This year, I spent the holidays in Chile. I spent a week, including Christmas, in Pichilemu, a sleepy little surf town three hours south of Santiago, and then ventured north to Valparaiso, a colorful coastal town built into hills overlooking the Pacific, to ring in 2017.
In all, it was a great trip. I really loved both towns and hope to return to each of them again someday — hopefully with a fellow traveler, or more, in tow.
During my travels, I had my share of tough times, too, especially since I was traveling solo during the holidays.
The distance from my family, friends and even my new home in Buenos Aires gave me new perspective. Traveling solo during the holidays gave me a deeper appreciation for the familiar in my life. It made me see my holiday traditions, the way I usually spend my holidays, in a different way. New places and experiences do that. It’s part of the reason to travel, to explore, to see the world. But it’s tough to do that and stomach those lessons on your own around the holidays.
I’m not gonna lie. Christmas was lonely. It sucked. I thought there would be more travelers at my hostel because of the holidays — it is summer down here and the peak travel season — but my hostel and Pichilemu were dead on Christmas Eve. The restaurant at my hostel wasn’t open, so I ventured into town in search of a place to have a Christmas Eve meal. It was a ghost town. Every restaurant was closed. There was no one out and about. It was deader than Frankfort, Michigan, in February.
Because, duh, Christmas is time spent with family at home. In the United States, some families go out for dinner on Christmas Eve. So like the U.S., I thought there might be a few restaurants open for that same reason in Pichilemu. But Christmas in Latin America is different than in the U.S. Everything shuts down, and people spend Christmas Eve — the bigger of the two days here — with their families. It makes sense. And that’s how it is for my family. We spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at home together.
I walked through Pichilemu in search of an open restaurant and managed to find an open shop with pollo con papas fritas. Chicken with french fries. That’s all they sold. I’m vegetarian, and while I’ve considered eating meat again now that I’m living in Argentina, I haven’t fully come to terms with making that transition — and I wasn’t about to on Christmas Eve.
So I ordered papas fritas. The man behind the counter was slightly confused by my request for “solo papas fritas.” Or maybe it was my broken Spanish. I tried to make sense of my order. “Yo soy vegetariano,” I said. He continued to give me a puzzled look, but the woman preparing the food smiled and explained to him they could do that. He pointed to the different sizes for me. I ordered the smaller — but still reasonably sized — of the two.
I paid 1,500 Chilean pesos — roughly 2.20 U.S. dollars — for the cheapest Christmas Eve meal I’ve ever had, put a bit of ketchup on my papas fritas and walked back to my hostel near the beach.
There was a little light left in the sky, and “Silent Night” hung in the air from church bells in town. A small moment with myself on a traditionally big day with family.
In the midst of my Christmas loneliness, I read a blog post by Erin Sullivan called “The Places You Meet Yourself.” Erin’s words really resonated with me, especially in that moment. In the post, she writes about all the places and experiences in which she’s met herself, the places and experiences in which we meet ourselves. The ones in which we peel back our layers and see ourselves for who we really are. The ones that build us into the people we are, the people we’re becoming. The ones where we’re raw, vulnerable and often uncomfortable. The ones that can be simple but carry so much weight. The ones that are deep and profound. Altogether challenging, beautiful and — in the end — so worth celebrating.
There are so many moments that compose who we are, what we do, where we go and what we appreciate in life. These moments show us our true selves; they show us our values. Erin’s post was a simple but poignant reminder for me. And while I haven’t fully come to terms with my Christmas in Chile, I know I’ll look back someday and realize the ways in which it shaped me, big or small, for better or worse.
My week in Chile was tough, but it got better. I truly came to love Pichilemu for its sleepy beach town vibes. That town now has a special place in my heart; leaving was bittersweet. There was a moment my final evening there, as the sun was sinking in the sky and I was riding a bike to dinner, that I couldn’t hold back a smile. I just started smiling to myself. I love those moments. I live for those moments. They’re the ones that make the challenge and the struggle worth it. They are the moments worth celebrating.
I returned to Buenos Aires on New Year’s Day and am oh-so happy to be back here. Sometimes it takes leaving a place — even briefly — to realize how much you like it, how much you miss it. In just under two months, the foreign has become familiar and Buenos Aires feels like home. My trip to Chile allowed me to realize that I’ve carved out a life for myself here — and that’s quite a beautiful gift. Distance gives perspective.