Sent my kid off to Costa Rica on her own early Monday morning. Well, she’s not actually on her own; she’s there on the Osa Peninsula for two weeks with an organization called DANTA: Association for Conservation of the Tropics doing a field work course for college credit – sort of a Field Study 101 for anyone who might want to (as she believes she does) work in the field of environmental conservation.
She and I have been fortunate to do some touristy traveling throughout her nearly 20 years. One benefit of having a lawyer’s salary is being able to afford (sort of) extensive vacations (not necessarily “expensive” vacations, but of course one has a tendency to overspend even the best-planned budgets). We’ve been to Hawaii, Belize, Ireland, London, Denmark and Sweden (see last week’s post for our impressions of Scandinavia), Istanbul (which was a very cool 5-day stay for a friend’s exotic wedding) and, most recently, to Amsterdam and Greece (Santorini and Naxos, in particular, but we also had an interesting encounter with Kobe Bryant and a scarab beetle at the Parthenon in Athens). But this is the first time that she has traveled without me for such a long time, and to such a distant and remote location. I have every confidence that she will revel in her once-in-a-lifetime adventure, so much so that it probably won’t end up being once-in-a-lifetime after all. But it also puts me in mind of my own youthful travels as an exchange student to Chile in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, when I was just 15.
It was actually not summer in Chile, which meant it was the school year, so essentially I attended school for 12 months straight. As a school-a-holic [see my 5/20/15 post, “College Dreams”], I did not mind terribly. After all, school is where all the kids are! I attended 11th grade at the Windsor School with the daughter of my host family. It also rained practically every day during the Southern Hemisphere winter, so boots and an umbrella were part of the daily uniform.
I was probably a bit too young to be away for three months on my own, even if I was living with a lovely family of six (parents and four kids – three girls and a boy). They had a house in the city of Valdivia, one of the largest cities in southern Chile, and also a farm in Futrono, in the Andes Mountains, where we went for a couple of school vacations and where I (very precariously) rode a horse for the first time
The trip was very formative in many ways, not all of which I can get to in this post. But a few things stood out: the machine guns, the music (of course) and the kindness and friendship of people with whom I have COMPLETELY lost touch, which I regret more than I can say. I also had a serious problem keeping in touch with my parents back in the States while I was there, which made them so worried that they actually called the American Embassy in the capital of Santiago to track me down. Of course, this was before email and cell phones, so actual letters – on onion-skin blue airmail paper – took over a week to arrive. And even then you never knew who would be reading your mail before it got to its destination. In fact, one large package from one of my friends at home was actually opened and inspected by the local post office, and I had to appear and explain why there were so many tiny little notes and cards and drawings in one oversized envelope. It’s actually not unlike what my daughter is going through now, being in a place where access to cell phone service and email are limited. In lieu of letters, though, we are able to follow the entire group on a Facebook page.
Which brings me back to the machine guns: It was 1975, and Salvador Allende, the Marxist Chilean president, had been deposed (and killed?) back in 1973 by a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet and the other four of the “Five Generals” were in power in what was, unapologetically, a military dictatorship. I’m frankly surprised, in retrospect, that the Open Door Exchange Program that sponsored our trip was even allowed to send children there. But there we were. Our group consisted of 8 girls from all over the country (not unlike my daughter’s group, which consists of 9 women and one very outnumbered man). Michelle “Mickey” Smith, a sweet kid from Ohio, went with me to Valdivia, so at least we had each other to marvel and commiserate with when trying to speak and understand Spanish got too exhausting. There were also a few American Field Service students that we would see around town and at parties (more on those in a moment), who tended to be older. One guy, whose name was Phil, was the elder statesman. He even had a BEARD.
For teenagers in Valdivia, the barefoot (and, frankly, bratty) beggarchildren and the young machine-gun toting security forces stationed on practically every corner were just background noise to the much more vital and important party scene, all chaste kisses and dirty dancing and pretty boys and girls on a constant prowl. We drank pisco con pop and listened to the Bee Gees, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow (the “Mandy” sing-along was the highlight of every gathering), way too much Neil Diamond and John Lennon’s “Mind Games” on an endless loop. The kids knew every word to every song, even if they didn’t understand what they were actually singing. There was a great music show called “Musica Libre” that we watched every afternoon on the black-and-white TV, which featured gorgeous creatures lip-synching to popular songs. One I actually memorized that I can almost remember word-for-word today forty (!) years later went something like this:
“El amor no es solo una canción
Que está sin condición
Y entregar el corazon,
Y recordar con la pasión
Por lo que nace un gran amor
No solo es una canción.”
(Despite an extensive Google search, I have been unable to identify this song so I have no idea if those are the words, but that’s what I was singing!!)
But the absolute best part of martial law for teenagers? A 2 a.m. curfew. Ergo, if a party was still in full swing at 2 a.m., and the parents of the party’s host were in the right frame of mind, the party would become an all-nighter because no one could leave till the curfew was lifted in the morning. I don’t recall that ever happening when I was there but the tantalizing possibility surrounded the end of every party.
I still have the journal [“diario de mi viaje”] that I diligently kept when I was there, in three little composition notebooks [cuadernos], and some photos (including one of me looking EXTREMELY uncomfortable on a gorgeous horse wearing a fantastic brimmed hat that my host “brother” Vicente gave me that I kept for years afterward and was broken-hearted to finally lose in college).
I’ve been inspired now to read through the journals, although the girlish script has either faded or bled through the tissue-thin pages. From a brief flip-through, however, I was quick to note that I was horrifically boy-obsessed –more than the average girl, I would have to admit, and definitely more than the average Chilean girl, but that’s another story for another day.
I have so many fond memories of my time in Valdivia. I wish there was some way, in this age of technological interconnectedness, to find some of the folks I knew when I was there. There were so many really fantastic people: my favorite boyfriend, Marcelo Prochelle, whose family had a huge yellow house with a giant “P” on it overlooking the Rio Calle Calle that flowed through the center of the city; Quena da Bove, whose family was originally supposed to host me but, despite the arrangements falling through, still became a sweet friend; and my host family, Mr. and Mrs. Perez Rosales, who sheltered my wild, boy-crazy ass for three months, younger brother Vicente and younger sister Carmen Gloria (or “Cayoya” for short), and especially my beloved “sister” Maria Alejandra Perez Rosales. I would love to know what she’s been doing all these years! She was always so brilliant and funny. I imagine that she’s a high-powered lawyer or maybe even a writer. But what I hope most of all is that she and her family have had – and continue to have! – a wonderful life. I will be forever grateful to them for opening their home to me.
Hopefully my daughter will also have some lifelong memories from her trip to Costa Rica, but in her case, it will certainly be easier to stay in contact with any special people she meets in her travels. But who knows? In addition to being inspired to read my travel journals from 1975, maybe I’ll actually use 2015 technology to track down some of my former companions!