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.

30 July 2011

A Winter Shower in Valparaiso

Valparaiso is charmingly sketchy and beautiful in its own way. I have felt overwhelmed by the loud cars and busses, the huge buildings, the crush of people. Welcome back to civilization. Oh yes, and watch your bags like a hawk. No one is going to find your house and give you back the ipod you forgot here. 

It was a strange night in Santiago, a collision between nostalgia for the beginning of the program and saudade for those who never came back due to the weather, Chilean disorganization, and the occasional collapsed lung. It was incredibly helpful to have a sounding board of other volunteers to talk to about my experience, and to see them visually react to the set of circumstances that I've lived for the past five months felt cathartic in a way I did not anticipate. The weight lifted again.

I noticed that this time, Santiago didn't feel as scary as it did when I first arrived. Sure, the buildings felt huge and there were so many cars and busses and people everywhere...but even the stray tear gas didn't phase me. I just pulled up my scarf and walked on. It didn't burn too badly. I didn't get hit full on. Patagonia and crazy changing circumstances have made me adaptable as never before. 

That adaptability came in handy tonight when we arrived in Valparaiso with no hostel, no map, and not-quite-adjusted backpacks digging into our shoulders. We walked for over an hour, up stairways and down hills. Through sketchy passages marked as streets but little more than a one-person stairwell. We eventually found a cheap hostel (in every sense of the word) and checked in. 

I hadn't showered since Magallanes. Or brushed my hair. I slept fewer than three hours last night. Let's just say that not showering was not an option at this time. 

I went into the first bathroom in the hostel, and promptly turned around to leave. The toilet was jammed full of toilet paper and the shower had black mold growing almost in vines on the tub. My own personal Hanging Garden of Mold. I went to the other bathroom. 

The window to outside was wide open. No screen, but that's nothing new. The building has shifted and the window misses the mark by a good inch and a half. No big deal. I turn on the shower and struggle to find the sweet spot between heat to singe one's eyebrows and cold to freeze my feet to my flip flops. I finally found it and had just settled in to wash 1700 miles of dirt out of my hair when it turned cold and stayed cold. The shampoo in my hair wouldn't make lather. 

Between the cold air entering through the window and the freezing water, this shower had just turned into the coldest shower of my life. I stuck my head under the spray and tried desperately to avoid the freezing spray. When I put my head back up, I gasped at the knife-like cold of my hair on my neck, and then exhaled sharply. 

My breath appeared in a cloud in front of me. 

Yep. One more thing to put up with on this trip. Cold showers in the middle of winter with the window wide open.  I had no choice but to lather up, gather my determination, and wash under the stream of barely-liquid water. And now I can't seem to warm up. That which doesn't kill me...gives me a cold?


25 July 2011

10,000 Miles Begins With A Single Three Hour Bus Ride

The sudden sterility of a room before a move. That space which was once a home, a refuge...vacant and scrubbed of all the marks of its former owner. I've moved ten times in the last four years, and so this moment of cleaning and removing and erasing one's presence is not unfamiliar to me. It even feels kind of good. A definitive closure. A ritual of passage. 

The journey that I am about to undertake will be the biggest distance covered in a month that I have ever attempted. The tentative (and extremely flexible) itinerary looks like this:

- Santiago de Chile (July 27)
- Valparaiso 
- San Pedro de Atacama
- Cusco
- Machu Pichu
- Lake Titicaca
- La Paz
- Potosi
- Salta 
- Cordoba
- Buenos Aires (August 21)

When I arrive in Denver after a red-eye flight and twelve-hour layover in Miami, I will have traveled over 10,000 miles in 25 days. About 400 miles a day, if it were actually divided equally (some days will be disproportionately long...48-hour bus rides tend to do that). 4,000 of those miles will be overland in busses. Four countries to cross- Chile (literally tip to tip), Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. 

Yeah. It's gonna get crazy. 

This trip is taking me from the minor leagues of world travel to the major league. Even my friend who recently traveled solo through Eastern Europe for three months and went through several countries that until very recently were war zones said, "Holy shit" when I told him about the plan. 

I'm ready. Travel is adventure and struggle and fulfilment...the sum of all I want life to be. I am happiest when I am constantly moving and adapting at a cheetah's pace. Everything that I learned in this semester of teaching will come into play. I will need every ounce of change and growth and experience that I've gained. 

The journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step: Get to Punta Arenas in the snow. It's time for Puerto Natales to fade into the Patagonian snow until I can return. 

18 July 2011

Chile's Version of Cardiac Massage

"¿De que te cansas, Coleen? ¿Que puedes tener que te cansa?"  

Why am I so tired, Chilean host mother? Oh, I don't know...maybe it is that I worked a forty-hour week trying to control thirty high schoolers who don't speak English (and protect and support a pregnant fifteen year old) while speaking in my fourth language, after teaching my ass off in a high-risk public school for the last five months? Oh yes, and the fact that I went to sleep at 6:30 this morning and only slept until you woke me up by beating on my door at 10, admonishing me for missing breakfast. 

Luckily, I only have to put up with this for one more week. Otherwise I might just pour my very proper tea out onto this table and tell you where you can put your bowl of Manjar.

Chile and I have had a hell of a ride. Now that I am in the transition stage from Tía Coleen to Kick-Ass-Traveling-4000-Miles-Overland-Coleen and as my my final obligations to the EOD program are wrapping up, I find myself spending a great portion of my time thinking about what has changed about me since I moved to this continent. 

It's strange, because in some ways I don't feel changed. In my most self-pitying moments, I tell myself that it was all for nought and that it changed neither me nor my students nor the world that I came here. Obviously, this is a product of the lethal combination of a little too much time spent on the uncomfortable plywood floor of my room alone and a chronic lack of sunlight. When I step back a bit and actually name the changes, it becomes clear that my self-pity has no relationship with reality. 

I have an image in my head of Chile (who I somehow picture as a big-boned Salweskar woman) reaching into my chest up to her wrists and opening my ribcage, to massage and form and enliven my heart. Like cardiac massage that surgeons perform, but with blood everywhere in big arterial spurts. To any observer including me it appears that she has been trying to kill me, with stress and frustration and futility and ankle-biting poodles. 

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 thhe 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. 

I think the change snuck up on me, and that it happened so quickly that I didn't even realize it. Somewhere between the crazy 16-hour flight to Santiago and the trip to the post office this morning, a new Coleen took the place of the old one. 

I even look different. 

07 July 2011

Adioses~The Goodbye Spell

My favorite poem by Pablo Neruda is called "Adioses" (Goodbyes). I read it on the floor of my room in my parents' basement last February...almost an incantation breathing life into Chile for me. It has played a very important role in my camino here, including giving the name of my blog, being read by a friend who felt like a missing puzzle piece to my soul on the roof of a hostel in Santiago, being the only thing left in my hand when my purse was stolen by an armed robber...keeping me sane through all the changes and the crushing sense of futility. I encourage you to read it here http://d0rkalici0u5.wordpress.com/2008/09/02/adioses-by-pablo-neruda/

I am trying to memorize it tonight, because today was my last day of classes at Escuela 5. Imagine the scene:

After trying very hard to sit through an hour and a half of awards, recognitions, monotonous speeches, and a completely superfluous ten-minute saxophone solo the students of Escuela 5 were slowly devolving into chaos. It was far too much to ask of them to remain quiet and seated for that long. I was trying to amuse myself by taking pictures and eating Altoids. It wasn't working. 

