Bye Felicia: A Final Farewell to Maria Elena

When I was first given my location assignment for where I was going to teach, I immediately hit up the Google to see where I would be. Upon seeing the images of a tiny, not particularly attractive town surrounded by nothing but dirt my first thoughts were “What the f*ck am I going to there.” I don’t think anyone dreams of being dropped off in the middle of the desert in a place where hardly anyone speaks your language. But it ended up being a pretty good thing.

Maria Elena may not photograph well, but she has a beautiful heart.

It is a pretty classic small town. In fact, it reminds me a little bit (a LITTLE bit) of Stars Hollow, the small Connecticut town from my favorite TV show of all time: Gilmore Girls. It’s fairly clean, about as clean as anything can be with all the dirt blowing around out here. There isn’t a lot of graffiti or much crime. People say hello to each other in the street or in the square, and do their shopping at small local markets. And quite a few interesting characters populate the town (maybe no one quite like Kirk, but who is). It has been called an ideal place to grow up, and most of my students tell me that they enjoy living here.

And just like Stars Hollow was known for having a town festival about every week, so too do the people of Maria Elena celebrate everything from national holidays to school anniversaries. My last week in town, the city was celebrating its anniversary. There were multiple concerts, shows, competitions, and even a special parade to mark the occasion. My leaving was also cause for a few class-time surprise parties that the kids threw for me. While teaching was definitely a struggle for me, the kids were super sweet and respectful and I am going to miss having fun with them.

I will also miss my host parents and the friends I made along the way. My last weekend in the Great Dry North, a bunch of us went to the beach to hang out and enjoy the change of scenery. We spent the time relaxing by the waves, going for chilly yet refreshing swims in the Pacific (I think my first time actually swimming in the Pacific), and hanging out listening to music. And barbequing, of course. I couldn’t have asked for a better last weekend here.

I spent the last few days enjoying the anniversary activities in town, saying goodbye to friends and students, and spending time with my host mom. I doubt it will be goodbye forever – especially since I will be back in Chile in January. I am looking forward to exploring new places with old friends.


Can You Paint With All the Colors of the Desert

I am about to leave the desert, and I have to admit that I am pretty okay with that. Desert life works for thousands of pampinos and sun-worshipers, but I don’t think it is for me. I need plants, trees, grass, and WATER. Being surrounded by a vast ocean of brown composed of dirt and rock is not for me. And though I’ve managed to avoid any serious burns in my time here, I could do without constantly worrying about how to protect my skin from the extra-powerful UV rays here. Not to mention making sure I pack lip balm, bottles of water, and a cardigan or scarf (for chilly mornings and evenings). I basically have to carry around a suitcase every day.

But there have been some moments where I am truly blown away by the otherworldly beauty and truly mindboggling diversity in the desert landscape. There’s sandy desert, near Iquique. There’s higher altitude desert with some low vegetation – the kind of desert near San Pedro de Atacama. Right around Maria Elena, there is the parched earth nothing-but-brown desert, which is unfortunately my least favorite type of desert. There is even a forest in the middle of the desert that pops out of nowhere, at the Tamarugal National Reserve.

There are parts of the desert where it rains or even snows. One of my first weekends here, I saw it snow and hail up in the high desert near Calama, and that was certainly wild. Turns out, it isn’t just scorching sun beating down all day, as one might imagine. It can be super chilly and is often quite windy. That wind creates one of the most exciting things to see in the desert (other than all the abandoned towns and the “river”), which are the dust devils. Sometimes you can look into the distance and see multiple dust devils rising up into the air like columns of smoke.

Pocahontas famously sang about the colors of the wind, and I find that upon closer inspection I could sing a song about the colors in the desert. It’s more than just brown!! (Also, do you know how many shades of brown there are? I do.) There is gray, and black, and red, and green. Driving through the high desert near San Pedro de Atacama reminded me of driving through the painted desert in Arizona/New Mexico – where all the colors are soft and muted.

The desert is most beautiful in the evenings and at night. As the sun goes down, the colors really start to get dramatic as yellow, orange, pink, and purple enter the mix. As the light leaves the sky, it’s hard not to have your breath taken away by the eerie moonlit landscape, shadows of mountains looming in the distance. When I first arrived to Maria Elena, crossing the mountains from Tocopilla, it was dark and foggy and so ominous feeling. I’ll never forget it, and don’t think I could ever get used to it.

And as I have mentioned before, with nary a cloud in view, the Atacama desert is famous for it’s clear night-sky viewing. It is amazing how many stars you can see. The vastness of it all can make you feel so small. Life in the desert has certainly been one of peace and tranquility. But I do miss the lights, noise, and activity of bigger cities. While such a quiet…deserted… place can be nice for a vacation, I am constantly reminded that I am definitely a city girl.

