Author: Cathy Dean

From Cubicle to Coffee Shop – How Living in Santiago, Chile Changed Me

They say it takes seven consecutive small errors for a plane to crash. It took five similarly insignificant events to crash my comfortable life in America and propel me into a new, unknown life in Santiago, Chile.

First, it was my job. I wasn’t happy in a cubicle. Then I quit MBA school because I spent most of my time coloring in class. Soon after, my brother’s friends returned from a year traveling around South America, and hearing their stories made me want to have similar adventures. I dated someone briefly and felt relieved when it ended. I wasn’t ready to settle down.

Lastly, the big one: I turned 30.

This was not the life I wanted for myself. I wanted to do extraordinary things. Toiling away in a beige carpeted cubicle with fluorescent lighting was not it.

I had dreamed of living abroad in college, but I had chickened out.

Yet, it was a dream that wouldn’t be silenced.

Chile was calling to me.

Once I made the decision to move to Chile, the arrangements went fairly quickly. It took four months from my initial decision for me to land in Chile. I met resistance from friends who felt that deciding in April and moving in August was way too fast. They needed time to let it all sink in. I didn’t.


Chile was already transforming me before I got on the plane. I was making decisions against the advice of friends and family. I ignored the disapproval from my parents who justifiably objected to me living alone in a foreign country.

And although I made contingency plans and worked out ways to earn money, I surprised myself by leaving some key details open, namely where I would live.  I didn’t want to be committed until I got there and saw it for myself. It was the first time I would apply a “Let’s just see what happens” philosophy to almost everything I did.

After trying to control every aspect of my life, I can’t tell you how surprised I was that I was choosing to let the world unfold around me. And that it continued to run without my vice-grip on it.  I landed in Santiago hopeful and scared out of my mind.

Luckily, the first three weeks in Chile I was rarely alone. I met a fellow solo traveler on the plane. We toured around Santiago together and even went skiing at Chile’s famous Portillo ski resort, where Olympians train during the northern hemisphere’s summer.

It was the first time I would apply a ‘Let’s just see what happens’ philosophy to almost everything I did.

When he returned to the States, I explored the city with other travelers staying at the same hostel.  As soon as hostel living started to wear on me, I found on Craigslist Chile a furnished room in a vegetarian household with two young women living there -a Chilean dancer/clothing designer and an American poet.

And just like that, I was living in Chile.  Chile unraveled me…and saved me.  My “Let’s just see what happens” attitude became a lifeline to me while I learned the rapid fire, Portuguese-sounding Spanish of Chile, its modified “you” form indecipherable from the Mexican Spanish I had learned in high school.

“Como estai?” and “Como has estao?”

I didn’t understand a thing.

And sadly, I can’t deny it…

I was that funny foreigner who said “yes” to everything without understanding anything.

“Si, I would like to go to the…where were we going?”

I agreed to all sorts of things. Hare Krishna festivals.  Touring Valparaiso, one of Chile’s port cities. Dance classes to learn Rapa Nui, the dance of Easter Island. Parties and fairs called fondas celebrating their independence day. A full moon festival. A policeman’s graduation ball. I was even recruited to be a backup dancer in a music video.


To every question, a simple “yes” would catapult me into a new adventure.  Chile was carving me into something new. I was happier. I started to see that there was a different, more fulfilling way to live.  The house I lived in didn’t have a TV, so I started writing more. We had a compost pile and a vegetable garden. We had floor cushions instead of a couch. I missed the couch, occasionally I missed the TV, but not as much as I thought I would. I read a lot of books. I walked everywhere.

I felt like I was finally participating in the world around me. I watched the street performers. I smelled the trees when they blossomed in spring.  And every chance I got, I traveled.

I went to Machu Picchu in Peru. I saw Bolivia and its salt flats. I sampled wine in Argentina and went white water rafting. I toured southern Chile’s lake district and Tierra del Fuego. I went camping in the Atacama desert.

As magical as my time in Chile was, it was balanced by some really hard moments. It was those tough moments that transformed me as much as the happy moments.

