And just like that within a week I went from Acholi, red brown dirt roads and hot equatorial climate to Spanish, busy concrete roads and crisp southern hemisphere winter. I traveled over 17,900 miles, four continents and many time zones to arrive in the wintery Chile. While the plane ride was not much compared to the one I took to reach Boston from Uganda, it was still quite a long one, although I was just very accustomed to it at that point in time. I spent the plane ride reading Pinochet and Me by Marc Cooper, which narrates the Military Coup of 1973 from the experience of a young American journalist. He was living in Santiago, Chile and working for President Allende when the US gave the cue for Pinochet’s violent overthrow and following dictatorship. It is an amazing book and finishing it as the sun rose over the towering, snow capped Andes of Chile was both beautifully powerful and chilling. As the sun’s rays peaked through the Andes I was left in complete awe of just how impressive they are and in amazement from the fact that I would be spending the next 5 months learning and exploring there. The Andes are one of the longest and tallest mountain ranges I have witnessed. They just seem to go on forever and you could feel the power that emanated from them, a power that seemed to resonate in the strength of those that lived under their shadow. Those that stood up against the dictatorship and gave all they had to the voice of justice and change in Chile. That sense of power and devotion to integrity and change is something I have felt in such an apparent way here in Chile. And it is truly awesome to witness.
I have had the privilege of immersing myself fully in the study of the dictatorship and powerful movement against it through my study abroad program, School of International Training (SIT). I am in a program based in Valparaíso called Cultural Identity, Social Justice and Community Development. We spend our days studying in an intensive Spanish immersion class from 9am to noon and then after eating lunch head to the University of Valparaíso for classes about Chilean identity, social movements and political and social development, as well as many other awesome topics. We have had classes about gender equality, student led social movements, the role of music in Chilean culture and social change, the economy and its influence the environment and many more. The topics we are studying are truly invigorating. I have to admit that having class from 9 am till 4pm or 5pm all in Spanish can be pretty exhausting and often my brain decides of its own accord to simply turn off. Most of the time my brain is so exhausted that when I come home I can’t speak in English let a lone in Spanish to my host parents. So it’s often a one sided conversation at the dinner table. But I enjoy that; my host parents have really interesting things to say. It’s really quite amazing being able to learn about such important topics and then go home and get to hear first hand about them from Chileans’ perspectives. I will tell myself I’m going to get to bed early then end up sitting at the dinner table till close to midnight talking with my family about things like the Chilean feminist movement, the role of the government, the dictatorship and what they believe needs to happen to bring about social change in Chile.
I am living with a young couple in this great one level flat. I have 5 cats, which has its ups and downs seeing as the one thinks he is king and appreciates sleeping on my bed and climbing all over me at 3am when I really want to be asleep, but still they can be entertaining I guess. But my host parents love them so that’s what counts. Despite being avid cat lovers they are pretty cool people. They are my host parents, but they feel a little closer to older siblings or friends, which is nice actually. They show me cool hiking trails, sand dunes and the best empanada spots. My host mom, Lisi works at the university teaching journalism. She also is into yoga and nontraditional medicine so she will sometimes have clients over to help heal them. My host dad, Nico, plays the guitar, which is awesome because there is always live music in the evening as he plays around on one of his many guitars. Nico is also a teacher, but works with elementary school age kids up in the less wealthy neighborhoods.
How Valparaiso is set up is somewhat contradictory to what I am used to. Valparaíso is made up of a bunch of hills, where the main part of the city is located in the port, the valley where the hills meet and as you move higher up in the hills the wealth becomes less and less. Those that live higher up in the hills are typically the most disadvantaged. They are disadvantaged because, as we have experienced and learned, one result of the dictatorship and its nation wide privatization is systemic inequality. Much like the US, the money and power is concentrated in the hands of very few who lack the point of view of the population affected by their decisions. In Chile there is a small handful of families that own and run most all of the economy and thus also the political influence. It really is something to in one day experience all too numerous broken-shambles and then great mansions far too big for any one family. After walking among trash littered streets lined with falling in aluminum houses, walking along clean streets lined with manicured flower gardens makes your stomach nauseous. Too add to the nausea those clean streets often lead to bright flashy malls that are brandishing advertisements, many of which are for American clothing brands with American models or movie stars. In a country where the vast majority of the population is not blonde with blue eyes, it really gets me to see advertisements where the people in them look nothing like Chileans, but instead a distant American style supermodel. But I guess American advertising is universal; big posters of distant celebrities line streets in the US just as they do in Guatemala, Uganda, Chile and other countries I have yet to travel to I would guess. But viewing them in the context of a different country makes you question them even more.
There really isn’t anything like throwing yourself into a new environment, culture or country to make you see in a new way. While the classes here in Chile have been enlightening, the bulk of learning comes, as it always, does from the experiences and conversations you have. I find that when I am talking about what I have learned, my stories center around examples I have gathered through the process of living and exploring here. And that’s just it, education isn’t a classroom, textbook, tests and teachers, its much simpler than that; it’s being curious, attentive and courageous enough to trust that desire inside of you to go out and explore.