24 August 2011

I'm Moving!

...to wordpress.com.

Find my new, shiny, permanent blog at reverseretrograde.wordpress.com.

18 August 2011

Al Camino Que Hicieron Mis Zapatos

Seven more hours in South America. What does that even mean? 

In a certain sense, I feel as though it is already over. Everything that I have experienced since leaving la Región de Magallanes in Chile has given me perspective, but it also made the time there feel as distant as its physical location 2800 miles South. 

Everything feels surreal. Instead of having to take an extremely uncomfortable bus full of puking Peruvians for forty-eight hours, followed by a collectivo on the fly and a stowaway passage on a cargo boat to get home, I will walk onto my flight to the States and be home within ten hours. It seems impossible. 

I always find my self grasping at strings to sum up a journey adequately when I confront returning home. Words and phrases that I want to lean on because they are easy fall flat. "Overall, it was a ______ experience..." is not sufficient. "At the end, I see that ______ was _______ all along..." doesn't cut it. "When I began this journey, I thought _______, but now I've learned _______..." just can't work. 

I can't tie the thousands of experiences and lessons into a nice little box and package them in shiny wrapping paper. I can't even get them all straight in my mind. Besides, I think somehow that there is no box big enough. Especially not this tiny one on Blogger. 

Instead I will make a minor and inefficient attempt to draw the closing lines Al Camino que Hicieron Mis Zapatos quoting...myself. From the beginning. 

"Now this experience is beginning, and it feels surreal still...So much craziness has already happened and I feel as though it can only get better from here (and here is pretty great already)..." -26 February 

"Occasionally a shooting star that only I get to see shows up and streaks across my life. And I get to be satisfied that there are people like me out there in the world, and that we occasionally find one another." -2 March 

"Holy shit. I'm about to see someone get stabbed." -3 March 

"Complete And Utter Chaos would come today when my head teacher decided not to come back from his lunch break and the director asked me to substitute with no preparation or lesson plan or materials." -15 March

"And maybe all the things that seem to be contradictions are simply juxtapositions that I am not used to. Maybe my definition of contradiction needs to evolve. And maybe I'm over-reacting because this is actual culture shock instead of the "I'm at home!" feeling Italy immediately gave me." -23 March

"Am I just a cog in the English Cult Machine here in Chile? Maybe." -31 March

"I had no idea how hard I would be expected to work here, nor how hard I would have to push myself." -10 April

"They all think I am crazy. Also I am covered in cat pee." -20 April

"I'm not even concerned with breaking even anymore. I just want a little sprinkling of good surprises and minor victories to season the greater confusion, frustration, and lack of progress. It's enough." -3 May

"I can't change everything. Maybe, just maybe, I can't change ANYthing. I hope that the reality is somehwere in the middle, but it remains to be seen." -16 May

"So, what do you do when there is nothing more to do? When you have nothing more to give? When what you thought was the point of your life has been erroded by three months of floundering and you wonder what the point of trying is?

You tell the existential crisis bearing down on you to go fuck itself, and you spend some of the UN's money on some new boots and a coffee." -24 May

"The images of all the places I have been able to travel so far on this trip materialize out of the bluish gray light, seeming to shine in the snow and cloudy sky. Torres del Paine. Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia. Natales. Puerto Bulnes. The Straight of Magellan. That big hill over there, that we spent the day climbing yesterday. All the toughness of the teaching and the daily stuggles, did it pay for those places?" -27 May

"Circumstantial changes mimic the coming and going of the weather here. If you don't like it, wait five minutes. The chaos will shift again and you will be humbled by your smallness in the face of Patagonia. But you will also find that you can change some of it, and occasionally outsmart the chaos for just long enough to move to the next challenge." -7 June

"I am not working here. This is not a job. This is something at I am choosing to do and that I can just as easily choose not to. I am a volunteer."- 8 June

"There was no assistant teaching. No orientation. No gradual transition from non-teacher to Miss Coleen. Hell, there wasn't even an observation period. I made the transition in a day, in front of a room full of seventh graders. But honestly, I think I've risen well to the challenge. After four months of the struggle in this school, I can say with some confidence that I have at least a tiny claim to that kick ass brotherhood of teachers making a difference." -22 June

"I have done the best job I could do to change and adapt and accept. A lot of what I have learned and changed is great, and I will use the new point of view Chile has offered me to judge my own life more carefully. But that doesn't mean I should lose myself completely either. My own culture and identity have a lot to offer, and the exchange should change Puerto Natales and the people I meet as well." -30 June

"You did it. You did what you came here to do. And you did it so well. 

