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Foreign Correspondence: Mi Primera Vez – Surviving the first weeks in Santiago, Chile

I heard someone say the first week is the hardest,” my best friend at Stanford told me a couple days before I was supposed to leave. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t know, that’s just what I heard,” she told me.  I brushed off the warning with a mere shrug. I should have heeded the warning but little could have been done to prepare myself. Accepted into the program late, I had less than 12 days, when others had months, to make a decision whether or not to go. To say the least, it was the hardest decision I’ve made to date. I took a lot of advice from people who had previously been abroad who spouted the benefits of going out of the country and the wonderful time they had but failed to mention the reality of the first week. If you had asked me last week how I had felt, I would have said I regretted my decision. Now, after a weekend in the wonderful port city of Valparaiso, I love the life in Chile.

Arriving in Chile with fairly insufficient Spanish language proficiency, getting from the airport was like climbing Mount Everest. Once actually in the country, I wanted to kick myself for deluding myself into thinking it would be easy to come to the country without knowing the language. It’s not like Europe where someone will know English if you walk far enough. SOLO ESPANOL! Ordering food was (and is still at times) a nightmare. The Spanish taught in school is not Chilean Spanish and people speak in a lot of slang, dropping letters from words and making it harder to even guess what they are talking about. After going through a weeklong slump where I didn’t want to go out and didn’t talk to people, I sat down determined and began to write a list of words that would help me get by day to day. Words I had to memorize included:

-manuel montt (my train station and the direction in which to get home because I was perpetually getting lost)

-pololo (the word for boyfriend. I kept saying novio and people thought I was engaged)

-lata (boring)

-cachai (you understand?)

-lolo (teenager)

-luca (a form of money, equivalent to four dollars)

-practica (internship)


I finally built up the courage after five days to say full sentences without long pauses, um’s or mumbling. I was proud of learning the Chilean word for party — because it’s not fiesta. My host mother met me at the train since I was still having difficulty finding my way home. Exuberantly I told her “Voy a un carreterra con las otras chicas en la programa!” My host mom looked at me extremely puzzled and almost fearful. “Porque?” she asked. I started to think she was a little old fashioned and didn’t want me to go to the party and I started to feel weird. I replied “A ver personas” (to see people). She then became even more puzzled. Turns out I had told her I was going to a highway with the other girls and not a party. She probably thought, “‘dios mio,’ I have a street worker for a host daughter.” I learned that night to never use the word carretera ever again and that the correct word was carrete.

“Nada es gratis en Chile” (nothing is free in Chile) was an intense lesson to learn. The bathrooms here cost 300 pesos, which is less than a dollar. Some bathrooms really get you because they don’t cost to use the bathroom, but once you are in the stall, they don’t have toilet tissue, and you have to go buy them from the front. Most people apply for the Santiago study abroad program because they think their dollar will go farther in Chile, and sometimes they are even told by past participants that their dollar will go farther. It won’t. It is expensive, especially when you decide to travel places on top of being in another country. Just assume you will spend a significant amount of money when you leave the country and you won’t be disappointed with the amount of money you don’t see in your bank account.

Yet, with all the weird aspects of Santiago — insane amounts of PDA, palta (avocado) y mayonnesa (mayonnaise) on any food you order and the high number of stray dogs — Chile is a wonderful place. The kindness of the people down here is amazing: the first day we got left on the metro because it got too crowded and a woman who spoke English helped us find our way back; there is a universal rule down here that you cannot deny anyone water or bread; and one of the best parts of studying abroad is having a host family because they love you as one of their own. My host mom the other day was talking about how I could help my 10-year-old host sister do her hair at her wedding in 10 years. Without my family, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the first week. It was hard but it worth the experience.

I’m willing to guess that the last week will be hard as well because I won’t want to leave.


Alyssa Green ‘12


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