It’s Like Coming Home

Just as a new year was dawning, I got myself on a flight back to Chile. And I was confronted immediately with this weird sensation. For me home has usually meant being with my biological family – and it has always meant Virginia. Home is a place that makes me happy and is where I feel comfortable. I am always sad to leave home and excited to return to it. So as you can imagine, I felt quite a conflict of emotion when I was both leaving home AND coming home at the same time.

Because regardless of the fact that I have not mastered the language and there are plenty of things about life here that baffle and frustrate me, Chile has become home as well. Part of that is because I feel like I have come to intimately know Chile. That relationship only grows as I learn more about Chile’s geography, history, current events, writers, musicians, food, dances… all the culture that makes Chile, well, Chile.

But of course, the largest part of feeling at home is the people. I spent the first few days of my return hanging out with friends in Quilpue, exploring Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. I got to stay in their family’s home and engorge myself on homecooked meals that were entirely too delicious (including finally FINALLY eating pastel de choclo). I spent four days hanging with the fam – and I mean the ENTIRE fam, because its parents and grandparents and kids and nieces and nephews and uncles and aunts all hanging out with each other. I feel so strange not knowing when… or if… I might see them again.

Es asi cuando dejas tu corazon por todos lados. I have travelled many places in my life, and I am fortunate that I have been able to spend solid chunks of time in a few places. Pieces of my heart are scattered around this world. My heart is rooted in Alexandria, but Florence will always have a big piece of it. I definitely left some behind in London. And now Chile has staked its claim. Home is where the heart is, after all. And it feels good to be back.

From Chile to Chilly: Home for the Holidays

Happy New Year everyone! When I set out on my journey last July, I was not sure if I would be coming home for Christmas and New Year’s. But with the magic of airline points, I managed to score round-trip flights to DC from Santiago for $50 – money well-spent to avoid the inconsolable homesickness that inevitably would have been Christmas Day alone in South America.

Being at home was certainly full of its own emotions as well, not the least of which was trying not to vomit as we began to watch our 20th sappy Hallmark movie channel Christmas movie. It is so wonderful seeing all my friends and family again, and I have always loved and will always love DC and Northern Virginia. Fortunately while I was here I was able to squeeze in some nice holiday traditions and go to some of my favorite places. I went to the holiday pop up bar Miracle on Seventh Street, which as become an annual tradition, hit up the local wineries with mom, and ate nachos at Murphy’s. But I about cried when I turned onto King Street in Alexandria and was hit with an overwhelming feeling of “you don’t live here anymore.”

The thought of coming back home is certainly appealing, and I was reminded of everything I take for granted when I am here. There is much about home that I missed while I was away, not the least of which is waffles, dishwashers, dryers, and being able to flush toilet paper. But Alexandria has been around for 250 years – it’ll be here when I decide to come back. The time at home afforded me plenty of opportunity to think about the year that was and prepare for the year ahead.

2018 was a big year for me. I lost my job, became homeless, and had to leave the country. Well, not quite. I am fortunate enough to be in a situation that allows me to live my dreams (and, in a fun fact that seems to surprise everyone, extremely capable of saving money and planning ahead to do so). I may not know exactly where I am headed, but I know I am not there yet. Although I may not have arrived at the finish line, the sense of accomplishment I feel in actually doing something I have thought about for seven years has already been such a great experience. Plus I am having fun and seeing so many new places and things. PLUS I might be able to pull off this whole learning-Spanish thing after all.

In 2019, I have very few firm plans – and I like it that way. The feeling of freedom and opportunity that I have right now is truly remarkable, and something that I have never really felt before. I am having so much fun coming up with ideas of what to do with my nomadic life. My general plan is that I want to spend the first half of the year in South America, traveling to new places and working on improving my Spanish. I would like to spend at least a month at home in the summer, and then the second half of the year should see me in Asia visiting friends in Malaysia and Korea (and finally crossing Southeast Asia off the bucket list).

But who knows?!? Everything could change. I look forward to seeing what it brings – for me and you. Happy New Year!

A Song of Ice and Fire: Traveling Tierra del Fuego

Wow, so it has been a bit since I posted! I have been so busy traveling (in Chile and at home) and visiting friends that this is the first time I have really had to sit down and reflect on things. Here we go.

As you know, on November 23, I left Maria Elena and flew away from desert life on my way to Punta Arenas: the gateway to Patagonia. My parents met me there a few days later and we roamed around this ice-filled land of fire for two weeks. I feel like we only got a little taste of this wild landscape at the end of the world, but we did explore parts of Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. But don’t worry, I’m not going to sing a song about it.

