On My Way to Service-Learning: A Gringa’s Commute Through Valparaíso

Ericka Bremer is a student at University of Denver. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and is studied abroad with ISA Service-Learning in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile.

Once I drop off my backpack at home after a day of classes, I say goodbye to my host mom and leave my apartment building in Viña del Mar, waiting for all the doors to shut behind me. My host-mom is super strict about this, and although the area feels safe, I try to respect their rules. I turn left down my one-way street, passing other apartment buildings and some of the lumpiest trees I’ve ever seen.

Don’t they look super lumpy? Maybe I’m crazy.

As I walk up Avenida Libertad to catch my bus (in the Valparaíso region, they call them micros), the sounds of the buses, cars and other pedestrians fill my ears. I stand at the micro stop gathering up my coins because I know that if I wait to get on the micro, both my purse and my coins will be scattered across the floor as soon as the driver punches the gas.

The micro is probably my favorite experience, as long as you’re able to sit. Generally, the bus driver is playing some bumping reggaetón and various people try to sell their goods at some of the busier spots: chocolates, nuts, poems, ice cream, crackers, etc. Sometimes you even get a live performance from local rappers or instrumentalists. I can only describe it as a daily rollercoaster ride complete with snacks and music. It’s also a nice 20-minute ride to people-watch and enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean.

From the micro, I walk to the collectivo stop, which is sort of like Chile’s underground taxi system. It’s a ten-minute walk through the streets of Valparaíso, walking through an open market. You can buy so many things off the street here: pairs of shoes, shawarma sandwiches, leather jackets, phone chargers, fresh fruit, fishing poles, incense sticks, books, you name it. It’s also a great opportunity to try out some Chilean food; vendors sell anticucho (various meats on grilled on a stick), empanadas, sopaipillas, and completos (a Chilean hot dog with a whole bunch mayonnaise). All of the sellers holler while you walk past, inviting you to buy their goods.

Pigeons, cigarettes, empanadas, micros, stickers covering every street light. A perfect description of walking through this part of Valparaíso.

Right before the collectivo stop is a covered plaza where around 70 elderly folk sit at tables playing cards or BINGO. I love hearing the buzz of truly Chilean Spanish as I pass the plaza. On my way home, there is generally a worship service happening here as well, and I feel really lucky that I’m able to walk past this communal area that Valparaísans value so much.

La Feria, the open market. I always wonder what game they’re playing.

Generally, when I walk up to the collectivo stop there is a driver waiting to load his car. I always check, “vas a la ludoteca?” (are you going to Ludoteca?) When he says yes, I hop in, crammed between strangers in the backseat. The collectivo driver weaves in and out of traffic jerkily, like the micro. Each day, the route is a little different, but I’ve gotten really good at knowing when I’m almost to my stop. After I remind the collectivo driver to drop me off at the Ludoteca, I thank him, and am welcomed into service-learning by my coworkers and the kids. The Ludoteca is an after-school center for at-risk youth that provides a safe, warm environment for the kids.

I spend the next two hours playing with the kids and doing our daily activities. On Tuesdays, we garden together and on Wednesdays we cook. Then it’s time to leave and get myself home. I always make it home safe, and feel grateful that I’ve seen so much of my host country’s culture in just a few hours.

The view from the doorway of the Ludoteca, looking over Valparaíso.

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