Tuesday, January 12, 2010
On moving down south. Waaay down south.
About a year and a half ago, with my college graduation approaching, I spent hours writing and polishing nearly 15 pages of essays. Then I spent a week locked in my room translating those essays into Spanish (with some help from South American friends via instant Messenger). I met with the director of my university's Hispanic Studies Department to get the scoop on South American universities, then I pored over his recommendations and their course offerings. I met with local high-society community leaders. The vice president of our college even took me out to lunch. (I wore flip flops. Her initial glance at my feet told me BIG MISTAKE. But they were classy flip flops!) Finally, I drove two hours to the state capital for impromptu written essays and interviews, in which I sat at the end of a long board room table and a dozen professional-types interrogated me.
And it was all worth it. (Somehow) I got the scholarship. I'm going to study for a year at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Valparaíso, Chile (that long, skinny country on the west coast of South America. Yes, some people ask me where it is.). And Rotary International is paying for everything. I'll come back with a certificate in Latin American Studies from a respectable university on the rocky Chilean coast.
So in addition to taking classes in Latin American literature, culture, and politics, I'll also be giving presentations on the U.S. to local Rotary clubs and co-heading a service project. I'm a teensy bit nervous about the (Spanish, of course) speaking engagements, but I've heard from other scholars that they're not all that bad -- low key with a sympathetic audience. And I'm really excited about the volunteer project. I won't know exactly what it will be until I get down there and see the needs, but right now it looks like it could involve a big sister-big brother type program with foster kids in an underprivileged mountain village.
When I'm not studying or volunteering I hope to be traveling. I'm dying to get down to Patagonia and maybe up to Brazil or back to Buenos Aires. I'll be flying into Santiago, the capital, where I'll spend a month reviewing Spanish at a language institute and living with a host family. Then I'll have to find my own apartment (eek!) in Valparaíso.
Valparaíso has been called the Little San Francisco of South America, as it's a colorful and shabby seaport city built on hillsides overlooking the Pacific. Antique elevators serve as transportation in some spots, and the historic quarter is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and allies. The so-called Jewel of the Pacific has become a cultural mecca of late too. I read an Allende novel set in Valparaiso, La Hija de la Fortuna (turned out to be one of my all-time favorite reads) that painted the bohemian city as seedy and full of haughty European ex-pats. (But that was in the 1800s. Surely things have changed by now, right?) Today the university campus is divided between Valparaíso and its sister city, Viña del Mar, which is more polished and modern and popular for its beach resorts.
I've been waiting for this adventure for nearly TWO years. "Are you in Chile yet?" has become a sort of cruel joke. Since I returned from Barcelona in May I've felt like my life has been in limbo. But when very important people conclude that you're worthy of a very generous gift that allows you to see the world, educate yourself, and help others, you don't turn it down. Even if it involves a whole lot of waiting.
Now the waiting is about over, and I'm wondering ... am I ready?