Out of nowhere, they announced that they would be recognizing a special person who worked so hard with them all semester and loved the children very much. I suddenly wished I had been paying attention or at least looking like I was. 

The announcer said something like, "the incomprable Tia Coleen!" and  I walked up to the middle of the gym, silently fearing for just a second that the students will boo me. I was focusing on not tripping, and I didn't hear the cheer until it was so loud that I couldn't even hear the director telling me to take the certificate that he was handing me. 

Standing ovation. Certificate of merit from the director. Even the parents standing and cheering. I felt like I was in a movie. I tried to look at all the students, but instead I just started crying. 

I walked over to the integration teacher, Tía Christine, who I feel is one of the few who truly is called to teaching in that school. She hugged me. My students, all of them, mugged me, pushing and shoving to be able to hug me. I worried we would all fall down and crush each other like soccer fans storming the field.

With help from the inspector, we restored order and they said goodbye, one by one. A mixture of each level, so much that I could hardly remember who was who and which was which. So many kisses and hugs and "Tía, I will miss you," and "Tía, I love you."

"Tía don't leave...please don't leave..."

Everything, the whole semester, the whole struggle, the tears, the swearing, the wanting to give up, the money I and some members of my family gave for supplies (thank you so much, Aunt Barbara), all the drama of a small town...it all was worth it. 

The reality that these kids face every day is so much harder than I ever did, and I broke under the weight of the emotions in the school and the constant struggle just to get through the day. I am an adult. The students taught me how to act like one. They are children, and they have to grow up struggling harder than I did for these four months for all their childhood and adolesence. 

I cannot change the circumstances of their lives. I cannot give them all money for school and help them to work. I cannot force their parents know how important school is. I cannot throttle a mother who dared hit her child, my student, at the school today and then leave her alone to cry (even though I really, really wanted to). I cannot fight the systemic and cultural problems that are holding Chile back.

I didn't come here to teach English, when I step back and look at it. Let's get real...my students still can't answer "How are you?" after four months of daily repetition. I came to experience Chile and to try to be a positive influence in the lives of these kids. I traveled 6,000 miles to them to show that there is another way...that just because their parents never finished school doesn't mean they shouldn't, that they are valuable and capable and that someone cares about them. And will always care. Even after they threw spitballs and erasers at me every day for four months.

I can only hope that someday a couple of them will remember me and think of how much I put up with to be with them. That maybe, just maybe a few of them will mature and realize that I was demanding because I refused to accept anything but their best effort.

And that I loved them unconditionally. Maybe even especially the tough ones. 

I wanted to leave my students with an example of how to say goodbye. One last chance to lead them by example. So I chose a song that expresses a lot of how I feel about leaving my students ("For Good" from Wicked) and hand-wrote the words in English and Spanish. I paid for photocopies for each one. And I made cards for every course. I played the song, we talked about what it meant, and then I read them the card.

I thought it would be easy, but I surprised myself. I choked up the most with the little ones...the first graders are too young to truly understand that I am leaving, but their eyes glowed with love and innocence (it sounds so cheesy, but it really happened). The second graders refused to let me leave the recess hall. The third graders, the class that made me want to keep teaching more than any other...they made me a huge envelope of letters and put their pocket money together to buy me a stuffed penguin and a Magallanes flag. 

I didn't even teach the fourth graders, but they swarmed to the classroom and hugged me and cried. The fifth graders listened to me and asked when I was coming back. The sixth graders smiled and didn't cry. The seventh graders rolled their eyes at my admonishment to make good choices, but behaved better than I had ever seen. And the eighth graders begged me to come back for their graduation in December. 

As I stepped through the door of the school, holding it open for some parents and students, everything felt normal. I walked out to the street and saw a few students playing soccer, with no coats despite the cold and smiled, thinking of myself at that age. I looked at the mountains, capped with snow and shining in the afternoon sun. 

A breeze came up from nowhere, as the wind in Patagonia always does. I breathed it in deeply, and something echoed in my heart like a raindrop creating ripples on a puddle's surface. The weight lifted. The silence spoke to me.

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. 

05 July 2011

What To Do When You Accidentally Swear In Front of Your Students

"ALL RIGHT THAT'S IT! THIS IS RI-FUCKING-DICULOUS!! TAKE YOUR SEAT NOW!" Tía Coleen just seriously lost her temper. Even the infamous seventh graders fall silent and take their seats. 

Oh, shit. Did I just swear in front of my students? Kind of...*at* them? They are giggling. I stand, stunned at myself for a good thirty seconds. 

This is the last week. A month ago, I was seriously asking myself if I could make it. I'm not sure that anyone but me knew exactly how close I came to saying, "All right, that's it! I'm packing it up and moving to a shitty apartment in Viña del Mar, to live off my remaining savings and sell friendship bracelets for pocket money..." 

It was close. Very close. Close enough that I actually looked at flights. 

I am not cut out to be a middle school teacher. I love teaching, don't get me wrong. Ever since I was a child, I've given impromptu lectures about things that fascinate me to any hapless "student" who happened to cross my path. My parents had to invent a game about a little bird who ate from her parents' hands in order to get me to eat while lecturing during dinner. I would eat a bite of food, standing and pacing on a windowsill near the table, barely stopping to chew before continuing my stories. 

I am actually pretty good at teaching, especially with the littlest ones. Their problems are mostly simple ("Tía, she hit me!" "No, she hit me first!" "I don't care who hit whom, you will both apologize and shake hands.").

But being a middle school teacher means combating behavior problems and a sea of hormones. It means seeing children transform into adolencents before your very eyes. It means seeing problems that they will carry their whole lives beginning. I means knowing that these kids may have kids of their own in a couple of years, that they are very close to failing out, that they are using drugs and alcohol. 

All of that sucks...to put it mildly. But the worst part by far is the apathy, which permeates everything for most of these kids. You have to do this activity to learn the vocabulary. I don't want to. You have no grades *at all* in this class from this semester, because you have not turned in a single assignment. I don't care. You need to have an education to have a better life. I don't see why...my life is already fine.

To be completely honest, I can't stand the daily push-pull-fight-throw-things-ignore-the-teacher struggle that it became. But what got under my skin, week after week, was the apathy. These kids can't possibly just sit there and not care. They can't leave that page that I hand-wrote and paid to photocopy completely blank. They can't just tell me that they refuse to do their work. And if one more student interupts me and stands up to push another student I just might....

All of that anger, frustration, and pure emotion welled up during the last few months surprised me by bursting out in the loudest, sharpest, most angry yell I've yelled at my students all semester...complete with an F-bomb. Suddenly I felt like a stupid adolescent, too. And worse, I am supposed to be a role model and to give these kids a good example. And I totally just swore at them. I suck. 

It is easy to say something, and much harder to do it. I told my fifth graders that yesterday, when they told me they would all study a lot and speak great English one day. I am interested in actions, I told them.

I composed myself, asked the students to hand in their papers and sit down in silence, and sat at my desk. My students were watching, wondering what would come next. And then I practiced what I preach to my students, from the very youngest to the very oldest. 

I apologized. We talked about what had happened. How I care about them and want so much for them to do well, that I got extremely frustrated with their behavior. How sometimes when we get angry, we say things we regret. How ashamed I was of my loss of composure. They helped my Spanish and filled in words where I needed them. 

