In 2012 I left the small town I`d grown up in, boarded a plane for a country I`d barely heard of, and all for a guy I barely knew. I had expected panpipes, ponchos, hip-shakers and spicy food, and what I got was cumbia, butt-hugging jeans, cahuins and cazuelas. Santiago was – and still is – a city of potholes and bumps, impeccable highways and treelined avenues, with a soundtrack that changes with each neighbourhood. I found love for my local barrio and its colourful houses streaked with peeling paint and the ubiquitous graffiti emblazoned wall, but I also hated it, its appearance and beating heart appearing so different next to the fertile plazas and lavish apartment blocks that my friends knew. Santiago is a living thing, a city that heaves with the hopes, dreams and fears of millions, and I thought it would be a good idea to hear some of the different stories of immigrants like myself to get their perspective on life within Chile. This was the original purpose of the Spotlight On series, and now it is my turn!
Why did you come to Chile?
I came to Chile for two reasons. The first is because I was – and had been for a long time – restless. I wanted to get out and explore the world, and have always been completely obsessed with Latino culture. In 2012 I was a university student living with Venezuelans and my best friend was Chilean. It was through her that I met reason number two: a guy. I met Luis in his last month in New Zealand on a working holiday visa. We just clicked. The opportunity to go to South America was a temptation I couldn`t get out of my head so I saved hard for four months and then came.
What was your first impression?
My first day in Santiago was a jetlagged blur of taxis, grey skies, a brief moment in the Mercado Central and sleeping. My second day I went to Valparaiso. It was cold and windy. After that I went to stay in Puerto Montt, which was also cold and windy. I remember being given a huge bowl of curanto and souvenir shopping in Angelmo, a whirlwind dash around Chiloe, and a spontaneous dip in the gorgeously clear lake of Puerto Varas, but mostly I just remember the extraordinary kindness of my hosts in Puerto Montt. They were friends of my partner`s and I didn`t understand a word they said to me but sometimes you don`t words to feel happy. We visited the Petrohue waterfall and it was incredible – all of the scenery around the lake was beautiful.
Santiago has changed so much! How was it then in 2012?
In 2012 I easily found a job teaching English even though I had no teaching certification. Teaching was an eye-opener because I had never thought about what we say or how we say them, certainly never given grammar or verbs much notice. There were only two Indian restaurants – we spent a lot of money at The Majestic in those days! I really loved Patronato because it seemed so exotic. Then the clothes were cheap and stylish – a bit different to today – and there was also a really nice Arabic restaurant [now closed]. My local supermarket seemed to sell only aisles of milk, and I remember going in once and crying because I couldn`t understand anything or find anything I wanted.
How were you accepted into society?
I am white-skinned with light brown hair, so I would get a lot of comments if I was walking the street alone. I struggled to make any friends and found the etiquette – especially with my students – awkward. The language was a big barrier, and parties were always embarrassing for me because I could not take part in any way. Outside of the cities, the people are lovely. At the end of the day, I stay in Chile because of the relationship I have with my partner`s friends and family, who accepted me from the first and are warm and welcoming. Travel – life – is all about these connnections.
What were the biggest challenges for you?
Feeling like I was different made me feel afraid for a long time. Having no Spanish was hard, and some people made no attempt to understand me or communicate with me, especially in official situations. Visiting any kind of bureaucratic place like the Council or visa office was almost painful because people were so unfriendly. Worst of all was the hospital, ER in the public health system is one of the most trying places in the world, and every time my kids have been hospitalized in the public system has been the most awful experience in the world.
How was the visa process?
Honestly? A nightmare, with endless strikes, endless queues, and an endless lack of communication and empathy. It isn`t hard for New Zealander`s like me to get a visa BUT my own permanent residency visa was declined despite waiting a year and a half, and I still don`t know why.
How have you found the work situation?
For a good job, almost impossible. Most jobs have come to me via other expat mums and groups like Discover Chile: English Speaking Moms. I think it is necessary to earn a million pesos a month if you want a good lifestyle, but in my experience, these jobs have been hard to find.
How was your experience giving birth?
I had a beautiful natural birth experience using FONASA and the public healthcare system. I gave birth 40 minutes outside of Santiago in the small town of Talagante with two holistic midwives to guide me. They gave me massages and did aromatherapy with me when I was in labour. I stayed for one night in the hospital and it was all an excellent experience. I saw these same midwives for each checkup. I went into labour at 26 weeks and had a terrible experience in ER at the hospital of San Jose in Independencia, however afterwards I was hospitalized for a week and I received excellent, comfortable care with nice staff. After this, I was labelled high risk, placed on bedrest at home and had to attend my following checkups (until 37 weeks) at San Jose, and this was not a positive experience. Luckily baby M stayed inside and I could then resume my arrangement in Talagante.
Did you ever go through a period of hating it here and missing your home?
About once a month in the first couple of years I felt homesick. I would binge-watch How I Met Your Mother DVDs on the laptop. For about four years we had no TV and only YouTube, and to be honest feelings of homesickness eased up once we were given a TV and Netflix. Suddenly I could turn the TV on and here English, and it would be like I was back home. Every time my kids have been really sick I have wanted to leave. Having financial difficulties was really hard – things like having no washing machine or hot water for 6 months was probably the most trying time for us, but I also feel that you learn a lot from those moments of `hardships`. I have learnt we don`t need a lot.
In 2018 what are your favourites things to do or places to visit?
Eat, and discover new local brands. I absolutely adore Barrio Italia. I am a big fan of Bistro Silvestre and Casa Luz [restaurants], La Pituka, Taller 7 Colores and I love all the decor shops. Further afield, I really love the vibe and colours of Valparaiso, the eerie sounds of La Campana National Park. Travel is expensive here and its really boring to drive around Chile because it is so long, but I love the food of Pucon, the history of La Serena and the stunning Elqui Valley.
What is Chile like for kids?
Children are welcome in every situation in Chile, even the ones that I used to think were unsuitable for children. We go everywhere with our young boys and people are very welcoming. People do take a very big interest in what kids are wearing – as in how many layers they have on because they don`t like the cold – and I`ve had a few tricky moments in public with strangers shouting at me for being outside with a small baby, or people trying to give my kids lollies when I`m not looking. There are quite a few things to do, too. We like visiting Buin Zoo, the Parque Bicentenario or Parque de la Infancia.
If you could tell your 2012 self one thing, what would it be?
People will always talk, avoid rush hour metro and it always gets better. Oh, and there will always be bread.
Did you like this? Maybe give it a `like` and share your own story in the comments below! I am looking to interview more people so if you are interested in taking part, send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org