Post-travel Blues

After our travels, why do we get so lonely upon returning home?

This was a question that lingered in my mind the first few days of being back home in Chicago. I feel a lot better now, almost a week after I returned home from my trip. I thought I was the only one who left this way, but I just talked to my best friend and she told me she feels the same way after every trip she has. I was reading a few travel blogs and I realize many have written about the loneliness they feel when they return home from traveling, too. I’m writing about what that loneliness felt like for me, since I know it’s different for each individual.

I’m usually a happy person. I’m one of those people who smile a lot, giggle a lot, and looks at the positive side of life. Many think it’s a child-like quality, but for the most part, I think its just my personality.

So I was puzzled about how I felt after my trip to South America. It felt like something was missing. It’s not exactly depression, although some people may feel it more strongly than I did that they name that feeling depression. I just felt the blues. It feels like a loss. I think it’s because I miss the place I had just traveled to, the people I met, and just being on the road.

Yet when I was on the road, there were times when I wished I could have the comforts of home, especially when things got uncomfortable (ie. no a/c, humidity, small spaces, etc).

What was it then that was causing my loneliness? My attempt at an answer is this: when I’m traveling, I feel at home. I can relax, put my hair down, let the wind play with my dress. I’m uninhibited for there are no rules to follow about how to be. In the States, in the city, at work, and at any number of situations, we are expected to behave a certain way. To stand up straight, head high and never looking down, a deadpan expression on our faces to control our emotions, a stern voice reprimanding our direct reports, a power stance in front of a management meeting, etc. There are unwritten rules that exist, which we follow since we are only malleable humans capable of being influenced by situations around us, without us realizing it.

But when I travel, all bets are off. Me and my travel companions are just ourselves. We were t-shirts, shorts, plain sneakers. We don’t compare brands of clothing or jewelry worn.  We don’t discuss salary or position or hobbies that show our status. We are just people traveling together. We sweat, hurt, cry the same way. We eat and drink the same things. No one looks at each other as an outsider, nor even examines race, because we are all foreigners of the place we travel to. No one belongs there, and for these simple reasons, we uncover our commonalities.

My life in Chicago is filled with abundance and blessings, and I am grateful for it. But I miss the freedom that traveling brings. I miss the openness people have toward others. I think I was able to open up during that trip, to care less about the daily worries I have back home. I felt a sense of great opportunity and possibility not only in terms of the friendships I can forge, but also with the life I can create for myself. Sitting on a plane for 12 hours high up in the clothes made me dream. It drew courage out of me as I let myself be inspired by my ambitions,  no matter how outrageous they are. Anything was possible in the air, among those clothes, looking over the sun shining down the long Amazon river amid the lush, treacherous jungle.

The Amazon river from above looks like a slender snake crawling through a dark green, fertile land. I had a window seat on the plane and it was a very sunny day, and I was very tired, falling into quick pockets of sleep. The scene from below captured my attention, and I pulled the window shade to its fullest, even if the sun was shining so brightly. There, I saw the Amazon river. As the plane cruised mile after mile in the air, each segment of the river looked like a xylophone being playfully hit by the sun. The sun would shine on a part of the river, then it would appear again in another section, then again in a farther area of the river, When the sun shone on the water, it was golden, bright, full of life. I felt a manifestation of the universe from that scene, a greeting from God. It was very calming. I prayed to ask if it was a message, a sign I should heed that would answer many of my questions and wishes. But I was content just witnessing such beauty, in a moment I was not expecting. I took it all in and make sure to mark it in my memory. It’s one of the sights I’ll never forget, and that I will always be thankful for witnessing.

These are the kind of situations I missed when I returned home. I was open to the world, and I let the universe embrace me back. We were riding on the bus one day and I could see endless views of the mountain range outside the window, the winding road making us feel uncomfortable, the loud singing of our busmates in a language we didn’t fully understand was grating in our ears… and I was resisting all of it, I was getting annoyed, but suddenly, I told myself to look within and just let it take over me. And that’s what I did – I felt  the place, culture, language more deeply. I let it awaken me, and it did. In those simple yet long, lazy but sensory bus rides, the universe charged at me.

