My First Experience in Latin America

As I look back to eight weeks ago, I imagine myself confidently striding through the chiquitito Dayton International Airport with an air of independence. However, as my flight to Santiago, Chile from Dayton was my first trip outside of the country, my completely unstamped passport, massive duffel bag, and I were surely doing something more like nervously plodding through the terminals. I will be returning to Dayton in one week, and as some things never change, I will still be carrying a gigantic carry-on. However, I will also be guarding a freshly-stamped passport in my hand and an unforgettable experience in my heart. 

I arrived in Santiago to my host mom awaiting me in the airport with a nicely-made sign. She drove all my bags and me to our home in Las Condes, a very well-off and safe comuna in eastern Santiago where more than half of the other students in the program lived too. At our home, I was received by my host mom’s family, which included her husband, sixteen-year old son, sister, and mother. From the second I arrived, they have showed me incredible kindness and haven’t stopped since. They make sure I am always warm, always well-rested, and most importantly, always well-fed. They ask me about my days, my nights, my homework, and my friends.  The moments I have cherished most with them have taken place in our living room, where we all sit around a TV each night and eat dinner. Sometimes I do most of the talking, most of the time I do most of the listening, but I’ve never not felt like part of the family.

 

From my host family to the other Harvard students, the people I have met have certainly been the best part of this experience. During the first week we, twenty-six Harvard undergrads, arrived, we spent half of our time in the DRCLAS office, talking about themes important to our stay in Chile such as safety, Chilenismos, politics, history, and education. The other half was spent going on excursions throughout the city. The most memorable trip was to Cerro San Cristobal, a hill near the adorable and lively Bellavista neighborhood, from which one can see all of Santiago, even the Andes.

 

Each week after this orientation week, the DRCLAS team organized a different excursion for all of us. These trips on Fridays were wonderful opportunities for all of us SIP and HSI kids, to reunite after long weeks of work. We went to places like Valparaíso (a large, visually stunning, lively city), Isla Negra (a beautiful beach town home to not much more than one of Pablo Neruda’s houses), Portillo Ski Resort (one of the most famous ski resorts in Chile and right smack in the middle of the Andes), and Los Adobes de Argomedo (a restaurant in which traditional Chilean dances are performed). My favorite experience of this whole trip was probably the weekend we spent in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. On Friday, we walked throughout Valpo, saw its murals, danced until we couldn’t anymore, and stayed in a hostel there. The next day after another walk through the city, we traveled by bus to the nearby beach town of Viña del Mar where we spent some of the most calming hours of the trip, reflecting on the rocks next to the sea.

After these Friday trips and a good night’s rest, we always tried to take advantage of the ample free time we had during the weekend. In small and in large groups, we took our own excursions throughout the cities. We walked through neighborhoods, visited museums, went shopping, ate pastries in cafes, and danced in discotecas until 4 am. These nights too required a good night’s rest, but were always, always worth it. One of my favorite neighborhoods in Santiago is Barrio Lastarria, right next to the metro Bellas Artes stop. This neighborhood filled with cafes and pastry shops is also home to a museum and a lovely park. I returned to this neighborhood again and again simply to enjoy both the tranquility and the liveliness it seems simultaneously, paradoxically to possess.

I’ve yet to write about the reason I came to Santiago though—to participate in the Health & Spanish Immersion Program (HSI). In this program, we visited consultorios (public health clinics), public hospitals, rural health postas, and even once Clínica Las Condes, a private hospital with a Starbucks, helicopter, and a gym that caters to Olympic athletes. In all of these places, save for in the private hospital that served mostly for us to note disparities, we had the wonderful privilege of being able to shadow doctors, residents, and medical students. As we asked them about their upbringings, their jobs, and their lives, we also followed them around, heard all that they heard, and saw all that they saw. We saw kidney stones taken out, prostates removed, and intestines pushed around—and we didn’t see these from behind closed doors. We put on the cute blue surgical outfits we were given and stood within a foot of all the action. And although these surgical experiences were quite impressive, the consultas and rounds we were able to observe were just as affecting. Although they were not always enthralling, they certainly helped us to see patient-doctor interactions and imagine would life as a doctor would be like.

 

We additionally learned extensively about health and its systems in Chile through presentations by professors, physicians, and an assistant to the Minister of Health. I can safely say that I now know more about the health system in Chile than I do of that in the U.S. Also, as a group of 7, we attended a Spanish class at Universidad Católica every Tuesday and Thursday morning. After eating lunch together (like we luckily did every day), we split into 3 groups and went to our respective foundations. All of these foundations existed to benefit children that come from lower classes or are physically ill. At my particular foundation, we helped children with English and math and helped to spruce up the interior of the foundation. The other groups went to foundations wherein they played games with children with cancer and HIV/AIDS.

 

For the most part, the SIP students spent most weekdays apart from all other students, as they each worked in different organizations. However, we, HSI students, had the privilege of spending most of our time together. We observed together, learned together, ate together, and even often traveled together. Sometimes when we had free afternoons on Wednesdays, we would go to museums or watch movies together, but the highlight of our time together for me surely was when we spent a couple of nights in a rural-ish town about an hour away from Santiago. During our time there, we stayed in an adorable hotel in which we were finally able to spend time together in a place that felt like a dorm. We sat and talked and played games and simply enjoyed each other’s company.

 

Cliché as it will most definitely sound, the two months I spent in Santiago participating in the Health & Spanish Program through DRCLAS were some of the best months of my life. By no means were they particularly easy—I mean, we did have to wake up before at least 8 am every weekday—but they were undoubtedly affecting, and eye-opening, and wonderful, and all of the adjectives that describe an experience that a naïve, newly-nineteen-year-old girl will forever cherish. My desire to become a doctor was confirmed and my wishes to travel and learn about a new culture were granted. Most importantly however, I had the opportunity to become friends with some of the honestly best people I’ve ever met. It’ll be sad to leave this beautiful country and my wonderful host family, but I know that I won’t be able to wait to get back to Boston to see these friends again.

Written by: Melanie Slone '17 
Health and Spanish Immersion Program 2014