A Weekend in San Pedro de Atacama – Muy Bacán!

From the moment I started thinking about coming to Chile and researching what to see and do here, I knew I had to go to San Pedro de Atacama. Pictures of San Pedro de Atacama show cute stuccoed buildings, dusty shopping streets, and snow-covered mountains in the background. It is known for being the gateway to exploring the Chilean altiplano. From here, it’s an easy day trip to see flamingos on salt flats, hike volcanos, and bathe in hot springs near geysers. The surrounding land is so other-worldly they’ve literally named it Valley of the Moon and Valley of Mars.

It’s definitely my kind of town.

I went with three other teachers from the elementary school, who had all been before and were looking to see more of what San Pedro de Atacama has to offer. Our first stop was La Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon). There we climbed through dark and sometimes very tight spaces in caves (where one of us was perfectly dressed for the occasion in a Batman shirt). We then watched the sun set, and the moon rise, over the valley. It was nothing short of spectacular.

That would be the first of many spectacular views, as the following day we went to the ruins of a fort, the Pukara de Quitor, built by the native Atacaman pre-Incan society. Some hiking nearby led to stunning views across the valley. And how green this valley was! There were trees and plants – a welcome sight compared to the vast blanket of brown that surrounds Maria Elena.

We also spent time walking, shopping, and eating in town. We visited the church, which anchors the main square. Music flowed out of many restaurants, and a violinist appeared to be a regular in the main square. It had a very Europe-meets-Chilean altiplano vibe. We stayed in a hostel on the edge of town, where in the mornings we had a breakfast of eggs and toast and in the evenings we sat around a fire drinking and talking about music until 1 or 2 in the morning. Yes, I stayed up until 2 am! (Special thanks to chef and fire-master Andres!!)

Before returning to Maria Elena, we decided to check out the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. A journey of an hour and half down a rough gravel road brought us to our destination. Pools of the clearest blue (and chilly) salt water emerged out of nowhere in the middle of parched earth, just waiting for us to jump in. So we took a dip in the salt-surrounded lagoons. Much like in the Dead Sea, the high salinity of the water makes everyone quite buoyant. I could have grabbed a book and read if I wanted to.

I was so fortunate to be able to go with my new friends. I would never have known about the Pukara de Quitor or made it out to the lagunas escondidas on my own. Everywhere we went I heard little to no English (except for me continuously saying “This is awesome!). This was surprising to me since the area is such a tourist hub. I came back with a couple of trinkets and plenty of wonderful memories, and am already looking forward to visiting again (gotta go see those flamingos). The experience was, as the Chileans say when something is super awesome, muy bacán!


Who Has the Better Barbeque: Chile or the US?

This blog post is about probably the most important topic there is: food. Chilean food is not well-known in the United States, and there are many that would say that is for good reason. Chilean food is largely light on spice, heavy on salt, and if you aren’t eating bread are you really even eating? Chilean salad is literally just tomato, onion, and olive oil (and salt, of course). Although the mix can be tasty, it would hardly pass for a salad at home. Fortunately, I have been spoiled by my host family’s cooking so far:

But I think there is one major aspect of Chilean food that we can all appreciate: asado. Asado is Chilean barbeque, and here I am referring to the sacred act of grilling meats (and other things) over an open flame and not the glorious sauce. That is a totally different discussion. For both Americans and Chileans barbeque is more than food – it’s a hobby, it’s a way of life, and it’s as much about the people you are eating with as it is about the meat itself. There are some key differences though.

Americans tend to grill during the day. The classic summer backyard barbeque is often an afternoon event, perhaps on Memorial Day or Independence Day. Or dad might slap some burgers and dogs on the grill for dinner. Chileans asadar at night. The earliest one I have been to started at 8, but they can start at 9 or 10. They tend to last until 2 or 3… or 5 in the morning.

In the United States, we might throw some veggie kebabs or some fruit like pineapple or peaches on the grill. A classic barbeque might also include a salad, baked beans, pasta salad, and some kind of dessert like cookies or brownies. Chileans seem to grill meat, and meat, and more meat. Each asado invariably includes steak, ribs, chicken, and sausages all on the grill at the same time. When it is time to eat, a mountain of meat awaits you.

Of course, a pile of meat would feel too lonely without bread. Enter choripan, which is chorizo in bread (a.k.a. better hotdog), and churrascas which is a kind of grilled biscuit. There is nary a vegetable or fruit to be seen, unless you count the glass of wine or pisco as fruit.

I have been lucky to be invited to a few asados so far, and I hope I get to go to many more in my remaining time here. Both cultures have great barbecues because ultimately it isn’t about the food – it is about the company. For me an asado has been more than about eating a fabulous meal. It has been about being invited into a culture and feeling just a little bit more at home here.

Cultural Differences: Getting Used to the New Normal

In addition to the differences of life in a small desert town like Maria Elena that I mentioned before, there are some cultural differences in Chile that I want to talk about. Fortunately, none of them are troubling, but it takes some getting used to.

