Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reflections of our 8 months in Chile

(Another in the flashback series. Yes that means it is long)
Our family with baby Pablo in his pumpkin Halloween suite

Our house

Celebrating Chilean Independenc

The cueca, their national dance

Another national dance. The boys are pretending to row a boat.

Pichilemu, like Chile, was not what I expected. Expectaion plays a large role in one's experience in an unfamiliar place. My expectation was vague at best, but I am sure it played a vital role in our lives during our stay. The first thing I noticed upon arrival to Pichilemu was the red dirt like the dirt from childhood summers in Lubbock, Texas. I didn't like red dirt. I associate it with malicious fire ants and the burn from their bite. This red dirt had no such fire ants. Instead there were mysterious bugs that continually bit me throughout my stay in Chile. We still don't know what they were for sure, though every Chilean and their mother assured me they were mosquito bites, however we rarely saw mosquitoes.

Pichilemu was famous for two things, surfing, and being tranquilo. I don't enjoy pain, especially the searing burn of icy, salt water flowing from the Antarctic, so the nearest I ever got to surfing was dipping my big toe into the magnificent blue ocean. Although I consider myself a city girl, I loved living in a small, rural town. I loved the calmness but I also loved the town gossip; the mayor and his unusually bulging pockets was often whispered about in the teachers' lounge. The fresh air in Pichilemu was invigorating and I felt safe alongside nature. Maybe the best way to describe what it felt like living there is to take you on a familiar walk during our stay in Chile.

As I greet Canela, our adorable, and easily excitable chocolate labrador, the door shuts behind me. I walk around Jorge's motorcycle, his pride and joy, and out the tall black rod iron fence. The sky is clear and blue today, and although the house never seems to let go of the cold, the air outside is warm and inviting. With Canela trotting by my side, I walk towards town. I have two choices, the long way down streets and sidewalks, about 30 minutes, or the hazardous shortcut through the steep valley, over the bridge, through the mud and up a steep incline, surprisingly cutting the time in half. I choose the shortcut; I always choose the shortcut. The baby chicks pecking at the dirt road in front of me frantically scatter as I near, as if the ugly giant goblin has come to eat them one by one. I continue towards the pasture which is sometimes a soccer field, and sometimes a grazing ground for Don Pablo's horses. One time, Camila, our host mom, tried to teach Kyle to drive stick shift in that field. With Pablo screaming in my arms in the back it is a wonder how Camila, with true motherly skills, was able to think above Pablo's screams that hit every octave in the human range, to coach Kyle.

The field is empty today. I close my eyes, lean my head back and let my ponytail dangle free in the breeze, allowing the glow of the sun to envelop me. Behind me is our blue two story house, possibly the nicest house in the area. To my right, about ten minutes walking from where I stand, is one of my schools, Divino Maestro, where those diablitos we call children are sent to be babysat. Directly in front of me is a line of dilapidated houses blocking the view of the Pacific Ocean and grey sand beaches. And to my left is the valley, my chosen path into town. I take a deep breath and inhale the tranquility of this small town, far from the hustle and bustle of Santiago.

I walk through the horse pasture, seemingly lacking horses for the time being. Instead of horses however, I notice low flying birds, low enough to step on if one is not careful. They soar right above the grass, looking for those pesky yet tasty insects, I assume. I have never seen birds fly this low to the ground and I wonder where they come from, where they have been, and why they are flying around my feet now?

The first decline into the valley is similar to a dirt cliff side; steep, and without grass to hold the dirt in place. Rocks are dependable in some sections, but not all of the areas, especially during the rainy season when the dirt turns into a slip n slide made of mud. Had I not cared about the clothes I was wearing or the fact that I might plummet off the edge to my death, I might have taken up mudsliding as an extracurricular activity, but I did care about my clothes and my life.

We play a game while going down the hill; who can stay on one's feet the longest and not fall on one's butt. Of course I always win that game because I am the most graceful person you will ever meet; graceful maybe compared to Bozo the Clown!

