Semester Exchange in Santiago, Chile

After coming back from my first abroad exchange experience in Australia I had two things clear: the first was that it had been the first of my, hopefully, many to come international experiences, and the second, that whenever my next exchange happened, it was going to be in a Latin American country.

After spending time with so many people from all over the world I discovered how like-minded and similar we Latin people are. I got to meet and love a lot of other people from other places of the globe, but I just noticed how we Mexicans mostly had the the same sense of humor, the same taste in music, same ideas and very similar behaviour as the other Central and South Americans.

This realisation, along with the fact that in Mexico it is very common for young people or students to look for and do exchanges mainly in European or “first world” countries, helped me decide to look in another direction. In my country, or at least in the schools I’ve attended, there seems to be a general belief that Europe or North America are the “best” places to live and travel to, that we will improve and learn more there than if we go anywhere else. But I already knew that an exchange was so much more than just achieving or getting an academic level or recognition, that your growth is way more personal. I wanted to try and prove myself, and anyone, that any country you choose is the correct one and this time I just knew I wanted to discover, experience and learn more about South America.

Four years since my first exchange passed and I was now in college and ready to travel abroad again. I mainly wanted to go to Brazil, because the 2014 world cup was happening there, and that was a really big Bucket List item of mine. Long story short I couldn’t do Brazil because my school demanded that I spoke fluent Portuguese and I didn’t. I needed to choose another country and it turned out that two of my college friends were also looking into doing an exchange, so we decided to travel together and look into the best available options. In the end we were torn between either Chile or Colombia. Personally I had no idea what I could find in either of those but they sounded cool, so I didn’t even really mind where I got sent off too as this was part of my decision to travel to a South American country; to force me to learn more about it in general. In the end our school decided we could go to Chile and it was set.

I didn’t really do a lot of research of the country before getting there, which was completely reckless of me, but I knew that whether I wanted or not, I was going to learn so much about this place, that it was going to be like a second home.

My whole planning experience this time was completely different from the first one because this time the school just managed our inscription in the Chilean university, but we were all on our own regarding pretty much everything else. I had to look into flights, currency, apartments, transportation and everything else you have to figure out before moving to another city. It was really helpful to have gone with my two other girlfriends, because this way we were all doing the research and making decisions together. We knew whatever happened we wouldn’t be completely alone in a totally unknown country, and would always have each other’s back.

We ended up renting an apartment in Providencia, which was one of the nicest living areas in Santiago. We closed the deal before arriving there in February so we actually had a place to stay since day one. We attended the Universidad del Pacifico in Las Condes and we had a smooth transition because we arrived several days before school started so we were able to figure almost everything out before our first day there.

The first months were basically getting used to everything; our new apartment, new surroundings, new school, people, places, transportation methods. We learned as fast as we could everything about Santiago and Chile in general. I also remember in this first few weeks, before school started, we were kind of lonely and bored most of the time because, even as much as we tried to visit the touristic places, we still ended up with a lot of free time in our hands.

Once school started it wasn’t that demanding either. We were advised not to take a full load of semester classes so we didn’t even have to go every day of the week. I think this amount of free time was the reason we were always so eager to meet new people, places and to go out and just explore the city in any or every opportunity we got.

We got a hang of things pretty quickly, and I think we were actually very lucky because by the second or third week of our stay there we got to meet two Mexican boys who were also doing an exchange in Santiago, in a different university but who were also from Guadalajara and with whom we had some friends in common back home. We ended up being like a family with them, and we planned and did the most amazing trips throughout our exchange. We stopped being bored alone and the five of us would just hang out practically everyday (when the boys didn’t have to study for their actually demanding classes) either in the city or actually traveling around the country in the most incredible journeys. First, we did a road trip to the south of Chile; we started out in Santiago and drove all the way to Pucon and back, which was as liberating and fun as road trips are assumed to be. Then we all flew to the Chilean Patagonia together and spent some crazy cold days couchsurfing with a local family who took us in, and finally I was actually able to fulfill my dream of going to the World Cup with both of them in the last few days of our exchange.

Needles to say, by around the second or third month of our six-month stay our lives were better than ever. It’s funny because I remember my girlfriends and me just casually riding our daily bus to school and suddenly, one of us would just randomly blurt out “I feel so happy right now”, and we knew that it was a collective feeling, we were genuinely joyful there. It seemed everything in our lives was right. We had amazing friends, a really cool routine, we loved each other as roomies, we adored the food, the people, all the traveling we were doing. It sounds too good to be true but it actually was. It was also around this time that the three of us travelled alone for the first time, without the boys, to San Pedro de Atacama. This trip was literally magical for me, and it brought us even closer. We experienced the most beautiful landscapes in the oddest, coolest journey that by the time we got back to Santiago, we were just in an ever state of bliss. By the fifth month we were starting to dread our comeback to Mexico. Our old lives seemed so far behind, I knew if we could have done it we would have traded everything to be able to extend our stay in Chile.

