Friday, March 26, 2010

Today, I love this place

Yeah, that's right...I mean it. I love this place. Don't get me wrong, I am still learning (at times not very gracefully) to take the good with the bad. There is still rubble and dust and construction in the streets and sometimes I stumble through my sentences and at times observing the dietary practices of Chileans all but kills me (have you gotten your daily serving of salt, ice cream, jelly, soda and white bread?). I don't fully understand how the Chilean university system works either-my classes may or may not be cancelled week after next? Hmmm. At the same time, I am learning the bus system better and my Spanish must be improving some. I've eaten at two delicious vegetarian restaurants in Valparaiso, and I even tackled using the stove myself the other night! I used 3 matches to get one burner going, but I did it! I also know how to light the hot water heater now, and I haven't forgotten to do it once this more cold showers for this kid :)

So why do I love this place? To make a long, beautiful, colorful story short...this city of Valparaiso has character. The lower streets by the sea run along in a fairly navegable fashion, full of pastry shops, hot dog and empanada stands, random shoe stores and various bars. There are a couple of big markets and a few plazas, the National Congress building and several churches, random booths with touristy trinkets, the occasional department store and pharmacies every twenty feet. Kind of smelly (though nothing compared to China), dusty, noisy...the lower El Plan district can hardly be called spectacular, although it does have some pretty, old buildings, like the Casa Central of my university. No, what makes Valpo really special is its 42 cerros (hills) that wind upwards from the flat streets below in an alluring maize of cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, inviting you to just get lost in the houses and staircases adorned with graffiti and splashed with a rainbow of colors from bold blues and oranges to cheery pastels. Yesterday my friend Sarah and I spent an hour or two after lunch doing just that, with oo's and ahh's around every corner as we trekked higher, mesmerized by the beautiful paintings that covered every available surface. I found myself pausing every few feet and spinning in a circle on the spot as I tried to take it all in. There was really too much to take in all at once, which is the best part! I know I'll discover new paintings and notice different quotations every time I venture down those streets...and there are so many different streets to see too!

Take a walk with me?

In this cerro, there is no such thing as just a garage door.

Or just a staircase.

Laundry out to dry

Don't you just want to take these stairs?

The old with a refreshing splash of new...can you see those fresh cut flowers in the window?

It feels good to love where I'm at :)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Santiago y Vino!

This past Thursday evening after very little planning, a couple friends and I decided to go to Santiago for the weekend. None of us have class on Fridays (brilliant!), so this was hopefully the first of many impromptu getaways of the semester!! We chatted about the trip a little in class and about 10 minutes before we left Vina I made a hostel reservation...and off we went! The trip to Santiago is simple from Vina...a 90 minute bus ride drops you at a metro station and soon the entire city is within your reach. We arrived way after dark and had to wander a bit to find the hostel, but we arrived eventually unharmed... The hostel appeared a bit sketchy at night but by the time we woke up the next morning I felt pretty satisfied with our $14 a night per person accommodations. We started out Friday morning with a self-guided walking tour of the center of Santiago. I loved the feeling of being back in a big, modern city with a bustling metro and countless restaurants.
Church facing the Plaza de Armas in el Centro, Santiago

La Moneda, seat of the Chilean president
Honestly, the pictures I have seen of this were more spectacular than the actual experience of seeing the Palace in person, which is strange, but I think the aerial view is much more striking.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
This was one of many buildings in Santiago that was roped off with "PELIGROSO" = danger tape. You can see the rubble easily in the picture-also note the damage towards the upper part of the entrance of the building. It was sad to see so many beautiful buildings damaged by the quake, and there is much restoration work to be done.

Section of Pablo Neruda's former Santiago home, La Chascona
One of my favorite thingsthat I did this weekend was visiting the home of famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. His Santiago home has 3 main sections and was built to look like a boat, due to his love of the sea. He also has houses in Valparaiso and Isla Negra, and I'm planning to visit both soon. We couldn't take any pics inside, but the home was full of art and photographs and poetry and books-very interesting and inspirational.

Mural in the Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago, en route towards Pablo Neruda's house
And the other highlight of my weekend....?!? My first vineyard tour!!!

