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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.