Network, network, network

Anybody who has moved to a new city, province or country before will know what I mean when I say it is a very daunting prospect to have to meet new people, make new friends and try and build up a social circle in your new home. Add in a new language and totally new culture and the prospect is enough to make even the most outgoing people feel weak at the knees.

Many times I have wondered if I was crazy for leaving South Africa (yet again) and most importantly leaving an amazing and very close bunch of friends. Friends who were not only there for me to share the fun and laughter, but even more importantly the trials and tribulations of work, life, love and everything else. That all disappeared (well at least became long distance) when I came to South America and Chile and thus I had to start trying to build up a new circle of acquaintances, some of whom would hopefully turn into friends…but the million dollar question is where on earth do you begin???

The first difficulty I had was that in my mind I was originally only going to be in Santiago for a couple of months to learn Spanish, teach English and save up some money. In reality I have spent 8 of the last 11 months on this continent in Chile. The difficult aspect of being in a place for a few months is that you are not a tourist and yet you are not really a resident either. So in the beginning here, I didn´t really make much of an effort to make real friends because I thought I would be moving on soon enough. I was extremely lucky to have been able to stay with a friend of my brother´s when I arrived here last March and Coni has now turned into a great friend of mine and I have been her housemate since arriving (for this I remain truly indebted to her). But beyond her and her circle of friends (extremely entertaining and wonderful people), it wasn´t really necessary to get out there and meet other people. I could have made friends with other teachers at the English Institute, but to be honest I didn´t come to South America to socialize with a bunch of people from the United States. However since I got this contract with EY, extending my stay in Chile until at least the middle of this year, I decided that it was time to put myself out there and meet new people…But again I had to ask myself where to begin???

The answer to that question is actually fairly simple…

It turns out that there are many other people in Santiago (and every city for that matter) in exactly the same boat as me and there are various ways to be able to network and meet new people. Three of these sources that I have tried in the last few months are Couchsurfing, Internations and a Spanish/English group. Have you heard of any of these? Have you tried them out? Let me know your experiences…

Couchsurfing – this is a worldwide cultural exchange group which has two main roles – Firstly, to bring together like minded people from all over the world where people in a country can offer accommodation (being a bed, couch or corner on the floor) to travelers who, like me, are on a rather tight budget. Now some of you may be thinking that this is absolutely crazy and there is now way in hell that you would open up your house to a complete stranger. But without going into details, there are lots of ways to ensure security and safety and millions of people who are involved in this network leave their host´s house with nothing worse than a hangover from too much inter-cultural partying. I have not yet had the opportunity or the need to make use of this aspect of couchsurfing, but to me the second aspect is even more important and that is bringing together these same types of people for the purpose of sharing their cultures and experiences.

Many cities (Santiago included) have local couchsurfing groups where residents organize braais, parties, trips to museums, hiking excursions and all sorts of other entertainment and activities. What better way to go hiking in the rainforest surrounding Rio de Janeiro or visit a Samba club than with a bunch of local Brazilians and a couple of other foreigners or to spend a Saturday afternoon having an asado (braai) in a park in Santiago, again with a great mix of like-minded foreigners and Santaguinos. These are just three of the occasions I have managed to use couchsurfing in the last few months and I loved it. As someone who very often travels alone, this is a great way to meet new people and be able to do things in a group without having to join an expensive and often not very good tour group. The bonus is that couchsurfing is not only for foreigners travelling the world and as I said, many local Chileans are part of the Santiago group – these are people who very often are not able to travel themselves, but love being with people from abroad and experiencing all the little things that make us all so different. So if you are interested in broadening your social circle beyond people of your home country, go onto www.couchsurfing.com and see what is happening in your city. Plus, you never know when you may need a couch somewhere…

Hiking in the rainforest of Rio de Janeiro with a bunch of couchsurfers

Inter Nations – a similar concept to Couchsurfing, just without the accommodation aspect and with a membership slightly older and more professionally focused than the typical backpacker scene. It was actually my mom in South Africa who found out about this group from one of her Brazilian english students and she suggested I check it out in Santiago. In January I went along to the monthly drinks party and again, I got to meet some very interesting people (both locals and expats) and have an evening of great conversation. As much as I love the fact that I socialize with pretty much only Chilenos here, it is also nice to be amongst foreigners once in a while to be able to compare notes and talk about the idiosyncrasies of this country and culture. The interesting thing about this evening was that I met at least three people who had only planned on being in Santiago for a few months and have now being living here for between 9 and 12 years…there´s a warning in there somewhere, I just know it…

Note: If you want to see about an Internations group in your city, go to www.internations.org and join…

Me at an internations gathering in Santiago with girls from Chile and the United States

The third way of networking I have found here is a group focused on language – a weekly Spanish/English group meets at some or other pub/restaurant in Santiago with the aim of obviously meeting and socializing with a range of people, but also improving your language skills. For part of the evening you can talk in either Spanish or English (or Spanglish), which ever you are more comfortable with, but then the rest of the evening is divided into a time where you can only speak in Spanish and another when you can only speak in English. There are many Chileans who are desperate to learn or improve their English for work reasons and so this group provides a great opportunity for them to socialize and talk with native English speakers. And then for people like me, it is a great opportunity to practice my Spanish. For me this is particularly useful because alot of my day is spent teaching English and therefore until recently with my EY work, my chances to practice my Spanish were fairly limited.

I´m holding up the sign saying español at one of the weekly english-spanish meetings

But finding these type of gatherings or networks is just the first step…you then have to actually attend the events. This may seem pretty straight forward, however, it is anything but easy, especially when you are attending the events alone. I am quite an outgoing person (although this is not always the case in Spanish), but yet it is still hard to go to these big events and have to start talking to a bunch of complete strangers. The saving grace though is that everyone is in the same position, and after a few minutes (and the first sip of an ice cold pisco sours) the relaxed atmosphere takes over and I love hearing the stories, experiences and advice of people from every corner of the world…It is often at the end of evenings like this that I realize again that the reason for travelling is not only to see the mountains, monuments, famous sights or museums, but even more importantly to meet people…

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

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