Iquique

Last weekend I traveled with my study abroad program (all 30 of us!) up to the northern region of Chile.  We stayed in the port city of Iquique and visited the surrounding desert area.  Here’s a quick run down of the weekend…

Thursday: We flew up to Iquique. It only took about 2 hrs on plane.  I think it would have been about 20+ hours of driving!  Sidenote: I really like LAN airlines.  They give you a BOX snacks…even on short flights!

Friday: We spent the day in Iquique (see pictures below).  Highlights of the day included a boat ride in the bay (and we saw sea lions!) and volunteering at a school.  We watched some of the school kids perform traditional dances for us and we also learned some of the dances from them!

Saturday: We drove up into the desert (near the Atacama, the world’s driest desert).  We visited two abandoned nitrate mining towns and the “geoglifos pintados.”  These drawings in the earth of the cliffs were created sometime between 500-1500 AD.  I can’t even begin to describe how vast and dry the desert was and it was even hard to capture it with a camera.  I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.  The soil has been compared to that of Mars, and apparently some outer-space movies have even been filmed in this desert!  In the afternoon we went to the oasis town of Pica for lunch and to go swimming in the hot springs there.  It felt so good after a long day in the desert.  On our way back down to Iquique we stopped in the town of La Tirana to visit the church where the largest religious festival (celebrating the Virgen del Carmen) in Chile is held each July.  We were lucky enough to get to see a smaller festival happening and got to listen to traditional music and watch some dancing in the plaza outside the church!

Sunday: our last day in Iquique.  We had free time in the morning, so I walked around the town with some of my friends and we went down to the ocean.  We ate lunch at the Casino Español (a restaurant, not somewhere to gamble!) and flew back to Santiago in the evening.

expectations

When I signed up to come to Chile I was under the impression that I would be directly enrolling in 1 or more universities in Santiago.  I would get to choose, from 3 prestigious Chilean universities, where I wanted to take classes and what classes I wanted to take.  I would be taught be Chilean professors and have class with REAL LIVE CHILEAN STUDENTS!  How cool!  Sounds almost too good to be true!  Exactly.

It’s not that my study abroad program reneged on their promises, it just so happened that there are lot of things in life you can’t control.  For example, politically active Chilean university students.  I am currently living in a country that is a relatively new democracy (21 years out of a dictatorship) and still working out the kinks.  The people here are passionate about their country, especially politics, and enjoy a good protest.  The quality of the public education system has been under criticism for many years, but the movement has recently gained a lot of strength.  From what I understand, you only send your kids to public school if you can’t afford  private school (both my host siblings go to really good private schools).  And the quality of the education you receive through high school then determines you eligibility to go to college, etc, etc.  It’s a really complicated, but basically, a lot of students (high school and college) have entirely stopped attending classes and now spend their time organizing and participating in protests around the city.

They’ve come up with some pretty creative ones.

Dancing.

students practicing a dance...I took this photo!

A kiss- In.

photo credit: ny times

Running laps around the Presidential Palace, 1800 in total, due for completion this Saturday.

photo credit: google images

As exciting as this all is, it has also greatly complicated my ability to be a student here.  All 3 of the universities in which I can directly enroll have had trouble with strikes.  The University of Chile is on strike indefinitely.  At La Católica, where I’m enrolled, the students in each academic department are voting on a week by week basis to continue the strike.  Luckily, my professors have (more or less) been continuing to teach because there are enough foreigners who have continued to come to class.

Since I’ve arrived, there has been a lot of protesting going on.  Luckily, I’m living in the sleepy, safe suburbs of Las Condes, about 4o minutes (commute on metro) from downtown, so my daily life hasn’t been affected by tear gas or the “cacerolazos” (banging on pots and pans, most nights around 9pm). Today and tomorrow are national strike days, sponsored by a workers union (it actually doesn’t have much to do with the education protests, but of course, the students are always on board for more protests).  People are being encouraged to boycott public transit, not go to school, not buy anything, etc.  Class was canceled today, so I avoided public transit (there were some doubts about whether it would be functioning as normal) and went shopping at the mall near my house and bought a new sweater.  There were some students parading around the metro station, chanting and carrying banners, but otherwise, life continued as normal.

I’m used to having snow days.

It snowed here last week! A rare occurance! But alas, we still had school...

This is what my metro stop looks like with snow!

But not yet used to strike days.

A typical sight these days in Santiago. Students have put desks and chairs in the entrances to universities so that it is physically impossible to enter.

weekend travels

Last weekend I traveled with 4 other girls from my program to the towns of La Serena and Vicuña.  It was wonderful to get away from the busy, smoggy city for a few nights, breathe some fresh air, and explore northern Chile!

Katie, Brita, Me, Nona, Caryn

 

On Friday afternoon we hopped on a bus and rode 7 hours north to the coastal town of La Serena.

I guess it’s a popular resort town in the summer, but it’s very pleasant and tourist-free during the winter months!  We stayed at a comfortable hostel (my very first!) and enjoyed a delicious breakfast there in the morning.

On Saturday, we wandered through the city and visited a few of the beautiful old churches around the plaza.

We went to a Japanese garden (a bit ironic to be in Chile and visit a Japanese garden, but it was lovely!) and then walked down to the beach to the Pacific Ocean.

We stopped for lunch at a hole-in-the wall “restaurant,” if you can even call it that… but we knew we’d found a local treasure when we walked in and saw some of the people who worked at the hostel eating there too!  In Chile, lunch is typically the largest meal of the day and restaurants serve a plentiful- and cheap ($4-5USD)- set lunch.  Saturday’s lunch special was veggie soup, bread, rice, and fish!  Yum!

We walked back through town, visited the market, bought dried papayas (a regional specialty) and then found our bus to our next destination: Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley about an hour inland from La Serena.  Vicuña was much smaller and more rural, and we had another lovely hostel stay here.

On Sunday morning we visited Gabriela Mistral’s birth place and museum (she is one of Chile’s most beloved poets). In the afternoon we took a tour of the Capel pisco factory, samples included!  Pisco is grape brandy, used to make “pisco sours,” one of the most popular Chilean drinks.  And funny sidenote,  a stray dog (we named her Felicity) followed us all the way from our hostel in Vicuña to the Pisco factory, and then it continued to follow us on the whole tour.  We pretended like we weren’t the ones that brought the dog…

Monday morning was a national holiday, so we got to enjoy a long weekend.  We took a hike up a nearby hill for a view of the valley…and took lots of pictures of the vista along the way!

We spent the afternoon and evening traveling via bus back to Santiago.  It was a wonderful weekend and I’m so excited to have made great friends to travel with.  Life in Santiago has been fairly eventful as well.  In the past week there has been SNOW, more student protests, and my host brother’s first communion!  More to come soon.  Sending my love from the Southern Hemisphere!