It is time to go home. Everything in my body says it, down to the molar I chipped on a mountain village's Chicharrón (various unidentifiable fried black potatoes and Alpaca bits) during a pit stop for the bus from Tacna to Puno.
Ending this experience in Lima seems odd. Given that I am now whithin 12 degrees of the Equator (a full 41 degree shift from Punta Arenas just two weeks ago), the climate feels densely humid and the air is so heavy it feels suffocating after the 11,000 foot altitude of Cuzco. It's loud. It's crowded. The area that I am staying in is very modern, with bright flashing lights, tall buildings, and even a real live department store.
It's a stark contrast to the other parts of Peru that I've seen. In that mountain village, all the women but one wore the traditional skirt and long braids. The school was a relatively new, bright blue building...probably built as a gift from the all-beneficent government but obviously not in use due to it's broken windows and empty classrooms. The people obviously barely had enough to get by on. The same was true in Tacna, Puno, Ilave, Juliaca, and even Cuzco. none of the people in the Miraflores barrio are as weary-looking as those I saw in rural Peru. Not a traditional woman in sight.
I mean, they have actual indoor plumbing here.
Seeing as I came to South America under the guise of an English teacher in a United Nations Development Program-sponsored initiative, it's one more piece in the puzzle of how to help a country to develop sustainably, equally, and thoroughly. Or rather, one more revelation that the process is far more complicated than just having the UN show up and start passing out magic Development Fairy Dust to everyone.
My experience in Chile was obviously subjective. I am the only one who truly saw everything that I saw and felt it, grew from it, and struggled with it. I was able to get out of Gringolandia for a while and to see the country from tip to tip. It is (and here I quote the omnipotent Wikipedia):
"...One of South America's most stable and prosperous nations, and a recognized middle power. It leads Latin American nations in human development, competitiveness, income per capita, globalization, economic freedom, low perception of corruption and state of peace. It also ranks high regionally in freedom of the press and democratic development."
Chile came out of the 90s as a developing economic power. Despite having fewer residents than most Latin American countries, it outperforms them. Chile produces a third of the world's copper. It's GDP grew 31% in one year this decade (2005-2006).
And yet official figures suggest that a third of Chile's people live in poverty. From what I saw outisde the densely populated Región Metropolitana...the figure in the countryside is far higher. Eve. In Puerto Natales, which has been bolstered by a thriving tourism trade recently, access to basic services like schools and health care is limited. There is no goddamn hospital, people.
Meanwhile in Providencia, the upscale neighborhood of Santiago...there are Starbucks everywhere. The hospital is modern and cutting edge. The people have more than three outfits. They have cars. Shiny ones. Their kids are bilingual in English and Spanish. People are either too fat from a few too many salchipapas or have the pinched thin look of the upper class who smokes too much to eat.
Generalizations rarely suit circumstances, but from what I've seen in Chile and in my brief time in Peru suggests a big one about the development of these two Latin American countries (and perhaps Latin America in general...it's a stretch but they do share a relatively common history).
The development is only for the rich. It is the Haves and the Have Nots. The development is neither sustainable nor equal. Much effort is put into the appearance of development, while infrasctructure and social problems rot it from the inside out.
Example. My students came from some of the poorest families in Puerto Natales. They had subsidized housing, food stamps, and their parents typically worked for the middle to upper class landowners and hotel managers of the city (almost none of whom are originally from there). They were barely getting by.
And yet most of them had touch screen cell phones. A large number had laptop computers, gifts from their government for good grades. Our school couldn't afford to buy posters for the walls of the classrooms, and yet they are more connected at all times of the day than my Facebook-toting grandmother.
Tourism is booming in Natales, but the water is dark brown. The municipality gets grants from the government, but barely any of the money reaches the public schools. Villa Renovald just down the road now has streetlights run on a generator, but it still lacks a school.
The appearance of development is there, but it has huge gaps between the rich and the poor. At times Chile seems very developed (you can get sushi with your Pisco Sour at the very end of the American continent) and at others it feels very Third World (my Chilean nephew is sick and there is no doctor on duty for 300 kilometers). In Peru the contrast is even bigger.
My own experience with trying to help Chile develop and to give new perspectives and opportunities to her youth was marred by themismanagement, lack of interest, and general disorganization that plagues aid work (Can teaching English be called proper "Aid Work?" i dunno...in my school, I think yes. Sure, it could've been worse. But then again it was already pretty awful).
What all this rambling is trying to say is that I've learned a lot about how rough the attempt to help in a developing country can be. Frankly, teaching in Chile was relatively easy compared to the experiences that some of my friends have had teaching here in Peru, doing the Peace Corps, or helping in orphanages in Kenya. I feel guilty in a sense for traveling afterward and living in these fancy-ass hostels with all the other rich Gringos (My room at this hostel is full of Irish Guidos...I didn't know that was possible but it appears the Jersey Shore blight is spreading).
A month ago, I was fed up. I felt that the very people I came here to try to offer something had taken advantage of me and that any kind of aid work would simply result in that sense of frustration. I felt that even by being a Gringa in Chile, I was being a cultural imperialist and that it didn't matter anyway...one person cannot make a difference.
A month of perspective and some key TED lectures later, I feel re-energized. I don't want to give up on one of the things that I've always held dear to me... The idea that I could act and change something about the world for the better. It is easier to choose to be jaded. The narrow path is not convenient.
I wanted this post to be a self-reflective wander about how much I've changed and grown since moving to South America and not a treatise on development. I don't think that the two can be separated easily. This experience will likely change the course of my life. And I am happy that I am still able to focus on something other than just myself.
The narcissistic entry will come tomorrow. For now I am going to enjoy a shower under hot running water with a light bulb in the room.