Under the influence of books
- guest posting from our world traveler Thania Muñoz, of La Semana Negra fame.
The first time I set foot in Chile was three years ago. I made the decision to study abroad in my third year of college when I was starting my Spanish major. I was part of the California State University one-year student exchange program.
I still remember how interesting and exciting my first Spanish literature classes in college were. I wanted to be reading and re-reading all the time. Even though I have been close to literature most of my life, I felt as if I was behind, that I needed to read so much more, and I did. I read books that weren’t in the classes’ syllabi, searching for new, young authors and writing summaries of each book I read.
One of my professors noticed my interest and lent me Isabel Allende’s My invented country: a memoir. This book is a wonderful memoir about the author’s native country Chile. After reading this book I decided that I needed to go to Chile and see with my own eyes what she had described. My first trips to Latin America, imaginary of course, had started through books, but now I was ready to start my first REAL trip.
Excitedly, I approached the international office of my university. They had millions of places to choose from like China, Hawaii, England, México, but none in my native country, like Querétaro, Hidalgo, Guadalajara, excited me. I wanted to go to Chile; I wanted to go to that faraway country shaped like a skinny, bitten chile. I confess: it wasn’t only Allende’s book that made me want to go to the southern cone--as we call the southern part of the continent--it was also that it was very far away; I wanted to be there in South America where most of my favorite books had been written.
After visiting the international office a few times, I found out Chile’s student exchange program was a whole year long, not one semester or summer session, as I had originally planned for. I didn’t feel ready to be away for such a long time, in a strange city, in a foreign country. For a week I debated the idea of being away from my family, friends, professors and my warm life in sunny California. But I was twenty-two, almost done with college, working part-time at a retail store and hanging out at local coffee shops. I didn’t have much to lose. Even before telling my parents, I started filling out the paperwork at the international office.
I wish to keep to myself all the family drama that started because of this decision. Oh, ok, I’ll share the obvious: yes, my father was scared. He didn’t believe a “young” girl could be safe in a foreign country. My mother cursed books (sometimes she stills does). She couldn’t believe I had made a decision, based on a book by some “lady,” as she commonly referred to Isabel Allende.
Nonetheless, I wanted to go and nothing scared me: not long essays that I had to write to prove I was capable of studying away in prestigious, not the all-Spanish-speaking university (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), not the selecting committee interview, nor embassy, financial aid workshops, angry parents and voltage converters. After being selected by the international office as one of the deserving participants of Chile’s student exchange program, I cried. My dream was, little by little, becoming a reality.
I still remember the chills I felt when I stepped out of the Santiago’s airport three years ago. When I arrived early June, coming from a Californian summer to a South American winter, it was a drastic change. The first weeks were full of long and cold walks around the city. I got lost every time I stepped out of the house, but I asked for directions, even though most of time they weren’t good directions. I enjoyed getting lost or sitting on a bench staring at a map, completely overwhelmed by the city's complexity, but happy I could walk anywhere, take a very clean, reliable underground metro or a yellow bus driven by a fast and impatient driver.
The classes I took at “la Católica,” as the university is commonly called, were completely different from my literature classes in California. I took all Chilean-related literature classes, history, politics and culture. I read everything I got my hands on and enjoyed every minute I spent at school. I won’t lie, I also enjoyed going out with friends to bars and having a “piscola” (a mixed drink: Chile’s aguardiente called pisco mixed with coke or sprite).
I met wonderful people. Classmates not only helped me in school, but took me out to traditional Chilean places in Santiago; talked to me about their country’s poetry for hours (as if their life depend it on it), taught me Chilean idioms, invited me to their home to have “once” (a light meal in the afternoon: tea or coffee and bread, “marraqueta”, with cheese or jelly) or to a party that lasted until seven in the morning.
Was Chile all Isabel Allende had led me to believe? Was I happy I had traveled to a far away place led by a book? Answer to the first question: No. To the second: Yes. Allende’s book was a memoir; it was written from the heart, it was her own Chile and her “invented” country. The one I got to know was a lot different, and I loved it. I enjoyed every step I took in that noisy South American city, every bite of its delicious cuisine, every poem I read in class, or outside, every conversation, every Chilean landmark I set foot on and more.
I was happy, and still am, that my real travels were initiated by descriptions in a book by some “lady”, as my mom will say. It was a wonderful year abroad; an exciting time away from California’s coffee shops and retail stores. That is why I did it again.
I’m in South America right now, collecting new memories. Now, will the second time around be as exciting as the first time? Probably not, but I know Santiago de Chile all too well, and I’m sure it still holds some secrets it can’t wait to tell me.
Saludos y abrazos desde bien lejos!