Traveling Solo Through Chile For Personal Growth
I traveled solo through much of Chile, (the birthplace of Pablo Neruda, one of my favorite poets) having arrived there from The States for my maiden voyage in June 2007. As a poet, my intent was to write poetry in what is often referred to as the “Land of Poets,” improve my Spanish, and explore the unfamiliar culture.
I was keen on avoiding the hot summer weather here in The States. Since Chile is located in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. Thus it was quite chilly (no pun intended) when I first arrived, in early June, in this faraway land, where I knew not a soul. Since I planned to stay for three months (to fully avoid summer heat,) I arranged in advance to rent an apartment in Santiago, Chile’s capital city.
I had a couple years of Spanish under my belt, and had even lived in a Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana for a while. My Spanish skills were fairly good, until I moved to Denver, Colorado in 2000 and stopped using them. Denver is a city with a large Mexican population. Many of the Mexican people I met don’t speak Spanish. They come from families that have been in The States for several generations. Since they go back so far, their families no longer pass their language down with the generations.
Thus was my language preparation for arrival at the Santiago airport on June 6, 2007 at 7:30AM. Instantly, I was seized; alone, and handicapped, in the early morning airport rush, where I couldn’t understand a single word of Chilean Spanish, AT ALL. Zero, Zip, Nada.
I hadn’t planned on enrolling in Spanish language classes right away, but due to my predicament, the first phone call I made just hours after arriving, was to Escuela Bellavista, a language school in the city. Clutching the receiver with a sweaty palm, I spoke to the voice on the other end. “Do you speak English?” I asked in desperation. “Yes,” he replied and then continued. “If you study here, however, this will be our last conversation in English. You will only be allowed to speak Spanish at the school, and on tours you attend with the school as well.”
A total immersion sounds like just what I need, I thought. I started classes the following day and couldn’t have made a better choice. The school uses a particular method of teaching known as the Direct Method. It is so subliminal, as a student, you don’t even realize you are learning. The teachers use mime and play games with the class in Spanish.
There was so much humor in these Spanish mime games, we learned Spanish through our laughter; and fell in love with the language and each other. Our teachers introduced us to Chilean music during break between classes. They danced with us in the lobby of the school.
In the high-end beginners class, where I was placed, we were immediately taught survival skills for travelers such as: asking how much things cost, asking and giving directions, purchasing tickets of all kinds, handling a wrong number politely on your cell phone, booking reservations, how to rent an apartment, how to make an appointment with a doctor, how to tell the nurse what’s wrong, how to order in a restaurant, how to complain about service and accommodations, all weather related vocabulary including the necessary clothing…
My favorite class was at the open-air fruit and vegetable market. Our teacher had us ask the vendors about the produce, and the prices. She took us shopping out in the real world, where we tasted what we didn’t know and wanted more.
The school teaches Castilian Spanish, not Chilean Spanish. All Chilean people understand and can speak fluent Castilian Spanish but that is not what they speak on the street. Surviving The Chilean Jungle is a three-volume dictionary filled with Chilean Spanish including Chilean slang. Both words and expressions that continue to grow and evolve over time, make it a living language.
Even when Chilean people speak Castilian Spanish, they are difficult to understand at first because they omit pronouncing the letter s in most words. Instead of saying, “estufa, “ they say “etufa. “ The word means heater, an issue worth a tissue or two on a frigid August night!
I spent a fun five (half-days) a week, for two and a half months at Escuela Bellavista and two delicious weeks traveling, including a week in the Atacama Desert (the driest desert on earth) and another in the Lakes region, a region of beauty with active volcanoes, and a 10 hour drive, south of Santiago. (Please click on the photos to enlarge them for a better view. )
I kept the promise I made to myself, wrote poetry daily while living in Chile. Some of the poems I wrote in Chile, were accepted for publication, and along with several others, also appear in the book, Poetry For Living An Inspired Life. This was my three month experience in Chile but as some of you know, I later lived there for three years. Stay tuned for more about Chile, its food, culture, geography and more…