31 March 2011

Cult of English? Neocolonialism? Phrasebooks?

The lightbulb in my bathroom is out. I'm sitting with my back against the radiator in my room, stressing out over how one says, Lightbulb" in Spanish, and how one asks about changing it, and how one buys a lightbulb here and where. So complicated! And yet, the realization dawns on me...I know how to ask about it. I know where to buy one. And anyway I have a dictionary and as soon as I summon the will to move across my room, I will know the word. 

My Spanish is improving sneakily, without me even realizing it is happening. Reading and understanding are still easier than writing and speaking, but I spend a significant portion of each day concentrating on reading Spanish and attempting to spell words correctly when I translate something for my students (My speling en Español eez aboot lyke thes, end it maykes my stoodents laff). 

One of my daily attempts at constant practice of Spanish is to read the newspapers that hang in the windows of many of the stores on Baquedano street, the main drag in Puerto Natales' centro. The news in this region usually consists of a monor protest here, a school test result there, and many, many car accidents. I have made myself the promise that I will always wear my seatbelt if it is humanly possible. 

As I was reading the news in the window today, a green opinion piece caught my eye. It was written by a local sociologist in tight, academic Castellano. He was angry. He was skeptical. He was writing about English in Chilean schools. 

About a week ago, the Ministry of Education released the results of a standardized test for English in Chilean Schools...the SIMCE. As far as I've been told, students take the test to assess their English abilities at the end of 8th and 12th grade. All students in these grades in Chile are required to take the test, because English classes are required in all schools nationwide as part of an effort to make Chile into a bilingual country (like Germany, Holland, Sweden, or Singapore) in 15-20 years. 

Out of the students who took the test last year, only 11% passed. Passed. Not with flying colors. Passed. In Puerto Natales, the numbers are a little worse. Out of 214 students who took the test, only 12 passed. None from my school, mind you. 

The sociologist castigated the MINEDUC and the Chilean government for promoting English so vigorously in schools. He warned that Chile should not become a country with a Cult of English, as he (maybe correctly...never been so I don't know) assured his readers that Korea, Thailand, and Singapore have. He ripped into the MINEDUC for promoting English and not Asiatic languages like Mandarin because those are of emerging economies. Strangely, he argued that students in Puerto Natales would not see the point of speaking English because so many tourists come here with phrasebook in hand, which spells out Spanish "even to the point of how to ask for a kilo of bread."

He accused the whole initiative of promoting Neocolonialism. 

Reading this after my classes, I felt extremely conflicted. On the one hand, I understand where he is coming from. He doesn't want students to lose themselves in the use of English instead of the use of their mother tongue or those of their ancestors. He doesn't want the promotion of English to take the place of other important languages and other important emerging economies. He doesn't want Anglophone culture to replace Chileno culture. 

I felt like a big, fat, Gringa stomping around in my boots and squashing Chilean culture under my Anglophone feet, indoctrinating my innocent students to believe they were somehow inferior if they couldn't speak English.

As someone who holds a B.A. In Anthropology, I would like to think that I am sensitive to cultural phenomena and especially Neocolonialism and Neoimperialism. My professors drilled into our brains over and over that a balance between cultural relativism ("Eh, it's just their culture to commit infanticide...who am I to judge?") and Neocolonialism ("DO...YOU...SPEAK...ENGLISH? Why is everything is Chile so disorganized, things are so much better in the States. Yu need to change to be like us..."). 

My purpose here is to expose my students to what a native speaker of English sounds like, as much as possible. Just to have them be able to communicate basically at some point in their lives...probably not now, but maybe in a few years they will remember how to introduce themselves. Basta. 

More than that, I disagree with the Natalino sociologist. For better or for worse English is an intercontinental lingua franca used in diplomacy, economics, education, tourism, and much more. More than 150 countries have a significant number of English speakers. And yes, the emerging economies of the world such as the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) all have their own languages, but in each of them English is often used for business or government or other things. English is just one of many languages and dialects in some countries and even if it originally came from the influence of the British Empire or expansionism on the part of culture from the United States, the language is perhaps more varied than any other because of the differences between countries, accents, individuals, and cultures. 

I don't believe that speaking English and retaining one's culture are necessarily mutually exclusive. I see culture and language working together as an additive process, not one where the new must replace the old. When I learn new languages, my mind expands and I find new ways of thinking about situations, often in ways that are untranslatale from one to the other. I hold more possibilites to communicate, to share, and to think. Like any language, English may replace another to the detriment of the original (i.e. Ireland) or be more additive (i.e. Hindi, which incorporates many English words into daily speech). 