I think this is what I miss the most: the changes in us, and the changes we see in those we travel with. Maybe I felt that it ended when I left South America and returned to Chicago. But this shouldn’t be so. I can practice being open even when I’m not traveling. To have the traveler’s mindset even when we’re home is a skill, and an enjoyable one, since we see more beauty in things, we notice our environments more, and we’re more compassionate. It’s not always easy to have this mindset back home, when our guard is always up. Our defenses are up back home because there is something we are keeping safe, or we think there is something external that has the power to destroy us. The consequence of this is, we close off. We shut down. We want to hold onto something dear and we don’t want others in. There are two ways to solve this: 1) to tame our fears that something will be taken away from us, 2) to be kind to others so they won’t start feeling we are out to destroy something they hold sacred.

From one plane to another

I arrived at Chicago-O’Hare airport just a few minutes past midnight on a Friday, about 5 hours before I have to be at the same airport again, on the opposite side (departures) to board a flight to Santiago, Chile. There was a long queue at the airport for taxis, but after about an hour of waiting, my colleagues and I were able to find cabs to take us home. I got home and exchanged hellos with my doorman who I haven’t seen for about a week, and who wished me a kind, “welcome home” greeting, only for me to tell him that I’m boarding another flight for a longer trip in a few hours. As soon as I reached my apartment, I unpacked my San Francisco luggage and transferred the necessary items to my South America luggage. A quick weather check online encouraged me to switch half of what I packed (clothes for cool weather as it is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere) to something more fitting of summertime. Thank God I did.

Right after I packed, I was debating whether or not I should sleep. If I slept I had a feeling I will miss my flight entirely, so I decided against sleeping at home and instead prepare to go to the airport. At least then, I can take a nap at the gate and there would be no way I would miss my flight since I’m already there.

Sure enough, I slept at the gate for around 2 hours before we had to board. The flight was not full, it was mostly businessmen or families who were onboard. I slept for a bit in my seat before takeoff, but was wide awake as we took off until we landed in Panama. I entertained myself by catching up on top 40 hits while reading a bilingual magazine.

I didn’t sleep because I was too excited to contain myself for the next 6 hours to Panama, and I was also slowly trying to take in the experience of being on vacation since I was still on “work mode” from the past  24 hours before the flight.

The airplane staff only spoke Spanish to the passengers, even when clearly everyone spoke English when they translated safety instructions and announcements. It was a good introduction to what I would face in South America though, as it offered me a chance to warm up my Spanish knowledge.

I landed in Santiago, Chile just past midnight on Saturday, which was somewhat a deja vu of my trip from San Francisco, but I was in a different country so nothing felt all that familiar. The driver that supposed to pick me up from the airport wasn’t on time, and the taxicab drivers in the waiting area were aggressively soliciting their cabrides in order to get passengers. One of them even followed me around and offered his phone to call the driver whom I was waiting for. I declined politely, and tried to dodge him the entire time. I still couldn’t find my driver, and at this point, I was trying to calm myself and avoid any kind of panicking. I was on the edge of bursting into a fit of anger or tears: I was tired, depleted, in a foreign place hearing words spoken in a language I thought I understood but sounded too confusing, without a cellphone reception even after switching on my cellular data, at midnight on a weekend. I paced around. I thought about a plan B. I told myself that worst case scenario would be to wait in the corner in the next 7 hours until my sister lands in Chile. This wouldn’t necessarily be the worst case scenario since I would be with my sister then, but at this point in time, I just wanted to find a comfortable place to sleep. After a few more minutes of waiting and reminding myself that it may be customary not to be on time in this place, I finally found a guy waving a card that had my name on it. Great! Off we headed to my hotel in Santiago.

