All the World’s a Stage … Or at Least Has a Stage

Living near DC, I had a world of cultural opportunities at my fingertips. There’s always some new exhibit or special event at one of the museums. I could easily pop out and try a new dish at an excellent Ethiopian, Bolivian, or Vietnamese restaurant nearby. The presence of all the world’s embassies enables Washingtonians to travel to far-off lands without even leaving the city.

And then there were the theaters. Washington has dozens of high-quality professional theaters bringing world class shows to the city as well as small, local groups pushing envelopes and bringing affordable theater to the masses. I ushered at four theaters and went to additional shows and programs besides, so I probably watched live theater at least 40 times a year.

Maria Elena is a little bit different. Keeping with the theme from a previous post of things I am grateful for, there IS a theater in town – but as I have mentioned before, you are not going to find Broadway’s latest hits here. However, I try to venture out to whatever shows I am able to get to in and around town.

I have seen a couple of concerts here, but the first remains the most memorable. In addition to a traditional lineup of symphonic hits, a school orchestra busted out some rock hits. This included, to my surprise, Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine … which a student sang IN ENGLISH. I was very impressed. After working with my students on preparing songs for Lollapalenglish, I know how much practice (and guts) it takes to get up in front of a crowd and sing in a foreign language.

I also saw a play in our local theater, which was interesting since, of course, it was performed entirely in Spanish. My Spanish level remains incomplete, but I get the general gist of things. Which worked perfectly because this play was very Shakespearean, both in content (a play-within-a-play dealing with the vices of human nature) and in style, as it used both meter and rhyme. There are many native English speakers that do not understand Shakespeare, so it felt the same as attending a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Some of my favorite shows have been dance performances. Not only is dance beautiful, but it transcends languages. Everyone can enjoy it. Fortunately, Chileans (in my experience) LOVE to dance and are especially proud of their traditional, folkloric dances. This was especially prevalent in September, during the national holiday, but the elementary school also recently put on a grand showcase of traditional dances from all across South America. I hope the dancing never stops!

Another unique experience was attending a Santeferia concert on the beach in Tocopilla, a nearby town. For 12 years, this Chilean group has been bringing “cumbia casera” (house cumbia) to the masses. Quick Wikipedia research tells us that cumbia originated in Colombia (or possibly even Africa) as early as the 1820s, but gained popularity throughout South America with different countries putting their own spin on it. I can’t speak to its current popularity in other countries, but it has definitely experienced a resurgence in Chile. Everyone I talk to says they love cumbia and love going out to dance to cumbia.

The energy of the fans at the Santaferia concert certainly confirms that – everyone was dancing and singing along (except for me and my fellow gringas for obvious reasons) as flags and balloons flew through the crowd. Despite not knowing the words, I enjoyed myself immensely. I’ve even started to listen to some of Santeferia’s music at home. 🙂

Before coming here, I was nervous about what I was going to do for fun. Especially in a small town. But I am not nervous anymore. You don’t have to know the lyrics to appreciate a good song. You don’t have to understand the script to appreciate a play. You don’t have to know the culture and history of a dance to appreciate its beauty. Yeah, I don’t understand everything that is said around me, but I get a lot (my Spanish isn’t too terrible, and it improves day by day). It turns out what I have is enough.

Welcome to my Little Corner of the World: The Parents Visit

By the time I decided to park it in the Atacama for a few months, my parents were already booked on a trip through Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. After they finished samba-ing in Rio, eating beef in Buenos Aires, and drinking wine and Mendoza, they flew from Santiago (where their tour ended) up to Antofagasta to come see me.

They rented a car and drove to Maria Elena last week with no idea of what they would experience. The drive through the desert from Antofa (to those in the know) to ME gave them their first taste of the starkness of the desert. You can drive for hours and look around for miles and see nothing but rocks and parched Earth. Mom says she now knows what the apocalypse is going to look like.

They finally made it to my town, but Google Maps hasn’t quite figured out how to get around here so neither could my parents. They called me from the theater in the town square saying they couldn’t find the school. I went right over (fortunately nothing in town is too far of a walk) to collect them and bring them to the high school because they arrived just in time for Lollapalenglish, the English chorus festival.