Despite that, I reailze that the possibility for English to be a form of cultural capital (a la Pierre Bourdieu) is real and for the and also that those who speak it in some countries might form a culture of elitism. It is also possible to have an English Cult, and that kind of mentality is not helpful to anyone. 

Am I just a cog in the English Cult Machine here in Chile? Maybe. 

But more likely there are other issues than student disinterest or nonusefulness of English in the world that are getting in the way. 

In chile there appear to be many more systemic problems than just English initiatives in the education system. Lack of materials, lack or resources, lack of teachers...it is not too uncommon that some students make it through 13 years of school and are barely able to read and do basic math. Many more drop out early. Barely any go to college. At last I understand why people in town keep asking me if I know how to read. 

Can Chile become bilingual in 15-20 years? Maybe. And maybe I am playing some small part in the play. But I know that I can only do my best, try to learn as much as possible, and act as a cultural ambassador and not a cultural conqueror. 

Awareness is the first step.

Edit: Today's newspaper showed the results of the standardized test that teachers take as well. Only 52% were able to obtain a passing grades, across all subjects and levels. Indeed, the problems with the education system in Chile are systemic and not just limited to English classes.

A related side note: I am now helping the local high school music teacher with lessons on history of music in the United States. If you want an example of Cultural Imperialism...there you go.

27 March 2011

A Real Rodeo in Italifrencastellingles

 The taxis came and we were on our way. As usual, I tried to put my seatbelt on and found ere was nowhere to connect it. Little prayer to St. Michael for protection as we flew across the campo just outside of town. 

The rodeo was already underway. I felt like we had walked back in time to when the only thing that happened all year was a rodeo and out of the sometimes-Gringo-infested (sorry, all you other Gringos in Natales for tourism...I just get sick of us sometimes, too) centro to the real Patagonia. No one who is not from here would even know that the rodeo was happening. 

Everyone wore the traditional dress of gauchos, with bloomer-like pants, bainos (Patagonian knitted caps), large wool scarves, and decorative embroidery. It felt very different from the rodeos I've been to at the National Western Stock Show...more...real. 

In the pen, the men who were riding the bucking broncos were constantly in movement. Setting up the next ride. Gathering the horses from the last one. Running back and foreth to get their cells phones and drink a little beer in the saddle. 

The competitors sometimes got thrown before their turn even began. They were very resilient and got right back up onto the horse, who usually had a scarf over its eyes to calm it and another rider pushing it into position. And then they were off! Running and bucking, throwing dirt onto the peoople watching. We were separated fromm e hooves of the horses by a flimsy barbed wire fence that seemed to barely resist the Patagonian wind...much less the weight of a full-grown horse. 

After about an hour, I realized that the music a man was playing with a guitar and singing (the same verses over and over and over and over and...) was singing the commentary! Someone would fall and he would sing, "Que lastima, compañero..." or someone would do well and he would vamp the guitar riff while another man demanded un fuerte applauso for the champion. It was a song that told a long and winding story, and he wove what was happening on the field into the song as well. 

I was the tallest, blondest person around...as usual. 

At one point we were waiting for the finals to begin and MaryCler, our "hermana" was showing us how to dance one of the national dances of Argentina. Many Argentinans had come to the rodeo because Natales is the biggest city for several hours, and they were dancing. 

We watched from afar and copied, and out of the blue two of the women ran over and began dancing with us! They were in traditional dress, with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths sideways, dancing with the two Gringas and making everyone laugh. It was so much fun. The most fun ever. 

Eventually the wind became too much to take, and we caved in to hire taxis back to town. As we flew along (seatbelt on this time! Victory!) I realized that the singing commentary of the rodeo was on the taxi radio. Our new friends from Santiago (friends of our host family who came down for the week) invited Dominique and I to dinner out at a parilla in town. We ate amazing grilled meats in mass quantities and tried a Calafate Sour (Calafate is the name of both a berry and a city in Argentina. This was brandy made with the berry mixed with sweet and sour mix). 

We talked so much and about so many different things (family, marriage, children, politics, behavior, etc etc etc) in castellano that my brain got extremely tired and confused between the languages I speak. At some point, the brain stops caring whether one is speaking one language or another and it all just becomes language mush. I couldn't speak English when I tried to switch back to it to translate something on our walk home. Italifrencastellingles came out of my mouth. Nobody could understand me, not even myself.

Life in Puerto Natales is pretty sweet. And the song of the commentary at the rodeo will probably continue its circular tracing in my dreams.

26 March 2011

Time or Lack Thereof

In Chile, time is different. I often feel more than a little lost in the constant flow, which seems simultaneously to lope past slower than a Milodon (ancient giant sloth/mascot of Puerto Natales) and to suddenly sneak up behnd me and pounce. Things may happen that very second ("Hey, want to go on a drive in the city? Ok, we're leaving!") or they may never happen at all. Al tiro o nunca, ¿quien sabe?

Instead of a clock, I feel as though I am marking time with meals. Desayuno, almuerzo, once, cena, repeat. And with coffee and tea. Each passing phase of the day is punctuated with a tecito or cafecito, each new phase opens with the caffeine they contain. And then on top of that I drink mate to keep up with my students. I will return to the States with a massive caffeine addiction.

Small things seem so big here. My goal today? Go buy some fruit at the supermarket and take a walk on the waterfront. And find my laundry. That's it. Those were my goals last Saturday, too. Small steps to big changes, I suppose. The quiet life in Patagonia is rubbing off on me. Before I left, I thought I wanted to live in a big city for a while, just to experience it. Now I see just how deeply my Western roots go and how much I love country life.

Puerto Natales is beginning to feel like home.

Edit: So remember how I was saying the other day that I was feeling culture shock? I must be acclimating a little bit at least, because I just walked into the kitchen where my "brother" Nelson is literally going at a side of extremely recently living beef with a dull hack saw and my first thought was "Where are the spoons again?" and not "WT-flying-F IS HE DOING?!"

Baby steps.

23 March 2011

Adrift in the Sea of Contradictions

Getting settled in a new home always brings a little bit of friction between one's customs and those of the new place. I love Puerto Natales and Chile in general, but certain things seem slightly strange to me. Almost contradictory, at least from my point of view and my cultural background.

Economic, social, cultural, and behavioral contradictions appear to abound in the small amount of Chilean culture I have experienced so far. They even work their way into construction projects (I magine the conversation among the guys building my bathroom went something like this...we put the light on without painting the ceiling...hmm...well, let's not take the light off and instead just paint around it so there is a circle of ot painted plywood...perfecto!) and the ways that teachers and students interact. 

I find that here in Natales the contradictions run a little deeper, probably because of the transient style of tourism that the town usually attracts and how small of a town it is. Part of the town is very clean, very moodern, and has a ton of coffee shops, outfitters, and restaurants. Once you walk past our house, the town begins to dissolve into fewer paved streets, fewer stores, and much more raw Chilean-isms. Time is flexible, hours at school are too...as are many things about how one interacts with others and how one is expected to behave. And then suddenly a rigid social rule rears its head, and the hapless Gringa has no idea she is in the wrong until she asks. 

Like my clothes. My host mom had said that I should bring my clothes downstairs when I needed to wash them. They were put out on the line, and they hung there for days. I figured that I just didn't know how laundry is supposed to work here and left them out there. They got soaked about five times in wind and rain. Still I waited. I noticed that Nelson (one of the men who lives here) had picked up his clothes, pressed and folded, from the kitchen. Maybe someone will get them and press them for me?

Two days later, my clothes had disappeared from the line but were nowhere to be found. Great, I thought.Someone decided to steal my only work pants. I asked my host mom about it, and her response was along the lines of, "Well, you have to get them of course. And iron. We don't have the time to do it." And then back to chopping carrots in silence.

It is fine that I have to do my own laundry (in fact I really prefer it) but a heads up would have been nice. And the fact that Nelson doesn't do his threw me off completely, since it didn't register that they do his for him because he is a man. As I am a woman, I am expected to already know how to do laundry perfectly and to expect that I will have to do it all without being told. How could a woman have been raised without that expectation?

People expect that everyone has the same background they do here, and they judge those who come from other backgrounds as ill-educated or slow or rude sometimes. Obviously I am not trying to be in any way (in fact I feel like I am doing everything in my power not to step on anyone's toes and to observe and adjust my behavior immediately) but some unspoken rules are impossible for me to know. And there are a ton of them. 

