I can still smell the streets. I can close my eyes and plunge forward, my legs knowing. I know how many steps from my apartment to the courtyard full of palm trees, know how high to reach up and pluck an orange from the tree hanging over the walkway. I can follow the sound of an acoustic guitar begging for change and feel the dust and sun disturbed by my steps. Past the warm smelling panadería, the jovial newspaper stand, the bickering horns of traffic. I am in the underground metro, consumed by the metallic smell of steel and people, wedged into a train, standing a head taller than everyone around me. Blue and blond contrasted to a continent characterized by bronzed skin and tawny hair, the ultimate gringo. I can feel myself pushing through throngs of people and resurfacing at Plaza Italia, the people and traffic ebbs and flows under the gaze of the Virgin Mary high up on Cerro San Cristóbal. The sun illuminates the metal spikes and bars that dress the windows and walls of the buildings along Calle Monjitas and stray dogs wander along the green spaces that straddle the muddy waters of the Mapocho. Suddenly the street opens up to the Plaza de Armas, the meeting place of Santiago, where the grand Catedral de Santiago stands guard like an old dusty citadel. I turn right towards the river, parting the sunshine like the Red Sea, moving past vendors squawking their goods and gypsies offering to read the future in the lines of your palm. The streets become dustier, the smell intensifies, the warmth and dirt and life fills my nostrils. The streets are beautiful, carpeted in dust and history and a culture that’s not my own. Everyone floats along the streets, carefree and slow paced the sun pulls them down the old bricked walkways. I’m in the centre of La Vega, a sprawling open air market, stalls overflowing with fresh produce and filled with the low murmur of voices. The stalls blossom out in neat rows on either side of me but I head directly to the same corner vendor as always, her tawny weathered face gleams when she sees, “Hola joven!” she yells through a bright grin. I smile and greet her and exchange brightly coloured bills for bags of paltas, tomates, manzanas, frutillas, naranjas, platanos, papas and choclo. My backpack bulging with all the bounty that this beautiful country has to offer I finish my weekly ritual with a freshly made juice from two old chilenas who giggle when I try to speak in a Chilean slang. I walk back out into the streets and smile, I can smell the sun, I can smell the dust, I can smell the streets.
Moving to Santiago for my study abroad was the best decision I have ever made. Studying Spanish in my first two years of my International Business degree, I always knew I wanted to travel to South America. While my classmates pondered between Barcelona and Madrid, I battled with the decision between the cities of a continent soaked in sun and adventure. Chile made sense, the opportunity to live in a developed country in South America, with so much opportunity and experiences, and the chance to study at one of the most renowned schools in Latin America, Universidad de Chile. Early on I had my heart set on Chile, I read everything I could about it’s culture, geography, economy, and history. I read about the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia who stood atop Cerro Santa Lucia and planned the city of Santiago, about the steadfast Mapuche natives who fought the Spanish invaders for centuries, about the brutal military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, and the emergence of Chile as an influential nation in Latin America.
Needless to say I fell in love with Chile immediately, from the very first moment I looked out the windows of the plane, mesmerized by the Andes, the spine of the world that ran along South America from Colombia all the way to the Tierra del Fuego. In an instant all the anxiety and fear and uncertainty I had felt for days before leaving Canada was obliterated, when I stepped off that plane into the dry heat of Santiago I was filled with an immense excitement. The city amazed me, the architecture, the smells, the sounds, the people, the litre bottles of beer for three dollars, it was like nothing I had ever experienced. I could barely understand a word that was said to me, the Chilean dialect was so rapid and condensed and littered with slang words, but none of it mattered, I could point and struggle with my broken Spanish, and thrive! I could gorge myself on empanadas, choripan, cheap wine and beer. I could meet new people every day, see new sights and experience new things, every single morning was bright and new and the beginning of an adventure that went late into the night surrounded by new friends in a new place.
I was in a new exotic place, but I was home, I had something I had never experienced before, complete spontaneity, I could point at any place on the map and say “I want to go there”, and that is exactly what I did. I took my first step off that plane and in the next moment my body dissolved into a million pieces, a million pieces that scattered to the far corners of the world.