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           Due to a whirlwind of finals exams, difficult goodbyes, and a trip to the south of Chile, it wasn’t until I arrived at baggage claim in Sea-Tac airport that I realized what standing there actually meant.  Although I was the one landing once again on Washington soil, returning to the Northwest seemed to lower itself around me like a winter fog; I felt both refreshed and vulnerable.  The pine trees standing tall in the December chill simultaneously welcomed me and ignored my existence.  The scent of our family minivan triggered fond memories, but the English vowels leaving my own mouth sounded harsh and congested.  At first, some people appeared to be on social timers, after about four to seven minutes they formally signaled their departure with, “Well, ya know I really should_______.”  All this left me with one pressing question:  was it true that I’d returned home?

                The subject of “home” simmered as I emptied the suitcase that had become a faithful companion through months of travel.  Inside I found a small, forgotten slip of paper given to students after completing a semester at the Costa Rica Campus.  I picked it up and read the quote, “The mark of a successful sojourner is not that he has finally come to appreciate fully the meaning of home, or that he may have relinquished one home for another more suited to him, but that he has found two places ‘where he can go out and in’.”  

As I currently reflect on these words I stumble over the phrase, “where he can go out and in.”  Honestly, I find “out and in” to roll strangely off the tongue and am tempted to invert it.  Undoubtedly, however, this sentence order was intentional by the author, and as I sit repeating those words I understand the importance of their syntax.  After spending almost eleven months outside of the U.S., I now understand that the first step in defining home is leaving it.  In leaving the securities of home we find ourselves exposed to an uncontrollable present we once manipulated through planning and cultural norms.

Initially, I believed that leaving meant physical relocation from the place in which I resided.  I now realize that the real journey was much more than physical, and that the people I met helped taught me valuable lessons.  After all, physical relocation without personal growth is much more like tourism than the (sometimes necessarily uncomfortable) sojourn I believe is being discussed.

When people ask me how the trip went I seem to fall back on a vague, “It was amazing.  I learned a lot and am so thankful for the opportunity.”  How could I possibly explain that ironically I learned more outside the classroom than in it, or that when volunteering at English classes I learned while teaching?  With time I hope to improve this answer.  I hope to translate the detail of celebratory meals and eye-opening conversations, to enthusiastically reinvigorate the laughter and friendship shared by many along the way, and to have eleven crucial months consolidated and gift-wrapped for those dearest to me.  In the meantime, I offer a new appreciation for life and thankfulness for all who share their experiences and places as together we search for “home.”

In closing, to those of you who read this blog as entertainment, or because there was nothing else floating on cyberspace, I thank you for reading and hope you’ve found something worthwhile.  For the others—those loved ones who urged me to start writing and who form my definition of home—I remind you that a couple typed thoughts can hardly reflect the growth of the past months, and that you’ve only received a summary…for now.  I look forward to the stories we’ll share, and mil gracias for your support.  

So as the year 2013 wraps up, this blog also comes to a closure, but the lessons I’ve learned on the road this year will continue with me indefinitely.  Of course, one final thank you.

-Austin Vander Wel


That Travel Bug

About four weeks ago I woke up on a Sunday morning around noon, and as I looked at myself in the mirror I said, “Austin, where did that first half of the day go?”  Living abroad can undoubtedly tire someone out, but my lazy half couldn’t come up with any acceptable excuse to appease my ambitious half.  That day I made a promise that I’d spend my weekends immersed in Chile, not sleep.  And with that I made a resolution to travel. 

                In my clase de turismo we’ve learned how to classify free time spent outside of the local setting.  According to this, once we leave our locale for recreational reasons (study abroad technically doesn’t count) we take part in regional, national, or international tourism.  Here’s what that looks like:

Isla Negra.

                Just south of Valparaíso lies Isla Negra, a small town—not actually an island—that was once home to the poet Pablo Neruda.  Some friends and I got up early that Saturday morning to spend the day exploring Neruda’s house-turned-museum.  I was amazed by his many quirky collections.  However, after browsing his assortment of colorful sea shells, ships in botellas, and wooden figureheads, the backdrop of the rolling waves made the marine collections seem like the natural extension of a poet’s backyard sea.  

Santiago de Chile.

                The following weekend I headed to Santiago to celebrate a friend’s cumpleaños and spend time catching up with him.  This trip was much less about sight-seeing, but I still had the chance to walk through La Moneda, experience the bustle of La Plaza de Armas, and explore La Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, where I took a picture that really made me reflect on what I’ve seen in the past eight months.


I’m by no means a photographer, but I liked this foto because of its contrast.  América Latina is a place where the past is remembered because it forms the daily.  When possible, colonial buildings and historical sites are honored because they represent heritage and the collision of colonized and colonizer that defines el mestizaje.  This respect for history has been tested through recent globalization and the expansion of international corporations.  Whether the photo represents a contrast between Spanish and North American colonization or a clash between reminiscence and present development is up to the reader.  For me, it captures a reality of which I’ve been reminded constantly while living in Latin America: a fusion of tradition and modernity.

Mendoza, Argentina.

