Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Two week orientation
Santiago, what an experience. The capitol of the richest economy in South America, makes me afraid to see the maintenance on rest of the continent. Santiago has divisions between rich and poor areas; from the west and the south, the poorest, to the east, the richest, it all seems to have in common a general lack of maintenance, included in this package is disorganization, rundown buildings not made to last and graffiti decorating the walls and crevices of the city. However, though we spent two weeks in this city, most of what we saw were the inside of the hostel, and classrooms where we were given invaluable information, in Spanish!
Let us start from the beginning of our arrival. I believe I have already covered the most horrid part of the trip, where we weren't picked up from the airport, and streaming through my mind was the fear that this whole event might actually be a scam. My patience was running very low, not realizing that in the next couple of weeks, I would need all of the strands of patience I could string together to get me through this two week orientation. In the taxi ride to the hostel, instead of the relief I desired, I felt magma rumbling inside my body, preparing for an eruption that would compete with Mt.St. Helen. However, I realized that it might not be the best for a first impression, to go explode into molten lava, destroying all of Santiago with flames from the center of the earth streaming out of my nose and mouth and so, I quited the fire, and persuaded it to strike another time. Arriving to the hostel and finding it, the correct destination, relieved some of my anxiety. The first shower after traveling for close to 22 hours, was the most amazing shower I have ever taken in my life. We had flown from the worst winter storm of the season in New York, to the last stance of summer in Chile. We had sweat from having too many jackets on while carrying all of our belongings on a New York subway, as well as sweat from Chile's sun and the fear of never making it out of the airport. The hostel didn't have AC, and the cold water of the shower, made me want to melt into a puddle; on second thought though, I didn't want to travel down the pipes of the city only to find myself in the sewer system; so I left the shower a new woman, refreshed, clean and ready to take on the crazy adventure I chose to embark on.
The food at the hostel, I must say, was a bad orientation into Chilean food. We were served so much bland meat and rice, without the famous vegetables that this country in known for. Many people signed up for the vegetarian plates, which also had a bad wrap, because it was the same salad nearly every night, of ice burg lettuce, a couple of slices of tomatoes, beets, sometimes an egg and occasional cucumber. We arrived Saturday afternoon and had the rest of the weekend to relax and settle into the swing of Santiago. We were to find out later that there were 60 of us altogether on the 8 month program, and three couples. We were the only married couple, but another couple, a much older couple, was about to embark on both of their third marriages while in Chile. The second couple, the girl from Denmark, and the boy from Pennsylvania, Aaron and Christine, became immediate friends. Tall, super-model handsome, funny, and kind. They make an extraordinary couple. They met at Penn State while Christine was an exchange student from Denmark, and the rest is history. They had been living in Santiago for several months already, teaching businessmen/women to speak English, but felt isolated because they had come without a program, lived alone in an apartment, in a country that they couldn't speak the language well in so they had decided to change course and join English Opens Doors.
Sunday, Kyle and I split up, displaying our independence, trying to prove that we weren't that couple. I went to a tourist hot spot called San Christabol, which was a mountain with a really big statue of Mary looking down on the city of Santiago. It was a really fun trip, which included a ride up a funicular, gradually revealing the whole of the city step by step as we climbed up the mountain. After staring at the industrial city and trying to make out the mountain through the smog and pollution, we stopped to have some beers and appetizers at the restaurant at the top. It was lovely and exciting to be in this new place, with so many really interesting people. Kyle went with a group, including the second couple, to the ritzy mall that was so commercialized it felt like New York City. He said that it was by far the nicest mall he had ever been to. Surrounding the mall were restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Beni Hanas, Ruth's Chris Steak House and information helpers on segways roaming around the mall. However the trip was cut short because Aaron started to feel ill. That evening, paramedics, who make house calls, came by. We hoped that it was just the flu, but because they had traveled all over the country Malaria and other diseases were mentioned by the doctor as possibilities. After a couple of days they ruled out Malaria, but moved them to a hotel closer to the hospital. The illness turned out to be Dangay (sp?) fever which is a form of the black plague (don't worry, it's not found in Chile), but only kills about 10% of it's victims. There are evidently 4 different strands of this disease that is transmitted through mosquito's. A major risk area is Easter Island, which is where they were placed, and since it is more deadly the second time around, they have moved Aaron and Christine to our region, not our city, but an hour and a half away. Actually they told us that Texas is a risk area as well for Dangay fever.
Monday was our first day of true orientation and what an orientation it was! We were told to dress up formally because we were meeting officials of the Government and program. We were bussed to a building, shoved into an auditorium and made to endure lectures in Spanish, which went through one ear and out the other. I really had no idea what was being said, but the frustrating part was, I cared to know. I wanted to know about this program and how it was started and everything that they covered, but they spoke to us, the teachers of English, in Spanish, and close to half of us didn't understand enough Spanish to gather a worthwhile amount. Half way through, we were given a break with cookies, cakes and tea, which we would soon discover was part of the daily routine in Chile. (my favorite part). Tuesday was the history of Chile... in Spanish. I honestly didn't know why I bothered to show up to Spanish only events. They only helped in making me feel more stupid about myself for not being able to speak Spanish. The discussion about the Chilean school system was in English, which I was very grateful for. Just to give you some idea of the Chilean school system, there are three different types; completely publicly funded, half private, half government, and full private. The half and half schools and the full private are mostly Catholic. Most of the schools don't have enough rooms in the school for each teacher to have their own classroom so instead, the students remain in the same room throughout the day while different teachers travel around, having to lug their own materials with them. Some of the schools gear their students towards University while others are vocational. All schools require uniforms which is why the students are refered to as penguins. Last year, students went on strike and demanded reforms to the school systems, it was called the Penguino revolt. The government consented to the changes, but nothing as of now has been done. They warned us that if nothing changes, it might occur again. It wasn't violent, there just wasn't school for several days.
Wednesday was a day of revival for almost everyone. We were broken up into groups to visit our first schools and we were like movie stars. The school we visited on Wednesday was a vocational school with three different electives along with their basic classes, sewing, cooking and babysitting. Very few of their students make it to University from this school. English is important for the country because of their booming tourism and if they want to compete in the international market it is a necessary asset. Many of their English teachers don't even speak English. Teachers make pitiful wages here and the only way they can afford to travel to an English speaking country is if they receive a scholarship or if they marry someone with money. There were two teachers at our school, a young woman who spoke well, and a nice old gentleman who made a concerted effort, but seemed as capable in English as I am in Spanish. There were a few girls in the class who spoke English very well and spoke for their classmates. This school was an all girls and after our tea and cake break and our introduction to their school, recess began. From that moment on, I couldn't hear the sound my own voice, let alone any of the many girls who were trying to practice their English. Girls were screaming from every which direction, but they all seemed to be facing the same direction. There were 12 people in our group including James, the tall and handsome Australian and Cameron a very tall and brawny black guy. Chile has a little diversity, but I haven't seen any black people since I have been here except for Cameron and Cameron is impossible to miss without being the only black person in almost all Chile. The screaming girls were chasing Cameron and James taking their camera phones out and taking pictures. Which ever way they turned, a mob followed them. It was a hilarious scene, one that I will always carry with me. When we got back to the hostel to share our experiences we realized that every school was very different but everyone had the feeling of being movie stars! We were ready to learn how to teach so we could help these schools with so little resources and English teachers who aren't really familiar with the subject that they teach.