Last Monday I flew out from Philly and found Scott, another volunteer, during my layover in Dallas. Scott and I hit it off immediately. He is one of those people that is so nice it makes you suspicious, like there must be something wrong with him. But, as he has proved over and over again as I’ve gotten to know him these last two weeks, he has a heart of gold and is probably one of the last specimens of chivalry on the planet. Since the flight was relatively empty, we were able to spread out a bit and I managed to sleep a few hours until Scott nudged me, waking me in time to watch the sunrise over the Coastal Mountain Range of South America.
There was a sliver of sunshine sandwiched by heavy clouds. The clouds were thick and stretched forever in continuous rolling waves, interrupted intermittently by sharp, frozen mountain peaks. We must have descended through three minutes of clouds until the lights of Santiago were finally visible.
Elsa Maxwell, our CIEE coordinator, picked us up after extensive customs procedures and swine flu laden warnings. Everyone was wearing masks and we had to fill out a survey indicating whether or not we suffered from a cough or a fever. Worthless precautions. Elsa is from Minnesota, but her rapid Spanish speaks nothing of the Midwest. She seemed kind of tense the first few times we met, but we learned that she has a lot on her plate. She leads orientations every couple weeks, works full time, and is simultaneously working on her Master’s thesis in Latin American Studies. Later, we would joke that she needed to drink two or three pisco sours (the national drink) before meeting us to relax her tiny frame. With Elsa were two of the other volunteers, Laurel and Kelly, who despite long flights were charming and in great spirits. I was instantly enamored with the girls and was thrilled to get settled in a little hotel apartment where we would get to know each other better.
Orientation basically revolved around lunches and dinners at some of the best restaurants in town. One, called Liguria, revolved slowly like the Space Needle, so that we could see all of Santiago. These meals were enormous, sometimes with three courses and always a dessert. When we weren’t eating lomo all pobre (frenchfries, a cut of steak, and two eggs sunny side up), we endured classes on culture adaptation, how to survive the Chilean school system, lectures on how to live with a host family, and an intense Chilean Spanish course.
In our free time and often with Elsa as a guide, we we able to tour many parts of Santiago. Since we were such a small group, we were even able to hike up the heal of the Andes, a small mountain called Cerro San Cristóbal. At the very top of this mountain, there is a clear view of the Andes and a glowing white statue of the Virgen Mary that overlooks all of Santiago. Among the echo of chanting monks, many locals came to the Cerro San Cristobol for a romantic afternoon or to pray.
The first night of Orientation, we went out to an area of Barrio Providencia filled with bars, but they all had incredibly cheesy decor. We finally decided on “BedRock” which was basically la casa de Fred Flintstone. The Bedrock personnel were incredibly friendly, offering free pisco sours as soon as we sat down. Within a half hour, some locals coerced me into dancing, and I bashfully complied. As I feared, my local dance partner soon realized that I can’t dance. Instead of a graceful, sexy partner, he had to break the salsa?/tango?/cuaca? steps down and count out loud so I wouldn’t bruise his feet. Laurel and Kelly, however, proved to be very skilled dancers and John and Scott were not shy with the karaoke machine.
A few more nights out with basically the same plot line except that Cami finally arrived (my dancing didn’t improve much though) and we were shipped out of our hotel. We were piled into a hostel that was in the center of the city, close to La Moneda and Barrio Bella Vista.
La Moneda (above) is the center of the city where the colonial government buildings still fully function and Bella Vista (below) is an artsy, bohemian area where Pablo Neruda built a secret getaway for himself and his mistress. We toured Neruda’s house, which is filled with hidden passages and incredible artwork.
We would visit Bella Vista and its colorful mural-covered walls many times in the next week, but in the meantime, our clan grew from six to fifty after meeting the other volunteers in the “English Opens Doors,” program (EOD).