My friend Sarah and I chose to visit Concha y Toro Vineyards in the Maipo Valley (reds!), mostly because it was easy to get to via public transportation from Santiago and the price was right (a little under $14 USD for a tour with two tastings!). Concha y Toro is one of the largest winemakers in the world-and today the company even sells its shares in the NYSE. They own about 8,000 acres in Chile, from the South to the North of the country.

Former summer home of the founder, Don Melchor Concha y Toro, c. 1880's

Vineyard! with the Andes in the background

We learned all about wine aging in oak barrels...

The wine ages for 6-20 or 30 months in oak barrels, depending on the type of barrel (American or French oak). They can use a barrel for about 6 years with various wines and after they finish with the barrels, they sell them to makers of whiskey, etc.

My favorite part of the tour-drinking the wine of course! We tried one white- a 2008 Chardonnay, and one red-a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, both their Marque de Casa Concha label. I really enjoyed the process of looking and swirling and smelling and tasting, really appreciating the wine for its complexity. After the tour we were chatting with others in our tour group and ended up meeting a professor of Public Health at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their PH program is top notch, and I've considered applying there, so it ended up being a surprising but excellent chance meeting. He gave us his email and some helpful advice-its especially easy to be chatty when everyone is under the influence of a nice combination of wine and sun :) With lunch I tried a different type of wine-one of their signature mixtures of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. Carmenere is Chile's signature variety that was killed off in the Bordeaux region of France but survived, unknown to many, in Chile. It was mistaken as Merlot for years but eventually recognized as a unique variety. After a few glasses, I think it's my favorite I've tried thus far! On the bus ride back Vina from Santiago, I couldn't believe how many vineyards we passed as we drove through the Casablanca Valley. I'm happy to say that there shall be many more vineyard tours in my near future.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

You're the other half of my orange

Graffiti, a well respected art form in Valparaiso
I'm not going to lie, on Monday morning I woke up in a bit of a rut. I didn't feel like speaking Spanish and I was tired and ready to have some routine in my life. After three months away from America already I was missing it dearly. I spent too much time speaking with friends in English over the weekend and I was dreading any lengthy conversations with family members. They are sooo difficult to understand sometimes, in large part because of their Chilean tendency to drop s's and d's and add -ito to everything, in addition to using a variety of vocabulary words referred to as "chilensimos"...the Chilean's own extensive vocabulary for everyday situations and things. Rather than being excited to speak more and learn more, I was just feeling frustrated and annoyed that I was struggling so much. The day turned out okay, but I went to bed last night feeling like I had avoided social time with my Chilean family, which is not what I am here to do.
So, this morning when the family all woke up early to make breakfast for my host dad's 50th birthday, I joined in. I peeled apples in the kitchen for fresh apple juice as we all stood around in our pajamas and my host sister made cheese paninis. I learned that this is a family tradition for all birthdays. We carried breakfast for all upstairs on trays and sang Horacio Happy Birthday and then ate our sandwiches as we sat on the bed. I quickly returned to my room and went to sleep as everyone got ready for school and work (I start classes tomorrow), but nonetheless I felt like I was back on the participation track, and it felt right.
This evening we had "onces" (late snack/dinner that consists of bread with something on it such as cheese, avocados or jam with tea and sometimes pie) as a family with grandmothers and aunts in attendance too. I was able to follow a good bit of the conversation and even did my fair share of speaking with relatives. Afterwards, I accompanied my host mom Sandra to take my host aunt and cousin (also an international student) home. While we were driving along, various topics were brought up, including men, and my host cousin asked my aunt if a man was her "media naranja." I heard it and didn't think much about it at first because I'm accustomed to not understanding some words, but I soon turned around and said "Que??"(what?) as I realized what the literal translation was. "Media naranja" means half an orange, but when I asked what they meant by this they said "soul-mate." Of course! It made sense after I thought about it, and I had to smile about the latest addition to my random vocab. I think it was a turning point for me, a chance to appreciate what I'm learning here and stop wishing they used the actual vocab words I've learned over the years in Spanish class. So, I go to bed tonight with a renewed determination to soak this experience up. Who knows, maybe I'll even find the other half of my orange...

