A new school year, fall colors, and the charm of Chilean living
14.06.2010 10 °C
"Poniendonos al dia"
(Getting caught up)
Well, folks, I am now well into my ninth month of living in Chile and can hardly believe the time has passed so quickly. The last few months--March, April, and May--have been a true testament to LIVING in Chile. I no longer live with a host family, in my job I am an equal to any other employee, and I manage my own routine and schedule of activities. My weeks are busy, filled with teaching, singing, touch rugby, running, tutoring, and leading Confirmation preparation meetings. Still, I manage to find time to watch re-runs of Friends with Spanish subtitles and, of course, party!
On normal weekends, I take some time to relax...and some time to celebrate! There is usually a birthday party or two to attend and, in Santiago, birthdays are elaborate and prolonged from a mere day to weeks of partying. For example, last week, I had two "family" parties to attend. First stop: the home of Diego's cousin who was turning fifteen. We arrived early, a Chilean abnormality, and were warmly greeted with cheek-kisses and pisco sours. The rest of the family arrived soon after, making our group an even eight, and we passed the hours with playful teasing about overly-possessive suegras (mothers-in-law) and turning fifteen. We dined on steak grilled to perfection and rich chocolate cake. I never cease to be amazed by the quality of the Chilean grill--steaks are always thick, juicy, and flavorful, though hardly ever seasoned with more than salt. A culinary wonder.
Next stop: the Japanese Cultural Center where my host brother Hikaru was celebrating his sixth birthday. Talk about a change of scenery! Enter 40 sugar-fed kindergartners, 2 clowns, 1 magician, and a handful of balloon-animal makers. I greeted my Chilean family with hugs and kisses and introduced Diego, whom they were all eager to meet (as any good family should be). The magician carried out the near-impossible task of doing magic tricks for a room full of hyperactive children and wowed us all by producing a glass of water and a dove out of thin air. I mingled with the crowd of friends and family, amazed that I knew nearly everyone there, and felt very much at home--amazing, considering the strangeness of the scene. I realized that, slowly but surely, Chile has begun to feel more like home.
Even though I consider myself increasingly Chilean--despite the obvious gringa roots--I like to spend my Sundays acting like a tourist in Santiago. At first glance, Santiago doesn't seem like anything special. It has the typical big city feel with all the good and bad that comes with it: intense traffic jams, endless options for bars and restaurants, a few parks, plenty of people. However, as I don my super-tourist gear and take the time to explore the ins and outs of the city, I find that Santiago has a hidden charm, for those who know where to look.
For example, I discovered a quaint cobblestone street near la Universidad Catolica full of classy boutiques, a dangerous discovery for my bank account. The nearby Parque Forestal is lined with tall maple trees whose leaves during this season are a delightful array of yellows, reds, and oranges. At the edge of the park is a local ice cream shop called Emporio la Rosa that specializes in unique combinations: chocolate albahaca (chocolate basil), rosa (rose), and frutilla y pimienta (strawberry and black pepper), to name a few. I also found my way to Pablo Neruda's home, La Chascona, named for his lifelong mistress. The home was designed to feel like a ship, complete with a small stream running alongside the circular windows. I loved his notion of creating a personal paradise, no matter where he was living, and planned to do the same.
Other highlights include Bellas Artes, a modern art museum that recently held an engaging exhibit on "Chilean history in photographs," and the two cerros (mountains or large hills, in this case) inside the city limits: Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal. Though I am highly partial to the latter--a veritable paradise for runners, bikers, and even the occasional kick boxer--Cerro Santa Lucia offers a decent view, an easier climb, and an elaborate fountain for tossing pesos.
La Piojera is another city icon that cannot be passed up. For those of you who have experienced the quintessential grunge bar at Notre Dame fondly known as "The Backer," imagine that beloved bar superimposed in Chile with longer picnic tables, roudy Chileans raving and chanting as if at a soccer game, and one specialty drink--the terremoto (the earthquake). Two scoops of ice cream, white wine, and pisco (grape brandy) give this dangerous drink its unique flavor and, if you're not thirsty--or sober--enough to drink the terremoto, you can always order the smaller version, "la replica" (the aftershock). It's nice to know that Chileans haven't lost their sense of humor.
A less touristy, but just as entertaining, way to spend a weekend night is at a concert. So far my concert tally in Chile is at four: La Sonora de Tommy Rey, Simply Red, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Celtic Legend, and Los Tres. Out of the list, two are typical Chilean bands, one is an aging British singer with potent red ringlets, one is a traveling Irish band and dance group, and one is pure Argentinean rock. As you might have guessed, I'm fairly impartial when it comes to live music: as long as it's singable or danceable, count me in!
