The Parents Visit part 2: San Pedro de Atacama and Iquique

So as you might remember, my parents came to visit. In addition to being really great to see them and awesome/weird to share a bit of Maria Elena and my experience here with them, it was also a super great excuse to travel. So I decided for their first weekend here we would see the jewel of the Atacama desert, a place I had already been and really enjoyed: San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA). Fortunately, it was a long weekend so we got bonus time in SPdA.

We all enjoyed the town very much. We explored the church, did some shopping, and might have eaten at the same restaurant three days in a row. We even got the same dessert three times, because Adobe’s Tres Leches Cake is to die for and I fully believe it is meant to be eaten every day. With all that eating, some relaxing was definitely necessary. Fortunately, our hotel had a hammock and a nice view of the volcano that was definitely enjoyed with a glass of vino or two.

Our days were also filled with tours and activities to keep us all plenty busy. The first day we did a full-day tour out to explore the Salar de Atacama: the salt flat with its red rocks, volcanos, high altitude lagoons, vicuña, and flamingos. The landscape is so spectacular it’s a little unreal (but not in the post-apocalyptic kind of unreal that surrounds Maria Elena).

The next day we got up super early to view the geothermal activity at the high altitude El Tatio geyser and I am happy to report that none of us suffered from altitude sickness. We wrapped up our SPdA experience by taking advantage of the clear night skies with a star-viewing tour. We got to learn about dying galaxies and even see the rings of Saturn!! The Atacama Desert has some of the clearest night skies in the world and is home to some giant telescopes and astronomical research institutions, such as ALMA.

The following weekend found us in Iquique, which I had NOT been to yet but I am so happy I finally went. It was easily my favorite city in northern Chile. It’s pretty, it’s clean, and has miles of actually usable beach on the coastline. There are plenty of museums, restaurants, and activities to keep you busy and satisfied. In Iquique I introduced my parents to Chilean sushi, which involves more cream cheese than you would expect (but is actually quite tasty).

We also went to the Corbeta Esmeralda, which was sunk during the Battle of Iquique of the War of the Pacific against Bolivia and Peru. The battle was fought on my favorite day, May 21. It is my birthday, and every city and town has a street and a square named 21 of May, so I feel like I am constantly celebrated. Although the Chileans technically lost that day, the death of Chilean hero Arturo Prat inspired thousands to join the army and really turned the tide in the war (which Chile obviously ended up winning).

It was so good to be travelling around again, and I cannot wait to go to Iquique again (which is looking like it should be next week, since November 1 and 2 are holidays here). And stay tuned for the continuation of the parents’ visit saga, because it looks like they might be coming back to check out Patagonia with me in a few weeks.


All the World’s a Stage … Or at Least Has a Stage

Living near DC, I had a world of cultural opportunities at my fingertips. There’s always some new exhibit or special event at one of the museums. I could easily pop out and try a new dish at an excellent Ethiopian, Bolivian, or Vietnamese restaurant nearby. The presence of all the world’s embassies enables Washingtonians to travel to far-off lands without even leaving the city.

And then there were the theaters. Washington has dozens of high-quality professional theaters bringing world class shows to the city as well as small, local groups pushing envelopes and bringing affordable theater to the masses. I ushered at four theaters and went to additional shows and programs besides, so I probably watched live theater at least 40 times a year.

Maria Elena is a little bit different. Keeping with the theme from a previous post of things I am grateful for, there IS a theater in town – but as I have mentioned before, you are not going to find Broadway’s latest hits here. However, I try to venture out to whatever shows I am able to get to in and around town.

I have seen a couple of concerts here, but the first remains the most memorable. In addition to a traditional lineup of symphonic hits, a school orchestra busted out some rock hits. This included, to my surprise, Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine … which a student sang IN ENGLISH. I was very impressed. After working with my students on preparing songs for Lollapalenglish, I know how much practice (and guts) it takes to get up in front of a crowd and sing in a foreign language.

I also saw a play in our local theater, which was interesting since, of course, it was performed entirely in Spanish. My Spanish level remains incomplete, but I get the general gist of things. Which worked perfectly because this play was very Shakespearean, both in content (a play-within-a-play dealing with the vices of human nature) and in style, as it used both meter and rhyme. There are many native English speakers that do not understand Shakespeare, so it felt the same as attending a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Some of my favorite shows have been dance performances. Not only is dance beautiful, but it transcends languages. Everyone can enjoy it. Fortunately, Chileans (in my experience) LOVE to dance and are especially proud of their traditional, folkloric dances. This was especially prevalent in September, during the national holiday, but the elementary school also recently put on a grand showcase of traditional dances from all across South America. I hope the dancing never stops!

Another unique experience was attending a Santeferia concert on the beach in Tocopilla, a nearby town. For 12 years, this Chilean group has been bringing “cumbia casera” (house cumbia) to the masses. Quick Wikipedia research tells us that cumbia originated in Colombia (or possibly even Africa) as early as the 1820s, but gained popularity throughout South America with different countries putting their own spin on it. I can’t speak to its current popularity in other countries, but it has definitely experienced a resurgence in Chile. Everyone I talk to says they love cumbia and love going out to dance to cumbia.

