Maria Elena: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

First, I should start off by saying that there really isn´t anything ugly here, but the title seemed to fit with the western desert town theme they’ve got going on in Maria Elena.

I have been in Maria Elena for about a week now as I am writing this, and there has been a lot to adjust to. When I decided to do the English Opens Doors Program, I wanted a placement in the north both because it is warmer here now than in the south but also because I wanted something different. And boy, is it different.

At home, in Alexandria, Virginia, I live in a quaint colonial town on the Potomac River. I am right near Washington DC, which is not a gigantic city by any means but it has plenty to do. There are shows to see, new restaurants to try, neighborhoods to wander around, and museums to visit. My parents live on a lake not too far from DC, and I am used to driving around the lush green Virginia countryside.

Here, there is nothing but desert. The desert is a stark, brown, other-worldly place. There is hardly anything growing here but some scraggly trees in town that require a lot of work to maintain. There IS a river that runs through the desert (Rio Loa, which is actually the longest river in Chile), but from what I have seen of it, it is barely a stream.

With a population of a few thousand, it’s probably the smallest and most isolated place I have ever been. There are a few other hamlets out in the middle of the desert, but to get anywhere with a movie theater or mall you have to drive over an hour. However, it has everything you really need, and I think I will find myself enjoying the good Maria Elena has to offer over the next four months:

  • The sky is phenomenal. With almost no light pollution and few buildings to block your view, sunsets in the desert are nothing short of spectacular. And when the sun finally dips below the horizon, you are left with the clearest night sky you will ever see. There is a reason that some of the most important observatories in the world are in the Atacama.

desert sky

  • The people are as warm as the midday weather. While even in winter the midday sun will have you sweating, the citizens of Maria Elena provide a comforting warm and fuzzy feeling. I received not one but TWO welcome parties (one at each school), an official welcome from the mayor (who now happily greets me in the streets when he sees me walking), and many of the teachers have gone out of their way to include me in events.

My new life is not without its challenges, though. As someone who is introverted and individualistic, placing a high value on my free time and personal space, being famous in a small town has been a little difficult. As one of the few super-white chicks and native English speakers to come to this town, I stick out. Everyone wants to meet me, hug me, and talk to me. I walk through the halls at school and I am swarmed by kids shouting “Hello, Miss” or “Hola, Profe.”

And that does not even cover attempts to make friends! How do you even make friends as an adult anyway? This is something I struggle with even in my native language, and now I have to awkwardly approach people and ask them IN SPANISH to hang out with me?? Hopefully I can rely on that warmth I mentioned earlier. Oh, what did I sign myself up for…

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