Mel in Chile: Is it really over?

December 19, 2013

Is study abroad really over? Well I didn’t have time to ponder on this question for too long. I left Santiago early on a Saturday morning. About a month ago my parents bought me tickets to visit my family in Europe. You cannot imagine my excitement!

So the reason I didn’t have much time to be melancholy about leaving my beloved Santiago was because in five days I was going to board a plane to London to visit my family! What’s more, two weeks after that I would board another plane to Albania to see the rest of my family. You can imagine on our goodbye dinner my emotions were a bit confused. I was extremely sad to leave my life in Santiago behind. On the other hand, I was absolutely ecstatic to see my family. Now that I have arrived in England, and am sitting in this lovely café in Reading, I feel I finally realize that yes it really is over. I will go back to Richmond on January 11th, not Santiago. To be completely honest, I am looking forward to going back to Richmond more than I can express in words. I think after working abroad in the summer in the Dominican Republic, and later studying abroad in Chile, I am looking forward to going back to a familiar and comfortable setting.

I am also a bit anxious. Even though I am coming back to a “familiar place” I wonder if it will be hard to adjust, if I will miss life abroad. When I get back I will dive into a full course load of core business classes. Registration was not too kind to me this semester. I have 8 am classes Mon/Wed/Fri and 9 am classes Tues/Thurs. I sometimes get worried I will be overwhelmed. When I think of all of this I seriously criticize myself for denying myself the opportunity to study abroad another semester in Santiago. It is at this precise moment that I realize why I initially decided to come back to UR.

I came back for the academics, for the resources we have (career center, center for civic engagement, common ground, free tutoring), to have access to professors and other mentors I have at the University, to spend more time with my friends. Most importantly I came back because I am excited to look for the ways I can become more involved in the Richmond community at this point in my academic career. Studying abroad helped me understand who I am and what I care for. I am looking forward to re-entering the Richmond community (both UR and the city of Richmond) as someone a bit different than when I left.


I will finish this blog the same way I started it. This is a picture of Santiago as seen from the top of Cerro San Cristobal

Mel in Chile: Everything you want is right outside your comfort zone.

December 15, 2013

This is the post we have all been waiting for!!! THE END OF STUDY ABROAD YAYYY! That is in fact true. Some days ago I finished my study abroad semester with an SIT program in Santiago, Chile. I imagine the following text will be suspiciously similar to other testimonies of study abroadlings but I’ll do my best to make it a bit different. I will be honest.

In my last entry I talked about how the topic I chose for my independent study project was outside of what I have chose to study at UR. I was a bit nervous about writing so much on something incredibly new but I thought, “ Well this is one of the best opportunities I will have. The grades don’t count as long as I don’t completely blow it. Might as well!” The project was one of the most enjoyable activities I have overtaken. It was refreshing to read things outside of what I am usually exposed to but I was also lucky because I had the opportunity to link traveling for my personal pleasure to my research. It was sort of a multitasking situation.

It was only when I came home that I saw an article circulating around the Facebook community addressing college students who study abroad. It was an article from The Onion hinting, through their infamous satire, the message that study abroad was an excuse to party in Europe or meet cute Latinos in South America. Even more off putting than the article were the responses from fellow study abroaders affirming the overall message of the article! Now I will not make myself the “responsible” student who studied abroad only for the educational opportunities and the broadening of my perspective by living in another culture. I will be honest in saying some of the comments were funny but true. Like all articles form The Onion, it was genius.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but remember all the times I had Skyped with friends and family and talked to them about how much I was learning during my study abroad semester. So when I read the article from The Onion I of course laughed but I also couldn’t stop this strange feeling of “Well that isn’t entirely true. Maybe not even the slightest bit true!” As I said before, I will not deny the Shenanigans, the traveling, the going out with other travelers that were passing by on their way to Patagonia, making new friends with my group, the salsa classes, enjoying the fiestas patrias…and well everything else that comes with study abroad. But…is that so bad? In my opinion, study abroad works best when students take complete advantage of what your city has to offer. We are used to learning only coming from academic spheres, everything from lectures, articles, classes, and books. If you are willing to accept it, an opportunity to study abroad is an opportunity to learn. To learn from people, the culture, other foreign exchange students, the host family, street performers, and everyone around you.  I would highly recommend taking an opportunity to study abroad. But it does not end there. Learning takes initiative and requires a person to be proactive and to be open to new concepts. You will be uncomfortable; you will miss UR, your friends, your professors and the resources offered at our university. The point is to see beyond your previous accommodations, stop comparing between your home and host institution and simply allow yourself to grow from the experience.

