Dieciocho: More than Just a Date

Last week was the big national holiday of Chile. Whether you call it dieciocho or fiestas patrias, September 18 is essentially Independence Day. In the U.S. we get a measly one day off to celebrate July 4. Chileans get at least three days, although schools were out all week (yay for me!), and celebrations commenced a full week in advance of the actual 18th.  I was fortunate enough to attend celebrations in both Maria Elena (with the school, my host family, and the town) and to visit a friend and her family in Antofagasta for a few days. Here’s what I learned dieciocho is all about:

  • Copious consumption: Chileans seem to eat as many national delicacies as they can during the week-long celebration. This of course includes the mountains of meat at asados, but also anticuchos (shish kebabs), Chilean salad, mote con huesillo, and empanadas #alldayeveryday. All of this is chased with a terremoto (a mix of sweet wine, pineapple ice cream, and grenadine) or some chicha. It feels like the all-you-can-eat special that Americans pull off every Thanksgiving… but on Bill Murray-style Groundhog Day repeat.
  • Celebratory events: For a whole week, there is always something going on. Carnivals (ramadas) take over parts of the city, with rides, arcade games, crafts, performances, and food galore available at all hours of the day. Multiple parades take place, including military parades and school parades (which I got to walk in with my schools).
  • Cueca dancing: The national dance can break out at any moment at any kind of gathering, whether at a parade, ramada, low-key family get together…or the middle of English class. What I love about cueca is that everyone is welcome to join in and add their own personal flair to the costumes, the use of the pañuelo (handkerchief), and the jaunty zapateo step.
  • (Compulsory) nationalism: During dieciocho you will see the Chilean flag everywhere – flying from every house, building, and even most of the cars. Turns out the complete saturation of flags is because the law states that you must fly the Chilean flag from your home or residence on the holiday.
  • Chilling with the fam: Ultimately the holiday provides the perfect opportunity for Chileans living up and down this long, skinny country to visit home and attend the festivals, parades, and parties with their loved ones. Although it made me miss home (and sad I won’t be home for Thanksgiving this year) I am so fortunate that I got to spend parts of the holiday with two lovely families that welcomed me in so graciously.

I also took advantage of the full week off to get myself all the way up to Arica, near the Chile-Peru border. I got to take in El Morro, sight of a famous battle that led to the port city changing hands (as described in a previous post), see the world’s oldest mummies (the Chinchorro mummies of the Atacama are about 2,000 years older than their Egyptian counterparts), eat lots of yummy ice cream and Italian food, and take my first bike ride in probably…fifteen years. A fellow volunteer and I biked about 12 miles round trip along the Pacific Ocean to see some caves near Arica.

I had a wonderful time exploring more of the north, and it was nice to hit the road again. But I have to admit, after the bustle of the city and two not very restful overnight bus rides it was nice to come back to home sweet Maria Elena.


Transition to Travel: One Girl’s Story

Moving abroad or traveling long term has been something I have thought about for a long time. When I graduated from undergrad, I was going to move to London and do temporary work… but the UK cancelled that visa program just before I graduated.  Fortunately, I soon heard about a graduate program where I could spend ten months living in Italy AND walk away with a Master’s Degree. I ended up doing that program and it was without a doubt one of the best years and experiences of my life.

When I finished, I toyed around with the idea of teaching English abroad. I looked into different certifications and what types of jobs I could get. I was going to teach in Europe! In Asia! Around the world! I actually pursued it far enough that I was offered a position as a camp counselor for an English summer camp in Italy.

I turned it down.

I turned it down because life got in the way. I got caught up in trying to be more responsible and look more professional. I ended up teaching English, but as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Fairfax County, Virginia. I lived with my parents for a while as I completed that program, worked other jobs, and eventually got hired for my first “real” job as a Public Policy Analyst with the USPS Office of Inspector General.

