It seemed simple enough. Get off the plane in Santiago on Tuesday morning, collect my bags, and head to the well-reviewed Santiago Backpackers Hostel. The first part went as expected, though customs deemed it wise for some mystical reason to take my bag of dried cherries while ignoring my even bigger bag of dried cherries and almonds. (This ended up being a theme at border crossings: the border guards were hilariously inconsistent in what they decided could pass the border and what had to be thrown.) After that I even successfully made it to the Centropuerto bus that would take me downtown and paid my 1,600 peso fare without issue. Whoo!, I thought. Way to go, Rinker! First adventure victory in the bag.
But it was on that very bus that things got interesting. You see, the Centropuerto bus is just a normal bus, no luggage storage beneath. That means that I had my hulking orange behemoth of a backpack (lovingly nicknamed “Mochi”, a pun involving a favorite snack of mine and the Spanish word for “backpack”) stuffed between my legs in a window seat. And, as luck would have it, a Chilean lady immediately sat in the aisle seat next to me. I immediately started to panic. Oh, crap, what if her stop is after mine? HOW WILL I GET OFF THIS BUS WITHOUT WHAPPING MOCHI INTO THIS NICE CHILEAN LADY??? So, I did what I normally do when I start to panic.
I struck up a conversation.
Now, this is where I miscalculated a little bit. You see, Chilean Spanish is completely, absolutely, absurdly different from school Spanish. We’re talking a very strong accent (say goodbye to the “s”s at the ends of words and the “d”s sandwiched between vowels) combined with a bunch of Chilean-specific words (called “modismos“) and, to top everything off, a speaking cadence that is very fast. Needless to say, I learned very quickly to say “Once more, slowly please?” in Spanish after pretty much every sentence.
That being said, it was actually a very fun conversation with this lovely Chilean lady, whom I learned was named Patricia (Pati for short). I’d been hankering for a chance to practice my Spanish, and here I was fresh off the boat (well, plane) getting to talk with a Chilean! So cool! Pati asked me about what I did for a living, what I was doing in Chile, what my plans were, whether I was traveling alone, etc., and I did my best to respond coherently. (It turns out speaking is a totally different mental exercise than listening or reading, and I was completely out of practice.) She even pointed out her husband, Nelson, a few rows up and mentioned that he was a professor of electrical engineering when I mentioned I was a mechanical engineer. But after a while she asked me a question that I didn’t understand.
“¿Quieres ir a Viña conmigo?”
I understood that she was inviting me to go somewhere, but I had no idea what, or where, “Viña” was. Turns out it’s short for “Viña del Mar”, a city on the coast of Chile about two hours northwest of Santiago. Viña del Mar is actually right next to the city of Valparaíso, which I had heard was a very cool destination worth visiting. Of course, I didn’t know anything about the geographical location of Viña del Mar at the time. All I knew was that I was getting invited to travel with this lady and her husband, whom I had met MINUTES ago, to their house that was…somewhere.
And you know what? I FREAKING WENT.
I thought, Hey, why not? I’m looking for an adventure! My instincts were telling me that there was nothing to fear from this couple, I had no fixed schedule, and my goal of the trip was to meet Chilean people. And come on, was there a better way to practice my Spanish than being well and truly immersed with native speakers!? Absolutely, definitely not. So…I went!