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.