I had a real salary! I rented an apartment and moved out of my parents’ house and in with roommates. I got my own car insurance…then sold that car… then got a new car and new car insurance. I started paying for my own health insurance and contributing to the federal retirement system. I paid taxes, I paid into the social security system, and even bought a house y’all.

For six years, that was how I lived. I had my house, my family, my friends, my job, and plenty of social activities outside work to keep me busy and happy and healthy. I was the very definition of adulting.

But I kept wondering what if.

What if I had taken the job at that summer camp in Italy? What if I used teaching English (or some other type of work) as a vehicle to travel the world? What if I got the chance to see new things, go new places, and meet new people? Could I have a life of adventure? Would I be more successful? Would I be happier?

There was only one way to find out. So, I figured one day I would go for it. But there were three things holding me back: one very beloved elderly dog that I did not want to leave behind, a mortgage I had to pay, and a job that tied me to the Northern Virginia area.

Well a year ago today, my beloved dog passed away. Literally a few weeks later, I received a letter saying people were interested in buying in my condo building. The real estate agent who said to call or email him if I would consider selling. I thought: What kind of nonsense was this? Does anyone answer these letters? I threw it in the trash. But it nagged at me – what if?

What if someone wanted to buy it at a good price? I pulled the letter out of the trash, and emailed the agent. We met and discussed what my “make me move price” would be. The second couple he brought to see my condo offered me that price.

What if that was a sign? I am not usually someone that believes in signs, but the timing of everything sure was adding up. At the same time, I was feeling ready to leave my job. I had been doing essentially the same thing for six years and no longer felt like I was growing. I wanted new challenges. I also don’t have a husband or kids complicating my life, and my parents are in good health and don’t need any extra care. I had some money saved up to provide a bit of a buffer while galivanting around if I needed it.

I decided to start looking for different opportunities. After hours of online research thinking about the things I could do and the places I could go, I decided I wanted to teach English in a Spanish-speaking country and found a program that I was interested in: the English Opens Doors Program in Chile. It was the first thing I applied to, and I got it.

Signs, man. It was like the universe was hitting me upside the head Gibbs-style with them (NCIS fans, anyone?) Six months after my plan was set in active motion, I had my teaching program lined up, my house sold, and was about to give notice at my job (I decided on leaving outright rather than taking a leave without pay situation because, mentally, I wanted the clean break).

Are things perfect? No. Am I happier than I was before? Some days. Some days I miss home too much to think about all the cool things I am doing and exciting opportunities I have. Am I learning new things? Definitely. Am I being challenged? Daily. Do I have any regrets?

Not a single one.

I find teaching very difficult. Lesson planning and trying to get students motivated about speaking English is a challenge every day. My fifth-grade classes are more zoo-like some days, and classroom management is a constant test of my patience. But every week gets a little easier.

I get by with a little help from my friends. The teachers I work with are extremely supportive and give me whatever supplies and assistance I need. They also invite me out to parties, events, and trips around the crazy Chilean desert. My host family has been wonderfully welcoming too, going above and beyond to feed me delicious meals and make sure I am included in conversation. And every week my Spanish gets a little better.

Making the transition to travel was scary, but once I decided to go for it, doors started opening. I took advantage of things that fell into my lap (or mailbox, as it were) and turned my research into action. I was surrounded by supportive people who encouraged my daringness. My mom was not a fan of the idea at first, but I think demonstrating that I had a plan that I was committed to not only eased some of her concerns but made me more confident in my own choices.

I was afraid, too. It is not easy to leave a stable, well-paying job for something that could potentially look problematic on a resume… but things have a way of working out. This path of not only world exploration, but also self-exploration and growth has been unbelievable. I am so glad that I made the leap and I can’t wait to see where I end up next! For now, Chao from Maria Elena.

