Valparaíso, Chile was the first foreign country I ever lived in. I was 21 years old and stayed there for six months while I was studying abroad.
It was one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.
Not only did I learn a lot about Chile’s history and culture, but I learned a lot about myself. Every day I was confronted with my own privilege and challenged to question everything I had been taught.
I went into the experience wanting to learn and wanting to be changed. But even though I was partially prepared, it ended up being more challenging than I ever imagined.
Here are 13 valuable lessons I learned while studying abroad in Valparaíso, Chile:
1. Chileans speak really f*&#@*g fast
If you’re just learning Spanish, it might seem like all Spanish speakers talk fast, but Chileans are on a whole new level. They have the amazing talent to say a whole sentence in what seems like one single syllable.
A simple task such as asking where the bus stop is or buying groceries can seem impossible and overwhelming. Here is where I learned that my Spanish wasn’t so great and that no amount of classes could have prepared me.
At the same time, it was a really fun challenge and, at the end of the six months, I spoke better Spanish than some friends who had studied in other Spanish-speaking countries.
2. Chilean Spanish is Not Spanish
Well…technically it is Spanish. Like if you took Spanish and ran over it with a car then set it on fire. Chilean Spanish is its own special breed of Spanish.
Just some examples to prove my point:
“I have a boyfriend”.
Normal Spanish: Tengo novio.
Chilean Speanish: Tengo pololo. (qué???)
“Do you understand?”
Normal Spanish: Entiendes?
Chilean Spanish: Cachai? (qué??? X2)
Normal Spanish: Hay tráfico
Chilean Spanish: Hay taco (like…the food?)
That last one led to several disappointing situations.
Anyways, you get my point.
3. Always take the scenic route
While an eight-hour bus ride compared to a 30-minute plane ride might seem like torture, I actually learned to love long-haul bus rides while I was living in Chile. Why you ask? This country has some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe that I was in a real place.
And because Chile is so biologically diverse, I never got bored of the landscapes, from the coastline to the Andes mountains. Not to sound cliché but the bus ride through the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza literally brought tears to my eyes and still takes my breath away when I think about it.
4. Sometimes It’s Cool to Do Nothing
As someone who was born and raised in the Northeast of the United States, I always felt like something had to be done or that I had somewhere to be. Chile is where I really learned to take my time.
When you’re surrounded by people who are in no rush, you have no choice but to adopt that attitude also. I really learned that sitting in a café for hours with friends is a great way to spend an afternoon in Valparaíso. It’s something I still do today and it’s helped me enjoy the present moment.
5. Together We Can Create Change
While I was living in Chile, I studied at a university. Some of my classes were with other foreigners and others were with Chilean students. Compared to annual salaries, students pay a lot for tuition and many can’t afford to attend school.
During the last month or so of the semester, the students went on strike. I had never seen anything like it before, but my host family told me that it happens every year. The strike wasn’t for a day or two, but for over a month.
Each week students got together to decide if the strike would continue or not. Most of the professors supported the students. Amazing how big something can become when everyone gets involved, huh?
6. Be More Critical of Your Government
In the U.S., politics divide us. It’s always “this party” vs. “that party”. In Chile, it’s” the people” vs. “the government”. Chileans criticize their government and hold officials accountable for their wrongdoings.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a decent amount of corruption, but at least people are talking about it. Chileans are politically active and I saw so many more people talk openly about issues than in the United States.
It taught me that I should question my government more and be critical about the policies it tries to implement. Based on the current state of the U.S. government, this is truer now than ever.
7. Chileans Hold Onto the Past
Chile’s history is really interesting to me (and I even wrote my final thesis on it for my degree). From 1973 to 1990, Pinochet was the dictator of Chile and he tortured and killed thousands of people.
Nearly everyone in Chile knows of someone who was tortured or knows of someone who knows of someone. It was a very tragic time and it’s still present in Chilean culture. You can see it in the street art and hear about it in everyday conversations.
By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about this period in the country’s history, Machuca and No are both awesome movies about it.
8. If You’re Foreign, You Will Stand Out
Living in Colombia, I don’t draw too much attention when I walk down the street. Living in Valparaíso was a different story.
Just walking down the street people would stare at me and make comments. Sometimes it was an innocent curiosity but other times it made me really uncomfortable.
And I have dark hair and brown eyes. I can’t even imagine how it is for people who stand out more.
9. Freedom is More Valuable Than Money
While I was living in Chile, I became friends with a completely different group of people than I would normally be friends with. I’m not sure how it happened but I really learned a lot. These were people who lived each day without knowing if they would have enough money to eat (think street performers, artisans, musicians).
I spent my afternoons sitting in the Plaza Anibal Pinto with my friend who sold books and records. It was a completely different world. But the people that surrounded me weren’t bitter about their situation. They seemed happy and friendly, living life on their own terms.
While I can’t deny that money is important sometimes, my experience really showed me how little money means to me on a personal level.
10. Don’t Go to the Club Before Midnight
When I first got to Chile and I only had my gringo friends, we made the horribly embarrassing mistake of going to the club around 10 P.M. (Flash to a picture of three dressed-up girls ready to party in an empty club).
There’s absolutely no rush to get to the club in Chile because they’re open until 5 A.M. and there’s usually an after party that ends around 8. It’s normal to drink leisurely with friends and have a good time at home before heading out.
11. Getting Lost is Part of The Experience
I used to get kind of overwhelmed when I got lost, but now I just accept it as a normal part of experiencing a new place.
During my first week in Valparaíso, I tried to take the bus back to my host family’s house but took the wrong one and ended up in a completely different part of town. The bright side? I got to see a really cool neighborhood.
Getting lost can actually be exciting and fun (as long as you’re not lost in the wrong part of town) and let you explore a new place you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
12. Chileans Are Really Kind to Dogs
There are a lot of stray dogs in Valparaíso…like an insane amount. Everywhere you go there are dogs of all shapes and sizes with no place to call home.
As a person who loves dogs more than most humans, it broke my heart.
But it was so nice to see little water bowls tied to lampposts for the dogs to drink out of and people giving them food on the street. During the winter people even put sweaters on them to keep them warm.
Just imagine a big, macho street dog with a hand-knit sweater and tell me it doesn’t melt your heart. I dare you.
13. Chilean Time is Different
Whatever time a Chilean says to meet, add 30-60 minutes to find out the real time. No matter how much they insist on you being there at “exactly 10 A.M.”, they won’t arrive until 10:30 or 11, sometimes later.
An important exception is with buses and planes, which leave exactly on time.
I learned this lesson the hard way after wasting nearly 100 hours of my life waiting for friends.
What lessons did you learn while living in Chile or abroad?