Invariably, travel plans change. Buses run late, towns or roads get flooded, earthquakes happen (in Chile anyway) and people change their plans. One week ago I didn't think I'd still be in Santiago today, but I am and here's why.
During my time in La Serena I was fortunate to meet another amazing group of people. Among them were Tania and her friend Veronica. As I was leaving a day before them, we arranged to catch up on their return to Santiago the next day. Using a combination of Google Translate, Google Images and some assistance from a Spanish/English fluent friend, Tania explained that her mother would be making humitas for lunch on Saturday and I was invited. I said goodbye to my friends in La Serena the following day, they offered me a lift to the train station as they were headed in that direction to the beach. I politely declined as there were already 8 people in the car.
Apart from the 400km of picturesque coastline from La Serena back to Santiago, the bus journey was unremarkable. I arrived late at my hostal in Providencia, Aji Hostal, and crossed my fingers for a free bed. I was in luck.
I took the metro to Principe de Gales on Saturday afternoon and walked across to Tania's house. It is reminiscent of any inner-city, suburban terraced home in that every ounce of space is used – even the roof – and makes for a cosy three bedroom family home. Upon arrival I met Tania's mother in the kitchen surrounded by the most sweetcorn I have ever seen in my life. One thing I love about South American home cooking is that the rule seems to be to make as much mess as is physically possible and simply clean it up later after everybody has eaten. Believe me, there was corn everywhere.
Also in attendance were her brother Sebastian and his girlfriend Laura and their fearsome guard dog, Samantha, who isn't so much fearsome as completely and utterly 'loco'. At the mention of the word 'Gato!', Samantha feels it is her duty to do laps of the house, barking like crazy, until everyone has finished laughing. I tried to teach Samantha the word 'Cat', but she just looked at me like I was a stupid gringo.
Tania's mother was making Pastel de Choclo and Humitas, both maize-based, South American dishes. I helped her prepare the Pastel de Choclo, which consists of mashed corn, half a boiled egg, one olive, minced beef and a piece of chicken, baked in a clay dish. I left the Humitas to the expert, which is mashed corn wrapped in small corn leaf parcels, which are then boiled and eaten with diced tomato and sugar. Lunch was a delicious cacophony of Spanish, as I constantly strained to pick up any familiar words from the conversation across the dinner table. Sebastian plied me with beer which, oddly enough, seemed to help.
I spent the afternoon practicing new Spanish words, laughing at jokes I didn't understand and marveling at how families, no matter where they are, come together over food and are so similar in the way they interact with one another. More Google Translate was required to explain that I was expected to stay longer than just lunch, that this family were happy to offer me a bed for a few nights and take me into their home. I protested, getting that embarrassed feeling you get when people are so kind, but they wouldn't take no for an answer.
During the week I met aunties, cousins, neighbours and friends. I had no choice the entire time but to exclusively speak Spanish. Tania's brother, Sebastian, spent hours with me during the week writing questions and getting me to answer and question him back. It was the best Spanish class I could have hoped for.
As my Spanish improved, we discussed the places I was visiting in Chile and where to look out for. I asked them where they had visited and we spoke about my life in Australia. Google Translate was needed less and less, with the occasional reference often having hilarious, rather than understandable, results. I planned more of my trip south with their advice, and had no choice but to accept an extra blanket to take with me for the camping and trekking I intend to do.
I took the opportunity to cook for them twice and being Australian, I obviously cooked Italian food both times. Having saved on accommodation, I insisted on buying palatable red wine, by the 1.5L bottle, at $4AUD a pop. The more wine we drank, the more fluent my Spanish became (or at least, we were all speaking the same language). I couldn't do enough to thank them for their hospitality.
Of course, Chile isn't the only place that something like this happens. People opening their homes to others is a wonderful thing, and as individuals on the receiving end, we are offered a glimpse into what their entire life is like. These experiences are the sorts that make me think twice about my own future, what I can offer, the people who I can meet if I am willing to open my door to people. After all, if we each support one another in acts of kindness* like this one, we ensure more happiness for ourselves and others.
To my new Chilean family, who can't read any of this because it's written in English, thank you again for your love and kindness.
Attempting to make Pastel de Choclo: