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.

24 May 2011

Fuck this Week. I'm Buying Boots

All right, you all out there know that I am not normally a Debbie Downer. I am trying to capture the experience here as it truly is, and convey some part of it to you. This is, of course, yet another impossible task I have given myself. Whatever. 

I returned to school to find give a small test (with no grade) to my students in seventh grade. After six weeks on this unit of pure struggle, of writing on the board and insisting that they take notes, of repeating myself over and over and over...nothing. Even the best students in the class couldn't do the test. Every last one would have failed. 

So the English absorption level of my students is at about 20%. At best. At worst, they know absolutely nothing from the unit. Apparently my expectations need to slip another ten notches lower. 

But wait! There's more!

A student of mine, who I know is smart and understands English more than he lets on, has been causing problems in my class for a few weeks now (since the seventh and eighth graders collectively lost their hormonal minds over crushes). I asked him six times today to take his seat. He openly refused to even put his name on my test. He distracted other students. 

And then, the seventh time I told him to sit down...he reached out and hit one of the other students, one who has special needs and developmental problems. It made a huge noise and it was obvious that he had hit him hard. 

"All right, that's it. Get out! A fuera!" I told him. "Go to the office and tell them what you've done. I do not accept that kind of behavior in my class." The other students clapped.

They suspended him. 

The whole class turned on me in an instant. They called me evil. They told me that it was my fault that he got suspended. They swore at me and stole from me. They didn't do their work. 

Let's take a moment to remember that I actually paid to be here. I receive a small stipend from the United Nations Development Program (the check I cashed today actually had the UN logo on it!), but it is equivalent to about $8 a day. Minimum wage in Chile is 34,000 pesos a day (about $7.50 an hour, same as Colorado). Damn, my stipend sucks. I pay the difference in blood, sweat, and tears. 

The money isn't the issue, really. I wanted to help people, and teach, and make a difference. Change things. Be part of something bigger than myself. But what I am realizing is that one cannot help people who don't want the help...and no one wants to admit that they need help, and one cannot teach people to recieve help graciously. No one wants to admit that they could do better. 

The change has to come from within. Because my students and hosts and the town and Chile are not ready to change from within, everything that I do is moot. I cannot change the tide alone, and I apparently cannot convince even my best students that studying is important. And I wonder if it is only here in this school or this community, or if my life's mission to help people in whatever way I can in many places around the world is pointless. Impossible. 

In some cases like that of José who got suspended today, maybe things would have been better if I had never come here. In any case it seems on the whole that there would have been no difference if I had not, and I could have saved a bunch of people the inconvenience of having to fulfill a contract or host a foreigner or learn a simple phrase in English. My students can't even answer "How are you?" after nearly three months. I don't know what more I can do. 

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 the UN's money on some new boots and a coffee. Because sometimes you have to stop thinking for awhile and take care of yourself before you lose it completely. Tomorrow is a new day, and you have to face the crisis first thing in the morning. A little break never hurt anyone.

Halfway Through the Marathon

I'm going to kiss the dishwasher in my parents' kitchen when I get home. And the laundry machines. And the stove, and the pots and pans, and the bathtub, and my laptop. I'm going to go to the Boulder Farmer's Market and cry like a baby. I'm going to look at how our house doesn't have a lean to it and how all of our streets are paved and how ridiculously clear the picture is on our HDTV and wonder how I ever got along with something different. I am going to step inside a state-of-the-art hospital and feel uncomfortable that everything is so clean. 

In talking with a dear friend yesterday, I was reminded that all of this struggle and pain and frustration and disorganization and confusion all adding up to a big fat sense of futility is temporary. For me. It sounds like I'm homesick because I am, but it also alludes to a greater issue.

I feel guilty that this is temporary for me. Because it isn't for the people who live here.