The energy of the fans at the Santaferia concert certainly confirms that – everyone was dancing and singing along (except for me and my fellow gringas for obvious reasons) as flags and balloons flew through the crowd. Despite not knowing the words, I enjoyed myself immensely. I’ve even started to listen to some of Santeferia’s music at home. 🙂

Before coming here, I was nervous about what I was going to do for fun. Especially in a small town. But I am not nervous anymore. You don’t have to know the lyrics to appreciate a good song. You don’t have to understand the script to appreciate a play. You don’t have to know the culture and history of a dance to appreciate its beauty. Yeah, I don’t understand everything that is said around me, but I get a lot (my Spanish isn’t too terrible, and it improves day by day). It turns out what I have is enough.

Welcome to my Little Corner of the World: The Parents Visit

By the time I decided to park it in the Atacama for a few months, my parents were already booked on a trip through Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. After they finished samba-ing in Rio, eating beef in Buenos Aires, and drinking wine and Mendoza, they flew from Santiago (where their tour ended) up to Antofagasta to come see me.

They rented a car and drove to Maria Elena last week with no idea of what they would experience. The drive through the desert from Antofa (to those in the know) to ME gave them their first taste of the starkness of the desert. You can drive for hours and look around for miles and see nothing but rocks and parched Earth. Mom says she now knows what the apocalypse is going to look like.

They finally made it to my town, but Google Maps hasn’t quite figured out how to get around here so neither could my parents. They called me from the theater in the town square saying they couldn’t find the school. I went right over (fortunately nothing in town is too far of a walk) to collect them and bring them to the high school because they arrived just in time for Lollapalenglish, the English chorus festival.

For the show, each class group was assigned an artist and had to memorize the lyrics and create choreography for four songs, one of which would be a solo. For two evenings, we were treated to their interpretations of Queen, Michael Jackson, Adele, Coldplay, Maroon 5, Bon Jovi and others. Mom (who was incredibly bummed that her favorite group, Matchbox 20, was not represented in the lineup) even got to be a judge with me one of the evenings! The kids were totally brilliant.

For more fun, my parents also came to class with me Thursday (which in this case was a final rehearsal for that evening’s performance) and to the elementary school to see some of the school anniversary events. Between all the special events, it was EXTRA chaotic at both schools last week so hopefully they are not going home thinking that school in Chile is absolute insanity when really it is usually just medium insanity. But I was really happy to share my schools with both of them, especially Mom since she was a teacher.

In addition to school events, I walked them around town so they would see where I live. We went out to a restaurant, popped into my host mom’s shop in the “mall,” and dad went to the town museum. He even got a guided tour in English, which I didn’t even know was an option!

Of course, my real folks also got to meet my host folks, which was kind of a surreal experience for me. Honestly, the whole thing was a little surreal – it was like seeing a giraffe walk through a shopping mall. But we had a good time – we cooked some BBQ chicken with Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce and even made some grilled cheese! And I think my parents feel better about what I am doing and where I am now that they have gotten a chance to see and experience it. Although I don’t think they approve of late-night meat eating, which they got a taste of during evening tea… where we ate hamburgers at 10:30 at night.

My parents will be here for another few days, and we have already squeezed in a trip to San Pedro de Atacama and will be heading to Iquique for the weekend (which is why I missed posting last week, but I will squeeze in an extra post this week and I’ll be sure to blog about our road trips!)

Appreciating the Small Things #Gratitude

Ok so I know that the title is like the WORST kind of typical millennial white-girl blabber, but hear me out. I have been thinking a lot about the little differences in my daily life here in Maria Elena and my life at home in the U.S. And you know what? I take a lot for granted!

For example, in Maria Elena we frequently lose power. Sometimes for just a little bit, sometimes for a whole day, but I would say it’s an on-average once-a-week experience that we go some amount of time without electricity. This, however, is preferred to when the water is shut off, which also happens (although fortunately less frequently). At first, I was like, WTF is this, yo? How am I supposed to be expected to go even an hour without electricity?

But you know what? I don’t have internet at home anyway, so it is not like I am suddenly cut off from sitting on my computer aimlessly surfing the corners of the web. We have TVs in the house, but I do not usually watch much TV anyway. We don’t have, nor need, AC or heat. I have my two feet, and I can go for a walk. I keep my phone and my Kindle charged so that I can listen to podcasts or read. And there’s definitely plenty of daylight in this land of endless sun to read by. The power will come back soon.

There are also plenty of little conveniences that are standard in American life that I don’t have here. In addition to the aforementioned lack of heat/AC, we don’t have a clothes dryer, a garbage disposal, or a dishwasher. No matter what I do, I cannot get stable water temperature or pressure in my shower (I have always believed that showers is where the U.S. really excels compared to other countries). I cannot flush toilet paper down the toilet.

But hey, at least I have a toilet and a shower! At least I have a clothes washer, and don’t have to wash my clothes by hand. And the dry desert air is pretty effective at drying clothes you hang up. And given my extremely limited ability with cooking, I have become the house’s dishwasher as my contribution to mealtimes. It turns out you can get by without all those things.

Another major convenience I am doing without is a car. A car is freedom, a right of passage. At home, everyone has a car; in my family we have five cars for four people (which sounds a little insane). Here I am in this tiny town and I have no way of leaving or getting anywhere else without taking a bus or relying on others. I am an independent woman coming from an independent culture where we all go where we want when we want to. But in doing so, we end up constantly focusing on doing things solo and lose a little bit the value of sharing with or having to rely on others.

Because in the end all those little conveniences and all the stuff (read: crap) we collect are not that important. As long as you are healthy (and can travel!) and have people in your life that you care about and that care about you, you´ll be fine.