"Do you forgive me?" I asked, honestly. 
"Yes," they said. 
Jordon, a ham and a smart kid said, "Do you forgive us, Tía?" 
"Of course! Remember, guys...we're all human."
"We all make mistakes," summed up Jordon.

We finished the activity I had planned, in half the time. They didn't behave perfectly, but I hardly expect that from them at this point. 

Suffice it to say that those 13-year-olds will never forget the day that I lost my temper. I can only hope that a few of the things I tried to tell them about education, about being good people, about admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness when necessary stuck.

I feel as though it was a final exam for becoming a teacher. Take your mistake, admit it, and turn it into an opportunity to teach a life lesson. I hope I passed. 

30 June 2011

The Development of a Stoplight Morality

Miss Coleen Monroe, B.A. in Anthropology speaking. It's time we had a little talk about universiality, cultural relativism, and cutting up meat with rusty hacksaws. 

In college I read a now-uncountable number of pages from books and articles and treatises arguing with each other about the nature of culture. Since I tended to lean toward exploring the biological side of human nature, I didn't pay much mind to a central conflict within cultural anthropology since its inception...universalism versus cultural relativism. 

Incomplete definitions in few words. 
Universalism = Moral codes apply everywhere, as we can objectively say that one way of doing things is better than another. 
Cultural Relativism = Everything humans do is dictated by culture and none is superior to the other, so no universal Wrongs or Rights exist. 

Anthropologists ran into the dilemna of whether to apply these ideas when they conducted their fieldwork in far-flung corners of the world and tried to engage deeply, richly, thickly (to borrow Clifford Geertz's term) with a culture different from their own. In writing their enthographies and making their analyses, they often found themselves judging another culture...assuming it was better or worse than their own. Before the field suffered a crisis of representation in the 1980s and cleaned up its act, much of the work was fairly heavily based on cultural imperialism. White man comes to foreign village. Lives there several months. Writes a scathing ethnography about their practices from his beautiful armchair back in the civilized world. Rinse. Repeat. 

Now, what does all of that lofty rhetoric have to do with me living in Puerto Natales? A change in my own thinking about universal moral guidelines and cultural exchange. 

In the four months I have been living here, I have tried very hard to adapt and integrate and change to accomodate differences in culture between myself and those around me. Everything is different, down to the way one eats (using a piece of bread to load a fork instead of a knife) or dresses or wears one's hair. Most of the differences are superificial and sneak in without much effort, becoming habit so quickly that I don't even realize they are happening until it's already there. 

Others are tougher and take a conscious effort to include in my life. Everything is late here. Regulations fall through. There is compulsory military service for all men over 17. Most people don't use seatbelts. Men and women still occupy very separate spheres and roles. Divorce was only made legal six years ago. My bosses can make jokes about me being their wife or lover without fearing a sexual harassment lawsuit. No one sterilizes their dogs or cats, meaning roaming packs wander the streets and occasionally try to bite you (Side note: It's always the tiny, poodle-y ones. Watch your ankles). Being openly gay would be an abberation. They teach religion in school. 

Oh yes, and we cut up the meat for our dinners using a rusty hacksaw. 

Just because these things are different shouldn't mean that they are wrong, right? Or should I apply my own culture as universal and lament Chilean backwardness? Or am I falling into the trap of manicheism (wrong or right. Black or white, no gray) that a lot of people from the USA have been reared on? When I bring up the differences, I am often told that as a foreigner I am the one who has to adapt, and that others do not have to. Shouldn't. That my very being here could be a form of cultural imperialism (check out the issue here http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/03/lightbulb-in-my-bathroom-is-out.html). As a result I tried to adapt more, to change more, to judge less and less until I found myself shrugging my shoulders at everything...even the things that really bother me. 

Walking around the town the other day, thinking about whether I could say objectively that these differences were anything more than irritating to me personally...I passed a stoplight. I realized that it looked exactly like the ones at home. Red, yellow, green. Simple, easy to learn, and it works. Could it be that this could apply to morality and cultural encounters? 

In that moment I became a fan of Stoplightism.

There are many differences between the macro-cultures of countries and regions, and many more between the micro-cultures of families, schools, and towns. By and large, they just don't matter that much. One arriving and living there should adapt to the change of circumstances and change themselves to fit them. But occasionally the differences are actually objectively wrong or right, but in a flexible definition of both with lots of gray. 

When can we objectively say, "Ok, that's just not right" and not be a cultural imperialist? When whatever it endangers people, causes loss of resources for no good reason, or reinforces inequalities. Simple, easy to learn, and works. Racism=wrong. Sexism=wrong. Killing=wrong. Stealing=wrong. Willful ignorance=wrong. Irresponsibility=wrong. Not because a god says so, or because my culture says so...but because they cause harm and waste and lead to other problems. Cutting meat with a hacksaw = probably wrong...given the potential harm of metal shavings in the stomach. 

Judging cultures based on a simple, functional morality with a lot of room for gray area means that cultural exchanges like the one I am in are opportunities to compare moral notes with other humans and find out what is really important. Meaning that in order for them to function, it has to be a two-way street. Both sides have to consider their customs and change when necessary.

That is why it is called an exchange and not simply a change. It works even better in Spanish (un intercambio inves de sólo un cambio). Equal sharing between cultures to find the simple parts that overlap for good reason, and offer new ways of relating for both to consider. 

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. 

And it is OK for me to refuse to eat meat cut up with a rusty saw if I don't want to have metal shavings in my stomach. Just like it's OK for me to bring a bunch of Yerba Mate home to drink like a Patagonian. The cultural exchange will continue and both sides will consider the changes they can and should make to their own moral stoplights. 

Eventually we will realize that many of the important things are already the same. 

27 June 2011

What's In a Name?

Names. They are one of the fundamental ways that we relate to the world, especially as a sort of interface between the exterior world of other people and the internal one of identity. 

The name of the principal of my school is...Wilhemina. This would not be that unusual, except that he is a 60-year-old, slightly balding, moustached man. Everyone calls him "Willy" anyway, but it is still bizzare to have a male boss with the name of a knitting old grandmama.

My host stepfather (Uncle? Cousin? Guy who comes over sometimes?) is named Floridor, which I believe means something like "One who Flowers." Even Chileans giggle when he is introduced, but the name suits him since he is something of a mildly-overweight flower child. Also in his 60s. Also slightly balding. I sometimes think he must secretly be making crowns of flowers and dancing around like Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream to live up to his name. 

And then come my students. Many of them carry names from the original peoples of the area like Unai (Oo-naye), Danai (DAN-aye), and Yahaira (Ja-HAY-Rah). Others have traditional Hispanophone names like José, Jorge, Ignacio, Miguel, Diego, Paola, Pablo, Ramiro, etc. Then there is a montón of María-Insert Second Name Heres and José-Another Name Heres.

Because of the particular history of this region and the influence from Croatians, Italians, and others who immigrated, many students also carry names with Slavic (Katya, Mirko, Victor) or Italian (Luciano, Giovanni, Leonardo, Antonio) origins. Now, names from English are becoming popular...but here the spelling is often changed to make them easier for Spanish-speakers to pronounce. I get a kick out of it everytime I see Yonatan (Jonathan), Oskar (Oscar), and Maicol (Michael). There is also one name of a second grader that (despite asking multiple times to multiple people) seems to be pronounced "Blaaa."