For example, I don't know the rules of the school. I also don't know the bell schedule. No one has told me either of these critical pieces of information, and the administrators and other teachers look at me like I am stupid when I ask them. Solution? Made my own rules. Probably there is some overlap, but still. When I asked for a written copy of the rules of the school, the administrator interrupted my halting Spanish and said, "The students know them, the students know them." And then back to her computer in silence. 

Bell schedule will just take another week to learn, and I am fixing it by setting an alarm on my ipod to ring when classes need to change (sonce the bells are manually controlled and not very reliable anyway). How could I have been raised without knowing all the school rules and schedule by heart?

My students also seem to think I must just be slow. They don't seem to understand that we are in English class and that we need to complete the activities in English, so they just complete the activities in Spanish and ask each other why I am so dumb that I don't speak Spanish. How could anyone have been raised without speaking Spanish? 

It is really hard to feel like an outsider who no one wants to help or educate about customs. Honestly though, this is probably nothing compared to how hard it is for people who try to move to the US from abroad. I feel as though we volunteers are paying for the massive karma debt that my own culture has put out into the world by experiencing it the other way around. 

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. 

Funnily, the judgments people make about Gringos are starting to rub off on me. In Natales it is always possible to escape to a Gringo reality for a moment in one of the many coffee shops, but yesterday when I went to El Living (which was amazing, by the way! Real, actual coffee? I haven't had you for a month!) I was slightly annoyed by a group of Gringos who walked in and made a ton of noise and were talking loudly about how great of surfers they were. I was sitting here thinking, "Stupid Gringos..." 

So I am guilty of it, too.

I am certain it is a combination of these and other, hidden factors. And I am still certain that I am meant to be here. Just going to take an adjustment. Or five.

21 March 2011

An Attempt at Describing the Undescribable

Torres del Paine was a life-changer. A game-changer. A soul-changer. The pictures by no means do it any justice because the feeling of the place was the most important. i want to try to capture it in verse, since nothing else seems sufficient. 

Awakened by rain and wind 
Lashing my window
Drawing stripes on the roof
Patagonia draws first blood

I am not afraid of wind nor rain
My boots are sturdy 
My body, too
Gore-tex is my best friend
And long underwear? 
The greatest invention known to humankind
Bring it, Patagonia

A natural cathedral 
Gouged by melting glaciers 
Ringed by twisted ancient trees
An aboreadom temple to perservence
And toughness
Even lichins display their ripe colors
Competing for dominance over the arching rainbow
Dancing in the clouds

A pilgrimage on bumpy roads
The nausea barely staved off 
By crunchy donuts and nescafe
Each new microclimate
Brings a new variety of cold
Or wind
Or sun
Or rain
We change our clothes 
We change our faces

The light begins to crystallize
In rainbows
Dancing in clouds around sharp points
Blue granite and blue ice
Sharper than immense knives

11:30 AM, 19 March 2011: I pass as Chilena for the first time.
A woolen cap pulled over my obviously not Chilean hair
The massif is hidden
Microcosms pass
A gray lake filled from Glacier Gray
The sediment of ten thousand years of grating on the mountain 
Reflecting the nublado sky

Our time is not here
Nor is our space
The mountains live in another
Geological and cosmic time are massive
Drawfing us puny
Humans are 50,000 years old
Maybe more

These mountains deal in eons, not in days

Winds race down the cliffs and glaciers 
To try to knock us off our feet
Carrying spray 
Green and heavy with it's ancient load
Into our eyes
Constant, instant change
The sun might flash 
A momentary glare
The clouds might move
And obscure or reveal

Nothing is forever in Patagonia. 

A lunch
Seems strange
I could live on the view
For at least a day
And never move from a single spot 
Letting Torres del Paine change around me
Our puny stomachs filled, the pilgrimage continues. 

Not even hidden
Appears in the mist
To an impossible climb
Thousands of feet in the making
We could never make it
The wind would peel us off the face
And smash us against the jagged rocks

First one out
Last one back 
Not enough time to spend here in the park
Visto? Visto?
I have seen nearly nothing
Of the magic of this place
And still rainbows follow us everywhere
Wide and wild

Windburned, hungry
Vacillating between too cold and too hot
We pass through more microcosms
And leave the landscape massif
To drift through plains and horses and forests
To a wild sunset over the blue/white mountains
As if heaven were only an arm's length away

But in my soul I feel the stillness of Paine
And to it I will always flee
A secret well of joy
And peace
And comfort in the unearthly beauty 
Of that Tierra

16 March 2011

What A Difference 24 Hours Makes


Thanks for reading the Rant of Ages yesterday. It was a mess and it was hard, but the situation is very complex and the reasons for why everyone acts the way they do are multiple.

