27 April 2011

Delusions and Illusions of Stability

People come and go in our lives, always. For one reason or another, there is often a reason to leave and continue onward without the people that were so important up to that moment.

Here in Chile, thhe process appears to be accelerated. I meet someone, make friends, and then for some reason or another they disappear and go to a new city to work or study...often without time to even say goodbye. They seem to drift quickly and without warning, and everyone seems accustomed to the sudden changes.

It got me thinking about stability in life. In my life in the States, things appear mostly stable. Similar things happen every year. Governments change but nothing changes that much on the municipal level. Things have a certain rhthym and people are more or less consistent. Goodbyes are as important as they are rare.

But suppose that the stability is all an illusion? Even with all that consistency, the possibility of massive rapid changes is ever-present. People graduate. They move. They break up. They occasionally get hit by buses.

People here appear to have accepted and internalized that there is no real stability or consistency in life. I believe that this must play into the mentality of "al tiro or never" that everything has here. You have to do things in the moment they come up or changing circumstances of instability will prevent it.

In Chile there is no illusion of stability. And it might just be better that way. No pretending that things will always be the same when, without fail, they will not. Carpe diem...for example by going to a Chilean aerobics class suddenly and dancing my butt off. Doing exactly what I can do with what I have in the time I am given without wastingg time.

I am learning, I swear.

20 April 2011

What You Do For the Least Counts Most

It's dark out. Kids are arriving slowly to school in clumps, bundled against the cold to the point that they can't even see. We can't turn the lights on in the school because they are saving energy (and yet the heat is on so high that I am sweating inside my coat). People look like shadows. 

I am holding a shaking, dirty, hungry, terrified gray kitten in my hands. He threw himself toward me in the road on the way to school, crying loudly chest-deep in a puddle and climbing up my leg to escape an oncoming dog. I carried him two blocks to school and couldn't explain in Spanish why I needed to bring a kitten inside. He is meowing insistently. 

People care about cats here, but they have a different mentality. A lost kitten is an everyay occurance. Even one small enough to fit in my hand.

They all think I am crazy. Also I am covered in cat pee.

After fifteen minutes the kitten is finally sleepy, and purring in my hands. The Inspector of the school brings me a box and we leave him in a closet, alone...and I can hear him crying out during the day. At lunch I beg the women in the kitchen for a cup of lentils to feed the kitten with. He eats hungrily and then stumbles off into the recesses of the closet. 


I went back to school and found the kitten in the closet, meowing in the window. We put him in a box, and I remembered that I had found the only veterinary clinic in town the other day on a walk. I walked the ten blocks with the little kitten, excited that he hadn't been stolen. I looked down at him and it came to me. 

"Your name is Moses." I found him in the puddle, alone and scared, about to be eaten by a dog...and now he has another chance. I left him with the veternarian, who had a puppy and three kittens already. Moses ran around demanding food because he was starving after his ordeal. They gave me the number for the clinic and told me it was ok to leave him there. 

"He was very lucky..." said the man at the clinic. 

I am finding that despite all the changes I have gone through to become an adult and how much my world view has changed over the years, some core aspects of myself remain the same. I was always the kid who cried about her balloon that flew away or wept over a lost rock. Helping a kitten is not an option for me. I had to do it. 

To be able to actually accomplish something that seemed impossible this morning feels absolutely amazing. So happy I was persistent and swam against the tide!!

19 April 2011

Nos Estamos Haciendo Una Pélicula...Oppure Ci Stiamo Facendo Un Film

I may be having the first in a series of existential crises brought on by the realization that reality is realative. Oofa, that was a lot of words containing "real" in one sentence...and yet that seems to fit. Here is my quandry:

Is reality perception or does some objective narrative exist? My narrative may say one thing, but I could be imagining things or making up a movie in my head (to borrow the phrases in castellano and italiano) of some series of events that didn't necessarily happen for anyone else. For example, my students may be deciding that I am a certain type of person based on how I act in class...but that is only part of me. Or my friends who have never seen me teach might know me another way, but be missing that critical part of the reality of my personality. And even if I've been present for all the events and all parts of my life...is my perspective reality?