By the last days of our stay it was time for goodbyes, and I can’t say I didn’t already have experience in this type of things but it still hurt to the bottom of my soul. I cried so much, several times. It was like I knew it was bound to end and I accepted it, I actually sometimes tried not to get too attached to the people or my lifestyle there but I still failed terribly. Saying goodbye, and accepting experiences like this are over has such a bittersweet feeling to it. You know that no matter how hard you try or how much you want them to; they will never repeat themselves or come back. I was so glad I had had such an amazing stay that saying goodbye was so hard, but at the same time I just wanted to throw a fit to the universe and cry until it allowed me to stay longer. Of course this didn’t work and so, once again, this was the hardest part of the whole six months there.

Going back home was good and bad. I’ve always been pretty good at adapting to any kind of place or situation I’m in. I’m also very lucky to say I have really good friends and family always there for me, waiting for me, so it wasn’t like I was depressed all the time. But still, I always get that feeling that every amazing thing I experienced was not true. It’s very weird but you actually feel like you borrowed time from a different life. When I did my first exchange I said it had felt like I took a little glance of how my life would have been if I’d been born in Australia, and this time it was the same. It just feels like a window to a different reality, in a different lifetime, I don’t know, it’s very weird but once you go back home it’s literally like nothing changed. I know it obviously did, I mean at least I know it changed me, but the people and the places you left behind they all stayed the same. I think this is what I love most about leaving, you experience so much in so little time, that in a way it feels like you are stealing it.

Living in Chile was as wonderful as I thought and hoped it would be, even more. Again, ironically, I didn’t end up with a lot of local close friends, but by now I’ve figured out that when you are in an “exchange student” or “traveler” set of mind, life is different, so you mainly just make friends with that same mindset, which are usually not local, so I got to be close to a bunch of other Latin and European lovely and kind hearted people. Also, even if I didn’t get to be really close to its locals, I got to know Chile, mighty and astonishing. I got to know its culture, its food, its music, its magical places, its amazing wine, its parties, its traditions and its very distinctive (sometimes very incomprehensible!) Spanish. It welcomed me and my friends in the most incredible way and I cherish the time I got to spend there with my whole heart.

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My First Exchange Experience in Sunshine Coast, Australia

“All glory comes from daring to begin.”

The first time I traveled by myself, I went 14,359 km away from home. I spent a semester as an exchange student in Sunshine Coast, Australia and I chose this country because I thought I’d never travel so far any other way. I was also very drawn to the whole relaxed surfing, first world-high quality of life vibe that this country was known for.

I was seventeen years old and decided to join the exchange program my high school, back in Mexico, offered me. I traveled with a group of 13 Mexicans whom I’d actually never met before (we were all from different states) and one teacher who was in charge of us during the whole trip. Our school arranged for all of us to arrive with local host families, and I was lucky enough to live in one of the nicest and better located homes. Besides my host parents, who were originally from New Zealand, I got to live with another exchange student, a 15-year old German girl who was also doing a six-month program, and who turned out to be one of the sweetest and nicest girls. She and I had a lot in common and we actually became really close friends. We still keep in touch even to this day.

This first traveling experience was definitely hard and challenging at first. I was so nervous about leaving my whole life behind, it seemed to me like the biggest deal. I was going to be missing so many family events, friend’s birthdays and important dates; trading it all for the complete unknown. I actually cried at the airport when I said goodbye to my parents and felt extremely nervous during the whole four-hour flight to Los Angeles, the 16-hour flight to Brisbane and the 45-minute drive to Sunshine Coast, where my new Australian home was. I didn’t know what would be expected of me, how I was going to get by, if I was going to get along with these new bunch of people I’d just met, it was all really overwhelming.

The first few weeks were definitely the toughest. Getting used to a whole new life can definitely be overwhelming. Also, I’ve always been kind of a shy, quiet person, so it represented a huge challenge for me to actually try and force myself to make new friends.  I had to convince myself a lot of times that it was all going to be fine, even if six months seemed like a lifetime, and even if I felt completely alone and lost at first. Fortunately, I eluded that dreaded homesick feeling most of the other foreign exchange students got in the first few days.

