Monday, January 21, 2008

Ciao, Coyhaique!

After weeks of charging batteries, organizing tapes and re-learning how to ride a bike, I am ready to leave Coyhaique with the documentary team and head south down the Carretera Austral. We have no idea what is in store for us, but we know it will be an adventure. I invite you to follow this new endeavor at See you on the road....

Monday, January 14, 2008

How Way Leads on to Way

I land back in Coyhaique for my hard-earned summer, and find the countryside ablaze with purple lupines and yellow sagebrush, the air fragrant with clovers, and the new addition of aggressive horseflies to the rotating cast of Patagonian characters. Summer here, I soon learn, is a moody mix of brutal hot sun, whipping winds, spitting rain, and...well, snow. The constantly changing weather brings a steady supply of rainbows over the valley to the north, which happens to be framed perfectly by my kitchen window, so I am happy to drink mate at the table and enjoy Pachamama's show.

The holiday season here in the deep south may be devoid of Macy's window displays and the garish tunes of Christmas carols on every radio station, but you won't find me complaining. On Christmas Eve I find myself happily lost on the winding dirt roads outside of Coyhaique. Every turn of the road reveals a surprise: a stunning turquoise bend in the river, a river bank covered in wildflowers, a baby cow standing on its spindly legs, a waterfall pouring from the hillside... I feel as if I am opening the stocking of a lifetime. When the sun finally sets it is almost 11pm, and the deep pink and red sky inspires Anne and I to dance in the middle of the road as if we've just scored the winning touchdown in the Superbowl. Who said that Christmas Eve was just for little kids?

Perhaps the best thing about my return to Coyhaique is seeing my students around town. I am showing my school to Kelly, a good friend from the United States, when we encounter a few of my students wrestling on the lawn behind the building. Nicolas Perez, one of my best and brightest, straightens himself up and greets Kelly in English. "How are you?" he asks, with nary a prompting from me. "I'm great, and you?" she replies. Nicolas scrunches up his face and appears to be thinking. "Mmmmm...I'm okay," he decides. I burst into applause, and although Nicolas seems a little embarrassed at my overzealous reaction, I don't know how else to commemorate my proudest moment as a teacher.

I see many more students around town, their faces glowing with the discovery that the "Miss" has not yet left Coyhaique. Sadly, I am rapidly forgetting their names, and I struggle to place them without the context of the classroom. I exchange pleasantries with them and watch them walk away with their families, choking on the realization that I am no longer an important presence in their daily lives. In my righteous stint of volunteerism, I believed that I was one of the few adults who really cared about these kids, even taking the time to learn 300 names. Now I must realize that I, like many others, am just another person who entered their lives and then left.

The summer days pass as rapidly as the rain clouds move through town, and I find myself frantic to slow down time. It is sometimes a blessing and other times a curse that life keeps moving independent of our own personal velocities. Although I realize that extending my stay in Coyhaique is neither practical nor plausible, I wish I could suspend this moment forever. Still, I know Coyhaique will not hold the same mystique as we roll back into autumn, and I would find a restlessness creeping inside me if I attempted to hold on.

With these thoughts I prepare for the next adventure: a journey by bicycle from Coyhaique to Villa O'Higgins at the southern terminus of the Carretera Austral. The idea of this journey is to explore the more remote areas of Patagonia, document the way of life there, and illuminate the growing concerns about the proposed hydroelectric dams that may change the landscape forever. It is my hope that by documenting this journey, I can stir and inspire more souls with the magic of this almost forgotten land.

I would like to thank you all for following this blog and sharing in my adventures here at the end of the earth. If you have felt a fraction of the wonder and amazement I have stumbled upon down here, I've done my job. Please check in for links and information about the upcoming bicycle journey and documentary project. And if I happen to disappear, look for me on a winding dirt road somewhere near 49 degrees south...

May you all have journeys that leave you wiser, stronger, and more content!

