The best presents I’ve ever received arrived on Solstice morning at the Santiago airport with more luggage than energy, but huge smiles and hugs and love none the less. Their flight was delayed (something I was not aware of), and having no means of communication, I was equally relieved as I was excited to see them exit the security section, the exact same door I had walked through just five months before. Welcome to Chile Mom and Karl!!!
It’s true, sharing stories is fun, but to be able to show my family a first hand glimpse of what I had been living for the past semester was beyond wonderful. We had an absolute blast. And I, as the tour guide and trip planner, felt an even stronger connection to my life here in Chile, because they were the foreigners, and I was the “local.”
A RING of TIME
They say that life is cyclical: that we find ourselves in parallel situations either with our own memories, or with new generations. La Serena was the destination of my first trip in Chile, and it was also my last. A couple hours after their flight landed, we headed over to the bus station to take another $24 coach bus. This time, in place of my gap friends, it was my family by my side, and instead of Chris Martin’s voice complimenting the view, it was my mother’s. In hindsight, it might have been cruel to schedule such a long bus ride after all the air travel, but we didn’t have much time, and thankfully we were all sleep deprived enough to appreciate the cozy seats. It’s a good thing I slept too, because the next week was filled with novelty and repetition, as my world from Wisconsin collided with my Chilean home.
Last time I was in La Serena, we stayed in a resort on the beach. This time, I chose to introduce to my family to the Hostel style of life. We didn’t have the best of luck as far as roommates go, but it could have been worse. Overall the Aji Verde was a successful choice, and we met some extraordinarily cool travelers (for instance two young women who were traveling around the world until their budget ran out) and listened to some good stores (what bus trouble in Nepal can mean and the difficulties of being a tourist in parts of the US), and the staff were helpful in planning out our adventures.
Day one we did what I had failed to do last time; we took a tour of Valle Elqui. From seven in the morning, until just past midnight, my family and a handful of other tourists traveled around the valley in a tour van, visiting what makes this place so famous.
1. Its rich agriculture and impressively fruitful growing seasons. They can grow, for instance, four crops of potatoes in the same time other places harvest once, and they have millions of dollars worth of avocados, papayas, vineyards and whatever else the local farmers are interested in growing. The soil and the climate are practically perfect according to our tour guide. There was always farm land in sight, and the base of the mountains were black with avocado forests. Below Karl and I are eating a peculiar local cactus fruit called a copao. It reminded me of a kiwi, except it was so acidic that it could only be eaten with equal parts sugar and fruit.
2. PISCO! The Chilean (or possible Peruvian -- but we don’t mention that..) alcoholic drink that reminds me of a vodka made from grapes (technically a grape brandy). On our tour we went to the Capel Pisco Distillery to see how the 80 proof drink is made. The grapes, one or more of the select seven types, are fermented exactly like wine, but then the drink is distilled rather than bottled and stored immediately after. Also, Chilean pisco can ONLY be called pisco if it is made in Valle Elqui, which means this valley supplies the entire country with pisco sour, piscola, etc. And if you drink pisco product before it's at the correct proof, it's poison. Here we are in the pisco distillary.
3. Natural Therapy. They say the center of the Earth’s magnetic core, in the current age of Aquarius at least, is located in Valle Elqui in a small town called Cochiguaz. Although we did not visit all the modern day gurus or participate in the hundreds of natural energy, meditation, soul cleansing, spa options, we were able to feel a bizarre tingling feeling in our palms when we opened up our hands face up. Perhaps it was placebo, but since it would be REALLY cool if it was real, I'm going to believe.
4. The home of Gabriela Mistral, a famous Chilean poet and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1945 (also a close friend of Pablo Neruda and a teacher around the world). We visited her home town, and read a bit of her poetry in her old school house that is now transformed into a museum. She is also on the 5.000 (five thousand pesos) which is roughly $10.
