January 2017. My final month in Ottawa, the city where I was born and raised. I was set to embark on February 10th for my year of exchange, and the only thing between me and Santiago was a school-free month to say farewell to friends and family, pack my bags, and relax a bit before heading off. Seemed like a piece of cake at the time. Oddly enough, January turned out to be one of the more challenging months, mentally and emotionally, that I have experienced in the past few years of my life. I imagine that some of you reading this have gone through that strange and emotionally complex period of time where all you can think of is a date on a plane ticket and what awaits you beyond it, and perhaps those who have will relate to some of what I write about in this blog. However, for those who have not yet gone on exchange, or perhaps are waiting to depart this summer, I hope that this post can help prepare you for what many people (including myself) often overlook about moving abroad; the final moments prior to embarking. Let’s call them the Jumping Off Point.
For some of you, it may be a month or so between finishing exams in December and leaving on exchange in January. For some of you, it may the entire summer between second and third year. Some of you may not experience the Jumping Off Point at all. Nevertheless, there is a period prior to departure where you may start to feel as if you are living in limbo. For me, it was January. While I was still very much living in Canada (believe me, I couldn’t leave the house without wearing five layers), mentally all I could only think about was being in Chile. It was a confusing month. I felt out of place, as if everything I was doing (catching the game with a friend, taking the dog for a walk, helping plan an event) wasn’t leading to anything, since I would be moving to another hemisphere in a few weeks anyways. It was frustrating at times, as I felt like taking this year abroad was just cutting into the progression of my life. I would be leaving friends and family behind, putting aside any school and job opportunities in Canada, and moving to a city (and country) where I would barely know anybody or anything about how things worked. It was a daunting period of time, especially as I had spent my entire life up to that point living in Ottawa. The month went by as a rollercoaster ride of constantly changing outlooks and emotions.
Days went by where I itched to pack my bags and get on a plane, the only thoughts on my mind revolving around what awaited me in Chile. There were also days where you could have woken me up and told me that the exchange had been cancelled, and I would have let out a sigh of relief.
in this post: I will describe why this blog is a thing that is happening
Hello Blog Readers.
Welcome to an experiment. I will start this blog series off by saying that I have never blogged before in my life. I have barely been able to keep a journal going for more than a few weeks. I have always found it basically impossible to write in any sort of reflective manner without sounding a) overly introspective/neurotic, b) like I’m trying too hard to be funny, or c) really annoying. So bear with me on this one.
My name is Isaac, I am a 20-year-old Canadian university student on exchange for the year in Santiago, Chile. I spent my entire life up to this point living in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, where I went to elementary, middle and high school and spent the first two years of my university career. Moving to a new school, in a new city, in a new country, in a new continent is what many people would call a “huge life step,” so hopefully it will also provide me with interesting content to write about.
I’ve started this blog for a number of reasons. First off, I was asked by my school to write a few blogs for their website, as a part of an ongoing exchange student blog project. I thought it would be interesting to take that further, and create a page of my own where I could post content more regularly and in multiple forms. Secondly, coming from a large Jewish family, I am already dreading the prospect of having to separately explain how my year was to every individual member of my extended family (whom I love very much of course) upon returning to Canada. I hope that this blog will help to preemptively answer some of the questions I inevitably will receive when I get home in December. Lastly, I’m aiming for this blog to help describe and articulate the whirlwind of excitement, confusion, frustration, and elation that living in a new culture can put you through. Maybe it will help some of you down the road, maybe it will help me by forcing me to reflect on my experiences; who knows!
With that being said, I’ll keep this intro short and sweet! Hasta luego, and I hope to see you all at the next post!