The driver spoke no English, and I was very enthusiastic to use my Spanish, so we were able to communicate a bit, albeit slow and broken. I told him what I usually tell a new Spanish-speaking person I meet – the history of how I learned the language, what I’m doing at the place, what I do for a living, etc. The driver talked about general facts about Chile, referring to the weather, the roads, the location of various cities. I understood most of it but there were times when I had no idea what he was trying to express, especially when he tells me that he lives in a place some 6 hours away from Santiago, but that he works in Santiago everyday. I knew there was something wrong with what I just heard, and upon clarification, he mentioned that the “home” he was referring to was their “casa familial” aka family house outside the city.

We drove through the main avenue, which they call “Alameda”, and passed by the congressional house and other government offices, as well as a museum building. As it was still in the wee hours of the morning, nothing was open, but the tour guide suggested I visit all these places we passed by. When we got to the hotel, I didn’t know what to expect. I found it small and rundown, and it felt like we were staying in a hostel. I was too tired to be picky at that point, so I went to bed to nap before Ate Kate arrived.

South American Trip Reflections

Two days ago I came back from my trip to Chile and Argentina, and what a marvelous trip it was. There are so many things to tell about the trip, from the nondescript moments walking through each town we visited, to memorable dinners, to trip highlights like cycling through the beautiful wineries of Mendoza. On certain days, I wrote bullet points down in my paper journal, and on a few occasions, I wrote page-long entries. I’ll write about all of these experiences in succeeding posts.

How do I begin to describe the experience of setting foot in a land that you’ve only read about, heard about, and dreamt of? My first real acknowledgement of Argentina as a dream destination came to me in college while studying literature. Part of the curriculum was to take up world literature, and I took plenty of classes in Latin American literature and culture. I was enamored by the works of Jorge Borges, Rosario Ferre, Gabriela Garcia Marquez, among others. I learned about the cultural and political histories of Argentina and Chile, two South American countries that always seem to be jointly discussed in class. When the time came to plan a study abroad trip, I set my sights on Argentina, driven by the desire to decipher the labyrinthine works of Borges while studying in the country in which it was written. I always find it significant to experience art and literature organically, in the place or form in which it was birthed. This explains why I want to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish — another lifelong goal of mine — it was not enough to read it in English, however complex this literary masterpiece is. The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote this book in Spanish, and perhaps intended for it to be read in Spanish. As far as I can remember, my deep interest in learning Spanish came out of the desire to read this book in Spanish, a work with which I was acquainted in high school, that then wrought further interest in literary works in Spanish and inspired travel to South America. Funny how great inspiration can come out of a small seed of inclination toward an object, which then blossoms into a force that propels one to another side of the world. This is the power that literature, arts and culture have on me.

The trip became much more than fulfilling my goal of visiting Latin America. It was also a trip with my sister for her birthday, a celebration of blessings, a second post-graduate school trip. I expected to have fun, to take great pictures, to eat Argentine beef and drink Malbec. All of these happened. I also gained so much more: a time for myself, a space to ruminate what I’d like to accomplish in this life, a deeper love for South America, identification with kindred spirits of fellow travelers, and a more secure sense of my place in the world that I realize cannot be shaken no matter where it is in the world I go.

I miss all the people I traveled with on this trip, dearly. I didn’t realize how much I would long for the camaraderie we’ve established. I’m still trying to pinpoint this feeling, to trace this melancholy that is not exactly loneliness – for a majority of my friends and family are in the States – but a string of yearning. Is it possible to miss a 12-day experience with a group of 9 strangers? I didn’t think so, but I realize now it is possible. Perhaps it is the perfection of the situation that I miss: an alignment of strangers from all over the world in a great place enjoying some great food and wine, keeping energy and positivity high at all times, doses of care to go around, and shared moments. We shared most of our time together, and sleep was at a deficit for all of us on this trip, so that our waking moments were plenty and every single second of those were spent side by side. Even we spent lunch time, dinner time, bus time, flying time, walking time, hiking time, biking time and picture time with these people, I still don’t know them all that well. We had plenty of conversations, and day by day as our experiences piled up, we were able to recognize more things in common with one another. At the end of the trip, these people vacillate between being semi-strangers and acquaintances at best, but nonetheless there was something special and meaningful we exchanged, which I will treasure.

