My dad had just been granted a sabbatical year to continue his volcanology research and he also received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach geology at the University of Santiago, Chile. How does one pass up opportunities like this? You can’t. And thus began my parent’s risky decision to upend my family’s modest New York life and trade it in for a year in South America. With four young children in tow (I had yet to be adopted), my parents spent the next six months packing up their home and their lives. Everything they owned somehow squeezed into our already cramped basement — a difficult feat. Family and friends told them they were ludicrous. They ignored the comments, though they did question whether or not they were making the right choice. They wouldn’t know the effect of their decision until a year later.
August 1995 - August 1996
My dad had traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras, and he managed to use his amalgamation of Central American Spanish to order food, ask for directions, and decipher written Spanish. He was proficient and spoke with the heaviest gringo accent, but at the time he was the sole Spanish speaker in the family. He used what he knew to establish a life for my family in Santiago. For a month my family lived in a hotel room before finding a comfortable apartment.
Tasked with finding a school for three elementary-aged children and a pre-school for a two-year-old, my mom used her exceptional research skills, working diligently like a detective to find the best schools for my siblings. One afternoon my mom visited one of the many parks in Santiago. She rested on the bench while my siblings played on the dirt path. She spoke in French to Neelam, my sister adopted from India, whose orphanage spoke French and Hindi. A nearby onlooker approached my mom, intrigued that a white woman was speaking French to a brown child. In her mind this made little sense, but as a French speaker herself, she longed to practice her favorite language with someone, anyone. Together my mom and MaryAnn, the French-speaking stranger, sat talking with one another and watching their young children interact despite language barriers, sowing the seeds for a most unexpected twenty-one-year (and counting) friendship.
MaryAnn assisted my parents in finding a suitable, comfortable apartment and schools for my siblings. At the schools she was noted as an additional emergency contact. She had five children of her own, all within the same age range as my siblings. Playdates were scheduled and everyone had a friend. In a few months our families became inseparable. During long weekends our families traveled to Bucalemu, MaryAnn’s family’s ocean-side ranch house, or their Pirque winery. Together ten young children ran and screamed through the tall grasses of the ranch, and built cardboard boats and floated down rivers near their winery. Friends quickly became family; my family attended the annual Errazuriz family camping trip in the Andes Mountains. The Errazuriz family imprinted themselves on my family’s life and vice-versa.
In August 1996 the families exchanged hugs, tears were wiped from faces, and hands waved in friendly “see you again soon” gestures.
August 2001 - August 2002
Planted in 1995, our friendship continued to blossom beautifully. In 2001, my dad was granted another sabbatical year to research igneous petrology (volcanic rocks). He and my mother spent little time discussing where to go because they both knew where they wanted to be: Santiago. Chile called my family back because of the friends made and memories created there. My parents felt comfortable and knew they had the Errazuriz’s unyielding support. And so another six months were spent packing away our lives, again cramming it into our now saturated basement.
MaryAnn and Diego, MaryAnn’s husband, helped us find an apartment big enough for seven people, as I was the new addition to my family. Our apartment was within walking distance to our school, the same school my siblings attended six years ago, John Dewey College (JDC). Our salmon-colored Las Dalias penthouse apartment in Providencia boasted views of the towering Andes, had a wraparound terrace, and became a roller skating rink, playground, and entertaining space for school friends and guests.
Our families spent weekends at Bucalemu riding horses through the grasses and eucalyptus forests and to the nearby Pacific beaches. Together we children collected chicken eggs, rode our bikes to the rural shop, and baked traditional Chilean and US dishes. We played cards at the family room table and “Bucalemu” became the secret word whispered among the youngsters when we schemed about our evening plans behind our parents’ backs. When the lights flickered off we exchanged worried looks and nervous laughs, and then minutes later raced to the neighboring homestead to find the cause of the power outage: a black-necked swan who had flown into the powerlines. Immediately we children suggested we prepare it for that evening’s dinner, but we were quickly told no. The flames of ocean-side bonfires flirted with the daylight and the evening stars. Diego’s classic rock cassette tapes crackled in the background; Billy Joel, The Beatles, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and more played continuously and became the soundtrack of all my Chilean memories.
