Coyhaique’s local airport doesn’t have a fuel supply. We made a stop on the way down from Santiago to refuel enough for the aircraft to make the return journey. That was the first thing I learned about our destination airport, which reminded me that we were truly entering an unfamiliar and remote part of the world. The apprehension was building. Despite the thorough briefing by the Oyster team, the information booklets and the Lonely Planet guide in my hands, I was disembarking the familiar environment of a fuselage and stepping onto the unfamiliar Chilean soil of a town I would be spending the next two months in. Looking back on that moment, who would have known that I would return with unforgettable experiences under my belt, new friends across the globe and truly treasured memories?
In what one can describe as an arrivals hall, the cheery demeanour of Jacqueline Farmer – the Oyster representative – greeted us with what I learned was her trademark enthusiasm. The next few days flew by, and before I knew it, I was sitting on my host family’s kitchen table being interrogated by the youngest daughter in a language in which I only had a month of experience with prior, exchanging music, film and TV recommendations and browsing Spotify together until the parents came home from work. “Bienvenido a nuestra casa!” [welcome to our home] my host dad projected, thrusting his open hand towards me to shake firmly, while my host mother exclaimed “hola mi hijo!” [hello my son] and gave me a welcoming hug, while the daughter stood there giggling at the situation. Being British, I was naturally overwhelmed, remembering how Jacqueline stressed that the volunteers truly become part of the families.
That piece of advice was by no means an exaggeration, and by every measure my favourite aspect of the Chile experience was the evenings and weekends with my wonderful host family. The midnight conversations I had with my host mother, the back and forth with my host sister and the attempted conversations about Chilean football with my host father became the some of my most memorable moments of the entire trip. I recall driving to a local national park for a day hiking the mountains, my Chilean parents rolled down the windows, put on a Chilean pop song and sung at the top of their lungs for whoever could hear them.
That is absolutely not to say that my first experience at teaching young children in a foreign language was by any means not memorable. On the contrary, the challenge of engaging students in learning a foreign language was a unique one, as all the places these kids had visited or intended to work in spoke Spanish. They asked us several times why England didn’t speak Spanish, seeing as everywhere else speaks it. Watching their skills develop was in thus also a uniquely rewarding experience, not to mention the appreciation all the staff showed us at the school.
Coyhaique was ideally positioned for us to organise several unforgettable weekend trips to bathe in the springs of Puyuhuapi, walk the bridges the “Enchanted Forest”, visit the magical marble caves and hike a glacier. In fact, on the glacier my once sturdy walking boots breached, resulting in very wet feet upon returning, but that was all part of the experience! Along with the trips, hanging out with the students from the local university was another great way to get to see the town in a completely different light; South American night clubs offer no comparison to what the UK has to offer!
My time in Chile will not soon be forgotten. I was lucky enough to experience a corner of the world in a way that fully immersed me in the local culture and language. The program is wonderfully hands-off and you are left in a new town to explore, discover and learn at your own pace and desire. It is what you make of it, so be sure to make it unforgettable.
Thus, with a knot in my throat, I hugged my family goodbye with a promise to return some day, and boarded the now unfamiliar fuselage at the airport with no fuel.