A Reflection on the Last Few Months in Chile and the Joys of Homecoming
I have read that, upon returning home from an extended period of life in another country, a certain sense of displacement creeps into one’s consciousness. It does not come all at once, as a sharp gust of wind to the face but, instead, as a tide ebbing closer and closer to dry sand. This sensation, I believe, stems from an intimate connection to two different worlds. Compounded with that strange duality, one begins to wonder to what extent place, culture, and society influence self and, if so, of what true self consists.
My restless traveler’s heart has taken up old roots in Chicago, finding there the long-yearned comforts of family and home. Of course, a few things have changed—the kitchen has been redone, putting me into wild confusion every time I seek out the trash bin or a spoon, and my fifteen-year-old dog Tessa has lost most of her hearing—but the essence of the place remains the same. And I, in this place, revert easily back into daily routine, so much so that I often pause and wonder if the last year and a half in South America was merely an elaborate dream.
But, thankfully, it wasn't a figment of my imagination and, as I skim through photos of the past few months, I am filled with eagerness to reenter my Chilean life. Regretfully, I have not been keeping up with my blogging and will thus attempt to summarize my last months in Chile with as much brevity as I am able--though, evident from prior blog entries, conciseness has never been my strong suit! The last time I wrote, my college roommate Julie had just visited. That brings me to about the middle of September--how time flies!--so it is there that I will begin my recap.
And Then There Were 12
The end of September brought warm breezes, fiestas patrias leftovers, and seven energetic new faces to Chile. Johnnie and I greeted them at the airport with colorful signs, big hugs, and excessive amounts of close photo shots. The seven new CHACErs--Aislinn, Kaitlyn, Garrett, Francisco, Eamon, Greg, and Phil--have been an energy boost for our normalized Chilean lives, pouring new excitement into our school and weekend days. During their first week, we happily assumed the roles of tour guide, party hostess, and Chilean slang translator. We held an once in our apartment for the new Chilean host families to meet their CHACEr and I found my thoughts drifting back a year to the first time I hugged and kissed my Chilean "parents." How fleeting yet formative a year in Chile can be!
After a few days, the new CHACErs had found their niche into the daily school routine. Garrett and Francisco were assigned to the first unit, a godsend for their high energy and creatively (not to mention the fact that they nearly doubled the current male teacher population). Aislinn, Kaitlyn, and Phil were placed in the second and third units and were quickly integrated into the busy life of the Saint George educator--Kaitlyn even started teaching a full schedule after just a few days there! Eamon and Greg began working in two different Catholic schools, a pilot program to expand CHACE to schools beyond Saint George. Though they seemed a little nervous and apprehensive at first, being separated from their American companions, they soon found the great benefit in being the only foreign teacher at their schools. I am confident that they both are excellent ambassadors of CHACE, considering the wonderful and talented people that they are.
September blended into October and, before long, we were beginning the last quarter of the school year. With my amazing partner teacher at my side, the creative juices had begun to flow and together we hosted a string of successful--though sometimes chaotic--activities, including Career Day, a field trip to the school cafeteria, and a recipe unit. My personal favorite was Career Day because it was the first time during the busy school year that I was able to meet many of my students parents. Both Gaby and I were amazed at how many parents could speak English, most quite fluently! I also enjoyed the range of parent jobs, from doctors and lawyers to toy-makers and professional skydivers. I'll have to stay in contact with a few of them in case this teaching gig doesn't pan out...it's a good thing I'm not afraid of heights!
In early October, I went to my first Chilean high school reunion with Diego and, even after living in Chile for an entire year, was still shocked by the quantity of meat that Chileans consume! The asado started around 11PM (typical) and lasted long after I had gone to sleep, at around 4AM. That only further reinforces my belief that no one parties like Chileans!
