Catch Up

My entire organizational system in Chile revolves around a ton of yellow sticky notes on my computer that have reminders, due dates, trip plans, etc. written all over them. I have one sticky note that I just use to write down all the random stories, facts, ideas, and adventures that I want to write about in my blog. Let’s just say it is obvious when I am slacking on my blog-writing duties because the list becomes overwhelming and starts taking over my entire computer screen. Now is definitely one of those times. Which can only mean one thing…. time to play Catch-up-on-Heather’s-life-in-Chile!! For those of you who want the 3-second summary of what I have been up to, here it is: I went on a trip with the CIEE program to La Serena and other parts of the fourth region of Chile last weekend, and since then I have been busy catching up on my ‘normal’ life in Santiago. But, for anyone who wants the full in-depth description, read on, read on!

#1. I went biking through the desert! Ok, so technically it is the area right before the Atacama desert begins, but it looked pretty much like a desert to me! The place we were in was seriously nothing but sand dunes, far away rolling hills, and one super long dirt road. When we found out we were biking, I think everyone kind of assumed that it would be a calm, easy bike ride on a nice path through the sand dunes, so no one really took our bike tour guide seriously when he gave us a 45 minute lecture about wearing our helmet and using our gears properly. But if I have learned one thing in Chile, it is to always expect the unexpected. Let’s just say that this was probably the most intense bike ride of my life. We only biked about 80 kilometers over the course of two days, which normally would not be anything too difficult, but what made this into something of an extreme sport was the road. Seriously the worst road for biking I could possibly imagine. The entire road was sand and gravel, which made it hard enough, but what really impressed me was how bumpy the road was. I literally have no idea how the road was formed to be so orderly- it seemed like there was a giant bump exactly every 3 or 4 inches! If there was an Olympic sport for desert off-road biking, I feel like they would probably use this course, that is how ridiculous it was! 80 kilometers doesn’t seem like a far distance to ride your bike until your butt goes numb from pain within the first 10 minutes… I am not kidding when I say that over half the group gave up and took the bus instead of biking the second half of the route. But I made it through (even with the pain and misery), and I would have to say in the long run it was worth it. When I wasn’t busy staring at the road in front of me, holding on to my bike for dear life and trying to avoid the largest bumps (impossible), I saw some absolutely beautiful scenery that I have never had the chance to see before. Plus I even saw a fox randomly chilling by the side of the road as I biked by- crazy!

Looks like desert to me!
Olympic biking location- it is way harder than it looks.
The whole group- happy because we thought we were done…then we learned still had 60 km left.
No better reward for finishing the ride than a swim in the river!


#2. I discovered my long-lost astronomy skills. It seems ironic, since the sky in Santiago is always covered with a disgusting layer of smog, but Chile is actually one of the best countries in the entire world for viewing the stars. Apparently Chile is perfect (other than Santiago, of course) because it is at a very high elevation and something about the way the ocean affects the clouds makes the sky almost always clear in certain places, especially in northern Chile (where La Serena is located). So one night on our trip, we went to an observatory way at the top of this huge mountain to do some star-gazing. None of the pictures I took could do it justice, but the sky was absolutely stunning. I have never seen so many stars in my life. (And the fact that I am currently in Santiago where you can rarely see any stars didn’t hurt the impression, either). An astronomer gave us a presentation about all the different stars and constellations, and how they vary in the northern and southern hemispheres. It is interesting that there are actually only a few constellations that are seen exclusively in one of the hemispheres, it normally just depends on what season it is. If I understood the guy correctly (which is pretty much the never-ending question here), the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Cassiopia (the W constellation) and the North Star are all only visible from the northern hemisphere, but most of the other constellations that I know are also seen in the sourthern hemisphere. I am now able to successfully recognize a few more constellations, but some of them are just ridiculous. For example, there is one constellation that was called the horse or something, but it literally was just two stars connected by a line. Another winner was the ‘triangle’, which you could probably create from any three stars that were close to each other. My new favorite constellation is Scorpio, because it actually looks like a scorpion with a giant tail! Much cooler than the lame line constellation….