Monday, March 15, 2010


Beach in Renaca, with Valparaiso in the distance

I find myself once again sitting in front of my computer, trying to process everything that has happened today. The day began well-I slept in and was greeted with sunshine streaming in my bedroom window. I ate breakfast and google-mapped one of my university's buildings that is within long walking distance from my house. I set off for a lengthy, sunny walk and smiled at the gift of cool breezes to make my little bout of exercise perfectly comfortable. It turns out that I didn't actually find the building I was looking for (I turned around before I arrived because there weren't many wholesome looking people around and I felt really far from my neigborhood), but I still felt really good about all my fresh air and exercise. I returned home for a delicious lunch of rice and mushroom and pepper stir fry and made plans with a few other students to head to the beach in Renaca. When we arrived at the beach, the water was sparkling and the waves were crashing with a comforting ebb and flow on the shore. The sand felt soft and cool beneath my feet as I chatted with my friends about how beautiful this place is, and how comfortable we all feel here.

After the beach we went back into Vina del Mar to find some dinner. Most places were closed since it's Sunday, but we stumbled upon a strange yet interesting pizza place that was still serving. I ordered a veggie pizza and ate it with a funny spice that they brought to the table...smelled and tasted exactly like BBQ sauce. They also give you odd yet delicious ketchup to eat with your pizza since it doesn't have sauce, so I used some of that too.

As we were paying our bill, the lights in the restaurant slowly dimmed and then everything went black. Since I was sitting right next to the window, I could see that the entire street had gone black, save for the headlights of a couple cars. It was 8:50 and already dark out, so there was no natural light left. We all broke out our phones so we could see our way out of the restaurant and headed toward my friend Sarah's apartment. To get there we had to go on one very long street with no cars driving by so we clutched our purses closely and stepped carefully to avoid falling. We couldn't believe the streetlamps weren't on some kind of backup generator, but sure enough everything was out. We entered onto a main street with some banks and pharmacies with backup lights and many cars driving by. Drivers were honking there horns liberally (as they often do here in Chile), as if that was going to change the fact that all the lights and traffic lights were out?! After a long walk and some very harrowing street crossing, we finally arrived at Sarah's building. The power was out there too so we had to walk up a completely dark stairwell to her door. We decided to go inside and wait out the outage for a while since traffic was so heavy and dangerous. After a while my phone began to work and I called my host Mom to ask about the lights at our house, about a 15 minute drive from where I was. My Spanish was terrible because I was so flustered but at least she knew I was safe.

Sarah's host family had a radio that we listened to and learned that almost all of Chile was having a power blackout due to a main power grid failing. They cautioned everyone to unplug everything in their homes as power was slowly returned to different regions at a time. All at once the constant drama of my life this first week here began to get to me, but I told myelf to remain calm, at least until I got home. After a while my friend's host brother came to get us, and we endured a dark but safe ride home as streetlights began to work again. I arrived home and managed to stumble through some small talk as I met a family friend who was sitting by candlelight with my host family in our living room. I had no desire to sit and chat as though everything was good, so with a "permiso" I headed to my room and shut the door.

So, here I sit, utterly exhausted by the rollercoaster of a week I've had. Until now, I honestly think I've succeeded at my"I'm not going to let this craziness get to me" mantra, but tonight I am struggling with that. I do feel like I'm supposed to be here, but tonight was the icing on the cake of all this constant being on-edge. I have to be thankful that the situation wasn't as bad as it could have been-at least I was with a group of friends and knew how to get home and arrived safely. It is just different to find myself saying things like "at least I'm safe" so often, and it starts to mess with your ability to relax after a while! Well, tomorrow is a new day, and I'm sure it will bring adventures of its for now I say buenas noches.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Good Story