La Ultima Salitrera: A History of Maria Elena

Maria Elena was created in 1926, which was toward the end of the saltpeter boom that largely happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town is named for Mary Ellen, the wife of the Englishman who was the first administrator of the mine here, although it also went by the name Coya Norte – a sister city to the nearby Coya Sur. In keeping with its English namesake, the town layout resembles (at least, it is supposed to resemble) the Union Jack. The proudly call it “la ultima salitre” – the last salpeter. It is the last of the mining towns of its kind. In the world.

You can somewhat see the Union Jack impression in this book cover

Currently, about 4,500 or so people live here and it is the county seat of the surrounding area. In many ways, Maria Elena is a normal town. There is a mayor and a main square, which like every main square in Chile is called the “Plaza de Armas.” Around the square you will find the church and a town museum, which used to be the town school until around the 1990s when the current high school and elementary school opened up. Fortunately for me, there is a theater in town! Touring bands and production companies bring concerts and plays here. While I certainly won’t be catching Broadway’s latest hits here, the prices are always better than Broadway: free.

But there is also something very unique/strange about Maria Elena. The town is completely owned by SQM, the state-owned chemical and mining company. This is why the museum and shows at the theater are free: the company subsidizes them. The company sponsors cultural events, parties, recycling initiatives, and more around town. You cannot buy or rent property here, it is allocated to you by the company. The employees high up in the ranks at the mines live in what are called “chalets” that are all grouped on one side of town. In addition to their regular salaries, the teachers all live rent-free in housing near the school. The company even covers utilities.

It’s a good deal to live in a tranquil place – even if it is the middle of nowhere.

Although the population is steadily dwindling (the population is less than half of what it was 20 years ago), Maria Elena is positioning itself for the future. No one knows how much longer saltpeter mining will last. The good news is that copper deposits have more recently been discovered not too far away, near what was once Pedro de Valdivia. In an effort to become more environmentally sustainable, this land that is blessed with 365 days of sunshine per year is being increasingly covered with solar panels and thermosolar plants. And Maria Elena is something of a tourist outpost, albeit rather niche, for those that want to come and learn about the mining way of life out here in the desert.

Got Any Lip Balm? The Realities of Desert Life

Although my home is lush, and green, and beautiful I cannot say we are blessed with particularly perfect weather. Northern Virginia has lovingly been described as swampy on more than one occasion. In the summer, you leave the house in the middle of the day and you are lucky to last more than five minutes before melting into a puddle of sweat. The humidity makes the hot hotter and the cold colder.

The weather here is almost perfect. At least so far. Currently it is winter, although it seems like we change seasons during the course of a day. When I wake up, it is difficult to get out of my bed and into the chilly air. It is usually in the 50s, although I think it feels colder, so I wear my gloves and a wool hat in the morning on my walk to school.

By midday, I am shedding my zip up and rolling up my sleeves because summer has arrived. It is 80 degrees and sunny (it is always perfectly sunny), and I have to make sure I have my ballcap and sunglasses ready for action. Come November, when it is summer in the desert and the heat becomes more intense I might be singing a different tune. But right now, when the locals complain about it being so hot all I can do is laugh as I remember my beloved humid home.

But moving to one of the driest spots on earth has had its unexpected challenges. My poor sensitive skin is adamantly opposed to my new location. The locals take one look at my pale gringa skin and immediately inform me “necesitas mucho bloqueador” … “you need a lot of sunscreen.”

I should also probably be bathing in lotion considering how dry my skin has become. My lips protest the arid desert air on the daily. They are constantly chapped and flaking, despite the seemingly endless amounts of lip balm I use. I have suffered more than one nosebleed during my time here, and am anxiously awaiting more. But that is how it goes in a place where it never rains. In fact, one of the teachers told me that it rained once, like two years ago, and they had to close the school for ten days.


