Happy Chilean Independence Day! Ok, so not really. Independence Day was Tuesday, September 18th, and now it is Sepember 20th, but that is just a minor detail. Independence Day is a huge deal here- it is apparently the second most important holiday in Chile, right after Christmas. The celebrations are pretty extreme, and literally everyone takes part in them. There is actually a law that during the fiestas patrias (celebrations for Independence Day) every household or public building in Chile is required to have the Chilean flag displayed. Although the law isn’t enforced too strictly, and there are definitely some places without flags, the fact that this law even exists shows how much importance this celebration holds in Chilean culture.
So, what exactly happens for Inpdendence Day? In short, it is pretty much a longer, more drawn-out version of Independence Day in the United States, with a lot more food, drink, and dancing (Who knew it was possible???). Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are all national holiday, so all students and workers are required to have vacation, but a lot of people have off for the entire week. This means that from Friday night all the way through Wednesday, the entire country is celebrating with asados (barbeques) and fondas (big Chilean parties with dancing, traditional decorations, and tons of food). In a nutshell, here is the itinerary of a Chilean for las fiestas patrias: Wake up (around noon, of course), go to an asado at a friend’s house, go to a fonda in the parque, go to bed (around 3 am probably). Wake up the next morning, go to asado at a different friend’s house, go to a different fonda, go to bed. Repeat this cycle for 5 days, and you are officially a Chilean!
Chileans look forward to Independence Day for one main reason: the food. At the end of my last class before vacation, a guy literally started running around yelling ‘Meat, empanadas, pisco (type of alcohol), choripán (type of sausage), chicha (another type of alcohol)!!!!!’ I figured he was exaggerating a little bit about the amount of food consumed, but he definitely was not. For the entire week, people pretty much eat meat, alcohol, empanadas, more alcohol, and more meat. One of my professors was telling me how it is not uncommon for someone to gain 10 kilograms of weight during this week alone! (I’m not sure how much that is in pounds, but trust me, it is pretty large!) My host family actually had a barbeque here yesterday, and I am pretty sure we have enough left-over meat to last us until I go home. There is seriously a huge tray of choripán (similar to Italian sausages) and a giant bowl filled with something resembling steak sitting in the refrigerator right now. I don’t think I have ever craved meat before, but I am not about to start now!
So anyways, as much as I like to eat, I knew there was no way I could handle 5 days of nonstop barbeques, so I decided to go with two of my American friends, Megan and Payton, to Valdivia, a small city in Southern Chile. All the people I talked to ahead of time and told me that Valdivia was super gorgeous and were extremely excited that I was going there; one girl in my tennis class even spent 10 minutes searching for pictures of Valdivia on her phone to show me! For me, Valdivia was even more interesting because I originally had chosen this city to study in for my semester abroad. Due to problems with strikes at the university in past years, however, I changed my destination to Santiago at the last minute. So I was obviously very interested to see if I had made the right choice, or if I would have liked Valdivia (the ‘small, rural’ university town) better than Santiago, the big city.
Valdivia is 10 hours south of Santiago, and my friends and I chose to take an overnight bus, which was considerably cheaper than flying. As always, the bus provided us with some adventures. Note to anyone who is ever thinking of coming to South America: no matter how prepared you are for the public transportation, things will still never go perfectly. It is just not physically possible. To start with, we had some major difficulties even buying the tickets. Not surprisingly, the majority of Chileans choose this week to travel to other parts of the country, so bus tickets were pretty much sold out by the time we went to buy them, a few weeks ago. After researching for many hours and talking to many different bus companies, we finally managed to get a few of the last tickets to Valdivia for Thursday night, which was perfect because none of us had classes on Friday. The only drawback was that the bus was all out of semi-cama seats (literally semi-bed), so we had to buy the cama (bed) seats for the way down, which were obviously more expensive. Long story short, we had to catch our bus in one of the world’s most complicated bus terminals (or so it seemed), and if we would have left our houses 5 or 10 minutes later, there is no way we would have made it! Our tickets did not have a bus number, only the city and the time of departure, which made it quite difficult to find. I seriously asked directions from 5 different people and they all pointed me in different directions. Fabulous. But we made it, and we were never happier to see a ‘cama’ than at that moment. I put cama in quotes because I believe the Chilean bus companies need a better dictionary- the cama really had no resemblance to a bed whatsoever, other than the fact that there was a pillow and a blanket! So the cama was something of a rip-off, especially when our ‘included breakfast’ consisted of a juice box and one tiny cookie. I think the guy handing out the food strategically placed them on our laps when we were still sleeping so no one would get upset and ask for something more substantial!
But with or without breakfast, we made it to Valdivia bright and early Friday morning. By bright and early, I mean it was about 8:30, but for Chileans, that is an unthinkable time to be awake! Aka there was literally nothing open. After walking around pretty much the entire city in the torrential downpour, we finally found a breakfast café that opened within a half hour. So naturally we strolled around the block in circles until it opened up. Worth the wait, though—delicious food, and we had the entire restaurant to ourselves!
