You’re Welcome Here: Chileans are the Perfect Hosts

As we enter the last few weeks of my time in Maria Elena, I am reflecting on what I have enjoyed about my experience here so far. Something I have been very grateful for is that Chileans are THE perfect hosts. I have been constantly impressed by the little ways people check in on me or show that they care. I enjoy being invited to go to lunch, or tea, or an asado and I try to join people for meals as much as possible (but sometimes its just too late on a school night for me – Chileans like to eat late). During fiestas patrias I missed an asado at the school (I was not feeling well – too many empanadas and completos) and multiple people at the school, including the principal, came up to me later to ensure I felt welcome at school events and invite me to the next one.

One of the things I enjoy the most is the constant sharing of food. I love food, and probably anyone who has ever eaten a meal with me knows that I love to try and sample as many things as possible. I would much rather us get two plates to split than I eat my meal and you eat yours. Fortunately for me, a lot food is shared here. Big platters of meat come off the grill at asados, and you can choose whatever you want! At restaurants, often a number of dishes will be ordered and shared family style. And students enjoy sharing their snacks with me, just to see how I will react to the different (and sometimes bizarre – e.g. pickled onions) food.

Since there is not always much to do or see IN town, I am fortunate that some folks here are interested in taking me places nearby. There have been some days where I have nothing to do, so I will just go for a walk. Next thing you know I run into people that I know in town, we start chatting, and before long I have an invitation to tea or to go out for a ride in the desert to see something. A lot of people were born and raised either here in Maria Elena or nearby, and they are so knowledgeable and proud of the surrounding area and eager to share it.

Some people have really gone above and beyond. I am of course living with a host family, and they have taken me in as one of their own, making me feel welcome and comfortable, helping me with anything I need, and introducing me to others around town. For example I mentioned that I liked avocados, so there is always a mountain of avocados available at the house. I have been extremely fortunate to have them, especially my host mom Rosa, as a support system here.

And I was welcomed graciously as a member of the family over the fiestas patrias holidays by my friend Yari’s family in Antofagasta. Everyone is really interested in where I plan to travel after my teaching is up and how they can help me as I go along.

While it is still a struggle to express myself fully and create deep relationships without a full grasp of the language, I can only appreciate the beauty of this culture of sharing. Even if at times I feel like an outsider (because, really, I am an outsider), I also feel welcome and comfortable. As we enter my last few weeks here in Maria Elena, my excitement to start exploring other parts of this country – like Patagonia! – is only increasing.

A Feel for History: Walking with Pinochet

Anyone who knows me knows I love history. It was always my favorite subject in school. I read presidential biographies for fun and The History Chicks is one of my favorite podcasts. For crying out loud, I used to be a volunteer docent at a small historic tavern museum in my quaint colonial town (holler, Gadsby’s Tavern). So, it has been fun for me to explore Chile through its history, and here in the mining lands of the desert you can ride around through these abandoned towns and literally walk through history you guys. It’s super awesome.

One of the more interesting chapters in Chilean history is undoubtedly the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973 and the installation of Pinochet who ruled through a military government until the 90s. I am far from an expert on the man, but Pinochet is widely recognized as a dictator who really enjoyed building the nation’s infrastructure but had a very casual regard for human rights.

But it isn’t black and white. Many hate him and are deeply affected by what are referred to as “the disappearances” – the thousands of intellectuals, political enemies, old people, and other ‘undesirables’ or enemies of the state that vanished during the Pinochet years never to be seen again. It was at this time that the cueca, the national dance I saw performed dozens of times during fiestas patrias, became a form of protest. Traditionally a pair dance, women would dance it alone to highlight their missing partner. It was such an important act during those years that Sting even made a song about it.

Others appreciate what Pinochet did to build the country, including some of the roads that unite the country and allow thousands of people a year to visit Patagonia (as I will be doing in a few weeks, hopefully). Furthermore, I have heard that as long as you didn’t speak out against Pinochet you actually had more freedom under him than under the previous Allende communist regime (which, for example, limited freedom of movement in and out of the country). This side of the debate doesn’t sit too well with me, though. It is too close to saying “well it’s not a problem for me, so it’s not a problem” …

Regardless of your opinion, it is strange to think about how recently all this happened. Pinochet didn’t leave power until after I was born. There are constant reminders and touchpoints of the Pinochet years. I saw it even in my first week in Chile, when I was in Santiago for my program’s training and orientation. Every day we went to our classroom on Calle Londres, and we would see walking tours stopped at the building next door. For some reason, it took a few days for us to investigate further because it appeared to be a normal building. Until I noticed the graffiti that said “aqui torturaron a mi hijo.” Here they tortured my son.