5. And last but certainly not least, the Observatories! This was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip. Imagine what the sky looked like before light pollution, and you can have a pretty good idea of what we saw. I have been to the north of Wisconsin, miles from any large civilization, but still, the amount of stars we saw that night blew me away. Plus we got to go to one of the famous old observatories and use their telescope. Did you know Orion is upside down in the southern hemisphere? Or that Venus goes through phases just like the moon? We got to see constellations, planets, galaxies, star clusters, and so much more at a quality I never could have imagined. Below is not the moon, but actually Venus!
Day two we did what I had succeeded in doing last time, but with our own twist. I took my family through same street markets, but this time, instead of only looking, we bought some of Chile’s piercingly blue national rock, Lapislazuli, as well as papaya candies and other gifts. We went to the same cafe central where I had eaten four months ago, but this time I translated the menus, instead of my dictionary. We walked to the beach along the same path, and sun bathed in the same sand, but with our own ridiculous, laughter-filled conversations. We ate dinner while watching the sun set over the Pacific, but trading Italian food for good ol classic empanadas. And just in case I didn't have enough of the wonderful circle of life, my family and I stumbled upon a Japanese Garden, one that was surprisingly similar to the Japanese Gardens we wandered around in California, two winters ago. It was fun for me to see how much my point of view had changed since I was last in La Serena, and it was beautiful to see how much our family had grown since we last stared at koi fish under a Japanese bridge. Here is my family outside of the Garden of the Heart.
Our La Serena adventure came to a close as we boarded an overnight bus back to Vina del Mar, on to our next chapter of winter break.
Five months wasn’t enough time for me to uncover even a portion of the treasures of Vina del Mar or Valparaiso (I doubt a lifetime would be sufficient), but my next mission was to give my family a taste of these cities and my life there in a day and a half. We arrived in Valparaiso at 6am in the morning after a successful overnight bus journey, and after a cab ride, and a short nap, we were off into Valparaiso. I took them to the port, through the market, around the plazas, past some of the famous buildings I could remember, and finally to Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso home. The only problem was the ascensors were closed (again), so we were forced to conquer the enormous hill with endless stairs and steep roads. It was a good hour of work, but ultimately worth the trek, as my mother and brother both enjoyed the incredible view, the quirky house decorations, and the funny life tidbits provided by the self-guided listening tours. My brother also accompanied me up another hill in order to give a little Christmas gift to my friends at Ancora (the place where I used to go for Friday night dinners). Our walk back down the hill was anything but direct, but we managed to eventually find Cerro Concepcion which is the hill most famous for its street art. Although it was a long walk, once again, it was worth the struggle, and my family greatly enjoyed the murals.
The downtown part of Valparaiso (which is the flat part at the base of the hills) was packed with people doing last minute Christmas shopping and whatever else they wanted to be doing. It was loud. It was crowded. I think it was the busiest I’ve ever seen the city. Vina del Mar, the next day, was exactly the opposite.
On Christmas day, my family and I headed out once again, but this time I took them around Vina del Mar. I almost didn’t recognize the city. Because it was a national holiday, ALL of the restaurants and stores were closed, and there was almost no one on the streets. There was no sopaipilla lady, no street musicians, nobody selling wrapping paper, no street artists, no sushi or food carts or street vendors of any kind. There were hardly any cars, and despite the fact that it was a Wednesday, the metros and the buses were empty. It was like a post apocalyptic city. Shocking. So the weather was less than wonderful and my bustling, vibrant city was a ghost town, but other than that the day was a success! The street below is Calle Valparaiso, and it is always PACKED with people. Except today.
Our first official stop was the sand dunes, one of my favorite places. Karl and I trudged all the way to the top, and then decided to race down the other side. Letting our legs spin as fast as possible, we flew down the mountain of soft sand towards the ocean, arms open wide. Well that’s how we started at least. He actually made it to our declared finish line, but I pushed myself just a little too fast and ended up eating sand about 15 seconds into the race. Literally. I knocked the wind out of myself and coated every inch of my body in sand, and despite our best efforts to brush off all the sand, I ended up trudging back to my mother a black sand monster. We sat in the dunes for a while after and just enjoyed the view, and then we tried to go down the other side of the dunes, towards the ocean, instead of back the way we came. Possibly a mistake. At first it appeared that we had walked all the way down the dunes only to be greeted by massive cliffs. However, instead of turning around, we kept looking and eventually we found a tiny, extraordinarily steep path with minimal spines and trees. A likely chance of survival. Laughing out of terror and amusement, we slowly slid down the sandy cliff. It was good family bonding. When we got down to the shore, we walked along the road until we found the perfect rock jutting out into the ocean. Before I left Wisconsin, a family friend gave me a lei from Hawaii. It draped around our rearview mirror until I carefully put it in a plastic bag and brought it with me to Chile and the Pacific. From what I’ve heard, by throwing the lei into the ocean I am respecting the friendship of the person who gave it to me, promising I’ll return, and commemorating a loved one who has passed away. So I tossed it into the breeze.