Like Iceland (I bet you didn’t see THAT comparison coming), there are few trees around to block the breezes so the wind can get pretty wild as well. The combination of sun and wind creates quite the pleasant atmosphere, and I enjoy relaxing outside. I can often be found sitting on the front porch enjoying the fresh air, listening to the wind, and watching whatever neighbors and wildlife come and go. I am visited by many birds and I am trying to befriend a lizard that hangs around, although the most common animal I have seen around here are stray dogs (stray dogs that must love to party all night long, as they are always barking). With a cup of tea in hand, I will sit and listen to podcasts, read… or write my blog posts. Here’s to many more!



A Brief History of the Chilean Pampa

I recently visited the museum in Maria Elena, which not only chronicles the town’s history but also the history of the local mining industry. This visit, paired with my on-the-ground tours of the surrounding pampa and discussions with locals (including my very knowledgeable host father), has my head full to bursting with the interesting story of this area.

Traditionally, not too many people lived here in the pampa. Ancient cultures lived on the coast and famously up in the mountains (think: Incans), but the vast Atacama was considered too harsh to be habitable. However, that does not mean that the ancient peoples did not leave their mark on this land. Trade routes crisscrossed the pampa, marking the land with petroglyphs and geoglyphs that showed the routes. I visited what is now a popular swimming hole at the confluence of the Loa and San Salvador Rivers but what was then an ancient market and pueblo called Chacance.

Of course, that all changed when people discovered and learned to exploit the mineral riches in this land. In the Atacama Desert they mine salt, iodine, saltpeter, lithium, and copper. Saltpeter seems to have been the larger industry historically, although copper has replaced it. (Chile is by far the largest copper producer in the world. Peru is second, but produces only about half of what Chile produces). Mining operations were quickly set up and towns formed nearby as people raced in to reap their riches.

Chileans have been here since the beginning, which is interesting because the land was not Chilean then. Where I currently live was the southern part of Peru. The land to my south for many miles, including Antofagasta, belonged to Bolivia. But Chilean companies quickly grew tired of paying taxes on the fruits of their labor to other countries, so they decided they would take over.

For three years the War of the Pacific raged until Chile emerged victorious over Peru and Bolivia (which was ultimately the biggest loser here as they not only lost access to the vast mineral deposits in the desert but also any access to the ocean – still a source of tension between the two countries). Meanwhile Argentina, seeing Chilean forces were preoccupied in the North, made a move to take their portion of Patagonia. Although tensions still run high over this as well, as a whole Chile ended up faring better trading in the southern desert for the northern desert.

Soon after that was all settled and various borders redrawn, there were hundreds of pockets of Chilean civilization dotting a vast swath of land that had barely been inhabited before. They were organized in groups, geographically, with each group being served by a port. Maria Elena eventually fell in a group in the northern part of the region (Chile’s Region II: Antofagasta), along with the towns Vergara, Coya Sur, and Pedro de Valdivia, all served by the port of Tocopilla.

For decades, as the saltpeter mining industry grew so did the number and prosperity of the towns. But all good things must come to an end. As the worldwide demand for saltpeter waned, mines were slowly shut down due to high production costs. Without mines, there was no need for mining towns. My friend, who was born in Pedro de Valdivia, told me how one day when he was a teenager the town was declared “closed” and a bus pulled up to take people away. The people who were not moved to Maria Elena were left unemployed and returned where they originally came from. The ruins of some of these towns still stand, but only ghosts live there now. These towns were, one by one, completely wiped off the map. All, that is, except one. Maria Elena: “The Last Saltpeter.”

I will post a history of the last saltpeter next week!

Pueblo abandonado – Vergara
ads for chilean saltpeter around the world
Ads for Chilean saltpeter from around the world
chilean saltpeter around the world
Global desire for Chilean saltpeter
Many uses for mining products

Why I Love Hostels – and You Should Too!

Last weekend, I stayed in a hostel in San Pedro de Atacama with some friends from Maria Elena. They warned me that it would be “sin glamour.” And sure, maybe it was a bit different from the Four Seasons but it was comfy, clean, and homey.