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Land Apart

After eight solid months without leaving Patagonia, I feel as if I’ve crawled through a black hole and landed on another planet here in Santiago. The concrete jungle sprawls before me, seeming more foreign and impenetrable than the overgrown forests near Puyhuapi, more thundering than the Rio Baker, and more solitary than the winding road to Caleta Tortel. I sit on a terrace high above the city, listening to the drone of accelerating busses and honking horns, and watching the sun turn the mountains pink through the smog. The city has its own beauty, in the rambling streets and Spanish architecture, in the close movement of the people, and in the pulsing rhythm of constant activity. But I find emptiness in my stomach that longs for the quiet persistence of the tea kettle on the woodstove, the howling wind that rattles the steel roof, and the stoic, weatherworn faces of gauchos selling truckloads of firewood. I am just a few days out of Patagonia, and I already feel like I am trying to grab on to something that is so far away it doesn’t exist.

I am afraid of forgetting.

I never thought I’d miss getting up early. I’m not a fan of early mornings, and the pitch black, cold mornings of Patagonian winter elevated the morning routine to a new level of torture. No amount of Nescafe or maté could ever make up for arriving at school in the dark. I hated those mornings. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, those ugly mornings take on a new light. I picture my kids, all lined up in morning formation, each class separated into boys and girls and ordered from shortest to tallest. The woodstoves were rarely lit; and if they were, they did little to heat the huge, drafty hallway. I remember those countless days, shuffling past them all, and seeing their sleepy faces peer out from hats and scarves as I passed. In eight months and with various colds, dog bites, and other maladies, I missed only one day of school because I knew they would be disappointed if I wasn’t there. In Patagonia, I was a hero.

Here, on this other planet of commerce and movement, I look across the rooftops and imagine a suitable path through which to navigate. I can imagine myself, swallowed up in the whole mess, feeding emptiness with cappuccinos and dreaming of lost horizons. I wonder for how long I will remember my students’ names; or more importantly, their faces. I want this epic adventure at the bottom of the world to stick to my ribs and stay there forever, but I know it is impossible to freeze a feeling and save it from the mind’s tendency to forget.

And so my Patagonia heroism fades into the past as all things must do, but I find surprising comfort in the words of a Santiago bank teller. She asks me where I will be spending Christmas, and I reply that I am heading back down to Coyhaique. “The spirit of the south has stuck to you,” she says, “You have the face. The faces in the south are different.” I smile to myself and walk home through the crowded streets, where I stare into the bathroom mirror and wonder what she saw. Maybe, just maybe, I will not be swallowed up after all.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanks and Giving

While Coyhaique storefronts dutifully roll out their Christmas displays, the temperature reaches heights I previously thought were impossible at the end of the world. The intensity of the sun seems to radiate back up from the ground, and the plaza is full of Coyhaiquenos licking their melting ice cream cones and splashing in the central fountain. Reggaeton beats boom from a stage in the center of the plaza, while I sit on the grass leafing through a copy of The Motorcycle Diaries. Che begins, "In nine months of a man´s life he can think of a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup..." I decide that today´s heat makes it a day for lofty meditations, as my preoccupations with firewood, hot water, and long underwear seem a distant memory. How profoundly the weather can affect a person´s mind!

And so it is that I begin Thanksgiving Day in Patagonia. The kitchen sure doesn´t smell like turkey, and there isn´t a can of pumpkin to be found in the grocery store. You could almost say that in this distant universe Thanksgiving doesn´t exist. Almost.

