By Annie Savaria-Watson, CASA Chile Fall 2017 & Spring 2018 (Brown University ’19)
The Andes Mountains rise almost 20,000 feet next to the Metropolitan Region. They stand sentinel above Santiago- rising steeply from the valley floor, dipping down towards the city in precipitous rolling foothills, until they bump into the Natural Parks of the city limits, intermingling with the edges of Lo Barnechea, Las Condes, La Reina, Peñalolen, La Florida, and Puente Alto. The Andes define the collective mental map of Santiago (the mountains are always to the east!, the sun rises over the mountains!). They mark the changing seasons: white dustings of snow sparkling on the ridgelines in the winter, rocky peaks hiding high alpine glaciers in summer.
From my host family’s house, I could reach countless hiking trails in the foothills of the Andes. Within minutes, I would be above Santiago, looking down at the blanket of smog and the glittering towers underneath it, looking out at the coast range and the promise of the Pacific Ocean behind it. The mountain range centered me, mapped out my place on the South American continent, and grounded me when overwhelmed underneath the fog/smog cosmopolitan blanket.
The Andes were my playground, one of my cardinal points, my mental map. I got to swim their lagoons, hike in their foothills, and eat ice from their glaciers. On the CASA trip up to the Atacama desert, we drove up to the Tatio Geysers (14,160 feet above sea level) deep within the Andes (right on the border of Chile and Bolivia) to watch them steam at sunrise. Spring evenings, sitting out on the terrace with a cold piscola, I would take photos of the alpenglow on the range outside of Santiago. And certainly, among a thousand other beautiful reasons, the Andean mountain range calls me back.
For me, Santiago was the doorway to the entirety of the southern cone. I ran the midnight streets of Buenos Aires, danced on the rooftops of Valparaiso, skied fresh powder on Volcan Villarica, hitchhiked the Patagonian Carretera Austral, and wine tasted the famous Malbecs of Mendoza. In Chile, I took a Glaciology class that took me up into the Cajon de Maipo and Monumento Nacional El Morado and a wine tasting class that visited vineyards every other week. Everywhere I went, I carried a mental map created by my Chilean Geography class- and I’d notice details that would otherwise elude me, like the changing vegetation of the northern deserts or the peat bog ecosystems of Magallanes.
Having the freedom and access to experience so much of South America was incredible. Chile may consider itself an island- corralled by the Andes and the Pacific- but this country at the edge of the world introduced me to an entire continent. After fall semester, I left Chile feeling like I had a sense of the Southern cone, but my mind wandered northward. What mountain ranges and starscapes awaited me in Peru? What photos needed to be taken on the salt flats of Bolivia? What beaches need to be danced on in Uruguay? What foods and forests, midnights and adventures are hiding around the next corner? Studying abroad in Chile encouraged a wandering, one which begins, but does not end in Santiago. And the promise of the untraveled absolutely calls me back.
And finally, if nothing else, the people of Chile draw me back. As an outsider, a blonde blue-eyed foreigner, I existed in Santiago (and Chile) with a positionality decidedly unlike that of my Chilean friends, educators, and family. And yet, I never felt anything other than an extraordinary sense of welcome. My host family took me in, and invited me to their extended parties, birthdays, weddings, and travels without a moment's hesitation. Chilean friends would speak of Chile proudly, or if not with pride then with a sense of duty to engage with the collective struggle of bettering their country. Everyone loved to talk, everyone loved to eat, everyone loved to celebrate (the more pisco the better)- and nobody ever perpetrated the sectarian, locals-only attitude so common to otherwise wonderful corners of the United States.
When I traveled, Chileans were endlessly excited to share their stories and home. I was hosted, guided, and accompanied by cousins of friends of a friend, ex-employees of my host father, friends of friends of my host brother, aunts and uncles of classmates, absolute strangers, and many more. The connecting web of kinship and community seemed to stretch endlessly and loosely, transcending blood and possibly encompassing the country’s entire population (seventeen million). Chile lacked the artificiality of certain European destinations- where tourism has inextricably tangled itself with the fabric of a place. Instead, even the stray dogs were friendly- trotting along with lone walkers in the night to protect them on their return home. I spent many dawns walking with happy, sleepy, new and old friends (four-pawed and two-legged) from whirlwind dance clubs in Bellavista and Valparaiso.
As divided as any other country by politics, ideologies, or economics, Chilean society is unified by one thing: Chilean Spanish. Developing a working proficiency in the cult(ure) of Chilean Spanish required months of engagement. The language is a song, where initially both the words and their underlying meanings lay out of my reach. It took a long, long time before I could understand the deeply contextual jokes and vocabulary of Chilean spanish, always broken up by laughter and smoke, running like threads through every conversation. Having previously spent summers in Spain, I arrived in Chile with the erroneous assumption that my one intercultural experience could be universalized. In actuality, Chile was a whole universe of newness- tied to Spain by the fragile bonds of ancestry, but a country gloriously its own.
In the end, the people make the place. With one month left in my fall semester in Santiago, I decided to extend my stay for the entire year. While I do ache to see the Andes, the geography, and to adventure into South America, more than anything, Chile is becoming a home. I deeply resonate with the attitudes, the culture, and the individuals who make up my nascent social community. They have supported me, challenged me, and permanently linked some part of me to Santiago. And that, above all, draws me back.