As I make it down safely into the valley, I breathe a sigh of relief, but the obstacles aren't over yet. Next is the handmade bridge crossing the small muck colored creek. Luckily I have never had an issue with this bridge, although it is obviously older than I am, and missing planks. If it were a person, it would be an old miser who walks with a knobby cane and smiles a toothless mischievous grin. Once over the bridge however is the really challenging part, the "obstacle course," as we lovingly call it. The obstacle course is located in an open pasture that turns into swampland during the rainy season of winter. I keep expecting the swamp monster to come out of the sludge, growling and dripping mud, threatening to eat me. "Come on swamp monster, I deal with a room full of chalkboard scratching, booger throwing, snot nosed Chilean kids, I think I can take you!" But if he is there, he stays hidden in his swamp, smart monster.

A clear path lays straight ahead of me, but before I can reach that pass, I must traverse the obstacle course, a huge mud pit, with make-shift stepping blocks. First is the old tire, that has to be stepped on just right or else the side not stepped on will lift out of the mud causing the person to fall face first. Then its the rocks, boards, frisbees and some other objects thrown into the mix, helping passers navigate their way through the valley of mud.

I once mistakenly attempted to avoid the obstacle course through the mud pit and instead went around the wallow. "What a smart and novel idea, I am so clever." I thought to myself! The lower pasture, the only alternative, seemed safe, but the green grass of the pasture was merely camouflage for the 6 inches of mud below. I discovered this hidden swamp on the day when I had dared to wear my brand-spanking new black boots to class. I meticulously negotiated my path, but without reward. There was no reliable path. Everything was mud. Life is sometimes like that, giving you a choice between decorated and disguised mud or obvious mud. Guess what happened next? Before I realized what was happening my entire foot up to the ankle was submerged in mud, but not just one shoe, both, because as I took that first regretful step, to my dismay, I lost my graceful balance that I am so famous for, only to have both of my beautiful new velvety boots covered in that dreadful, gooky muck. I nearly turned around and went straight home after my humiliation, but I didn't, I dredged on, literally.

Now, walking into a class full of recalcitrant Spanish only speaking students who don't know what the term discipline in English or in Spanish means, can be intimidating. But walking into an already unruly classroom with boots covered in mud and humiliated pride is certainly not a helpful addition to the already hopeless situation.

I have mixed feelings about the time I spent teaching my students. Starting off, I was eager to make a difference and I was energized with new ideas. Most of the students hadn't ever seen someone from another country and their exposure to English let alone an English speaker was limited. I wanted to reach out to the kids, expose them to something new and hopefully improve their English or at least their interest in English. I was given two different schools to help teach at; Divino Maestro, and Digna Camilo. Both schools had English teachers. Brenda spoke English and Carmen, however sweet, did not. Both schools gave me the warmest welcome I could ever have imagined, with a full school assembly, thanking me for my presence in their country and in their schools. Digna Camilo even included dancing and songs in English in their welcoming ceremony. The kids seemed ecstatic by my presence, but that was soon to wear off. After my first few classes, their attention waned. I tried grabbing their attention with games, but the games would lead to rough housing, and no one seemed interested in the English. By the end, I was much less interested in teaching than in keeping my sanity and them in their seats for 90% of the class. I am ashamed I got to this point. I gave up on them as most of their teachers had done. The classrooms were more for group babysitting than a place for education. I don't believe in giving up in principle, but I did. We spent nearly a month on learning how to ask and answer simple questions such as, "What is your name?" and "How old are you?" but after a month, no progress had been made. I tried games, quizzes, rewards but you can't make someone learn something if they don't put in the effort. Maybe they didn't improve their English while I was there, but I am hopeful that I changed their thinking. Maybe someday, one of them will dare to venture out of their country, because my presence proved that non-Chileans aren't aliens after all. Maybe, a couple of them will learn to value English later on in life and go on to college. I don't know what impact I made and I may never know. I just pray that I made a difference in at least one of their lives. I went to Chile to make my mark on the world, to make a difference in someone else's life.

Even though I am unsure of the impact I made on my students, there were many people who greatly impacted our lives while in Chile. I have learned that it is important when we fall in life that we have people close to us, to help lift us back on our feet, even if we are covered in mud. Being in a foreign country, made me feel awkward and out of place much of the time but we were so fortunate with our support. We had many people around that loved and cared for us. Not so much from the Ministry though, in fact, hardly at all.