At home with my hosts I discovered that the previous volunteers at the school were not very good at teaching and that the town didn't necessarily connect with them, either. My hostmom said that Puerto Natales attracts volunteers who just want to trek in Torres del Paine, and that occasionally they would not talk at all to the family and just treated it as a boarding house (which, well...it is. But not for us hijas).

Given the crazy amount of change living in another country forces upon people and the (sometimes maddening, let's be honest) idiosyncracies of Chilean life, the volunteers probably have their own side of the story. Maybe they feel like they had no support and that none of the things the MINEDUC said were executed, or they couldn't adapt to this life. Maybe they were scared.

I was certainly scared and angry and frustrated and saddened yesterday by everything that went on. I definitely could have thrown up my hands and said, "Right, that's it. I can't do this." But the frustration served as a catalyst to push me to better things.

I bought paper and markers and spent about six hours in the last 24 making signs and decorations for the classroom. There's a world map that I brought from home, with countries in which English is spoken in lists next to it. There is a list of rules for the English Classroom. There is a collage of things that people often use English for. More will come until the whole things is decorated.

I was prepared today. Since Favian was sick yesterday afternoon (yes, he really was sick and I feel badly for quesitoning it...although perception of sickness is relative) I prepared a lesson for the class today just in case he was still ill. He came into the classroom 10 minutes before class began with the second group of 8th graders, and his face lit up at the sight of all the preparation. His whole demeanor changed. He realized I mean business :)

From then on things clicked and we actually connected as a team. We started planning and he filled me in about many of the different things about the school, and he served as translator (thank all that is good) for a meeting. He said he will bring me a book called, "How to Survive the Chilean Jungle" to help with slang and cultural misunderstandings.

Lesson learned. Motivation breeds luck and communication. Turning a bad situation on its head and letting it serve as a light under your butt is way more effective than the alternative, and makes people want to work with you. Oh yeah, and the kids are still adorable.

Excited, exhausted, and happy.

15 March 2011

Tia Coleen and Total Utter Chaos

Upon walking into the Escuela Juan de Ladrilleros here in Puerto Natales, I was greeted with warmth and stares and cries of, "Hello teacher!" from the kids. The female director (? Not sure exactly what her role is really) of the school took me to literally every classroom in the hour that followed to introduce me to all of the kids in the school. It's not a gigantic school because there are only about two hundred students, but during passing period it feels like there are many thousands of them all running around and yelling in burgundy polo shirts and gray tights.

Things stood out; a mass amount of trophies crowd every available shelf in the lounges and teachers' room. Some classrooms are beautifully decorated and offer the students a lot, but the decoration and effort of the part of the teachers wanes in a decrescendo that leaves the oldest ones with nothing on the walls and almost no discipline. The teachers sit in the teachers lounge and gossip openly about students with the door open. The sunlight in the morning is gorgeous. The windows of the English classroom are broken. Every room has a projector, but no way to connect a computer.

After the tour, we sat down to try to decide where I would teach and when, and with which grade levels. According to the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) I am supposed to teach only 5th through 8th grade, but there aren't enough classes to complete my needed hours. 25 hours of class time is more than most of the salaried teachers work at the school, and to add another 10 of planning and extra-curriculars is very difficult. 

So I'm teaching basically ALL levels, Kindergarten to 8th grade. Where each class goes changes every day and every 45 to 90 minutes, seemingly at random. Class starts at 8AM and ends around 1:30-2:15 PM. An argument broke out over where I should teach, and when, and with whom, and why English is important. In rapid Chileno Spanish (which is nearly incomprehensible, even though understanding is usually what I excel at), the teachers and assistant director decided my fate almost without consulting me. 

I need to buy some pencils to schedule with here, since everything constantly changes.

The orientation last week told all of us volunteers that there would be an orientation in our regions and in our schools, and that the remaining questions we had could be answered once we got here and met all together with the regional director. We would observe classes but not teach until the following week, once we had time to plan with our head teachers and to learn the rules of our schools. And they would give us materials for classes, the books, and other things we might need. We would plan what to teach with our head teachers for at least four hours a week. We could even choose between two models of teaching: independent and flexible. 

