In 2008-09 I studied abroad in Viña del Mar, Chile. When I reflect on how I decided to travel for a year and why I feel comfortable with this life, I am not surprised to realize my experience abroad in college contributed to my current reality.
Studying abroad I developed resiliency and self-sufficiency, personal skills I rely on daily and that are also relevant outside of travel. Studying abroad also taught me practical skills like walking with confidence when I am lost, avoiding carrying all of my money in one place in moments when I am cash rich, and always keeping an arm or a leg around the strap of my bag.
Traveling between semesters of my study abroad experience, I was exposed for the first time to people called “long-term travelers.” I knew people took vacations but the idea of traveling as a primary activity, and being away for more than 1 or 2 weeks, was previously foreign to me.
In addition to personal skill development, learning practical skills, and introducing me to the concept of long-term travel (plus much more!), I developed relationships through study abroad that keep me connected to the world outside the U.S. and specifically to Chile. Small, regular reminders like seeing a mime in Spanish or a current event from Chile on my Facebook wall, emailing or What’sApp messaging in Spanish, and looking at pictures that hung in my office ensured my year living in Chile remained a part of my present and future instead of an experience limited to the past.
When I made the decision to long term travel, I knew I wanted to return to Chile and visit with my host family and friends. My host family welcomed me to Chile with so much enthusiasm. It was incredibly special to see my host parents as well as my host brothers and their growing families. My weeklong visit with family was full of laughs, conversation, and food. Like many families, separating family time from meals is not possible so this post is another food and activities combination post.
The view from Jaime and Paula’s apartment in Santiago and some street scenes. Art in the form of street performers is common in South America. I watched juggling and unicycle acts at crosswalks, and on public transit I have listened to flute music, story telling and singing. Listeners and observers usually donate a few coins to the performer.
Paula and Jaime, my host parents’ youngest son, with their sons, Rafael (Rafa) and Tomas. I stayed with Paula and Jaime for 3 nights and had the pleasure of eating meals and hanging out with the family. Most afternoons Paula, who was in her last week of a 1 year maternity leave, and I would play outside with the kids.
The day I arrived was also the first day of school for Rafa and for all kids in Chile. Paula prepared a special soup she called soap rica or delicious soup for Rafa as it was his first day of class. It was a great meal! That evening Jaime grilled meat for a traditional asado, a BBQ but much better. Slightly over a week removed from being in Asia, meat still tasted extra delicious. My favorite bad-for-you foods in Chile are manjar (known everywhere else as a caramel called dulce de leche) and bread. I have not figured out why, but bread in Chile is better.
Thursday evening I joined Felipe, the second oldest of my host parents’ kids, Carolina and their daughters Constanza (Cony) and Renata for dinner. I played puzzles and read stories with the girls and had a great time getting updates on life from Felipe and Carolina.
The night before I arrived, Carolina made time to stuff chicken with cream cheese and pepper and wrap each piece in bacon. The special dish was paired with potatoes and salad plus dessert and wine too. It was another amazing homemade meal.
Carolina works as a kinesiologist at the military academy, La Escuela Military, and invited me for a tour of the facilities, museum, and her workspace. Carolina is responsible for the physical therapy routines and rehabilitation of injured cadets. She has worked at the academy for more than 10 years and walking around the campus it felt like everyone knew her. On my visit I met a few cadets and they were highly amused that I could speak Spanish. I had passed the impressive military academy building near the city center many times and it was an honor to enter.
Paula and I and the boys treated ourselves to Chinese take-out for lunch. Paula, a fluent English speaker, had suggested a few items I could order. Her suggestions, which we discussed in English, included spring rolls and Mongolian beef. When I placed the order for these items on the phone, the staff person could not understand me. Thankfully, Carolina was with me when I ordered and corrected me. I needed to ask for carne Mongoliana and rollitos de primavera, trying to order these foods with their English names was useless. The phone order was a funny example of how language barriers work.