I may not be sitting around the dinner table with my family or gorging myself on Aunt Doris´s chocolate cool-whip pie, but the heart of the matter - giving thanks - doesn´t have to involve pilgrims or football games or even the US of A. As I carry onward through my final days at Escuela Victor Domingo Silva, my students shower me with their own version of Thanksgiving. Karen in Sixto C is the first to pass me a note written with sparkly green pen on notebook paper and folded into a tiny square. "La quiero!" is scrawled across the outside of the letter. Inside, she declares that she will miss my smile. As the week continues, I am inundated with small tokens of appreciation from my students. Evelyn offers a yarn bracelet that spells out "Miss." Yeimi writes me a note that declares she loves me like a mother. Felipe makes a card that spells out "Que la vaya bien!" in yarn lettering. Nelson and Bruno´s joint card declares that they learned a lot in English class but that they especially enjoyed singing Yellow Submarine. Every day I return home with chocolate bars and candles, all carefully wrapped in holiday paper and offered proudly by small hands.

As a final hurrah, I throw pizza and ice cream parties for the most outstanding students in English class. We crowd into my classroom one last time, listening to Guns ´N´Roses and chomping on ice cream bars in the afternoon heat. Jerson Blanco, who was consistently unable to stay in his seat for longer than 15 seconds, was invited to the party in recognition of his efforts to improve. He proudly presents his invite at the door and immediately sets to work writing a note on the whiteboard:

"To a very special person; although I was unruly in your classes, I love you very much and I was saddened to hear you are leaving. I wish you well in your life."

And so I head out into the sun, carrying empty pizza boxes, and thinking about the future. Myself, Jerson, Yeimi, Karen...I wonder what will become of us all. I can say with certainty that in years to come I will tell the story of that Thanksgiving in Patagonia. I will talk about the heat, the ice cream, and how I remember my students´ faces. But most importantly, I will say it was the year I learned that "giving" is more important than "thanks."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

November Rain

Somehow November in Patagonia feels like November in Massachusetts: lots of cold wind and spitting rain. The odd twist is that everything here is exploding into the most vivid green I have ever seen (perhaps because I am emerging from a seemingly eternal winter). Many afternoons when I trek down the hill from school, the sun breaks through the clouds and highlights the velvet green hills below the mountain tops. Many nights laying in bed I hear rain falling on the steel roof. I remember reading in guidebooks that in Patagonia a person can experience four seasons in a day. I always wondered what Patagonia they were talking about, because all I ever experienced was winter and more winter, but now I understand. Patagonian spring can change from hot and sunny to freezing and windy in a heartbeat.

My seventh and eighth graders are thrilled by the arrival of letters and pictures from students at Bourne Middle School. (Thanks Mom!) They crowd around the pictures examining them and finding the student whose letter they received. "They are allowed to wear any color to school?" Macarena asks incredulously. The boys are impressed by the American girls, singling out the ones they like and writing their names on their hands and notebooks. Oscar, who never writes so much as a word in English class, asks me how to write "You are very pretty." He tears out several pages of his notebook and asks to borrow my whiteout before his letter is acceptable for sending. Elvis, who has written "Tess" on his hand, carefully cuts the notebook spirals off of his letter before handing it in. Even George, who always greets me with an enthusiastic "HEL-LOOOO!" but rarely opens his textbook, stays ten minutes into recess to finish his letter.

The girls are equally excited about the boys, crowding in circles around the photographs. Every few minutes a high-pitched "woooooo!" erupts from the group. I catch Beatriz, the class president, snapping a photo of the photo with her cell phone.

While I watch Oscar fussing over his love letter, it dawns on me that I matter to these little people. I still remember Pasha, my Russian pen-pal from sixth grade whose bedroom had an area of 10 square feet. I wonder what these kids will remember when I leave. I have begun the unpleasant task of informing them that next week is my last week of classes, and I don´t know whether to be sad or pleased by the grief-stricken looks they give me. Although I try to explain that I am with a special program, I can´t help but feel they think I am willingly abandoning them.