Finally, there appear to be an inordiante amount of girls named Kirshna. As in at least three in every grade level. Hare Krishnas must have made a pass through here. 

After all the craziness with the spelling and origins of names in this part of Chile, one might believe that they would be used to pronouncing different names and remembering them. My name, however, appears to cause a ton of problems. 

I get Conni. I get Corrine. Then I write it down. I get Colin. Then Col-un. Then I explain that it is an Irish name. This does not help, since nobody knows how to pronounce Irish names (and few of my students can even point to Europe on a map...muchless the tiny Irish Isle...). I get CO-leen. Close enough. Yeah, that works. To be fair, people rarely grt my name right the first ten times at home. 

But then, when students are writing their names on papers and projects, they often write in the indecipherable script often seen in graffiti art. This is cool, but they also change letters and add things until it is seriously illegible (Ferdanda=Ferrrdñanyta, Sara=Ssarr¥ta). They wrote my name on a card the other day as Mys Quolyn. And I wondered before why my phonics lessons weren't sticking. 

22 June 2011

What Teachers Make

Two months ago: I walked out of the English Classroom on a Friday, angry that the eighth graders refused (again) to remain seated, to work, to do any part of the lesson I had meticulously planned. Probably too meticulously (I had written the exact amount of time each activity was to take). The students slammed the door behind me, and then opened it to yell down the hall and throw a few spitballs at my back. 

I didn't even roll my eyes this time. Let them be. They are just being what thirteen year olds can't help being sometimes: little douchebags. In five minutes they will regress to their happy to learn five year old selves and be content coloring pictures. They are still children, after all. 

A strange man with a weird hat was standing in the hallway as I marched down, books and materials in hand. The other group had shut the door to the classroom, and I could hear what appeared to be a pack of wild elephants destroying an innocent stack of school desks inside. Hoping they were not lying in ambush for me with more spitballs, I knocked smartly on the door. 

Strange Hat Man: "La profesora no está." ("The teacher isn't there.") Scornfully. As if he had something to prove to the (not really all that) lost-looking Gringa. 

"Yo soy la profesora." ("I am the teacher.") With the calm that only a primary school teacher can maintain while trying not to be drowned out by screaming students.

In that moment, I realized I truly was a teacher. It happened suddenly, sneaking up on me in a definitive moment of transition from the girl who was always a good student to the woman who is actually a pretty good teacher. Demanding, but just. Trying hard to bring out the absolute best in her students. I've been thinking about that moment a lot this week. 

Earlier this week, a fellow volunteer shared a kick-ass TED video about What Teachers Make   http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/taylor_mali_what_teachers_make.html. 

It's been inspiring me all week to kick my students into high gear and demand of myself and them the very best we have. Fewer than two weeks remain. 

I know I have only been teaching for four months, and that many may day I have little claim to being a true teacher. I lack certification. I never took a single education class in college. But I walked into an elementary school serving some of the highest-risk students in a far-flung part of the world, and I transformed almost immediately into Miss Coleen...with upswept hair, glasses, professional clothes, and strict classroom rules. 

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 (check out the post in the aftermath here http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/03/tia-coleen-and-total-utter-chaos.html). 

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 confience thst I have at least a tiny claim to that kick ass brotherhood of teachers making a difference. 

16 June 2011

Tía Coleen's First Strike

First strike ever for Tía Coleen. Kind of anticlimactic, really. I went to school to teach two hours of classes, and then came back to the house to change and watch the Chilean equivalent of the Maury Povic Show. The most effort I've put forth so far was to explain to my most difficult students in fifth grade why they need to take their education seriously (dismal failure) and to wring out my laundry in my bathtub. 

This strike is bigger than just Escuela 5, Puerto Natales, or even the Magallanes region. Nation-wide protests of university students, teachers, parents, and others have been quietly festering for several weeks. Currently the news is reporting that 50.000 people have manifested in the streets of Santiago, with the largest protest outside the building where we had our orientation...the MINEDUC. So far everything is rather peaceful, but it is only a matter of time before they bring out the armor-plated mobile water cannons at Chileans called Guanacos to disperse the crowds. 

I devour whatever I can find about education system in Chile and elsewhere by scanning newspapers and blogs, and I asked everyone I could think to ask (including the teacher is who supposedly my boss) about the strike. I wish I could say I was better informed, but I still don't exactly get what exactly the strike is seeking to accomplish. My limited information suggests that the we are seeking equality in education, protesting privatisation of schools, and demanding that the government of Chile step up to the plate and deliver a better system.

Many of the protesters here are referencing the recent US documentary "Waiting for Superman" as a connection to educational problems in my own country. Many of the problems that show up here are similar in parts of the USA...lack of funding/resources for public schools, difficulties with parent/guardian support and responsibility, and problems with execution of government initiatives for educational equality. I have no real experience with the US education system, but anecdotes from friends who are teachers (especially those working with Teach for America) suggest that we have just as much inequality in education as Chile. 

Obviously, my experience with the Chilean educaiton system is extremely limited. I have only been teaching here for four months, after all. But I have seen problems manifest in the microcosm of my school that surely must be repeated in some form nationally.

My students are high risk. They come from the toughest economic and family situations in Puerto Natales. Many of their parents work all day to support them (often in dengerous jobs like off-shore fishing), are unsupportive because they themselves never finished school, are abusive or addicted, or have passed away. I often run into my students long after dark, on their own, in the street. I tell them they should go home, since their parents must be waiting for them. They sadly tell me that they aren't. Others lack even pencils to write with. Others cannot afford to pay for their uniforms. Many probably come to school hungry. 

Thus the lack of resources: yes, it is real. The government of any country ought to help mediate them to include students from all backgrounds in well-equipped, adequately-staffed, safe, clean schools. You could protest for this. From what I gather, that is a main sticking point of the protest today...that the government is not giving enough resources or distributing them equally. 

Then again...the government of Chile provides teachers with laptops. Students too, from tough backgrounds with good grades. Every classroom in my school has a government-issued projection/sound system. The computer lab comes from the government, too. Everything from posters about healthy eating to anti-bullying initiatives is embalzoned with the blue and red Gobierno de Chile logo. Even my school bag. To an outsider, that almost appears like an excess of government involvement. 

Maybe the problem is not with the government, but with the actual distribution of resources. If the government laptops arrive in the schools, but teachers mainly use them for facebook and personal email...are they really being put to use the way that they should? If the projectors are almost never used because teachers prefer to make students copy from out of date textbooks, what is the point of having them in the classrooms? 

The government must be held accountable, but individuals must maintain some personal responsibility as well to use the resources the way they are meant to be used. That means relying on individuals to do their part, which unfortunately is a very unreliable system. I am here in Natales part of the English Opens Doors government program, and I am a resource for my students as a native English speaker. I work in relative-well equipped classrooms and have a head teacher who speaks English very well. 

And yet I did not even have a list of my students in some classes until I made one myself (result of which was that a bunch of students gave false names for two months). That little disconnect cost valuable time, when it could've been fixed easily by the people in my school. It is only one of numerous problems that I've run into, all stemming from my school's failure to adhere to the guidelines of the a EOD program (substituting my second day, teaching students with special needs, teaching alone despite my complete lack of language skills and experience, never planning with my head teacher...etc etc etc).

It doesn't give me much faith that government resources are used well in my school or others if they are mismanaged so gravely in just my situation. 