There were also many other beautiful things I experienced on this trip: the beauty of nature probably tops the list. South America is not only a culturally rich region, it is also geographically diverse. We explored the cool, misty hills of Aguas de San Ramon near Santiago, witnessing the snow-capped mountains in the Andes in the distance. From there, we passed through lush groves, farms, and arid land on our way to Mendoza. In our trip to Tucuman, Salta, and El Cafayate, we saw lush greens, winding roads, desert-like lands, rock formations, the heat and humidity that comes from inlands and valleys. Then, Buenos Aires gave us a spring climate with a gentle breeze and high sun that kept the city warm and pleasant by the hour. There were so many things I saw with my eyes during our bus rides, that took my breath away. I was mostly quiet and introspective during the time we were on the road, from a combination of sleep deprivation and an inner gesture of humility for all the things that I’ve been given to see. These sights brought me to my knees, figuratively. I was overwhelmed by such natural beauty, that it made me believe all the more in a God. While looking at the beautiful, clay-colored rocks that had these complex designs as if someone had carved a pattern into them, I told myself that these types of things couldn’t just happen. There must be some intelligent design behind it all. Sure, the natural surroundings have physical properties that came out of natural occurrences billions of years ago, but still, there is this quiet order that cannot be ignored. Fractals come to mind. I am also reminded me of the Louise Erdich quote:

There is no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it appears unrepetitive up close.

As I was enjoying the scenery, I can’t help but feel such an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all the things I’ve been given in this life. The opportunity to travel is perhaps, the biggest blessing I have, mainly because it means a lot to me, so much so that I give it high priority and I’m planning my life around traveling and exposing myself to cultural activities and sights, to capture it all in stories that I can share with others. I think this is my highest calling. I always come back to this thought when I’m thinking about more serious things about what to do with my life. During these moments of reflection, part of me also know that I can’t just stop at gratitude. While it is something very real and I allow this feeling to wash over me, I know that it can’t stay with me. I need to transform gratitude into something productive. Gratitude is great, and many people should practice it more, but it can’t remain just that, I think. It needs to be shared. It needs to perhaps be transformed into inspiration that can fuel action. It can birth motivation in creating something valuable in this world. Gratitude, in itself, once expressed, becomes selfish. It needs to be let out, to be diffused into the world so gratitude can meet others and touch them too.

These were the questions that kept coming to me throughout the trip: what can I do in my life to be in service of others, to make the world a better place? How can I transform gratitude that it may create something of value, something that can improve lives, even in a small way? I’m still pondering the answers, but also, a part of me wants to instill some discipline into all this thinking. I need to have more bias toward doing in this case. Maybe I can start by doing something that I know how to do and love: write. This will be a start, a way to take a stab at an answer. Then I will usher it into the form that it takes – it could even transform into something as big as creating an organization.

A short note to myself about writing: this will be painful. Writing is one of the things I love most in the world, and it hurts to stray away from it. But I’ve also learned that I cannot just settle on wanting to write all the time. I need to get a lucrative position to fund writing, reading, traveling, and all the other things I want in this life. So, as a defense mechanism if you will, I’ve trained myself to tame the visceral need to write. And I was quite successful in training it – I don’t get tempted anymore to give up everything in order to say, write a book. Graduate school helped me curb this as well; I focused so much on numbers and statistics that these became my new obsession. All I want to do now is run regression models and play with data at work. But I just recently graduated and these succeeding months are being spent on picking up pieces of my life that I’ve put on hold while focusing on graduate school. All of us go back to our passions at some point, don’t we? There’s a quote that sums this up:

If you want to know where your heart lies, look where your mind wanders.

So, I’ve been reading books and magazines again for leisure, and I’ve been writing bits and pieces here and there. I’m crawling towards my passion, brushing off the dust that life piled on it in these last few years, like an archaeologist would unravel something from the depths of a rubble.