I had the pleasure of spending a few days cruising through these remote southern landscapes that few people on Earth venture to see – all from the luxury of my stateroom (and with an open bar!) We spent most of the time touring Chilean Patagonia, with its fjords around Tierra del Fuego and islands covered with dramatic mountains and glaciers including the famous Cape Horn. (On a side note, Cape Horn is called Cabo de Hornos in Spanish, a play on its English name rather than a translation to Cabo de Cuerno. This is funny because horno means oven in Spanish, which led to a few baking jokes during the Spanish-language on-board lecture I attended. You take your laughs where you can get them).

Further north, Chile has the famous Torres del Paine National Park which has got to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, which is why thousands of people come to spend five or more days hiking the W or O routes around through the park and around the towers. Now I am no hiker, but it was just as delightful driving around the park and doing a few short hikes. Although the weather is not anyone’s definition of the best, the fierce winds and frequent rains create a landscape full of jagged granite mountains and lush green countryside. It is so reminiscent of the Alpine countryside that you could easily forget you are in South America and think you are taking a drive through Switzerland.

I also got to make my first foray into Argentina, which has been high on my list of places to visit for a long time. While I was less than thrilled with the overly self-important attitude that every Argentinian we encountered seemed to possess (and their Spanish accent is whack), I did get to experience a totally different side of Patagonia. Flying into El Calafate looked more like flying into Maria Elena than Punta Arenas, a stark reminder that most of Patagonia is desert. However unlike the Atacama, there are very many beautiful lakes and giant glaciers – one of which I even got to walk on! Fortunately, there were no white walker sightings.

And while I liked Ushuaia more than Punta Arenas (although far more touristy, Ushuaia boasts more dramatic scenery, less litter, and it’s cheaper), the Patagonian experience provided by my semi-adoptive country was a little bit more spectacular than its Argentine equivalent. I would happily however return to both, and likely will if I get to fulfill my dream of getting to Antarctica. I’ll be leaving for South America (first Chile, then Argentina, then ???) on New Year’s Day, and you can bet I’m packing my list of New Year’s resolutions with “go to Antarctica” right there on the top.

Teaching English Abroad: Should You Do It?

Teaching English abroad sounds like the best idea in the world. You can get paid to travel just by doing something you already know how to do: speak English. Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

Well, it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is.

I want to examine that phrase “get paid to travel just by doing something you already know how to do” because it is a little off-base. First of all, many programs are volunteer based, including the one I am doing. My program provides room and board, but I am not getting paid for this. Many programs, of course, do pay but from what I have heard and read sometimes the pay is barely sufficient to cover expenses. How much you get paid depends very much on where you work and what type of students you work with. I would expect the best-paying gigs are with business clients in Asia. I would also expect those to be very competitive, although I know nothing about this world from my own personal experience. My takeaway would be: don’t do this for the money.

Second, you wouldn’t be getting paid to travel. You get paid to work. Depending on what you sign up for, a lot of these positions are full time jobs. Teaching and planning take a lot of time. I am constantly searching for new games or songs or activities for class and thinking about what I could do better. I have also been placed in a small town that is not well-connected to other places: travelling is difficult. You could choose to work in a larger, more well-connected place than where I ended up. Either way, you will have the experience of living in a different country and really getting to know a place more intimately which is, in my opinion, TOTALLY WORTH IT. However, if you have dreams of being on a constant vacation, then try something else.

Third, unless you are already an ESL teacher, odds are you do not already know how to teach English. It is very different from speaking English. You probably take for granted how English operates, but could you explain it? Would you know the answer if a student asked you why you say “the big red truck” and not “the red big truck” (I still do not know the answer to this question, but there is an order of adjectives that just comes naturally to native speakers) or why the ‘gh’ in enough is pronounced like an ‘f’ but the ‘gh’ in ghost is pronounced like a ‘g’? How would you explain the rules of charades to a group of students that are just learning English? How many times do you think you could repeat a word before the repetition drove you crazy? And then there is classroom management. I have yet to figure out how to effectively teach students who are either completely uninterested in learning English or who might be mildly interested in English but are much more interested in rolling on the floor during class than paying attention.

In addition, there are plenty of other things to think about. Odds are the school in your country of choice is going to be very different from school at home. For me, a lot of this comes in the schedule. The schools I taught at in Chile schools operate on a siesta schedule, with an afternoon break every day. I would much rather push through and finish the day, then be able to relax after everything is done. Also, I find the schedule to be too chaotic for me. Classes are constantly cancelled (or cancelled, then uncancelled).