For the show, each class group was assigned an artist and had to memorize the lyrics and create choreography for four songs, one of which would be a solo. For two evenings, we were treated to their interpretations of Queen, Michael Jackson, Adele, Coldplay, Maroon 5, Bon Jovi and others. Mom (who was incredibly bummed that her favorite group, Matchbox 20, was not represented in the lineup) even got to be a judge with me one of the evenings! The kids were totally brilliant.

For more fun, my parents also came to class with me Thursday (which in this case was a final rehearsal for that evening’s performance) and to the elementary school to see some of the school anniversary events. Between all the special events, it was EXTRA chaotic at both schools last week so hopefully they are not going home thinking that school in Chile is absolute insanity when really it is usually just medium insanity. But I was really happy to share my schools with both of them, especially Mom since she was a teacher.

In addition to school events, I walked them around town so they would see where I live. We went out to a restaurant, popped into my host mom’s shop in the “mall,” and dad went to the town museum. He even got a guided tour in English, which I didn’t even know was an option!

Of course, my real folks also got to meet my host folks, which was kind of a surreal experience for me. Honestly, the whole thing was a little surreal – it was like seeing a giraffe walk through a shopping mall. But we had a good time – we cooked some BBQ chicken with Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce and even made some grilled cheese! And I think my parents feel better about what I am doing and where I am now that they have gotten a chance to see and experience it. Although I don’t think they approve of late-night meat eating, which they got a taste of during evening tea… where we ate hamburgers at 10:30 at night.

My parents will be here for another few days, and we have already squeezed in a trip to San Pedro de Atacama and will be heading to Iquique for the weekend (which is why I missed posting last week, but I will squeeze in an extra post this week and I’ll be sure to blog about our road trips!)

Appreciating the Small Things #Gratitude

Ok so I know that the title is like the WORST kind of typical millennial white-girl blabber, but hear me out. I have been thinking a lot about the little differences in my daily life here in Maria Elena and my life at home in the U.S. And you know what? I take a lot for granted!

For example, in Maria Elena we frequently lose power. Sometimes for just a little bit, sometimes for a whole day, but I would say it’s an on-average once-a-week experience that we go some amount of time without electricity. This, however, is preferred to when the water is shut off, which also happens (although fortunately less frequently). At first, I was like, WTF is this, yo? How am I supposed to be expected to go even an hour without electricity?

But you know what? I don’t have internet at home anyway, so it is not like I am suddenly cut off from sitting on my computer aimlessly surfing the corners of the web. We have TVs in the house, but I do not usually watch much TV anyway. We don’t have, nor need, AC or heat. I have my two feet, and I can go for a walk. I keep my phone and my Kindle charged so that I can listen to podcasts or read. And there’s definitely plenty of daylight in this land of endless sun to read by. The power will come back soon.

There are also plenty of little conveniences that are standard in American life that I don’t have here. In addition to the aforementioned lack of heat/AC, we don’t have a clothes dryer, a garbage disposal, or a dishwasher. No matter what I do, I cannot get stable water temperature or pressure in my shower (I have always believed that showers is where the U.S. really excels compared to other countries). I cannot flush toilet paper down the toilet.

But hey, at least I have a toilet and a shower! At least I have a clothes washer, and don’t have to wash my clothes by hand. And the dry desert air is pretty effective at drying clothes you hang up. And given my extremely limited ability with cooking, I have become the house’s dishwasher as my contribution to mealtimes. It turns out you can get by without all those things.

Another major convenience I am doing without is a car. A car is freedom, a right of passage. At home, everyone has a car; in my family we have five cars for four people (which sounds a little insane). Here I am in this tiny town and I have no way of leaving or getting anywhere else without taking a bus or relying on others. I am an independent woman coming from an independent culture where we all go where we want when we want to. But in doing so, we end up constantly focusing on doing things solo and lose a little bit the value of sharing with or having to rely on others.