I didn't look back. Really, I couldn't...the more pressing needs to watch out for stray ankle-biting poodles, speeding POS cars on the avenue, and boot-swollowing mud puddles pressed me back to Chilean reality. The Goodbye Spell complete, I walked home." -8 July

"To any observer including me it appears that she has been trying to kill me...but she was actually trying to save me. 

Chile woke me up and made me realize that I have a lot of work to do on myself before my life can have stability and I can truly be happy. She laid my own issues and those of the world bare, forcing me to deal with pain, sadness, lonliness, anger, and my own personal tormentors from the past. She forced me to give up a lot about my own way of viewing the world and to try to get by on fumes (and a ton of white bread) even when I was exhausted. She made me feel so tiny and powerless in the face of mountains and the problems of her society, but yet huge and powerful as the most noticeable gringa this side of Puerto Montt and able to do something to help those students." -18 July

"In one week, I've literally done Chile end to end. Punta Arenas to Arica." -9 August 

"I don't want to give up on one of the things that I've always held dear to me... The idea that I could act and change something about the world for the better. It is easier to choose to be jaded. The narrow path is not convenient." -16 August 

I suppose that my 24 hours in this overly white hotel room ought to have given me the time to emerge with some great Truth about my time here in South America, but to be honest I've been filling it with Law and Order re-runs and The Other Boleyn Girl.

All the tethers to this experience are breaking free, one by one, to flutter in the wind. This week I felt the surprise of already missing Patagonia and everyone who was witness to my adventure here. I especially miss and want to thank Dimitris. Without you, I wouldn't have made it. 

Likely whatever change there is within me will only become clear in the stark contrast this last, short leg of the journey will inevitably bring. I have an inkling that there is a big enough physical change that people may be shocked. South America stripped pounds from my frame, changed my hair color, and put the first lines on my face. Also my clothes haven't had a real washing in almost six months. 

A girl in my hostel (a random, faked-tanned and overly-bleached California blonde) listened to a few lines of concentrated six months in South America the other day over a mediocre vegetarian sandwich. She was shocked at how long I've been here, and clearly had no grasp on how far South Puerto Natales is. She couldn't stop complimenting my Spanish (that language I did not speak six months ago that I now take for granted).

"Would you do it all again?"

I hesitated. This was, without question, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. A few weeks ago, I said that I wished I had never come to South America, through tears in the fancy SkyBar at the Punta Arenas casino. 

"Yes. Yes, I would do it again." 

My answer surprised even myself. Something must have shifted in the 3000 miles since then. I don't know what that shift is yet, but that tiny glimmer of light peeking out from the darkness seems to be a good omen. 

"It is known that one who returns never left..." -Pablo Neruda

16 August 2011

Depersonal Development--Apperances Are Everything

It is time to go home. Everything in my body says it, down to the molar I chipped on a mountain village's Chicharrón (various unidentifiable fried black potatoes and Alpaca bits) during a pit stop for the bus from Tacna to Puno.

Ending this experience in Lima seems odd. Given that I am now whithin 12 degrees of the Equator (a full 41 degree shift from Punta Arenas just two weeks ago), the climate feels densely humid and the air is so heavy it feels suffocating after the 11,000 foot altitude of Cuzco. It's loud. It's crowded. The area that I am staying in is very modern, with bright flashing lights, tall buildings, and even a real live department store. 

It's a stark contrast to the other parts of Peru that I've seen. In that mountain village, all the women but one wore the traditional skirt and long braids. The school was a relatively new, bright blue building...probably built as a gift from the all-beneficent government but obviously not in use due to it's broken windows and empty classrooms. The people obviously barely had enough to get by on. The same was true in Tacna, Puno, Ilave, Juliaca, and even Cuzco. none of the people in the Miraflores barrio are as weary-looking as those I saw in rural Peru. Not a traditional woman in sight. 

I mean, they have actual indoor plumbing here. 

Seeing as I came to South America under the guise of an English teacher in a United Nations Development Program-sponsored initiative, it's one more piece in the puzzle of how to help a country to develop sustainably, equally, and thoroughly. Or rather, one more revelation that the process is far more complicated than just having the UN show up and start passing out magic Development Fairy Dust to everyone. 

