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 maƱana, 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.