From that moment on, nearly all my weekends were spent with the new (and old) CHACErs, soaking up all we could, from trekking in Parque Andino Juncal to dancing on stage at Amanda's. A few late-night McDonald's binges reminded me that we were still very American, though, at discotecas like Alto Barcelona, we partied with the best of them! On Halloween, both CHACE groups came together with the simple yet brilliant costume theme of the 12 months of the year. I chose December and, obviously, dressed as a Christmas tree--and by dressed, I mean "decorated" and by "I," I mean "my dear and dedicated friends" since it is quite impossible for a Christmas tree to decorate herself. Have you ever seen it happen? I didn't think so.
The rest of the months were, unsurprisingly, awesome and we had a great time celebrating our CHACE togetherness. Other costumes at the party included Chilean miners, Zorro, and a Saint George student. Speaking of miners, I should mention that being in Chile during the rescue of the 33 miners was an incredible experience of Chilean solidarity and compassion. After 69 days of subterranean living, the men were brought up to the surface in a tube-shaped cage (el carrito) with the eyes of every Chilean glued to the TV in anticipation. The excitement began at midnight on Tuesday, October 12th and lasted until 10PM the following day. As each miner was brought to the surface, the crowds watching cheered wildly with tears running down their faces--we joined in wholeheartedly!
To read more about the miners, check out this article:
Year-End Celebrations and Prospects for the Upcoming Year!
In November, it was clear we were on the final stretch. I made an extra effort to spend time with the teachers who had become dear friends and began a crazed pace of interviewing for the upcoming year. At this point, I had decided that I was interested in spending another year in Chile but wanted to try teaching high school English. Saint George didn't seem to have any openings so I began looking elsewhere. The interview process was intense--for Villa Maria, the job I finally took, I was interviewed no fewer than four times, which included a written and oral psychological assessment...in Spanish! In the end, I was proven sane and offered the job. (Thank goodness I fooled them!)
Other highlights of November include Confirmation retreat, surfing in Pichilemu, a thrilling Girl Talk concert, the Saint George Spelling Bee, and the annual CHACE retreat. It was strangely comforting being back at the beach in Zapallar, looking out over the same rocks but knowing that I had been changed in ways I had not even yet begun to grasp. Father Scully flew in for the retreat and provided the perfect mix of calm and humorous reflection. I realized how lucky I had been to share this experience with such amazing, dedicated women and how sad I would be to leave it all behind. It was in this moment that I decided to accept the job at Villa Maria and extend my Chilean experience--there was still too much to see and do and I wasn't ready to say goodbye!
We returned to Santiago for the month of December--our final month as CHACErs--and began...the celebrations! Even though I was pretty certain I was staying, I still had plenty of despedidas to wish me a happy, well, goodbye! The weather was perfect for barbecues so I quickly filled my calendar with them, making sure to see all of the groups that had impacted my Chilean experience: Confirmation leaders, misiones students, first unit teachers, the Holy Cross priests, and friends! The first unit teachers threw me a special party at Claudia's house and, as a surprise, each teacher gave me a gift to remember her by. I was touched by their generosity and friendship and will truly miss each one of them next year.
On December 10th, we signed our finiquitos, marking our last day at Saint George's, and embarked on an entire day of tramites, tying up odds and ends. We received our final paycheck, closed out bank accounts and insurance plans, and began the process to receive our retirement funds--yes, we have retirement funds! Then, finally, we were done.
The next day, we left on vacation! Megan, Heather, and I met up with Jordan and Chris and, together, we ferried over to the island of Chiloe. I had been there previously with my parents, but it was fun to revisit the beautiful wooden churches and see the National Park for the first time. We also had plenty of spontaneity--one afternoon we paid a fisherman to take us out in his boat so we could get better pictures of the palafitos (houses on stilts) and another day we hitchhiked from one small town to the next! We had come such a long way in one short year!
