Week Six: Smoking Socks

Hot coals burned in the bottom of an old steel wheelbarrow. On the brim, my socks sat smoking, and the warmth felt good.

The sky finished turning black by the time I arrived at the bus terminal. Buses, like racehorses in their chutes, waited in rows, ready to carry their travelers to different destinations in Chile. Duffle bag thrown over my shoulder, I passed bus after bus and crowd after crowd of people waiting, searching for my platform. There, a fellow extranjero from my program had already boarded our bus, and was waiting patiently.

Joey, an adventurer from little islands of Hawaii, holds a passionate love for anything dealing with adrenaline. Whether extreme sports, backpacking, or rock-climbing—if it is risky, he is into it. In fact, probably the most intense person I’ve had the pleasure to meet, Joey can turn a casual game of Ping-Pong into a life-or-death match of the decade.

The evening before our trip, Joey and I had been studying late in the campus library together. Bored, and with nothing to do, Joey convinced me to accompany him down south for a Snowkite festival. I was reluctant, but he said learning to fly a kite would be cake, and he had already taught people the skill at least a thousand times before. He said we would figure out where to stay when we got down there. Down where? He couldn’t pronounce the name, but it was ten hours south of Santiago. Sweet, sounds good.

As a result, the sky was now black at the terminal, and the crowds of people were waiting. My adrenaline junky friend and I mounted our racehorse, he snorted, and we held on as our steed took off into the night headed for God knows where.

The kite festival was insane. After a night of periodical sleep, the bus driver announced the arrival to our destination, Malalcahuello. He kicked us out on the side of the road. Just a couple abandoned pups, the pueblo seemed ghostlike to us. In the small hours of the morning, the sky was turning grey, and the winter air was cool. The clouds hung low in the sky.

Joey and I found the director of the kite festival who seemed only a few years older than ourselves. Though we had a late start and those low hanging clouds promised rain, he drove us up the mountain to join the other snowboarders.

*

Joey shouted, “Alright, you want to do less! Small movements. That’s it!”

I held on to the kite handle, barely flexing the muscles in my fingers to change direction. We were hunkered down on an open slope. The weather pelted us; rain drenching our gear, and wind deafening our ears. Fifty yards of string into the air flew an enormous black kite responding to my every movement.

“A little lower now! Practice doing the figure eights again!”

I had lost feeling in my toes sometime earlier (with the late start, I had decided to skip renting snowboard boots and instead had Joey’s tennis shoes on—sopping wet). In spite, I continued to learn what it took to snowboard with a kite. A few more minutes and I needed to head inside to warm up.

“I’m staying out here!” Joey yelled over the wind, “Gunna see what I can do!”

Joey is an animal.

Inside the small shelter, my feet were propped up on the brim of an old steel wheelbarrow. In its base lay a pile of burning coals and ash. My soaked socks were smoking, and the warmth felt good. Surrounding me were some of the coolest—I mean the dopest of the dope—South Americans I have met, shouting and laughing, tossing champagne bottles to one another, barbequing sausages, all swapping stories of different feats they’d accomplished, and all there for the love of snowboarding. I wrung out my gear and warmed up by the makeshift heater (the wheelbarrow), learning their stories and waiting for Joey to come back. He finally did, and we made our way down the mountain back to our little cabana. After a few cat naps for a couple of worn out pups, we changed and headed to the asado (bbq) for all the participants of the festival. We celebrated snowboarding with more champagne and burgers.

The next morning brought a change of luck. The weather had cleared and fresh powder laid on the mountain from the night before. The downside to the great weather was no wind, and as a result, no kiting. Not letting that get to us, we spent the day shredding the mountain without kites (downhill using chairlifts). Amazing. We had so much fun, run after run, and seeing some amazing views. The director of the kite festival let us know that it was a volcano we were on. We were snowboarding a volcano!