Friday night I invited the families in Santiago for sushi at Paula and Jaime’s house. The kids were excited for a night in pajamas and the opportunity to see their cousins. True to latin culture, we gathered after 9:00pm and ended our evening after midnight.
Saturday afternoon I traveled with Jaime, Paula and their kids to Viña del Mar, the city where I lived during my study abroad. Traffic was bad so this 90 minute drive took closer to 2 hours. The kids easily fell asleep. We talked politics and I was introduced to the latest and greatest in kid’s music.
Jorge and Patricia, Tio & Tia to me, are wonderful people. I am grateful for the lottery system that placed me in their home during my year studying in Chile. My Tios prepared an amazing meal for our lunch time family gathering. Our starter was salad and crab, the main was tender, marinated beef, and we ate fruit for dessert. We ate olives and salami as an appetizer and fresh bread with the meal. Not to mention sparkling wine and red wine too! I stayed in their home for 3 nights.
My Tios live a 10 minute walk from the beach in Viña del Mar. Viña del Mar and other communities on the coast are popular weekend get-aways for Santiaguinos. Each day I stayed with my Tios I visited the beach for long walks. It was special to be back in a place filled with great memories.
Jose Ignacio, the oldest grandchild, asked if I would be interested in making chocolate chip cookies (he called them galletas gringas or gringo cookies) for our big asado taking place at his home the following day. Never one to pass up cookies, I eagerly said yes. Saturday night at 8:00pm I went to the local grocery store for ingredients. The store was packed. All of the shopping carts were in use and I waited for more than 20 minutes to checkout. Sunday morning I baked monster cookies and chocolate chip cookies. Baking was a pleasure.
Pepe, the Tio’s oldest son, and Jenny hosted me and and the Tios for a traditional, excellent Chilean asado at their home Sunday afternoon. When Pepe and Jenny bought their home, one of their criteria in the selection process was that the house needed to have a back patio large enough for summer asados. Jose Ignacio, Benjamin, and Valetina, their three children, were under 7 years old when we first met. Now, they shared with me middle school and high school updates about English class, writing, and friends.
This asado had an incredible spread of food. For Jenny and Pepe, preparing this meal was easy but from my vantage point it was a feast. Pepe says he coined the term carne sandia, watermelon beef, to explain the level of juice in the meat he grills. It was delicious.
After our asado we drank coffee and ate the cookies I brought. Then, we spent a few hours enjoying each others’ company.
Because of forest fires in the hills, water was cut off to some areas outside Viña del Mar. One of the effected areas included the school where Valentina and her brothers study. Without water, classes were canceled for 1 day. On the Monday when classes were cancelled, I spent the day with Valentina. We had lunch at my favorite empanada locale in the city, Entremasas. For dessert I had an empanada filled with manjar.
After lunch Valentina and I walked the beach boardwalk and sat in the sand. We also visited the mall to window shop.
Sights from the Viña del Mar boardwalk which extends more than 3km along the beachfront. The Muelle Vergara is a formerly abandoned pier on the boardwalk that was restored and re-opened in 2016. The crane on the pier was used in the early 20th century to move goods from shipping boats to a railway line that extended to the pier.
Two of the biggest pleasures of staying with my host parents while I visited Viña were great conversations and great meals. We ate lunches and once (a lighter evening snack) together most days. Seafood stew and empanadas, both homemade, plus plenty of red wine were delightful. Meals are a relaxed affair and together we talked about subjects like Chilean and US politics, family, books and we shared many stories too.
My Tio’s favorite fruit is the tuna fruit, also known as a prickly pear, produced by cacti plants. We ate tuna a few days for dessert. The fruit tastes like a mix of kiwi and watermelon. My Tio usually peels the fruit before serving it to me. I am spoiled.
Views of the Chilean countryside as I traveled via bus from the coastal city of Viña del Mar back to Santiago, a city in the country’s interior. Growing up in a state that is flat, mountains always impress me.