“Everything you want is right outside your comfort zone.”

– Robert Allen

The following are images of Chile:

gran torre

This is an image of the Gran Torre de Santiago- the tallest building in Latin America.

indomita vineyard

Old wine bottles at Indomita

isla negra

View from Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra.


We watched the sunset at Valle de la Luna. One of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Mel in Chile: The Final Project

December 10, 2013

Some days ago we closed our SIT Chile: Political Systems and Economic Development study abroad semester. During November I had been working hard (or hardly working?) towards the thirty-page research paper that we submit at the end of a semester abroad with SIT. I have to admit the month of research was an incredible opportunity to test out my ability to work independently. The only deadline to keep in mind was December 4th.

November was full of activities and my schedule looked busy even though I did not have classes. I needed interviews for my research and when you are in Latin America scheduling interviews/any meeting situations with people will prove to be a difficult process. I also chose a topic for my research that I had not studied through classes at Richmond or study abroad. It was a critical analysis of community-based tourism in Valle de Elikura within a mix of post-colonial/anthropological/orientalist theoretical frameworks. I spent half of the month simply looking for articles and reading as much material as I could so I developed a strong background before I started the actual writing.

I sometimes wonder what will happen with the thirty-three-page research paper I wrote in Spanish. It is difficult to convince myself that it will be useful for a class in Richmond since I know the rest of my time will be devoted to fulfilling business class requirements. If I want to use the paper anywhere in the US I would need to translate the entire thing to Spanish. So I sometimes ask myself “Why did you chose to do something ‘irrelevant’? Why didn’t you choose something that is more related to what you study at UR? Chile is would have been a fantastic country for research in any neoliberal related topic.” I am lucky I do not have to think very far to find my reasons. The truth is that I absolutely loved my topic. More importantly I enjoyed the journey of learning something entirely new, processing it, and then applying it as analysis to my fieldwork. I realized I was also wrong to refer to my work as “irrelevant”. This may sound cliché but I understood from personal experience how seemingly distinct areas of study are actually not as unrelated as we sometimes imagine. My research project gave me an opportunity to relate tourism, anthropology, orientalist theory, post colonial theory, Foucault’s notions of relations of power, and basic demand-supply relations within a capitalism economic structure. My study abroad experience allowed me to step back and explore the relationships between different disciplines. I would strongly argue that a study abroad experience is essential to a liberal arts education.


My certificate from Universidad de Santiago de Chile!

Mel in Chile: A lot of time in a few places

December 3, 2013

Last week I went back to Valle Elikura, the location where we engaged in a home stay about a month ago with my study abroad program.

I went back this time because of two main reasons. My research project is an analysis on the experience with community-based tourism in the area. I gave some interviews when I was there with the group but as my research developed and I had a better grasp of the topic in question, I naturally developed questions that were more analytical. Ready with my informed consent forms, I walked down to the bus station as if I was walking to my deathbed, to buy tickets for the overnight nine-hour bus ride to Cañete. My journey would not end there; from Cañete I needed to take another hour-long bus ride to Valle Elikura.

Nevertheless I arrived in Valle Elikura early Sunday morning. Silvia was my host mother when we traveled with my group and I had called her prior to my coming to ask if I could rent the cabin again. She cheerfully agreed and told me she would also provide all three meals. Silvia had left the house early to come meet me at the location where the bus form Cañete dropped me off.

I arrived at the cabin fourteen hours after I left my home in Santiago.

I took the rest of Sunday to rest. Valle de Elicura is an incredibly peaceful place. My room in Santiago faces a very busy street so I was more than happy to trade in the noise of 8 am traffic for the chirping of birds.