So, in a world where AirBnb has become the cheap lodging of choice for most of my millennial cohort and “hostel” literally became a horror movie, I thought I would take a moment to sing an ode to the underrated institution of budget lodging.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate AirBnbs. Staying in someone’s home offers a lot of attractive qualities, even beyond saving money. Staying in someone’s house and living like a local is a totally worthwhile experience. Many AirBnbs offer the chance to stay in residential parts of town where commercial lodging isn’t available, allowing you to experience a place where tourists maybe do not usually go.

And I have definitely had my fair share of horrific hostel experiences, including a terrifying lack of cleanliness and one 2:00 am séance in a hostel dorm in Venice during Carnevale that turned me off of staying in shared rooms. But I still love hostels, and here’s why:

  1. They are cheap: Everyone loves Airbnb because it’s so cheap, but I have yet to find a place where I could stay in an Airbnb for cheaper than a hostel. Compared to a hotel, both offer much more attractive rates. Both usually offer access to a kitchen as well, allowing you to save money by cooking meals. An extra bonus with hostels is that they also often function as quasi-travel agents that will book tours for you. I have found that the “hostel price” can be cheaper than the “hotel price.” For example, in Cusco I took a horseback riding tour. I paid in advance through my hostel and in the morning was picked up to join the group. Some folks staying at a nicer hotel paid at the end of the tour, and they paid over five dollars more than me for the EXACT SAME TOUR. While $5 may not seem like a lot, over time every little bit adds up!
My inexplicably cheaper horseback ride
  1. They offer better service: At the end of the day, a hostel is a business. They are there to serve you. They will arrange an early morning taxi to the airport for you, book tours for you (see above), and even print boarding passes for you so that you don’t get hit with a $16 charge by the cheapo airline to print it at the airport (I learned THAT the hard way). Furthermore, I never stay at a place without 24-hour reception. You never know when you are going to need something, and having someone right there to help you feels like such a luxury – without the luxury price tag. With Airbnb it really depends on the host, and I have yet to receive the same level of service I usually get at hostels.


  1. You can meet other great travelers: Everyone asks me how I keep from feeling lonely when I travel. Although I prefer doing things on my own, sometimes it is nice to have someone to pal around with and this is one way that hostels can be very helpful. Hostels are filled with travelers just like you, and you can meet them playing board games in the common space or having breakfast. Odds are they will want to see some of the same things you want to see, so you might as well go together!


  1. You don’t have to stay in a dorm: For me, I like having my own space. A room where I can have some peace and quiet. I don’t mind sharing a bathroom, but I would rather not be bothered all throughout the night with strangers snoring, coming and going at all hours, or deciding to participate in strange occultic rituals – whatever the case may be. Fortunately most hostels offer private single (or double, if you are travelling with a friend) rooms with a shared bathroom at really cheap rates. In fact, many offer rooms with en suite bathrooms too, if sharing a bathroom isn’t your thing.


  1. I feel safer: Probably the most important thing is I feel safer in a hostel. My first Airbnb experience had me staying in an apartment that belonged to an overly interested dude (who had a key, of course) who knew that I was travelling alone for a few days. My days ended with me moving a piece of furniture in front of the door before going to sleep because, well, you can never be too careful. I have never felt the need to do something like that at a hostel. Hostels are usually full of other people, so you never feel awkwardly alone with someone who might make you feel uncomfortable. As a business, hostels are regulated and employees vetted in some fashion. And with my own room that I can lock when I leave, I can ensure my stuff has a safe place to spend the day.

And that really sums it up for me. With the rise of the sharing network, the good, old-fashioned hostel has fallen a little bit by the wayside. My intention was to remind everyone of a really solid budget travel option. Of course, what works for me may not work for you and I encourage anyone to get out there and travel wherever they want to in the way that makes them the most comfortable. For some, that is Airbnb. For others, it is fancy hotels. For others still, it is literally crashing on a stranger’s couch through the couchsurfing network. Whatever works for you, go out there and work it!