Language. Of course, I did not move to Chile expecting everyone to speak English all the time. But Chilean Spanish is difficult. It’s rapid. They swallow letters (for example, gracias becomes “gracia” and “por fa” instead of por favor). And then there are all the chilenismos. I am making a study of flaite, fome, bacán, monitos, po, and the other slang they use here. Luckily I came speaking some Spanish, and I hope to improve while I am here – but I still have a long way to go. Hopefully I can report more on this later. Assuming, of course, that I learn to effectively use the keyboard on my school laptop. It is just different enough that my typing doesn’t always flow smoothly. And forget about all the shortcuts I used to use in MS Word – they are all different in Spanish Word.

The epitome of “bacán” or “cool”

Daily Schedules. If you know me, you know I’m an early bird. I come from a family where 7:00 am is considered “sleeping in” – even on the weekend. I like to get up early and get things done, and it is normal for me to go to bed by 10. For my Chilean family, 9 or 10 (or later) is dinner time. They regularly go to bed at midnight or later, even during the week. On the weekends, an asado or fiesta (or night at the casino) can easily last until 5 am. I can’t remember the last time I was awake until 5 am. Much of this late-night revelry is fueled by the fact that Chile has a culture of siesta. At 2, everyone goes home to have lunch with their families and take a nap. The work/school day resumes around 4. As someone who has not had much success with napping (and believe me, I’ve tried) this schedule is difficult for me.

Lack of Internet Access. I have absolutely zero access to wifi. My host family does not have internet in their home, and there appears to be no wifi I can access in any public location – although I have a cable I can connect to my laptop to access internet in the school. For me, this is a big change because I am so used to sitting on my couch or in bed on my laptop either doing work, chatting with friends, or planning travels. Fortunately, data is cheap here so I’ve been using it to check facebook and listen to podcasts. But the tiny phone screen and lack of a keyboard is not great for lesson planning or writing anything of length. So if you are wondering why it is taking me so long to blog, and why it is so irregular… this is why.

PANTOUFLES! I have no idea why, but apparently the thought of walking around your house in bare or sock feet is incomprehensible here. I’m not sure if it is seen as offensive (although if you are in your own house, I am not sure who you would be offending) or just weird. So naturally everyone has a pair of really dope slippers (pantoufles) here. Lucky for me, my host mom has let me borrow an old pair of her daughter’s 😊

my borrowed pantoufles
My borrowed pantoufles

And then there is All.The.Kissing. Chileans greet each other with a kiss on the right cheek (like many other cultures, of course). This norm is sweet and warm and I usually don’t mind it too much. But it feels a little strange, and can be a little time consuming, when a line of students want to kiss you goodbye. Nevertheless, these delightful differences are all part of my cultural education!

Overcoming Fears: One Fried Egg at a Time

This morning, something amazing happened. I made a nice, hot breakfast for myself.

While that may not seem very amazing to you, for me it was kind of a big deal. My host parents are away this weekend, and I have the house all to myself. While this has largely meant peace and quiet, it has also been the cause of some anxiety for me. You see, my host family has a gas stove. I grew up in a house with an electric range – the idea of having gas in the house immediately triggers images of fatal leaks and explosions.

Even more terrifying to me is that you have to light this gas stove manually. With an actual match. As someone that has always been a little afraid of fire, I was really not sure if I could do this. Would I be able to get over my trepidation to strike the match with enough force to actually ignite? Could I hold my hand steady enough to light the gas flame? I put myself to the test by deciding to make eggs for breakfast today. And I passed the test. With flying colors, I must say.

And this got me thinking about what can happen when we overcome our fears. Not only did I get to enjoy a wonderful breakfast, but the sense of accomplishment and confidence this small achievement gave me put a smile on my face that lasted all day. As silly as it sounds over something so trivial, I am proud of myself. And this pride and confidence creates an extremely valuable mindset.

One of my favorite quotes about the importance of mindset is something Yogi Berra once said: “Baseball is ninety percent mental, the other half is physical.” While his math is a little sketchy, the essence of what he is saying is completely correct: attitude is everything, and what is in your head impacts what you can and cannot do. We can let an irrational fear hold us back from doing something… or, we can dive in and amaze ourselves when we find out what we are capable of.

The other day, someone told me that they try to do something that they are a little bit afraid of every day. This doesn’t mean that you skydive or bungee jump everyday – it can be something small, like lighting a stove. Or it can be taking your first solo trip, something I was scared to do at first but now I totally love!

But the point is that you do something out of the norm for you, something that makes you a little bit uncomfortable. As has been said many times: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

The more you dive in and overcome naysayers and fear, the more you begin to live. The resulting positive feelings will only build on themselves. Before you know it, you will gain confidence in yourself as a capable person with a can-do attitude, able to take on whatever challenges life decides to throw at you.   We face our fears together

Maria Elena: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

First, I should start off by saying that there really isn´t anything ugly here, but the title seemed to fit with the western desert town theme they’ve got going on in Maria Elena.

