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Student Voice Feature

Five Days in Paradise

Like many Northern Virginia Community College students, my journey began out of necessity. Four years ago I arrived at NOVA as it was the only college in the area that—as an F-1 student ineligible for financial aid and most scholarships – I could afford. Little did I know that, one day, this would be my ticket to Chile.

Semester after semester, I built a reputation as a good, hardworking student in the communication design program. Eventually, I ended up being invited by our faculty to participate in this special topics class called Nokia Only Planet 2007 in collaboration with DuocUC, one of the largest design schools in Chile.

The purpose of the class was to come up with a technological product that would be launched in 2010/2012. Nokia gave us some guidelines to abide by, the same that they follow when they come up with a new multimedia product. It was interesting to work exactly like they do at a major telecommunication corporation, but even more amazing was the fact that we—a bunch of graphic/interactive design students—got to try out a variety of new professions in completing our assignment. We became anthropologists to research global societal trends, journalists and photojournalists to observe and report the manifestations of those trends in our local contest, scriptwriters to concoct short user scenarios and experiences, advertisers and copywriters to come up with universal names and taglines for our products and industrial designers to conceive 3D renderings of our products and actually build our own prototypes. An absolute 360° experience that, by itself, made the course worth taking.

But there was one more incentive to take this class. Five students would be selected to travel to Santiago, Chile in November and present their work at Duoc during a trip sponsored by NOVA. Of course, each of the fourteen participating communication design students from the Alexandria and the Loudoun campuses was secretly hoping to end up in the lucky group.

With time, however, some people found out that, because of other obligations, they wouldn’t be able to make the trip. And the number of those who could actually travel dropped to nine. Just four more than agreed. It was breaking everybody’s hearts to leave just four of us behind. But, at the same time, everybody wanted to go.

Miracles sometimes happen. And our wonderful instructor made one happen to us. I still don’t know how she did, which words she used, or what magic she exerted. In the end, we all got to go.

November 5, 2007. Late afternoon. Our wonderful adventure began. From Reagan National to Miami International, from Miami International to Santiago Pudahuel, during our airport transits we bonded with each other and the three instructors who were accompanying us: Lisa Hill, the miracle worker, Rebecca Kamen and Julia Turner. We chatted and laughed and looked at magazine ads with the clinical eye of the graphic designer, while some chewed ginger gum to relieve air-sickness and others had dinner. Some tried to sleep on the plane and a few actually could. Before we knew it, it was the morning of a new day. The arid yet snow-capped mountains surrounding Santiago emerged from the thick Pacific fog below us, and we were landing.

Sometimes it takes a while to actually appreciate a country and all it has to offer. Sometimes first impressions aren’t accurate. But my fellow travelers and I only had to look out the windows on the bus that was taking us from the airport to our hotel, and we immediately knew that we had fallen in love with Chile.

Still groggy from the night on the plane, we ventured into the sunny, warm Chilean spring in search of food and drinks on our hotel’s block. We found a place with the most delicious gelato ever, and snacks and drinks. Feeling a little better, we got ready for our first visit to Duoc. We immediately loved it. The campus where we would be displaying our multimedia presentations and prototypes was located in Las Condes, in the outskirts of Santiago, on top of a hill overlooking the city, and it was surrounded by trees, rocks and mountains. “Just like our Alexandria campus,” we thought. Well, in a sense it was. They had mountains, we had Skyline.

After the visit to Duoc, many of us decided that we weren’t too tired from the long overnight flight and resolved to find out what Santiago had to offer in terms of food and nightlife. We were lucky. We didn’t have to go too far. Pub Licity was just across the street from our hotel, and it immediately turned into our favorite hangout.

Day Two. Nokia Day. What a day! Between little accidents such as finding some mistakes in the Nokia Only Planet 2007 Catalog and the disappearing of one of our prototypes while moving from the campus TV studios to the presentation room, we had a lot of fun, bonded even more, made some Chilean friends and kept NOVA’s reputation high with the good feedback that we received on our projects. At the end of the day, we forgot about the little mishaps. Duoc was an excellent, caring host. They made sure that we got the same exposure as their students did during the Nokia presentation, they escorted us through the various activities of the day, and they offered us a typical Chilean lunch cooked especially for us by their hospitality students. To end a long but successful day, our teachers took us out to dinner that night, and we celebrated with pizza, laughter and even some tears (the day was a long emotional rollercoaster for all of us, teachers included!)

