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

Thursday, September 27, 2007

And A River Runs Through It

The weekend before Dia de Patria (September 18th), Coyhaique bursts with Chilean flags and the smell of empanadas, every store selling chicha by the gallon and every speaker in town pumping cueca. For the first time in my life, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of patriotism for a country that isn´t even mine. My school has elected to take a week-long vacation in order to celebrate, and on Friday every student from kindergarten to eighth grade takes their turn waving a handkerchief and dancing the national dance. I am tempted to hang out in Coyhaique and practice my own cueca moves, but come Saturday morning I am on a bus headed south to find the Rio Baker.

During my time here in Patagonia, I have become aware of the impending plan to construct five major hydroelectric dams on the pristine rivers of this region. The $4 billion project will be carried out by ENDESA, a Spanish mega-corporation, and the electricity generated will be carried directly to the north for use in various industries. They are essentially planning to ransack the region of its awe-inspiring rivers without a single watt of energy staying to benefit the people who live here. One of the intended victims of the said ransacking is the famous Rio Baker, so I decide it is time to get to know her.

The sun is getting low when I hop off the bus in Puerto Bertrand, the sole passenger to disembark in the deserted street. A horse parked nearby looks at me skeptically. The bus roars away and I chew on the silence...the leather of my heavy hiking boots crunching loudly as I walk. A few residents open their front doors to peer out at me. Apparently I´ve arrived before gringo season - all the hospedajes are closed. I manage to find a bed and salmon dinner with Sra. Alicia, who eyes me as if I might just be insane traveling alone in September. But I must have earned her approval; she passes me the maté later that night.

The next morning is dazzling and I break a sweat walking with my awkward bags as soon as I leave town. A sign reads "Inicio Rio Baker," so I scramble down to the water´s edge to commemorate. The river is just leaving Lago Bertrand, so she is calm and tranquil. The bright blue of the glacial water is shocking. It is an auspicious beginning - I can tell we are going to be good friends. I could easily pass a day or a lifetime just sitting here, but I head back to the road and wait until a white pickup comes barreling over the potholes. Thinking of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and that great big American road, I hitch the first ride of my life.

I ask to be left at the confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Neff, then I hop in back and hold on tight as the truck lurches onward. The dust covers me in a fine layer of filth, but I am oblivious and digging the landscape as it rolls by - dry Ñire trees that look like they might ignite in the hot sun, cows staring passively, and the river following us alongside. Always the river. I lean on my overstuffed pack, bracing with my feet and attempting to film the dirt road as it recedes behind us. "So this is what it feels like to be alive," I think to myself. The truck halts to a stop and I hop off surrounded by dry brush and nothingness in all directions. For the first time, the river is out of sight. I am told that if I walk straight, I´ll find it, and the truck speeds away, continuing south. I slide down the gravel shoulder and suddenly I am in wilderness. I decide this could be the stupidest or most brilliant thing I´ve ever done.

Fortune is on my side. I arrive panting and hot at the top of a steep gravel hill, and find an awesome spectacle below. The Baker is raging, her impossibly turquoise water vibrating against the reddish brown hillside like a psychedelic 3-D poster. The Nef, a distinct milky-green color, joins in below the impressive falls. I am completely alone - the only sound is the raging of the rivers below. I scramble down the hillside until I can feel the mist on my face and the noise seems to radiate from inside my body. This is what it feels like to be alive. I watch her and listen to her all afternoon, and I swear that below the deafening roar, I can hear her whispering stories and words of wisdom. Fellow Massachusetts native Thoreau once said, "Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything." I wonder what he´d think about this place, so far away from Walden.

I spend the rest of the week alongside the Baker, drinking maté in campo kitchens, crossing her in a leaky rowboat, and hiking high above her delta in the breathtaking village Caleta Tortel. I listen to the growing uneasiness among the people who live by her and have grown to love her. The future for them is uncertain. Most are opposed to the construction of the dams, but some hope it will bring much needed jobs into the region. Almost everyone is unsettled by the lack of available information about the project. The possible effects are disturbingly unclear. And all the while the Baker, that monstrous big river, rages on.

I return to Coyhaique sunburned, windburned, and struggling to define what it is I found down there. The Baker both defies and inspires words. When Siddhartha listened into the river, he heard "om" and discovered enlightenment. When Huck and Jim floated the mighty Miss, they found safety and salvation. Here in Patagonia, ENDESA´s engineers have summed up the Baker in terms of its megawatt potential.

When I sit by the Baker, I glimpse eternity. It seems as though she has been flowing since the beginning of time and will continue to do so forever. But in a land where glaciers are melting, lakes are disappearing, and plates are converging, nothing is certain.

So I am left simply to meditate on change, impermanence, and the mighty rivers that run through the whole big mess. And I know that the Baker will continue on, with barely a complaint, through rocks and mountains and lives and journeys, as long as she can.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Time is a Language

I should have known that Pachamama lives in Patagonia and that she would never allow us to sneak out of winter so easily. Monday and Tuesday are marked by rain and that seeping cold that you feel in your bones and joints. I reluctantly retire my Red Sox cap and return to my trusty wool hat with ear flaps. This morning I awake after snoozing my alarm several times, and pull open the curtains to see that the median strip of Avenida Ogana is white. Snow falls gracefully and delicately, once again asserting its presence and whispering to me, "This is, after all, Patagonia!"