All the things that were supposed to be one way and actually are totally different. All the systemic confusion and lack of responsibility on so many levels locally and nationally. All the corruption that seems to happen with deals like the recent HidroAysén fiasco here in Chile (if you don't know what I am referring to, check out this article http://matadornetwork.com/change/11-disgusting-facts-about-a-massive-dam-project-just-approved-in-chile/). All the struggle to change and develop and become a world player. All the unequal distribution of resources and opportunity.

I can and will leave at some point and go back to my cushy life in the States. Honestly, I have the resources to leave tomorrow morning if I wanted to. I could be sitting on my couch on the back porch in late spring with a pool to swim in within three days, instead of struggling yet again with my eighth graders on Friday, wondering why I am here if they don't want to learn and not one of the teachers in the school can control them. They know I am frustrated. The 8th graders keep telling me that I have no patience and the seventh graders ask me why I am not ashamed of my Spanish. 

I am beginning to hit some kind of a limit within me, which appears to be manifesting as anxious butterflies and a sincere desire to just leave the classroom and walk out of the school forever. My "boss" teacher didn't show up to school today, meaning that I had to throw everyone off by insisting that they fulfill the terms of their contract with the program and not force me to take a full class. People act like my presence is more of an inconvenience than anything else, whether it is in the school or at home or in Chile in general. I try so godamn hard every day to make everyone else's life easier and to give my time and work and sweat and money to help Chile, and some of it feels unappreciated on days like today.

I want to hope that this is just yet another "wall" like the ones that long-distance runners experience and that I just have to push through it...because make no mistake, my time in Chile is a marathon that is not getting any easier. Maybe this is just the feeling of the uphill section beginning after the first thirteen miles. 

But I don't want to leave. Not yet. Because I want to prove to myself that I can stick it out, that I am tough enough and flexible enough to stay even when I could easily cop out. Besides, only 34 days of teaching remain. Less than a third of the time I have left here in South America. The rest will be split between English Camps and traveling. 

At the very least, this time in my life gave me the perspective to truly appreciate the life I have lived up to this point...my education especially. And I now speak passable Chilean Spanish. And I have a lot of really beautiful photos. Maybe those three things are the whole point. Or maybe there isn't one. 

At this point it doesn't seem to matter too much. I'm halfway through the marathon. Only thirteen more miles (uphill) to go. 

19 May 2011

Winter Arrives...Let the Comparisons to Southpark Begin

Knock, knock...housekeeping! As the more perceptive among you have surely realized, a few things have changed here on CaminoChile. There are new reaction buttons to give your opinion of a piece in one click. I highly suggest the overuse of the "WTF" button (because who doesn't like a few explitives here and there? Or everywhere?)

On your right you will find a new section weaving common threads out of the chaotic rantings that you often find here, for everything from "Coincidences" to "Armed Robbery." There is even one for "Chaos" if you feel like putting all of it in one place at a time. Fair warning, the chaos might jump out of the computer screen and manifest itself in your life. Then we can be comrades in arms.

Johanel, one of my sixth graders, made a keen observation today. It snowed for the first time last night here in Natales, and even the air appeared to have crystallized. Winter clarity of light and sight is here, complete with the pastel colors of sky and ice that signal the change of season. He looked up from copying "The Road Less Travelled" by Robert Frost.

"It snowed," he stated in Spanish. "Does it snow a lot in Colorado, Tía?" 

"Yes, it snows a lot where I live. Nieve mucho dondé yo vivo." My customary double answer in English and then Spanish.

"Seems so," Johanel continued, "In Southpark the ground is always snowy. So Southpark and Colorado must be like Puerto Natales. And we are like the kids in the show." 

Couldn't have put it better myself. Sometimes I feel as though I am teaching at Southpark Elementary, not Escuela 5. How funny would a volunteer teacher comes to town episode be? Right, probably not that funny for most. But for me it would be! 

