When the Study Abroad Dream Bites Back

Life was golden. For five months, my only responsibilities were to study, soak up culture, and build a life-changing adventure of my own. I chose the sparkling jewel of Valparaiso, the Chilean port city 90 minutes west of Santiago, because the program promised Spanish immersion and proximity to the ocean. I met amazingly kind people, I stood in landscapes that took my breath away, and I got to travel.

Yet, the experience was sorely challenging. Halfway through my semester, unable to withstand it any longer, I did the unthinkable. I turned away from my study abroad dream and went home. And it ended up being one of the most self-defining decisions of my life.

In the beginning, it was all new sites, new friends and bubbling excitement. My new city seemed to welcome me with open arms. Within my first few days, a friend of a friend of a friend took me and two of my study abroad friends on a five-hour tour around the city (called Valpo by anyone and everyone cool). My classmates clamored to help me with notes, and made sure I was fed and comfortable on surprise field trips to stunning botanic gardens and otherworldly sand dunes. I came to think of Chile as the place of sharing as I marveled at the street-side snack vendors selling cookies in packs of 12 or more because it was assumed you’d be sharing.

The next morning I woke with a nasty cold, and three bites on my stomach. I had fleas! Apparently in rainstorms, fleas jump off the dogs and onto people to get dry.

The apartment I shared with my host parents was at the epicenter of my Chile experience. I reveled in the attention I’d get as I’d burst into our sunny apartment with an “hola” and was greeted by big hugs and kisses while I hung my keys on my designated hook by the door. We had a close bond. They had lost a son a few years prior and I had lost my father. We filled voids for each other and loved each other deeply. Our laughter over long meals and soap operas before bed was incredibly healing.

Just when I was starting to feel like a real portena (a woman of Valpo), a month into the trip, the city began biting back with a vengeance. Almost literally. During a walk along the ocean before class, some stray dogs decided they didn’t like the look of my new gringa confidence.

Three fierce strays with the strength of Pitbulls and size of German Shepherds sprinted towards me and circled around snarling, barking and jumping as high as my 5-foot-10 forehead. Three teenage boys strolled up and shooed the dogs away with ease. I turned to the boys with tears welling up in my eyes, and muttered, “Gracias, gracias, muchas gracias”. Again, kind young Chileans came to my rescue. I turned and bolted to class, pushed past the students and snack carts on busy downtown Avenida Brasilia, anxiously scanning for the stray dogs that usually roamed that street. The tears hit as I was safe at school. I didn’t want the dogs to see me cry.

By four in the morning I curled up in my flea-infested bed with the rocking of the aftershocks and the crooning lullaby of the tsunami warnings echoing throughout the city lulling me to sleep.

Later that month, it rained for five straight days. The hills of Valpo transformed into rivers of water and waves swept cars into the ocean. It was the biggest rainstorm in decades. The rain didn’t look that bad, so some friends and I ignored the warnings and went to see a movie. Getting there was easy, and the movie was good. But when we left the roads around the mall were gone. We were surrounded by knee-high water. The only way out was through.

The next morning I woke with a nasty cold, and three bites on my stomach. I had fleas! Apparently in rainstorms, fleas jump off the dogs and onto people to get dry. My host family suspected I got them in the crowded bus the day before. Despite all eradication efforts, I awoke the next morning with more bites. Our purging attempts continued, to no avail. I stopped counting at 45 bites. I was instructed to buy some bug repellent cream to wear to bed and just wait it out. So, every night I doused every inch of my skin in chemical-filled bug repellent before bed. I’d fall asleep to fleas crawling all over my body. My apartment was no longer my beautiful refuge.

In Valpo, the hills of jewel-toned houses looking over the sea were visible from every window of my apartment – even from the shower – and they filled me with wonder. I marveled over beautiful cliffs overlooking the ocean. I’d found peace surfing in the ice-cold Pacific and hiking among the desert mountains of the north. I was in love with the landscape. But then it, too, turned against me in a raging 7.9 earthquake.

The decision redefined the course of my life. It was my first action of radical self-love. It took great strength to turn away from all that I, my family, and community expected, and to listen to my own intuition.

The first and strongest three tremors hit at 7pm in the middle of September. The two subsequent major shocks sent my host mom and I flying across an archway in our apartment where we were hiding for shelter. Color drained from my face as we held each other upright and our apartment shook violently under our feet and all around us.

Tsunami warnings echoed throughout the city. The apartment shook all night. Safe from tsunami tides in our seventh-floor apartment, we watched the news, Skyped our families to let them know we were okay, and huddled on the couch. A few major shocks sent us running back to our protective arch. By four in the morning I curled up in my flea-infested bed with the rocking of the aftershocks and the crooning lullaby of the tsunami warnings echoing throughout the city lulling me to sleep.

Directly afterwards my efforts at school plummeted, my social life stalled, and my phone calls home got more frequent. The dogs stopped snarling. But the fleas kept biting, the ground kept shaking, and my heart kept breaking. I could not believe a place I loved so dearly could be causing me so much despair.

I swallowed my pride, packed up and left just in time to get home for Canadian Thanksgiving. The decision redefined the course of my life. It was my first action of radical self-love. It took great strength to turn away from all that I, my family, and community expected, and to listen to my own intuition. I waved goodbye to the beautiful landscapes, cried with those I cared about, and was overcome with gratitude for the sites seen and lessons learned. I’m so glad I turned away to heal and let the dogs win.

About franceswcarr

Frances Carr is news director. He occasionally writes about technology, video games, food and fitness.

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