After Chiloe, our group met up with Johnnie in Puerto Montt and we took a bus to the trail-head for the hike to Cochamo, undoubtedly the most beautiful place in Chile. We walked for seven hours, believing ourselves to be lost since the average time for the trek is only five hours, but it appears we were merely slow. Entering the area of the refugio was like coming upon a piece of paradise--the grounds were situated in a green valley, surrounded by granite mountains and an evergreen forest. The next day we hiked up, rather, scaled rock walls up to a beautiful view overlooking the whole valley and our entire crew sat for an hour in near-silence, breathless (and not just from the climb!). We ended the hike with a waterfall slide--literally! A series of gently curving rock had created the ideal place for a natural water slide and we bravely took on the icy water for the rush of the slide.
Then, it was back to Santiago, and back to goodbyes. We packed our bags, had one last three-hour long Chilean lunch (in which we were compared to Sex in the City by onlookers, not too far off from truth!), and headed home. Heather and I were on the same flight to Georgia so we spent our last minutes in Chile together, sipping down pisco sours with weepy eyes as we reflected upon the past year. There never seems to be enough time.
And now I am home again, enjoying the slower pace of life and the chance to catch up with my family and old friends. I have become far too comfortable with my daily routine--wake up late, exercise, read, surf the web, cook dinner with Mom, eat, watch TV with Dad, go to bed--and hope that I'll be able to get back into school mode come March! But, for now, I am using this time to eliminate the clutter from my bedroom and my mind, and set clear goals for the year to come, and the future beyond!
The only adventures that have broken up my lazy routine were the family trip to Deer Valley Utah--in which we were all beginners, slow plowers proud!--a few trips to Chicago, and a glorious visit from Danice, my best friend all through high school. Speaking of which, I recently visited my old high school and gave a presentation on Chile to the current Spanish students--all in Spanish! It was thrilling to be able to communicate so easily in my second language and wonderful to see some of my former teachers, all of whom remembered me! I hope that my memory will serve me as well for my former students! As I was packing up my things at the end of the presentation, the janitor came up and struck up a conversation in Spanish. He expressed his amazement with hearing me speak Spanish and we chatted for a few minutes about ESL and the benefits of learning a second language. I left my school, confident that I am moving in the right direction, even if I'm not sure about the end destination!
And that brings me, at long last, to the present. I VOW to blog more frequently in the coming year so as to avoid these lengthy summaries but I hope it provided at least a small glimpse of what I left in Chile and what is yet to come!
I am copying my housemate Megan's technique of putting all the pictures at the end of the blog entry. Enjoy!
1. The welcoming crew: Johnnie and I at the Santiago airport
2. My hero, the skydiving dad
3. High school reunion meat (first of many grill-filled meals)
4. Garrett, Aislinn, and I in Parque Andino Juncal
5. The girls in Parque Andino Juncal
6. Partying with the CHACE 10 girls
7. The 12 months of Halloween!
8. O Christmas Tree...
9. Lili's birthday party
10. Hector and I in front of the carrito (the cage used to rescue the miners)
11. The surfing crew in Pichilemu
12. The big waves in Pichilemu, where they host an international surf competition every year
13. Girl Talk concert (I think this photo speaks for itself)
14. The beautiful beach in Zapallar, site of the annual CHACE retreat
15. Some of our group in Zapallar
16. Despedida with my misiones group
17. Despedida with the Confirmation monitors
18. Despedida with the first unit teachers
19. A tough goodbye
20. Signing my finiquito (goodbye Saint George!)
21. Jordan, Chris, and Heather on the boat to Chiloe
22. The palafitos (houses on stilts)
23. Picture taken on our spontaneous boat ride with the local fisherman
24. What was waiting for me as I trekked back out of the park in Chiloe...no, this is not a joke!
25. Ready to trek Cochamo
26. What a view in Cochamo!
27. Heather scaling the moutainside
28. Heather and I at the peak of Arco Iris mountain in Cochamo
29. Last lunch in Chile, Sex in the City style!
30. Back in snowy Libertyville (so much for summer!)
31. Hamman family ski trip
32. Cross-country skiing with Danice and Meli