Because in the end all those little conveniences and all the stuff (read: crap) we collect are not that important. As long as you are healthy (and can travel!) and have people in your life that you care about and that care about you, you´ll be fine.

Dieciocho: More than Just a Date

Last week was the big national holiday of Chile. Whether you call it dieciocho or fiestas patrias, September 18 is essentially Independence Day. In the U.S. we get a measly one day off to celebrate July 4. Chileans get at least three days, although schools were out all week (yay for me!), and celebrations commenced a full week in advance of the actual 18th.  I was fortunate enough to attend celebrations in both Maria Elena (with the school, my host family, and the town) and to visit a friend and her family in Antofagasta for a few days. Here’s what I learned dieciocho is all about:

  • Copious consumption: Chileans seem to eat as many national delicacies as they can during the week-long celebration. This of course includes the mountains of meat at asados, but also anticuchos (shish kebabs), Chilean salad, mote con huesillo, and empanadas #alldayeveryday. All of this is chased with a terremoto (a mix of sweet wine, pineapple ice cream, and grenadine) or some chicha. It feels like the all-you-can-eat special that Americans pull off every Thanksgiving… but on Bill Murray-style Groundhog Day repeat.
  • Celebratory events: For a whole week, there is always something going on. Carnivals (ramadas) take over parts of the city, with rides, arcade games, crafts, performances, and food galore available at all hours of the day. Multiple parades take place, including military parades and school parades (which I got to walk in with my schools).
  • Cueca dancing: The national dance can break out at any moment at any kind of gathering, whether at a parade, ramada, low-key family get together…or the middle of English class. What I love about cueca is that everyone is welcome to join in and add their own personal flair to the costumes, the use of the pañuelo (handkerchief), and the jaunty zapateo step.
  • (Compulsory) nationalism: During dieciocho you will see the Chilean flag everywhere – flying from every house, building, and even most of the cars. Turns out the complete saturation of flags is because the law states that you must fly the Chilean flag from your home or residence on the holiday.
  • Chilling with the fam: Ultimately the holiday provides the perfect opportunity for Chileans living up and down this long, skinny country to visit home and attend the festivals, parades, and parties with their loved ones. Although it made me miss home (and sad I won’t be home for Thanksgiving this year) I am so fortunate that I got to spend parts of the holiday with two lovely families that welcomed me in so graciously.

I also took advantage of the full week off to get myself all the way up to Arica, near the Chile-Peru border. I got to take in El Morro, sight of a famous battle that led to the port city changing hands (as described in a previous post), see the world’s oldest mummies (the Chinchorro mummies of the Atacama are about 2,000 years older than their Egyptian counterparts), eat lots of yummy ice cream and Italian food, and take my first bike ride in probably…fifteen years. A fellow volunteer and I biked about 12 miles round trip along the Pacific Ocean to see some caves near Arica.

I had a wonderful time exploring more of the north, and it was nice to hit the road again. But I have to admit, after the bustle of the city and two not very restful overnight bus rides it was nice to come back to home sweet Maria Elena.

Transition to Travel: One Girl’s Story

Moving abroad or traveling long term has been something I have thought about for a long time. When I graduated from undergrad, I was going to move to London and do temporary work… but the UK cancelled that visa program just before I graduated.  Fortunately, I soon heard about a graduate program where I could spend ten months living in Italy AND walk away with a Master’s Degree. I ended up doing that program and it was without a doubt one of the best years and experiences of my life.

When I finished, I toyed around with the idea of teaching English abroad. I looked into different certifications and what types of jobs I could get. I was going to teach in Europe! In Asia! Around the world! I actually pursued it far enough that I was offered a position as a camp counselor for an English summer camp in Italy.

I turned it down.

I turned it down because life got in the way. I got caught up in trying to be more responsible and look more professional. I ended up teaching English, but as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Fairfax County, Virginia. I lived with my parents for a while as I completed that program, worked other jobs, and eventually got hired for my first “real” job as a Public Policy Analyst with the USPS Office of Inspector General.

