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.