I realized I haven’t done too much blogging about my actual life on exchange; things I’ve done, places I’ve travelled, the ups and downs of life in Santiago. Since my return date to Canada is approaching faster than ever, I figured what better way to end exchange than by reflecting on this last amazing year of my life! If you’re going to Chile on exchange, maybe this blog will give you some ideas of how to make the most of it. If you’re friends or family back home, this can serve as a primer for all of the questions you will inevitably ask me. With that being said, let’s go all the way back to February, where this adventure began…
February: Kevin, Jackie and I touched down in Santiago on February 11th. The next week or so was spent breaking in the apartment, getting accustomed to life in the new city, and trying to check off as many tourist attractions as possible. The week was also spent waiting for hours in line for a phone, visa registration and national ID cards (all part of the fun). After a week and a half in the capital, we decided it was high time to start getting to know the rest of the country. Kevin and I made for the Chilean coast, specifically Viña del Mar/Valparaíso, where some of our fellow BIB classmates were just settling in for their exchange. We spent two nice days as a group getting sunburnt on the beach, hanging with the dogs in our hostel, and then applying aloe vera to the aforementioned sunburns. After returning from the coast, the four of us in Santiago (Zach and Florian had joined us by then) realized we still had some time before classes started and that Kevin’s 21st was soon approaching. The logical conclusion we drew was to pack up and cross over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina’s famous wine region. Not only did we manage to experience one of only two massive rainstorms that the region experiences every year, we also stumbled into the city in the midst of a massive wine festival (completely unplanned). Needless to say, it was a great (grape) weekend. We visited bodegas, wandered through the city’s many beautiful squares and parks, and chowed down on asados and empanadas. Before we knew it, we were heading back over the Andes to start our first semester of exchange.
The View from our Apartment
San Cristobal Hill
Viña Hostel Pups
First View of the Pacific
Driving through the Andes
Wine Tastings in Mendoza
March: March was a flurry of a month. It started with international student orientation day, followed by a hectic first week of classes featuring lots of stressing about courses and setting-in of realities. Throw in the first waves of culture shock (and a bedbug infestation) and you have quite the rollercoaster ride of cross-cultural frustrations. That being said, we still managed to have a BIB reunion on the coast again, with our friend Antonino dropping in from Buenos Aires for the first weekend of the semester. The next week I took a day trip with an exchange friend south of Santiago to the Laguna de Aculeo. Completely devoid of water, but with just enough mud to permanently change the colour of my white shoes, it was a strange but fun day where I started to appreciate the cultural differences between large Chilean cities and the smaller ‘pueblos’ dotting the countryside. The rest of March was spent studying in Santiago, with the exception of another day-trip to the town of Rancagua later in the month. The town was home to a company that I consulted for as part of one of my courses, however as the purpose of the trip was to interview employees we didn’t spend any time sightseeing. And before I knew it, the first month of class had blown by.
Sandboarding in the Dunas de Concon
Laguna de Aculeo
RIP White Converse
April: April was around the time when culture shock began to subside, as the nuances and flows of Chilean culture became more understood and manageable. The first weekend of April was fantastic, as the coastal BIBers came into Santiago for the massive Lollapalooza Music Festival. It was that weekend where I began to realize how polite and docile the crowds at Canadian concerts really are. The following weekend was both good and bad. Good because the four of us in Santiago took a wonderful day trip to the small town of Isla Negra, where famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had constructed his eclectic and charming seaside escape (one of his three famous homes). Bad because I proceeded to lose my Chilean identification card a mere 24 hours after I had picked it up, dooming me to another 6 hours of bureaucratic hand-wringing. Those who know me probably are not surprised. The second half of April was spent mainly in Santiago, but I did find time to spend some time hiking around the outskirts of the city with friends. The 17km mountainous Aguas de San Ramon hike was quite fun, until the next day when my legs decided to let me know they were not happy with the work they had been put up to. Quebrada de Macul, another Andes mountain hike, was less punishing (except for Florian, who received a slight knock on the forehead from a tumbling stone). And just like that, another month had passed. Be warned: time does really fly when you’re on exchange.