I realize as I stare out the window that I´ve spent almost a year in winter. My mid-twenties will forever be marked by wearing wool scarves and fingerless gloves indoors. A grand contrast to my college years in a California beach town, marked by old t-shirts and flip flops. At least I´ve managed to avoid the transition into professional wear...

But how can we really measure time? In the changing of fashions and the wearing out of a favorite pair of jeans? In the memories triggered by a specific song or smell or sound? In the life spans of relationships or jobs or apartments? In the passing of seasons?

It is now mid-morning and the snow continues to fall: fat, fluffy flakes collecting on the woodpile outside. I watch my sixth graders take a quiz and find myself fascinated by the expressions on their faces. Felipe, who has big blue eyes and won´t talk to girls because he was left by his mom, is working diligently. Karen, whose big brother stole 100 bucks from a teacher´s wallet, stares at her blank paper and throws an eraser across the room. Daniel, who always carries my messenger bag to class despite the fact that it is twice his weight, sits front and center and adjusts his new government-issued glasses. "Tia," he whispers urgently, "do you understand a lot more now that you´ve been here a while?" I look down at his curious face and tattered pencil case and smile. "Yes," I say, "I understand a lot more." And then I realize that maybe I do know how to measure time after all.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

August and Everything After

What season is August in Patagonia? I struggle to find a point of reference from my previous life, but I can´t help feeling like I´m neither here nor there. The end of the month has been marked by the arrival of howling winds and various forms of precipitation. I sit next to the fire listening to Neil Young and eating dried figs, dreaming of California breakfasts with fresh squeezed orange juice, pancakes, and breakfast burritos. August is neither spring or winter.

My students have lost their fresh from vacation luster and appear bored most of the time. I decide to teach my seventh and eighth graders adjectives to describe personality, and I orchestrate an elaborate photo shoot with all of the kids acting out the words. Some manage to ham it up but it dawns on me that these kids are not from a culture of picture taking. Most of them stand in front of the camera like deer in headlights.

As we roll into September, all the stores in town gear up for the grand independence day fiesta. Windows are filled with traditional costumes and Chilean flags. Supermarkets prepare to give away barbeque supplies to the less fortunate. Schools debate whether or not to take the entire week off. And everyone warns me to be careful with the chicha, a traditional fermented grape drink that is consumed in large quantities on September 18th along with various types of empanadas. Apparently chicha will give you the worst hangover of your life. Hopefully not if you eat enough empanadas and dance enough cueca...

So I welcome the first day of September and the passing of August gloom. The air already feels different, as if maybe, just maybe, spring is on its way.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sabado Tarde

It almost feels like spring in Coyhaique, although a chill lurks in the air as the sun begins to wane, and I already know that sunny days signal brutally cold nights. I sit in a stone and dirt amphitheater above the Esculea de Guias Patagonia, nursing the maladita caña, drinking a coke because there weren´t any ice cream bars at the bodega, and lamenting the nasty film that it leaves on my teeth. The mountains, now such a familiar and comforting presence, are back lit by the sun and sit behind a screen of smoke. The Saturday afternoon ambient soundtrack consists of a hammer pounding somewhere nearby, the bounce of a basketball, and the ever present chorus of barking dogs, with the new addition of chirping birds and the occasional accent of a child´s laughter and rumble of old truck.

It is just too familiar, this lazy Saturday afternoon in Coyhaique. Could it be that Saturday afternoon feels the same everywhere? Or could it be that Coyhaique just feels familiar? A helicopter punctuates the soundtrack in a very Dark Side of the Moon-esque moment, although it really just reminds me of the glider port in Franconia, New Hampshire.

I sit in the sun with my trusty Red Sox cap shielding me from the ozone hole and I think about my sister, moving into a new apartment and undoubtedly stressing about all the details. I think about my parents, perhaps drinking Syrah and Pinot Grigio in the adirondack chairs on the lawn or grilling up some fish for dinner. I think about my shiny green truck, waiting for me obediently and most likely parked next to the tool shed. I imagine the soundtrack of Sherry Lane: wind chimes, the cars passing by on County Road, and the occasional train whistle heard through the woods. I envision the angle of the late afternoon sun on the herb garden, with Kinley perhaps basking in the last light on the deck.

I dream about those glorious Cape Cod summers of shorts and sunburns, baseball games and fireworks, and melted ice cream stuck to your forearm. And I know that someday I will also dream about these glorious Patagonian winters of woodsmoke and red wine, chamamé and smoky candlelit bars, and the salvation of a heated taxi on a cold night. And today, on this sunny Saturday afternoon in Coyhaique, I swear that I can smell somebody nearby firing up a grill. I wonder if there might be a chill lurking in the air as the sun begins to wane on Sherry Lane.

**A note: To those of you concerned about the recent earthquake in Peru, I am considerably south (about 2,000 miles or so) and did not feel a thing. However, the earthquake is all over the news down here and has served to remind me of the strong resentment between Chile and Peru. "Why should we help them," many Chileans ask, "when they just want to take our land and infiltrate our country with poor immigrants..."
Sound familiar?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Llegadas y Despedidas

After three idle weeks in Coyhaique, I feel quite energized by my return to school. The kids even seem happy to be back, and ready to learn. They diligently copy new vocabulary into their notebooks as I watch with suspicion. Surely this motivation will dwindle in the coming months. Many of my students are noticeably thinner, presumably from the lack of government subsidized meals over vacation. When I ask if anyone traveled, they all stare at me blankly. “I went to the campo,” Mariana offers. “Pura pega! (pure work),” complains Saul. Later in the class, Saul lifts his desk off the floor and points its legs outward pretending they are machine guns. “Chicka, chick...boom!” he shouts, shooting down his classmates. Some of them are ready to learn, anyway.