It would take ages for me to write everything I experienced, so here are some of the basics and highlights:

  • I attended the 12th grade in Mountain Creek State High School.
  • I rode a bike everyday (as best as I could, falling down only twice) from my home to my school and lived at walking distance to the beach.
  • I only took ONE surfing lesson in my whole exchange.
  • I gained approximately 5kg (11 pounds) in my six month stay. This seemed like the end of the world then but I consider myself lucky now that I deliberate on just how many Tim Tams, arroz con leche, cookies, muffins, nutella, brigadeiro and crazy amount of delicious cereal and muesli I ate. Also, most of my other exchange girl friends gained around twice as much as I did; turns out this is a very common inconvenience of going abroad.
  • I became a sweet chilli addict.
  • I tried vegemite and didn’t like it.
  • I learned to take off my shoes when I went into my house, and that it is strangely, country-wide permitted in Australia to be barefoot anytime, and anywhere you want. I thought this was really, really cool.
  • I got to see my favorite musician of all time, John Mayer, live for the first time, with 4th row tickets in his Brisbane gig of the Battle Studies tour. This almost brought me to tears and complete shock and disbelief and I still get excited just remembering it. Dream come true, bucket list item, best day of my life.
  • I got to travel to Fiji with some of my Mexican friends in a really peculiar, last minute unplanned trip. The type of trip where you just go to a travel agency and ask for the cheapest plane tickets/vacation deal you can get, and buy it right there and then. Even quirkier when we got to Fiji penniless because of all the money we had already spent on the plane and accommodations so we ended up eating noodle soup every day for dinner, in some totally luxurious hotel.
  • I realized how little you can do in Australia as a minor (under 17) and after celebrating my 18th birthday there, realized that being legal is not that much fun either if all of your friends are still minors.
  • Saw one too many bags of Goon and still managed to stay sober during my whole stay.
  • Realized that Latino people, we have so much in common and do have the party within us.
  • Within Australia, I got to visit the Great Barrier Reef (beyond beautiful), Sydney, Brisbane and Surfers Paradise.

Funnily enough, after living for a while in Australia I realized that the relaxed vibe I was searching so much for wasn’t exactly what I wanted out of my life. At least not at that time. People in Australia, at least in Sunshine Coast, are really and truly calm and chill people. Surf is what’s going on in most of those places and its so nice to see that everyone has a peaceful life. Still, I decided that I missed the hectic, crazy pace of my country.

By the last few months of my exchange I was already so happy there. I had everything I needed: best friends, a sister, a boyfriend, a family, a routine, a beautiful home by the beach. I had this whole new life, and I’d already grown so accustomed to it. Consequently, when it was time to leave I went crashing down. Unfortunately for me I was the one who got to say goodbye to every last one of the exchange students. My flight was one of the last ones to leave so I cried as hard as I hadn’t cried before in a very long time. I said goodbye to my best friend, to my sister, to my Mexican new family, to my boyfriend and to my host parents, not knowing if I was ever going to see them again. To this day, this is still one of the strangest and saddest feelings I’ve ever experienced. People you love still existing, but so far away from you that they stop seeming real. It’s really surreal and tragic.

I think I was lucky enough to stay behind in Australia long enough to realize that what had made my stay there wasn’t really the country, or the city itself, it was the people I had met. As I went around Sunshine Coast in my last few days, when I was already alone, I felt so ready to leave. Not one of the places I visited meant anything to me if I didn’t have my friends to share them with. The Australia I had so close to my heart was restricted to a time frame, and a people-frame. I was ready to go back home.

My exchange to Sunshine Coast definitely turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences. It went far and beyond everything I had hoped for. While I was still living there, I actually thought that it was all too good to be true, that I didn’t deserve so much; looking back at it I kind of still do.

This first long trip of mine taught me so many things. It taught me to conquer my fears, to try my best to settle into a completely foreign space. To be open to meeting so many new and different types of people. To respect and love other countries and nationalities. It showed me my personality and gave me a whole new sense of nationalism. It gave me character and a new sense of independence. It brought me friends and people I love that, even though at the time we said goodbye it seemed like I’d never see again, I have actually met several times after, and its like we never were apart.

Coming back to Mexico after my exchange was also kind of disorienting and unreal. When I left I had the idea that so many things were going to change while I wasn’t home, and it actually turned out that everything stayed the same. It was as if I’d never left. This was both good and bad because it wasn’t hard for me to go back to my routine. I still had high school to attend to, I hung out with my same best friends and our friendship was still as great as before I left. Still, this all still felt kind of wrong. I was beginning to forget my life back in Australia and I hated that. I still tried to keep in touch with all of my friends but we were all back to our homes in every corner of Mexico, of the planet.

Little by little I just had to accept the fact that it was all over, that whenever I saw my friends from Sunshine Coast we’d all reminisce the time we spent there, but that our lives were now different. It all sounds so tragic and dramatic but for me it really was, still is. Now that I’m older I’ve learned to grow accustomed and accept this type of feelings, but at that time if was definitely very weird and hurtful to me. Still, it was because of this experience that I decided that I wanted to keep experiencing new places and meeting new people.

My exchanged in Australia definitely marked my life because after it, I fell in love with this new way of travel. In staying a longer period of time in a different place, in challenging yourself and discovering new cultures. Into getting closer with new cities and people, even if this meant that you’d miss it all deeply afterwards. This trip changed me because, even if after I’d gotten back home it all seemed like a dream, it definitely was the best one I had ever had.