The Strokes at Lollapalooza
Trekking Around Santiago
Santiago Boys in Isla Negra
View from Pablo Neruda’s House
Trekking Around Santiago
May: The beginning of May was characterized by two fantastic trips. Our school had two weeks off for midterms, but I was lucky enough to have already written all of my midterms in the preceding weeks, so it was off to travel I went. The first trip was back to Argentina, to visit the capital of Buenos Aires. Our BIB-Argentina friend, Antonino, was kind enough to let Florian, Kevin and I crash on his couches/floor in central BA, steps away from the famous Recoleta Cemetery. We spent time sightseeing, walking through the beautiful streets, eating more than we should have, and meeting famous Argentinian football stars (at least in statue form). After a few days in BA, it was time to say hasta luego. I headed back to Santiago on my own for what was to be another incredible trip: Easter Island. Two of my close friends from Canada were coming down to visit, so we decided to hop on a plane and fly 3,756 kilometres into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to visit the tiny Polynesian island. From sunrise at Ahu Tongariki, to lounging on Anakena Beach, to snorkeling in the middle of the Pacific (with some volcanic craters and truck drives in between), it was a trip to remember. Even though we were still technically in Chile, it felt as if we had travelled to another side of the world. I also managed to get a tan, which felt nice as Chile began to transition back into winter. I ended the month with a short trip to the Viña del Mar to touch base with the “coastal crew” (that nickname never really caught on), before buckling up for the final month of my first semester.
La Boca, Buenos Aires
Carlos Tevez and Myself
Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki
June: June was a more work intense month, seeing as it signaled the end of the semester. I spent most of it in Santiago, but by then life in the city had become much more interesting. I had made lots of friends in the city, both exchange students and Chileans. I was actively participating in activities within Santiago, from attending concerts on the weekends to playing pickup soccer after class. And I was getting to know which parts of the city I loved the most, from the trendy café neighbourhood of Barrio Italia to the tree-lined Parque Forestal. I really felt at home in Santiago at that point. It was simultaneously a bit sad, however, as the end of the semester meant that most of the exchange friends that we had made were starting to head back home. But the last few weeks of the first semester were quite fun. Zach and I went skiing in the Andes outside of Santiago with some of our friends one day. And there more than enough parties to say goodbye to everyone as classes and exams wrapped up. And soon after, I had a full semester of exchange under my belt. During the last week of June I took a solo trip up to the town of La Serena. It was my first time travelling alone, but the freedom of doing so was quite enjoyable in many ways. I spent one day touring the picturesque Elqui Valley, where the majority of Chile’s Pisco is produced. I ended that day with an astrological tour at Mamalluca Observatory, where I saw the clearest night sky of my life (Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon and more). The next day, I hopped on a two-hour bus up the coast to the Humboldt National Penguin Reserve. I toured two islands by boat (Isla Damas and Isla Choros), and saw penguins, sea lions, otters and a number of beautiful sea birds. The town of La Serena itself was quite pretty, dotted with colonial-era churches and old public squares. I returned back to Santiago on Canada Day, feeling refreshed and accomplished after tackling my first trip completely on my own.
Skiing in the Andes
Dogs on Duty in La Serena
Penguins on Isla Damas
That was a summary of the first half of my exchange. I’ve glossed over a lot, but hopefully this gives future Santiago-exchangers and idea of things to do, places to visit, and where the ups and downs of every semester often fall.
I’m sitting on the balcony of our hostel as my travel companion Florian takes a nap. The view to my left is the famous Copacabana Beach, dotted with sunbathers. To my right, the statue of Christ the Redeemer looks over the south zone of Rio de Janeiro. The sound of someone cleaning dishes floats out of a neighbour’s window, and two dogs are barking at each other not too far away. It’s a hot day, 32 degrees Celsius at 2:00 in the afternoon, so the fan in our room is on full blast. If you were to look at our location on Google Maps, it might look as if we are staying in the wealthy Rio neighbourhood of Leme, known for its wide tree-lined streets and modern beachfront condominiums. However, we are not in a condo overlooking the ocean. We are staying on a hill just behind Leme in Favela Babilônia. It is one of the hundreds of makeshift neighbourhoods that are home to around 1 in 5 of Rio’s inhabitants, and it sheds a light on both the resourcefulness and hardships that can be found in Brazil’s most iconic city.