Other things I learned while traveling included the following:

– Patience: Being in a different country is a test of patience. The conveniences we’re used to at home may not be present in the place we travel, and people have different customs and approach to living that may be very different from how we lived at home. I learned not to impose my Americanness (the quality that makes us Americans think we can get whatever want, which in the States is a positive trait). I am reminded that I am not always right, that I don’t always have the right of way (literally, the road rules are kind of cryptic).

– Openness and humility: I learned how to put myself out there, to start conversations with strangers especially when I’m not sure how they’re like. I have no problems making friends in the States, but when placed in a different country, with people from other parts of the world, it can be intimidating. I learned how easy it is to make friends with people back home, even when at times it may feel nerve-wracking – it is still easier than making friends right away abroad (though I find it easy to make deeper connections with people abroad once the ice barrier is broken, than with average Americans back home…)

– Relax: I also learned to relax. During our walks, we kept reminding ourselves to stop and smell the flowers. There are times when we got antsy, impatient and anxious. Our group leader would always remind us to relax. To take a breath, to marvel at the world around us, to enjoy the moment that we have in South America. When we relax we’re more pleasant to be with, we are more approachable, we think better, and we’re more productive. I also realized how much I don’t relax when I’m not at home – like say, when I’m at work. We all play a role at work according to our positions, and we must fulfill it, but I also learned on this trip that we can be humans at the same time. We are probably better coworkers when we show our more human side – and in my experience at work, people relate much more to me when I tell them human stories during breakfast or happy hour, than if I just communicate with them purely about work.

– Carpe diem. In this trip, I am reminded that there is one life to live and we have to make the most of it. I saw this not only in my tour group that included people from their mid-twenties to almost 80s. I was able to take on the perspective of an 80-year-old Irishman from my conversations with him and the elderly wisdom he imparted on all of us. I was able to feed off the sense of adventure our three Canadian companions seemed never to run out of, from trekking Machu Picchu to our Chile/Argentina trip, to their next trip to Brazil. I was able to learn about another region from a Welshman. I was also reminded the uniqueness that we all have as individuals even if we’re from the same country, through the American sisters we met.

– Travel is an equalizer. All of us on the trip came from different ages and backgrounds, ethnically, places of origin, socioeconomic and politically. Yet, all of us on the trip viewed each other as equals. No one was better or worse than the other. No one was richer or poorer than the other. No one was too old or too young. When you treat people as equals, barriers are removed. People begin to open up, free of judgment. There are more things shared at the end because you start off at the same point.

– Don’t waste time and resources. One of the greatest things I learned during this trip is how people consume less resources abroad, mainly because it is scarce and expensive. We didn’t always have the best water pressure in our hotels. The waterworks system abroad is not as developed as in the States where you can throw toilet paper in the toilet. Many times, we encountered a lack of electric outlets and lighting fixtures in our rooms. These are the types of things we don’t think much of when we’re in a country like the States, and we end up taking for granted what we have. I learned that it is inexcusable to waste resources such as power, water, etc. even if they are easy and cheap to come by. Lastly, I saw how opportunity is not as easy to get abroad, and fate is a lucky draw. Those who are born in developing countries don’t have same opportunities, so I am inspired to make the most of my opportunities because I could. I’ve always known this, and I always tell myself in bad times that I shouldn’t be discouraged by the barriers that I think exist, for they are only in the mind, and other people have overcome greater barriers to become successful, so there should be no excuses for me, and I should always maximize my opportunities.

Santiago on a Monday morning, en route to Mendoza

We woke up early in the morning on Monday to catch a bus that will take us to Mendoza, Argentina. This involves crossing borders, so we had to be alert and ready with our passports and required documentation (ie. reciprocity fee). A shuttle took us from the hotel to the bus station. We met traffic along the way, starting from right outside our hotel.

