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.