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How Far Is 6000 Miles?

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Guest Post by David Russell

After intently reading posts by Margaret for five months about Palena, I just had a chance to see myself what she was talking about. She invited me to distill my observations and thoughts about this experience in a guest post, so here goes.

Palena is remote and life there is different. It is about 6000 miles from home in Ipswich, Massachusetts. It is a two-hour drive on mostly dirt roads to the nearest town. Electricity came to the town in the 1980’s. The library opened in 2005. A sign directs you, “Disminuye velocidad, inicio zona urbana” as you approach the center of this town of 1500-2000 people, but as we purchased a few items in the supermercado (akin to our convenience stores) we noticed a man wearing a wool poncho on horseback herding a few cattle down the street. Heating is by wood stove. At my school in Boston this year we made “Got heat?” sweatshirts that said, “My classroom is 60 degrees” to highlight the shortage of warmth we often have in the winter. That temperature seems to be a distant dream in the classrooms I visited in Palena. Yes, July is winter!

Palena is wonderful. When Margaret asked her elementary classes to tell us what their favorite things are about their town, their hands shot into the air to tell us about the plaza, swimming in the river, and the hilltop view of the town. High school students told us about their attachment to the safety and familiarity of Palena. Quite literally everyone knows everyone. People stop cell phone calls to say hello to passersby, and every interaction begins and ends with cheek kisses between female and female and between male and female (male to male is handshake).  This little ritual is tender and a genuine manifestation of the connections felt among community members. After just a few days there we started to have repeats in the people we encountered, and we quickly came to enjoy doing as everyone else does.

The challenges of education in Palena and Boston are no so different; teachers there raised familiar concerns in our conversations.  How can we best work with students with ADHD? What can we do about the frequent correlation between socio-economic status and achievement?  How do we counter the negative influences pulling on adolescents?  What do you do when official texts are not the best ones?

I am amazed by bilingual people, and I am amazed the way my daughter lives in Spanish. (My other daughter Alice, by the way, also has impressive language skills. In her seat on the plane next to me I noticed her reading The Hours in Italian, a language in which she is less strong than French.) I observed Margaret nimbly negotiating her way in assorted contexts, from exhorting her students to joking with friends. How can you think and express yourself so fluently in a different language? I regret that I never developed this skill.

Connection across boundaries is wonderful and exhilarating. The storeowner taking leave of her post, inviting us into her adjacent kitchen and telling us about her grandparents’ role in the founding of the town over cookies and tea as her granddaughter fell asleep in her lap. The librarian discussing with Margaret and I how “Culture should not have a price” and how 90% of Palena families now patronize his institution each month, as a stream of kids came and went, checking Facebook and taking out books. Being part of the birthday party of a friend of Margaret. Fiercely bonding with a group of teachers over the tragedy of the Pinochet years– and a few bottles of wine.  A man pulling over in his jeep, wordlessly offering assistance, as I struggled to fit our bags in the car trunk.

I am fortunate. Most people do not get the opportunity to make a visit such as the one my family made to Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay (a ferry ride across the river from Buenos Aires). In my heart and in my mind I will hold a connection to the people that I met, to Tito and Melissa, to Ariel and Alejandra, and the others. I appreciate more what I have, and I believe more strongly than ever  in the necessity for greater justice and equality in the world.

PS. A mini-shout-out to the Internet, without which you would not be reading this. Through Skype we’ve “seen” Margaret regularly these months she’s been gone. At a party in Palena, songs/videos of assorted artists were played via YouTube as we discussed tastes in music, etc. A magical tool.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. sally johnson permalink
    Tuesday, July 12, 2011 11:52 am

    Margaret, and Jane and Dave and Alice,
    I am moved to tears by Dave’s guest post. SO very glad you all had time together in Palena. Have been thinking of you all daily. Now the rest of you know why Meg has found her experiences so exhilerating and awe-some in the truest sense of the word. I love you all,

  2. Tuesday, July 12, 2011 3:53 pm

    Thank you, Sally! It has been so sweet to be together as a family, and to know that Mom, Dad and Alice will now be able to picture me here in Palena. And they have been telling me more stories from the wedding– so we are thinking of your family, too!

  3. joan permalink
    Wednesday, July 13, 2011 7:45 am

    Hi Folks!
    It is thrilling and absolutely surreal to see you sitting at that table 6000(!) miles away. Dave, the descriptions of your adventures are so rich and beautifully drawn. It really is so powerful to take in not just the other-worldly experiences you are having, but the blessing that you are all finally together again, and building yet even more profound family memories and bonding! (There were just a minor colossal obstacle to bringing this to fruition, eh?) But the outcome sounds transporting and certainly life-changing. Your vinettes and exchanges with the extraordinary kids you are meeting, the warmth and friendliness of this tightly-knit family/community; living close to the earth and appreciating very the basic amenities that prove to be
    enough; even bountiful in their simplicity. You are in a landscape with people so connected up with their history…it’s still part of their daily fabric. How remarkable and refreshing…Thanks for the lovely guest contribution!
    ps. Meg, the recipes are so fun and inspiring! Keep ’em coming!
    pps. Hi Alice! Miss you!!
    ppps. Jane, missing you at Hood’s and a Chas retreat! 🙂 xo

  4. Wednesday, July 13, 2011 9:53 am

    Joan, what a sweet response! I read it aloud to everyone here in our little apartment/nest in Buenos Aires as we are brushing our teeth and getting ready to head out for the day. I’m so glad you enjoyed Dad’s post, the recipes, the Chas retreat (I know him from teen retreats!), and all of it. I am jealous of you swimming, so please say hello to summer in New England for you. = )

  5. joan permalink
    Thursday, July 14, 2011 7:43 am

    Thanks Meg!
    By the way, I hope you received the long email I sent to your gmail address a while back. The “comment block” seems to have it’s limits!
    I’m making the zucchini latkes this weekend. 🙂

    ~Jane, I loved your guestblog! I’ll write later… Off to make the donuts.

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