I have spent countless hours fantasizing about travel. I was the girl, staring out the window of my classrooms, imagining how many countries I had yet to see and the adventure of digging my toes into each and every one. The girl who had the National Geographic subscription and the world map on my dorm room wall, and who was seriously considering getting “Wanderlust” tattooed on my skin before it became a Pinterest and Tumblr phenomenon. I had so frequently and so vividly imagined myself on foreign soil that it felt vastly strange when I landed on this Chilean dirt six weeks ago and moved from romanticized daydreams into real life.
Surprise! Real life is nothing like my fantasies.
Chile is hard. There have been so many moments when this place makes no sense to me at all. The buses, which only slow for a moment so that I can sprint through the closing doors, will pull over to a complete stop in the middle of traffic so that the driver can buy bread from the stands on the side of the road. French fries are practically a food group here, and enormous quantities of mayonnaise can be found smothering pretty much every meal, including the hot dogs my host dad will occasionally eat for breakfast. That and his watered-down instant coffee.
It’s difficult for me that people stare, and point, and comment on things about your physical appearance and race and ethnic background without pause. There are completely nonsensical slang words used constantly, at the rapid pace-of-speech that the Chilean dialect is known for. And they make a shampoo that smells alarmingly similar to Greek yogurt. I bought this shampoo because I couldn’t afford the other stuff, and now I just smell like a curdling sour blueberry.
I call these my bad Chile days. It feels somewhat like trying to get your footing on the deck of a boat, but the guy who is steering is jerking back and forth and laughing as you scramble to stay upright, and mostly just fall down. It’s exhausting.
But then I have that one conversation with the cashier at the supermarket, where I actually understood everything he said to me, handed over the correct amount of money, and remembered to tip the bag boy. Or I sit down for tea with my host mom and end up talking for two hours, sharing a conversation that has depth and complexity, and a lot of laughter at the facial expressions I use to convey something I can’t find the words for. And then it’s all worth it.
A month has passed by, and nothing is as sharp around the edges. Chile isn’t changing, but I sure am. I have finally been able to realize that it is all the messy, confusing oddities that make Chile so indescribably fascinating.
I returned to Santiago this past weekend and experienced the city in a whole new way. This time around, I wasn’t intimidated or shocked by it. I felt like I could handle not only the city and the metro and the busy streets, but also the conversations and the culture and the language. I sunk my toes into it, and I actually started to understand.
Saturday night began in a very local bar on the edge of the Bellas Artes district, a little off the beaten path, swarming with regulars who kind of gave me the how the hell did you find us here look. The only drink being served was a terremoto – the most popular cocktail in Chile, made of two things you would never think to combine – wine and ice cream. Bartenders were rapidly dumping these huge jugs of red wine into little plastic cups of pineapple ice cream, and then dousing the concoction with raspberry grenadine. Liquid overflowed onto the bar which people were cramming against as they waved their money in the air. Watching this whole process for a moment before diving into the crowd to get my own, I just had to laugh. This drink is so representative of Chile – it is a combination of opposites, haphazardly thrown together, leaving you a bit sticky when you try to grab ahold.
So maybe that’s the key: laughter. I’m finding the humor in the fact that the taxis have horns that sound like catcalls, and that marching bands parade through restaurants for tips. I wake up, giggling in disbelief, when every stray dog in the neighborhood (and maybe the city) has a barking pow wow in my backyard every night around 2 a.m. And most of all, I laugh at myself for the romanticized expectations I had about travel. It’s just real life over here, and it’s awesome, and it’s messy.
Maybe I’m delirious, and maybe none of this makes sense. But hey, I suppose that would just be further proof that Chile has gotten under my skin.