Last week was filled with whirlwind travels. My husband and I once again ventured into the El Loa region of Chile to the village of San Pedro de Atacama. There, we explored ruins from a 12th century settlement and rode horseback through cliffs and valleys, enjoying a spectacular sunset over the Andes mountains and several volcanoes towards the end of the ride. I can’t wait to share more about this mini trip with you next week, as soon as I upload some of my photos!
Then, I returned to Antofagasta to pack up months’ worth of things into 2 suitcases under the 50 lb weight restriction imposed by the airlines, and a day later hopped a plane (or three) to the United States.
It was so refreshing to arrive back in my home country, the U.S., after months and months away. I used to get reverse culture shock when I was away from home for too long, but I can’t say it’s really a problem anymore. The only thing I am “out of practice” with is checking out at the grocery store: I am much slower than the other customers and since a lot of my bank cards expired while I was away (I haven’t yet gotten my mail in Canada) I have been using cash, which I guess is just something that’s not done around here anymore judging from the impatient sighs of the people behind me in line when I start counting out my change.
I will continue to blog at least weekly. In a few weeks, I will be returning to Canada and intend on making this a more Montreal-centric blog. However, my travels are far from over so if you are interested in continuing to follow me around to different places, you still will be able to!
A week or so ago, as I looked out across the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean in Chile, almost completely white and ice-blue in the intense 4pm sunlight, my mind wandered from what to pack in my luggage to return to North America for a few months to what I will really take with me when I leave Latin America. Things that I learned. Things that aren’t so easily purchased, folded, and packed.
Joseph Campbell once said that learning to live is much more important than learning the reason for living. I would say that this is what has happened during my time abroad. I think many people who go abroad are seeking some truth or meaning in life, but I think the most you can hope for is to learn how to function better in life. (Full disclosure: as you know, I am not someone who has spent time in Latin America for this reason; I was pulled out of North America because of my husband’s career, so my reasons coming here were a little different. Perhaps that affected the results of my journey.) If I could tell anyone who wanted to escape their home or country one piece of advice, it’s that moving to another country is not an escape from reality – especially in this day in age where technology means that our worlds follow us wherever we go. So don’t go abroad expecting to “escape it all.” In fact, life will probably be much, much harder abroad than you ever bargained for, for so many reasons. Instead, go and expect to learn how to function better in the world that we all share. That is all.
Anyways, enough being didactic. I decided to make a little list of things I learned during my time in Chile. I wasn’t sure, when starting to writ the list, whether it would end up being funny or serious. Instead, I guess the best way to describe how it turned out was simply practical. It’s a list of things that I learned while here that helped me to be a more practical, pragmatic, grounded person, who survived in a new place, spent most of my time here in relatively good health, and learned a thing or two.
Just to note, I don’t know how many of these things are specific to the town where I lived. They are not necessarily representative of what someone might learn throughout Chile or Latin America. Or maybe they are. I’m not sure. They are just reflective of my experiences.
1. Eat fresh food. My brother, a bit of a foodie, recently asked me to bring him back something that Chileans would eat “every day”. I thought about what this would be: meat, seafood, fresh fruit and some vegetables, potatoes, herbs, white bread. Those are the most Chilean foods I could think of. And of course, none of those things can be packed in a suitcase or will be allowed through customs upon my arrival in the U.S. The lesson here is that the best way to experience a native diet when abroad is to buy the most locally-sourced foods possible: the things that aren’t packaged, wrapped, boxed or otherwise sealed. The most commonly consumed packaged foods in Chile, the things I probably could have taken through customs, were the most basic things we easily find in the U.S. (in fact, some of them even were from the U.S. or the same suppliers to American grocers: canned corn, dry beans and rice, lentils, hearts of palm, canned fruit, black tea, chocolate bars, potato chips, ketchup and mayonnaise.) Of course, there’s always wine I could take back, but unfortunately my luggage was already dangerously close to the weight limit!
2. Always carry a flashlight. One thing that I will always remember about Antofagasta, and all other cities I visited in South America, is how incredibly dark they are at night. Lit by the feeble orange glow of street lights, few and far in between compared to the multitude of bright white street lamps found throughout most urban centres in North America, sidewalks and streets even in the busiest urban centres like Santiago or Buenos Aires can be very, very dim. Add blackouts – not super frequent, but often enough – and I quickly learned that I need to be sure to have a flashlight with me at all times when walking around at night, especially when I am alone. Similarly, I always had a big box of matches and plenty of candles within reach at home because we seemed to lose our electricity on average once every 2-3 weeks or so.
3. Carry a small package of facial tissues in your purse, along with hand sanitizer, everywhere. This is a pretty basic rule of thumb I think for anyone travelling anywhere outside of North America (or even those travelling within rural North America). Let’s just say toilet paper and soap doesn’t always come standard, even in the relatively better-kept restrooms.
4. Women older than me are entitled to cut in front of me in line. On the other hand, I have also had girls younger than I step aside and let me go in front in line (although this is a relatively rare occurrence.) I found Chile to be a deeply matriarchal society, and also a culture that values those who are older. Combine the two with their – shall we call it, eagerness – to be in the front of a line or at the head of a crowd, waiting in line turned out to be a whole new experience. I never really got used to all of the cutting, though.
5. Personal space. What is personal space? In Chile, the closer to a stranger you are, the better. I felt like people were practically on top of me at all times – in line, on the escalator, picking out a can of beans at the store – at all times when in public. The strangest thing is, it is almost an art form. Even though people get literally right next to me, so close, they almost never end up touching me or brushing my clothes.
6. Classic, feminine fashion always wins. If you are a woman of any age and want to look good in South America, when in doubt, have long (long, long, long), flowing hair, high heeled shoes, and put on a perfectly (if not a bit tight) fitting, classic black outfit. I will never look at fashion the same after this experience: I really appreciate the attitude that clothes should be tidy, neat, clean, classic, and hug you in all of the right places. This goes for the men, too, who (aside from younger men on weekends who wear the standardshorts and a t-shirt), wear classic, crisp white shirts and dark slacks. I have to say I missed trends when I was away (few seemed to make it all the way to northern, rural Chile), but I do have a new appreciation for the classic, feminine standard of beauty that Chilean women – and most other Latin American women I saw in my travels – seemed to subscribe to.
7. The car doesn’t wait for you; you wait for the car. Pretty much self-explanatory. Where I lived, the pedestrians never had the right of way and you had to stay very, very vigilant at all times when walking places.
8. Life improves significantly if you can communicate with the locals. I emerged from South American with far-from-perfect Spanish. However, I am able to communicate with many Spanish speakers with relative ease, and I think that made all of the difference in my experience. I’d never want to spend a long time abroad anywhere unless I knew how to communicate in the native language. It’s like losing one of your senses if you cannot do it. Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’m also happy that Spanish is still such a practical and important skill here, too!
So, those are the main things I have taken away from my stays in Chile. What are some of the things you have learned when living or travelling abroad?