A number of the surprising things have stuck with me after staying in one of Rio’s favelas. I wouldn’t claim that my experiences apply to every favela in the city, or even that they paint a complete picture of Favela Babilônia. After all, Florian and I stayed there for only three days, and saw it through the eyes of two tourists who do not live, work or have family in the city. There are poorer and richer favelas in Rio, and more dangerous and safer ones as well. However, after seeing depictions of favelas for years in movies, TV shows, books and videogames, my three days in Babilônia challenged the preconceptions I had about life in Brazil’s poorest areas and the people who live in them.
While Favela Babilônia is mere steps away from Rio’s world famous beaches, it might as well be located in a different world. Unlike the majority of the South American cities I have visited this year, where poor areas and rich areas are distinctly separated within city layouts, Rio is unique in its hectic jumble of favelas and rich neighbourhoods. In Santiago, the wealthy east side slowly and gradually transitions into poorer neighbourhoods as you travel west, north and south. In Rio, a 30-minute walk can take you past a mosaic of tourism, underdevelopment and vast wealth, all living side by side. Without turning this into a history lesson, the principal reason the favelas were built all over the city had to do with slavery. While many North Americans tend to think of the U.S. South as the hotbed of slave activity following the discovery of the New World, Brazil was actually home to 11 times more slaves than the U.S, with a huge majority of them living in Rio. When slavery “ended” in the late 1800’s (Afro-Brazilians were still denied many basic civil rights and liberties post-slavery), many former slaves suddenly found themselves with no income, homes or job opportunities. They started building these favelas into the hills of Rio without any government oversight or assistance since they had no other options for shelter, and very limited resources. Soon these neighbourhoods became some of the most iconic images of Rio, and their growth was further driven by mass-migration into Rio from rural Brazil. Today, the favelas are everywhere in Rio, growing on the sides of the city’s many hills, and stretching from the photo-famous south zone to the farthest outskirts of the city.
Violence is a persistent factor of life in many favelas. Babilônia, for example, is contested by two armed gangs (our host considered the local police branch to be the third). There are infrequent skirmishes at the border separating their two sides. However, Babilônia is a relatively ‘pacified’ favela, and we stayed there during a lasting ceasefire that had been in effect for several months prior to our arrival. As such, we were fortunate not to see any conflict during our stay. However, our host did take us for a tour of the area, and pointed out bullet holes in some walls from several years back when the violence had been much worse. And even though our hostel was located far from the border, on several occasions we saw younger gang members (I would guess 14 or 15 years old) watching the entrance to their territory, often with handguns not-so-subtly concealed beneath their basketball shorts. As foreigners, we were “protected” by some of the unwritten rules of the favela, namely that visitors are to be left alone at all times. Residents, whether they are associated with the gangs or not, want more foreigners to visit the favela. The goal is to bring attention to the realities of life in their community. Government investment in favelas in almost non-existent, with most money going towards minor, short-term “facelifts” whenever international attention focuses on the city (such as during the World Cup and 2016 Olympics). So locals do what they can to bring outsiders to Babilônia, and one aspect of this is that visitors like us are to remain untouched. We even received smiles and bom dia’s from residents when we walked around. Most favelas are not nearly as safe for visitors, but the combination of the ceasefire and Babilônia’s eagerness to attract visitors meant that Florian and I were relatively safe for the time we spent there.