I had a real salary! I rented an apartment and moved out of my parents’ house and in with roommates. I got my own car insurance…then sold that car… then got a new car and new car insurance. I started paying for my own health insurance and contributing to the federal retirement system. I paid taxes, I paid into the social security system, and even bought a house y’all.

For six years, that was how I lived. I had my house, my family, my friends, my job, and plenty of social activities outside work to keep me busy and happy and healthy. I was the very definition of adulting.

But I kept wondering what if.

What if I had taken the job at that summer camp in Italy? What if I used teaching English (or some other type of work) as a vehicle to travel the world? What if I got the chance to see new things, go new places, and meet new people? Could I have a life of adventure? Would I be more successful? Would I be happier?

There was only one way to find out. So, I figured one day I would go for it. But there were three things holding me back: one very beloved elderly dog that I did not want to leave behind, a mortgage I had to pay, and a job that tied me to the Northern Virginia area.

Well a year ago today, my beloved dog passed away. Literally a few weeks later, I received a letter saying people were interested in buying in my condo building. The real estate agent who said to call or email him if I would consider selling. I thought: What kind of nonsense was this? Does anyone answer these letters? I threw it in the trash. But it nagged at me – what if?

What if someone wanted to buy it at a good price? I pulled the letter out of the trash, and emailed the agent. We met and discussed what my “make me move price” would be. The second couple he brought to see my condo offered me that price.

What if that was a sign? I am not usually someone that believes in signs, but the timing of everything sure was adding up. At the same time, I was feeling ready to leave my job. I had been doing essentially the same thing for six years and no longer felt like I was growing. I wanted new challenges. I also don’t have a husband or kids complicating my life, and my parents are in good health and don’t need any extra care. I had some money saved up to provide a bit of a buffer while galivanting around if I needed it.

I decided to start looking for different opportunities. After hours of online research thinking about the things I could do and the places I could go, I decided I wanted to teach English in a Spanish-speaking country and found a program that I was interested in: the English Opens Doors Program in Chile. It was the first thing I applied to, and I got it.

Signs, man. It was like the universe was hitting me upside the head Gibbs-style with them (NCIS fans, anyone?) Six months after my plan was set in active motion, I had my teaching program lined up, my house sold, and was about to give notice at my job (I decided on leaving outright rather than taking a leave without pay situation because, mentally, I wanted the clean break).

Are things perfect? No. Am I happier than I was before? Some days. Some days I miss home too much to think about all the cool things I am doing and exciting opportunities I have. Am I learning new things? Definitely. Am I being challenged? Daily. Do I have any regrets?

Not a single one.

I find teaching very difficult. Lesson planning and trying to get students motivated about speaking English is a challenge every day. My fifth-grade classes are more zoo-like some days, and classroom management is a constant test of my patience. But every week gets a little easier.

I get by with a little help from my friends. The teachers I work with are extremely supportive and give me whatever supplies and assistance I need. They also invite me out to parties, events, and trips around the crazy Chilean desert. My host family has been wonderfully welcoming too, going above and beyond to feed me delicious meals and make sure I am included in conversation. And every week my Spanish gets a little better.

Making the transition to travel was scary, but once I decided to go for it, doors started opening. I took advantage of things that fell into my lap (or mailbox, as it were) and turned my research into action. I was surrounded by supportive people who encouraged my daringness. My mom was not a fan of the idea at first, but I think demonstrating that I had a plan that I was committed to not only eased some of her concerns but made me more confident in my own choices.

I was afraid, too. It is not easy to leave a stable, well-paying job for something that could potentially look problematic on a resume… but things have a way of working out. This path of not only world exploration, but also self-exploration and growth has been unbelievable. I am so glad that I made the leap and I can’t wait to see where I end up next! For now, Chao from Maria Elena.

La Ultima Salitrera: A History of Maria Elena

Maria Elena was created in 1926, which was toward the end of the saltpeter boom that largely happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town is named for Mary Ellen, the wife of the Englishman who was the first administrator of the mine here, although it also went by the name Coya Norte – a sister city to the nearby Coya Sur. In keeping with its English namesake, the town layout resembles (at least, it is supposed to resemble) the Union Jack. The proudly call it “la ultima salitre” – the last salpeter. It is the last of the mining towns of its kind. In the world.

