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Traveling Solo Through Chile For Personal Growth

Bust of Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda at his home on the coast in Isla Negra, Chile

Bust of Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda, at his home on the coast in Isla Negra, Chile

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.

A winter's day in Santiago, Chile

A winter’s day in Santiago, Chile

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. )

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile Driest Desert on Earth

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile
The Driest Desert on Earth

 

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…

Puerto Varas in The Lakes Region of Chile  (background, Volcano Osorno)

40 Responses to Traveling Solo Through Chile For Personal Growth

  • Chile is on my bucket list. One day… sounds like a fabulous experience and thanks for sharing it with us!

  • Susan Cooper says:

    It is amazing how when we immerse ourselves into something we can gain such a different perspective. I would love to travel to Chile and really learn as you did. 🙂

  • Sue Hines says:

    What a wonderful way to get inspired to write poetry. A poem a day is such a healing process and to write them on a wonderful journey – so much more than that!

  • Aren’t you brave for flooding yourself like that? It’s the only way to truly learn a language. They say you know you’re fluent when you dream in that language. I grew up speaking Polish and English, and try to speak Polish whenever I can. Bravo!

  • maxwell ivey says:

    it sounds like an amazing crazy three months. I rad eat pray love and didn’t want to run off to any of the countries mentioned there. i want to travel to promote my business. countries on my list are australia, england, ireland, germany, russia, etc. as a blind person I’m not sure if I would have the guts to travel in a country where most people don’t speak english. i mean I suck at charades. 😀 looking forward to more about your trip. any chance the poetry is available in audio? take care, Max

  • Wow, Michele! That sounds like quite the adventure! I think immersion, and learning the practicalities of everyday conversation is the best way to learn a language. I’ve tried to learn both French and Spanish from occasional classes and books, but it hasn’t gotten me to the level I would like. Being immersed in the culture and being forced to pick it up quickly has spelled success for years for immigrants who come to a country and very simply HAVE to learn in order to get by.

  • Welli says:

    Interesting travel experience through Chile and I love their approach to teaching language, making it fun and throwing you in the deep end. I believe it is more difficult to learn languages if you have options.

  • It’s sometimes really hard to travel and live alone. It is clear how passionate you are about your poetry and I am glad to know your poetry was also published. I am happy that you had new and good experiences in Chile. It is also good to run from heat and chill somewhere with nice weather.
    I am also trying to learn Arabic but it is really hard. Many of my friends have learned Spanish , they talk a lot about Spanish.
    Looking forward to reading more about your 3 years stay.

    • I have done a great deal of traveling and living alone over the years and for the most part, I have to say it agrees with me. That doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy a compatible traveling companion, or a good tour.

  • Donna Janke says:

    What an interesting experience. It sounds like you found a great language class. The nuances and changes in a language from one country or region to another can be a challenge.

  • carolyn says:

    Amazing blog Michele! I loved reading it, you are so lucky! Yo tambien hablo Espanol (mi madre era espanola) although I don’t have anyone to practise with now sadly. Also your mention of Pablo Neruda took me back many years to studying spanish lyric poetry at university – aah 🙂

  • Jeri says:

    I envy you. The only time I ever traveled solo was when I left to go and work my first summer in Yellowstone. Traveling alone is such a test of character and a great way to really immerse yourself in culture and language.

  • Wow great trip. Would love to go to Chile. I travel solo quite often and specialized in travelling solo with 2 young kids. Will keep following your adventures for sure.

  • Jason B says:

    Traveling solo is something that is on my list. The direct approach with Spanish is pretty neat. The Spanish class that I am in uses that method. Hopefully I will be able to speak it more towards the end of the summer.

  • Edward Reid says:

    I understood fully what you meant about Little Havana as I have lived in Miami for thirty years. Some years ago I worked in an office with several bi-lingual co-workers. Many thought I was very proficient in the Spanish language because the young woman I worked with closely constantly spoke with me in Spanish. I did not realize how much I was retaining over the years. Immersion is the best way to learn a new language.

  • What an amazing experience, and I’m impressed with your bravery and perseverance! I’m fascinated with the Atacama desert, after seeing a show about it on TV once. Looking forward to hearing more…

  • Jay says:

    I wish I could do something like spend 3 months away just visiting chile and other places. But with kids that are in junior high i have at least 7 years left before I can get some freedom to travel for long durations of time. It sounds like you had a great time and congratulations on the poetry being accepted and placed in journals.

