Living La Vida Local

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Living la vida local

August 2014:
I settled into my seat thinking how many people must be experiencing such vastly different emotions despite them being in the same situation, at least for the present moment. The excitement/disappointment of beginning/ending a trip, meeting/leaving friends and family, drawing a physical line in a lifetime timeline. Airports and planes are strange places.

That is an excerpt from a blog-diary entry that I wrote on the 19th August 2014 as the familiar landscapes of the British Isles dropped away beneath me. I was on my way to Santiago, the capital of Chile, the country that was to become my home for at least the next 10 months. It wasn’t the first time I’d lived abroad, nor my first visit to South America, but it was the first time that I didn’t have something concrete to return to, no finite length of stay.

Santiago skyline © Pablo Barros

Home

I had a job lined up as an English teaching assistant in a technical college in Concepcion, one of the second largest cities, which I was due to start in just over 2 weeks. This time I’d left enough time to see a few sights and find somewhere to live before starting. My previous dalliances with working abroad had taught me that it’s well worth leaving a buffer zone between arriving and starting any kind of work, as there will more than likely be some sort of paperwork to sort out on arrival, as well as sorting out accommodation. The best way to find a place will vary from place to place but asking the locals is a good first port of call. One hugely undervalued way of doing this is through Couchsurfing – many travellers are aware of its potential for hosting (and this is a great option for when you first arrive in a new place), but not all make use of the wealth of local knowledge that it is possible to tap into. They might then advise using the local equivalent of SpareRoom or Gumtree.

This time, I had my first week’s accommodation provided through work, after which I moved into the place where the previous English teaching assistant had also lived – a 10 bed student flat in the centre of town with a 50:50 mix of Chileans to foreigners. The space itself wasn’t much, but this was easily made up for by the relaxed and friendly atmosphere created by the inhabitants, and the almost-familiarity of European culture brought by Belgian, German and French students. My advice would be to choose housemates over house every time. It’s the people that surround you that will make the biggest difference to your experience.

Work

Starting a new job is never the most comfortable of experiences, and will always feel slightly overwhelming. This is exaggerated further when either you, or the person showing you the ropes, are having to communicate in their second or third language, but in my experience, most employers want to make you feel at home, particularly when you’re as “exotic” as an Englishwoman in South America. I very quickly became a minor celebrity at the school. It seems to me from my experience and reports from other travellers that this is to be expected most places outside of Europe, excluding perhaps in capital cities or those with a heavy tourist trade. Despite our gap year travel tendencies, it seems fairly rare for the English to settle abroad, meaning that most people will automatically assume you to be a student.

© Pama

I had already taught English in a number of scenarios to different age groups and with varying levels of responsibility when I took on this position. By and large it seemed that my role in this case was simply to provide a bridge between the students and the teacher, engage the students with the English language and demonstrate its utility by refusing to communicate with them through any other means. Language teaching is always a challenge until you win over the students and convince them that you’re worth talking to – if you can manage to pique their interest in you as a person then the rest is easy.

Whilst I was ostensibly in Chile as an English teacher, my priority was certainly not my job. Far from it. Moreover, I was only working 20 hours per week and had arranged to have Mondays free. So, with all this free time, I set about creating a life…

Friends

One of the nicest things about moving somewhere completely new, is that it gives you the opportunity to completely start afresh and prioritise your values and interests above and beyond anything else. We tend to accumulate friends and responsibilities when we’ve been in one place for a while, and we tend to retain these even as our ideals shift and we develop as people. For me 2013/14 was the year that I became interested in sports, namely climbing and playing around in the park swapping handstand tips and trying out other fun acrobatics. So it seemed only natural to continue  developing these interests when I moved away. I found Facebook to be by far the most useful platform for discovering groups and meeting people in Chile – most organisations and many small businesses don’t seem to bother with the expense and effort of creating a separate webpage. I quickly found a local climbing gym and signed up to capoeira classes and began to make friends. One of my housemates later commented that my friends were all so active – this was true, but mainly because I’d met them all through getting involved with sports or activity groups!

Hitchhiking

Sticking your thumb out and jumping into a stranger’s car used to be a pretty standard way of getting around, back before everyone and their cat had a car, and in less developed countries, it often still is. That said, no one is immune to the risks of this form of transport. I had already hitched through parts of Europe when I agreed to my first Chilean hitchhike, and was accompanied by a local guy and his German girlfriend, both of whom had a good knowledge of both hitching etiquette and the routes we were to travel. This gave me the confidence to begin. Over the course of the year, I adopted this form of transport as a common way of getting around and by the end of the year, I even became confident enough to take to the road alone. Chile is particularly well set up for hitching as there is just one main road that runs the length of the country, furthermore there is a well-established hitching culture, particularly in the countryside. For me it was a fantastic way of discovering the country and its people, leading to many a spontaneous adventure and magical encounters.

Hitching a ride © Hallvar Hauge Johnsen

However, I would not recommend hitchhiking if you do not feel comfortable for any reason. It can be exhausting as an encounter and you have to be prepared to come into contact with people that you may not be accustomed to. People will very much respond to the energy that you bring to the encounter, and I find that if you have doubts or mistrust towards the people you meet, it can provoke similar emotions in them. That said, unfortunately there are people (although less than one might think) who might take advantage of a lone traveller and it’s important to stay on your toes and not be too trusting. I definitely would not recommend hitching without first acquiring a good level of local language.

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