I began Monday by starting my work right away. As I greeted familiar faces in Valle de Elicura I felt more and more comfortable every time I spoke with someone I had previously met. This is when I suddenly and pleasantly realized that coming back to visit a place for the second time is an entirely new experience. I enjoyed going back to the river where I ran by on my first visit. After some exploring I found a beautiful meadow. As I lay in the grass, tranquil, away from noise, distractions and other people, I could not help but feel as though I was inside my own conscience. I allowed myself to bathe in this beautiful solitude.

I stayed in Valle de Elicura until Wednesday. I ate all of my meals with Silvia, Lautaro, and Kata (Silvia’s husband and granddaughter). I enjoyed staying with Silvia’s family the first time, but this was even better. It is precisely what I referred to in the above paragraph. I went to visit the people I had interviewed a month ago. The feeling of familiarity, of “Hey! It’s nice to be here again. Nice to see you, how is everything?” is something that feels incredibly warm for me.

Many people have a thirst for constant travel; to hike through as many beautiful mountains as possible, to visit vibrant cities, to jump around countries and see different cultures.

I imagined I would have the same mentality during my study abroad semester in Latin America.

I can assert with confidence that I belong to the other group. I found that I subscribe to the spend- a- lot- of- time- in- a- few- places  philosophy of travel.


Silvia’s cabin in Valle de Elicura


November 13, 2013

A good friend of mine from the University of Richmond is also studying abroad in Chile. His program is in Valparaíso, a coastal city about an hour and a half away from Santiago by bus. I mentioned in an earlier post that Neal came to visit me in Santiago so it was only natural that I traveled to Santiago to return the favor!

I set out for Valpo (an affectionate nickname for Valparaíso) this past Saturday. My plans to arrive early went awry so I did not reach the city until it was midday. I know I talk a lot about traveling in Chile in my posts but believe it or not this was the first time I traveled by myself. If you have noticed, all of the destinations I have mentioned in blog posts have been excursions with the study abroad group. The program was a bit rigorous in that we could not miss any classes. Travel time was strictly allotted to weekends but when you are living in the longest country in the world, you don’t get very far in a weekend. I am now in my month of research without any class obligations so I am much more flexible to travel. In fact, this weekend I am going back to Valle Elikura to visit my homestay family in the south and conduct some interviews that are relevant for my research. I also have not done traveling on my own thus far because I wanted to avoid becoming a tourist. All my travels so far have been, and will continue to be, for a specific purpose. I think this is a way I have personally tried to step away from typical ecotourism or ethnic tourism.

Anyway, Valparaíso is close enough for a day trip. I was really happy that I was visiting Neal in Valpo and not simply going to sightsee. Neal is also someone very aware of social and political dynamics in Chile and I knew I would “experience Valpo” through a particular lens. The first thing we did was hike up to a neighborhood in Valpo that is known for murals. Valparaíso in itself is known to have a lot of murals. Some carry particular social commentary and others are simply beautiful works of art. World-renowned artists have also crafted beautiful murals in the city. You can imagine the street art makes Valparaíso an incredibly colorful city. The neighborhood we visited is known as the most famous area for public art. The murals are simply drawn outside of private homes with the permission of the homeowner. Many times the mural engulfs the entire outer wall of the house.

mural #2


Examples of the many beautiful murals in Valparaíso

Valparaíso is a port city that is spread out almost entirely on hills. Any activity from going to the cemetery to the small neighborhood coffee shop five minutes away is a full-blown hike. One would go mad if they tried to orient him/herself around the city using street names. Those are arbitrary. I learned if you want to get somewhere, you pick out a reference point close to your destination and you head towards that direction. As you are walking, you have to constantly check your position in relation to the reference point and adjust your path accordingly.


The city has many stairs like these that people can use to “climb up” to other streets. They can get pretty steep!

Overall, I enjoyed Valparaíso. I think I would have been extremely happy to live there as well. The city isn’t too big to be overwhelming and cold, but it is big enough represent a lot of socioeconomic diversity. It isn’t too small where it may be “boring” or monotonous, but small enough to exude a strong and particular character.