I also took my family to my university, and showed them where I volunteered or met with my running team. There are tons of additional places I would have loved to show them, but we were limited by time and a lack of rapid transportation. Instead, on my last night in Chile, a couple of friends came over for a small barbeque with one of my favorite foods (choripan!), and we played Uno. Sometime in there I packed all of my things too. Eventually everybody drifted off to bed, and I went out for my true last night in Chile.
The next morning, my host mother dropped us all off at the bus station. We gave our teary goodbye hugs and then boarded yet another coach bus, this time to Santiago. After dropping off all our luggage in the airport, we headed out into the city, one that I was not nearly as familiar with, and one that was as busy and chaotic as usual. Having already had a FULL week, my family wasn’t too interested in a crazy tourism day, so instead we met up with Diego! If you don’t recognize the name, he’s the Chilean I went to Chiloe with a couple of weeks before. Whenever my mom is talking about the trip, she always references this afternoon as being her favorite; it truly was special. Even though Diego met my family that day, we all got along like we had known each other for years. He seriously is a fantastic kid. We went to the grocery store to buy all the typical Chilean foods, we went to a Human Rights museum that focused on the dictatorship (which was fun for me to explain the history to my family or translate words with Diego), we ate sopaipillas on the street, we wandered through the city and the metro system, and we ended the day sitting in a park, eating delicious cookies and just talking talking talking. Throughout the entire afternoon we spoke Spanglish, constantly learning from each others’ mistakes, laughing, and making up jokes. That was another hard goodbye for all of us. When the sun set, we headed back to the airport for the last time, and off we went.
The last important part about our trip was that my family came down on Solstice, and we left on the 27th. It’s common sense that the holidays are always a difficult time to be an exchange student, and I missed both my mother’s and my brother’s birthdays and Thanksgiving. However, I avoided the holiday blues during Turkey day by celebrating my first ever Hanukkah with Dana and a group of her friends, making homemade latkes and applesauce (which her Chilean family had never had before…!), lighting a makeshift menorah, and listening and participating in the traditional songs with her family through Skype.
And for Christmas, my two families were together!
My host mother, my host sister, my mother and I all chipped in to make a Christmas dinner feast, a mix of Chilean foods and American foods. We drank cola de mono, sitting around the huge dining room table, with Christmas music in the background and the tree’s beautiful decorations lighting up the room. At midnight, as it is custom to do in Chile, we opened up presents. My mother had brought some gifts down with her (based of my suggestions), and my host mother had even gotten some for my family. There was much laughter and thank yous and smiling people. A huge success. Even though my mother and brother didn’t know much Spanish, they knew enough and did their best, and I was finally able to be a translator. A great Christmas it was. My Mothers!!Cata and I My brother and one of the kittens
That concludes my trip to Chile. Done. Goodbye. Leaving home was hard, but in a different way because I knew my life would pretty much be waiting for me when I returned. Leaving Chile was worse (I would have “missed my plane” had my family not been there to take me home…). I know someday I will go back, and I’ll see my friends again, stay with my host family, run with my running team, swim with my sea lions, eat my sopaipillas, shop at my stores, take my metro, dance at my discos, walk through my streets, climb up my stairs, but it will never be my life like it was. I’ll be more of a tourist than a local.
However, I also left having had the time of my life. It was an experience I will NEVER regret, where lifelong friendships were born, a love for a new language took root, and a lifetime’s worth of memories were made.
Chile, hasta pronto.