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One of my novice crew coaches liked to say that while any cardio is good cross-training, the best is running. ¨There´s nothing quite like running – it´s just so damn efficient.¨ That´s how I feel about living abroad. Anything new makes you grow, but damn, this route sure is efficient at making you a grown-up. The last thing I want to do is offer unsolicited advice — I recently suffered that experience with a gringo aquaintance in Palena (who also told me “not to worry” about not having a boyfriend) — so I’m not preaching, just speaking from my experience.
When I picture myself landing in Chile on Febuary 1st, I think, aw, que niñita [what a little girl]. It´s a sweet feeling, not condescending. But I have grown. While I guess there are plenty of tangible skills I´ve gained (Spanish, teaching, wood-chopping) there are plenty I still lack (like avoiding getting a sunburn — it hurts to be wearing jeans right now). The growth, I feel it in my spine: I am stronger and also much more flexible. Mostly, eleven months later, I am better at taking care of myself, which really comes down to knowing what I need and want. I don’t know precisely what I want in the future, but at 23, most of the time I know exactly what I want on the day-to-day level — a quite night, a social night, a spin around the block.
And as to Chile, traveling this week, especially returning to Chile from Argentina, I´ve realized I really do love this country. Sometimes, I think this has more to do with my humanity that with Chile; that is, my affection for Chile is a simple reflection of our instinctual tendency to attach and to love. I could just have easily lived in Argentina for a year — in fact, Buenos Aires was high on my dream list — and then che and voz would be normal, po and wn strange. But we are programmed to love, and I lived in Chile, so it is Chile I love. This attachment business is the fact that makes me want to live abroad again, and simultaneously makes me fear it, because as I am currently experiencing, leaving love hurts.
What next? I´ve changed my answer, from being sure of TESL February to just vacationing January. I need to be in one place and see what arrives. I need to stare at the walls of my childhood home, to laugh with my sister, to cook with my mother, to go out for breakfast and pizza with my dad, to talk for hours with my dear friends, not on a computer screen but by my side.
I have lived so much living in the past year. The past two weeks have packed more raw human experience than ever before in my life — more despair, elation, and recently, a surprisingly peaceful, yet equally strong emotion: pride. I am proud of surviving winter without central heating, of milking a goat, of teaching damn-good lessons in a damn-awful school, of not losing anything in my travels. More than anything, I am proud of taking this leap, of boarding a plane January 1, 2011 to arrive in a town I could barely locate on Google Earth. I am so glad I took the chance. Proud and grateful — so very grateful for my family, the luck of the emotional and material foundation that allow me able to stretch, further and further.
I am writing this post from Dunkin’ Donuts in the Santiago airport (one of two places with wifi — the other was Starbucks), and it’s time to buy a snack and then camp out with my Kindle at the gate (I’m reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, really fun). As my title states, this is probably my last post. I will post here if and when I start another blog, but I think this is the end of Latitude 43. Thank you for reading!
On the last day of my first summer at Wediko (therapeutic summer camp), one of my charges jumped into the pond at breakfast, accompanied by his preferred greeting, “You f****** b**** I’m gonna…” . My supervisor walked by and said, “The good thing is, we still have time to learn!” Even though the buses were leaving in a few hours, the program rolled on, and we dealt with the situation as one more precious opportunity to teach this child new skills.
Though my last days in Palena were all about leaving the old, there was actually some new, too:
1. New path the the river. Melissa and I found a way to get down from the garden to the river — though the water was shallow (not like the OCEAN here in Viña del Mar! Delicious!), I found my way in.
2. Bono de matrimonio. That’s right: under Piñera, there is a cash prize of $500 for couples that have been married for over 50 years, “to reward the institution of the family”. Are you kidding? Look, if you’ve been married for 50 years and you want to celebrate with your family, go right ahead! But does the State need to enter this? And how do we know long-term marriage is always a good thing? In some marriages, we could give you a prize for getting out! If you care about family, care about the quality of family — about birth control, about maternal health, about preschool, about counseling, about parental leave-of-absense and vacation time — not “marriage” as if it were an end unto itself.