I will definitely return for another visit.


Colorful Valparaíso

Mel in Chile: The South Part 3

November 8, 2013

Last time you heard from me, I finished writing about my homestay with a Mapuche family in a small valley called Valle Elikura.

We left Valle Elikura early Monday morning. We spent the next part of the trip in Dichato, a small town in the southern coast of Chile. We also took two classes in Universidad de Concepción about the economic, political and social influence of the forestry industry.

Before I start talking about the activities during the final days of our trip, I would like to share how I felt after Valle Elikura.

I think it’s safe to say when we travel and spend time with other people who are culturally or ethnically different than our own group, we tend to hope our time with them will attend to some questions, or curiosities. Likewise, I hoped that my time in the homestay in the Valle Elikura would answer many questions I had thought of in preparation for the trip. How did they feel about being surrounded by the forestales (general term for forestry companies)? Is there a space for the community and the forestales to discuss terms of mutual agreement for future plans? How had the concept of “ser Mapuche” (literally meaning “to be Mapuche) evolved through history? In which ways did this identity adapt to the political context of each time period? What are the major discontents of the Mapuche community in Valle Elikura with the Chilean state?

I refer specifically to the community in Valle Elikura because I wanted stay away from the fallacy of assuming that the Mapuche are a homogenous group. I did assume that everyone in Valle Elikura would share the same identity, have similar political views, and generally organize around the same “vision” for the community. I quickly found out my notion was embarrassingly wrong. To begin with, most of the families in Valle Elikura have one Chilean parent. My host father was a priest in an Evangelical church while the director of our homestay expressed great discontent with the infiltration of Western, monolithic religions in the Mapuche community. As I became aware of these dichotomies, I raised questions that tried to go deeper into learning more about the people living in Valle Elikura.

The more I tried to “learn” during the five days of my homestay, the more I felt I didn’t understand. It’s as if I walked into a cave. In the beginning, I had a torch with a small fire. I could see clearly as far as the light from the fire would allow me. But, as the fire grew and the light became bigger, I realized the immensity of the cave.

At the end of our second day, I wrote ten pages front and back of reflection in my journal. My mind never stopped thinking.

I never got to the bottom to any of my questions. It is impossible.

In this post, I wanted to share a bit of my personal reflection of the trip.

It was a milestone experience. I didn’t answer questions. It was the first time I put incredibly effort into resolving my inquiries and realized I could not do it. I could not reduce thousands of years of history and social processes and point to one fragment to say “this is the answer.” This may sound like an amazing and valuable epiphany, and it is. But when I was just understanding the complexity, I was very discouraged that I would never “fully” understand.

In my own opinion, I say I have a passion for the pursuit of knowledge. When I realized this pursuit would raise more questions than it answered, I became very cynical. I thought, “If I will never fully understand these concepts, then I should stop wasting my time trying.”

I am thankful I took some time to track where I learned to relate obtaining answers with successful pursuit of knowledge. I need not look any further than my current curriculum as a university student. My classes thus far have taught me to look for answers. They have taught me that assets should always equal liabilities. They taught me to model consumer behavior according to models and mathematical equations. I think somewhere in my 14 years of schooling, I learned to appreciate and value linear ways of thinking. The problem is at the top and through several processes of analyses and deconstruction, I arrived at the bottom; “the answer”.

The experience in the south broke that nonsensical concept.


On the way to Dichato from Valle Elikura

Mel in Chile: The South Part 2

November 6, 2013

For those of you who have been following (don’t worry, I don’t have high expectations. Kidding- I actually suspect hundreds of thousands of people read my blog. Wow this must be the world’s biggest parenthetical insert) this post “The South Part 2” is the second of a three part series that reflects on the ten day excursion I took with my program in the South of Chile.  I apologize to readers who do not like long sentences.

We left Ralco after three days and two nights of relaxation as well as an hour long research methods class sitting on grass, in a circle, with a mountain split three ways as the background.