Can we ever know for certain that a series of events happened the way we think that it did? Or can we only guesstimate based on a triangulation from sharing our stories with other witnesses and confirming of denying the specifics?

I have a feeling that philosophers have struggled with this odd and confusing question for a long time, and that none of them have likely found answers that satisfy them. I need bed more than I need to think at the moment. It will have to play out in dreams. A whole separate "reality" of their own.

17 April 2011

Back to the Big City

The weekend was amazing. Incredible company. Beautiful scenery. Handmade bread. Candlelit conversation for hours on end. Wood chopping. Starlight. Moonlight. An incredible amount of poo of from a wide range of species. Cold mornings and a hot shower. The immense quiet of the campo.

I want to live in Villa Renovald. It is a village of fewer than 15 houses about an hour from Puerto Natales. Everything feels so modern and loud and city-like now that I've returned...which is strange since Natales has fewer than 15,000 people who live in it. It might as well have a million inhabitants for how loud it now feels to me.

I used to think I wanted to live in a big city for a few years, but now I realize that I am not a city girl. I want to say Hi to my neighbors every day. I want to know I am safe walking alone. I want to be able to escape to the countryside without having it be a huge process to do so. I want to work hard with my hands and not have a machine for every little thing. Something about manual labor is calming to body, mind and spirit. Achievable tasks that require effort are so satifying.

I have this great sense of satisfaction from this weekend...like this is exactly how life is meant to be. I miss it already.

15 April 2011

The World is Pretty Cool Sometimes

For the information of those who may be in Turkey...this blog was apparently deemed unsuitable for comsumption by people within Turkish borders. Apparently I talk too much about life in a tiny town half the world away for thekr liking. Or swear too much. Or something.

First censorship ever! Great success!

"Tia, do you know the national anthem of thhe United States? Here's Chile's..."

My sixth graders launch into a rendition of the national anthem at once, complete with drumroll effects on the desks and standing on chairs. Every one of them knows the words by heart and sings with pride, even the ones who have learning disabilites and the ones with bad attitudes.

It appears to be a clever diversion to distract me from the lesson about healthy and unhealthy foods. It partly is. But I am amazed at how united they are, how proud.

They ask me to to sing my own national anthem (and by "ask" I mean "demand repeatedly").

I start it too high. Start again.

Oh, say can you see?
By the dawn's early light

For once, their attention is intensely focused on me alone. No cell pones, no pencils being sharpened to an unholy degree, no standing up and running around the classroom.

What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight's last gleaming

Matías' eyes are glowing. "Oh yeah!! I've heard this before!"

Whose broad stripes and bright stars
Through the perilous fight

Even Vahitea (I had to gently throw a marker at to get her attention ten minutes ago) has put away her hand mirror and is staring.

O'er the ramparts we watched
Were so galantly streaming
And the rockets red glare

Benjamin is giggling at my voice's strain to reach the note and gesticulating wildly like a conductor.

The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there

Nearly lost it right here. Struggling to swallow a slight partiotic bubble in my throat so I can sing.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Cheers from the students. A brief attempt to explain why we have the song, and why our flag is really important to us.

I've spent a lot of time effacing my American-ness this trip, and in my general life. I often try to be as culturally and liguistically neutral as possible, and more than thrice since leaving the States I've been told that I don't look or act like an American. I normally take it as a compliment. But something about singing our national anthem 6,000 miles away from my homeland pulled forth a sense of American identity that I have not felt in a long time.

I could picture the flag waving in the breeze.

At the same time, the rendition of the Chilean anthem that my students gave was stirring. I realized that my country is pretty damn cool, and so is theirs. The impromptu appearance of patriotism on both sides makes me realize how cool the world is, and how wonderful it is that we all can come from different backgrounds and still end up in the same 10x20 ft classroom talking about foods.

The world is pretty cool sometimes.

11 April 2011

Let Go and Abide in the Contradiction

Is the moral of the story here in Chile that everything is just in constant flux? 

