Getting Comfortable in Chile

On the ten-hour flight to Santiago, Chile, I flipped through my Spanish 30 notebook in a last-minute endeavor to review as much Spanish as possible. Up until that moment, I had never traveled internationally by myself, never been to South America, and never embarked on a journey in which I had honestly no idea what to expect. My attempt to relearn Spanish was one of the few things I had control over, and I tried to cram as much of it as I could.

However, memorizing Spanish grammar and reading common sayings did not prepare me for what I was going to experience over the next eight weeks. I had my first glimpse of Chile during the 30-minute ride from the airport to my host family’s apartment. As I watched the view from the car window change from crowded, run-down houses with rusty tin roofs to shiny, glass skyscrapers and landscaped parks, I witnessed the very socioeconomic disparities that I had been told to expect when learning about the Chilean healthcare system through the Health and Spanish Immersion Program. Yet, the stark contrast between these two halves of Santiago still struck me as startling.

Upon having lunch and taking a walk around the beautiful neighborhood with my host parents, I quickly realized that Chilean Spanish was on a whole different level than my textbook vocabulary, and I made a mental note to look up half of the words they were saying. Despite my initial shortcomings in language skills, my host family welcomed me into their family and made my stay more comfortable than I could have ever imagined.

From my very first week in Santiago, I delved into Chilean culture and language: a two-hour lesson on Chilenismos (words only used in Chile), interesting presentations on Chilean politics and culture from academic experts, and field trips to museums and historical sites throughout Santiago. I was also introduced to Chilean foods. I ate my first sopaipilla at a native Mapuche cultural center, enjoyed pebre with warm bread at restaurants, and witnessed the alarmingly huge plates of fries topped with meat that Chileans call chorrillanas. With the knowledge we learned that week, my peers and I explored the neighborhoods of Santiago in the afternoons and nights to get to know the each other and to settle into our new surroundings.

We really enjoyed getting to spend a weekend in Valparaíso, a colorful city full
of wonderful street art.

The HSI Program itself began the second week and lasted until the end of our trip. The program was incredibly comprehensive and well-organized. We took medical Spanish classes at a renowned university, visited hospitals and clinics in both the public and private sectors, and learned about issues ranging from youth pregnancies to tobacco use to HIV/AIDS in Chile. While shadowing physicians and medical residents, I had the opportunity to participate in medical staff meetings at a public clinic, help conduct educational classes on exercise and injury prevention for elderly members of the community, and directly interact with the patients themselves. At the hospitals, I asked questions to geriatricians and urologists, watched neonatologists care for babies born seconds ago, and stood only feet away from a live surgery. All of these experiences have helped shape my image of health care and strengthened my desire to be able to help people by pursuing a career in medicine.
Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my time in Santiago was volunteering at Instituto Nacional de Rehabilitación (INR). There, I was able to work with young children on skill-building preschool activities and help adults with physical therapy exercises. Since I research neuromuscular disorders in Boston, I found it incredibly insightful to work with individuals with these conditions at INR. I was able to see how the disorders that I study in the lab affect people’s daily lives, and witnessing the impact of these diseases on a personal level reinforced my resolve to continue doing research in this field.

HSI students and our professor after our final medical Spanish class.

Through my conversations with patients, physicians, and medical students and late-night dinner discussions with my host family, I came to value and take advantage of every learning opportunity I found during my two months in Chile. In doing so, I became oddly comfortable with not knowing everything. With this newfound sense of confidence and security, I zip-lined, sandboarded, rode horses through desert valleys, hiked and skied in the Andes mountains, swam in hot springs and slept on beaches, all while forming friendships that will last a lifetime. And as I said goodbye to my host family on my final day, I became aware of how drastically my Spanish had evolved from broken phrases at the beginning of the trip to fluid sentences complete with inside jokes and Chilenismos at the end. It’s been a week since I left Chile, and I already miss the empanada carts on the sidewalks, snow-capped mountain views from Santiago’s streets, and the community of people I met who made my summer abroad so memorable.

We organized a weekend trip to Cajon del Maipo, where I went hiking in the Andes and zip-lining for the first time.

And despite the liberating feeling that comes with being comfortable with trying new activities and exploring new places, I can’t help but admit that, out of all of the exciting places that I could visit in this world, I already want to return to Chile.

Written by: Sahar Ashrafzadeh ’17
Health and Spanish Immersion Program in Chile