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About two weeks into our stay here, I was running sprints on the soccer field to keep in shape when I heard muffled laughter from the uninhabited stands. I walked over to check out the noise, when I saw that a group of six younger teenagers had hidden behind the wooden panels of the stands to watch me do my exercises. A little embarrassed and definitely confused, I turned away and (unconvincingly) pretended I hadn’t seen them. Just a week later, I was doing pushups on those same soccer stands when I looked up to notice that some construction workers had taken a break from fixing up a building just to watch what I was doing. I had guessed that exercising independently or in a public space might be uncommon, but I was surprised that the Neltume residents acted as if my exercising outdoors was shocking rather than simply odd.

a grassy soccer field surrounded by hills
Neltume’s central soccer field
yellow and blue soccer fan stands
Fan stands at the edge of the soccer field

I was particularly confused because I had seen several outdoor gyms in Neltume’s parks that the municipality constructed in 2014. They were cost-efficient iron machines that used the exerciser’s body weight for resistance; there was a treadmill, elliptical, stationary bicycle, and assorted lifting machines. The prevalence of these park gyms had made me think that it was common to exercise outside in front of others, but I began to realize that nobody ever used these structures or exercised in public. According to a teenager I met at a Huilo Huilo Foundation dinner, group of young men play soccer every Sunday, but I’ve yet to see this group despite working out at various times on Sundays at the soccer field. I’ve postulated that they don’t play when it’s raining, and it’s rained just about every Sunday since we’ve been here.

a blue iron device with a railing and several rotating metal cylinders at a slant slightly raised from the ground
A municipality “treadmill”
a yellow iron machine that has a seat and a pair of bars to pull down
A pull-down weight machine that uses the person’s body weight rather than a gym weight
Four iron yellow and blue structures that have two footrests and two upright bars attached
Municipality ellipticals

If I hadn’t stumbled across a Zumba class at a large, seemingly abandoned warehouse one day, I would have assumed Neltume residents rarely exercised in the way I was used to in the United States. Instead, women work out every other day in group fitness classes such as Zumba, yoga, weightlifting, indoor soccer, and self-defense. In each case, an instructor comes and leads the class in a leaky warehouse that used to store lumber. The classes are highly successful in drawing a large group of people for such a small town and for such a cold, rainy winter season. I believe this is largely due to municipal subsidy; the government of Panguipulli pays for each class so that they are free for anyone in the winter. During the summer, attendees have to pay 800 pesos, or about 1 USD, per class. While this may seem cheap, a friend of mine explained that the cost can add up after attending the class every other day for months. Additionally, many people are busy with work during the tourism season, so fewer people exercise. I wonder what effect the municipality could have to help maintain the health of their citizens if they chose to pay for the summer classes as well.

I attend Zumba classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7 to 8 PM. About fifteen local women—a group in their 30s and a group in their 60s—go to each session. The older group was incredibly welcoming to me from the start, going out of their way to talk to me during water breaks and asking me if I wanted to walk home with them. Slowly, the younger group has warmed up to me as well, now making jokes about getting calf cramps and the difficulty of the dance moves. The class has a strong sense of community, as the women will chat as we run around the gym, motivate each other during the workouts, and walk to and from the gym together. From what I’ve observed, a social setting is a large part of the exercise culture here.

large warehouse building with a mural on the front
The outside of the exercise center and abandoned lumber warehouse
a darkly lit, large exercise space
The interior of the community exercise space

Our teacher is a professional dancer named Maria, who begins each session with high intensity interval training. We perform exercises at each of four stations for 20 seconds, then have 5 seconds of break to run to the next exercise, and then we start again. This repeats four times. We use mats to do pushups, sit-ups, and planks on the ground, jump rope, climb stairs, sprint between cones, jump into lunges, use weights to do squats, and more. Afterwards, Maria plays reggaetón on a large speaker and dances in front of us so that we can copy her movements and learn each dance. We jump, shimmy, and drop it low—it’s a fun workout!

My choice to attend Zumba and other classes in the exercise space has completely changed my trip here. I’ve made friends with several of the other students (even though they are around four times my age), which forces me to practice my Spanish. I love laughing with the other students when Maria performs a particularly difficult move and we all do a horrendous job copying her. I continually SoundHound the music so that I can add it to my own playlist (check out “Polola” by Oscarcito). But most importantly, Zumba pushes me to construct an independent experience from the rest of my group. I can’t rely on other students who might know a word in Spanish that I don’t; I can’t fall back on my American friends so that I don’t have to reach out and make new ones. Zumba is a way for me to branch off from the group of fellow students and have an immersion space that is completely my own. It’s challenging, but I’ve loved every second of it.