HAH! More like the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-with-no-support model. The switch that had been at Barely Controlled Chaos ever since I arrived in Chile instantly flipped to Absolute Chaos yesterday when I was expected to teach (off the cuff) classroom instructions to one of the fifth grade classes. 

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. I don't even have the English curriculum books for the different levels. Nevermind the fact that the MINEDUC specifically told us that we were not to substitute or be in charge of a whole class alone. For three HOURS. I tried for an hour and managed to get the students to make nametags, to have them show me where the USA and Chile are, and to thoroughly confuse them because we could not communicate.

The other teachers I work with make me angry at adults. They gossip, they shirk their duties, they read out scores of students and poke fun at those who aren't doing as well...worst of all they blame everything on the children. The head English teacher esentially said to me by way of introduction, "We teachers always do the lessons so that they are easiest for us, so we don't really care if the students understand." 

Excuse me? We are not on the same page...not even in the same book. The defeatist attitude that permeates the school might come from dissatisfaction with the work, from a lack of materials and resources, from a misunderstanding of what education is and why it is imperative that all children have access to it. It is a public school in a developing country, after all. But they also have this attitude that I should just magically know all the rules of the school, speak impeccable Chileno, and be aware of all Chilean cultural norms. Telepathically. By osmosis. Somehow.

But the children. The children! They make all the Utter Chaos, all the hostility, all the terror at teaching sans plan worth it. They are adorable, every last one. They call me Tia Coleen (Aunty Coleen) and they all ask questions and want to show off that they understand. They kiss me on the cheek one by one after class and say, "bye bye!!" They give me gifts of candy and cookies and wave at me in the halls. Not one of them is a problem or a bad student by their own fault. Their teachers are failing them, and I know we can do better. 

Especially after today, I've decided not to do anything the way the other teachers do. If I overstep boundaries, I will plead Gringa (Stupid Foreign Girl). I don't really care if the other teachers or the administrators are unsupportive or don't like me or lack the resources to do anything more than they are. Paper is cheap. Markers, too. I will make collages and rules and colorful things, and I will not give in to the defeatism. I will not gossip about my students. I will speak English to them and the exposure will be enough. 

I will be the best English Teacher I can be. 

Edit: I've alao aged five years in two days. I look like a teacher now.

13 March 2011

Flamingos and a Lone Ostrich

The next leg of the journey began today, in the twilight setting of all goodbyes (Neruda is working his way into my very breath it seems). Without much support from our program, the Magallaners made it to the airport and onto our plane, which seemed to be a recomissioned German 737 in service since the 80s.

The countryside and Santiago fell away, from densely populated to drought-stressed farms...intensely green cow pastures to mountains devoid of all traces of human life. Fnally the mountains fell away to reveal a barren, scrubby landscape and choppy inlets where whitecaps danced. I instantly noticed the difference in peoople's dress when we got on the plane. The light cotton see-through flowery things purchased from street vendors in Santiago were replaced by big boots, Gore-Tex jackets, and simple earth tones. 

Sky Airlines' pilots do not mess around with landing. They come in line, tell the flight attendants to be seated and basically then it's a "everybody hold on, we're coming in" moment. *insert dive bomb sound here*

Landing in Punta Arenas was even more interesting because the pilots made a 90 degree turn in heavy winds just before landing. I was staring at the choppy fjord outside the window and wondering if our wing would skim it, and we literally straightened out about a second before we touched down. It probably looked like one of the landings on that show about Alaskan bush pilots, but with a 737.

The three hour bus ride from the airport to Puerto Natales was a long journey through emptiness. Thank goodness I'm from the Western United States, because otherwise the vastness of the sky and the plains would have been a lot to take in. They still were, but the landscape reminds me of New Mexico or Nevada with random lakes and stretches of sea. Flamingoes sometimes form pink knots in the shallow waters. 

 What I noticed immediately about Patagonia is the pervasive quiet. I was originally going to say silence, but that isn't exactly accurate...there is the wind and the rain and the occasional barking of dogs. But the quiet commands my attention. People were talking on the bus and I nearly asked them, "Don't you hear the immense quiet? shhhhhhhh!"

That quiet and isolation was summed up in a lone ostrich I saw outside the bus in a field. Everywhere, despite the lack of people to look at, there are traces of human interaction with the landscape. Mostly a fence here or a dirt road branching off our seemingly infinite two-lane highway, but occasionally a shrine to a saint or a tiny town smaller than Fairplay, Colorado. 