Day Three. We got a day off to explore Santiago at our leisure.  Most of us spent the morning on top of Cerro San Cristobal, a hill in the heart of Santiago from which you enjoy the most spectacular panorama of the city. The Ibero-American Summit was going on, with Hugo Chavez and other presidents flying in from all Latin American countries. Because of that, many helicopters were buzzing like huge bugs in the sky, and it was so amazing to notice that, on the top of that hill, we were higher than them! The three guys in our group got to meet the President of Guatemala and had their picture taken with him. With my roomies, I got to explore Bellavista, the Bohemian and cultural neighborhood at the foot of the hill. We had lunch there and went shopping for crafts. At an open-air market, we bumped into the guys and, as dutiful, dedicated art students, we all ended our day together at the Contemporary Art Museum.

Day Four. Field  trip to Valparaiso, on the Pacific coast. The most wonderful excursion ever. While Santiago amazes you with its shiny, modern buildings and well-kept streets (for the most part, especially in the neighborhoods we had a chance to visit), when you enter Valparaiso you are confronted with the reality of shantytowns. But all those little houses sprawling on the hills all around the harbor are so colorful that remind you of flowers, and in the end you fall under the decadent spell of this city that still boasts a few wonderful Art Deco buildings which survived a mighty earthquake to remind foreign visitors of its old glory. Characteristic funiculars get you to the top of the hills in a matter of a few seconds. After visiting Pablo Neruda’s house with a spectacular view over the harbor and the neighboring town of Viña del Mar and its sandy beaches, we took a funicular too and started the most amazing walking tour among beautiful European houses in Art Nouveau and Art Deco style, steep and narrow streets and stairways, stray dogs, multicolored, wonderful graffiti that would end up convincing even the most tenacious haters that street art is, in fact, a form of art, and the most picturesque views over the colorful hills and the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. You cannot be an artist and not like artsy Valparaiso. All of us left a little piece of our heart there. But, alas, the day was ending and we had to leave, not before paying a quick visit to Viña del Mar, its flower clock and the Moai that came from Easter Island.

Day Five. Our last day in Paradise. And, in Paradise, we actually spent it. Our guide took us to an open-air restaurant in the countryside to the southeast of Santiago, where the Andes and their perennial snows get closer and closer. Deep blue sky, bright green grass and vines, emerald green mountains with white snowy caps, we would have never left that place. But we had to go. We spent our last hours in Chile learning how Chilean wines, ones of the finest in the world, are made at Paseo del Vino, the one and only viña educativa de Chile, where drinking is educational—in fact, just a few days before, Duoc had sent a class of students from their culinary program to get some training there. We didn’t get to drink though. Too bad. I wouldn’t have minded forgetting that in a little while, we would be at the airport and then on the plane again, headed back to our daily routine and our chilly fall.

Day Six. Welcome back to the United States and terrorism paranoia. Our teachers got searched at the checkpoint in Miami as a tin box of alfajores that one of us was carrying in her bag raised bomb suspicions. But, to tell the truth, I, as the only non-immigrant alien in the group, got to be fingerprinted and “processed” by very nice immigration officers on the US citizens and permanent residents line, thanks to the teachers who would have never allowed for me to get lost in the endless non-US citizens line and miss our flight connection. Still, it was somewhat depressing to be back. But I got a window seat on the plane and enjoyed (and photographed) the coolest aerial views of Miami Beach, the Potomac River and Old Town Alexandria. The United States is nothing like Chile, but it’s not that bad, after all.

Today, three months after our amazing adventure, it almost feels like a dream. I would need to look at my pictures time and time again to make sure that it really happened, if it weren’t for Devin, Dominika, Georgiy, Gloria, Julia, Kelly, Lisa, Mike B., Mike M., Rebecca and Sonya, my fellow travelers. There’s a special bond between us that, no matter what, we are going to share for the rest of our lives. This month, roughly ninety days after our return, we had our first massive reunion on the Loudoun campus, for the Nokia Only Planet exhibit. We should start a tradition, something like college reunions. And hopefully one day we’ll meet on the other side of the Equator, and we’ll live the adventure all over again.

Published in The Student Voice, Vol. 42 Issue 5, March 2008

 

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