The most striking thing I noticed was the creativity and improvisation in the favela. All of the available utilities, such as running water and electricity, were provided and managed by the residents. There were corner stores, a community garden, a small church, a school and even a concrete soccer surface. Obviously, the quality of these community assets was not at the same level that we are accustomed to in most parts of Canada. But the creativity in developing and maintaining them was incredible. The restaurant attached to our hostel, managed by our hosts, is so good that it is often ranked amongst the most popular in Rio (look up “Estrelas Da Babilônia” on TripAdvisor, I’m not making this up). It was built entirely by our hosts with the help of other favela residents, by using creative and makeshift solutions to make things work, like the plastic water bottles used as rainproof outdoor lights. The residents of Babilônia demonstrate what is known as jeitinho (Portuguese for “little way”), a word used in Brazil to reference creativity and inventiveness in the wake of limited resources. And amazingly: things worked. We had running water, wifi and electricity for our whole stay. The business owners were more than happy to sell us delicious pão de queijo, brigadeiros and açai that they prepared every day. Above all, there was an attitude that if you wanted something done, you would just do it. No waiting for a permit, no conforming to guidelines about what was an “acceptable” way to build or construct something, just a drive to make things work. Though it may have come from a place of hardship, there was charm and vigour to the way that residents of the favela took it upon themselves to find ways to build up their community, ingeniously using anything they could find.
The last thing that struck me was the people, and the way they went about their day-to-day lives. In the mornings, we would see parents walking their children to schools, people commuting to work, and shop owners setting up. During the day, moto-taxis shuttled residents up and down the hill connecting the favela to Leme, children played soccer and basketball in the streets, people chatted on cell phones as they carried their groceries home. The sun went down, and the sound of music, cooking, laughter and discussion would float through the air. Though the context that underpinned these routines was starkly different than what I was accustomed to in Canada (and even in Chile), the routines themselves were actually quite familiar. Yes, people were walking their children to school on barely paved streets. Yes, the soccer balls were in rougher shape. And perhaps the evening sounds travelled more easily due to the fact that the houses of Babilônia are built more or less on top of each other. But even within the context of economic hardship, a lack of government support, and occasional violence, the people of the favela spend most of their days being people. Despite the widely held perception that favelas are rife with constant violence, residents of Babilônia lived relatively peaceful lives, going about day-to-day routines in ways to which most of us can relate.
My three days in a favela were some of the most interesting and exciting that I have spent so far on exchange. Before spending time in Babilônia, my understanding of how people lived in favelas was quite abstract, informed only through media and stories that I had heard. I certainly can’t pretend to be an expert after only three days, but I believe that I have gained a more nuanced understanding of how people can live their lives in a way that is both adverse and familiar to me as a Canadian. Favela Babilônia is burdened with many hardships, but it is also a community of resourcefulness and aspiration, and I hope to visit it again if I ever get a chance to return to Rio.
What do fresh pomegranate juice, phone chargers, roses, fleece jackets, and sopaipillas all have in common? The answer: you can purchase all of those things a few blocks from where I live. Great, you’re thinking to yourself. Isaac lives near a BoosterJuice, BestBuy, florist, North Face outlet and sopaipilla restaurant. Nothing too striking about that. But none of these products are being sold in stores, or really any sort of formal location of exchange. They’re all sold on the same street, but you won’t find a place there where you can pay with credit card. And you most certainly will not receive a receipt after purchasing. This particular street block near my apartment is one of many here in Santiago, where confused gringos like myself ogle at the sheer variety of things you can buy on the street. Opportunistic vendors, selling anything from sushi rolls to laundry hampers, create ‘pop-up’ markets around areas with high foot traffic. Metro station exits, busy pedestrian streets and public squares are popular gathering spots. The vendors are loud, they’re quick, they’re possibly in a legal grey area (I’m really not too sure), but most importantly they’re a cheap and convenient source of odd things you forgot you needed. No Stone Unturned is the title of this blog, because when it comes to seeking out value opportunities in Santiago, there are no niches, crooks or crannies that go unused.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that not all commerce in Santiago is undertaken in the informal manner I’ll describe in this blog. You can buy your coffee from a guy with a thermos on the sidewalk, but you can also get a cappuccino in a ritzy café that wouldn’t look out of place in Westboro. Cooking pots can be bought from stalls on busy streets, but can also be found at upscale kitchenware stores in the massive Costanera Shopping Mall (think the Rideau Centre but five times as big, and with five times the brand offerings). It’s not as if consumer products in Santiago aren’t sold in supermarkets, department stores or shopping malls. Many people in the Chilean capital exhibit similar purchasing routines and patterns as consumers in Canada, especially in the wealthier ‘communas’ of the city (dark green on the map). What stands out is how distinct the different approaches to selling the same product can be, striking a contrast between different areas of the city (and sometimes between different parts of the same street). The informal and opportunistic way that many products are sold has really interested me over my time in Chile so far, especially as a Canadian accustomed to neat, orderly shelves in stores with municipal permits framed over the cash register. In Santiago, vendors and consumers stretch from one end of the spectrum to the other, creating a fascinating and diverse mosaic of commerce that I still don’t fully understand six months after arriving.
