La Ciudad

I’d like to take a blog post to simply explain where I live and what the surrounding area is like. We’ll begin at my house in Viña del Mar, Chile. Viña del Mar is a 10 minute micro ride from Valparaíso, and is oddly distinct from the city itself. Some Chileans distinguish Valparaíso the city from Gran Valparaíso, which is the city, Viña del Mar, Con Cón, Reñaca, Quilpué, and Villa Alemana, which are all smaller city towns slightly north.

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It’s generally agreed upon that the more northern the town, the wealthier the community. The term here is cuico, meaning those with money, connections, and higher standards of living. They’re the opposite of flaite, who I’ll discuss in another blogpost. This stereotype is pretty well founded, and is a Chilean trend, as in Santiago the city is filled with densely packed poor communities and wealthier citizens living on the city edges beneath the mountains.

Viña itself contains a mix of cerro, plan, and for lack of a better term, regular housing. Much of coastal Chile is very geographically abrupt. That is, we have the ocean in front of us, but hundreds of feet of vertical distance to reach the different neighborhoods. There are hundreds of cerros in Valpo, all of which are very high up and very tightly packed.

About halfway up through the Valparaíso cerros

Everything surrounding the cerros at sea level is plan. I live in neither of these spaces. I live on 2 Norte and 4 Poniente, across the bridge from all that elevation.

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This grid system is the only reason I haven’t been lost yet

This part of Viña del Mar is very different than Valparaíso. It’s simply more organized. The grid system, the street shops, and even the street vendors just feel less erratic than the city itself. That’s not to say it’s better, as there’s still violence, theft, and general danger, but Avenida Libertad and Plaza Vergara are great references to guide oneself through the city.

Two other IFSA students live in this area, on 5 and 8 Norte. One lives across the bridge, and five live up in the cerros of Viña. The remaining half are similarly dispersed across Valpo. This distribution gives us a great range of how the communities differ, despite their closeness, and keeps us from hunkering down in one “international” neighborhood.

We still do that too much though.

La Familia

I live with a Chilean family of five in Viña del Mar. Nacho (20) is a student at a different university, Pancho (25) is an almost pro tennis player, and Diego (28) lives in Canada with his fiancé. Xime and Toño are in their late 50s and live relatively middle class. The families we live with are quite varied, with some in apartments with only a 9 year old sister, another living with an older widow, and many others with people coming in and out of the house. These families are compensated, as they provide us with food, washing & ironing, and safety. But they are families that welcome us into their culture and language; they teach us what Chile actually is.

For example, the public transport system is a series of many different colored busses called micros. The first few days my madre would show me which micro to take to university and back home, how to ask the micreros for help if we need it, and the general layout of Viña and Vaplo.

My brothers are very much brothers. We share what we need, talk about school and sports, and can ask more difficult questions. Just watching their dynamics and personalities is intriguing. Pancho is much milder and more relaxed, as my madre said. He’s had a steady girlfriend (polola) for five years, doesn’t party all that often, and does well in school. He’s helpful and speaks clearly so I can understand him better. Nacho, meanwhile, is a macho successful athlete party-goer who speaks faster than any Chilean I’ve met. Together, they provide a clear range of what my generation of people do in Chile.

Gender roles are clearly defined in this country. This machismo environment is changing, especially among college students, but it is certainly visible in adults and our families. For example, women cook and clean. This is true of any household here. The madre of my friend in the program was sick this week, so her husband did the cooking. This was the first time my friend saw him cook, where she found out he loves cooking and is arguably better than his wife. In my house, both Toño and Xime cook (they own and operate a cafe in the summer together) but Xime will always clean the pots and pans, clear the table, and sweep the kitchen. Even further, on several occasions the parents of Toño and Xime have come for a meal or two, and without fail both grandmothers (who are at least 80) will clear the table before anyone else can. If/when Pancho and I try to help, we’re told, “I’m used to it, let me do it, don’t worry about it.”

These families have accepted us, and I think their inclusion is the single best way to feel integrated into life abroad. I can speak their language, learn the slang, and taste their food. What else do we need?