The sky finished turning black and we sat at the bus stop. Resting our heads on our duffle bags, we were exhausted. We looked up the road in the darkness, watching the passing headlights for signs of our trusty horse who’d take us back north. After two days of adventure, it was time to head back home to Santiago. Boarding the bus, we left behind the small ghostlike town. We left behind soaked pants and smoking socks, but with us, we carried memories. Memories I probably wouldn’t have had if my adrenaline junky friend hadn’t approached me one night while studying in the library.

The Views:

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Week Five: El Metro

                The lowest point in my study abroad experience happens almost twice a day.

 Santiago, Chile, like many metropolitan regions, divides itself into different sections or, comunas. The bulk of the population live near the city center, in la comuna called Santiago, and this is where you’ll find my university (The University of Chile). My host family’s house resides in a comuna more similar to suburbian life, with houses instead of apartments, more trees, their own yards, and was dubbed the name, La Reina

In order to get from my house to my university, from La Reina to Santiago, from trees and yards to concrete and skyscrapers, I usually take what is called, el metro—sometimes called my least favorite form of transportation, sometimes called Satan’s Chariot, but in English you just say subway.    

I walk to the metro station from my house. On the way the sun usually warms my face, and I walk alongside a dirty river. Three big red diamonds are used as the subway’s logo, and are held up to let me know where to descend into the station. The amount of people climbing up and down the stairs and the escalator is a dismal foreshadowing of rush hour. Once underground, and on the tiled floor of the metro station, I head towards the metal turnstiles to swipe my card. Chileans have dawned the name Bip! for their metro-cards in tribute to the sound a turnstile makes letting you know you had sufficient money on your card and can now pass through. Bip! I bip on through the turnstiles and follow the crowd of people towards our boarding platform.

The train’s distant yellow eyes grow in the tunneled darkness as the lead car nears. When it speeds passed, the rush of air threatens to pull me onto the tracks. I wait with a group of eight other people as the train slows down. Looking through the windows at the amount of bodies, I know only two, maybe three of us will get aboard. The train comes to a stop, and opens her doors. This moment, which happens almost twice a day, starts the lowest point of my study abroad experience.

The train stops, and the car doors open. Fifty or so people, literally sardined into this small space, pear out to us. Sometimes a person will try to get off, and you’ll see them crawling from the back of the crowd, swimming through the people, gasping for air before they eventually leave the train to freedom. We let the few people leave the subway car before it’s our move. Luckily, I managed a spot in front of the pack, and though it appears as if no more people could possibly fit inside, I know the contrary. In between a dark-skinned hefty woman with tight pink pants and a tall older gentlemen with a wrinkled face, is a spot for little Henry.

Taking a deep breath, I begin to push. I push between the two with my backpack in my hands and in front of my waist. I push more, condensing the train car of bodies, apologizing as I completely disregard their personal space, lo siento, permiso, lo siento. The alarm rings signaling the closing of the doors, and I push one more time, moving and skinnying-up as to not have an appendage caught in them. The disappointed people left behind on the platform look at me through the window with envy and sympathy. Closed doors, the mass still moves inside the subway car, trying in vain to get comfortable. The train eases forward, on to the next stop. Suffocated between the two, the old man looks out the car, thinking about years past, and the busty woman with gold-hooped earrings chews her gum. I just put my headphones on, and close my eyes, imagining I’m back in Wyoming, driving my truck on an open highway and the windows are down. Nothing on either side of the road but green hay fields, and the sun is shining.   

The connection I take from one line to another crowds during rush hour:

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Week Four: One of Those Moments

Some moments steal your breath away; a sunset in all its fiery glory, or maybe a star falling across the night sky. Greater moments stop your heart from beating; a baby being born, or maybe a hole in one on a golf course. But, I think there are a few moments in your life that—

Waking up on a snowboarding day is a surreal feeling.  The house, dark and silent, holds everyone inside lulled until morning obligations say their dreams are over. The house keeps everyone asleep— everyone except one.

