Maddie and her host mom cooking

Cooking with mi mamá chilena

During Fall 2019, I traveled to Santiago, Chile – a city of 7-million people in a part of the world that spoke a language I wasn’t used to speaking. As a lifelong small-town dweller who had never practiced Spanish in a conversational setting, I was nervous about how I could integrate into an entirely new community. But as soon as my feet touched the ground in Chile, I met someone who took the weight off of my shoulders.

Waiting to pick me up from the IFSA office in Santiago, my host mother and her sister rushed to hug me and swiftly loaded all my bags into their car before I had the chance to lift a finger. On the drive home, they began what would be a five-month period of guidance and warm welcome, pointing out all of the places I would want to check-out later on in my stay. From the very beginning of my time in Santiago, I was never alone.

I had been nervous at first about connecting with someone who was from a different culture than me, but I realized that almost anyone you can meet is thrilled to talk with you as long as you are genuinely interested and have an open mind. I asked her about everything from her favorite things to do in the city to what values were most important to her in her life, and I soon learned that we had far more that connected us than any of our differences.

My host mom was so gracious in helping me adjust to life on a new continent. She told me about the beautiful places and things I should see— places that only native Chileans would be able to tell you. She taught be daily lessons in the Chilean slang words that had bewildered me at first, helping me to understand not just the geography, but letting me become a part of her culture. As a former restaurant chef, she also knew so much about traditional Chilean foods. I remember clearly the first dinner party she invited me to, she cooked something I would never have imagined as a main dish—a seaweed called “cochayuyo,” and it was DELICIOUS!

My host mother was a single mom (whose kids had left home) who lived in an apartment in Santiago, a modest life for an average Chilean. To respect my host mom and to assimilate to life in the country with a tight travel budget, I learned to live life with savings in mind. The electricity and water are both completely privatized in the country and are more expensive in comparison to life in the United States, so no heating or air conditioning, avoiding turning on the lights or using a small lamp when needed, and water conservation were daily practices. We also learned to make smart yet healthy choices with what food we bought to eat. As a tourist lucky enough to have travel funds, I stretched my money to seek out cheap bus tickets and hostels. Most importantly, I found lots of sight-seeing places just a metro-stop away, thanks to my host-mom’s recommendations.

The best part about living with my host mother was that I really felt I had become a part of her family. I will never forget eating dinner together while watching Chilean telenovelas, sharing new recipes together in her kitchen, and helping her to decorate her Christmas tree. Of course in becoming a true part of her family, it meant having an open mind and genuine willingness to share in her way of life. This meant I learned to appreciate her nags about making sure I wore enough warm clothes or wore slippers in the house (I bought myself some unicorn slippers and we both laughed at them), and any other things that she felt were important. After living independently in college for multiple years it took some getting used to living in a family setting again, but now I am so grateful for the incredible opportunity I had to be directly and fully immersed in my host mother’s life and culture.

Latin America has grown close to my heart since I traveled to Chile during my study abroad in Santiago in Fall 2019. When I arrived, I was breath-taken by the beauty not only of the majestic snow-capped Andes, but the diversity and the idiosyncrasies of life in Chile. I came to invest deeply in getting to know as many people as I could, and dove in to learning to regional lingo, the current politics and the areas of innovation in the country. Most of all, I fell in love with a culture of closeness and familiarity, in which strangers meet each other with a hug and where family is often valued more than it is in the United States. I found so many things that Chile did better than the United States, and so many ways our countries could learn from each other. By the time I left Chile after my five months there, I felt like I had barely begun answering all the questions I had or seeing all of the things I wanted to see. For me, that experience was made so much deeper by living with a host family.

Maddie Fowler is a Disability Studies and Socially Just Medicine major at Duke University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program in Santiago in Fall 2019.