3. Mate con leche. I’ve heard for awhile that I have to try mate served with milk, rather than water — on my very last day in Palena, the women attending a weaving training course in the office were serving it (with milk from one of their cows). They heated the water up in the kettle and the served it into each serving, just like you normally do with water. It was ultra sweet (from added sugar), but interesting. Like a breakfast desert.
4. “Tuto.” I learned this Chilean slang for sleep when I went for onces (tea/dinner) at one of my high school student’s houses. I’m not sure how I hadn’t come across it before, because after learning it Monday, I suddenly heard it left and right. (By the way, this dinner event was a such a sweet, initially awkward but ultimately very satisfying and fulfilling evening. At first they offered me juice while everyone had mate, and when they started a second round of mate and offered me coffee, I gently suggested I could have mate too. ‘But no, we have coffee!’ As Tito had taught me, coffee is more expensive and fancy, certainly more fit for a gringo guest. They were surprised and impressed that I liked mate and obviously knew how to deal with it).
5. “Un Verano Sin Corbata.” A frequently-playing TV commercial is advertising this new campaign, “A Summer Without Ties,” with the aim of reducing energy costs. The estimate is that this will save 3.31% of energy expenditures in the public and commercial sectors, a savings of 10 million dollars. My comments:
- Does taking off a tie really make that much of a difference?
- If you want to save money/energy on air conditioning, why not make a meaningful change and wear shorts and t-shirts? It’s in the 90s in Santiago!
- Do women go to work?
- Does anyone blink an eye that a commercial by the Chilean government talking about savings in Chile cites that amount in US dollars?
- You guys realize this video is hilarious, right? I mean, your real goal is to get us to know your names, and for us to think you’re funny. Why else would you film yourselves strip-teasing, for an extremely token environmental gain?
I left Palena Friday morning at 8:00 AM. I don’t think I’ve ever cried more in 24 hours. But as I said to my dad, I think one of the worst human feelings is isolation, and this week, I have felt more connected than ever.
When my sister graduated from high school, I felt sad but distant during the ceremony; only later, wandering alone through the classrooms, did I cry. But leaving Palena, I cried big, full-body shaking sobs, in farewell embraces, wandering the streets, and then on buses by myself. There was no coaxing — this was my body speaking, in the arms of my peer-friends, my mother-figure friends, my beloved children, and most especially in the arms of Melissa and Tito. I have no comparison for this feeling, because I’ve never said goodbye to people I love so much, not knowing when I will return. I cried leaving Boston last January, but there was never any doubt about my return to my parents, nor of their constant presence during the year.
And then, at 5:30 PM on my last day (Thursday), I was in a brief rest from crying, happily eating pineapple and strawberries at my neighbor’s house, when we saw the smoke rising behind the school. Outside, we felt the heat and smelled the burning from a block away, saw black burning bits fall on the lawn. Another neighboor immediately climbed her roof with a hose, watching the wind carrying the danger across all of Palena.
Within minutes the entire town was crammed into a few blocks. Men ran carrying gas tanks — though we heard the explosions of some that were not saved. Outside of the office, we gave water to man in a wheel-chair who had been evacuated from the hospital (adjacent to burned buildings, luckily saved). A young Argentine couple stayed in the Foundation house, their bed & breakfast burned. When we went to see the area after the fire was put out, only a few posts remained, with the tin roofs sitting on top of ash, still smoking. The neighboring houses that didn’t burn were busy returning their possesions, having taken everything out. They had covered their roofs with wet towels.
After the fire was controlled (unfortunately fire-fighting is a volunteer position in Chile! ), it became known that Don Juvenal Mancilla, a neducation administrator somewhat equivalent to superintendent, had died. He lived in one of the two hospedajes that burned, houses that served both as bed & breakfasts (such as where my parents stayed in July) as well as long-term pensions. I wasn’t emotionally close to Don Juve, but I saw him almost every day, and was in his office once a week asking for a signature or to reserve a van. Wednesday I drove to one of the rural schools with him, and promised I would come by on Thursday to say goodbye.
As Melissa said, “Now you know the full cycle of fire.”