Also, many people living abroad experience strong feelings of loneliness or homesickness, especially if you are not fluent in the local language. Would you be able to cope with that?  Likely, there will be a whole variety of other things that are so different from home and make your daily life just a tad more challenging. Culture shock is real, and dealing with it can really be hard sometimes.

Have I enjoyed my experience? Not entirely. Am I glad I did it? Definitely. Would I teach English again somewhere else? It depends. I do not think I would do a program similar to what I have already done, but if the right situation arose I would consider it. For me, that means working with students that have a higher level of English and are interested in learning (rather than obligated to do so). Next month I will be participating in my program’s English summer camps, and I will be sure to share my thoughts on that. I would consider trying teaching online or living in a city and working with university students or business clients. However, other volunteers have loved this experience and there are quite a few people who sign up to volunteer with my program for one semester and end up extending their service for a second semester.

So, should you do it? I can’t answer that for you – you’ll need to decide for yourself what works and does not work for you. But if you think teaching abroad could be for you, the English Opens Doors Program in Chile is a wonderful option to look into.

Bye Felicia: A Final Farewell to Maria Elena

When I was first given my location assignment for where I was going to teach, I immediately hit up the Google to see where I would be. Upon seeing the images of a tiny, not particularly attractive town surrounded by nothing but dirt my first thoughts were “What the f*ck am I going to there.” I don’t think anyone dreams of being dropped off in the middle of the desert in a place where hardly anyone speaks your language. But it ended up being a pretty good thing.

Maria Elena may not photograph well, but she has a beautiful heart.

It is a pretty classic small town. In fact, it reminds me a little bit (a LITTLE bit) of Stars Hollow, the small Connecticut town from my favorite TV show of all time: Gilmore Girls. It’s fairly clean, about as clean as anything can be with all the dirt blowing around out here. There isn’t a lot of graffiti or much crime. People say hello to each other in the street or in the square, and do their shopping at small local markets. And quite a few interesting characters populate the town (maybe no one quite like Kirk, but who is). It has been called an ideal place to grow up, and most of my students tell me that they enjoy living here.

And just like Stars Hollow was known for having a town festival about every week, so too do the people of Maria Elena celebrate everything from national holidays to school anniversaries. My last week in town, the city was celebrating its anniversary. There were multiple concerts, shows, competitions, and even a special parade to mark the occasion. My leaving was also cause for a few class-time surprise parties that the kids threw for me. While teaching was definitely a struggle for me, the kids were super sweet and respectful and I am going to miss having fun with them.

I will also miss my host parents and the friends I made along the way. My last weekend in the Great Dry North, a bunch of us went to the beach to hang out and enjoy the change of scenery. We spent the time relaxing by the waves, going for chilly yet refreshing swims in the Pacific (I think my first time actually swimming in the Pacific), and hanging out listening to music. And barbequing, of course. I couldn’t have asked for a better last weekend here.

I spent the last few days enjoying the anniversary activities in town, saying goodbye to friends and students, and spending time with my host mom. I doubt it will be goodbye forever – especially since I will be back in Chile in January. I am looking forward to exploring new places with old friends.

Can You Paint With All the Colors of the Desert

I am about to leave the desert, and I have to admit that I am pretty okay with that. Desert life works for thousands of pampinos and sun-worshipers, but I don’t think it is for me. I need plants, trees, grass, and WATER. Being surrounded by a vast ocean of brown composed of dirt and rock is not for me. And though I’ve managed to avoid any serious burns in my time here, I could do without constantly worrying about how to protect my skin from the extra-powerful UV rays here. Not to mention making sure I pack lip balm, bottles of water, and a cardigan or scarf (for chilly mornings and evenings). I basically have to carry around a suitcase every day.

But there have been some moments where I am truly blown away by the otherworldly beauty and truly mindboggling diversity in the desert landscape. There’s sandy desert, near Iquique. There’s higher altitude desert with some low vegetation – the kind of desert near San Pedro de Atacama. Right around Maria Elena, there is the parched earth nothing-but-brown desert, which is unfortunately my least favorite type of desert. There is even a forest in the middle of the desert that pops out of nowhere, at the Tamarugal National Reserve.