In addition to this prison/torture house in the middle of a modern city, I have also seen literal signs related to Pinochet in the desert. In Pedro de Valdivia, someone left a poster next to someone else’s grave, hot pink and eternally hopeful, begging for information regarding one of the “disappeared.”  Recently, I had the chance to go to a place called Chacabuco a former mining town that closed its gates in the 1940s and became a national heritage site.

In the 1970s, the Pinochet regime turned this heritage site into a concentration camp for men who were predominantly intellectuals and political enemies. The guide informed us that other than one suicide, no prisoners died here. Just your regular torture, I suppose. It was eerie walking around the abandoned towns seeing messages on the wall, both from those who were imprisoned there and those keeping the memory alive.

News and popular culture consistently refer to these years. The news has recently been covering the death of a woman who had spent the majority of her life trying to find her husband, children, daughter-in-law, and unborn grandchild who got caught up in the disappearances as well. People still frequently listen to Victor Jara (rest in peace) and Illapu, some of the bands famous for protesting Pinochet in that time. History is never gone.

To wrap this up with a positive note, while we were wandering around he ruins of Chacabuco my friend Andres asked me if the US has ever had a dictator. Of course, the US is far from a perfect country and has faced very rough times both in the past and at present. While the current states of politics in the US is definitely cause for concern, we have not lived under a violent dictatorship that completely suppresses freedom of speech and creates a culture of fear to the extent that Pinochet did. May it always be that way.

**Para que nadie pierda la memoria porque soy parte de esta historia/ So that no one loses the memory because I am part of this story**

— From the song “Tres Versos para una Historia” by Illapu


The Parents Visit part 2: San Pedro de Atacama and Iquique

So as you might remember, my parents came to visit. In addition to being really great to see them and awesome/weird to share a bit of Maria Elena and my experience here with them, it was also a super great excuse to travel. So I decided for their first weekend here we would see the jewel of the Atacama desert, a place I had already been and really enjoyed: San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA). Fortunately, it was a long weekend so we got bonus time in SPdA.

We all enjoyed the town very much. We explored the church, did some shopping, and might have eaten at the same restaurant three days in a row. We even got the same dessert three times, because Adobe’s Tres Leches Cake is to die for and I fully believe it is meant to be eaten every day. With all that eating, some relaxing was definitely necessary. Fortunately, our hotel had a hammock and a nice view of the volcano that was definitely enjoyed with a glass of vino or two.

Our days were also filled with tours and activities to keep us all plenty busy. The first day we did a full-day tour out to explore the Salar de Atacama: the salt flat with its red rocks, volcanos, high altitude lagoons, vicuña, and flamingos. The landscape is so spectacular it’s a little unreal (but not in the post-apocalyptic kind of unreal that surrounds Maria Elena).

The next day we got up super early to view the geothermal activity at the high altitude El Tatio geyser and I am happy to report that none of us suffered from altitude sickness. We wrapped up our SPdA experience by taking advantage of the clear night skies with a star-viewing tour. We got to learn about dying galaxies and even see the rings of Saturn!! The Atacama Desert has some of the clearest night skies in the world and is home to some giant telescopes and astronomical research institutions, such as ALMA.

The following weekend found us in Iquique, which I had NOT been to yet but I am so happy I finally went. It was easily my favorite city in northern Chile. It’s pretty, it’s clean, and has miles of actually usable beach on the coastline. There are plenty of museums, restaurants, and activities to keep you busy and satisfied. In Iquique I introduced my parents to Chilean sushi, which involves more cream cheese than you would expect (but is actually quite tasty).

We also went to the Corbeta Esmeralda, which was sunk during the Battle of Iquique of the War of the Pacific against Bolivia and Peru. The battle was fought on my favorite day, May 21. It is my birthday, and every city and town has a street and a square named 21 of May, so I feel like I am constantly celebrated. Although the Chileans technically lost that day, the death of Chilean hero Arturo Prat inspired thousands to join the army and really turned the tide in the war (which Chile obviously ended up winning).

It was so good to be travelling around again, and I cannot wait to go to Iquique again (which is looking like it should be next week, since November 1 and 2 are holidays here). And stay tuned for the continuation of the parents’ visit saga, because it looks like they might be coming back to check out Patagonia with me in a few weeks.

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.