I was so lucky to have avoided the homesickness and feelings of being completely overwhelmed when I arrived here in Santiago. In fact, it took me exactly 43 days to feel a twinge of those things, which I know is something to be very appreciative of.
That’s not the story from the beginning, though. My doubts existed before arriving, they just went away the moment I stepped off the plane. At that point, I was in and I wasn’t leaving so why waste precious time by not jumping in head first?
I had been having very uncharacteristic feelings of nervousness about coming and living in a new country for months. I’d already been on a couple study abroad programs, but ones that allowed us to travel to multiple countries. I realized I had never really lived in a foreign country by myself before.
There I was, 26 countries under my belt, and I was still nervous for this new step in my life. All the usual things creeped into my thoughts once in a while: Would I make the same kind of friends that I had on other programs and at school? Would my Spanish be good enough, like really good enough, to live with a host family and take classes in only that language? How would I feel once I met my host family and, just as important, what would I say to them?
These were all daunting questions, ones that I knew I would have no answer for until I settled in and pushed myself further into this new environment.
Luckily, I have amazing friends here and am so grateful to be going through this experience with nearly 30 other students that make this place feel the most like home. Even better, we have tons of new Chilean friends from the exchange program here that have shown us the city and food and nightlife and so much more. My Spanish was good enough, and is getting noticeably better every day- something that I am so proud of in and of itself. My host family turned out to be the sweetest, most laid-back people I could have been paired with and we talk all the time now, another thing that makes this place feel so comfortable and accessible to me.
But finally, on a Thursday night right before boarding a 10-hour bus ride to the south of Chile for a trekking/camping weekend, it hit me a little.
I was standing in the terminal; a friend who is very self-aware had just had his phone stolen on the metro, another friend was running late, and suddenly it felt like the crowds of people were closing in on us. I haven’t felt that way on the packed metros on the way to school or the airport for weekend trips, so it caught me off guard that I was getting overwhelmed by something so familiar to me.
It took me a while into the bus ride, talking to the friend in the seat next to me (and my mom over text), to realize that this moment made everything come full circle. It was bound to happen at some point, even for a brief period.
My feelings at that time meant that I was pushing my boundaries and doing things that would test me more and that’s the whole point. Without nervousness or uncertainty, are we really getting anything new out of our experiences?
It occurred to me that I hadn’t done any longer hikes like I was about to since I hurt my knee over the summer, and I was just getting over being sick so of course I wasn’t at 100% confidence and that was okay. I was truly doing the things I needed to push my limits and, more than that, I was excited about them.
So, we woke up and arrived in the small town of Pucón at sunrise and explored until our bus to the national park arrived to take us on our real adventure.
We hiked about 20 kilometres (13 miles) to a pair of stunningly blue, crystal clear lakes that day and followed the hike at a makeshift campsite we were offered for cheap as we all talked about our experiences here. The stars that night showed us new constellations only found in the Southern Hemisphere and we were so far out in nature that it felt like we could see a new layer of softer stars blanketing the sky in a way I didn’t know was possible.
The next day some of my friends hiked, but a lot of us stayed back and spent the day on the dock at the end of the most serene lake I have ever been in. We swam and took the whole day to talk and journal and read. We met a new friend, on his own sort of odyssey across South America, and we journaled some more. It was the perfect chance to reflect on all we have seen and done here, without the pressing knowledge of homework or responsibility weighing over us.
On Sunday, we headed back into town where we ate the best food any of us have had in Chile before spending hours in our windbreakers on a black sand beach resulting from the huge volcano that was overlooking us. That place felt unreal, but more than that it felt like somewhere we could stay forever. From the artisan markets and children running on the beach to the incredible food and national parks surrounding us, it was one of the most tangible parts of our experience so far.
Sometimes all we need is a little break, even when getting to that break is the thing that makes us need it the most. Santiago is home for now, and more incredible than I could have hoped for, but spending a few days reconnecting with the incredible nature of this country and with each other was something I think we were all due for.
Those feelings that we don’t want to face will always come up at one point or another, even in the best of times, but remembering to take in these moments full of life and joy is a good way to stay present and not let them get the best of us.
48 days in Chile and only a few hours of feeling less than grateful to be here is pretty good I’d say. So, here’s to striving for more good days and happy moments and life-changing experiences.