Much of today was not very good. Classes were tough and I was totally thrown off by a mean old bastard who threw rocks at and tried to stomp to death a kitten I had been playing with. There is a limit to which I can give cultural leeway, and trying to murder an innocent is one. I yelled at him. He grunted at me. I have to walk past his house every day on the way to school. 

Bring it, old man. Next time you try to stomp a kitten to death in front of me, a fat rock is going through your kitchen window. Fair warning. 

Maybe it was because I felt the need to rid myself of the bad juju that had been following me around since Saturday night that I washed and washed and washed tonight. Almost all the dishes. Didn't really bother me, especially since the warm water felt good on my hands. Gave me time to think.

Eventually my host mom said, "For the love of God, Coleen! That's enough washing! Go rest!" Seems like a complete turnaround from yesterday, right? That would be because it is. I'm beginning to let go of my need to understand and just abide in the contradictions of daily life here. Maybe I am leanring to be zen? 

I feel a lot better. And the clothes I washed in the shower last night are nearly dry. Tomorrow is another day. 

10 April 2011

Work work work work work wo...

I am slightly worried that the frustration I've felt over the last week might come out in this blog entry, but the hell with it. Reality is relative, and mine at the moment is one in which frustration is beginning to approach critical mass. 

I came to Chile to work. Let's get that clear. I had no illusions that I would be coasting during my time even if I was only teaching 25 hours  of class with another ten of planning outside it. I knew I would be learning a new language through immersion, which was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life when I lived in Italy. I knew that teaching with no previous experience in pedagogy would be a challenge. 

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

At times it feels like there simply are not enough hours in the day to get everything done (or hours in the night to get some rest). I typically get up at about 7AM, quickly dress, and run downstairs to eat breakfast with minutes to spare. Coffee is a no longer an option. If I run out of time, I add some cold tap water to the mug and stand over the kitchen sink to chug it. 

Then I teach from 8AM to 2:15 or later, with only the fifteen-minute breaks between classes. I am expected to keep up with 27 contact hours and 5 planning/extra-cirricular hours, not counting the hour or more of planning required every night. More than that, the teachers I work with expect me to plan and execute my lessons independently. I am less of a volunteer and more of an unpaid actual teacher...with more hours in class than they typically have. 

I am also expected to be able to handle children with special needs on my own, despite my utter lack of experience in this and with lttle to no support from the school. I have a few students who have FAS, a couple with other developmental problems, some with some form of autism, and others who cannot yet read or write due to an unaddressed learning disorder. 

That would already be a lot to manage, but then comes my other work. Because our house is actually a pension, the work is never-ending. I joke that I am doing an apprenticeship in hospitality during my time here, but it's not really a joke. 

I wash dishes and help dry and put them away for about an hour after dinner at least five times a week...not to mention the dishes from the other three meals of the day. I often end up setting and clearing the tables for every meal but breakfast. I put out laundry to dry and iron as much as I can on weekends. I help serve dinner and lunch to our guests. 

I am not alone in all of this, since there are always several of us helping...but I am not being paid to work in the hostel. I wouldn't mind earning my keep, but I actually paid the program to house me here. We have two nanas here (cross between cook, cleaning lady, and laundress), plus my host mom and sister, plus the other volunteer who is my roommate...yet we still end up working. 

Today I hit my boundary of how much I am willing to work in the house. Some friends from the program came up to Natales to go to Torres del Paine and hang out for the weekend. I asked on Monday if it would be ok for them to stay here, and the answer was yes. By Friday, that answer had changed to "we'll see" and I was fully expecting to sleep on the floor of my bedroom under blankets nicked from the storeroom. 

Long story short, we had space. I served tea and dinner to the guests and we all tried our hardest to help with dishes and cleaning after all meals. We had an amazing time in the park on Saturday. 

Today my friends went home. At once, I thanked my host mother for allowing them to stay here. "I know it's not easy to have extra people in the house, so thank you thank you thank you." She made a scoffing sound. "Now we have to make up their room and change the sheets, and I have no nana today." She looked at me expectantly. Damnit, I thought. "I could do that..." I began. 