He woke up at the sound of his alarm, and sat upright in bed, hoping he did not over sleep. The unusual feeling of excitement mixed with exhaustion runs through his veins; today is the day, and it has finally arrived. The only conscious soul in a sleeping house, he headed to the shower, towel in hand, rolling his bare feet on the cold planks as to not make a sound. In the shower, beneath the hot water, he allowed his mind to escape to the mountain for a preliminary run. In a darkened house, silent and sleeping, he was on the mountain going through which tricks to land, and which techniques to improve.

Out of the shower and over the warmer planks, he dressed appropriately. More awake now, he double checked the equipment he packed. Boots, snowpants, extra socks, jacket, goggles and helmet. Ready, he snuck into the kitchen and cereal falling into a metallic bowl broke the silence in the kitchen. After a breakfast by himself, he checked his room one last time, and grabbed his bag. Stepping out into the crisp air of the morning’s first hints of blue, he gently closed the door to a still sleeping, still darkened, and still silent house.

One thing my heart was set on doing was snowboarding The Andes. At around 4,800 miles long, these mountains are the backbone of South America, and the longest mountain range in the world. Three other students and I met early Wednesday morning to rent gear, and ride the bus which would shuttle us up these Andes Mountains to Valle Nevado. Valle Nevado is one of the premier ski resorts around Santiago, and lucky for us, was laden with ample snow which had fallen a few days prior to our trip.

The day was perfect. The sunshine fell on a powday at the resort which, because it was a weekday, remained uncrowded the entire day. After a slow start, we stepped off the gondola and packed onto the first ski lift.

Some moments definitely take your breath away, and sometimes I have felt my heart skip a beat. But, as the ski lift ascended with us four college students, I learned some moments to be different. My eyes widened when I caught sight of an enormous rock face, frosted, and in front of a blue sky backdrop. Soaring on the ski lift, some 13,000 feet in elevation, I felt chills run down my back. I inhaled, and felt my shoulders relax in pure satisfaction. I looked over my shoulder towards the endless panorama of mountain peaks. It looked like something I could only see on a postcard. I exhaled.

Yeah, there are moments greater than words can describe. It happens when your soul finally reaches a place it has always wanted to be. Your heart beats a little faster, and you never want to see the end.

We snowboarded all damn day. Run after run over the fresh powder seemed effortless.

Homeward bound, packed yet again onto a bus, a watching the mountain peaks silhouetted by a setting sun, I considered myself to be very blessed—very lucky, and very blessed for sure.

Week Three: Vacation on a Vacation

“Shit.” I was late.

That stupid moment when my alarm went off, I blinked, and an hour had passed.

I was late.

I weighed how much time I had—I could still make it. I jumped out of bed. I threw on some clothes, and grabbed the duffle bag I had luckily packed the night before. I made sure I grabbed my bus ticket before sprinting towards the subway under a twilight sky with a piece of bread stuffed in my mouth.

One of the girls in our program was having a birthday. To celebrate, we planned a trip to Chile’s coastal city, Viña del Mar. To get there, one should sprint the whole way to the bus platform, and arrive with seconds to spare. One should then board a Turbus with 15 other college students, have some great music on their iPod, and be careful as to not miss the scenery along the way. If done correctly, one should arrive two hours later in Viña del Mar not having any idea where the hell their hostel is.

After a few moments of unsuccessful wondering with luggage and hungry stomachs, we convinced a taxi driver to find our hostel for us; packing his van full of adolescent gringos.  Viña, twin to her sister Valparaiso, is a city built on top of herself. Literally. Stacks on stacks of Easter egg-colored boxes spanned the panorama, accented with Palm Trees of all sorts here and there. The driver navigated up one of the many hills, and dropped us off. Climbing the stone steps, our hostel came into view. A green lawn led up to a brown cottage which looked like it had come from the hills of Europe. An ideal getaway for some college students on a birthday vacation.

Day One

Do you know what Slack-Lining is? Two trees, some soft green grass, a blue sky, and a ratchet strap turns out to be all you need to work on your balance. Not so easy, though. We spent the afternoon jumping, walking, and falling off the Slack-line. Hours passed, and we were in want of a little sunset-on-the-beach action.