In August 2002 we again traded hugs, tears were wiped from each other’s faces, and hands waved through open windows in friendly “see you in six more years” gestures.
August 2009 - August 2010
The Errazuriz family awaited us just outside of baggage claim. Hugs and besitos (kisses on the cheek) were doled out to everyone. Seven years later we were back for our third excursion in Chile, again thanks to my dad’s sabbatical. We collected our luggage and piled into two Broncos where we made our way to MaryAnn’s and Diego’s house. There we were welcomed with our favorite dish: erizos, raw sea urchins marinated in lemon juice. After all these years, it became tradition for us to eat erizos on our first day back in Chile with the Errazuriz family.
Again, MaryAnn and Diego helped us find a temporary hotel while we searched for an apartment. And although we looked at different schools, we decided to return once again to John Dewey College. We were greeted with looks of surprise and hugs as we reunited with our elementary school classmates and friends. Within three weeks we settled into our new apartment, started school, and another year-long Chilean adventure.
This year we traded weekend trips to Bucalemu for longer vacation weeks at Lago Ranco, the Errazuriz’s lake house. We traveled together during February, the heart of Chile’s summer season, to Region de los siete lagos (Seven Lakes District), split between Argentina and Chile. Southern rains soaked through our tents and clothes, mud clung to the side of our trusty, rusty sidekick, M&M, our same Mitsubishi adventure jeep from the early 2000s. On a rainless day we traveled to nearby Chaiten, a town decimated by a 2009 volcanic eruption. Ash reached the windows of houses, the shoreline retreated a hundred meters, and only two hundred of the 4,000 original residents returned to their desolate hometown. We fished in the frigid lakes, skinned, cooked, and ate our fresh catch, and saved the rest for later. Together we carpooled to Lago Ranco, smuggling our abundant fish supply across the border. Long, hot summer days slowly transitioned into cool summer evenings. The smells: bonfires, chorizo, blood sausage, toasted marraquetas (a specific Chilean bread) wafted through the air and made our stomachs grumble. Our nights ended with memory sharing around the fire, Diego’s familiar classic rock playlist playing in the background.
In August 2010 we dried our tears and hugged each other over and over again, as if for the last time. And this time, for some reason it did seem final. Perhaps because my father’s next sabbatical wouldn’t be the same; my siblings and I would be well out of college and leading our own lives. The Errazuriz children would be entering new school years, graduating college, and getting married. Our lives and adventures together could no longer be promised every six years. We parted, both families knowing that our histories, voyages, and memories would bind us forever. We anticipated our next encounter, our next memory inducing escapade.
I learned from my parents that when we take chances we sacrifice knowing what will come next — we sacrifice our comfort. I learned that the chances we take become our careers, families, and values, or our favorite memories and stories, while others become our most valuable lessons.
Some chances we take affect us minimally, but profoundly influence somebody else. Living abroad in Chile, learning Spanish, and traveling throughout South America ignited my desire to speak foreign languages for the rest of my life and to travel to faraway places. I fell so in love with speaking Spanish that I chose to continue studying the language in college and made using Spanish for a job my number one post-college priority. Unknowingly, my parent’s daring move in 1995 became a fateful decision for me — it helped me discover my own interests and career path.
As you read through this month’s pieces take some time to reflect on the many chances you took and the chances you have yet to take. Embrace the unknown and be willing to let go of your comfortable, for your decision to walk a different road, talk with a stranger, or move to a distant land may very well change who you become.
Photos by author.
Kalindi Naslund is a multi-local Spanish teacher, traveler, home chef, reader, and freelance writer. She currently lives in Catalonia, Spain where she teaches students English and takes Catalan classes. While she’s not busy in the classroom teaching or learning, she explores the Catalonian region, makes frequent visits to Barcelona, and travels around Europe.