I finally arrived in Valdivia, Chile, after 22 hours of flying, 12 hours of sitting at the bus station in Santiago with a friend I met on Facebook beforehand, and an 11-hour bus ride. Valdivia is a compact city of about 140,000 that is falling off the southern edge of the map. It is the most important city in southern Chile and is located on mainland Chile, right before the country breaks into islands and archipelagos. It rains here. A lot. The locals often jokingly call the city “Val-lluvia,” a pun on the Spanish word for rain, lluvia.
On average, Valdivia receives 106 inches of rain a year—nearly three times what Seattle does. The surrounding countryside is incredibly lush and green. Much of the surrounding area is a temperate rainforest, minutes away from the cold waters of the South Pacific. The city is surrounded by three rivers that drain a number of large lakes farther inland, toward the Andes.
One of the most apparent aspects of Valdivia is that it is very cold in the winter. When it rains, it looks like a Hollywood film—the kind that always used to make me think, “Oh, it never actually rains like that.” The cold is much different from the dry, mountain chill of Bozeman. It is a wet, frigid cold that penetrates your very bones. Houses are not heated in Chile, and on particularly cold mornings, I can see my breath. My room has a small estufa, which is basically a propane space heater, so I turn it on in the mornings and while I am getting ready for bed. We cannot use estufas at night, because doing so would be very dangerous.
When I arrived at the bus station, a kind older lady asked me if I was Mónica’s student, and when I said yes, she offered to take me to my house, after picking up her student. Soon, she had dropped me off at my house and said goodbye. I met Mónica, my host mother, who is a short, blonde Chilean and who speaks very quickly. She doesn’t know very much English, but was often able to help me out when I didn’t understand something.
Once I had unpacked a little bit, I was eager to wash off the grime of two days of traveling, and it turns out that I was also in for quite the cultural experience. Americans often whine when they run out of hot water, but they have never showered in South America. In Chile, we use a calefón, which is a small propane water heater. Before showering, you have to light the pilot light and open the water pipe leading to the calefón. While showering, the water temperature varies erratically from warm to freezing to scalding, with the only warning being the hiss of more propane being burned.
I live in a pension, which is a very different experience than anything I have had before. I live on the main floor with Mónica, her six-year-old daughter Martina, and Mónica’s parents, Heriberto and Berta. On the upper floor, we have nine boarders who are all studying at the University Austral de Chile. I eat lunch with them, but get to participate in family activities, so it seems like the best of both worlds. We are on Avenue Ramón Picarte, one of the main streets in the city, and are close to downtown and to the Costanera, which is a lovely path that follows the river Calle-Calle and passes by the fish market and many of the brightly colored houses of Valdivia.