If you’ve never watched the sun fall into the ocean, you suck. Living in a landlocked state surrounded by mountains and alfalfa never gave me many opportunities to witness this either, but I really underestimated what I missed out on for so long. Beautiful does not do justice the fiery orange sun rays or rolling mirror of an ocean. Soothing does not fully describe the rhythmic waves and call from the gulls. And, insane is an understatement for the overall experience.

The group of gringos napped at the hostel. Napped before walking the two blocks headed towards a banging club on the beach. A great way to cap off Day One was to turn up with a ton of Chileans.

Day Two

The next day was a free day with nothing planned. While the girls left to explore the Botanical Gardens of Valparaiso, the boys headed to Concón, a beach to the north, to do a little surfing. Surfing?

Paddle, paddle, paddle. Long strokes is what they told me—dig deep. I laid face down on a surfboard. The water salted my lips, and stung my eyes. The winter ocean was numbing my bare feet, my hands, and my exposed head. Impossibly cold, I tried to focus instead on watching the ocean. She was a great, metallic reflection of the sunny sky above us. I finally saw her take a deep breath which signaled an incoming wave.

Okay, let’s go. I turned around with my head to the shore. The whole time never taking my eye off the swelling ocean looming towards me. I waited. Come on, a little closer . . . Go! Paddle, paddle, paddle!

Shoulders burning, I dug into the water, keeping a little ahead of the wave. I was going to get it this time. The wave came, and I felt the swell raise the board up with me on it. Keep paddling, not yet. I felt the wave forming underneath me. Actually catch the wave, don’t just stand on it. The time came. I placed my hands near my armpits, trying to steady the board. Then, pushing off the board, I jumped to my feet. I fought for balance on the glassy surface. I was up! Salty air cooled the water on my face as the wave pushed me. Hot damn, I was finally—unf! My board slipped out, and a metallic reflection of the sunny sky above us swallowed a boy from Wyoming without a second thought.

Surfing = amazing. We spent hours on the water. The boys from the west coast surfing, and me trying to. We saw the sky turn orange as we returned the boards. A sandy swapping of wetsuit for clothes, and a nap on the bus ride later, we were back at the hostel. Here, we met the girls who had cooked a mountain of spaghetti for dinner.

Leaving the next morning, exhausted and sand still between my toes, I boarded the bus again. This time, I was on time. I grabbed a complementary pillow, and rested my head against the window. It didn’t take long for me to pass out. But, before I closed my eyes, I replayed the weekend. It was an ideal vacation, couldn’t have asked for more. But, I am still on vacation, and I have four more months to go.

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Week Two: Mi Familia

Beep, Beep.

In the usual morning confusion, somewhere between dreams and consciousness, my alarm blared from the nightstand. I sat up, stretched, and shed the covers. Then . . . I crawled back under the covers. The chilly hotel room confirmed it was not only a dream, and yeah, I really did just wake up in the Southern Hemisphere.

We had spent our initial night in a cozy hotel near the heart of Santiago. Here, I got my first taste of three-pronged outlets (read: couldn’t charge anything). I learned expensive central heating often eludes many buildings, and as a result, inside can be a tad bit nippier than out. So, after a shower, I hurriedly dressed in the brisk winter air, grabbed my luggage, and headed down to the lobby for breakfast, and, more importantly to be picked up by my host family.

I waited in the lobby with fifty other Americanos, and I was pumped. I glanced around at the other students who represented the East Coast, West Coast, and scattered parts of central United States. To them, coming from Wyoming seemed just as foreign as traveling to another country. With knees bouncing, time constantly being checked, luggage in hand, and excited laughter, I knew it couldn’t be too much longer before our families started arriving. Not having received any information prior to whom our families were, what they looked like, or what type of family they would be. We were anxious and excited for them to show up, and when they did, it was like the Hunger Games.