So as November ticks by at a shockingly fast pace, I try to slow down and appreciate things: Yeimi´s spontaneous hugs in the hallway, George´s "HEL-LOOOO!", Oscar´s daily declarations of love, Jerson´s inability to stay still, Karen´s pigtails, Valentin´s smile... these kids, the future of Patagonia, my students... three hundred wild and crazy youngsters. They have given me as much as I have given them, if not more. Soon it will be summer and I will be just another gringo wandering Patagonia with oversized hiking boots and a wool hat. But for a few precious days, I am still Miss Sarah. I guess nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Red Sox and Gauchos

As Coyhaique geared up for its 78th Anniversary Celebration, Red Sox Nation in Patagonia got ready to watch the Sox face the Tribe in the ALCS. Or so I hoped, but it turns out that Fox Sports in Chile was more interested in broadcasting soccer. In any event, Coyhaiquenos hit the town all weekend in their gaucho best, with parties and parades in the plaza and colossal maté drinking gatherings called matéados.

Friday my students show up at school in their best uniforms and we march all the way down the hill to the plaza to join the big parade. They are hassled to tuck in their shirts and instructed to maintain a precise arm´s length of distance between themselves and the person in front of them. We arrive at the plaza and wait almost an hour in the hot sun, many students ditching out of formation to obtain balloons. When it is finally our turn to make the loop around the plaza, I am left in charge of about 5 balloons, which I juggle with my video camera like a harried soccer mom.

Later that night Rob, Pete and I gather around the kitchen table at my new place drinking maté out of a grapefruit and attempting to explain the rules of baseball to my roommates Alberto and Rodrigo. We have to settle for Arizona against Colorado on ESPN, but it is baseball nonetheless. Alberto is horrified by the organ music playing in the background. We explain that it is tradition, but he can't understand how anything so annoying and ugly could become tradition.

Saturday night I find myself alone in my Sox hat watching the tediously boring play-by-play on and doing what Sox fans do best... grimacing in horror as my team falls apart in the tenth inning. While I hear strains of chamamé playing in the distance, I find an odd comfort in the disappointing loss, as if I'm not that far away from home after all. I may not be singing "Sweet Caroline" during the seventh inning stretch, but as long as I maintain blind faith in the big bats of Manny Ramirez and David Oritz, I am somehow united with my fellow Massholes.

So late Saturday night, mourning the loss, I raise my maté to Boston and the River Charles, to Patagonia and to the windburned gauchos with their boinas and scarves and black boots across the countryside. I also raise a toast to my favorite Massholes, my Mom and Dad. Happy Anniversary! And to Mom: Happy Birthday! I'd like to think that I am present in some way to celebrate with you guys, and that perhaps the world is not as big as it seems.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

"Silence is an argument carried out by other means."

Saturday night I find myself packed into a community function hall with families, toddlers, hippies, professionals, intellectuals, and various Coyhaique citizens to observe the 40th anniversary of the death of Ché Guevara. We are each handed a copy of the famous farewell letter Ché wrote to Fidel Castro upon leaving Cuba, which is read carefully by a maté sipping Patagonian accompanied by acoustic guitar. It is hard not to feel emotional as we watch slides of the famous pan-American icon in the various stages of his life. Ché is a true hero to many of us.

Who isn´t seduced by Ché: his image, his words, his story, his life. I often find myself thinking about the journey that rattled the young medical student so deeply that he chose the path of revolution and never looked back. It is a well-loved story, the story about the development of a man who according to Sartre "...was the most complete human being of our age." What Ché found in the mines, cities, hospitals, and faces of South America is not unlike the many injustices and tragedies that we face today. Ché had the remarkable courage to acknowledge these truths. He accepted the responsibility of his awareness and the challenge to fight the impossible.
For this reason he is a hero of mine.

A little boy is running up and down the aisle shouting "Pirates!" as a banner with Che´s likeness is unfurled at the end of the ceremony. I shuffle with the crowd out into the Coyhaique night, six months deep in my own journey. Am I transforming? I think about every day that I have walked the halls of Escuela Victor Domingo Silva, every moon I have watched rise over the mountains, every lake, river and road I have crossed, and every tear of frustration shed. Will I too become a complete human being?

"If you tremble indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine."
-Ernesto Ché Guevara 1928-1967