Señora Hilda, the director of our school, has completed her contract and thus must leave Coyhaique. I am a little perplexed as to why this is happening in the middle of the school year, but I don´t question it. The school stages an elaborate goodbye ceremony, complete with speeches, dancing, and singing. It is a teary affair, and as Hilda exits the building, the students all rise to their feet singing. I am amazed to see how many students are crying as they file out of the gymnasium.Their eyes speak of abandonment. I had no idea they were so attached to her. I´m starting to realize why people say Americans are cold.

Almost every goodbye is offset by an arrival, and Maria Teresa and Ernesto finally arrive home today after three weeks of traveling. I surprise myself- I think I actually missed them! Maybe I am not so cold. In any event, it is nice to observe the ritual of coming home after a long journey. They tell stories and show pictures about the places they went, but you can tell by the content look in their eyes that their own home is “just right.” I think about my own comings and goings, and how sometimes the best part of leaving is being welcomed back. Other times, like Hilda, we leave without coming back, but we hope that we will be missed.

Sometimes I feel that life is just a long string of hellos and goodbyes, or arrivals and farewells, as we each navigate our own winding roads. But what matters is the substance between those hellos and goodbyes. Do we stop long enough to belong somewhere? To mean something to somebody? To leave a footprint? And when we move on, will we journey stronger? And when we´ve found home, will we know it?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dreaming Northward

I find my way out of Coyhaique at last, striking north on the Carretera Austral for Puyhuapi. Juan Pablo, who offered to drive and save me valuable time on the bus, said the trip would be fast and concentrated, like a dream. It was.

We get a late start out of town, about 2:30 in the afternoon, with the sun high overhead. North of Aysén we pass the tiny settlement of Manihuales, and shortly thereafter the pavement ends and the landscape begins to change. The forest stretches in all directions: damp, dense, and green. I am overwhelmed by its frantic and reckless tangles. As always in Patagonia, the snowy peaks of the Andes surround us and enclose our world with an impressive border. They seem to become sharper and markedly more severe as we head north. The moon already chases behind us, and Jaco Sanchez sings "Tengo que pensar..." on the radio while we climb hairpin turns to cross the pass. I am lost in my thoughts, deep into the dream, and fixated on the enormous green ferns and spindly lenga trees hugging the road.

It is dusk when we arrive at Fijordo Queulat, but there is just enough light to make out the glassy water of the ocean meandering inland to meet the peaks. The carretera hugs the fijord and deals us endless potholes and sharp turns, until night finally closes in and the lights of Puyhuapi illuminate the distant shore. Puyhuapi, a tiny scattering of cabañas and German bed and breakfasts, is silent and tranquil in the darkness. The stillness of the mountains and the water, and the palpable sense of isolation create a distinct feeling of peace.

In the morning, a rare sunny day in this perpetually rainy climate illuminates the landscape anew. Everyone in Puyhuapi seems desperate to talk to us, as if they´ve been awaiting visitors in solitude all winter. They probably have. We converse with the German owner of a hand-woven rug business and shuffle around the edge of the fijord. We then head back south to the looming Ventisquero Colgante, a massive hanging glacier suspended between two peaks and reflected in a luminescent blue lagoon.

Late afternoon, and we fly back down the carretera and over the pass, stopping to pick up two hitchhikers who happen to know Juan Pablo. Patagonia is enormous and yet surprisingly small...there are so few people it is not uncommon to find an acquaintance in the middle of the wilderness 400 miles away. Our companions bring renewed energy to the cab of the truck as they recount their journey and plans to walk through the night if no car had stopped. I ponder that possibility.

Eventually we all lapse into silence, watching the moon rise and the peaks turn a warm pink. The moon is full, and this time we are chasing it, until the peaks become dark shapes and the lights of Coyhaique appear in the valley below. Night has definitively fallen by the time we hit our first traffic light. Awake from the dream, I struggle to hold onto some tangible evidence that it was real. Even the photographs seem to lie. Asi es la Patagonia.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


The days of winter vacation are passing rapidly and marked mostly by weather: sun yesterday, rain today, temperature dropping or rising... some days the fire starts easily and other days not so much. I am working on my motivation to leave Coyhaique and explore, but in winter the idea of riding a bus six hours to sleep in an unheated cabana is slightly unappealing. In any event, my recent surplus of free time has allowed me to reflect on life: here, elsewhere, and anywhere.

In a little more than three months I have ceased to think twice about powdered milk and coffee, having to relight a pilot halfway through the shower, and sometimes sleeping in a mummy bag under my blankets. I have perfected my "ciao," switched my cellphone language to Spanish, and even incorporated the ever present "po" into my vocabulary. (Po is an abbreviated form of pues, and Chileans use it to emphasize everything, i.e. sipo, nopo, obviopo.) Adapting to existence in a foreign culture is an odd thing. I sometimes wonder if I will continue to put mayonnaise on rice and eat pizza with mustard and hot sauce when I return to the states. What will I do without a wood stove to warm up my socks and red wine? Will I never dance chamamé again?

