Boarding the flight to Lima, Peru that would ultimately connect to Santiago, I realized I was in a much different part of San Francisco International Airport than the little Southwest cranny I usually passed through after my vacations. I was unsure which language to speak, but as I passed through the gate, I felt as though I were crossing a border. And by the time I reached my seat, I knew that Spanish was the optimal choice for blending in.
I told myself that I chose the “Español” option when watching “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Yes! Man” on my flight to practice my Spanish, but secretly the reason was that I didn’t want to be labeled as a gringa by my Latino seatmate or the stewardess when the subtitles appeared. I don’t think either of them was fooled.
After a seven-hour nighttime sojourn in Lima and a second flight, I finally landed in Santiago, where I was greeted with extensive paperwork and confusion at the customs gate.
The customs officer spoke impeccable English, but my ineptitude at international travel and tendency to get flustered at all the wrong times threw me off anyway.
Outside taxi drivers clamped onto new arrivals and hawked their services with impressive determination. Fellow Stanford student Susha Roy ’13 and I found our way to the recommended shuttle service and departed for the hotel where orientation would take place.
Walking the streets of Santiago for the first few days was an experiment in self-consciousness. Chileans appeared to be quite a heterogeneous mixture of people, and so why shouldn’t a group of Americans easily blend in? But that wasn’t to be, as the cultural nuances of posture, dress code and most importantly, language, are impossible to disguise.
Marching by in our 28-person contingent, chatting and laughing loudly in English, we may as well as have had the word “extranjeros” (foreigners) stamped across our foreheads. The more fashionably dressed and Spanish-speaking Chileans hurrying along the sidewalks gave us knowing looks as we passed, sometimes even grinning and chuckling to their companions as they noticed our conspicuous group.
Ringing the doorbell of my soon-to-be apartment home, the door was flung open by a small, merry-looking woman with huge brown eyes, setting off the tinkle of the wind chimes attached to the handle. Exclaiming in delight, my new host mother showered me with welcome besitos (kisses) and led me to my room, laughing all the way.
My room was small and bright, and best of all, led outside to a balcony overlooking an energetic alley and facing another apartment building. The walls of the adjacent apartment were white, just like those of mine, with curtains of flowers draping off parallel balconies and colorful pinwheels spinning in the light breeze. Already I was excited to sit and read outside on my own balcony…or throw water balloons at the people three floors down, as my 11-year-old host brother Julio suggested.
“Aquí la gente le gusta vivir mucho,” said Mané, my host mother. “Here the people like to live.”
I think Mané’s favorite word is lindo, or beautiful. The days are lindo, Chile is lindo, the people are lindo, life is lindo. It’s an infectious exuberance – and I find it not only in Mané but outside in the streets, at the parks dotted with couples and spurting fountains, at the Brazilian dance classes on the way up the winding Cerro San Cristóbal road.
The university sector is vibrant, students lounge about in restaurants or bars, dressed in neon colors and floral patterns as summer approaches. In testimony to the recent protests, passionate quotes against the privatization of education span a nearby wall. Swirls of graffiti on the same wall depict skulls eating pencils and books alongside a man walking backwards – the students argue that the current education systems are steps backwards for the government.
From my humble perspective as a foreign observer, Santiago is not a city that encourages passivity, but one that embraces passion and amor (love) of the vida linda (beautiful life).