Life here in Natales grinds on like the bumpers barely held on by duct tape to some of the cars that drive down our street grind on the dirt. We are currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of this oasis in the vast wilderness of Patagonia, with shows and art and even fireworks next weekend. 

It appears I chose to come here at just the correct time to have everything line up. If I had come even a few months later, I would never have known that the biggest fiesta in Natales' history had happened. I might not have met the wonderful friends I did. Some of my students might never have met me, since they dropped out or changed schools to escape bullying in the months since I arrived.

Everything continues to happen for a reason. I wrote it almost 90 days ago...feeling my heart swell with the knowledge that there was not simply one reason I moved to Chile, but a multitude. One by one, the reasons take their turns drifting into the dance of my life, cutting in on each other and passing me from one to the next in a grand choreography. 

18 May 2011

With Love from the Battle of the Blackboard

"The battle to achieve economic development will 'won or lost in the classroom,' declares Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera. To try to secure victory he has begun what he called Chile’s 'most ambitious educational reform since the 1960s.'"

Remember a few weeks ago, when I compared my struggles in teaching to "fighting in the trenches all day?" (If you don't, check your notes from this blog entry http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/05/its-enoguh.htmlYou don't have your notes? You don't have your notebook? Where is it? You lost it. OK, take this piece of paper and copy it again. Let's go, Tia Coleen knows you can do it). 

I am not the only one who feels the strain of the struggle for a better educational system in Chile. As it turns out, even the head of state called for changes and improvements to the barely controlled scholastic chaos last December. (Read the full article here: http://www.economist.com/node/17679703) The reforms are a great idea. Implementation is a concern. It took two months for my materials to get here from Santiago, after all. 

The calls for change come on the heels of an educational revolution already trying to jump from infancy to adolesence in a single bound. Since 2000, reforms and initiatives (including Idiomas Abren Puertas-IAP, which is the one in which I am partipating) have made the attempt to shift Chile's educational system drastically toward being able to compete globally.  

Only in 2003 was high school made mandatory for all Chileans, and free of charge until 21 years of age (In perspective-Massachusetts was the first US state to pass compulsory education laws in 1852, and Colorado school districts made it cumpulsory 114 years earlier than Chile in 1889). 

According to the information given at the orientation for IAP in Santiago, seven out of ten university students in Chile are the first in their families to attain tertiary education. In 1990, there were approximately 245,000 university students. In 2008, there were 769,000. This year, they will likely pass a million. That is a 400% increase in twenty years. 

The main problem is that increasing the sheer quantity of Chileans receiving an education is not enough. The quality of the education (particularly in public schools like mine) must increase in step with the growth in numbers, or all that growth in the student population serves no purpose. Already it feels as though school is just a time/space holder in the lives of many of my students...something that they are required to do for reasons that even their parents may not understand. A relatively safe place to keep children during the day, where they can learn a few basics until they begin to work whenever adulthood rears its head. I suspect that in many parts of the US it is this way as well. 

I don't pretend to know how in the hell one can implement true and lasting reform in a scholastic system and increase the quality of the education that students recieve. Likely the answers lie in the galacial changes of a culture over generations, a transition to a society that values education and encourages it. Probably too minute to see in the course of the five months since Piñera's declaration. 

But the numbers and programs are a start. Even massive glaciers have to start with a few determined flakes of snow clinging to a Godforsaken piece of rock. Hopefully my school is one of them.

Sources/More Information


16 May 2011

Adaptability's True Test

Chile still has more to teach me, it seems. My experience here is a bottomless pit of (often infuriating) life lessons and (more or less inevitable) changes of attitude. The lessons feel less like a gently leading me to a new world view like one leads a horse to water and more like Chile is slapping me across the face with them or hiding them in places I don't expect, so that they startle me when I pull back the covers to get in bed or jump out at me when I turn a corner in the streets. 

In my interview for this position, I went on and on about how flexible I am and how adaptable I can be. I was sitting in the October sunlight in the hallway of the new Center for Community on Campus, on my one-hour lunch break from advising university students longing to go abroad. I felt compelled to prove how adaptable I can be. 