Adventures everywhere.  I was no longer in a cubicle. I was free.  One day while running through the park on Sanchez Fontecilla, I realized something important. Whatever I did when I returned to America, I couldn’t go back to the cubicle.  There was no way, after the freedom I had experienced abroad, I could return to feeling so stuck.  It felt like I had accidentally colored outside the lines and found such pleasure in being there that I could no longer color inside the lines.  I knew that if I didn’t want to be in a cubicle, it wouldn’t be an easy life. But it might be a happier life.

As magical as my time in Chile was, it was balanced by some really hard moments. It was those tough moments that transformed me as much as the happy moments. Living in a foreign language humbled me. People treated me like a child because I sounded like one. People cut in front of me in line.  When I arrived, it was the middle of winter. No one had central heating. I wore my down jacket everywhere — in restaurants, on the metro, even sometimes to bed. I didn’t get warm until November.

And then there were the dogs. You cannot visit a South American country without seeing the stray dogs, or los perros vagos. There are something like 260,000 on the streets in Santiago alone.  They are the furry landscape. It is just as likely that you will see a homeless dog as a homeless person–and sometimes more likely.  It killed me that they were not being taken care of, and that for all my concern, I could do very little for them. And I was certainly not expecting one of them to bite me.

The bite was only a bruise. More than anything though, it bruised my ego. And it made me question why I had come to Chile and exposed myself to such risks.  Why was I in this place with its smog, the smell of diesel, its traffic, and homeless and people crowding too close? Why was I putting up with having to light the water heater every day to shower? Or having to put the toilet paper in the trash can and not down the toilet?

That dog bite made me really tired.  The next day I went on a walk (with pepper spray in hand) to think. Was it time to go home?  But when I looked around me, I decided it wasn’t time yet. In spite of the bad day, it was still worth the risk.

Perhaps what made Chile so special was the risk.  Besides, I couldn’t leave yet. I was finally becoming me.  Transformation is sometimes slow. Glacial even. But over time, you change. You become something different than you were. Travel did that. Chile did that.

It was one last lesson for me to learn: All that matters is people, your community, and their ongoing compassion and generosity.

When I booked my plane tickets to return home a few months later, I was ready. I would create the life I wanted, not the life someone else expected of me.  It seemed like God’s little joke then that a week before I was scheduled to leave, the 8.8 earthquake hit. The coastal towns far south of Santiago bore the brunt of the earthquake with the tsunamis that followed.

It was one last lesson for me to learn: All that matters is people, your community, and their ongoing compassion and generosity.  The Chileans responded quickly. Some of my Chilean friends went to help the rescue effort. Another started collecting clothing, food, and blankets to help the victims rebuild their lives. The Chileans held a special Telethon to raise money. Everyone donated.

A part of me considered staying to help, but when I mentioned it to my roommate, she said, “You belong to America. You should go home. You will be happy there.”

My goodbye party was small. My roommate’s Easter Island friends had come to visit. They sang beautiful songs through the night until it was just me and my roommate and a friend drumming out a simple beat on some buckets and singing what was in our hearts. I said goodbye to Chile. And I went home to a different life.

Today, my office is a coffee shop surrounded with windows. I see the weather every day from my table.  I work as freelance writer. My bills are paid with copywriting, my soul satisfied with articles about fitness and travel. I wrote a book about fitness. I was a personal trainer for almost a year. I work 30 hours a week most of the time. I don’t work in a cubicle.

As an added bonus, travel itself is now more possible for me. I have friends that have been dreaming of foreign countries for years and have yet to have the courage or money to do it. But it really requires so little of both once you’ve made the decision to go.

Travel is my risk. My reminder to let go. To say, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’

Twice since returning from Chile, I have mustered up the courage and money to travel to foreign countries. First I went to Australia. Two years later, I went to Indonesia.

While I was in Indonesia, a local in Bali asked me, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve done this month?”

I thought about it for a second. “I guess…traveling to Indonesia. Why?”

He said, “You should ask yourself that question every month. You haven’t really lived until you’ve risked something.”

His words have stayed with me. I’m no daredevil, but I do believe it’s way too easy to live life on autopilot. It’s so easy to fall asleep.  Travel helps me to answer the question, “What is the craziest thing you’ve done lately?”  It helps me to stay awake. To be more clear about what I want.

Travel is my risk. My reminder to let go. To say, “Let’s just see what happens.”

For more inspirational stories about how travel has transformed the lives of “regular” people, check out the following articles and resouces:

Photo credits:  chensiyan, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.