Natalia Avalos, ILR BS '07
Life in Viña del Mar, Chile
Summer 2006 was by far the best summer of my life. On June 3rd I arrived in Chile and the whirlwind of cultural faux pas, incredible sunsets and amazing friendships began. I lived in an apartment with two other American students; we were all extremely different, but got along well, formed a little family and tackled together the little problems that arise while living in a foreign country. For example, I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to turn on the gas to heat our water, but after a few very cold showers, my housemates and I put our heads together and successfully interpreted the vague instructions on our water heater. No more cold showers for us.
Public transportation was also a bit of a challenge; most Chileans do not have cars, but rather ride in small buses called Micros, which have set routes and drivers that should look into working for NASCAR. I think that in order to get a job as a Micro driver, these guys had to careen across four lanes of traffic at high speeds, narrowly missing pedestrians and traffic signals. I loved Micro rides; I always felt as if I was living on the edge when I got on one, and thankful that I was alive and safe when I got off. I did have one harrowing experience very early on in which my shoe got stuck in the door of a Micro and disappeared under the stairs. I thought I would have to show up on my second day of work in one heel and explain to my boss and coworkers what had happened. Luckily, a man next to me saw my horrified expression and asked the bus driver to pull over. We felt around the stairs as 50 Chileans on their way to work and school stared at me, and discovered my shoe wedged in a small crevice. I hopped back on the bus, extremely embarrassed, and made it to work with both shoes and a good story.
I worked in an accounting firm called Moses Rojas, in Valparaiso, Chile. It was about a five minute bus ride from my home in Vina del Mar, and I commuted every morning as the sun rose over the ocean. I made friends with a man who sold muffins and coffee across the street from my building, and we would chat about the weather or good restaurants as I ate my breakfast. I also made a few close friends at the firm; Naty was an 18-year-old boy crazy intern, who still sends me emails updating me on her love life, complete with pictures of her many admirers. Andres was my closest co-worker, who answered my many questions about Chilean life and introduced me to many Latin American artists and musicians.
The actual work I did varied from week to week; sometimes I helped Margarita update the human resource records for employees at the firm, sometimes I shadowed Naty as we visited different insurance companies around Valparaiso, and sometimes I actually reconciled accounts in Spanish, which I have to say is a major accomplishment for me. I have taken my share of Spanish classes, and felt pretty prepared to live abroad, but there is nothing like receiving instructions at work from a fast speaking native speaker. The Chilean accent is very difficult to understand, and my first few days my coworkers repeated themselves patiently and frequently. By the end of my two months I felt a lot more comfortable with the language, and am proud to say that I seldom needed instructions repeated.
Chile is a beautiful country, and while my workdays were incredibly valuable to me, my weekend traveling made the trip complete. I was able to horseback ride in the mountains of Pisco Elqui, a small country town with only two restaurants and one hostel, but countless friendly people. I went skiing in the Andes Mountains and was actually interviewed by TVN, the Chilean equivalent of our CBS, while I was in line for the ski lift. I traveled to Santiago, a two hour bus ride away, and saw many sights, including La Moneda, where the President lives, and a Daddy Yankee concert, which heightened my love of Latin music. I experienced the confusion of buying bread at the supermarket and the excitement of meeting new Chilean friends at clubs. I did a lot of adapting to Chilean culture, and taught the people I met a little bit about American culture. We talked about MTV and telenovelas, as well as s’mores and empanadas.
My summer in Chile taught me about the world outside the Cornell campus, across the border, and of a different language. I learned that Chile is surprisingly quite similar to America in certain ways, and refreshingly different in others. The people I met while in South America taught me about their way of living and working, and while I am lucky to have received some of their knowledge, my experience taught me that I have much more to learn about the world around me.
- Natalia Avalos, ILR BS '07