So it is after midnight here, and I have to get up early, but right now is just one of those times that I need to get to tell the story of my day before I forget all the good details.I woke up this morning a little nervous to make my first solo trip into Valparaiso from Vina del Mar. I got in the shower and turned on the water only to find that the water pressure was nearly nonexistent and the temperature much less than pleasant for bathing. This didn't surprise me that much because yesterday they cut the water off in my neighborhood to repair some breaks in the pipes from earthquake damage, so I didn't think much of the lukewarm trickle. Suddenly, however, the water turned completely cold, and I had to finish showering in a slow frigid stream of water. "It's like the pool, Erin, you can be in water this temperature," I kept telling myself. After the longest coldest shower of my life, I finished and quickly got ready and ate a big breakfast of carbs, carbs and ohh some more carbs. I was a little mad at myself for finishing the cereal and yogurt an apple, and my two slices of toast with jam, but later it proved to be very lucky!
I made it to the school on time, despite the horrible traffic due to the inauguration of President Sebastian Pinera that happened at the Congress today a couple blocks inland from the buiding I was in. I was supposed to get my student visa registered, but of course that didn't happen because I continue to be labeled a "special case" since I have no physical student visa, only the papers that came with it. Then, as I was waiting for the next item on the orientation agenda, my oral Spanish interview, I began to feel the ground shake and everything swayed a little. This is kind of normal, so right at first I didn't think much of it. Then it lasted. And lasted. I felt a pretty strong shake for about 15 seconds, which is really long for an aftershock. Lots of time they last that long, but you really only feel strong movement for about 7 seconds. Also I was on the first floor, which should be the least shaky so I knew the building felt like it was swaying much more for those on the floors above me. Anyways, the other students and I felt like something was up, but really how were we to know? After a few minutes I started to see people run and then they ushered us all upstairs to the 3rd floor. We waited there a few minutes and they they said to go up to the 4th floor. Finally our orientation group leaders explained that there was a tsunami warning, an official one, which meant that since we were in a building so close to the coast we had to wait on the 4th floor for an hour or so. oy vey!!! After an hour they told us they wanted everyone to email their families back in their home country, so at this point I knew something kind of significant must have happened. We all went down a floor and used the computers and looked online to see what had happened. We quickly found out that there was an earthquake in Rencagua of 7.2, about 90 km south of Valparaiso. Apparently it happened in the midst of the changing of presidents, while Pinera was speaking. People ran like crazy in the streets, and everyone ran for the hills because of the tsunami warning. I feel a little goofy saying run for the hills! but in reality, that is the advice we are given here as part of an earthquake response. Sometimes I can't believe I'm here, in Chile, hanging out with earthquakes and aftershocks!
After all that craziness they said we still had to take our oral Spanish exams. So we waited. And waited. After a while they said we would take the oral tests tomorrow instead. At that point, it was about 2:30 and everyone was starving, so I went with a group of other students to find lunch. Upon exiting the building, realized everything was closed. We wondered aloud why there were sooo many people just lining the streets and suddenly realized that all of them were waiting for a bus to Vina del Mar, the ones that all of us wanted to take. So we waited. And waited. Every bus that passed by was packed like sardines with people hanging out the doors sometimes. Finally we found one that could hold us and headed north along the coast for Vina. That bus ride is something I will never forget. I prayed and I closed my eyes at some points and yeah I was for real scared as I stood gripping the bars for dear life. Our bus driver took the curves as though he was some two year old playing with cars on a track, whipping it around corners just for fun. Somehow the bus stayed upright, and we exited the bus in Renaca, a little north of Vina, in search of a good empanadas place one student loves.

Of course once we arrived at the restaurant, it was closed. We headed uphill to find someplace open and stumbled upon a delicious looking empanadas joint with its gate closed. We convinced the owner to let us come in and eat, and I ate my first empanada in South America, queso with mushrooms and spinach! Excelente!! After that one of the students shared that his aunt lived in a house up the hill and we could all come hang out at his place. So we hiked. And hiked, up lots of stairs and steep hills, finally arriving at a lovely house that as I exclaimed, looked just like America. It had a little pool in the backyard and a basement to hang out in and a beautiful view of the coast from balconies. At about 9:30 after a much needed cerveza and recovery period, we headed for the bus stop, only to find that the buses weren't running that far up in the hills because of the craziness today, so we'd need to walk down to the beach. Awesome.

After another lengthy walk, a substantial wait at the bus stop, a 15 minute ride, and another walk to my house, I finally arrived home at about 11:15, absolutely exhausted. Then of course I had to tell my host family, first my mom and brother, then one sister, and then another sister, all about my day, in Spanish. Good grief I am tired, but safe :)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I'm finally here!!!

