I’ve been in Chile for almost 3 months now (I’m over halfway done with my semester here), but when I first got here there were a couple of things that took some getting used to. The weather, for example, was a huge deal for me.
I was born and raised in southern Arizona, and when I left in July it was the middle of summer and the temperatures were in the 110’s (Fahrenheit). Chile, on the opposite side of the equator, was in the middle of winter, with temperatures in the 30’s and forty’s—and no central heating. Even the people from Boston thought it was cold when we couldn’t rely on going inside to get warm! I became close friends with my space heater but tried to use it as little as possible, because electricity is expensive in Chile. Everyone caught colds because of the extreme temperature change, but after that we learned to wear lots of layers, shower in the middle of the day, and drink lots of tea and instant coffee (they don’t drink “real” coffee here).
The culture change wasn’t that hard to get used to for me, I think because I thought of it as an adventure and had already experienced living away from my family and closest friends when I moved out of my hometown to go to college. What was strange was standing out so much. It sounds stupid, but I guess I never really thought about how few blonde-haired-blue-eyed people live in South America—although there are some (one of my friends has a Chilean little sister with blonde hair and blue eyes who speaks perfect Spanish), people always know I’m a “gringa,” a term used lovingly by most Chileans to mean any foreigner, especially those with light hair or eyes (my host mom refers to me as her “hija gringuita”).
By now I’ve learned to ignore the stares, comments in broken English, whistles, etc, but it took some time before it stopped bothering me, and I do find myself wondering what my experience would be like if I had dark hair and eyes. Still, you can’t change who you are, and sometimes being a gringa isn’t a bad thing—the carabineros (police) always watch out for us and we never have to dance alone at the discotecas! Regardless of the cold (it’s actually starting to get really nice now that we’re in Spring) and standing out, I’ve really enjoyed my time here and wouldn’t trade any of my experiences for anything.
Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, Chile