I've met very few Chileans who haven't asked me why I chose to come to Chile. The funny thing is that after years of having to answer this question practically every time I make a new acquaintance, I still haven't come up with an articulate answer. I'm afraid I'll offend Chileans if I tell them that the decision had a lot to do with process of elimination and with the fact that we outsiders find some things about their country just plain strange.
I had been dreaming about study abroad since I was about seven years old. As a kid, I had a flag collection, a bevy of "international" dolls, and Christmas lists that included atlases and globes. While researching colleges in high school, I immediately discarded those without a wide range of study abroad options. So I think it would be safe to say that when my sophomore year in college finally rolled around, there were a few months when study abroad plans took priority over classes, social life and pretty much everything else.
As a Spanish major, I had a number of options. I had reservations about a few of them. I feared that Spain, the most traditional destination for students in my major, would be overrun with exchange students and therefore would not be an ideal place in which to submerge myself in 24-7 Spanish. Additionally, I thought I wanted to study immigration law at the time, so my interests lay mostly on this side of the Atlantic.
But Mexico seemed too close to home (if only geographically), and I pictured Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic as being too touristy -- not to mention sweltering. I wanted to go somewhere where I could integrate myself into a daily routine, where I could get to know the country by experiencing the ordinary. Not that the ordinary doesn't exist for people in the tropics; I just felt it would be easier for me to become a part of it in a place where I would be less likely to be dismissed as merely another foreigner on a beach vacation.
I thought acquiring the Argentines' very unique accent would mark me for life (oh, how little I knew about Chilean Spanish), so it all came down to a battle between Ecuador and Chile. Both appealed to me because I knew very little about them. My ignorance was far from on par with that of those who can't find these countries on a map, but the fact remained that my specific knowledge about Chile and Ecuador was relatively minimal. So was that of most people I knew, for that matter. I began to relish the idea of striking out into uncharted territory and making it my home.
I would eventually live in both Chile in Ecuador. For study abroad, however, I chose Chile. One of the available exchange programs in Santiago promised both direct enrollment in top-notch Chilean universities -- yes, I actually did go abroad to study -- and a service-learning component. I figured getting involved in a local community would be a wonderful way to get to know -- and give back to -- the country that was going to be kind enough to adopt me for a year. The universities themselves, one of which was public, were right inside Santiago itself. In Ecuador, on the other hand, I would have been studying at an exclusive private university based on a U.S. model and located in an equally exclusive area outside of Quito proper. I suspected I would be forced into a bubble.
It wasn't all about process of elimination, though. I was intrigued, like most gringo exchange students are, by Chile's charged social and political history. I was drawn to Chile's strangeness: its fancifully absurd shape, its isolation. The place was a renegade candy cane hooked onto the end of the world. The country's varied, stunning landscapes also played a role, although not a central one: I was going abroad to immerse myself in another everyday reality, not to spend every weekend on a bus.
So it was that I packed my bags and, as cliche as it sounds, boarded a flight that would change the course of my life.
I realize now that this is kind of a boring story. Maybe that's why I haven't come up with a succinct way to tell it to people I meet. I'm short on time today, so I'll have to save what I think is the much more interesting sequel -- why I didn't and then did come back to Chile after college -- for this weekend or early next week. Meanwhile, check out what other Chile bloggers posted on this topic. The list is on Kyle's blog.