"Don't forget to run the vacum cleaner," she interupted. And back to her tea in silence. No mention of how to clean or where to get products or sheets or the damn vacum. 

So I cleaned the room, changed the sheets, ran the vacum, took out the trash, and washed the bathroom. I rolled up new towels and arranged them on the beds. When I came downstairs with the sheets from the beds, she didn't thank me. "Just leave them over there, nothing more," she said, gesturing to the laundry basket. And back to cooking in silence. 

I don't want to seem ungrateful, but really? Nowhere in the contract that I signed does it say that I am required to work as a nana. I help with the dishes and cleaning out of the goodness of my heart, and also selfishly because I want to keep tension to a minimum. I wouldn't have done the room at all if I hadn't been trying to clear the air after this weekend. 

I certainly don't think that I am somehow above cleaning or washing or working with my hands (because I actually enjoy manual labor sometimes...it's very calming), but I can't help but feeling like I am again being cajoled into taking some of the work from those who are actually paid to do these things. Like they are passing it off on me and expecting me to work unpaid just because I am here, whether I'm in school or at home. 

I think a lot about my ancestors these days, who worked so hard teaching or cleaning or farming. I don't want to stop working as hard as I am because I want to work hard, and I want to do all I can to squeeze every last drop of experience out of these months...but I also will not work as an unpaid nana. 

Next weekend I'm leaving town and it will just have to work somehow. You aren't paying me. Not my problem (until I get back and you are pissed at me).

05 April 2011

Déjà Vu Meets Codeswitching

There is always a moment when traveling where the real begins to blend with the surreal seamlessly. It could be that I've been reading too much Allende and that her magical realism is manifesting in my daily life, or it could be that the truly remarkable is beginning to happen here in Chile.

I have been having spells of Déjà Vu like never before in my life. Under normal circumstances these moments last anywhere from one to thirty seconds. Here in Patagonia, I've been cast adrift for hours at a time. Literally. The other night we had a dinner for the retirement of the school's former director and I was floating through the senstation of having always been here for over two hours.

Déjà Vu should be a bit of a rarity, yes? This is weird.

Last night we met a Japanese man who is working with the people who fish for and process sea urchins for export here in Puerto Natales. He bizzarely speaks perfect Peruvian Spanish, and pretty good English too. We sat around eating fresh, raw sea urchins and drinking mochilatas (beers with lemon juice and salt) having a conversation in three languages (my roommate speaks Japanese, too).

About halfway through, I mentioned that I might eventaully go for a PhD in Linguistics. He called a friend of his in Tokyo right that very second to introduce us, since she is doing exactly that. It was a sudden and mildly awkward networking moment, and at that point the triple-sided conversation picked up e pace to breakneck codeswitching (sometimes switching from English to Japanese or Spanish mid-sentence and then back again). It all devolved into language mush again.

And in that moment, the Déjà Vu showed up again. Making for multiple times in a day all weekend.

I wonder what it all means.

01 April 2011

Harden by Softening

Walking to school this morning, I realized that the mud in the unpaved street of Puerto Natales is the exact same color as my coffee. Or rather that my coffee is the same color as the mud in the streets. Delicious, delicious mud coffee.

Every day in Puerto Natales, I walk down to the shore and along the waterfront. Every day is different, with a constantly changing view and shifting clouds above. One second there is strong sunlight...the next the wind picks up and blasts against my jacket. In the last few days, the mountains around town have pulled up their blankets of snow for the winter. The mountains are snow-capped now, and I am just waiting for a clear day to allow me a glimpse of them in their full splendor.

It is starting to be cold, but I am happy. This weather makes me feel at home, and it feels good to live in a place that toughens a person while softening them. What do I mean by that?

The weather, certain aspects of school, some experiences with people in town, and the landscape here in Patagonia are slowly polishing and scrubbing me until I am stronger. At the same time, most people are so friendly, my students are the sweetest, and the warmth of wood fires serve to soft my heart and warm it up. Stronger and weaker...toughen and softer simultaneously.