I already wanted to be in Mendoza at this point. But it was a lesson in patience, a reminder that I’m on vacation and there’s no need to hurry to get to the destination. There will be no reviews based on timeliness upon getting there, no rewards for the most punctual person, no repercussions for arriving at a certain time. It was then that I realized everyone’s flexible in South America, that’s just part of the culture.

As I looked out the window into the mundane activities happening in the streets — people in suits shaking hands, women in their fashionable office clothes walking from block to block, men having a morning cigarette in a corner, kids in uniform walking with their parents to school — I realize what a privilege it was to witness this everyday life in Santiago, a city far away from Chicago, as the city was waking up by the minute, and the sun keeps getting brighter. I sat back and enjoyed the scene, identifying what events could be included in a book, what conversations could be captured, and thinking what it would take for me to potentially live in a city like this where I could blend in like a local and speaking in their native tongue.

Before we knew it, we arrived at the bus station. We boarded the bus and made our way to Argentina. The ride was pretty smooth and fast, and the seats were comfortable. I was lucky to be seating by the window, as the scenery was beautiful. Lush vegetation. Mountain ranges in the distance. Clear blue sky. Farmlands with grazing animals. Countryside houses. Driving past these all was quite inspiring. I felt such gratitude for all of these things, and pleased to enjoy beauty even in the most simple cases, even in a country that didn’t have as much luxuries and comforts as we have at home.

Since the border of between Chile and Argentina was in the Andes, our bus had to climb up through a mountain pass called Paso Internacional de Libertadores. We knew we were at the border when we saw Argentine flags. We had to get our passport stamped in a tunnel that looked like a huge garage or warehouse, where they had Chilean and Argentinian officers patrolling the area and issuing visa stamps. It was a nice break to stretch after the 4-hour long journey, and we prepared ourselves for two more hours of traveling time. It was a rather quick stop, but we didn’t leave until we got pictures of ourselves against the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes, smiling at our great fortune to be crossing a border in a mountain range, the longest mountain range in the world, no less.

We finally got to Mendoza, which proved to be rather warm, a big difference from the cooler Santiago weather during our first few days on the trip. I noticed in Mendoza the geography changed, the land is more dry, almost a desert. It reminds me so much of the weather in Southern California, and I felt in some way that I was at home. The thought of wineries around the area, the sights of mountains in the distance, the relaxed nature of the people… it resembled SoCal in so many ways.

Hiking Aguas de San Ramon

Aguas de San Ramon is a national park just outside of Santiago where local residents go for a hike or trek, with a group of friends of their families. This place was beautiful and well-maintained, with its waterfalls, hanging bridges, and rugged paths. It was a great way to experience an outdoor adventure with Chileans rather than tourists!

It was a chilly morning and initially I felt that I should’ve brought more layers of clothing. Felix, a local guide, met us at the starting point, and had us fill out our information on the registration form. Once we started the hike, I realized how long it’s been since my last hike (Yosemite, several years ago!). I definitely felt it was a bit strenuous than it should have been, especially when each step was a climb. We ran out of breath easily, but there were regular stops and check-ins, which helped us normalize our breathing. The views at every point we stopped were stunning! We enjoyed the city view of Santiago against the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes… it was breathtaking, literally and figuratively.

The paths during the climb were varied; some were wide, while others were very narrow and somewhat dizzying. It was a bit nerve-wracking to put one foot in front of the other, especially when the earth is rugged, and at least one side is a cliff, with minimal barrier between the path you’re stepping on and hundreds of feet below. That’s part of the trekking experience though!

I was slightly anxious the whole way up (and coming down) because I wasn’t wearing proper trekking shoes. I didn’t know it was actually required, since I was fine wearing just my sneakers in previous hikes. I opted to stay behind when the group decided to do the second round, the more strenuous portion of the trek. Our group broke in two smaller groups, with the more eager trekkers going on to complete the whole trek, while the rest of us stayed behind and enjoyed our lunch along the mini waterfalls and stream. We exchanged stories about our lives, our travel philosophies, and our favorite places in the world. After lunch, we resumed walking back, down to the starting point but taking another route back. We passed by more streams, more flora, stole glimpses of the Andes when the sun allowed, and talked more about the cities we’ve lived in around the world.