"Put me anywhere there is a position," I remember myself saying. "I can adapt to anything." 

It's been a ride so far. And I have proved to myself that the statement I made in my interview was true. Especially since lately I have felt a bit like my living situation had transformed into a telenovela. 

The lesson that Chile appears to be slapping me with this week: too much attachment is just not worth it. Attachment to things, people, ideologies, customs, personal space...lo che sea. If it is more like grasping and clinging, it will only bring pain. Everything changes, and we cannot change that.

What a second. Did Chile just teach me to become a Buddha? Holy shit, huevón. 

I have been clinging too much to my things. To my customs. To my language. To the extremely high expectations I have for myself and my students. To my friends and acquaintances. And all that I have accomplished by worrying and stressing is to make myself feel like crap, no más.

If I let go of my desire to control and allow things to be how they are, without stressing, what will I lose? Maybe my frustration, exhaustion, and nervous stomach. 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. And given how much my students appear to like chucking gigantic spitwads at my butt and how little English they appear to be learning...we might be leaning toward no change in the world from my time here. Awesome.

So, this week I am practicing detachment. Not disinterest. Not disillusionment. Not giving up. Calm detachment that gives me a bit of space to breathe. 

And who knows? Maybe the point is not to try to change the world, or even to try to change my students. Maybe the point is to let it all change me. And if I am changing, the goal is already reached. The game is already won. 

10 May 2011

I'm Not Leaving Until Someone Gives Me My Passport...

The only thing that never changes is that everythhng does.

I am nearly at the midpoint of my time in Chile, which seems to simulatneously be a sad realization and a happy one. I know that I am growing and changing...I feel it down to the muscles in my legs that have grown hard and flexible from all the walking, hiking, jumping fences, yoga, and aerobics. I feel it in my ability to put up with more than I ever thought I would, both in terms of culture shock and work. I see it in my mentality. I see it in my style. I hear it in my voice.

Could it be that I am finally growing up? For realsies this time? I notice a strength and determination that I always knew was within me, but that almost never had a true challenge to withstand and overcome. I am learning to choose my battles wisely. To express myself concretely. To assure that everyone knows how hard I and the other volunteers are working. Prhaps most importantly, I am learning to trust my own internal compass and follow what I know to be true or correct without giving too much credence to the opinions of detractors.

A good example of all of this came about yesterday at the office responsible for doling out visas for foreigners in Chile. I went in last week to give my passport to the woman who processes them, so that she could finally allow me to legally live and volunteer in Chile (two months late...eh, pasa nada). She told me it would be ready on Thursday of last week.

When I returned on Thursday, I noticed that the office was closed. I asked around for Señora Edith, but she wasn't there. A few more days passed with my passport in her filing cabinet.

Yesterday, I went back to the office and the Señora was in a meeting. "I can't help you," said the woman telling me that she was busy, "I know nothing about foreign visas."

"I just want my passport back, please. It has been here a week. I cannot go around without it any longer," I said. Secretly, I feared she had somehow lost it.

"I can't help you. Come back later."

"I am teaching in a school here in Natales all day, every day. I cannot come back later. May I speak with Señora Edith please?"

"She is busy."

"She told me it would be ready on Thursday."

"She is in a meeting."

"Please, I need my passport. It cannot stay here longer."

"I can't help you."

"Right. I am not leaving until someone gives me my passport."

The woman I was talking to (mind you, this whole conversation was in Spanish) blinked in disbelief.

"I cannot return later. Is there someone who can give me my passport, please?"

She rolled her eyes and grabbed another woman from the office. She began looking for my passport, and tried to hand me a Russian one that happened to be on the desk.

"I am not Russian. I am from the US. My name is Coleen Monroe."

