in Japan
  • Hannah - Gap Year Abroad in Italy
  • Chloe - Gap Year Abroad in Chile