There are parts of the desert where it rains or even snows. One of my first weekends here, I saw it snow and hail up in the high desert near Calama, and that was certainly wild. Turns out, it isn’t just scorching sun beating down all day, as one might imagine. It can be super chilly and is often quite windy. That wind creates one of the most exciting things to see in the desert (other than all the abandoned towns and the “river”), which are the dust devils. Sometimes you can look into the distance and see multiple dust devils rising up into the air like columns of smoke.

Pocahontas famously sang about the colors of the wind, and I find that upon closer inspection I could sing a song about the colors in the desert. It’s more than just brown!! (Also, do you know how many shades of brown there are? I do.) There is gray, and black, and red, and green. Driving through the high desert near San Pedro de Atacama reminded me of driving through the painted desert in Arizona/New Mexico – where all the colors are soft and muted.

The desert is most beautiful in the evenings and at night. As the sun goes down, the colors really start to get dramatic as yellow, orange, pink, and purple enter the mix. As the light leaves the sky, it’s hard not to have your breath taken away by the eerie moonlit landscape, shadows of mountains looming in the distance. When I first arrived to Maria Elena, crossing the mountains from Tocopilla, it was dark and foggy and so ominous feeling. I’ll never forget it, and don’t think I could ever get used to it.

And as I have mentioned before, with nary a cloud in view, the Atacama desert is famous for it’s clear night-sky viewing. It is amazing how many stars you can see. The vastness of it all can make you feel so small. Life in the desert has certainly been one of peace and tranquility. But I do miss the lights, noise, and activity of bigger cities. While such a quiet…deserted… place can be nice for a vacation, I am constantly reminded that I am definitely a city girl.

Well this city girl leaves Maria Elena at the end of the week to fly first to Santiago and then TWO WEEKS in Patagonia. I’ll prepare a couple posts for the coming weeks, and then next you’ll hear from me will be when I’m back in the States for Christmas. See you then 🙂

 

I Feel the Earth Move Under my Feet: Earthquakes and Such

If you know anything about Chile you have probably heard about: the 33 Chilean miners that were trapped after a cave-in (and subsequent movie detailing this drama), Chilean sea bass (which is just a marketing gimmick and not actually a thing), and the number of earthquakes this country experiences. In fact, the largest earthquake EVER recorded is the 1960 Valdivia earthquake with a magnitude of about 9.5. In comparison, the 2011 Virginia earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument (and upended patio chairs everywhere) was a 5.8.

Scenes from Virginia's 2011 Quake

And when I say lots of earthquakes, I mean pretty much every day somewhere in Chile you can feel an earthquake. It is such a (beloved?) part of their culture that they even have a drink named after these famous terremotos: a sickeningly sweet blend of dessert wine, ice cream, and grenadine that will cause you to stumble around like the earth is moving underneath you. Pretty much every Chilean drinks this classic cocktail all September long during the celebration of fiestas patrias.

I actually felt my first earthquake in my first week here in Maria Elena. I remember it was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting on my bed relaxing when I felt a noticeable shudder. My host father, when asking me later if I felt it, said “Bienvenidos a Chile!”

Since then, I have felt a few quivers and quakes and on Halloween night there was one big enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. But fortunately, I have not experienced one that resulted in any major injuries or property damage. A previous volunteer here was not so lucky. In 2007, my host family hosted their first English Opens Doors Program volunteer (I am their third). That is the year of the big Maria Elena earthquake.

Although from what I have heard there were not any deaths here in Maria Elena, much of the town was leveled and it took quite a while to rebuild. My host family talks about how frightening it was, and you can still see signs of the damage. I live in the “chalets” on the edge of town, single family homes that are allocated to bosses over at the mining company. Many of them are boarded up and abandoned. I assumed this was because there were fewer people living in town overall as saltpeter mining continues to wane in importance. But no. These houses were damaged during the earthquake and never got repaired.

Again, I am lucky. The biggest inconvenience I have experienced due to an earthquake is the cancelling of a tour. Over the long weekend November 1-4, I went to Iquique and signed up for a tour on November 2 to go out and visit the red lakes. On the evening of November 1, an earthquake struck near the red lakes area, causing lots of rock and rubble to fall on the road. It was impassible, and we could not go on the tour. Fortunately, the tour company refunded my money with a shrug saying “eso is Chile.”

All was not lost, though. I ended up hanging with two other volunteers from the program (one who lives in Tocopilla and one who is living in Iquique). We ended up going out to Humberstone, Pica, and some thermal baths out in this desert oasis. And of course, barbequed some meat. Although I do not think I will have another chance to visit these red lakes, which is a bummer, it ended up being a lovely time. I wonder what adventures await me next week…