When we got back to the starting point, we stopped by a cafe to drink juice and play a card game, a customized version of Cards Against Humanity. I was fun and I won 🙂

We waited for the rest of the group to get back, and when we got everyone together, we made our way back to Santiago, freshened up at our hotel, and went out for dinner at another restaurant in the Lastarria area called BocaNariz, a winery/tapas place. It was such a great restaurant with flights of wine and flavorful tapas ranging from smoked salmon bruschetta to their interpretation of moules et frites (Chilean shellfish and papas bravas).

What an enjoyable, well-deserved dinner for the group! I’m definitely loving South America all the more at this point!

Kicking off our South American trip!

We met our fellow travelers on a Saturday evening, in our Santiago hotel. There were 10 travelers in total, plus our tour guide. It was a relatively small group of 11 people, which was quite nice since we’re used to traveling with 3 or more times than that during our family trips. As expected, people were from all over the world– Canada, Ireland, Wales, and even the States!  We played a mini game to break the ice, and off we went to dinner at a nice area in Santiago called Barrio Lastarria. It was an incredible place. If I lived in Santiago, that’s where I’d want to hang out for dinner and drinks.

We tried to get to know each other over dinner, discussing our past travel experiences and our reasons for wanting to go to South America. We ate a number of delicious items including Chilean cod (Merluza), steak, pure papas, and glasses of wine and Chilean-style pisco sour (no egg white foam!). It was a nice dinner we enjoyed together before embarking on the first adventure the next day: hiking Aguas de San Ramon!

First Impression of South America: A Parallel Universe

My sister arrived at the hotel with the energy of someone waking up late on a Saturday morning. I woke up from my quick nap to greet her, and we decided to freshen up and head out to the city right away, without any proper sleep. We asked for directions at the front desk, took some maps, and made our way around the area to get a sense of what the place is like. We looked for a bank, but everything was closed as it was a Saturday morning. As we were walking down streets with lengthy names derived from important Chileans, we came across many different characters, from little kids coming out of ballet practice, to older women running errands, and to students who could either be going to school or hanging out at a friend’s place.

We walked some more around Santiago, only using the maps given to us by the hotel reception desk. We found Cerro Santa Lucia, which is a small hill across from our hotel, overlooking the city. The hill was pretty developed, with paved walkways and steps, as well as cobble-stoned streets for cars wishing to enter. The hill was mostly built in Spanish colonial architecture, parks, staircases that were almost as wide as the streets. At certain points on the hill, we took pictures of the city, as well as the many nooks and crannies of the hill structure. We attempted to capture the air and the feeling of being in a new place.

We also planned on going to Cerro San Cristobal, which is a higher hill than Santa Lucia, and near the highly recommended neighborhood of Bella Vista. However, on the way to San Cristobal, we took a different street only to find out we were back at the hotel where we started. We attempted again, a second time, to go to San Cristobal by taking the main avenue; even if it was more congested and polluted than the other streets, it will take us to our destination directly. We walked past small parks whose shaded landscape and colorful flowers embraced local residents, murals from legendary artists like Gabriela Mistral that illustrated a certain political point of view, rundown buildings, and modern buildings around the main campus of one of the prestigious universities in the country. I couldn’t walk past the university without wanting to stop by; it beckoned not only because there was an artisanal market installation that day, but also because of the different kinds of people hanging out in the campus. Some were students practicing a dance number, others were mothers with young children walking around trying to entertain their kids, others more were teenage couples spending leisurely time together. Universities have a certain kind of magic for me, and as we were walked inside and asked for directions, I kept feeling a sense of home, of identification with a place that I only knew for a handful of hours at that point. It was then that I confirmed with myself that someday, I will come back to a university to participate in that kind of life, buzzing with intellectual vitality, openness and curiosity.

