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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


Chile: The Antic Arrival

It wasn’t until I woke up in my friend Mike’s apartment about twenty stories off the ground in Santiago de Chile, shivering in my sleep that I realized what an adventure I’d experienced the day before.  

“Mike,” I thought, “he’s in Chile. Why is he here?”  It hit me like the café instantáneo I drank that morning, like the chilling air of the Chilean winter, it hit me like the sun rays rushing over los Andes and darting between the skyscrapers of the modern Latin American city, Santiago de Chile. 

                Rewinding one week, I was checking my student email as often as possible, hoping for information on a Chilean host family or an itinerary for getting picked up from the airport and plugged into orientation week at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV).  A week after the deadline promised by the university, I received an email claiming that the information would arrive at the latest the following week.  However, as I nervously talked with people the night before flying to a country unknown to me I chose to be optimistic instead of assertive and did not make the extra phone call.

                Arriving in Chile with no way to reach the university wasn’t my initial plan.  When no one from the school came to pick me up from the airport I sat down and focused on deep breaths.  Although traveling makes one more flexible as a person, it never hurts to practice controlled breathing.  Being alone at the airport wouldn’t have been so difficult if I 1) had taken pesos chilenos out of the bank, 2) had a cell phone, and 3) could access WiFi without paying for it.  I had never considered sleeping on a suitcase so intensely before.  It could be comfortable, right?  After borrowing two cell phones and trying to sneak Wifi access I was able to reach my friend Mike who is originally from the U.S., but works in Santiago.

Forty minutes later, he showed up at the Aeropuerto de Santiago to take care of both a friend who hadn’t planned ahead well and a study abroad student whose organization had not communicated with him.  

                The next morning on the way to the Valparaíso bus, we walked through the business district of downtown Santiago and it became clear that Santiago de Chile is a much different city than San Rafael, Costa Rica.  I saw people bundled in scarves rushing to catch a subway, their attaché cases bobbing back and forth.  I smelled the famous pollution of Chile’s biggest city, which holds an estimated 40-60% of the nation’s entire population.  I heard a Spanish dialect very different from that of Costa Rica.  It’s true that Chilean Spanish is very mentally stimulating, but also beautiful in my opinion.  It was a whirl of European architecture and New York City pacing, and then I was on a bus with a sign that read “Valparaíso.”

                By 10:30 I hopped off the bus with my luggage and found a bench in the station.  Mike had called a friend of his in who agreed to pick up the gringo stranger.  After finding each other, we walked to the office of international student affairs and did things in person.  Two hours later I was in my casa nueva in Chile.

If it wasn’t for the renowned Chilean hospitality I’m not sure what would’ve happened.  But for now the news is as follows:  I made it to Chile and through orientation week, my broken computer is now fixed (another story altogether), and I’m falling in love with the port city of Valparaíso.  Clearly being in a second transition period is difficult, but “difficult” or “uncomfortable” only becomes a problem when in the wrong mindset.  When one is in the right mindset you never know what aventuras will find you.  That was my first lesson in Chile.


Visas: Entrance and Acceptance

               As some of you read in the first blog, I planned an eleven month trip hoping to study in Chile starting July 21st.  I felt confident in my chances of receiving a visa estudiantil, but the unease of requesting this student visa while in Costa Rica kept me unsure of months ahead.  

                My heart sank deep into the leather armchair I was seated in as I realized it was the middle of junio and the Chilean consulate was asking me for more paperwork—paperwork I believed was correct, but wasn’t.  I left the impressive consulado chileno in San José, Costa Rica downhearted and feeling defeated by a piece of paper.  However, thanks to helpful program coordinators and fax machines, I’m now pleased to announce that on July 1st I was handed a student visa for five months in Valparaíso, Chile.

                What cost around $300, nine months, and countless second guesses of my español formal finally ended in the anticipated visa.  This, however, is nothing compared to the seemingly lifetime it takes many prospective United States immigrants to achieve citizenship, if they ever do.  

I think of my own grandparents, refugees I’ve worked with, and immigrant friends and the difficult processes they’ve all endured in order to obtain U.S. citizenship.  In fact, it seems absurd that some U.S. citizens, from a nation whose very life is owed to immigrants, still act as if immigration reform were an itch to deal with when nothing else pressing distracts them.  My small brush with the bureaucratic nature of visas and the many vulnerable conversations I’ve had with friends—some hushed and in Spanish for fear of discriminación—have shown me the importance of reforming immigration in the U.S. both politically and socially.  Along with political action, we as a nation are accountable to the daily struggle of internal reform.  That is, accepting that most of us have immigration in our past and will undoubtedly see its effects in our future.  We are accountable to remember that immigration reform is not a new hot topic in the news, but rather the essence of our national identity.

As I reflect on the visa process and the Fourth of July from outside the U.S., I would like to couple a wish of a happy Independence Day with the challenge of remembering that immigration is the blood running through our veins, keeping our nation alive.  El cuerpo que descuida su propia sangre pronto se muere.  

Thanks for reading; the next post is likely to be from Chile!

-Austin Vander Wel