From Portland to the Driest Place on Earth: Junior Natalie Stroud adjusts to life in Valparaiso, Chile, and the Atacama Desert

By Natalie Stroud

Studying abroad is uncomfortable. Plain and simple. When I thought about my experience in Valparaíso, Chile thus far, that is the one thing that has stuck out to me — the feeling of being uncomfortable. But as I have grown accustomed to the city, the rapid Spanish and everyday life as a gringa (a white girl) living in Chile, I have also become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable on the micro, a crazy system of small buses that run wherever your heart desires in the Valparaíso region. The drivers are crazier than the interiors of the buses themselves, which are decorated like high school prom party buses. With their reckless drivers behind the wheel, the buses whip around corners, abruptly stop and expertly weave between traffic. During rush hour times, they are filled to the brim with people, all swaying and clinging to the poles in hopes of not falling. But the buses are fast, when the drivers choose to be, and they’re the best way to get around town, so I squeeze my long legs into the seats and hold on for dear life. And while I imagine I will never get comfortable being thrown side to side as the bus driver honks at passing cars, I am way more comfortable riding them now than I was the first time I rode the micro.

I’m uncomfortable with the language. Prior to arrival, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the Spanish language. I knew I wasn’t even close to fluent but I could string a sentence together without a problem, write a literary analysis essay if I had to and could understand about 90% of what my professors were telling me in class. Nothing could have prepared me for Chilean Spanish, however.

For one, they are fast talkers, and I mean auctioneer fast (if you don’t know what I mean, YouTube it). Also, they use a lot of slang, or Chilenismos, things your Spanish 202 class will never prepare you for. For the first week, I probably said “¿Qué?” about 100 times, not understanding a thing my Chilean host family was trying to tell me. The first time I met most of my extended host family, I sat on the couch watching the soccer that had been put on as background noise, trying to absorb all the Spanish that was flying around me.

Nearly two months in, I can’t say I am fluent; that would be crazy. A few weeks ago — with the same extended family — I was asked if I liked Trump and I accidently responded yes because I was zoned out and didn’t understand the question. But I noticed that I can understand a lot more of what my Chilean professors are telling me about the history of art or the art and society of pre-Hispanic Chile. I feel more comfortable speaking with my host family about my day, about their days, about the United States and about weird things Chileans do like eat salt on lemon rinds.

During my two months here, I have also had the incredible opportunity to visit the Atacama Desert. The Atacama is the driest non-polar desert in the world, like step-out-of-the-airport-and-immediately-feel-all-the-moisture-sucked-out-of-your-body-dry. I think I went through an entire bottle of lotion just trying to keep my skin from looking like the cracked earth around me. But it was easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The first full day I was there I visited Piedras Rojas, a very salty lake that has caused the rocks on the shore to oxidize and turn red, and Laguna Chaxa, another very salty lake where flamingos and brine shrimp are abundant. The second day, my friends and I thought it would be an excellent idea to mount bikes and ride into Valle de la Luna, an otherworldly valley. Though my butt was sore, it was hot and no matter how much water I drank my mouth constantly felt like the scenery I was seeing, it was truly an incredible day. The third day was kept relaxed in order to recover from the hard bike seat from the day before.

The fourth day, and my last day, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. in order to freeze my still sore butt off at El Tatio Geysers, a geyser field at 14,173 feet above sea level with over 50 active geysers. There is something magical that happens when the sun rises through geyser steam that I simply cannot express in words. My friends and I had a running joke over the entire weekend that somewhere we had been transported to a different planet, always asking “At what part of our journey did we teleport to a different planet?” “I think it was when we were all asleep in the van, no one knows what happened for that 30 minute stretch of time.”

For me, studying abroad has been all about pushing my boundaries of comfort. I never thought I would end up skiing in August or visiting the driest place on earth. I never thought I would have the opportunity to live with a wonderful host mother and two incredible host sisters. I never thought I would be comfortable enough in my Spanish skills to actually live in a place where I have to speak and understand the language that I have been learning since the sixth grade. The opportunities I have been presented with have been truly incredible and will probably change my life in some way, and one of the most valuable things I have learned since arriving is being comfortable with things and experiences that are uncomfortable.

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