30 July 2011

A Winter Shower in Valparaiso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My breath appeared in a cloud in front of me. 

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


25 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. It's gonna get crazy. 

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

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

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

18 July 2011

Chile's Version of Cardiac Massage

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she was actually trying to save me. 

Chile woke me up and made me realize that I have a lot of work to do on myself before my life can have stability and I can truly be happy. She laid my own issues and those of the world bare, forcing me to deal with pain, sadness, lonliness, anger, and my own personal tormentors from the past. She forced me to give up a lot about my own way of viewing the world and to try to get by on fumes (and a ton of white bread) even when I was exhausted. She made me feel so tiny and powerless in thhe face of mountains and the problems of her society, but yet huge and powerful as the most noticeable gringa this side of Puerto Montt and able to do something to help those students. 

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

I even look different. 

07 July 2011

Adioses~The Goodbye Spell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You did it. You did what you came here to do. And you did it so well. 

I didn't look back. Really, I couldn't...the more pressing needs to watch out for stray ankle-biting poodles, speeding POS cars on the avenue, and boot-swollowing mud puddles pressed me back to Chilean reality. The Goodbye Spell complete, I walked home. 

05 July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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