Santiago Life

This morning while I was driving from the main airport outside of Santiago back to the lab, in a manual car weaving in and out of traffic, I finally reached the realization that I was in Chile. This dream, that had been percolating in my brain for years – that I wanted to move and live in Chile for a bit of time – is now real. In the end, it had all happened so fast and for the past week or so it didn’t really sink in that I was now living in Chile. I had a Styrofoam box of human blood samples in the back of the Nissan Versa that I had just learned to drive within the last couple of days. There’s no other experience quite like learning how to drive stick with your current boss in the passenger seat, in the middle of downtown Santiago traffic. But, after a few rough starts and stalls, I got the hang of it, and he told me I passed my road test. For the last couple of days, I’ve been driving to the airport at around 6AM to pick up the cargo shipments of human blood samples collected from Northern Chile. I then bring them to the lab where a grad student and I put in a 12-ish hour day isolating the white blood cells from the whole blood. The scope of the project is big and encompasses other countries in South America besides Chile. I feel really lucky to have been offered this job, which I will be working for the next year or so.

I’ve been in Santiago since the 28th of February. I ended up having to leave Savannah in Peru because the Chile – Peru border was still closed and I had a hard start date for my job of March 1st. I bought a last minute flight once I realized it was too late to drive (even if the border would open) and ended up having to fly North to Panama and then South to Chile. It was a nightmare of a travel day(s) but after multiple brain swabs (deep nose PCR swabs for covid) and a ton of paperwork I managed to arrive in time to start work.

Savannah is in “van camp” just East of Lima, Peru. I spent a few days with the family there and felt confident that I could trust them with my whole life parked in their yard. They helped me arrange a taxi from their place to the airport, which would pick me up in the middle of the night to get to my flight. That evening we shared beers and stories in Spanglish and I felt sad to leave so soon, but I’ll be back to visit them. They also offered to hook me up with their friends throughout South America – Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile – they are really amazing people. While I was hanging around their camp, a child and a dog took a particular liking to me and Savannah so we hung out. I think the kiddo really just liked my longboard.

When I got picked up by the taxi, I had a dose of separation anxiety for Savannah. I wrote this on my phone in the taxi ride to the airport: “I have been working towards this dream to work and live and explore in Chile for over 3 years. It is finally happening. But perhaps it was those last wistful moments while I laid in Savannah before catching the taxi, where I wish time could slow down or the circumstances were different and I could bring Savannah down with me at the same time I start this next adventure. Watching the foreign buildings pass by under the streetlights in Lima, I feel the anticipation of what this next chapter will entail. I’ve said so many times by now (in Spanish and English) that I’m moving to Chile to work for a year. Now that the final moves are in progress, it’s a bit intimidating. I know no one in Santiago, despite 5 months of traveling in Latin America my Spanish is only understandable and not fluent, and I’ll be living in a bustling city for a bit. I feel excitement and a sad longing for something familiar at the same time. My van has been the only thing consistent throughout my travels South, and now I’m starting this next chapter without her. My mind wanders to things that just don’t accompany a life on the move – a place to call home, a community of friends, a stable relationship. I wouldn’t change any of my choices this far, but sometimes I do miss some of the luxuries from a life that is not always in motion.”

The travel time from Peru to Chile was a ridiculous 24 hours-ish of shenanigans and severe lack of sleep. But eventually, I was knocking on the door of the Airbnb my team rented in Santiago at 5 AM on February 28th. I had made it. I took a day to rest and catch up from jet lag, then started up in the lab.

We optimized the blood protocol within a couple of days and soon the grad student and I had a flow for processing our batches of blood, just in time for the heavy sampling in Santiago and dispersed small villages throughout Chile. The broad scope of the project in Chile is to compare immune responses between indigenous populations (i.e. Mapuche and Aymara) and European Chileans. This involves sampling blood from people in each community, shipping it to Santiago, then processing the blood to isolate the white blood cells. Once we separate the white blood cells (by spinning the samples in a centrifuge with a chemical called Ficoll to produce a gradient from the densities of the different cell types) we freeze them in a -80 degree Celsius freezer until they are shipped in liquid nitrogen to Chicago. Part of my job description is in fact to go to Chicago to help with the downstream processing of the isolated cells. I will also be traveling to Peru and Brazil to process blood samples over the next year. This will all help with my tourist visa since I can only stay 90 consecutive days at a time in Chile. Savannah has the same rules so it looks like I will be making some weekend trips to Argentina to get her a new import permit… future Kelly will figure that out.

I haven’t been able to explore the area too much since it has been a lot of work lately. I like it though, I think my brain was craving some stimulus while my body enjoyed the adventures that I put it through on the journey South. I really enjoy troubleshooting protocols and to be on the front end of a big project – processing the initial raw samples is pretty fun. And after stressing so much about learning to drive stick here, I now enjoy it and have gotten to the point where I can blast music and not plan out which gears I think I will have to shift in. With this job I feel productive and valued in the team, it’s good.

When I can finally reunite with Savannah things will get even better – I hope this will be sometime in April. There are trailheads to 17k foot mountains just an hour drive out of the city. For now, I am doing city things on my time off – like visiting cool museums and eating delicious cuisine and drinks with my colleagues.

But I do feel like I’m chomping at the bit for when I’m independent again and can escape to the mountains on a whim. I’m hoping to strike the perfect balance of work hard, play hard. This was a good move, I can feel it.

2 thoughts on “Santiago Life

  1. So good to hear from you, Kelly! I talked to your Dad recently so I knew the final trip to Santiago was quite tedious . flying north to Panama and then south to Peru??? Crazy! But you sound so positive and happy in your new position.. so that makes me happy. You mentioned feeling “productive and valued” … I would say you are DEFINITELY all that! What an amazing job and new adventure! Enjoy, and I know you will work hard. Before you know it, Savannah will be back with you .. right now, she is enjoying some down time before heading to Chile. Take care, be safe Kelly … Love, Aunt Pat

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy to hear you made it to your final destination (for now). Your new job sounds intriguing and challenging. I was a bit surprised you about the manual driving. I assumed with all your Dad’s cars, tractors and bikes, you had driven stick before. Congrats on that accomplishment! Enjoy this next chapter!!! As always, sending love

    Liked by 1 person

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