I liked these moments when we’re able to witness how locals live, without drawing much attention to ourselves. The way people walk, talk, and look at things are slightly different from how people behave back home. There were also a million things I found that were similar, characteristic of city life. At this time, I was still trying to wrap my mind around how far this place is from home (~6000k miles), yet they live a life that is at once their own, with their unique approach and outlook, and incredibly similar to the modern city activities we enjoy in the States such as strolling around, shopping, eating at restaurants, etc. It was like entering a parallel universe, and gaining an understanding that yes, there are people from other parts of the world who live differently. I admit that sometimes, when you live in the States and all eyes are on your country, it is difficult to follow and pay attention to the lifestyles, current affairs and everyday situations in other parts of the world. This is why I travel: to expand my mind, understand how other people experience life differently, and acknowledge their lifestyles.

We walked some more and checked major intersections we crossed to make sure we were still going in the right direction. We barely got into Bella Vista when we realized we won’t have enough time to go up the hill before the walking tour group starts at 2 pm. We exchanged our money, had a relaxing alfresco lunch of empanadas and fresh juice in a modern cafe, before walking back to the main road in the direction of the meeting spot for our walking tour. We power-walked from San Cristobal to the meeting point in downtown Santiago.

When we couldn’t find the walking tour group leader after a few minutes, we decided to leave and sat in the Plaza de la Constitucion to rest from the sun and a fair amount of walking. There we sat on shaded benches smiling at the pleasant sunny weather of Santiago, marveling at the massive governmental edifices and wide boulevards that reminded me of certain parts of Europe.

As we gained back our energy, we walked around some more and found a Starbucks near the financial district! As much as I prefer other coffee shops over Starbucks back in the States, seeing this American icon was comforting. We entered inside and nobody spoke English, which I thought was strange given that all other Starbucks I’ve been to outside of the States had baristas that spoke mostly English to customers. My sister and I shared a local drink (Maracuya frappuccino) and enjoyed the consistent wifi to catch up with family and friends back home.

After the short break, we walked through smaller streets, watching how local residents spent their Saturdays. There’s an energy in Santiago that comes out of people walking around in different strides and paces, different styles of clothing and expressions on people’s faces. Most of all, I think this unmistakable energy originates from the outward sensibility of the residents to engage with each other at all times– we saw a lot of people shaking hands, sharing laughter, greeting each other, engaging in lively conversation. People don’t seem to have a yearning for what’s happening next like they do in the States. It’s as if time stops in Santiago and everyone has a foothold on the second to use it as they wish, which is to spend time with people around them.

We finally ended up at Plaza de las Armas, a place filled with goods to buy from the merchant selling his or her wares. It was such a busy street, with vendors shouting to attract attention, curious passersby walking at a glacial pace to stare at items being sold, street performers enthusiastically entertaining the crowd. We passed by a modern museum that seemed to draw me in with its stark white walls and clean interiors, reminiscent of a mediterranean villa. After walking around the Plaza, we decided to look for grocery store to buy some water, and at that point, it’s the most difficult search we’ve had to do thus far. We asked around for directions, and with my rusty Spanish on our first day in a place that had different terminology for things, it seemed like we were never going to be able to find a grocery store. We walked some more. We asked mall vendors and a pharmacy shop employee, and while all of them are willing to help and offered clear directions in Spanish, we were still at a loss on where to go. We relied on instincts and little sense of where they were pointing us to. In our walk, we witnessed young guys who passed by each other briefly shaking hands, which we dared not to read much into, as well as tired locals with a slower walking pace, perhaps on their way home. Finally, after a couple of blocks, we found it! Funnily enough, it was about two blocks from our hotel! However, the search continued, this time for the better brand of water to buy. As we weren’t familiar with what’s on offer, we tried our best to figure out the most cost-effective option and hopefully a good tasting one too. We settled on a brand called Vital, which is owned by Coca-Cola.

As much as we wanted make the most of this trip by enjoying the local experience, it is clear on the first day that we were still clinging on to the comforts of home.. which we’ll soon be able to shed once the trip officially starts.