Helena, studying abroad at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
Spending the festive season in South America is a bizarrely disorientating experience. While a part of me would quite like to be back in England just to be able to go ice skating in Hyde park and to drink lots of mulled wine, instead I’m looking forward to spending Christmas (most likely) getting sunburnt on the beach in Argentina and a sunny New Years experience in Rio.
It’s perhaps a little ironic that one of the best parts about studying in Santiago is the total lack of studying that happens during the months of December to March. Don’t get me wrong- the term time is great too, an opportunity to settle down and get to know the ins and outs of life as a santiaguino, to explore the different barrios and to find your own little local places.
After a term here, I’m an expert in knowing when is the best (or least bad) time to catch the metro, and my patience has improved leaps and bounds after the endless queuing (you literally have to queue for absolutely everything here, whether it’s 30 minutes for the supermarket, 2 hours to register your visa or 5 hours to sign up for a module at university). I’m still getting my head around chilean spanish, which is pretty much the furthest-from-spanish spanish that exists, but it has definitely improved since the days of getting in taxis and not having a clue what the driver was saying.
The city itself can be a little chaotic, a result of the ever increasing process of urbanisation, but it remains generally safe and manageable. Unfortunately, it is not home to the most beautiful architecture nor has much of its history been preserved, since earthquakes are frequent and powerful in this part of the world. On the plus side however, the earthquake-proof buildings do mean that it’s very very unlikely earthquakes will do anymore than shake you up a little. To put this is perspective, a recent earthquake here was 10 times bigger than the Haiti 2010 one, but fewer that 15 people died and no buildings in Santiago collapsed. When it comes to earthquake proof engineering, it seems that the Chileans are on it (not so much when it comes to rain-proof engineering).
Another engineering feat is the metro, which is the most extensive system in South America. While it can be very overcrowded, it is a pretty useful way to explore the city and for commuting to classes, which are generally in San Joaquin- the biggest and most modern of the university’s four campuses. I don’t imagine San Joaquin is too far from what you’d expect of an English campus university- pretty good facilities, including a swimming pool and a gym, lots of grey buildings and a Starbucks café. One thing that you won’t find is a UCLU style student union. Being one of the most academic- and religious- universities in Chile, there aren’t any bars or clubs on campus; but if that’s your scene, there’s always Miércoles Po, a weekly student club night for foreigners, which is oddly reminiscent of Loop on sports night.
There’s definitely lots to get up to in Santiago, whether that’s visiting museums, going to the theatre at the Teatro Municipal, shopping at the huge local market La Vega (where you can literally buy a kilo of strawberries for around 70p) or taking free salsa classes in the street. It’s eventful and enjoyable, different enough from home to be interesting but similar enough to be able to settle into.
However after 5 months of staying put, I´m excited to be out of Santiago for the summer break. There is so much to see in South America- way more than can be seen in a year- and every place is different from the next. In Chile alone, you can go sandboarding and stargazing in the Atacama desert, or you can trek across glaciers and mountains in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. You can see penguins and llamas, climb volcanoes, ski in the Andes or surf in the Pacific Ocean. And that’s not even mentioning everywhere else you can go over the 3 month break- Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, to name a few. It’s like a gap year and a year abroad packed into one, and I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to explore such an incredible continent. Studying abroad in South America opens a door to a completely new part of the world, and the benefits of being able to speak the language definitely cannot be overestimated.
Anyone who has been on a year abroad will tell you that it’s a bit of a rollercoaster- there are lots of ups, but lots of downs as well, which are all the more emphasised when you’re further from home. Catching a quick flight back home for Christmas, or if you’re feeling a bit homesick, is not really on the agenda, so you sort of just have to confront all the challenges as they come at you. It’s a whole year of commitment, which is tough, but also really rewarding. Yes, right now there are things going on back home that I’m missing out on, but with plans to spend Christmas Day in the Buenos Aires sun with six new friends from six different countries, I don’t feel to saddened by the lack of mulled wine and mince pies this year.
If you have any questions about Santiago or study abroad in general feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), but in the meantime, to everyone around the world, I hope you have a great christmas and a happy new year!