I ought to mention that the previously mentioned activities are strictly reserved for normal weekends. Give me an extra day and I'm off to see the country! On our first four-day weekend (Easter weekend), our group of twelve or so drove to Valle del Elqui, a beautiful valley north of Santiago known for its pisco production. We rented two cozy cabanas and celebrated the weekend with a delicious asado (barbecue), pool time, and a trip to a local pisco factory. Pisco, we learned, is much better mixed with Coca-Cola.
On a recent three-day weekend, Diego and I took a ten-hour bus to Pucon, the adventure capital of Chile. I've promised myself to write a full blog on the event so stay tuned for pictures and more details!
Occassionally, we take trips on normal weekends, but for special causes. For example, in April, Megan, Heather, Jillian, and I joined a bus of young, motivated Chileans and foreigners to Yerbas Buenas, an area hit particularly hard during the earthquake. We arrived late Friday night, slurped soup, and huddled in our sleeping bags piled haphazardly in empty classrooms on a school campus. The next morning we woke early, ate breakfast, and were dropped off at our sites to "build" mediaguas, or small, wooden temporary homes. The task was particularly challenging for my group since we were one man down and had little to no home-constructing experience. I quickly determined that my summer internship as a saleswoman at Pulte Homes was not going to help much.
Still, we worked with enthusiasm and, two long and exhausting days later, proudly stood before our wooden masterpiece as the elderly woman who would be living in the home cut the ribbon hanging across the door. And by ribbon I mean piece of twine, since a curious gringa--myself--had been practicing tying the official ribbon into a bow and had subsequently lost it. When the big moment came, the tricolor strip had vanished and our dedicated search proved unsuccessful. I angrily blamed the dogs--there were about five mangy suspects roaming around the yard who were clearly capable of tearing a ribbon to shreds; they had already shown their malicious nature by pooping on one of our carefully-dug posts, though the diabolical dog deserves some credit for accuracy. At last, we hung a piece of twine as a replacement. Ten minutes after the twine-cutting ceremony and pictures, the long-lost ribbon was mysteriously found in my pocket... My group still won't let me forget it and call me the "perro amarillo" as a humorous reminder: "the yellow dog."
I should take this moment to thank all of you who donated to the my half-marathon to support Chile fund. Part of the money was given to two well-established charities in Chile: Caritas and Un Techo Para Chile, the organization that sent our bus down to Yerbas Buenas and provided us with the materials to build the mediaguas. The rest of the money was given to the family for whom we built the temporary home. The elderly woman wept and hugged me tight, sending her blessings to all of you back in the states who were so generous. I teared up too and was so glad that we were able to do our part to helping get this country back on its feet.
Some weekends we travel. Some weekends we build. And some weekends we go on high school retreats. Two weeks ago, our group of monitors (or leaders) took 28 high school students on a Confirmation retreat to the Santuario de Santa Teresa de Los Andes, the Sanctuary of Saint Teresa of the Andes. The tomb of this beloved saint, one of two native to Chile, is frequented throughout the year by those seeking spiritual guidance, healing, and quiet reflection. On the grounds is a retreat center managed by Carmelite nuns, which was our home for the three day retreat. The students were wonderfully serious about the meaning of the retreat. The first night we held an 8 hour adoration of the Holy Sacrament from midnight to 8AM and there was not a single moment during the whole night when someone was not in the chapel praying--or, at least, sleep-praying. Amazing. Somehow, I was only "encargada" or in charge of the songs and activities but I enjoyed every minute and took full advantage of the opportunity to teach a little Superman Grace, Eric Eble-style. The kids either think I'm crazy or awesome...I hope both!
With all this talk of weekends and extracurriculars, the main event of my Chilean experience has been a little overshadowed but, believe me, teaching at Saint George is never dull! Topping off the school's celebratory events is Semana Georgiana, the school's raging spirit week which includes skits, costumes, field events, and more reggaeton than an all-night discoteca. I have also had more adventures in just entering my classroom than I ever would have imagined: I have not-so-stealthily entered through a window TWICE and once taught twenty minutes of English class to forty second graders as we waited for a janitor to bring a key to open the door.
But, once inside the classroom, Georgian students really shine. Saint George prides itself on the creativity and liberal-mindedness of its student body; meaning, my 100+ students are some of the most intelligent, artistic, and completely crazy kids I've ever taught. Beginning in first grade, students are given full responsibility of their schedule, an impressive feat when I recall my military-style line of students in the states walking to and from the bathroom. While the idea of giving students more control seems impressive, it also means that the first five minutes of every class typically include telling two boys to stop rolling on the floor, asking a pose of girls to stop fixing their hair in front of the mirror (another oddity: why do all of the classrooms have mirrors???), and frantically writing the order of the lesson on the board while half my class gets restless waiting to begin and the other half hasn't even started looking for their English books. And I do this five to seven times a day. Thank goodness for recreo (recess)!
Well, this will have to suffice. I'll try to get more into a monthly blog-writing routine now that winter is approaching. Hope you're all enjoying the summer weather up north and please send warm thoughts southward!