What happens when there is a strike in schools? The students who cannot leave because their parents cannot pick them up have to stay in the building...languishing in education limbo with the few teachers and administrators who choose to stay. Classes are lost for the day. Parents have to interupt their work. We lose one more day of time together before I have to leave. 

I understand that the point of a strike is to disrupt normal activities, but in this particular case it seems a little counter-productive. We demand that education improve and that everyone have access to it by...closing schools and removing teachers, taking away hours of learning from the students. Not to mention wreaking havock on the families who count on schools to keep their children safe and help raise them when they have to work. Plus students learn that their teachers can leave whenever they want, and that school is out when there is a strike. It's not a serious cry to government help in their eyes...it's a vacation! How am I supposed to make the point stick with those fifth graders that they must attend school if they see their teachers all leaving for reasons they don't understand?

I don't have the answer. I am neither for the strike nor against it. In all reality I lsck the information to make the call. But educational inequalities are real. Privatisation will not help undo them. There are improvements to be made to the system in Chile. Education will be the way that Chile finally develops, and the struggle for the future starts in the classrooms (even the president said it, check out this entry http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/05/with-love-from-battle-of-blackboard.html). 

Education appears to be the lightning rod for all the other problems that a country has. Social, economic, developmental, general...it is a multi-factorial pressure cooker. This strike is only a couple of hours, rather insignificant even in the face of only a week of class hours (2 out of 30-ish). But people are talking, debating, discussing. And that is the whole point. 

13 June 2011

The Growing Traveler's Stink

Wow. I smell really different when I'm clean. 

Let's all take a moment to acknowledge the stink that is beginning to follow me everywhere. It is a stink composed of the usual brand of Backpacker's Stench that appears when one has been traveling a mite too long plus the buttery Scorched Carrot smell of the kitchen, a dash of Eau de Wet Gore-Tex, a splash of These Are My Only Shoes on my feet, and some Burning Driftwood woven through my hair. This soup of smells mixes and intensifies when I am washing all my clothes together in my bathtub. 

You can probably smell me from there. 

Even before I knew what a hippy was, I was one (At five I declared to my stunned kindergarten teacher, "When I grow up, I want to be an activist!"). And it appears that South America is making me even more of one...leaning much farther to the dirty side instead of the well-dressed-but-still-massively-liberal one. It feels comfortable and homey, to know that every one of my articles of clothing is dirty and likely has at least one hole in it. I should really just give in and buy some patchouli to complete the transformation. 

Luckily I am in hippy company, because the dirtiness is likely to only grow once my friends and I begin our whirlwind tour of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina after finishing volunteering in this part of Chile. Eighteen teaching days remain, fewer than three weeks...and I am not going to pretend that I am not ready for it to be over. I long for the road. I long for total destabilisation of location and the dizzying punchiness that will inevitably come with 30-hour bus rides. 

People keep pointing out how short of a time they think the six months I am living here is. Perhaps they can't conceive of how much it takes to live on a totally new continent, learning the language al tiro and on the fly, in a profession for which I am not trained and with rather limited resources. But then again, maybe they are right. 

To compensate, I never give myself a rest. I travel every weekend. I speak Spanish as much as I can. I study. I read. I write. I hardly sleep. I am trying to squeeze every last drop out of this experience the way that I try to squeeze out every drop of Miscellaneous Smell from my bathrub laundry. Because of that...I believe I am gaining more experience in these six months than I ever have before in a period of the same length in my life. Unfortunately, as with my laundry, I will never be able to squeeze the experience completely dry. Some drops will have to be left to dry on their own later.

A few more weeks. Time enough to squeeze a little harder and change a little more before hitting the road. For now I am content with the vast changes that have already begun, the sneaky formation and production of a New (Stronger, Hippy-er, and Stinkier) Coleen ready to move on to whatever the next step may reveal itself to be. Now excuse me while I light my Nag Champa to fumegate my drying clothes. 

08 June 2011


I think I've had something of a breakthrough today in terms of my volunteering experience and mentality. Or maybe a tiny breakdown. Or both.

I felt pretty crummy all day today. When I awoke, my stomach was upset from a course of antibiotics that I am taking. I simply lacked motivation to go to school. I slept in turbulent, escapist dreams all morning and felt guilty all day that I was missing (more) class. I felt anxious to even go downstairs to get something to eat because I had made myself a film (an expression in both Spanish, "Hacerse una película," and Italian, "Farsi un film," meaning something along the lines of "making up a whole story for oneself that things are worse than they actually are") that people were judging me for missing class. Talking to each other about how I was a bad volunteer. How they would talk about it for years to come, saying "She started out so well, but then she just fell apart..."

Then suddenly my Chilean mother knocked on my door, rousing me from my film.

"Can I come in?" She had a look of genuine concern on her face. "I have to go out for groceries and I just got back from the school, but I wanted to see you before I left. Are you ok?"

We talked about how my stomach hurt and how I felt sick. I mentioned the antibiotic.

"You can't take an antibiotic without eating! How about you come downstairs and I make you some cooked rice? You have to eat something and it can't have any milk or butter or you will get sicker."

I came downstairs. Everyone, instead of sitting around talking about me behind my back, was worried about me and asked me how I was. They offered advice on how to get better. They told me I absolutely should not go to school if I am sick and that they will tell the director. It's not my responsibility. You have to take care of yourself. Don't worry about it.

My film dissolved. I think that I have been approaching this whole experience far too intensely. Pushing myself far too hard. Telling myself that I have to be the responsible one, and try to make up for the ways that the responsibilities of the program and my "boss" teacher and my school have been somewhat shirked lately. Taking a mentality that I had to do battle with the entire systemically flawed (but improving) Chilean Education System. Keeping myself in a constant state of Fight or Flight has done a number on my health, physically and mentally. And when I couldn't measure up to my own impossibly high standards, I felt that I wasn't doing a good enough job.

But that's just it. This is not a job. I really am a volunteer here. I am volunteering my time, my money, my effort, and a big chunk of my life to help out in Chile, but it is still voluntary. If I am sick and I don't want to go to school...then I don't have to. I can pass off the actual responsibility to teach classes and maintain order and decide students' grades to the people for whom it actually IS A JOB. And from there it is not my fault if things get mismanaged. I figure that the contracts and payment from the UN and pressure from the school to be a real, live teacher all skewed my view over the last three months.

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.

That little epiphany may just change my outlook on the rest of my time here in Chile. I am volunteering, trying to bring a little fun and light and care to these kids, almost all of whom come from high-risk situations in their families, economics, and resources. (This little revelation came to me from our guidance counselor last week, nearly three months after I arrived. I honestly thought that all schools in Chile were this way. Turns out that I actually am in a tougher school for Natales...suspicion confirmed! I wasn't just making up a film!) I have to take care of myself and remember that I am already doing my best.

So now, my stomach is full of plain white rice and chamomile tea. My heart is full of knowledge that people do care and worry about me. And my brain is full of the epiphany of how volunteering actually works. I am ready to continue.

07 June 2011

When Plan D Fails, Lift the Truck With Your Bare Hands

It feels as though I have been on vacation since Wednesday of last week! My parents came to visit me in Chile and took the opportunity to spoil me and my friends a bunch. I realized how different life has been for us here than it can be at home, and we got to visit places I had never been on my volunteer's budget (Mesita Grande for pizza in Natales, DA Hotel in Arenas, even fancy bars and sushi!). It felt great to have a little break before the homestretch, and at the same time it made me appreciate both ways of traveling and living more. 