On a different note, I am writing tonight from El Bolsón, a small, beautiful city in Argentina where you can kayak/hike/swim, savor fresh pasta or an artisanal beer alongside European & Israeli tourists, and get dreds put in your hair. This interim is just what I need: part crying, part staring at the walls as it all seeks in, and part enjoying this summer I have so very much longed for (it’s been extremely hot and sunny!)
Today I checked out the wonderful crafts fair, enjoyed my dream lunch of empanadas (one tomato/onion/cheese, one chard/onion/cheese), cherries, and an artisanal beer (which cost the same as all the food combined, though the grand total was $6.50). In the afternoon I took a bus to a lake. I haven’t been in a body of water that has enough room for my body since August 2010, so I swam with the glee of my seven-year-old soul, regardless of the clouds.
I seem to have left my camera cord in Palena, so the photos I’ve provided are from Google, as well as a map of my itinerary for the next week:
Friday, December 16th: Palena –> Futaleufú –> Esquel –> El Bolsón.
Saturday, 12/17: El Bolsón.
Sunday, 12/18: El Bolsón –> Bariloche –> Osorno –> Stgo.
Monday, 12/19: arrive in Stgo in the morning, see friends here.
Tuesday, 12/20: Stgo –> Viña del Mar. Beach!
Wednesday, 12/21: Viña –> Zapallar (another beach!)
Thursday, 12/22: Zapallar –> Stgo. 9:00 flight, Stgo –> Toronto.
Friday, 12/23: Toronto –> Boston, 10:04 AM.
One of my favorite things about this itinerary is the opportunity to return to Chile one last time. Argentina is nice and has better food, but it doesn’t feel familiar. I scan my wallet for weird-looking coins to find the Argentine pesos in the mix of the Chilean ones, and laugh in my head as people talk in the accent we so frequently imitated in Palena. I am excited to return to my dear Chile tomorrow, if not my beloved Palena.
In the past week, I’ve found myself thinking about my former life in the US, and, out of nowhere, imagining my childhood home in detail. As I picture the place I will return to on December 23, more and more things have occurred to me that seem strange to me now about life in (my little sector of) Gringolandia.
12 Things I Think Will Be Weird About the USA
- Hot water makes no sound. Here in the Foundation house/office, we upgraded to a fancy water-heater in September. The previous model, like most houses in Palena, had to be lit every time you want hot water; but our model was old and got worse, to the point that I bathed out of a pot with water heated in an electric kettle in August (which I also didn’t think was that bad — it was the perfect temperature!). Anyway, the new model still lights up when the hot water tap is open, and when we ran out of gas last week (easily replaced the next day), the first sign that something was wrong was the silence — no flame — rather than the cold.
- I have brown hair. Here, I am universally considered blond.
- I am not a minor celebrity. Here, I get greeted by name everywhere I go. My favorite is by younger children or students from the rural schools (who I don’t see often), especially when they first whisper to their mother, “Look, it’s Miss Margaret!”
- In the bathroom, you don’t have to bring your own toilet paper, and you flush it down. Also, the bathroom is the same temperature as the house. Here, like in Mexico, toilet paper is a bonus, not a given. Gas stations, mediocre restaurants, universities — even the teacher’s bathroom here in Palena — do not have toilet paper. This isn’t a big deal once you get used to bringing your own. Neither is putting your (yes, used) toilet paper in the trash can — it becomes a habit that is then hard to reverse back in gringolandia! I mentioned to someone here that bathrooms in the US are the same temperature as the house, because of central heating, and they were shocked — here the bathroom is icy in the winter, because the door is closed, and no heat generated inside.
- Dogs and cats are well-fed pets that live inside with designated owners. Chickens, cows and horses are on farms, not roaming the streets or sniffing around your clothsline. It is news-worthy when a cow or pig was roams the streets in Palena, but chickens and loose, aggressive (i.e. hungry) dogs are the norm. Roosters and dog or cat fights routinely wake me up in the night here in the zona urbana (downtown Palena), and I’ve spent significant weekend time around goats, horses, cows and pigs.
