Experiences in Chile


Due to frequent trips to Chile, Joel Holland has long teased me in not so subtle ways that I might have a secret family in Chile. I’ve often responded, “One family is enough.”

But, it may seem odd...I do feel part of a family down here in Combarbalá, Chile, a place where I’ve spent so much time since first coming here in 2005 with Bob Wehrle to dedicate public restrooms in the Plaza de Armas, a project of the Galena and Combarbalá Rotary Clubs.

Gloria and Miguel have welcomed me into their home. Although this time they are in Santiago, 250 miles to the south, their daughter, Macarena, also known as Maca, has played the role of host.

Maca was one of 12 teachers from this area who came to northwest Illinois in January/February 2016. They spent three weeks developing teaching techniques, especially with English language learners.

My time here has been the same and yet different than other years. It’s been the same seeing good friends and making new friends and by spending time in schools connecting with students at the high school here in Combarbalá as well as the tiniest of one-room schools.

It’s been the same in the sense of listening to my friends talk about the drought this area is experiencing. There have only been a few millimeters of rain and there was no snow in the mountains.

Usually at this time of year, spring, there is snow in the mountains. This snow is an important source of water for the “comuna,” which would be a “county” in our world. Only in one place, El Durazno, (which I visited on this trip) is there free-flowing water. Everything else has dried up.

Water is delivered by truck. People live differently when there is a water supply.

My time here has been different, as well, all due to COVID-19. Mask wearing is mandatory. If you walk along the streets of Santiago or Combarbalá everyone wears a mask. The only time people aren’t wearing a mask in public is when they are eating or drinking.

It’s kind of interesting. I didn’t hear any of my friends complaining and yet they have faced stricter restrictions, quarantine measures and curfews than we have in northwest Illinois.

Chileans also seem more willing to receive the COVID vaccine. Eighty percent of the population has received two vaccinations and the third round is fast approaching. In the United States, about 59 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

My time has been different with students. There’s less shaking of hands and hugging of younger students. I’ve been keeping my distance. The last thing I want is to test positive for COVID-19 and quarantine here.

Chile is now experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases. The mayor here in Combarbalá is now in quarantine due to close contact with someone infected. One of the presidential candidates will be unable to be in Chile for the Nov. 21 election. He’s in the United States and has a confirmed COVID case.

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As I’ve been here, I’ve been appalled with the COVID numbers in Jo Daviess County; 47 new cases over one three-day period and another 37 new cases from this past Wednesday to Friday.

This has, in some ways, put my mind at ease.

Traveling to Chile has been risky and somewhat stressful. It’s a lot harder to get into Chile than into the United States.

Before traveling here, I had to apply for a “mobility passport,” which shows proof that I’m fully vaccinated. Part of this process involves the Chilean health ministry double checking the lot numbers of my Moderna vaccination. I made application on Oct. 7. At that time, the health ministry said it would take two to three weeks to issue the passport. Now it takes a month or more.

With tickets purchased for an Oct. 31 flight, I had yet to learn of the status of my mobility passport on Friday, Oct. 29. Two Santiago friends, María Elena and Roberto, took action and started calling the Chilean health ministry.

In desperation, María Elena told an official that I was the father of her two daughters. (My first thought was, “What is Joel Holland going to say about this?”) When I asked María Elena about this she said, “You hosted my daughters in your home. You’re their host father.”

I took that as a compliment.

At 2 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 30, notification of the mobility passport arrived. But that created another problem. Now I needed a RT-PCR COVID-19 test, not a rapid test readily available at the hospital. There was no way to take this test and get the results before boarding the plane to Santiago from JFK Airport in New York, N.Y. That meant rebooking tickets, leaving on Tuesday, Nov. 2 and taking the COVID test on Oct. 31 and getting the results on Nov. 1. When those arrived, I applied for a sanitary passport which required uploading the COVID test and stating where I would be in isolation in Santiago until receiving results of a COVID test–a rapid test–taken at the Santiago airport upon arrival.

Whew. It was all quite stressful.

But, in the end, it’s all been worth it.

I did show my mobility passport when entering a restaurant in Santiago. When dining outdoors, the passport wasn’t needed.

It’s been worth it in another way. My friend Miguel just sent this note: “Me alegro mucho que hayas disfrutado tu estadía en Combarbalá. Sabes que tienes las puertas de nuestra casa y nuestro corazón dispuesto a esperarte cuando quieras.”

He basically said–it’s a loose translation–he was happy that I’ve enjoyed my time in Combarbalá and that the doors of his house are open for me and their hearts are open and waiting for me whenever I want to return.

Ahh, family.