Searching through the filing cabinet, she asked me to repeat my name two more times. Eventually I helped point out my folder to her and she finally gave my passport back to me. Phew. No calling the US consulate in Santiago for me to say that the gobernación took my passport.

"Thank you very much. Have a good day."

Despite all this lofty rhetoric, the days continue to pass in some semblance of normality. Maybe it isn't a grand victory that I managed to get my passport back. Maybe it shouldn't have to be such a fight for every little daily task. Maybe I am exaggerating how much it can be a pain in the ass to do these simple things.

Sure feels like a small victory, though. I've got to take them where I can.

03 May 2011


Wait wait wait wait wait wait a just a second. I think my blog has gotten a little bit complain-y and appears to be leaking frustration like an old car leaks break fluid. Because I received so many concerned responses to it, I want to make sure that everyone out there knows that I am not in some God-forsaken barren landscape, teaching English to completely unwilling students and suffering through a mounatin of dishes as high as the ceiling each night.

Yes, there are hard times. There always are. I cannot grow without suffering through some tough situations and being forced to learn how to rely on myself. Pain is the the water that makes us grow up and blossom. Frustration is thhe MiracleGrow.

There are so many wonderful things about Chile and about what I am doing here that it would be impossible to recount them all. Just the same, I am going to try to enlighten you about some of them.

-There is plentiful bread with butter and marmelade almost every day. Homemade marmelade. Sometimes homemade bread. So delicious I often eat five pieces a day.

-Chileans are joyful people and laugh easily. Even in my fourth language, in which I nearly completely lack tact and subtlety, I can make jokes and make people crack up. It's contagious. And it makes it really difficult to take myself so goddamned seriously in classes (for the better).

-Seeing my students' eyes light up when they know the answer to a question makes my day. Even when they don't quite say it right, or sometimes especially when they don't. The other day I was teaching the alphabet to my third graders and we got to the letter "P."

I asked, "How do we pronounce this letter?"
In unison, at the tops of their lungs, "Poooooooooooooooo!!!"

I had to put the card down because I was laughing so hard! Then I said, "No, the other one! Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!"

-I am learning to be extremely resourceful, flexible, and innovative since I lack materials and am trying to teach without any previous knowledge.

-My Spanish is beginning to kick ass. But seriously. And sometimes I even have a tiny Chilean accent!

-Despite at first glance appearing empty, this part of Patagonia is actually quite full of things to do and see. My desire to spend time outside in the nature has never been greater, and I felt that it will continue for sure in the coming years. I feel lucky to be here every time I look at the mountains.

So you see? It's not all bad at all. It's great.

It's Enough

Teaching. It's what I came here to do, right? Right?

Yes. I still feel called to be here, still called to be here for these kids. I still feel alone in my planning and like I am flying by the seat of my pants to learn as I go how to teach. Sometimes (yeah, let's be honest...every single day) I need to take a long walk with my ipod and go fast enough that the frustration finally cedes to my endorphins and the Patagonian wind, drifting off to return the following morning.

I have a reputation as a hard-ass amongst my students because I ask them to stay in their seats, not use cell phones, not hit each other, and copy a few lines every day in English. My new rule this week is that I am going to count how many times I have to say a simple instruction (for example, "Sit down"). If I have to say it more than ten times without a result, the class loses its sticker for the day...meaning that the may lose the inter-class sticker competition.

In a perfect world, this would be relatively easy and my students might be able to learn more.

In the real world, it takes forty minutes to write down five sentences. My students grab me by the hands and clothes to get my attention and run around the classroom throwing paper at each other. The girls take all of the ink from their pens and smear it all over themselves and their companions. My eighth graders hurl insults at me almost as hard as they hurl their chairs against the ground.

Not to sound melodramatic, but I often feel like I've been fighting in the trenches all day when I get out of school.

But each day is a new day. Occasionally my students surprise me and make it all worth it. One of my first graders today revealed that she can write as well or better than some of the fifth graders.

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.