Though I haven't had much chance to walk around it yet, Puerto Natales appears to be a cute town at the foot of the Torres del Paine. Yes, the picture that is the backdrop for this blog is also the backdrop for my new hometown. Even though I told them to put me anywhere they had an open position in all of Chile, they put me in this town that is just right for me. Destiny has a funny way of working. 

Tomorrow I meet my cohorts at school and maybe some of my students! I am very ready and excited to begin. 

09 March 2011

Repetition of Forms

Losing my Religion by REM is following me everywhere. It appeared the other day when I went to Valparaiso while we waited for the metro to take us to Vina del Mar. It floated out of a bar on the walking mall in Vina while we walked toward the bus station. It signalled the end of the night here in the hostel by showing up to let everyone know it was time for bed.

Art, too, appears to be becoming a repetitive force in my life while I walk through Chile. The murals in Valpo, around each turn and every color-bathed corner. The hearts sprouting wings in graffiti around the barrios of Santiago. A new friend who signed the back of a ping-pong paddle for me, whose art is in an exhibition in Budapest. Wild, contrasting photography in the Bellas Artes Museum coexisting with plaster reproductions of Michaelangelo´s works and styrofoam scultptures from Chilean contemporary art.

My stories seem to go in circles, since each new contact and acquaintance asks the same questions and walks into the same stories. Our orientation repeats not only itself, but the TEFL course we all were supposed to finish. Even the food is repeated.

Repetition of forms in Renaissance architecture sought to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world. The clean lines and repetitive forms brought a sense of planning and forethought. These repeated forms sought a higher purpose.

What higher purpose are these personal repetitions seeking? At this point, it's abundantly unclear. Flexibility? Patience? Faith? Letting go of my desire to control/understand? Pissing me off for the fun of it?

The process is just beginning, and our meager time in this insulated and cushy Gringo Paradise is nearing it's end. I wonder if I'm prepared for what this will actually be, for what my assignment will bring and where my adventure will really take me. The decision comes tomorrow, and then there's no turning back. I can't wait.

To get back to Santiago from Vina del Mar was a process, and a stressfully crowded experience with humanity crammed into a grungy bus terminal. As usual for Chile, it was barely controlled chaos. Even the Chileans milling about wore my expression of confusion and supressed terror that the bus would never arrive and we would have to sleep in the terminal with the stray dogs. In a certain sense, that feeling of worry and waiting for an unknown objective permeates this experience. But the bus is coming, the repetitions and omens continue to beckon, and in the end it's all temporary anyway.

Eyes up. Time to get down to business.

03 March 2011

At Least Nobody Got Stabbed

I got robbed today. But that's not the story here. The story is about how the worst in one person often brings out the best in another. 

It was a beautiful and sunny afternoon in Santiago, and I didn't want to just sit in the hostel and read, so I went to buy a Coke and decided to walk to the Cerro Santa Lucia, a park I had visited a few days ago that is really pretty and that normally gives shelter to young couples under its trees. 

I had been sitting for some time on a bench in the beautiful sunlight, reading my book of Pablo Neruda's poetry. I was just getting ready to leave when a glint of light caught my eye. A boy of about fifteen, fashionably dressed and in sunglasses, was right next to me and picking up my coke. He grabbed my purse and started to run. 

No shoes. I knew I couldn't catch him. He was gaining distance on me with every step. My sunglasses fell off my head and onto the cobblestone. The only thing I had left was the Neruda book in my hand. Just me and Neruda at this point. 

"Ayuda!" The Spanish tore from my throat without me even thinking. "Ayuda por favor! Es mi bolsa! Es mi bolsa!" 

Nobody moved. It's gone, I thought. My camera, my wallet, my diary from the last five months, and even my phrasebook. 

A man in a red polo shirt jumped up. In a flash, he was in front of the thief. I stopped, looking around to make sure he couldn't run away down some other path. If he came towards me, it was almost certain he could dodge around me. 

I looked back toward him, and saw something small in his hand. The man in red also held a small object, which caught the light of the sun for a brief second. It dawned on me...they both had knives. 

Holy shit. I'm about to see someone get stabbed. 

I backed away two steps, and called to the people who were still sitting on another bench for help. The man in red was calmly talking to the kid, in thick Chileno Spanish I didn't catch a word of. The thief tried half-heartedly to menace the man in red with the knife, but the man did not back down. I think he was asking, "Is it worth it? Is it worth it?" A second that seemed like an eternity passed like cold molasses. I realized I didn't know the number for an ambulance.

