Steph Szuch of Preston, left — now in Argentina for a college semester abroad — went with her roommate to see a huge hand sculpture in the desert of Chile, known as Mano del Desierto. (Bluff Country Newspaper Group photo courtesy Steph Szuch)
Steph Szuch of Preston, left — now in Argentina for a college semester abroad — went with her roommate to see a huge hand sculpture in the desert of Chile, known as Mano del Desierto. (Bluff Country Newspaper Group photo courtesy Steph Szuch)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Steph Szuch, 2009 graduate of Fillmore Central and student at Concordia College, Moorhead, is in Argentina through December with four other Concordia students to take classes in Latin American literature, history, and culture with other international students. With a double major in Spanish and psychology, she also has the opportunity to get a different perspective on the latter by taking a psychology class with Argentine students. She is the daughter of John and Jo Szuch of Preston and a former intern of the News-Record and Republican-Leader.

Although I can't believe my semester abroad is already at its halfway point, last week was the midsemester break at my university here in Córdoba. With a whole week off of classes, my roommate, Liz, and I decided to explore Chile, and explore we did!

After not being able to leave the first night because of a bus strike, on Day Two we hopped on a bus and headed westward to Chile, which requires about 10 hours to get to the border, and then another six or so to cross the Andes mountains (which are amazing).

First on the Argentina side of the border, and then again in Santiago (the capital of Chile) we got the chance to hike up a mountain, and although neither of them was technically part of the Andes, in my mind they're really darn close, so I'm rounding up and saying I climbed the Andes.

Visiting Santiago

Whilst in Santiago, I got to witness a few protests, which have been weekly if not daily occurrences for the past couple months. Fed up with high tuition prices, college students all throughout Chile are on strike, refusing to attend classes and holding regular protests in attempts to make college free (like it is in Argentina).

The protests are almost always peaceful, but according to a few students I spoke with in Santiago, since the police can't break up peaceful protests, they will sometimes send a few cops into the crowd to instigate something and rile them up so they can break it up.

And in Chile, breaking up a protest means tear gas. Thus, I was very careful to avoid protests (and spots of recent protests for fear of lingering tear gas) but it was so interesting to be in Chile and speak to Chileans in the midst of a revolution, even if it was just a brief glimpse of their struggle.

In Santiago we explored a castle, went to a science museum (designed for kids, but still fun), and were immensely entertained by the pedestrian stop lights, which not only had a countdown with how many seconds you had left to cross, but also featured a stick person who showed how much you needed to hurry. It would walk at a normal pace when the countdown started, and then gradually start walking faster until it was in a full out sprint by the time the ticker got to zero.

Talk to the hand

In our research of Chile, Liz and I had stumbled across Antofagasta, a city in northern Chile that boasts the Mano del Desierto, this giant hand that somebody decided to build in the middle of the desert. So, naturally, we planned a trip to Anto with the sole mission of seeing a giant hand. This was quite a commitment, seeing as getting there requires a 20-hour bus ride into the middle of the Atacama Desert (which also happens to be the driest place on Earth - there are some places in which rain has never been recorded), but we really wanted to see the giant hand.

So, we embarked on the 20-hour bus journey from Santiago, during which we were forced to watch a five-pack of plane crash movies, which I'm convinced is the bus company's clever little tactic to make the passengers glad they chose to travel by bus and think, "Well, I may be stuck on a bus for a day, but at least a plane crash didn't leave me stranded in the Andes and force me to become a cannibal to survive!"

We had looked at pictures of Antofagasta, and they were all really beautiful because it's right on the ocean. Now Liz and I know that pictures lie. Seeing Anto gave us a chance to see a very different side of Chile. In Santiago, everything's very clean, and we only spent time in the downtown "touristic" areas. In Anto, there are no "touristic" areas. It's a large mining town, very lacking in affluence, to put it gently.

The first clue should've been that on the bus ride, as we were getting close to Anto, we looked out the window and saw we were driving into what we thought was a large patch of fog, but found out later was a giant chemical cloud from the mines.

Also, with me being blonde and Liz being really blonde, people looked at us like we were aliens. When we got to the bus terminal, I actually saw a little boy tug on his mom's shirt, point at us, and say "Mira, rubias!" (Look, blondes!).

So, we ended up spending a total of about 40 hours on buses to spend 5 hours in Anto. But, we saw the hand and took tons of pictures, learned about the drug trafficking problems in Anto from our cab driver, and can now say we've been to the driest place on Earth. So I consider it a win in my book.

Casino action

After our little excursion to northern Chile, we headed back down south to Viña del Mar, a beach town that looks exactly like its pictures. It's a town so gorgeous that I felt like I was inside a postcard the whole time I was there. The town is designed like San Francisco, with houses built on the sides of hills, and the houses are all brightly colored so from a distance it's just beautiful.

My favorite part of being in Viña, and perhaps of the whole trip, was that there was a gigantic casino there, and Liz and I decided to go, just to say we've gambled in Chile. And, amazingly enough, after playing a slot machine that we didn't entirely understand, we ended up winning! 190 pesos! However, that amount sounds a lot more impressive when I leave out the part where 190 Chilean pesos is actually equivalent to about 36 cents, which we then split between the two of us.

Despite making my winnings less cool, the ridiculous exchange rate made for a lot of fun, as I got to pay for things with $10,000 bills and feel like a millionaire. To add to the fun, Chile recently changed their money, so now it's all brightly colored and looks like Monopoly money, which again, I believe to be a ploy to get people to spend more because it seems like a game so people start thinking that it doesn't matter because they're going to pass Go and get $200 soon anyway.

Exploring Chile was a lot of fun, but it was such a relief to get back to the familiarity of Córdoba. I didn't realize how much I've grown to love this place and how comfortable it's become for me, even though it still seems enormous. I guess it just took going to another foreign country to realize that this one doesn't seem so foreign anymore. It's a good feeling.