- When you arrive in a house, it’s warm. You don’t have to chop or bring in wood. When the sun starts to set, you don’t automatically check to see if you’ve got enough wood for the night. I have dreams I would categorize as nightmares that I am wandering through my childhood home in Ipswich, looking for the stove. I’m not joking when I say this fire thing has gotten into me. As much as it is a huge huevo, it’s also real. Winter is cold, and it’s cold until you do something about it. And here that “do” is visible, tangible, part of every day and every hour.
- When you meet someone or say hi, you don’t touch. The kiss-cheeking greeting (for women, man-man is a hearty handshake) has become very, very normal. When I meet an occasional gringo (tourists that come to visit the Foundation), we exchange an awkward, frozen hello or half-hug. It feels cold, bordering on hostile. When I explain to people here that when I great my best friend, unless I haven’t seen her in a long time, we don’t touch. So strange!
- Homemade white bread and mate are not staples of my diet. Even though I probably consume 70% less bread then most people in Palena, I’ve come to expect warm bread whenever I go to someone’s house, along with the mate. My god I love mate.
- My friends and family know less about animals, serving mate, making fire, chopping kindling, and speaking Spanish than I do. Here, I am the constant novice.
- People understand 100% of what I say in English. Well, maybe 95% if you ask my mother (I get pretty fast when I get excited!), but the point is, in the US, you can’t say things on the side to yourself in front of children, or use English as a secret code with your co-teacher.
- The big, social, cooking-worthy meal is dinner. Here, it is almuerzo, at 1:00 PM or later, that is an institution. In the afternoon/night, it could be once (bread, etc.) could be cena (dinner, later), but there is no universally agreed upon hour. It is sad to think that someone would almorzar (yup, lunch is also a verb) alone, but tomar once? No big deal — you know, just grab some bread and cheese or whatever. Reverse of the US.
- The water flushes the other way, and the moon waxes and wanes opposite, as well. High on my to-do list for my last days in Palena (I leave Friday at 8:00 AM) is to take good note of these two things, so I can notice the difference back in the US.
Also on my to-do list: packing.
I. First Grade
Looking for the word “head”.
Making Christmas cards.
The famous “Letrilandia” alphabet — the curriculum used to teach the first graders to read in Spanish. Every letter has a song and story — for example, “h” is “la muda” [the mute] and only speaks with “la enfermera” [the nurse], the letter “c”. This explains why second graders will ask, “Tia, ‘hace’ se escribe con la muda?” [Tia, is the word ‘hace’ [make] spelled with the mute (letter h)?]. One day the first graders begged me to show them the alphabet in English, so I went over each letter — they giggled at the mixed up vowels (“i” in Spanish sounds like “e” in English), and gasped in astonishment when I skipped “rr”, “ñ” and “ll”.
Notice the stars and tally marks on the board — part of my incentive plan where each perfect “1, 2, 3 –” (me) “Silence, Please!” (students) earns a tally mark, and the “price” of a star is posted daily (competition to see which grade earns the most stars). For our last day there was a special offer — 5 “Silence, Please” = 1 star, 10 = 2, and 15 = 3, meaning that coincidentally, 1st grade reached the maximum of 5 stars all in one day. Yipee!
II. Second Grade
Excitement at earning a star, while doing the same card-making project.
The classic count-down (3, 2, 1, with visual aid of fingers for my English Language Learners, though they know the drill by now) to get everyone back in their seats after a particularly spirited celebration of earning a star. I love how reliably this works, even without stating the expectation (sit down, turn around, get it together) or delineating a consequence — students comply 95% of the time because they already know what they are supposed to be doing (sitting down, etc.) and they also know they will win a extra-strong high-five from me if they “make it” by 0.
For our last day I brought the “Spanish key” (in my hands) to allow me to speak Spanish — in this case, an easily understood “I’m leaving, I love you, etc.”
An ideal class size: 14. School average is at least 25. First grade is 28.
Yesterday I thought, This could be the last time I ever have to teach a class, ever! But then I thought, Margaret, who are you kidding. Standing in front of few dozen munchkins, as I switch from laughter to count downs, charades to modeling hand raising (again!), I feel like I am at my peak, that I am one of my best, fullest selves — most satisfied, most frustrated, most loved and most loving. I don’t think this is my last class.