But the most pressing realization about life at the bottom of the world is how little things really do change. I have my daily routine, I go to the gym, I hang out with friends, I have a boss I don´t like, I struggle the same struggles and think the same things. We can´t escape who we are or the essence of our existence no matter how much we try to change the details. And for me, this is a very important point. I believe in the power of a journey to profoundly change a person, but I don´t believe we can depend on exotic experiences to make us who we are. At the end of the day in Coyhaique, I lay in bed and listen to the rain falling outside my window. And if I close my eyes, I could almost be on 5 Sherry Lane, wondering what tomorrow will bring.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Love and Vomit

The snow continues to fall in Coyhaique, but life goes on as usual. I don´t think that "snow days" exist in Patagonia. The roads are never plowed or salted, the sidewalks are covered in ice, and people carry on with their routines in their snow boots and four wheel drive vehicles. Almost everyone in Coyhaique drives a truck or a jeep. Yesterday I was walking through the central plaza, admiring the snow on the trees, when I took my first official fall on a patch of ice. Guess I´ll have to walk more carefully from now on.

School vacation beckons a mere week and a half away! I am now fully settled into my new classroom which was promptly christened by a vomit incident the first day I taught class there. Perhaps vomit can be seen as an auspicious sign. In any event, my new room gets full sun during the day and is significantly warmer, and the kids seem to behave much better there. I am teaching them how to say "What´s up," and "Just chillin´," which is at the very least amusing for me. Some boys have discovered how to say "I love you," and now when I walk in the halls I am constantly greeted by declarations of love from eleven year olds. Life could be worse!

The best thing I can say about my job here is that everyday when I go to work the kids are genuinely happy to see me. The never tire of kissing me on the cheek or offering to carry my schoolbag. They may not stay in their seats or care about the verb "to be," but they seem to have adopted me into their lives. And they are desperate for any sort of affection! I can already tell that it will be tough to leave these scrappy little buggers behind...

Monday, June 11, 2007

When the snow falls down....

As I celebrate my 25th birthday down here at the end of the world, I can´t help but think that a chain of events over a quarter century has been leading up to this experience. Perhaps it is the snow falling in June, or perhaps it is the Chilean wine, but it seems that on this birthday I have finally got it all right.

In any event, I kicked off my big 25 with hugs and kisses from all the teachers and students, and rounds of "Happy Birthday" in every class. My family threw me a big party and I discovered the Chilean birthday tradition: you get your face shoved in a cake. They got me good...the poor unsuspecting gringa! And then the snow began to fall, illuminated by the streetlights and blanketing the sidewalks, and it hasn´t stopped since! Welcome to winter in Patagonia!

In other news, I was informed that I need to change classrooms, so in the middle of the year I have to rip all my decorations and lettering off the wall and move across the hallway. Chileans really know how to make you feel special on your birthday but have no idea how to run a school! Or something like that. But the best you can do is just shut up and do what needs to be done, a good lesson learned in the English Opens Doors Program. The important thing is that I am starting to break through to the students, and they can now respond in English to "How are you?" A small but exciting achievement.

And so as the snow continues to fall I can say that I am one year older but infinitely wiser and stronger after only a couple of months at 49 degrees south... six months and a very long winter await.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

And then it was winter...

Sunday morning I woke up in a small farm house in the middle of the mountains at Bahia Murta, five hours south of Coyhaique on the mostly unpaved Carretera Austral. I was staying with friends of my family, on a lumpy mattress stuffed with wool. The lamb meat hanging outside the window was rock hard, and a sparkly white frost covered everything. I turned on the faucet and got nothing, as the pipes had frozen over night. Needless to say, winter suddenly arrived.

Back here in Coyhaique I am getting my first taste of constant cold. My classroom clocks in at a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit every morning, and even with the wood stove going I am lucky to break 40 by the end of the day. Everyone is preoccupied with obtaining wood, and conversations often turn to the price of wood or where it can be found in the campo. Every year Coyhaiqenos have to travel further outside of town to get wood, and this drives the prices higher and higher. For some people here, a month of wood costs almost an entire month´s salary. Maria Teresa tells me that many of my students go home to houses without fire, as their families can´t afford it. "Es complicado," they say.

Needless to say, winter has taken on a different meaning. I am trying to get the hang of getting up every three hours and adding wood to the fire, but I fail to get out of the warm bed all to often and have to endure getting dressed in the freezing cold morning. Perhaps less blankets on the bed would actually be a good thing. I teach my classes in full winter gear: long johns, pants, boots, three shirts under a sweater and a wool coat. My new classroom management problem is keeping the kids from crowding around the wood stove.

And so we wait for the first big snow, but winter is definitely here. All the reason to keep warm and dance more Chamamé...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Rodeo and the Circus

It is still fall in Coyhaique, although the days are getting alarmingly shorter and the mornings colder. The air feels cold and crisp as if Halloween is on its way, and yet it is almost June. Very disorienting!