We also used this huge telescope to look at Mars, which pretty much just looked like a giant red dot. It reminded me of this summer when there was the eclipse of Venus in front of the son and everyone was standing in front of the planetarium with their $1 solar glasses trying to find the little black dot that was Venus, only this time, our equipment was a little more high-tech. Honestly, the view wasn’t that much more impressive, though. What was really impressive was looking at the moon through the telescope- it was such high magnification that you could see all the craters and the actual moon surface! Apparently when the moon is positioned right, you can even see the American flag all the way from Chile!

#3. I saw a ton of cool wildlife: penguins, dolphins, guanaco (a type of llama), foxes, and sea lions! We went on a boat trip to the National Penguin Reserve, and it did not disappoint: penguins are just as cute in the wild as they are in the movies- they really do waddle! And there is nothing quite as cool as having a group of 10 dolphins swim past your boat with their fins all above water, except possibly having a guanaco causally strut by your bus as you are busy driving through the desert. All in all, a very good wildlife trip!



Tons of dolphins- and they were super close!


#4. I discovered tall people and Chilean bathrooms do not mix. In one hostel, I was getting changed in the bathroom and I stood up without thinking, hit my head on the light, and knocked it down! A different day, we were in a gas station when I discovered some of the world’s shortest toilets (they were literally like 1 foot off the ground). I was super confused; I mean, I know Chileans are short, but 1 foot toilets? Turns out that I was not in the women’s bathroom, I was in the ‘children’s’ bathroom, which is actually a real thing in Chile! The real bathrooms, it turns out, have normal height toilets, but the stall doors are just a little shorter than I am used to….

My friend Payton, who is pretty much the same height as me.

#5. I have eaten more than a life-time supply of bread, potatoes, and rice. I am not joking- every single meal included bread and either rice or potatoes. Sometimes all three! One day, the vegetarian meal literally consisted of bread, rice, potatoes, and soda. The real meal was always the same, just with a huge slab of meat, chicken, or fish included as well. Can you say starch and meat overload? I would never have said it before, but my mom actually had good reasoning when she refused to let me eat rice, garlic bread, and potatoes together for every meal in my childhood- you get sick of it pretty quickly!

#6. I learned some Chilean card games (and taught some American ones, too)! I found out Chileans love spoons almost as much as Americans, when we played a giant game for almost an hour one night. One of our tour guides used to work in a casino, so he taught us a few games, although most Chilean games apparently require special cards. I did learn how to play ‘nerviosa’, a slapping game that is very similar to a game I already knew, and ‘Ochos locos’, otherwise known as the very common game Crazy Eights, with a few slight variations.

#7. I found a jacuzzi! In one hotel where we stayed, two of my friends and I got the last room available, but it was worth the wait, because ours was the only one with a JACUZZI! Obviously the highlight of the trip. Although unfortunately our battle with the calefont did not go as hoped (aka we couldn’t figure out how to get hot water into the tub) so we never actually used the hot tub, but just the fact that we had it and no one else knew made us pretty happy 🙂

#8. I learned why I did not choose to study abroad in Australia. Yesterday I was taking a bus home from somewhere and this guy came on carrying an instrument so big it literally took up like 4 seats on the bus. He told us it was an aboriginal instrument from Australia and he was going to play us a few native songs. He then proceeded to make the loudest, most terrible sounds for the next 15 minutes. I have probably never heard anything that sounded quite as much like a dying whale as I did on that bus. One lady seriously was covering her ears and looked like she would rather have been anywhere but there. I left the bus before the guy finished (thankfully) so I didn’t see how many people gave him tips, but I am guessing he probably should continue looking for another job…