Allow me to explain. In my normal life in Chile, everyone talks about how fruit is expensive. A kilo of apples normally costs less than 500 pesos (less than one US dollar...also the legal minimum wage here is 34.000 pesos a day) but the accuracy of the claim is not the important thing here. What is important is that people avoid expenses out of necessity and custom, naturally seek simplicity in life, and just generally have less than people in the US and other places I have lived. 

Given that I am already living with only the things I can carry on my back, I fit right in. My hand-washing of clothes in the shower and a general tendency to choose economical and practical over fancy have gotten me used to a different standard of living since being here. And for that I am extremely grateful, especially because many experiences here would not be possible if I was too picky (read: prissy) about my hostels and food and recycled clothes with holes in them. I actually startled myself in the hotel room by walking past my reflection in the full mirror. I hadn't noticed, but in the nearly four months since arriving in South America I had not seen my full reflection since my hostels, school, and home here do not have large mirrors. The one in my room is about 12x14 inches and held on my what appears to be old chewing gum...

The contrast between lifestyles was further highlighted by something very simple: our hotel's breakfast. Milk of four kinds, including chocolate. Cereals (three to choose from). Oatmeal. Real live toast. Yogurt. Fruit. Pastries. Eggs. The look on my face when I saw it must have been one of rapture, and I almost felt shy approaching it. After living simply for several months, the prospect of four choices of milk was daunting. I eventually chose chocolate. 

Make no mistake about it...Chilean Patagonia offers adventure. Especially in winter. Especially in Torres del Paine. Especially with your parents. Because they had come so far to see me and in some ways to bear witness to the reality of my time here, I wanted to bring my parents on the pilgrimage to the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. We rented a disel truck and took off toward the park to make a 300-km loop from Natales around the park. 

It was certainly changed from the previous three times I went. Everything was ringed in frost, and the bright colors of fall were faded into white, gray, and a surprising purple of branches devoid of leaves. The truck performed amazingly, and I loved pulling it around the dirt roads leading to the entrance of the park. Everything was blanketed in thick fog, blocking most of the views but making it possible for the Cuernos del Paine to sneak up on you and jump out of it at random, impression-making moments. 

At the midpoint of our loop, the farthest away from Natales we could be...I begin to feel the truck pull to the right a bit. I figure it was the road. We stop at the top of a hill and get out of the car. 

"It smells weird," says my mom. I pass it off, thinking that we might be making the brakes hot or something. We walk to the mirador over the lake. The view is shrouded in fog. Damn. 

On the walk back to the car, my mom gasps. "Our tire is flat!" 

Of course it is. Chilean Patagonia has taught me even more than Italy did to let go of my little plans because they simply are. Not. Happening. Here, I am constantly searching for Plan B, Plan C, or Plan D...because having options is absolutely necessary. Plan B on Saturday was to poke around the truck for tools, a spare, and the manual. No manual. Plan C, poke around under the truck with tools, fails and leaves us covered in mud. The spare is stuck tight under the back of the truck with a chain. My dad is covered in mud. 

Plan D: Walk down to the hotel and ask to use the phone. As I approach, I notice that the sign outside says, "Cerrado." Double damn. Plan E: Look around for someone to help. That guy over there with the wheelbarrow looks...friendly enough. I ask, with extreme politeness, if he can help us. Not exactly the friendliest dude in this part of Chile (granted, I have high standards from being spoiled by the friendliness and kindness of the people here). Please, man. Just come have a look at it. All in my best attempt at perfect Magallanes Spanish. Interpreting in the moment, from my dad to the man helping and vice versa. 

We arrive at the truck, and he immediately takes the tire down with a quick twist of the wrist and a trick we would have never known (you mean that long stick cranks the tire down? What?). We happily take out the jack and go to raise the car. 

It doesn't fit. Triple damn. Right. Plan F: grab the wheel-well and lift the freaking truck with our bare hands so the jack can fit underneath. "Still too low," says our new friend, and I translate. Plan G: Lift harder. Fuerza fuerza fuerza fuerza!

Tenuously, the truck stays. I fight off an image of it falling on our feet. We take off the broken wheel and try to put the new one on. Too low. We all hold our breath as we raise the truck an inch and a half more. I fight off another image of the truck slipping and the bolts flying off, hitting us in the shins...but the truck stays and the wheel is finally attached. 

As we are saying goodbye I ask our new friend his name, wanting to know the name of another helper in Chile like the one who saved my purse from an armed robber in Santiago (in case you missed it, try this epicly long post: http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/03/left-with-nothing-but-neruda.html). Roman. Thank you. 

After yet another brush with chaos in Chile, the weather cleared and the most beautiful sunset I have yet seen in Chile appeared over the Blue Massif. I literally ran about a quarter of a mile (envisioning myself as an agile guanaco in order to not twist both ankles) to take a few fleeting pictures, in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life. And then we descended again into the fog, chaos catching up with us again and forcing a slow limp back to town. We were rewarded with the most stars I have ever seen in my life...with almost no light interference. 

More circumstantial changes that 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. 

04 June 2011


To come: What happens when you blow a tire in Torres del Paine, 150 kilometers from Puerto anatales and with no cell service, no land lines, a truck that is too low to the ground to fit the jack under, and your parents?

An epic blog is coming.

31 May 2011

Happy Birthday, Puerto Natales!

Feliz Centenario, Puerto Natales! 

100 years of history as a town. Things move more slowly around here...te conserves bien. Progress and change may be at your doorstep are already transforming the town center into a Gore-Tex-happy tourismville, but something tells me that this town will always have a core of unpaved streets, wandering dogs, fishermen's boats in dry dock, and loose cows being chased by gauchos in boinas to keep your true essence. 

It appears, as my "Chilean cousin" Maria-Claudia says, that I came here in just the right year to be able to take part in the festivities. In the last month there was some activity every day. I've seen two concerts by Chilean bands, a beautiful presentation at my school showing aspects of Natalino history, dances, parties, banners, sales in all the stores, a huge fireworks display. Finally today (the actual anniversary of the founding of the town) there was a grand parade with all the schools in the whole region participating and important people watching from a platform in the brand new plaza. 

I jumped into the parade at the last minute, since people at school have rather been leaving me out of the communiication loop lately (probably due to the enormous effort of putting together the centennial...nothing like this has ever happened here in the past). As we were leaving the house, my Tía Maria-Ester admnshed me for my shabbiness. 

"You're not going to parade (yes, in Chileno "to parade" is a verb) like that. Tennis shoes and pants?! Don't you have a skirt or something?" 

I ran upstairs and grabbed one of the skirts I had already packed to send home (Remember? I am now trying to travel as lightly as possible.) 

"Chucha," the Chilean swear came to me faster than any in English, "It's all wrinkled." The iron is in the kitchen, where Juanito and Claudia are making lunch for everyone. Nothing for it. No time. Must take off my skirt and iron it in my tights on the kitchen table. 

"No mires, Juanito!" ("Don't look, Juanito!")

Twenty seconds later: "Coleen, te están llamando!" ("Coleen, they're calling you!")

"Momentito!" ("Just a moment!")

"Ja, ahora antes que te dejan!" ("Yeah, now before they leave you!")

I threw on my skirt and ran out the door. 

