“So what’s the deal with the census?” I remember thinking this one day while I was sitting at the dining room table of my host family’s house in Viña del Mar, Chile. I was on the phone with one of the friends I had met through my AIFS program, and we were planning a trip to go to a city in the north of of Chile called La Serena.
We checked the academic calendar through our institution, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, and noticed that we had a Thursday off from classes in April for ‘el censo’ (the census). Neither of us knew really what this meant, but we happily accepted the day off from classes and began planning our travel arrangements for the long weekend. Even though flights to fly around South America aren’t as cheap as they are to fly within Europe, we were able to secure flights for really cheap to fly to La Serena, so we were excited.
Later that evening, my host family and I sat down together to eat dinner, as we did every night. My host mom made my favorite meal for dinner that night: ‘hamburguesas,‘ or sautéed steak on freshly baked bread with avocado and tomato. We chatted about our day and what we had going on in the next few days. I shared with them the travel plans that my friends and I made to go to La Serena, and my host mom seemed shocked when I said that I was traveling on the day of the ‘censo.’ Before she could explain more, we were interrupted by our next door neighbor with a cake, and before we knew it, we were sitting in the living room, laughing, and not thinking about the census again.
A few weeks later, my friends and I prepared to depart. This was the middle of April, and we arrived in Chile at the end of February, so by now we were accustomed to the way of life. I got so used to the laid-back lifestyle in Chile that I dreaded the idea of coming home and having such a fast-paced lifestyle once again. I loved how the people genuinely enjoyed the time they had with each other, and I started to do the same. This was all complimented by the breathtaking views of the city, which was situated on a beach.
When my friends and I met at the bus station in Viña del Mar at 10:00 AM, we didn’t see a soul on the street or in the bus station. This was extremely abnormal, as Viña del Mar was usually a hustling and bustling city with students, parents, and all different people wandering the streets. We attributed it to the ‘censo,’ but had no idea the severity of what that meant.
Without putting too much thought into it, we loaded our luggage onto the bus and headed for the airport in the capital city of Santiago. We decided on the bus that, since it only took about an hour to get to the airport and our flight was at 2:00 PM, we would walk around Santiago a little bit and get some lunch, since none of us had eaten yet.
After we got off the bus, we walked through Santiago and noticed that there was no one on the streets. Struck with a bit of alarm at this point, we walked a few blocks and found a police officer. We asked him if we were missing something since there was no one around. He said, “Of course. It’s the day of the census. No one is allowed to leave their houses today until a government agent has come to collect their information.”
At this point, our worries turned to laughter. We all joked with each other that we hadn’t known, but in the back of my head, I was thinking about food (which I am most of the time), and about when we would be able to eat. Since it was about 12:00 PM at this point, we hurried back to the airport for our flight, still hungry from not eating breakfast or lunch yet.
When we arrived at La Serena at about 3:30 PM, we quickly exited the airport and hailed a taxi to drive us to the hostel we were staying at. In the taxi, the driver was talking about how he had to request that the government come early in the day so he could work his regular shift. We asked him if he could drop us off at some restaurant in La Serena, as we were thinking that we would eat and then drop our things off at the hostel. At this point, we were all starving, He let out a laugh, then said “Good luck finding some place open. What’s the address for your hostel?”
We paid the taxi driver, quickly deposited our things, then went out on foot to look for a restaurant. At this point, we were all starving, not even talking to each other because of how hungry we were. We walked for what felt like 10 miles (it was probably around two), and found many restaurants, which were all closed. At this point, it was around 6:00 PM and more people were beginning to walk around the city. We asked a couple that we saw walking if they knew of any restaurants that were open, and they responded, “Yes, we saw one 4 blocks down, just keep walking straight.”
We thanked them furiously and were thrilled at the idea of eating anything. We set off straight, and began talking and laughing again. After walking for about 20 minutes, we still had not passed one block. We finally passed one after about 30 minutes of walking, and silently cursed the couple that we had talked to for not mentioning how far the blocks were. At this point, I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. We kept on walking, and eventually found a stand at the side of the road with a long line. We noticed they were selling hot dogs, hamburgers and other food. We got on line happily, but as we started to approach the front, the chef behind the stand said, “I’m out of hot dogs and hamburger patties. I only have buns and popcorn.” Frantically, my friends and I continued walking and found another restaurant, which was packed with patrons. We finally got seated, had some dinner, and were able to laugh at the experience. We told our waiter, who chuckled and said, “why would you travel on the day of the census?” We shrugged, laughed and enjoyed the rest of our time in La Serena. We got to go on a boat and see some natural resources in La Serena, and see a desert.
It is these funny experiences of cultural differences between the US and other countries that make studying abroad so worthwhile and memorable.
This post was contributed by William Mayer, an AIFS Study Abroad Alumni Ambassador who studied abroad in Viña del Mar, Chile.