We headed for Valle Elikura. This valley, located close to the Pacific Ocean, between Contulmo and Cañete, has a population of about two thousand. Valle Elikura is historically territory that belongs to the Mapuche indigenous peoples. While there continues to be a strong Mapuche population, many of the families are also mixed with one of the parents being Chilean. Here we participated in a homestay for five days.


A lake in Valle Elikura

During the day we had several planned events as a group; lectures, hikes through native forest, discussions with community members, community work, and most importantly time to be with our host family. Many families in the community have built cabins on their own property where they receive tourists. We were broken up into groups of two or three and each group lived in the cabins. The cabins are separate from the main house, but all we spent a lot of time with the family during meals and free time.

An important reason we traveled to Valle Elikura was to learn about the concept of community tourism. Many of us have traveled outside of the country. In these instances we have all participated in tourism where we experienced a different culture. At first glance, tourism seems as nothing more than exciting new adventures. Through this program, I have studied the legacies and implications of tourism and came to realize some unsettling characteristics.

Many times tourism, especially showcasing “other” ethnicities, resonates with colonial legacies. I will give some clearer examples.

1. Recently wed US couples travel to Fiji and are greeted by locals dressed in “traditional attire” and presented exotic drinks.

2. Twenty something young women step out of their comfort zone and take a much deserved vacation in India where they ride an elephant and get henna tattoos

3. Bold backpackers arrive to the desert village of San Pedro de Atacama and walk around the dirt streets of the village center passing through stores with “hand made/local” products, touring agencies, restaurants, and hostels made of adobe. Meanwhile Atacameño people, whose culture is being replicated for consumption, are nowhere to be seen.

I hope you get my point. Most times, the purpose of tourism is to explore, or more directly, consume, a different culture. The colonial legacy comes mainly from two circumstances. The first is that many times tourism is imposed on communities. The decision to welcome tourists in particular territories originates from higher political or economic agencies. Touring agencies offer services, companies build nice hotels, and the local people in the stores selling “artisanal products”. Tourists are not aware that the “local” people selling artisanal souvenirs are simply hired to sell. They do not own the store and they did not make the product. The souvenirs may not even come from the culture. The overwhelming majority of profits generated from tourist related activities are channeled to national or multinational companies. Another source of the colonial legacy in tourism becomes apparent when we look at the characteristics of the tourists and of the people in the regions they tour.  It will not take long to realize many tourist are from western and/or ex colonizing countries while the destination is usually an exotic country that also most likely an ex colony.

In Valle Elikura, the practice of community tourism is trying to break this relationship. Through community tourism, the Mapuche community appropriates tourism as an instrument through which they assert agency. Tourists who stop in Valle Elikura stay in a cabin that directly belongs to a family. The tourist will buy food from families in Valle Elikura. If they want to purchase artisanal items, there are a few people  in the valley who make the items from start to finish.

Take Rosa for example. She has a store in front of her house where she mainly sells knitted items. Rosa shaves her sheep to get the wool. She washes the wools, spins it and prepares the thread so it is ready to be died. Rosa takes plants of different colors from the garden in front of her house and boils them to produce the color for the wool. She takes the threads and leaves it in the die so the wool absorbs the color. Rosa takes the dies wool and begins knitting apparel to sell in her store. The prices are incredibly reasonable.

The objective for community tourism is to decolonize both the local community and the tourist. The tourism has control over how tourism of their culture and in their territories will happen. The money generated over tourist activities is channeled directly to the families of Valle Elikura.

In my opinion, the tourist still consumes a vision of the “other” culture they traveled to see. However, in the case of community tourism, the community “shows” its own culture. More importantly the local community can directly communicate with the tourist. The communication can be a way of educating visitors on issues that may be misrepresented by the media.

The distinctive characteristic of community tourism is that the community voluntarily decides to receive tourists and how they will administrate tourism.

During our trip, we also learned about Mapuche history, their struggle for autonomy, and their effort to maintain unity within a now diverse indigenous group (diverse in terms of political views, religion, way of living, etcetera). The community was not only welcoming, but also incredibly patient in discussions with a group of young students from the United States like us.


I went on a run to the river and sat down a bit to take in the scenery and a quick photo!

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