#9. I have been trying to fend off animals of all types. The other day at school, I was sitting on the grass, eating my lunch and doing some readings, when I realized there were 2 dogs just sitting there watching me eat. I pretty much just ignored them, because the dogs are literally everywhere on campus, and it is not strange to see them walking around in the courtyards, streets, classrooms, computer labs, etc. They never actually do anything, they are just kind of there. Well, most of them don’t do anything, at least. I couldn’t believe it: one of these dogs actually snatched my package of cookies off the ground when I wasn’t looking and started running across the courtyard with it! I guess that kind of thing is very rare, because it caused quite the commotion and everyone started pointing and laughing at the dog, and some people started running after him. Eventually one Chilean girl caught up with him and retrieved my cookies, which in my mind were as good as new because they were still in the package. I really have to work for those cookies here!

My family’s cat is another animal I have been trying to fend off. At the beginning of the semester, I could have sworn she hated me because she would always run away from me and wouldn’t let me pet her. It seems her opinion has switched 100% because now I can’t get rid of her! Anytime I sit down in the house, she runs over to me and immediately jumps up on my lab and refuses to move. When I am in my room, sleeping, she paces outside my door meowing until I let her in. If I am not in my room, sometimes she will literally wait behind my bed for me to get back and then jump out at me when I get there and don’t know she is waiting for me!

Surprise, surprise!

The worst thing is that she has magically figured out how to open my bedroom door during the night, so it is pretty much just like a constant parade of her coming in, trying to hop onto my bed to sleep next to me, me kicking her out of the room and shutting the door, and her coming back inside to try again. The thing is, my door doesn’t lock, so I have just started putting my huge suitcase in front of it to prevent Cuky from coming and going at all hours of the night!

And look who is waiting for me in the morning!

And, finally, #10. I have been….. STUDYING! In a shocking twist of my life, I actually do have a little studying to do while I am studying abroad. I don’t mean to say my classes are ANYWHERE near as strenuous as my normal classes back home, because they are not. It is slightly ridiculous that I am taking classes in a foreign language here with Chilean students and my classes are still way easier than the science classes back at UW-Madison (I am talking to you, Biocore and Chem 115!). But they are! I guess maybe it is not so much that they are easier as the fact that they just require considerably less work. Instead of having weekly readings and quizzes and homework sets like my science classes back home, here I just have a few short readings and one or two exams or presentations for each class during the whole semester. And so far, so good.

Most of my professors are actually super accommodating with me because I am a foreigner. For example, I have one class that is about nonverbal communication and presentation skills. So obviously the vast majority of our grades for that class come from presentations. We had a group project the other week where we had to analyze the gestures and nonverbal communication of a famous speaker and talk about it with the class. My group chose Hitler, so my job was to analyze how Hitler used his eyes as a form of communication and a way to connect with the audience. Yes, I do realize how ridiculous this topic sounds. But anyways, this isn’t the kind of speech I can just make up out of nowhere, especially not in a foreign language, so I had everything I wanted to say all planned out in my brain ahead of time. The only problem was that when the time came to actually give the presentation, I somehow managed to forget how to pronounce everything, or how to even speak Spanish at all, for that matter! I literally stumbled over ridiculously easy words and apparently instead of using the word for ‘to raise oneself up’, I kept using the word for ‘to exhale’, as someone told me later. So I kind of assumed I would lose a lot of points for my speaking ability, but the ridiculous thing was, my professor told me my presentation was super good! For all the other Chilean students he had a lot of constructive criticism and things to improve on, but for me he just kept saying, ‘Heather! Very good! Very good! Really good, Heather! Great job!’ Granted, I am the only foreigner in the class, so I think he was impressed that I even got up there and presented at all, but I guess this is a good sign. If I can give a lousy presentation and still get good reviews, imagine what will happen if I actually do a relatively decent job for the next one! Sometimes, being underestimated works in my favor here, I guess. One of the many perks of being a gringa in Santiago!