For 20 years I have lived in the same place. I have spent maybe 4 months away from the familiar central Pennsylvania sights I know so well. There was a week at summer camp here and there, but never could I construe that I would be a resident of any other place outside the Keystone State. However, three weeks into this great adventure , I endured an hour or so of bureaucratic red tape to receive my Chilean identification card.
It is an orange rectangular piece of plastic; it could be any driver’s license or a student ID card. However, for me it was my emancipation. Granted, at this point, my official Chilean resident status is temporary (I’ll be home for Christmas, ma); however, this is my first extended stay away from home.
My roommate Timothy and I discussed what is different between simply traveling abroad for a week or two and living abroad. A short stay in a foreign country is nothing short of whirlwind tour of the superficial highlights. When you live in a foreign country you see the cracks in the idealized postcard preconceptions. You see the strengths and weaknesses of a culture, and you begin to empathize with its citizens. This empathy is a desire to integrate and become involved in the community. Initially, I feared I would never find a niche in Chile.
I ascribe my first great breakthrough in Chilean assimilation to volunteering. I took a risk getting a membership on a website called workaway.info that specializes in volun-tourism. This site typically pairs travelers who exchange their time and talent for room and board offered by workaway host; however, I obviously already have housing so I was just looking for volunteer opportunities. I was able to connect with Natalie and Guillermo of the Cerro Cordillera neighborhood of Valparaíso. Natalie arranged we meet for the first time in an ice cream parlor on the iconic Plaza Sotomayor in the heart of Valpo. She told me in her Chilean Spanish that I could help out with a community garden and recycling center. This was exciting news for me as we rode up the ascensor (elevator) that overlooks the port. She showed me her cozy home clinging precariously to the sides of the hill.
She showed me the “Junta de Vecinos,” a rattletrap building which housed the neighborhood council. Natalie explained to me that she was the president of the junta, and that they were financing the garden and recycling center. She gestured to the fenced-in vacant lot, the future site of the community orchard. “This could work,” I said nodding.
Since our initial meet-up, progress on the garden and recycling center has been slow but steady. In August we had a benefit concert at the Lord Cochrane Museum to build awareness about the recycling project. I helped set up chairs and got to meet the pianist, Ingrid. There was a set list with several sing-alongs in Spanish. Natalie projected the words on a screen with slides using the obligatory “bottles and cans” backdrop theme. Natalie told me after the show that the junta was going to hire an artist to build sculptures out of recycled plastic bottles.
The next week I met Maria, the Chilean-American artist that used recycled materials to make artwork. She explained her artistic medium was out of necessity. “When I attended art school at Católica Chile,” she said, “I had no money for art supplies, so I used trash.” Maria set me to work punching holes in bottles and making plastic shingles. These would be used to build a roof over the recycling center.
On our lunch break, Maria’s boyfriend Simon joined us for empanadas and completos (Chilean hotdogs). Simon explained he was a muralist, responsible for some of the more famous works adorning the walls of the city. He had a gig in the local area painting a truck, so after working a bit more, Maria and I checked on Simon’s progress.
To my surprise, my Chilean culture professor showed up to watch. I couldn’t believe he bumped elbows with artsy underground graffiti artists in Valpo. The world was smaller than I thought. It was a great afternoon as we chatted and watched Simon’s painting come to life. Valparaiso is much different from Viña del Mar (where my host family lives). Viña is clean and well organized, but Valpo is gritty and real. I think I am more of a Porteño (someone from Valpo) than a man of Viña, but I am fortunate to have experienced both worlds.