Last weekend I found myself at a big dinner for all the top huasos in Region XI. Awards were given for best horses, rodeo champions, and the like. Huasos are the cowboys of Patagonia, and they are fiercely proud of their traditions. The skills involved are usually passed down through the family from father to son. Women were completely excluded from huaso events until recently, and huasos are infamous for their infidelity. Although extremely macho, huaso men are also extremely vain. After quite a bit of primping, my host dad Ernesto emerged from the bathroom dressed to the nines. The traditional dress is very specific: a sharp above-the-hip jacket, tailored pants, and a thick belt cinched to the side. Over this they wear beautiful woolen embroidered ponchos and wide brimmed hats. There are even specific black boots that must be worn for special occasions. I am told that one of my host brothers could not be a huaso because his feet were to big for the special boots.

The evening, like most special occasions in Patagonia, consisted of roasted lamb, red wine, a growing cloud of cigarette smoke, and lots of dancing the cueca, chamamé, and ranchero. I have managed to learn chamamé and ranchero in my short time here, but cueca, the national dance of Chilé, is a bit more complicated. It is a courting dance in which the man and woman circle each other playfully waving napkins, and it is wonderful to watch.

One thing does not change at the bottom of the world: I am always glad when the weekend comes! My students continue to amaze me with their lack of motivation and interest to learn, but I see this as a worthy challenge, and my classes are improving. I´ve realized that I must "trick" them into learning by playing games, jumping around, and basically running a three ring circus. If anything even slightly resembles school work or learning, I lose them. And I must never utter the words "take out your notebook," or they´ll be gone forever. Needless to say, no matter where you live, Friday never comes too soon!

Monday, May 14, 2007

El Dia de la Madre

Mother´s Day in Chilé turns out to be quite the hoot. On Thursday the schools officially celebrate El Dia de La Madre, and I am shocked when every single mother recieves a hug and a kiss from each and every teacher in the teacher´s room. I even recieve some hugs for being a woman who works with children, and a few comments that I will be a mother before I leave Chilé! Mas MAS adelante, I respond. At the morning assembly, the third graders read a poem and sing a song about mothers, and then every woman in the school is called up to receive a small bouquet of flowers. I am called up as "Senora Sarah," implying that I´m married, and for the rest of the day the kids ask me if I have children. I laugh and tell them that they are my children.

At home on Sunday, papa Ernesto leaves the house early to "find meat," and the family celebrates with a parilla, which is a Chilean barbeque, complete with pisco sours and wine. My plate is full of potatoes and salad and bread, but I am satiated by the experience and good company. Machismo is still quite rampant in Chilé, and most men never help with housework, but it is nice to see so much honor dedicated to women and mothers on this day. One day doesn´t quite make up for a year, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Extremes and Extremities

Life in Patagonia is full of extremes. Tuedsay I learned why people aroud here don´t just "go running" for exercise - I was surrounded by three street dogs and suffered a bite in the leg. While I used to feel sympathetic for them, I am now thoroughly afraid of the numerous dogs that wander the streets of Coyhaique and wouldn´t mind if they were, er, humanely killed. Some vegetarian I am!

In contrast, today I finished school early and took my time walking home to enjoy the beautiful late fall weather. I stopped at a fruit stand to buy some mandarin oranges and sat in an empty park eating them and enjoying the unfiltered and ozone-free sun. High on the hill above the woodsmoke and steel rooftops, I looked out across rolling farms to the snowcapped peaks outside of town. The landscape here truly lends itself to extreme emotions. I am constantly reminded, whether by a pack of dogs or a sudden change in weather, that awareness of one´s environment is paramount down here. Patagonian people seem to be just like us on the surface but they are different. A life spent in this land does something special to a person´s soul, and you can feel it in their presence. Beyond this I cannot explain.

A few notes: My leg feels better, and I did go to a doctor and recieve treatment, so please do not be concerned. Also, as of today more photos are up on Picasa, so click on my photo link!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Across the Lake

My first real venture out of Coyhaique reveals just how isolated we are down here. To reach Chile Chico, a small town on the Lago General Carrera, we must first board a small van (there aren´t enough people to support full size buses down here) and travel through the mountains to Puerto Ibanez. The tiny van bounces along through steep passes full of red and yellow trees and surrounded by the white spires of the Andes. There are two women in the van who are from Puerto Aisen and are looking to buy houses in Chile Chico. They are among many who are fleeing Aisen due to the recent seismic activity. We arrive in Puerto Ibanez, a cold, windy and desolate town consisting of a couple of buildings and a boat launch. A cup of hot, sugary coffee and a bread and cheese sandwich costs 1,000.00 pesos, about $2, which is quite expensive and probably an adjusted "gringo rate. "

As we wait in the blustery wind to board the ship, it occurs to me that I am taking a boat from nowhere to nowhere. This is the reality of Patagonia; it is what allures us and frightens us at the same time. The space and emptyess is overwhelming. I decide to sit on the deck and brave the cold, as my other option is the stuffy and windowless cabin below. As dusk sets in, I wrap my wool scarf around my face and sit back on the lifejacket box to watch the mountains become dark and silent shapes. Men with tan and windburnt faces converse quietly and smoke cigarettes. Through the partial cloud cover, I can just make out the Southern Cross.

When we arrive in Chile Chico it begins to rain, and it doesn´t stop for two days. We find ourselves in a small cabana feeding the woodstove and drinking Nescafe with Baileys. At night, we stumble upon a local dance party in the banquet hall of a ranch. The band plays local folk songs praising Coyhaique, Chile Chico, the mountains, and the snow, and everybody seems to know the words. The locals send us bottles of wine, and soon we are up dancing to the synthetic accordian and playful beats, feeling less and less awkward in our hiking boots. We dance until 5am and we can barely lift our legs, but we head back out into the cold night amongst Patagonians, feeling satisfied that for at least one moment we were a part of this desloate world on the edge of the lake.