My experience in Chile was obviously subjective. I am the only one who truly saw everything that I saw and felt it, grew from it, and struggled with it. I was able to get out of Gringolandia for a while and to see the country from tip to tip. It is (and here I quote the omnipotent Wikipedia):

 "...One of South America's most stable and prosperous nations, and a recognized middle power. It leads Latin American nations in human development, competitiveness, income per capita, globalization, economic freedom, low perception of corruption and state of peace. It also ranks high regionally in freedom of the press and democratic development." 

Chile came out of the 90s as a developing economic power. Despite having fewer residents than most Latin American countries, it outperforms them. Chile produces a third of the world's copper. It's GDP grew 31% in one year this decade (2005-2006).

And yet official figures suggest that a third of Chile's people live in poverty. From what I saw outisde the densely populated Región Metropolitana...the figure in the countryside is far higher. Eve. In Puerto Natales, which has been bolstered by a thriving tourism trade recently, access to basic services like schools and health care is limited. There is no goddamn hospital, people. 

Meanwhile in Providencia, the upscale neighborhood of Santiago...there are Starbucks everywhere. The hospital is modern and cutting edge. The people have more than three outfits. They have cars. Shiny ones. Their kids are bilingual in English and Spanish. People are either too fat from a few too many salchipapas or have the pinched thin look of the upper class who smokes too much to eat. 

Generalizations rarely suit circumstances, but from what I've seen in Chile and in my brief time in Peru suggests a big one about the development of these two Latin American countries (and perhaps Latin America in general...it's a stretch but they do share a relatively common history). 

The development is only for the rich. It is the Haves and the Have Nots. The development is neither sustainable nor equal. Much effort is put into the appearance of development, while infrasctructure and social problems rot it from the inside out. 

Example. My students came from some of the poorest families in Puerto Natales. They had subsidized housing, food stamps, and their parents typically worked for the middle to upper class landowners and hotel managers of the city (almost none of whom are originally from there). They were barely getting by. 

And yet most of them had touch screen cell phones. A large number had laptop computers, gifts from their government for good grades. Our school couldn't afford to buy posters for the walls of the classrooms, and yet they are more connected at all times of the day than my Facebook-toting grandmother. 

Tourism is booming in Natales, but the water is dark brown. The municipality gets grants from the government, but barely any of the money reaches the public schools. Villa Renovald just down the road now has streetlights run on a generator, but it still lacks a school. 

The appearance of development is there, but it has huge gaps between the rich and the poor. At times Chile seems very developed (you can get sushi with your Pisco Sour at the very end of the American continent) and at others it feels very Third World (my Chilean nephew is sick and there is no doctor on duty for 300 kilometers). In Peru the contrast is even bigger. 

My own experience with trying to help Chile develop and to give new perspectives and opportunities to her youth was marred by themismanagement, lack of interest, and general disorganization that plagues aid work (Can teaching English be called proper "Aid Work?" i dunno...in my school, I think yes. Sure, it could've been worse. But then again it was already pretty awful).

What all this rambling is trying to say is that I've learned a lot about how rough the attempt to help in a developing country can be. Frankly, teaching in Chile was relatively easy compared to the experiences that some of my friends have had teaching here in Peru, doing the Peace Corps, or helping in orphanages in Kenya. I feel guilty in a sense for traveling afterward and living in these fancy-ass hostels with all the other rich Gringos (My room at this hostel is full of Irish Guidos...I didn't know that was possible but it appears the Jersey Shore blight is spreading). 

A month ago, I was fed up. I felt that the very people I came here to try to offer something had taken advantage of me and that any kind of aid work would simply result in that sense of frustration. I felt that even by being a Gringa in Chile, I was being a cultural imperialist and that it didn't matter anyway...one person cannot make a difference. 

A month of perspective and some key TED lectures later, I feel re-energized. I don't want to give up on one of the things that I've always held dear to me... The idea that I could act and change something about the world for the better. It is easier to choose to be jaded. The narrow path is not convenient. 

I wanted this post to be a self-reflective wander about how much I've changed and grown since moving to South America and not a treatise on development. I don't think that the two can be separated easily. This experience will likely change the course of my life. And I am happy that I am still able to focus on something other than just myself.

The narcissistic entry will come tomorrow. For now I am going to enjoy a shower under hot running water with a light bulb in the room. 

