You see, the first weeks in any new place kind of suck sometimes. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but they do. You realize that you're really, REALLY far away from where you were (in more ways than just distance). You're tired. You're unaccustomed to everything. You're suddenly living by a new set of life-rules (and you're not quite sure what they are). And it doesn't matter if you've "done this" once, twice, or 28394 times, because you've never actually done THIS. You've never been in the exact same situation you're now finding yourself in, and so can never really know how it's gonna feel. It's scary, it's emotionally taxing, and it's challenging in ways you can never imagine.
No exchange student wants to tell you about their hardships, because for us admitting that it's not always sunshine feels like we're failing. We're told that these are the moments we'll remember forever (which, I can say from experience is 100% true) and that we will have so much fun we'll never want to leave (again, 100% true). And while we're briefly told of culture shock and the "W", we're mostly just hyped up about how awesome our trip is going to be. We pour over travel blogs, read endless articles about the 10 ways study abroad will change your life forever, and watch YouTube videos of a man dancing his way around the world on an infinite loop. Everything we see gives us the impression that these people are ALWAYS having the time of lives, and so we get it in our heads that if we're not like that then we're not doing it right. The bloggers all start to seem like demi-gods, people who have some divine power to always make the best of a bad situation and who never falter in their resolve to be awesome. They seem incredibly brave, insanely strong, and absolutely inspiring in ways we feel we can never achieve. And I know that I, like so many others, am guilty of only writing about the highlights of my life and leaving out the lower points. Which is why I'm saying this:
I'm courageously telling you that I am not special. And as hard as it gets, you will get to the good part before you know it.
I've been in Viña for 3 weeks now, and it's been quite the whirlwind. I left Honolulu on a Thursday, in what can only be described as the most romance-movie-type-thing to ever happen to me. After tearing myself away from my lovers arms, only to leave the security line and go back to them, and then tearing myself away again, I left to start a 54 hour journey to Chile. I had a half day layover in Vancouver, where I had plenty of time to explore a bit of the city on my own, and a whole day layover in Toronto, where I met up with my parents who took an impromptu vacation so that I could see them. Then, before I knew it, I was at the Santiago airport. That's when things really got exciting.
I arrived the day after the official airport pick up day, so I was on my own to find my way to Viña del Mar. I knew what bus I had to get, so all I had to do was grab my suitcase, get some Chilean pesos from an ATM, and be on my way. So I headed to the baggage carousel, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. 30 minutes later, another lady and I were the only ones still waiting, so we headed to the counter to see what was up. The young man from AirCanada was very apologetic and said that they actually had a message regarding my suitcase: It was still in Toronto. This, to me, seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen at that time, so I started to have a mini-breakdown. The AirCanada agent was very concerned, and told me not to worry. My luggage would be delivered to my house the next day, and he would walk me out and help me get a bus. I started to feel a little better, and we headed on our way (again). I told him I needed to take out money, so we stopped at an ATM. Having called my bank the day before, I was very confident I would have no problem with this task. However, much to my horror, the machine told me again and again that the action I requested (simply withdrawing a few thousand Pesos) was not available to me.
At this point, I was panicked. Not only was I alone in South America without my luggage, I was alone in South America without my luggage and literally NO money. I had no phone to contact anyone, no knowledge of the surroundings, and my Spanish was suddenly failing me. Luckily, Mr. AirCanada refused to let me spiral into a full meltdown. This guy, who is quite possibly one of the top 10 best people in Chile, took me up to the offices in the airport, got me coffee, let me use the internet and use his phone to contact the people at UVM, and made sure no one kicked me out for being a tired, weepy mess. There was really no good solution, though. It was suggested that I take a cab the whole way and then pay my host family back for it (which would probably have been a few hundred dollars that I didn't have at the moment), that I check into a hotel assuming my Visa card still worked, or even that my parents fly down on the next flight to save me. Just as things were looking desperate, the angel of AirCanada came through again. The man who drives the lost luggage out to the travelers happened to be passing through Viña del Mar, and he said he would take me to my house. I was a bit hesitant, since I had no idea who this man was, but everyone at the office vouched for him and said he was trustworthy. And he was. He drove me the 2 hours right to my doorstep, and the next day returned again with my suitcase.
Thankfully, the rest of my time here has gone much more smoothly. Here are some highlights from the past 3 weeks:
- On the last day of our orientation week, we had a scavenger hunt that led us all over Viña doing silly things. One of the best challenge was having to take selfies with 10 random people in the street. Let me tell you, there is nothing to get you out of your comfort zone like walking up to someone and saying "Hi, I'm Sophia, can these other 7 people and I take a photo with you?"
- I've started classes, and thankfully I've understood more than I did my first 2 weeks of school in France. Which is good, because I've also turned in my 1st paper. I'm taking some generic spanish classes, but I'm also taking Latin America Through Cinema and Social Movements in Latin America.
- I'm making friends from all over: the US, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, France, and more. However, I'm making some Chilean friends as well! I hung out the other day with a Chilean girl, which is a huge deal for me. When you're trying to make all new friends, it's always a milestone when you can just chill randomly on an afternoon like you would back home.
- On a couple occasions I've stayed out until 3 AM, in true Chilean fashion. On one of the nights, as my friends and I took a taxi home, I managed to haggle the price down when I thought we were being ripped off! (As it turns out, it was actually a pretty fair price to begin with and I just managed to score us a great deal)
- I've eaten a typical Chilean "Completo"- A hot dog covered in avocado, tomato, and mayo, and I've had a Pisco Sour, which is basically the most typical drink ever here
Chile's not what I expected visually. First of all it's Winter, so all of those lovely pictures of sunny days on the beach aren't my reality right now (think more rain, cloudy skies, and winter coats)(ALSO, even though it only goes from like 45-60, there is NO central heating. So 45 seems colder than it does in the US). The city itself looks a lot more European than I expected. There are wide avenues, tall buildings, pretty 2-3 story houses. And there are dogs EVERYWHERE. This made me a little nervous at first, but in my few weeks here I have never come across a vicious stray. These dogs basically think they're people. If you walk in a group, they'll walk with you. They cross at cross walks. The look at you and basically beg to be given a flea bath and taken home.
It is hard (just ask my boyfriend, who's always the first one to hear when I have a bad day), but it's worth it. All of the work you have to put in to make yourself get off Facebook and get out of bed is worth it when you realize that you're starting to have a life here. All of the days you spend staring out a window on a grey day wondering why you left Summer behind are worth it when you and your new friends explore a new city when the sun comes out. All of the pain of leaving behind your life and the people you love lessens when you start to enjoy the little things while you have them in this new chapter of your life.
This is hard, but it's worth it.