Friday, April 27, 2007


I didn´t realize how addicted I was to coffee until I was suddenly restricted to a diet of instant Nescafe. Chileans just don´t get the coffee thing, at all. My much-hyped visit to the Dunkin´ Donuts in Santiago revealed an establishment suspiciously devoid of real coffee beans and that signature Dunkin´aroma. Here in Coyhaique, there are a few establishments that have "espresso," but it tastes nothing like coffee and the caffeine buzz is negligible. Needless to say, the arrival of a pound of New England ground coffee and a single cup filter from my parents has been a major transformative event in my life. (Thanks guys!!) My host family watched in awe as I poured hot water into the filter and filled the house with that seductive smell. They still shy away from trying it, however. The signature drink in my house is black tea with about five spoonfuls of sugar. Not a custom I plan on picking up.

After a long day at school I sometimes sit at the table smelling the coffee grinds. Oh, what a smell! Tonight, I think I finally mastered the single cup brew, and I officially report that it was the best cup of coffee I have ever had.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Gringo vs. the Volcano

I don´t want to alarm those of you following this blog, but the ground shook us pretty hard this weekend! There is a submerged volcano in Aysen Fijord, about 80 km from here, that is pushing it´s way up to the surface. Although all we got in Coyhaique was a good scare, Puerto Aysen and Puerto Chacabuco took the hit pretty badly. There were mudslides and small tidal waves and a few people are dead and missing. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen when the volcano breaks ground. I am worried, although mostly for my fellow volunteers on the coast. They have elected to stay where they are and see what happens. Chile is a very seismically active country, but tremors are not common in this region. Living at the mercy of volcanoes and tectonic plates is certainly a humbling experience, to say the least.

On the school front, I began working with my own groups in the "English Only" room today. They finally replaced the broken glass in the window, and I even got a brand new whiteboard! My students were amazingly well behaved, which is a huge relief because in my Thursday afternoon art class they are complete animals. They have no idea how to pronounce anything in English, so I think it will take me a while just to get through "Hello, my name is..." and numbers and stuff. Sometimes when I am in the hallway, the students will come up to me and just stand next to me touching my arm. One boy did this while motioning to his friends..."Look! Look!" Although it is flattering, it is also exhausting, and strange!

In other news, look for a link to my photos soon. I am working on it this very moment!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Firestarters and Firearms

I spent my entire afternoon trying to start a fire in vain, so clearly this is something I need to work on before it gets really cold. I blame the wood for being wet, but people who live here seem to know the secret to starting a blaze in thirty seconds flat. I couldn't tell you how many times I´ve been caught red handed, blowing into the stove furiously with ash all over my face and hair. At least I provide endless amusement to my host family as the hapless gringo who only knows how to turn switches and push buttons.

In other news, the English teacher finally arrived at my school and we are ready to start work. The "English Only" room is probably the coldest room in the school, with broken windows and no curtains. The whiteboard is marred by a huge gash, and only half the lights turn on. And yet, it is my room! And so I am thrilled to begin the process of transforming the space. I have already started to make signs and posters to hang on the walls. I am also slowly starting to build relationships with the students and even remember a few names. Every day I will see different faces - about 300 faces a week - so this will be one of my biggest challenges.

The Virginia Tech shooting is all over the Chilean news and I am incredibly saddened, although I feel so removed from such a reality. My family and colleagues at the school expect me to be able to explain why such a thing could happen. In their minds, school shootings are a common occurrence in the US. And why, they wonder, is it so easy to obtain a gun in our country? What can I tell them? For now I remain silent, and hope that my actions and intentions will somehow assist in neutralizing this tragedy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Escuela Victor Domingo Silva

I would like to elaborate more on my school and the learning conditions here in Coyhaique. First it is important to point out that the Pinochet regime completely decentralized the education system in Chile. There is no system in place for the federal or regional governments to impose requirements, programs, or accreditation systems on the schools. Each municipality is autonomous. Programs such as English Opens Doors are merely suggestions by the Ministry of Education, but they cannot enforce that all schools in Chile comply. Secondly, resources in schools vary greatly. Municipal schools, such as mine, are the poorest schools and rely completely on public funding. Subsidized schools are in richer communities and some students pay to attend, so they are much nicer. Most of the schools I visited in Santiago were subsidized. And of course there are expensive private schools, which are quite nice but impossible for most families to pay for. Another important point is that Pinochet also imposed a heavy tax on books, and to this day they are an expensive and rare commodity in Chile. Even the nicest schools do not have libraries.

My school, Escuela Victor Domingo Silva, is located on the hillside in Coyhaique, where the nicer houses give way to corrugated steel shanties and dogs roam the rambling dirt roads. Students attend here from 3rd to 8th grade. The school is constantly freezing, as many window panes are broken or missing and the walls and roof provide little insulation. The hallways are unheated, and there is a wood stove in each classroom, but sometimes they are left neglected. I am getting used to wearing several layers with a jacket and long socks to school every day. I am told that the students are sick practically all winter.

