Volunteer Name: Rachel Carlson
Project Location:  La Serena, Chile
Program Dates: 5/26/15 – 7/6/15
Volunteered at: Orphanage/Daycare

The in country staff was satisfying. A few days after I arrived in La Serena, I received an email from ABV checking to see how I was settling in. We corresponded a few times. After being here for a week, I decided to work at the day-care center for my last two weeks instead of just staying at the orphanage. The staff was very easy to work with to allow me to make that change.

Surprises:
Program: The Tias at the orphanage were shy at first, just like me. It took some time for us to reach out, but after some time it got better. I was also surprised about how loving and enthusiastic the kids are. Since they often come from broken homes, they are desperate for affection. Giving that to them was such a joy. And they were very passionate about playing and loving me back.

Host Family:
I am gluten-intolerant, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see how much my host mom looked out for my needs. She not only read all the labels, but even learned how to bake using gluten-free flour. She was very thoughtful and willing to help me out with anything I needed, whether it is help with the washing machine, scheduling a weekend tour, or changing American dollars to pesos.

Country:
Everything happens later here than in the U.S.A. Instead of eating lunch at noon, it’s at 2pm. Dinner is also later. It took me awhile to adjust to that, especially on the weekends. People here are very nice for the most part, and willing to help out if needed.

Challenges:
Program: The Tias at the orphanage were very nice, but they use lots of slang and shortcuts that I’m not used to hearing. That made it difficult for me to understand them, especially when they spoke rapidly. Also, sometimes I was not sure what I should do at the orphanage, and since the tias didn’t tell me, I had to either ask them or take the initiative to find something that needed to be done.
Host Family: My room at home is upstairs, but you have to walk around the back to get to it, so it’s a little isolated. It was very easy for me just to stay up there on my own instead of coming downstairs and interacting with the family.
Country: Basically no one here speaks any English. If I was lost or needed something, I had to figure out how to communicate or solve my problem in Spanish. Another challenging thing was the amount of quiet time I had. Traveling to and from work, as well as the evenings, were much quieter (less talking) than I’m used to.

Tips:
If you are coming in winter, bring more warm clothes than you think you should. Very few buildings have central heating, so you will almost always wear a jacket or two.
The Santiago airport is confusing if you are in a hurry. Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help for where to go.
Bring a money belt or something similar. I have a FlipBelt that I carried my cash, cards, keys, and a copy of my passport in at all times. It’s much more secure than one around the neck or a fanny pack.

Other info:
When using a credit card, some places will require you to give them your passport number when you sign the receipt. Since I don’t have that number memorized, I had to always carry a copy of my passport with me.
A lot of little shops don’t take credit card, so expect to use cash to pay.
This program and trip has been amazing. The experience of living in another country is something everyone should have. I was nervous to come here without knowing a soul, but my host family welcomed me and made me feel at home. The work can be difficult and trying at times, but it is worth the effort. The kids are adorable and it is obvious to see the difference the volunteers make. I have branched out and tried so many new things while here. It’s like I’ve gone through a years’ worth of experiences in six weeks. I have also learned lots. My Spanish has definitely improved: both my understanding and speaking. I’ve learned how to navigate through an unfamiliar city at night and ask for help if needed. I’ve learned how to keep multiple toddlers entertained, if not quiet. Overall, the last six weeks have been some of the most memorable ones of my life. This trip has heightened my desire to travel more and see the world as well as continue to volunteer and help those who are less fortunate than I am.

My host family more than exceeded my expectations. The mom, Vilma, is amazing. She is so thoughtful and helpful. She packed me lunch every day and had dinner ready for me when I was hungry. We traded off picking movies to watch together on the weekends and played cards during the week. I never felt unsafe or in danger. Walking to work in the mornings while it was still dark made me a little uncomfortable at first, but I never had any issues. Even while out running, the only thing I had to deal with was honks and/or whistles as cars passed me. Most people in La Serena were very friendly and helpful. Everyone smiles and says hola as you pass on the sidewalks. The city of La Serena is a good size and offers enough to do to stay occupied on the weekends. I didn’t really go out much on weeknights.

Favorite memories:
Program: At the orphanage, I spent a lot of time with the infants. There was one 5 month old girl who could be pretty fussy at times, but as soon as she was in my arms, she calmed right down. It was so peaceful to just hold her and talk with the tia. At the day care center, many of the kids were so welcoming and always wanted to play. Every day when I walked through the door, three or four of them would run up to me and grab my hands, pulling me to come play with them or asking me to translate words into English.
Host Family: Vilma and I both taught each other a few things. She taught me how to cook some traditional Chilean recipes that I wrote down so I can replicate them at home. I taught her how to play some common card games. I loved spending quiet evenings after dinner drinking tea and playing cards together.
Country: I went on a tour to the Elqui Valley. Even though it’s wintertime here and everything is fairly dry, the valley was still green and a beautiful oasis. It was interesting to see all the fields growing crops, as well as learn how a popular Chilean drink, Pisco, is made.

The ABV support in the U.S. was good. I was able to chat online to find out most of the answers I needed. However, I was a little frustrated at the lack of information. Since I am gluten-intolerant, it is crucial for me to know that I will be able to eat when I travel. I contacted ABV a few times while I was still in the States, asking about the availability of gluten-free products and the knowledge of gluten in Chile, but I never received a definitive answer. It made me a litter nervous to be traveling for six weeks without knowing how much food I would be able to eat. Also, even a few days before leaving, all I knew about my trip was that I’d be living with Vilma and working at an orphanage during the weekdays. I didn’t know what else to expect.

The online system is fairly useful, but once again, lacks information I would have preferred to know earlier. I didn’t like having to wait until just a week before departing to learn the details about my host family.
I found ABV by searching online for volunteer programs offered in South America. I did some research on the programs and read many reviews on other websites. Everything I found satisfied me.
Yes, I am willing to speak with potential volunteers.

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