You can somewhat see the Union Jack impression in this book cover

Currently, about 4,500 or so people live here and it is the county seat of the surrounding area. In many ways, Maria Elena is a normal town. There is a mayor and a main square, which like every main square in Chile is called the “Plaza de Armas.” Around the square you will find the church and a town museum, which used to be the town school until around the 1990s when the current high school and elementary school opened up. Fortunately for me, there is a theater in town! Touring bands and production companies bring concerts and plays here. While I certainly won’t be catching Broadway’s latest hits here, the prices are always better than Broadway: free.

But there is also something very unique/strange about Maria Elena. The town is completely owned by SQM, the state-owned chemical and mining company. This is why the museum and shows at the theater are free: the company subsidizes them. The company sponsors cultural events, parties, recycling initiatives, and more around town. You cannot buy or rent property here, it is allocated to you by the company. The employees high up in the ranks at the mines live in what are called “chalets” that are all grouped on one side of town. In addition to their regular salaries, the teachers all live rent-free in housing near the school. The company even covers utilities.

It’s a good deal to live in a tranquil place – even if it is the middle of nowhere.

Although the population is steadily dwindling (the population is less than half of what it was 20 years ago), Maria Elena is positioning itself for the future. No one knows how much longer saltpeter mining will last. The good news is that copper deposits have more recently been discovered not too far away, near what was once Pedro de Valdivia. In an effort to become more environmentally sustainable, this land that is blessed with 365 days of sunshine per year is being increasingly covered with solar panels and thermosolar plants. And Maria Elena is something of a tourist outpost, albeit rather niche, for those that want to come and learn about the mining way of life out here in the desert.

Got Any Lip Balm? The Realities of Desert Life

Although my home is lush, and green, and beautiful I cannot say we are blessed with particularly perfect weather. Northern Virginia has lovingly been described as swampy on more than one occasion. In the summer, you leave the house in the middle of the day and you are lucky to last more than five minutes before melting into a puddle of sweat. The humidity makes the hot hotter and the cold colder.

The weather here is almost perfect. At least so far. Currently it is winter, although it seems like we change seasons during the course of a day. When I wake up, it is difficult to get out of my bed and into the chilly air. It is usually in the 50s, although I think it feels colder, so I wear my gloves and a wool hat in the morning on my walk to school.

By midday, I am shedding my zip up and rolling up my sleeves because summer has arrived. It is 80 degrees and sunny (it is always perfectly sunny), and I have to make sure I have my ballcap and sunglasses ready for action. Come November, when it is summer in the desert and the heat becomes more intense I might be singing a different tune. But right now, when the locals complain about it being so hot all I can do is laugh as I remember my beloved humid home.

But moving to one of the driest spots on earth has had its unexpected challenges. My poor sensitive skin is adamantly opposed to my new location. The locals take one look at my pale gringa skin and immediately inform me “necesitas mucho bloqueador” … “you need a lot of sunscreen.”

I should also probably be bathing in lotion considering how dry my skin has become. My lips protest the arid desert air on the daily. They are constantly chapped and flaking, despite the seemingly endless amounts of lip balm I use. I have suffered more than one nosebleed during my time here, and am anxiously awaiting more. But that is how it goes in a place where it never rains. In fact, one of the teachers told me that it rained once, like two years ago, and they had to close the school for ten days.


Like Iceland (I bet you didn’t see THAT comparison coming), there are few trees around to block the breezes so the wind can get pretty wild as well. The combination of sun and wind creates quite the pleasant atmosphere, and I enjoy relaxing outside. I can often be found sitting on the front porch enjoying the fresh air, listening to the wind, and watching whatever neighbors and wildlife come and go. I am visited by many birds and I am trying to befriend a lizard that hangs around, although the most common animal I have seen around here are stray dogs (stray dogs that must love to party all night long, as they are always barking). With a cup of tea in hand, I will sit and listen to podcasts, read… or write my blog posts. Here’s to many more!