There is currently no English teacher at my school, so a teacher who happens to speak English is taking over the classes so that I can complete my two weeks of observation. He teaches about 360 students a week, and class sizes are usually around 40 students. The teachers make little effort to learn students´names, but I can´t blame them as they see so many different faces every day. The students don´t speak a lick of English, so I have my work cut out for me. We can´t plan my schedule until the real English teacher arrives, which always seems to be mañana, so for now I just watch the classes and try to stay warm. Many of the students come from broken families, and discipline problems are huge in 7th and 8th grade classes. Chilean teachers seem pretty uninterested in classroom management. They usually just give up when class starts to get crazy.

A big plus is that the students are genuinely interested in me. The most frequent question they ask is whether on not I witnessed the World Trade Center bombing. September 11 is the date of the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, so it is a somber memory for Chileans as well.

I am looking forward to starting real work with these students and moving into my own "English Only" classroom. I mostly hope I can provide them with a fun experience and safe space to look forward to each day. If they learn a little bit of English, all the better.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Patagonian Warmth

As I am finally sitting down to post in my blog, Paloma (my host sister) comes running into the room to show me pictures of her baby Nacho. Then Ernesto (host dad) enters with beautiful silver bits and spurs used by Chilean huasos. They are crowded around, enthusiastically sharing with me and including me in their life. Although Coyhaique is cold and rapidly getting colder, the people are nothing but warm. Sunday evening I was presented with candies and homemade cookies from the Easter Bunny, who hasn´t visited me in years! I have also learned how to make delicious cheese empanadas and tasted homemade chicha, a traditional fermented grape drink. And so, as I maintain the wood stove and shop for long underwear, I can feel comfort in the relationships I am forging with these wonderful people.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


I have finally arrived at 49 degrees south of the equator. I can say with certainty that it is the most beautiful and wildest land I have ever seen. The flight from Santiago to Coyhaique along the spine of the Andes was spectacular. The Lakes Region is dotted with massive volcanoes and beautiful blue lakes. South of Puerto Montt, the mountains rise directly out of the ocean, and glaciers pour down their crevasses and ravines like Elmer´s Glue frozen in time. Here in Coyhaique, I truly feel at the mercy of mother nature. Everything is heated by wood stove - even the ovens in which they cook. My family works in the country, harvesting grain and chopping firewood. In the winter they hunt and export the meat to make money. The town is surrounded by mountains, rivers, waterfalls.... complete wilderness in every direction. At night the wind howls and sometimes the ground literally shakes... there is a volcano about 80km away that has been causing tremors since January.

I am humbled by the power of nature and the way of life down here. Everybody works so hard to survive. The school where I will be teaching is called Escuela Victor Domingo Silva. Most of the students there come from very poor families and will start working full time after the eighth grade. I wonder how I will motivate them to learn English. I also wonder how pertinent it is to their lifestyles. They look up at me with curious eyes and big smiles and say, "Tia, tia! Como se llama?" Some of the more intrepid ones say "Good morning!" As the reality of the working conditions and resources available at the school sets in, I realize that this will be the biggest challenge of my life.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Open Doors, Open Arms

I am continually blown away by the kindness and appreciation the Chilean people shower us with. From the man at the tiny lavanderia, who said "God bless you" to me when I picked up my clothes, to the people on the bus who helped us get off on the right stop when we thought we were completely lost. On Tuesday night some friends and I were invited into the home of Tania, a girl who is studying video art and works at the hostel. Her family welcomed us with open arms, huge hugs, and big kisses. Her mom stir-fried fresh veggies and chicken for us in a huge wok and it was the best meal I´ve had thus far in Chile. (She was kind enough to make plain veggies for me!) Their house is filled with Tania´s art - paintings, light fixtures, and drawings she has made throughout the years.

Today we were welcomed into two schools. The first school prepared a huge welcoming ceremony for us. Students sang, danced traditional dances, played guitar, and read Pablo Neruda. Many of us got tears in our eyes at times. After the ceremony we were mobbed by kids, signing autographs and posing for photos. They are like the paparazzi with their little camera phones! The second school was home to the winning team of the national debate competition. An initiative of the English Opens Doors Program is to create English debate teams in schools all over Chile. They performed a debate for us today, and the subject was whether cell phones should be banned from school. The arguments were intelligent, eloquent, and convincingly delivered. They were on par with what you might hear in a high school in America, if not better. This school is one of the best in the nation, so their English fluency is not representative of most students in Chile. It is an example of what they are working towards. Nonetheless, these kids were impressive. They are the future leaders of Chile, and they are ready for the job.

It is worth noting that today is National Youth Combatants Day in Chile, so students are taking to the streets all over Santiago. Two students were killed by policemen on this day in 1985, protesting the current regime. Today they will also be directing a lot of energy to TranSantiago, the public transit system which is basically a mess. In attempt to get more people on the subway, many of the bus lines in the central city were shut down, resulting in crazy congestion on the subway. Some people now have to ride a bus, take the subway, and then take another bus to get to work. During rush hour it can take an hour and a half to cross the city, and it ain´t pretty. Since many students take public transit to school, they are protesting these new changes.