I did not realize that a parade was such a big deal and so formal in Chile, but it soon became apparent why it is so. Everyone must be dressed up and the students dressed the same, down to white gloves on their hands and exactly the same braid in the hair of all the girls. Everyone has to march Left, Left, Left, Right, Left. We have to keep our hands at our sides and look at the authorities to our right when we pass. Better not to smile too much, this is a serious undertaking. The students had been rehearsing for weeks. 

Despite this, our school's organized lines quickly devolved into the students' customary chaos. We waited nearly two hours in the street, freezing our asses off (well, mostly our hands). The students were climbing fences and breaking things, throwing things at each other and fighting. Normal, for us. I noticed that neither the school in front of us nor the one behind appeared to be having such problems. Two of the girls missed out completely on the parade because they left to talk to someone ahead of us. Left, Left, Left, Right, Left. 

At some point after we began marching, I realized that I felt mildly uncomfortable with the military feel of the whole thing. It felt like a relic of the period under Pinochet's junta, and to top off my sense of discomfort I realized that the entire armed force of the region, in full battle gear and clutching fully automatic weapons, was not only present but a central part of the march. 

It's not a subject that I have approached with anyone since coming to Chile, in part because I simply do not want to know if people I know and like are still supporters of his regime (and yes, there are people in Chile who still are). Pinochet only died in 2006, and thousands of supporters came to his funeral. They are currently in the process of exhuming Salvador Allende's remains to conduct a further autopsy. The wounds of "The Other September 11th" (the coup d'etat) are still here. 

As I watched the armed forces and the rapidly disintegrating order of the parade, I realized that the deeply ingrained difficulties with organization and execution of plans that I have experienced in many forms since I moved here ("Oh, you mean you wanted your visa in one month instead of three?" "What do you mean, you want a list of the rules of the school?" "Eh...when the plane leaves, it leaves...") may have actually worked in Chile's favor when push came to shove under an authoritarian government. If one cannot organize a parade or a meeting, it is very difficult for an ultra-organized junta to really take hold. 

So the moral of the story is that disorganization is a secret ally against authoritarian rule. Nice. I waved to the authorities in their safe little box high above the crowd as I passed, and knew that tomorrow I have to face the students again...and all the problems that manifest themselves in the micro-culture of our school. And for the moment, I was proud that we were the most disorganized group of all. 

More information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusto_Pinochet


29 May 2011

Lighten Your Load--Can I Live With Half?

As a child, I used to cry over every lost possession as if it were a dear friend. Balloons that flew away into the clouds. Rocks that disappeared from my pockets. Books and pictures and clothes and shoes and notebooks. Being  very sentimental child when it came to just abput everything, I placed value on them to the point of anthropomophism and clung to them tightly...fearing that if I let go I would lose friends, not things.

Since leaving the house to go to university, I began accumulating more. Furniture for apartments. A bed. A desk. Pots and pans. Tables. A television. Shelves. Dishes. Silverware. Towels. Christmas decorations. With the help of my parents I often provided the nessecities for the places that I lived, dragging a bigger and bigger pile with me each time I moved (eight times in four years...or roughly once a semester). 

After I began to travel more ambitiously, I realized how much of a huge waste of effort this instinct to collect and save and stash away is. Never again, I swore to myself after my journey home from Italy, when I had far too much crap to fit into my suitcases and had to throw things away at five AM in the Bologna airport's check in line. Not to mention that I realized that this same hoarding instinct can land you on A&E after twenty years, claiming sanity amidst the fifty piles of unused Charmin toilet paper blocking your living room. "I'm a collector, I swear! Don't take my Charmin! i know them all by name!"

I got rid of a ton of stuff when I got home from studying abroad. I took boxes and bags to good will. But the true test came when I decided to move to South America for six months. My packing criteria:
Six months' worth of versitile, warm, layerable clothing of various levels of formality. I needed to be able to dress up for work and special events or dress down for clamboring through mud in the campo. Waterproof layers a plus. I managed to cram it all into a backpack and a suitcase. Most other stuff like contacts and toiletries fit into a purse.

Since actually arriving in South America, my clothing situation has held up nicely...even through the strain of being washed weekly in the shower with shampoo (Yes, I've been doing this for about two months...and yes, my clothes are going to be pretty gross by the end of this). I still find myself wishing I had less, even though I recycle the same outfits over and over each week and despite the holes in basically every piece of clothing I own here. I've started to chafe under the weight of all the things in my room, knowing I will have to carry them on my back in about a month. To chafe under its un-necessity. 

But I am about to find relief. This week, my parents are coming to visit (REJOICE)! They have offered to unburden me of some of my things and lighten the load. I have halved my clothing and objects. Don't believe me? Here are the pictures to prove it. 


The rest of the things that will not go with my parents I will donate, give away, or ditch. I want to see what I really need to get along. Something tells me that it is even less than my already significantly reduced collection. Already I feel lighter. Cleaner. Freer. 

When I return to the States, I plan on further reducing my burden of things and giving away most of my possessions. Anything that I truly need I will keep, but any time I receive or buy something new the new rule will be that I must then choose something else to give away to keep the balance of simplicity in my life and to afford my fellow beings the chance to simply live (à la Mahatma Ghandi). Of course, I am not even close to a Ghandi. Not yet. But this is a good first step to living without the burden of things taking the place of the truly important people, experiences, and feelings that life ought to be made up of in their place.

"Generosity is what keeps the things I own from owning me." Eugene Cho, founder of the One Day's Wages movement (for more information, http://www.onedayswages.org/).

28 May 2011

The Next Challenge

I am seeking ideas for what I should do and where after my time in Chile must inevitably end. As those of you reading this blog regularly might (or might not) have noticed, this experience is teaching me to adapt and change and grow...preparing me for the next challenge. I hope to go somewhere else in the world, within the US or internationally and volunteer my time and self for education, empowerment of women and children, public health, or some other task that has not yet revealed itself to me.

Any suggestions/advice/recommendations would be extremely appreciated. I am seriously open to just about anywhere in the world...but seriously. I sound like one of the many students I advised in my old job at the International Office of my university, the ones who made it super hard to advise. But it is true.

See the "Comment" button below? Please use it. Please. Or write me at Cmonroe161@yahoo.com.


27 May 2011

How to Earn a Free Knitting Lesson in Natales

One of the things that first made an impression on me in thhis region was the generousity and friendliness of the people. On my first bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, unable to speak Spanish and confused by how long the ride was, the woman next to me shared her book and peanuts. She was super-welcoming and kind to what must've looked like a mildly terrified foreigner. Great first impression, Patagonia.

Every week someone continues the warmth and friendliness. Oh, you don't have food? Here, sweetie...eat half my sandwich. Oh, let's talk on the bus the whole three hours. Want some coffee? Here, sweetie...I'll give you a special price. Oh, you don't know how to knit? Come over to my house on Sunday and I will give you lessons and lunch. After talking to you for five minutes, I see you are a good person. Meet me here with my four sisters and they will teach you how to make a hat.

This week I needed it desparately...because I needed to be reminded that I am welcome here. That people are usually inherently nice and stress or circumstance warps them. The tingle of meeting good people and connecting with them makes it all tolerable, if not fantastic. and I am learning to let go and be extremely generous like all the Magallanicos...I plan on giving away most of my possessions to my students and community when I have to leave, and when I get home. Stuff is only stuff...People are what are important.