09 August 2011

A Week of Travel...Semi-Concious, Coca Tea Fulled Stream of Consciousness Style

Holy BeJeezus, this has been an insane week of travel. I have almost no energy left to describe it fully, despite the coca tea I am currently sipping on here in Puno, Peru. My brain is buzzing a little from lack of sleep, altitude, and coca...so I am going to do a stream-of-.consciousness free-association-y exercise. Hopefully it captures it.

Valparaiso, 8:00 AM. Sunlight blasting. Pack your junk, our bus is ready.

Stolen couch padding and a pillow case = new level of comfort for my bag. Try not to stab yourself on the bus.

Santiago. Mental map. Made it back to talk to you, front desk lady who witnessed the distaster of my Spanish upon my arrival. I've improved.

Found the Pre-Colombian Art Museum that was so elusive five months ago, and talk to fifty sixth graders who are super-interested in me. Reminds me of my students.

To El Galeon for seafood. La Piojera. You know it's a good bar when someone's copped a feel after two minutes. Terremoto. Conversation with Chilenos. Terremoto. More conversation. Tsunami. Probably too much conversation...we've broached the topics of politics and aura colors. Walk home. More politics. Oh, so you're a Pinochet supporter? Buenas noches.

We're late. Meet at the station. Make yourself comfortable, these seats are your home for the next 24 hours.

Incredible views. Fertile plain with huge mountains to dry beaches to desert. The Atacama is calling.

San Pedro de Atacama. Dry and high. Immediate tour upon arrival. No time to shower. Yes, I wear dresses in the desert. Down the giant sand dune with you.

4:00 AM. -17 degrees C. Highest geysers in the world. Swimming at 14,500 feet is tiring. Sopaipilla village. LLama tastes like venison. Cold-ass salt lake. Mango Sour on the beach with the mountains in the distance. Get the f*** out of the way, dude...you're ruining everyone's picture.

Rest all day. First real laundry in five months. Last Lomo a la Pobre. 20:30 bus. Excuse me, wasn't Chile supposed to have at least some paved roads? I don't want to die out here in the Atacama. Oh thank God...Arica.

In one week, I've literally done Chile end to end. Punta Arenas to Arica.

Collectivo taxi across the border. Did he just walk off with our passports? Ok, he came back. Giant sand dudes and fog in the desert. Border crossing=super facil.

Holy shit dude. Tacna is a little scary. Orchards in the desert. We missed the bus. Wait, we'll take a cab to catch up with it outside of town. This bus smells like corn and coca. My advice, don't use the toilet.

No Orinar, Hay camara. Todos orinan, juntos. Winding roads up to 5,000 meters. The first to puke is the little one. Then the other. Then the grandmother. Now we smell like farts, puke, corn, and coca. Only five hours to go.

What do you mean, this bus stops here?! We were told it went to Puno. Ok motortaxi with backpacks and three squished into the back. This is not a tourist town. Puno? Yes, please. One hour collectivo for 5 soles ($1). Is our hostel reserved? Nope. Shit. Other hostel. Book a tour. No time for money. Chinese food.

6:00 AM, and the sun is high in the sky. To the floating islands. Amazing and cool. Pachamama pillow cover. Sandra has bright skirts. To Taquile.

Lunch, no lunch? Who knows. To the other restaurant, away from the creepy Argentinan who is bothering Pen. Trout and Quinoa soup. To the house. Willifreddo is the cutest five year old ever.

Party for Santiago. They've been drinking all day. To the pre-Inca Ruins. Time to commune with Pachamama (by peeing in the ruins' boundaries). Walk into town. Clandestine photos of the festival. Only gringos around. All eyes on us.

Back to house for dinner, shadow puppets, and then bed. The partiers have switched to techno, on an island that still dresses in the same style as after the Conquistadores came in the 1500s. I think that veiled lady in the long skirt is puking.

You mean you wanted someone to meet you at the boat? Haha. Are you Giovanni? No. You? No. You? No. Right, let's just get on the boat. You must be Giovanni. Yes, but you have no ticket and you can't be on this boat. What? We've been waiting forty-five minutes for you! Those seats are for the passangers. No, fine. let's go.

Slowest boat ever. I could walk faster. The toilet is full of piss. Four hours to get abck to Puno.

Money, change pesos to soles, bus tickets. Bus is full. Call the others. Reserva. Chinese food. Mototaxi to the station. Woohoo water. Back to the hostel. Lost on the way. Just get out, just ditch it. Here we are.

Tomorrow = Cuzco.