The first thing that stands out is the opportunism. While Chile is a relatively developed country within Latin America, income inequality is still huge and ever-present. Informal methods of making a living are the only opportunity that many people have to earn and provide for themselves and their families. But the creativity and hustle in seeking out these opportunities is impressive. I am struck by how people can sustain themselves economically through, for example, walking up and down subway cars selling chocolate bars. Or by how creative some vendors can be. I’d point here to the coffee and pastry vendors who set up shop next to the morning queues outside of government service offices. Who said bureaucracy couldn’t create business value? Taking a nap in Parque Forestal is difficult, due to the sound of “HELADO, HELADO FRÍO, HELADO HELADO HELADO” approaching from what seems like every direction (ice cream, cold ice cream, ice cream ice cream ice cream, for my non-Spanish speaking readers). You would be hard pressed to find a spot in Santiago where you can walk for more than two blocks without passing some type of stand, corner store, or person trying to sell you something. And you can find almost anything you need. Walk out of a busy metro station, as I mentioned above, and you’ll find yourself in a fully functioning outdoor department store, just without the whole “we got a permit for this” formality.
It goes beyond household items like jackets, frying pans and bike tires. Street food is everywhere in the Chilean capital, from post-work sopaipilla stands (a personal favourite/addiction) to the guy who sells coffee next to morning lines outside the police station. The lack of brick-and-mortar investment (physical shops and such) mean that these vendors can strategically relocate themselves based on demand. As commuters head home from work, busier street corners become contested hotspots, where the phrase ‘first-mover advantage’ takes on a literal meaning. While we have our reservations about street food in Canada, anyone from high-level government officers to skateboarding teens in Santiago may stop in the city centre to grab a bite off the street. It’s just a part of the environment.
In one of my classes at the Universidad de Chile, an economics professor commented on the fact that these “informal economies” actually contribute greatly to the incomes of many Chileans, and people in Latin America at large. Recent travels to Peru and Bolivia confirmed this, in my eyes. In the Bolivian capital of La Paz, residents buy all of their groceries from individual street vendors at huge, multi-block markets such as the Mercado Rodriguez. In my three days in the city I didn’t come across a single supermarket. Perhaps a lack of opportunities for education and training push many people into working in more informal sectors. In large cities that I have been fortunate to visit, such as Santiago, Lima and Buenos Aires, there is a much lower presence of street vendors in wealthier areas than in the central and poorer areas. The opportunistic and creative tendency of these vendors comes from fierce competition over the few opportunities they have to provide for themselves and their families. So while visitors may appreciate the convenience and affordability of these vendors, it is important to keep in mind the context that has created these informal economies: a lack of opportunities for more formal work.
This blog is intended as an observation, more than anything else, of one of the more striking aspects of day-to-day life that I’ve noticed while living in Chile. As a foreigner who has only been here for half a year, I’m sure that I may have missed some of the nuances and unturned stones of the street-economies in Santiago. But they have definitely been one of the most apparent differences I’ve noticed between life in Canada and Chile. I wonder how much they may change as Chile, and Latin America as a whole, evolve and develop in the 21st century.