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Foot Loose: Studying Abroad in Chile

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile (Gavin Hellier / Robert Harding World Imagery / Jupiter Images)

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By Theresa Vargas
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Its mate had slipped away somewhere between Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina, getting lost in a crowded bus, under the bunk bed of a cheap hostel or at a campsite reached through the luck of hitchhiking. Wherever it was, that green and blue Adidas was gone by the time we reached Ushuaia -- known as the southernmost city in the world -- just in time for New Year's 1999.

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I was studying abroad in Santiago that year when Christmas break approached, and I was confronted with a choice. I could pay money my family didn't have to go home for three weeks, or I could find a way to roam on nearly empty pockets. Now, I know there are some people who are born adventurous, or at least are born to parents who force adventure on them through camping trips, skiing excursions and summer escapes.

That is not the Vargas way.

Growing up in San Antonio, I can't remember one family trip we ever took that required a sleeping bag, bug spray or guidebook. There were a couple of escapes to Las Vegas. But for a kid too young to gamble, the memories stop at the hotel pool.

So, when the four other students who had also decided to stay suggested we take a trip through Patagonia, I muzzled the nature-hater within me. Then I went out and bought pants that with a slip of the zipper turned into shorts. That's what overseas experiences are about, I lectured myself, stepping out of comfort zones.

Hauling only our backpacks, the five of us took a bus to Puerto Montt. There, we boarded the Navimag ferry, which crosses the Patagonian Channels. Think Titanic, only smaller, with a third-class ticket. We had opted for the cheapest fare, which got us bunk beds in the underbelly of the ship. The restroom was shared. Meals were provided only after all the other passengers had eaten. And we were lulled to sleep each night by either a gentle rocking or a nausea-inducing shake, depending on the water's mood.

When we finally reached Puerto Natales after about four days, we were restless to get moving. We loaded our packs with food from a local store, where we carefully considered how much to buy. Too much, and our packs would weigh us down. Too little, and we would run out before making it through five days of hiking and camping at Torres del Paine National Park. It would take a day's hike alone to reach the Torres, or towers, the park's main draw. The granite structures jut from the ground like a majestic bony hand reaching skyward.

I'd like to say that I finished that part of the hike in nine hours, as did three people in our group, and that as I stood staring at the crystal lake water below those towers, I made a profound discovery about myself -- that I did like nature.

Instead, I learned this: Nature didn't like me.

The one other pavement-partial woman in our group and I decided to conquer the hike together, and we did, almost. We walked for hours, straining uphill and holding onto a rope at one point to pass along a mountainside. We shared a can of tuna, no mayo, along the way, and then, just as we approached the end, we lost sight of the trail markers and the other people. After I slid down a steep unmarked path, screaming to my hiking partner that she should give away the rest of my granola if I didn't make it, we had no choice but to turn back. Night was approaching, and a dinner of dehydrated noodles waited.

I don't recall if we ever told the rest of our group that we didn't see the towers. I know we sensed that they and others would find disappointment where we had found a deep sense of accomplishment. After all, we had made it most of the way and back. For 13 hours, we had stepped out of our comfort zones.

By the time we arrived in Ushuaia about a week later, my pants were a bit baggier and my shoe had made its escape. I buried its mate out of sentimentality for a trip that had changed me and then spent the rest of the time wearing not Timberlands, but shiny red Doc Martens ankle boots.

Like me, they seemed completely inappropriate for this trip. They weren't made for nature, either.

Theresa Vargas studied abroad during the 1998-1999 academic year, while a student at Stanford University. She is a reporter for The Post's Metro section and can be reached at vargast@washpost.com.


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