Now, I have never watched or read the hunger games. As a result, I could be completely wrong. However, I have heard the term Reaping, and in my mind I am picturing kids getting hauled off and never returning. Right? Who knows, but our families started showing up! One-by-one a name would be called out, a nervous student would grab their luggage, get hauled off, and were never to be heard from again. In truth, everybody’s head would perk up at the sound of a name being called, and we would watch as an eager Chilean family member embraced a newfound addition to their family. I couldn’t wait, and my heart beat faster, waiting to hear my name. Then at last,

“Henry?”

I said a short prayer before I lifted my head towards the hotel entrance. There, a taller man met my gaze. He looked younger, maybe in his late twenties. His neck held up an enormous scarf, which led up to a scrappy beard. He had dreads which fell past his waist. To his side stood a shorter, older woman. Short haired and with pearl earrings, she smiled a very motherly smile. Dope! I grabbed my bags, and introduced myself. I gave my mother a kiss past her cheek, which is the custom here, and together we piled into an old stick-shift car headed straight for the huge, looming Andes.

So, I couldn’t have asked for a better family. The man turned out to be mi hermano, and the woman, mi madre. His name is Jose (cote as a nickname), 26 years old, and loves hiking. He’s studying to be a vet. My mother, her name is Rosario. We arrived at a house in a gated little community, with about four bedrooms. It is in a neighborhood, La Reina, that is a bit closer to the Andes. I have three more siblings: Pedro (Pelao) is 28, and is constantly showing me dubstep songs and American music videos. I have two older sisters too, Sofia is 29, and Javiera is 30. All living in the same house. Mi padre is a little older, wiser, and awesome. His name is Pedro as well. With him, I have some great, philosophical conversations, of which I retain about 20%, but they’re sweet nonetheless! Tonight when he sees me, he will say, “Señor Enrique, caballero, como esta?” We have a nana (maid), Violeta, who cooks amazingly. Every day, I take the best lunch to school because of her. Last, but not least, I have a dog named Jako (Yah-ko), and I love him too.

I lucked out, and ended up with an amazing family. At first, our dinners consisted of me staring blankly at them, trying to decipher their rapid Spanish, and overall contributing less than Jako. Now, however, we’re moving forward, and little by little, I’m able to say more and more (like, please pass the bread). Overall though, mi familia esta perfecto.

Week One: Arriving

It is impossible to sleep on a plane. The past nine hours in the darkened cabin were a claustrophobic nightmare of shifting around and wishing my seat would tilt back just a smidge more. In order to keep my sanity, I remembered why I left Wyoming in the first place: to spend a semester studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. I shed the poor excuse for a blanket, sat up and looked around the cabin. The rows of seats were filled with people from all over the world. Some of them sleeping, some reading, some watching movies on their computers, but all were heading to the South American continent for some reason or another. Up the aisle I could see the flight attendants waking people up, and handing out breakfast. As she neared, I nudged the man sleeping next to me in the window seat. Talking earlier, the man had let me know he was Argentina bound for some Dove hunting. After the attendant gave us a warm croissant, some apple juice, some cheese and crackers, she informed us that we were flying over the Andes right now.

The man  pulled up the window shade, and my stomach dropped. Looking out the window I could see a picturesque view of La cordillera de los Andes. The sunrise tossed different shades of orange against the clouds, and from these clouds emerged the largest mountain peaks I had ever seen. The endless mountains seemed unreal as the wind threw dust into the air off their snow-covered peaks. It was then I realized there was no turning back now. I had left my home in Wyoming–ten acres and a few horses–traveled half way around the world, and was about to land in a city of six million Santiaguenos.

A bell chimed, the fasten seatbelt sign lit up, and the pilot’s voice echoed throughout the cabin saying we started our descent. I buckled my seatbelt, took a deep breath, and got ready. Not for the descent, but for a new adventure. I got ready to experience something I had never done before. And, after nine sleepless hours in a cramped plane some 30,000 feet in the air, that felt pretty damn good.

The picture doesn’t do what I saw justice, but here’s an idea.