Although the Chilean Ministry of Education assured us that they were a sturdy leg for us to stand on, that leg was more like silly putty; flimsy, and without support or reliability. Our host family, unlike the ministry, was such an important factor in our adjustment. From the beginning, they were kind, helpful and caring. We felt welcome and comfortable with our host mom and dad, like we were really home. Camila was compassionate, humorous and motherly. When one of us had a cold, she would make us a special hot lemon tea with honey. When we seemed sad, she would tell us stories of her childhood to make us laugh. Jorge was absent minded but easily excitable, especially when it came to food. They welcomed us in as their family, and they will always have a place in our hearts.

Brenda, my partner Chilean English teacher was especially important as well in our support system. Brenda is one of the most kind-hearted people I have ever met. I was so grateful during our first meeting with her and the principal. She spoke English so well and I don't know that I would have been able to understand him otherwise. Even some Chileans had a hard time understanding what the principal was saying since he spoke so quickly. After studying English in the University, Brenda spent three months living in New Jersey practicing her English. She moved to Pichilemu from her home town of Talca, away from her beloved family to fulfill her dream of teaching English.

Two days a week, Brenda and I would lunch together. Some days, she would fix authentic Chilean meals such as a special Chilean casserole. Other days the meals were as simple as rice with a fried egg. It was so nice to relax and speak English in her beautiful home and have a friend I could talk with.

Another activity we cherished while in Chile was our English group diners. There were two other English teachers in the town that spoke English well, Cecilia and Luz. One evening a month, we would gather together as an opportunity for them to practice their English and have a cultural exchange. In the beginning we shared American and Chilean food. We cooked things such as baked potato soup and cornbread, and they made pastel de jaiva (an excellent crab dish). Pisco sour, their national drink, was always a must, except for the time Bethany decided to make mojitos and had to go on a wild goose chase to find fresh mint.

Bethany and the other volunteers in our region were another vital part to our support system. Bethany was the only other volunteer in our city and we became a little gringo family while in Chile, laughing and crying together. Twice a month, we would gather to have a gringo reunion, sometimes in Pichilemu, and other times in the other cities where the other volunteers lived. (When I say gringo, I don't mean white, I mean those of us who were not Chileans.) Our gatherings were a time for us to vent, speak English, play games, drink Baileys and enjoy each other's company. I am afraid to imagine what our sanity level would have been if it had not been for those extremely important friends.

Nothing about the valley is easy; the path down the cliff, the old man bridge, the obstacle course and certainly not the incline out of the valley. The incline is steep and often has zero traction. Some days a kind soul has poured sawdust into mud on the hill, allowing your foot to find some sort of stability. The way out, is bordered with houses, not really houses, shacks; shacks surrounded by trash and junk. I avoid looking at the puppies with their rib cages protruding, shivering outside in a huddle. Today, the family is outside and the two year old is grabbing at the ax stuck in the stump in front of their house. After the hike up the hill, I take a breather, taking care not to stare.

My journey in Chile, like the valley, has had its ups and downs. There were times when I couldn't see out of the valley and the feeling of desperation overtook my body, but there were also moments of untainted happiness. Looking back, I can say without doubt, that although it didn't always feel this way, there were more ups than downs in our rollercoaster ride called Chile. I came to Chile for several reasons. First and foremost I went yearning for change; change in myself and change in others. I wanted to find more of myself by helping others. Living in a culture that is not your own is difficult and rewarding. Difficult because it can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, and frustrating, but rewarding because growing is never easy, and if there isn't a certain amount of pain involved, we aren't working hard enough. I struggled with the language, and I struggled with the students. But I learned that even though it was tough going sometimes, scratches and bruises are just reminders of the struggle and growth. I am always searching for more, yearning for more knowledge. Although I didn't always feel like I was growing, I know I did.

I left Chile with some scratches and bruises, but also lasting friendships and a family away from home. I went searching for the meaning of life, and my purpose in it. I may not have found the answers, but I am on the right path. I am on a path out of the valley and on to greatness, I can feel it!

Brenda, me, Bethany and Kyle, when Brenda took us to visit her family in Talca.

Me in my classroom

Me with my students

The kids are jump roping in the courtyard.

At one of our Gringo reunions, except with two other Chileans

Pablo in my suitcase. He wanted to come with us.

p.s. you still have time to write a caption.

1 comment:

lisa said...

oh, vanessa! Reading your blog reminded me of all the memories and experiences of Chile! I got to see Elliott this weekend!!! Will have to write more in my blog