Well, after an unbelievable amount of transit time, I've finally arrived in Chile! My trip here was exhausting and definitely more eventful than I expected. After a Saturday morning, China time, flight (4 hours) from Hong Kong to Tokyo, I went from Tokyo to LA (1o hours), only to arrive at LAX and find that my flight to Santiago was cancelled! The airline quickly put me on standby for a different flight (earlier and longer due to a stopover in Lima). I freaked out a little and rushed to go back through security and get to my gate. Quite frankly I was horrified at the disorganization of security entering the international terminal in LAX. The security guards were really disrespectful and kept yelling at people in English (who probably did not speak English) what to do and it was awful to feel like my little precious time back in the US showcased the country so poorly. I made it to the gate with no time to grab lunch, which was especially disappointing because I'd been anticipating a meal in America for a couple months. I knew that my family would be so worried to see my flight was cancelled if they checked online. I also had no idea if the driver who was supposed to meet me would be in Santiago if he saw my flight was cancelled, but there was no time for finding wireless or anything like that so on I went. The flight from LA to Lima was 8 hours, a one hour stopover (during which we had to remain on the plane!) and then a 3 hour flight to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago they only let us off in groups of 50 to get our luggage, which was all piled up outside the plane because the international terminal/baggage claim/immigration were all being repaired. Immigration was in one big tent, and taxi people were gather in the next. I couldn't find my driver at first but a nice girl called him for me and I found him eventually. The drive west to Vina del Mar (1.5 hours)was rather quiet in the early Sunday morning calm. There was little evidence of the earthquake on that drive, just lots of mountains and green. It was a sight for sore eyes after 10 weeks in China city craziness. My host parents greeted me warmly with hugs and led me inside to show me my new room. I laid down and fell asleep for a couple hours before rising to shower and get ready for my first big lunch with the family and many relatives!

I was a bit nervous about having my first meal in Chile with 11 other people since I had no idea if I'd like the food, but I was pleasantly surprised! We started out with an interesting seafood spread on bread, followed by these amazing little bowls of shredded crab. Next was salad (one with tomatoes and avocados, and one with typical lettuce and egg). The main course was a mild fish topped with a white sauce with various seafood in it served with a seasoned rice. We ended with coffee (instant and strong!) as we sat around and chatted.

Later my two sister here (Javiera and Camila) went down to the coast with Camila's boyfriend and friend and my new friend Sarah, another student studying at my university. She is staying with my host mom's sister, and I feel so lucky to have a fellow exchange student to experience family gatherings with. I couldn't believe how beautiful the coast was. I'd say it was about 65 degrees and the sun was shining as we hopped along the rocks by the sea. We had gelato cones dipped in chocolate (yep!) for dessert at a local gelateria and went home for more social time and tea with bread and guacamole...although they call it paltas here. There were certainly many moments of confusion in the conversation but I did my best on day one going on almost no sleep. The Chilean accent and local turns of phrase really throw me off at times, and there are some family members who are much easier to understand than others.

I finally went to bed my first night at about 11:30 after being settled. With the time change from China (Chile is 11 hours behind China, and right now 2 hours ahead of Eastern time in Knoxville), I had been awake for 53 hours, except a 30 minute nap on one flight and a couple hour nap upon arrival. I hope I never ever break that little record. Now on late afternoon of day two, I am very tired but perk up when I need to, like when the ground starts to shake :) I've felt 4 little shakes this afternoon, each 5-10 seconds and varying in strength but none too bad. The pictures on the wall may rattle a little and things tremble a bit, but I'm already getting used to it. I've been instructed to wear my shoes at all times so I can run out of the house when needed and to sleep with my door cracked open. The only remaining evidence of the the big quake on Feb 27 is a big broken window in the living room and some cracks and rubble on the sidewalks. I'm prepared to possibly see more damage when I go into Valparaiso for orientation Wednesday, but in Vina the damage seems minimal. My host mom says the aftershocks will continue for about 3 months, so I guess I should get comfortable with them.

The coast in Vina del Mar. I think we drove about 7 minutes to get here. In the distance on the left in the pic is Renaca, Chile, a city a little north of Vina.

The view in the other direction, with Valparaiso in the distance.
I think I can get used to this ;)

My new room! Today they finished repainting in the corner. It is definitely cozy but there is a big window next to the bed that lets in lots of sun and fresh air when I want it.

My closet. It's possible I brought too much luggage... My family didn't seem to mind though and were pleasantly surprised when I was able to fit the two smaller suitcases inside the larger one to store somewhere.

That's it for now, more updates to come soon!