The Bus Station in Villa Renovald

I lean against the door, taking a moment to say goodbye to this house in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia. Unless you really knew it is there, you would never stop in the tiny town of Villa Renovald. It is not on Google maps. For all intents and purposes it looks like a collection of cabins on the prarire (15...yes, I counted). They just got street lights. This. Week. Welcome to 2011 in the campo, folks. 

The light is a crystalized blue, characteristic of winter months in so many parts of the world. Snow fell on the road and the houses earlier, blanketing everything in the faintest layer of contrasting white against the black edges of trees bent by the wind. The difference of a few degrees inside the house, generated from a few hours of lighting every available burner on the stove, is escaping. It pushes past me and ripples the air around the door as if it were a sauna and not merely barely above I-can-see-my-breath level. 

Click. I pull the door shut and turn to walk away. Silence envelopes the road and the town. The only thing moving is a puppy, some kind of shepherd mix with one brown eye and one blue as the light creeping around us. He is wagging his tail ferociously and playing with my heels in the snow. I realize that he has probably never been indoors.

I glance up Route 9 in both directions, following with my eyes to where it darts between the rises of the Patagonian steppe. I can barely hear the noise of a car or two churning along the road between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. I can't tell how far away they are, because the hills and stillness seem to warp distances and play with sounds. I figure they are far away enough. I step onto the road. 

The bus stop is a well-maintained little property, whitewashed with a blue tin roof. A plastic garbage can, bolted down to withstand the winds, sits by its side. It even has a door. But it is already occupied by a grandmotherly woman (wrapped from head to foot in woolen scarfs of clashing colors) and her two relatives, who are all smoking. I don't feel like sharing the space with the fumes and trying to concentrate on thick wazco Chilean Spanish, even if it means I will be a bit colder. I prefer the fresh air and silence. 

I plant myself on the side of the road and look to my left, from whence the three o'clock Bus Sur will arrive. It is 4:45...or so says my signal-less phone, which always runs five minutes fast. Pointless in Chile. Even my favorite television program runs at least fifteen to thirty minutes late every night, depending on unseen factors (like how long the talking heads feel like they should talk about the latest match, which may drag on half an hour until they are satisfied). 

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiuuuuuu. A truck with two unsecured fifty-gallon barrels of gasoline in the back of it passes on the slushy road, on its way from the Argentine border to sell illegally in Punta Arenas.  I think to myself as I have a million times in Chile, "Oh yeah, that looks safe..." and return to pacing in the snowy gravel.

There are yet flowers clinging to the stalks in the snow, crusted in white. Their purple shines, magnified by the blue winter light. I think about how it is Spring back home, and how many flowers there must be. Spring and its wafting scent of blooming life, washing over me on my bike at night in Ferrara, Italy whem I was studyng there. The promise of longer days and warmer weather. 

2011 is The Year Without a Spring for me, because I went from winter to fall to winter coming here, and I will yet go through fall and winter again when I have to leave.

Shhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiuuuuuu. Sshhhhhhhhhhhiiiiiuuuuu. Two more cars pass, carrying sleeping passangers and stressed-out drivers over the icy roads. It is 5:00. The lady at the bus company said they would get to Renovald around this time. The cold is starting to lick through my two coats and two shirts. The baselayer is still putting up a valient effort. Hell yeah, baselayer. Best invention ever. 

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? 

I pace in the gravel. The snow is starting to stick to my boots. The temperature is steadily dropping, and the little black puppy from earlier is on a doorstep whimpering to be let in. 

I think of my students. They are so young, and yet so many seem to have their behavior already pulling them in one direction or another. The little problems, the big ones, and the little stories each one is writing with each day in school must seem to them of extreme importance. I remember that keeping my blog, telling my stories...that seems of extreme importance to me. We all have our stories to write. 

Shhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiuuuuuoooooooooooo. Damnit. Was that my bus that just passed me here on the side of the road? I squint to read the receeding back of it. Buses Ferdnandez. Thank Pachamama. I don't have to crawl back into the cabin through a window to spend the night. Or sleep in the little white bus "station." 

All the people I have met, all the experience that I have gained, all the laughing and crying and struggling and succeeding...out here on the plains it all seems dwarfed by my sheer smallness. I am so small. Everything is bigger than me. The Chilean educational system. The Anglophone world. The mountains. The ocean. The massive distance between myself and home. The three o'clock Bus Sur, which is now a good fifteen minutes late. Which is to say, not late at all...in Chile.

A group of cows over my left should begin to moo desperately. The puppy whimpers louder, and suddenly the air is full of noise. It sounds so loud. So full. Not at all the empty desolation I originally thought this part of the world possessed. And it is getting darker. No lights appear in the distant trees. 

A momentary thrill of uncertainty washes over me and produces a chill from foot to head. What is the bus never comes? What if it got stuck in snow or slid off the road or the driver just looked outside and said, "Nah, it looks too cold out there. Let's drink a coffee and smoke instead." 

I try as I do each day to let go and abide in the uncertainty that Chile demands one accept. As always, I begin coming up with back-up plans to soothe myself. I will flag down another bus. I will walk to the hotel 3kms away and pay for a room. I will knock down the door of the cabin and eat pasta with no sauce for dinner and pile all of the blankets available onto the bed. 

Shhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiuuuuuuuuu. Nope, not the bus, either. My legs are frozen, and even the valiant efforts of my baselayer cannot withstand the 45 minutes in the cold. I start to dance. The snow that was on the gravel is all brown and overturned from my pacing. 

Two distant lights appear on Route 9, and the dull roar of a large engine rolls across the miles to my ears. I get excited, then remind myself as always to lower my expectations. It may not be my bus. I my have to resort of Plan B or Plan C. The cows moo more desperately. Someone finally caves and opens the door for the whimpering puppy. Ah, so he has gone inside. Or maybe this is the first time. 

Shhhhiiiiiiiiii...It's my bus. They stop right in front of me, momentarily blocking Renovald from view. I put my backpack underneath and climb the stairs. They don't wait for me to get my seat before gunning it out of town, throwing me down the aisle. By the time I apologize to the three people I run into and sit down to shoot a glance over my shoulder, Villa Renovald has disappeared behind the curve of the road. 

26 May 2011

Chile Doesn't Ask. She Demands.

Just ONCE in Chile I would like to have a heads up more beforehand if I have no more classes, have to organize a field trip, have to attend an assembly, partcipate in a national holiday or community one, meet the governor, or attend a meeting. And just ONCE I would like someone to tell me that it was their mistake or change of attitude or unwillingness to speak clearer Spanish (and not my stupid Gringa-ness) that caused the misunderstanding between us. And just ONCE I would like someone to acknowledge that I am working three times as hard for half of the recognition (school full-time, hostal part-time, fourth language all the time).

To put so much heart into it and get so little response infuriates the part of me that craves equality in the world. Perhaps I am still too much of an idealist, and all of this is one big fat reality check to transform me into an idealistic pragmatist.

Do what you can, with what you have, in the time you are given. No one can ask anything more of you.

I thought I had reached a hard limit of how much I could give this week...of how much I can take. Turns out, Chile demands more. She is pushing me to new limits, forcing me to adapt and learn and change. She is demanding. Exigente. And then I remember what I tell my students when they are frustrated. When they say I am demanding or mean or pesada (lit. "heavy").

"When a teacher demands a lot of you, it is because they are demanding that you learn. It is because they know you can do better."

Bring it, Chile. I made it this far and if you demand more...it must be because you know I will find it within me to take it.