The thief glanced inside my purse and threw it to the side. He ran off down the hill. 

I got to it and fell to my knees with the Neruda book on top of my recovered belongings. As I struggled to catch my breath I realized that my feet hurt a lot from running on the cobblestones. I was shaking all over. 

The man in red asked me if I was OK as he closed his switchblade. Words escaped me. He helped me up and asked me if anything else was missing. We gathered my sunglasses and my shoes. I still couldn't talk. 

"Gracias. Thank you, thank you. Can't say...so much." Broken, breathless Spanish.

"You alone? Here, I'll walk you back to your hostel. Better that I go with you."

We walked and tried to talk, despite my terrible and confused Spanish. Italian phrases snuck into my speech at odd moments. He asked what I was in Chile for. I told him I was going to teach in Patagonia. He smiled something along the lines of, "Don't worry. It will be beautiful. Tranquil. Lots of nature. No one will try to rob you there..."

"Como se llama?" I asked. 

"Yo?" he said, "Me llama Girardo."

"Muchas Gracias, Girardo. Debo...debo...decir a mis padres...Che Girardo me he salvado..." (More or less-- " Thank you so much, Girardo. I must...I must tell my parents...that Girardo saved me..."

He accompanied me back to the hostel and suggested I drink a beer straight away. I thanked him again and he went on his way. 

All returned. All my sentimental things. I had fewer than $20 in pesos in my wallet and the only thing of value the thief would have gotten was my camera, which is well-worn from my travels. The diary is priceless. The other books in there less so. The thief must've looked in my purse and seen only books, no wallet and no camera. My nerdiness may well have saved me. 

So now, beer in hand and purse in lap, I'm back in the hostel. I can't believe my good fortune. I might sleep with my purse in my arms tonight. 

Even for this, I'm sure there is a reason. If nothing else it taught me to expect both the worst and the best out of my fellow beings...and to trust that if I really am in need someone will show up and help me. 

02 March 2011

Everything Continues to Happen for a Reason

At a crosswalk today in the searing heat of afternoon, I found myself standing with my hands on my hips, sunk into my hips and an expression on my face of disbelief that the light had the audacity to make me stop for a moment. The second the cars moved away from the line and passed, I darted out into the street and walked briskly to the other side, ignoring the beeping motorcycle trying to make a right over my shoulder.

As I reached the other side, I wondered what had come over me. I don't stand like that...I don't cross like that. But then, Santiago is a city that makes sure you are aware of its millions of inhabitants at all times. The collective peer pressure is immense. Even more so when one sticks out like an ostrich in a chicken coop. 

So now I have a Santiago strut.

I love many things about Chile already (food, wine, art, eating schedule, and even language), but one thing that really bothers me is how much attention my blonde hair sets me up for from the men. I went out to the college district for a beer with friends last night and walking through the crowds was like running the gauntlet. 20 comments in 20 feet, mostly along the lines of "Hello, woman..." (yes, in English) and "Deliciosa." Even though I'm dressed down and a Chilen woman in a miniskirt and tube top is right next to me. 

I dealt with this BS before in Italy, but the machismo in Santiago is on a whole other level. Funniest part is that in the crowds were hard core punk rockers, business men, college students, and older men who all used the same tired lines to try to catch my attention. In Italy the attention felt complimentary in some ways. This feels more predatory. As long as I'm with friends, I'm fine. And it feels safe here nonetheless. 

When traveling, I often keep to myself. This trip I've been the most social ever, meeting friends in the hostel and having some truly great conversations. We are all in limbo in a way, transitory beings who come and go almost without being noticed or missed. 

But then occasionally one meets a person with whom they connect on so many levels, a kindred spirit out on the road. They become a close friend within days or hours, a confidant and someone who doesn't make judgments. You both know time is limited and that this is only a meeting by chance, but for a short time it feels like you've been friends forever. 

And one of you has to leave. Or both. Either way the jaunt of friendship comes to a screeching halt and you say your goodbyes. It's a big world, and you might never cross paths again. But then, the world is getting smaller all the time with Facebook and email and Skype. Like-minded people will likely remain like-minded and seek out the same type of path. That's what brought you to meet in the first place, right?

If there is one lesson that the universe has been trying to beat into my head over the last few weeks, it's that everything happens for a reason. Things that have no business happening happen all the time, things that should be statistically near-impossible. Why I meet one person and not another is always a mystery. 

And 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.