Two final notes: You can find me in the above picture, top left corner. Those are all the volunteers after the welcoming at the UN. Secondly, more volunteers are needed for a 6 month program starting in May, so if you are wondering what to do with your life check out the Volunteer Center link to the left!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

La Comida y La Gente (Food and People)

Looking for a wattage converter on a Saturday afternoon turned out to be quite the adventure. I quite literally spoke to 10 people and visited 6 or 7 stores until I found one. Places were either closed or didn´t have one, and sometimes I completely misinterpreted the directions people were giving me. (Chilean Spanish is very difficult to understand.) After an hour of wandering every street in el central, not only did I find myself a converter but a great picture of the Chilean people. Some people went so far as to write things down, draw detailed pictures of plugs and electrical outlets, and walk with me to the corner to point me in the right direction. I felt more like I was in a small town than in a large cosmopolitan area.

I was also able to enter the courtyard of La Moneda, which is like the Chilean equivalent to Capitol Hill. A guard inside took the time to tell me all about Santiago and where to go. The access to the government buildings and officials here is amazing. Last week they held a special screening for us of the movie Machuca, which is about two young boys in Santiago during the time that Allende was overthrown. Not only was it a powerful film, but we were watching it in the basement of La Moneda, the building where many events of the film went down. Imagine watching a controversial film about US politics in the Capitol Building! It gave me the chills. Despite the fact that the mood in the city is jubilant, the memory of Pinochet is very present. Chile is still a country struggling to emerge from a dictatorship, and because the government is so new, it feels possible to create a lot of change. The people here seem to truly believe they can make things better. This is very energizing and refreshing as opposed to the current climate in the US.

And now for the food situation. I have been eating most meals at the hostel because it is free and convenient, but they don´t really understand how to make vegetarian food. I ate about 20 salads this week, with iceberg lettuce, beets, carrots, tomatoes, and sometimes cheese or avocado if I´m lucky. Feeling mal-nourished, I found a vegetarian restaurant while looking for the converter in the central part of the city. They had great fresh juices and a decent menu. I got a burrito with cheese and a meat substitute that I´ve never seen before in the states. I think it was soy, but it was very light in color and chewy. Could have been wheat gluten. They also served a salsa that was blended with carrots and was very good, and hard salty biscuits to eat with the salsa. The big thing here is empanadas, which are kind of like fried dough with filling. There are endless different kinds to try, a few that don´t have meat, and they are cheap and filling. And the Nescafe rumors are true. Drip coffee is very uncommon, and at coffee breaks we have to spoon our own Nescafe into the cup and mix it with hot water. Nasty. But the big news... Dunkin Donuts is here in Santiago. A good thing or a terrible thing? Is it cultural imperialism at its worst, or are we blessing Santiago with quite possibly the greatest creation from New England in modern times?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Volunteer Mania!

I think it might be useful at this point to back up and describe exactly what it is I am doing here. The Chilean Ministry of Education is working to improve the English competency of Chilean students and teachers, as they believe it is essential to the economic development of Chile. The Ministry of Education, along with the UN, is working with many private agencies in the US to recruit and sponsor volunteers from English speaking countries to help improve speaking and listening skills in the Chilean schools. The program is called English Opens Doors, and it is in its third year of operation. We are the largest group of volunteers to arrive thus far, and we will be distributed throughout 9 of Chile`s 14 regions.

Thus far we have been very warmly welcomed by the members of the ministry, the UN, and school teachers and officials. Yesterday I visited my first Chilean school, an all-girls Catholic technical high school. I don´t think anything really could have prepared me for the reception we received there. The girls went absolutely hysterical for the American and Australian men, following them and screaming and snapping pictures. Some were more bashful and got their friends to take pictures for them. It was truly a surreal experience. I spoke with a 16 year old named Priscilla, whose favorite television show is Lost (apparently it is huge in Santiago) and who loves Orlando Bloom and Leonardo DiCaprio. They all love to sing American music, and seem to have absolutely no fear of singing in front of a big crowd.

Today I visited an all -boys school, and the reaction was much the same, this time for the ladies. After we entered the building, a riot slowly started to brew and boys were sneaking out of classes into the hallways. I even heard a few marriage proposals.

So my impressions of Chile have been very interesting and, er, exciting thus far. I think it will be important to emphasize in my classes that my presence here is as much for me to learn about Chile as it is for them to learn about the US. Although I would be lying if I said I didn´t enjoy the celebrity treatment!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Arrival in Santiago

I have arrived in Santiago for two weeks of training before proceeding to Patagonia. There about 50 or so volunteers here for the training, all heading to different regions in Chile. We are all staying in a hostel, which will certainly get tiresome after two weeks, but it is centrally located and there is a great patio with foosball. The weather in Santiago today is amazing. Warm, sunny, a nice breeze, and not even smog on the horizon. I was amazed at the sheer size of the Andes as my plane descended this morning... row after row of sharp ridges poked up through the clouds. This city seems quite pleasant thus far; a quick stroll around Barrio Brasil revealed colorful building facades and lots of shady trees lining the streets.

I have been assigned to my official area, which is the city of Coyhaique. It contains almost half of the entire population of Region XI, Aisen. The population density in Aisen outside of Coyhaique is roughly one person per square kilometer. I wonder if I will stand out as a gringo?

Friday, March 16, 2007


Well, I had hoped to write something reflective and poetic about the beginning of a new journey, but the last minute stress of packing and organizing has left me devoid of any interesting thoughts. What I will say is that I have been surprised and touched by the interest and support that all of my friends and family have expressed in this endeavor. It means a lot to have the blessings of those at home when you venture into the unknown. I will be thinking about all of you, and I hope this blog will be as exciting and amusing as my travels.