Happy and fed, we made our way over to our hostel, Hostel Bosque Nativo. We had already reserved three beds in the hostel ahead of time, so we thought we were all set for the weekend. But unfortunately, we forgot that we are in Chile, so things don’t work exactly as they do in the United States. Turns out the website we booked our rooms with never actually sent an email to the hostel, so they had no idea we were coming. The lady was super nice, but she obviously didn’t believe that we had already booked our rooms, and she kept telling us there were not enough beds available for three people the entire weekend. The first night was fine, she kept saying, but the other nights there were going to be too many people. Well, we were excited to have somewhere to sleep the first night, at least, so we decided to just go with it. The good thing was that Payton had kept the confirmation email from the hostel website showing we had already reserved rooms, so the lady had to believe us then, and promised to figure something out. Eventually, she ended up constructing an extra bed to put in our bedroom so there would be enough room for us. The ironic thing was, a group of 4 was supposed to come the next day (which is why there wasn’t enough room in the hostel) but when they found out they would have to share the room with other people, they changed their mind and went to stay somewhere else. I guess we managed to scare them away, without even meeting them. But hey, I guess when you are in Chile, do as the Chileans do- go with the flow, and things always seem to work out in the end!
So this was my first time ever staying in a hostel, but definitely not my last! Seriously, if you have never stayed in a hostel, you are missing out. It is one of the coolest environments I have ever seen- there are just a ton of other young, friendly people traveling around, doing cool things. Everyone in the hostel was extremely nice and fun to talk to- I met a girl from Mexico, a guy from Germany, a guy from Bolivia, and another guy from a different part of Chile. It turned out that my friends and I got along really well with Diego, the guy from Chile, and Guido, the guy from Bolivia, and we ended up hanging out with them for most of the weekend. We had really been hoping to go to Parque Oncol, a nearby national park with temperate rainforest, but it is very hard to access because it is in the middle of nowhere on a mountain, so the buses do not go there. Turns out, however, it was our lucky weekend, because Diego had a car and wanted to go there as well! So Diego, Guido, Megan, Payton, and I ended up going there for most of a day, exploring the temperate rainforest. It was probably one of the coolest hikes I have ever been on, and trust me, that is saying something. I have been on a lot of hikes.
Let’s see… what else? We spent a lot of time exploring the city and the surrounding areas. We went to the huge market where a random Chilean man gave us a random lecture for 30 minutes about religion, philosophy, and life. I guess technically it was a ‘conversation’, but there were definitely huge blocks of time where he just kept talking without giving anyone else a change to say anything! Valdivia is famous for three things: chocolate, beer, and rain. We experienced all three, especially the rain. Did you know that it rains in Valdivia on average 250 days of the year? Surprise! It does! We got lucky though and had a few days with little or no rain, so we hit up Niebla, a nearby city with a cool Spanish fort and a beautiful beach.
Our last day in Valdivia, we decided to go to a town about 2 hours away called Panguipulli. The German guy I met in the hostel had spent a lot of time telling me how his friends all said it was a great place to go because it was super pretty and there were a TON of things to do. Plus, with a name like Panguipulli, how could it not be awesome? So we went. And there was absolutely nothing to do in the entire town. Granted, there was a beautiful view of the lake and the mountains. But after looking at a beautiful view for 30 minutes in the rain, you have really done all there is to do in Panguipulli. So after about an hour, we decided we were ready to go home. We went to the bus terminal and hopped on the next bus back to Valdivia—not one of the best day trips I have taken, but one I will definitely remember. I really wish I could have seen the looks on our faces when we got back to our hostel and the German guy asked us how we liked Panguipulli! Somehow I am guessing we didn’t look too thrilled with him…
After I recovered mentally from the Panguipulli disaster, I talked to the German student about the university in Valdiva for a while, and I am definitely satisfied that I am taking classes at my university in Santiago instead. Even though the South of Chile is absolutely gorgeous, there are some things you can only experience in the big city. For one, the exchange students in Valdivia do not get to stay with a host family, which is definitely one of my favorite parts of my experience here so far. For another, there just aren’t as many things to DO in Valdivia. It is a great place for a relaxing weekend get-away, but when you have an entire semester to explore a city, I prefer somewhere with an almost limitless list of places to explore! Plus, the university in Valdivia has apparently only had one week of classes because the rest of the time the students have been on strike. So if I had gone to Valdivia, there is a very good chance I would have had to transfer to Santiago to get credit for my semester anyways. But still, definitely worth the trip- Valdivia made for an awesome adventure, and we were all proud to have planned our very own vacation for the first time!
Why does it seem like all of my funny stories have to do with public transportation? I swear the bus was not the most exciting part of our trip, but I have two more random things to share from my 20 hours spent on this fabulous vehicle! First, Chilean buses have a speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour. Even if the actual speed limit is higher, public buses are not allowed to go faster than this. They have a little sign in the bus where all the passengers can ‘check up’ on the driver and see the speed of the bus. The crazy thing is that the instant the bus starts to go faster than 100 kmh, the sign starts making a crazy loud beeping noise! So at around 3 am, the entire bus woke up from the beeping because the bus driver accidentally went at 101 kmp for about 4 seconds. I guess that is one way to make sure bus drivers don’t speed….. And finally, the movie shown on the bus on the way home was Bridesmaids. I had tried to watch this movie once before, but gave up after the first 5 minutes. But since my iPod was dead and I had nothing else to do, I figured I might as well give it another shot, in Spanish this time. It was surprisingly much more entertaining in Spanish, but the best part was, the movie takes place in Milwaukee! I got super excited when they started talking about Milwaukee and showed Wisconsin state police cars—the lady sitting next to me was looking at me kind of funny until I told her that is about 2 hours from my home! It is crazy- more than 5,000 miles away from home, on a random bus in the Chilean countryside, and I still can’t get away from Wisconsin. I guess it is a sign- I may be gone for now, but there is no way I am gone for good! See you in three months, Wisconsin!
P.S. Good luck on your half-marathon this weekend, Mom!!!