  • Arleen says:

    Now that is dedication. I know it is something I could not do so I admire you. My daughter-in-law is from Hondorus and from her, I’ve gotten more insight into Spanish. Taking it in school and then listening to her speak, it is a whole new ball game. I admire your tenacity.

    • I like Spanish a lot so sticking with it was not too difficult, especially since it was a necessity for me at the time. Each country has it’s own Spanish in a sense, with differing pronunciation and expressions. In fact, there are some benign expressions used widely in Chile which are considered profanity when used in Peru and people from Spain are sometimes critical of the way Latin Americans speak Spanish. Thank you for your comment, Arleen.

  • This blog is very interesting, Chile seems amazing, and you traveled it alone,

  • Tuhin says:

    What a great way to spend the summer! I like the way they teach a new language through music, dance and games. I can bet you had a great time learning new things about a different culture and interacting with new people during your stay.

  • Beth Niebuhr says:

    Michele, I think that traveling solo probably gave your total immersion approach the best chance to succeed since you didn’t have the escape possibility of speaking English with a companion. The course sounds great and I’m glad you had a great time.

    • I have to say that to this day, I am not a fluent Spanish speaker partly because I became friends with English speaking Chileans (who always wanted to practice their English) as well as English speaking ex-pats.

  • Lenie says:

    Hi Michele
    While I was reading your article, I thought that going to Spanish classes wasn’t just a great idea to enhance your stay in Chile but also what a wonderful way to meet friends. It seems to me that this would open up an entirely different world to you that the average tourist would never experience. Thanks for sharing.
    Lenie

  • I would love to visit Chile and Peru. What bravery that you traveled alone and forced yourself to learn the language. It sounds like a wonderful experience that has obviously left it’s mark on you! (in a good way!)

    • In 2008, I flew from Santiago, Chile to Lima, Peru and spent three weeks traveling through Peru, including a visit to Machu Picchu. I had a fabulous time and love Peru. I was surprised that the flight from Santiago to Lima takes almost four hours. I think a better way to enter Peru would be to visit the Atacama Desert and continue traveling north. Thanks for your comment, Laurie.

  • Susan Cooper says:

    What an amazing journey, one that encompassed so many experiences that ensured your personal growth. I have heard a great deal about Chile but have not been there myself. I do believe that any time we put ourselves in situations such as this, can only help to inspire us. I applaud for going it alone. Not many would have had the courage to do so.

  • Tim says:

    I was in Chile in the mid 80’s and found it to be an interesting place despite the dictator at the time. Spending 2 1/2 months down there sounds like an adventure and something to be very proud of.

    • Although no one Chilean has forgotten those times, things in Chile have changed a lot since Pinochet, Tim. Pinochet is still discussed a great deal, but Chile is a progressive country that has grown quickly. Thank God most Chileans do not blame The United States for funding and organizing the military coup which cost them so many lives. They understand that governments do not always represent the feelings of their citizens. The truth is, I don’t remember ever learning anything about Chile when I was in school. I only knew of the coup from my research prior to my first visit there.

  • “an issue worth a tissue”, huh? I think that’s awesome that you traveled to Chile alone with questionable Spanish skills. I did the same in Mexico and it was thoroughly awesome. You kinda made me wanna go to Chile now, too.

    • I recommend going to Chile. Mexico is much closer but not as safe. Chile is a safe country with regard to the amount of violent crime, and the stability of both the government and local law enforcement.

  • Wow! What a journey…and I have never been to Chile. I can see how it inspired you and your personal growth. Sometimes, solo is the way to get there…in terms of growth I mean:) It’s quite an accomplishment…kudos! And I have often heard that total immersion is th best way to learn any language.

    • I have done a great deal of solo traveling in different parts of the world and Chile was not my first solo travel experience, only the place where I spent the most time. Thanks Jacquie.

  • Paul Graham says:

    Michele, your immersion seems like a great catalyst for personal growth. I can certainly relate to how quickly one uses a language through disuse of thinking in it, also the great variations from one place to another. I look forward to reading more about your journeys

  • Catarina says:

    Speak Castellano and find it a bit difficult with Latin American versions of Spanish. Frequently they use different words and hardly ever use tu. It’s always Usted.

    Have never been to Chile. Only worked with their government and diplomats. Glad you had a nice time.

    • In Chile, tu is used all the time to the near exclusion of usted which is seldom heard. Thanks for your comment Catarina. Would love to hear about your work with the Chilean government and diplomats.

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