                Some of the best carne in the world, the infamous yerba mate, and a unique Argentine accent are all I expected as I hopped on a bus with my travel buddy, Gustavo.  We rode over the Andes, longing for adventure in the closest Argentine city, Mendoza.  We were not, however, prepared for the three hours after arriving in the city—we hadn’t made reservations in a hostel and initially found no lodging.  This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but this particular weekend Argentina celebrated Día de la Raza.  This day was celebrated on Saturday in Chile and without time off work, but was celebrated on Monday with a day off of work in Argentina, making finding a cama much more difficult.  Thankfully, after five hostels and two hotels (and contemplating the comfort of the park benches) we found a place to rest.  

                The next day we enjoyed an educational tour of two vineyards and an olive oil plant, which took up most of the day.  Along the way we met Mendoza locals, Porteñas from Buenos Aires, and European exchange students who shared interesting stories and experiences.  I’m constantly amazed with how much young people have in common in spite of cultural or linguistic differences.

                Our second full day in Mendoza was complicated, since somehow Gustavo had lost his Chilean identification card.  You know, the one that’s used for just about everything in Chile.  We went on with our day, but not without the fear that we might have to return to Chile separately and, for him, much later than expected.  Making matters worse, we both got pooped on by pigeons.  Luckily, his passport allowed him to reenter Chile without a problem, and it was actually pretty funny that two disheartened backpackers got bird-bombed within a few hours of each other.  Despite the bad luck, I was able to visit various plazas and two museums and we both ended the day content and enthusiastic about the weekend in Argentina.  The spontaneity and travel complications tested our toughness, but also made for an unforgettable adventure. 

                Throughout my life, but particularly over the last eight months, the benefits of travel have shaped me in a fundamental way.  The perspective gained through unplanned encounters with people and situations provide a plethora of chances to grow.  I’ve found that the tests of perseverance, responsibility, and language ability found in traveling (backpacker-, not cruise-style) force one to think in a more flexible and tolerant way.  

                Thank you for reading, and I hope you too take advantage of traveling and sharing cultures.  Que nuestras botas viajeras nunca dejen de andar por caminos curiosos y experiencias escondidas.

                For anyone interested, here’s the link to a blurb I wrote for Whitworth University’s The Modern Linguist newsletter, which gives an overview of Valparaíso and a trip to another one of Neruda’s houses, La Sebastiana.

-Austin Vander Wel


A Quick Fifth Week Update

          I’ve been here for about five weeks now, and have loved the chance to learn about how truly unique Chile is.  This country is the homeland of great musicians, such as Violeta Parra, who transformed Chilean music so radically that the band Los Jaivas is free to use alternative melodies and Ana Tijoux has a grandmother to inspire her while she adds political flare to her rapping.  Chile is also the patria of poet Pablo Neruda and author Isabel Allende, whose works have earned them international acclaim and shaped world literature. 

In addition to cultural figures, Chile has many diverse landscapes due to its lengthy and slender form.  With the most arid desert in the world to the north, the famous Patagonia to the south, and the Andes to geographically separate it from Argentina, Chile enjoys an exceptional ecological diversity.  I haven’t been able to travel much so far (homework…), but I hope to change that soon.  However, here’s a picture from Punto de Lobos I took while spending a weekend in Pichilemu.  

As shown on the cédula to the right, I’m now a registered foreigner of Viña del Mar, meaning that I’ve completed all the paperwork and am settled into life as a student in Valparaíso, la Joya del Pacífico.  I’m currently taking five classes:  Tourism, Cultural Anthropology, Chilean Culture and Communication, Art and Society of Pre-hispanic Chile, and a fitness class.  In addition, I’ve been able to join an intramural rock climbing group and start volunteering with a conversational English night-class.  From what I’ve been told, this is a fairly typical amount of credits and activities to be involved in as an estudiante de intercambio.  

I’ve come to really enjoy my Chilean Culture and Communication class in particular.  Learning about the historical context of Chile has undoubtedly enhanced experiences of reading the political graffiti on the walls, hearing the folkloric music performances on the metro, and observing the ships that graze the port waters of the Océano Pacífico.  The beauties of this nation are outstanding, and this class helps me understand the complex history that continues to shape it.  

As we approach September I know I’ll be visited by a flashback that marks my generation.  A flashback of my mother’s tears that morning and a small television screen depicting two burning buildings; a symbol I didn’t understand at the time.  However, citizens of the U.S. are not the only ones to have September 11 flashbacks.  Chile remembers the coup d’état of 1973, when the U.S. was involved in the violent overthrow of their democratically elected, leftist government.  I encourage you to take at least five minutes to google the forty-year-old Chilean September 11 and the overthrow of Salvador Allende.  For those of you who speak Spanish or have heard the history before, the new television series Chile: Las Imágenes Prohibidas offers first-hand accounts of Chile’s time under la dictadura that followed.  It’s a reminder that what might seem like petty politics from a distance is missing children and broken families up close—something we should never forget.

As always, thank you for reading.  It makes my day when someone takes the time to read an update on life and a couple of thoughts.  Gracias por el apoyo, un abrazo fuerte desde Chile.

-Austin Vander Wel