30 June 2011

The Development of a Stoplight Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that moment I became a fan of Stoplightism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 June 2011

What's In a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 June 2011

What Teachers Make

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no assistant teaching. No orientation. No gradual transition from non-teacher to Miss Coleen. Hell, there wasn't even an observation period. I made the transition in a day, in front of a room full of seventh graders (check out the post in the aftermath here http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/03/tia-coleen-and-total-utter-chaos.html). 

But honestly, I think I've risen well to the challenge. After four months of the struggle in this school, I can say with some confience thst I have at least a tiny claim to that kick ass brotherhood of teachers making a difference. 

16 June 2011

Tía Coleen's First Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 June 2011

The Growing Traveler's Stink

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

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

You can probably smell me from there. 

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

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

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

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

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

08 June 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 June 2011


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

An epic blog is coming.