I have been in Maria Elena for about a week now as I am writing this, and there has been a lot to adjust to. When I decided to do the English Opens Doors Program, I wanted a placement in the north both because it is warmer here now than in the south but also because I wanted something different. And boy, is it different.

At home, in Alexandria, Virginia, I live in a quaint colonial town on the Potomac River. I am right near Washington DC, which is not a gigantic city by any means but it has plenty to do. There are shows to see, new restaurants to try, neighborhoods to wander around, and museums to visit. My parents live on a lake not too far from DC, and I am used to driving around the lush green Virginia countryside.

Here, there is nothing but desert. The desert is a stark, brown, other-worldly place. There is hardly anything growing here but some scraggly trees in town that require a lot of work to maintain. There IS a river that runs through the desert (Rio Loa, which is actually the longest river in Chile), but from what I have seen of it, it is barely a stream.

With a population of a few thousand, it’s probably the smallest and most isolated place I have ever been. There are a few other hamlets out in the middle of the desert, but to get anywhere with a movie theater or mall you have to drive over an hour. However, it has everything you really need, and I think I will find myself enjoying the good Maria Elena has to offer over the next four months:

  • The sky is phenomenal. With almost no light pollution and few buildings to block your view, sunsets in the desert are nothing short of spectacular. And when the sun finally dips below the horizon, you are left with the clearest night sky you will ever see. There is a reason that some of the most important observatories in the world are in the Atacama.

desert sky

  • The people are as warm as the midday weather. While even in winter the midday sun will have you sweating, the citizens of Maria Elena provide a comforting warm and fuzzy feeling. I received not one but TWO welcome parties (one at each school), an official welcome from the mayor (who now happily greets me in the streets when he sees me walking), and many of the teachers have gone out of their way to include me in events.

My new life is not without its challenges, though. As someone who is introverted and individualistic, placing a high value on my free time and personal space, being famous in a small town has been a little difficult. As one of the few super-white chicks and native English speakers to come to this town, I stick out. Everyone wants to meet me, hug me, and talk to me. I walk through the halls at school and I am swarmed by kids shouting “Hello, Miss” or “Hola, Profe.”

And that does not even cover attempts to make friends! How do you even make friends as an adult anyway? This is something I struggle with even in my native language, and now I have to awkwardly approach people and ask them IN SPANISH to hang out with me?? Hopefully I can rely on that warmth I mentioned earlier. Oh, what did I sign myself up for…

Just Say Yes! And Watch What Happens

For those that don´t know, I recently decided to sell my house, quit my job, store my things, and give up any semblance of what is usually considered a “normal” life. It was a big decision, but one that I thought about for a long time. As I prepared, I was immediately confronted with all the stressful realities and questions related to making such a major life change. Where do I put my stuff? What do I do about health insurance? OMG I am going to miss my friends and family so much! I started having doubts about whether this was the right decision. How am I going to explain this to my friends? To future employers? To my parents?!? Should I even go at all?

The answer, of course, is yes. The answer should always be yes when it comes to trying new things. Much has been written about “the power of yes” because, really, who wants to live a life of regret because fear held them back from something they wanted to try? Of course, I should go!

And it is that yes that brings me on a trip of undefined length to South America. Currently, I sit in a small town in Chile called Maria Elena. I will be here until the end of November, teaching English at the town schools and exploring the barren but beautiful Atacama Desert in the North of Chile: the driest place on Earth.

Before coming to Chile, I spent ten days in Peru, and the attitude of yes served me well there. Fortunately, I have a friend that knew someone in Lima and while I was there I was asked many questions. “Would you like to meet for coffee?” “Can I put you in touch with a friend?” “Would you like to join us for dinner?” After saying yes, and yes (and yes some more) I found myself, among other things, enjoying fresh ceviche at a private beach club in Lima, overlooking the Pacific, with a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.

Don´t be afraid to work those connections! Sometimes they will fall through, but sometimes you will have a local show you how to use the confusing bus system or invite you to a dinner party.  Even if you don´t have a connection, there are still opportunities to say yes. I was dining alone in a restaurant that offered a 2-for-1 happy hour. Another woman came in with her grandson, made a joke about how the offer didn´t really work for them, and then asked if I wanted to join their table and share the deal (I suppose I looked pathetic to them, dining alone – the horror!). I said yes, and I had a lovely evening with a woman who happened to be from Santiago, and discussed what I could expect from Chilean food and culture.

Ultimately, what is the worst that can happen? If by saying yes, you join someone for an event or adventure and the two of you don´t get along, then you don´t need to go out with them again. If you move to a new country and you absolutely hate it, go back home (or try out a different country). There is no shame in failure. The satisfaction of trying at all, of having said yes, will stay with you forever. It´s all part of the journey.