La Montaña Rusa—The Roller Coaster

Thea Lance
February 27, 2019

Yesterday, in the orientation class “Spanish and Culture in Chile,” our Professor Claudia walked up to the board and drew a curvy line. She then proceeded to draw somewhere around twelve stick figures in various states of ecstasy and distress.

“What is this?” she asked, echoing our obvious confusion. She wrote her answer, la montaña rusa (the roller coaster), on the board above the image. “Being here,” she informed us, “is like riding the montaña rusa. Here at the top is when you first found out you were going to Chile, you got accepted by IES Abroad…here at the bottom is the night before, when you questioned the whole trip… here at the top again, is when you arrived in the airport and connected to the WiFi, posted an Instagram story…then here at the bottom, when you met your host mom and she asked you a million questions and you were like, will I ever understand this lady? and you met Claudia at IES Abroad, who only allowed you to speak in Spanish.” She paused with a knowing smile.

As I glanced around me, I saw laughter and recognition, with some emphatic nods at certain highs and lows. All I could think, though, was that I couldn’t relate in the slightest. Since I have arrived, Santiago has evoked many emotions—joy, awe, excitement, curiosity—but all of them positive.

My time here began when I stepped off the airplane to breathtaking views of the Cordillera, made my way through the long lines in customs, and got into a van with four other students. As we left the airport and highway behind us, we entered a tunnel and came up right into the center of the city, between a fountain and the Mercado Central. I watched wide-eyed as people bustled around us, kids holding hands with moms, professionals clutching briefcases, and bikers speeding alongside traffic in the intermediate lanes designed for them. Men holding cartons wove on foot through the stopped traffic, offering ice cream and Coca Cola through our open windows. We drove through the city for more than half an hour (I would later learn, though, that the drive was only a small fraction of Santiago, a sprawling city of over 6.5 million people). We passed through some neighborhoods with skyscrapers and others with stucco one-story houses, all of them bursting with trees and flowers. With the wind blowing warmly through the van windows and our driver chatting away with the Chilean student who had greeted us at the airport, I felt immediately at home.

I was dropped off to Katty, a warm and vivacious jazz-folk singer who calls me mi niña. She showed me to my room—pequeño pero con mucho cariño (small but with much affection)—and I ate lunch with her and her husband Mauricio, an energetic and thoughtful man who I have since had hours-long conversations with about everything from Chilean music and politics to the pharmaceutical industry. That evening, I sat on the balcony and watched the sun set over Cerro Manquehue, with the sounds of Katty practicing for a jazz concert drifting out toward me. Needless to say, I was on top of the montaña rusa.

In this first week, I have only remained there. I’ve learned to navigate my sunny walk to the metro and the sometimes-cramped but clean and efficient ride to campus, laid in the grass at the Parque Araucano with American and Chilean students, watched sea lions lounging near Valparaíso from the deck of a boat, and sat outside in Plaza Ñuñoa, taking advantage of Happy Hour that lasts until 1 a.m. The language, rather than a frustration, has been an adventure, and I love how my American friends and I have begun to slide easily from one into the other, starting some conversations in English and others in Spanish, texting the group with phrases in some mixture of the two.

The highlight for me so far was last Sunday, when a group of us took the day to hike in Aguas de Ramón, a national park just outside of the city. We joined families and couples making their way up the steep trails spotted with cacti, and eventually reached a point where all of Santiago was visible. We tried to find our buildings among the many before continuing on into the valley, where the landscape morphed into a lush forest with a waterfall cutting through the center. Just off the path, cows lounged in the shade. Behind us, Santiago lay nestled between cordilleras and ahead the Andes loomed. How is it possible, we wondered, that such dry and dusty mountains will soon be covered in snow? Our hike down was rewarded with fresh lemonade, and then a quick Uber ride back to the metro. Incredibly, a few stops later I was right downtown, meeting a high school friend for empanadas and a stroll in Parque Forestal before returning for dinner with my host family.

Claudia once joked, as to why Americans don’t know of many Chileans, that Chileans have a huge problem—they never want to leave Chile! I’m sure that in my time here I will have moments at the bottom of the montaña rusa, but for now I’m enjoying the view from on top—I can see why Chileans would never want to leave.

Thea Lance

<p class="MsoBodyText" style="margin-top:.4pt; margin-right:20.75pt; margin-bottom:.0001pt; margin-left:5.5pt"><span style="line-height:103%">I'm a lover of adventure, whether that's climbing mountains or exploring a new city. This has taken me from my hometown in North Carolina to the arctic circle and beyond, and most recently to Chile! I'm majoring in Biology on a pre-medical track, and I am thrilled to be learning medical Spanish in Santiago this semester.</span></p>

2019 Spring
Home University:
Williams College
Chapel Hill, NC
Biological Sciences
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