Well this city girl leaves Maria Elena at the end of the week to fly first to Santiago and then TWO WEEKS in Patagonia. I’ll prepare a couple posts for the coming weeks, and then next you’ll hear from me will be when I’m back in the States for Christmas. See you then 🙂


I Feel the Earth Move Under my Feet: Earthquakes and Such

If you know anything about Chile you have probably heard about: the 33 Chilean miners that were trapped after a cave-in (and subsequent movie detailing this drama), Chilean sea bass (which is just a marketing gimmick and not actually a thing), and the number of earthquakes this country experiences. In fact, the largest earthquake EVER recorded is the 1960 Valdivia earthquake with a magnitude of about 9.5. In comparison, the 2011 Virginia earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument (and upended patio chairs everywhere) was a 5.8.

Scenes from Virginia's 2011 Quake

And when I say lots of earthquakes, I mean pretty much every day somewhere in Chile you can feel an earthquake. It is such a (beloved?) part of their culture that they even have a drink named after these famous terremotos: a sickeningly sweet blend of dessert wine, ice cream, and grenadine that will cause you to stumble around like the earth is moving underneath you. Pretty much every Chilean drinks this classic cocktail all September long during the celebration of fiestas patrias.

I actually felt my first earthquake in my first week here in Maria Elena. I remember it was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting on my bed relaxing when I felt a noticeable shudder. My host father, when asking me later if I felt it, said “Bienvenidos a Chile!”

Since then, I have felt a few quivers and quakes and on Halloween night there was one big enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. But fortunately, I have not experienced one that resulted in any major injuries or property damage. A previous volunteer here was not so lucky. In 2007, my host family hosted their first English Opens Doors Program volunteer (I am their third). That is the year of the big Maria Elena earthquake.

Although from what I have heard there were not any deaths here in Maria Elena, much of the town was leveled and it took quite a while to rebuild. My host family talks about how frightening it was, and you can still see signs of the damage. I live in the “chalets” on the edge of town, single family homes that are allocated to bosses over at the mining company. Many of them are boarded up and abandoned. I assumed this was because there were fewer people living in town overall as saltpeter mining continues to wane in importance. But no. These houses were damaged during the earthquake and never got repaired.

Again, I am lucky. The biggest inconvenience I have experienced due to an earthquake is the cancelling of a tour. Over the long weekend November 1-4, I went to Iquique and signed up for a tour on November 2 to go out and visit the red lakes. On the evening of November 1, an earthquake struck near the red lakes area, causing lots of rock and rubble to fall on the road. It was impassible, and we could not go on the tour. Fortunately, the tour company refunded my money with a shrug saying “eso is Chile.”

All was not lost, though. I ended up hanging with two other volunteers from the program (one who lives in Tocopilla and one who is living in Iquique). We ended up going out to Humberstone, Pica, and some thermal baths out in this desert oasis. And of course, barbequed some meat. Although I do not think I will have another chance to visit these red lakes, which is a bummer, it ended up being a lovely time. I wonder what adventures await me next week…

You’re Welcome Here: Chileans are the Perfect Hosts

As we enter the last few weeks of my time in Maria Elena, I am reflecting on what I have enjoyed about my experience here so far. Something I have been very grateful for is that Chileans are THE perfect hosts. I have been constantly impressed by the little ways people check in on me or show that they care. I enjoy being invited to go to lunch, or tea, or an asado and I try to join people for meals as much as possible (but sometimes its just too late on a school night for me – Chileans like to eat late). During fiestas patrias I missed an asado at the school (I was not feeling well – too many empanadas and completos) and multiple people at the school, including the principal, came up to me later to ensure I felt welcome at school events and invite me to the next one.

One of the things I enjoy the most is the constant sharing of food. I love food, and probably anyone who has ever eaten a meal with me knows that I love to try and sample as many things as possible. I would much rather us get two plates to split than I eat my meal and you eat yours. Fortunately for me, a lot food is shared here. Big platters of meat come off the grill at asados, and you can choose whatever you want! At restaurants, often a number of dishes will be ordered and shared family style. And students enjoy sharing their snacks with me, just to see how I will react to the different (and sometimes bizarre – e.g. pickled onions) food.

Since there is not always much to do or see IN town, I am fortunate that some folks here are interested in taking me places nearby. There have been some days where I have nothing to do, so I will just go for a walk. Next thing you know I run into people that I know in town, we start chatting, and before long I have an invitation to tea or to go out for a ride in the desert to see something. A lot of people were born and raised either here in Maria Elena or nearby, and they are so knowledgeable and proud of the surrounding area and eager to share it.

Some people have really gone above and beyond. I am of course living with a host family, and they have taken me in as one of their own, making me feel welcome and comfortable, helping me with anything I need, and introducing me to others around town. For example I mentioned that I liked avocados, so there is always a mountain of avocados available at the house. I have been extremely fortunate to have them, especially my host mom Rosa, as a support system here.

And I was welcomed graciously as a member of the family over the fiestas patrias holidays by my friend Yari’s family in Antofagasta. Everyone is really interested in where I plan to travel after my teaching is up and how they can help me as I go along.

While it is still a struggle to express myself fully and create deep relationships without a full grasp of the language, I can only appreciate the beauty of this culture of sharing. Even if at times I feel like an outsider (because, really, I am an outsider), I also feel welcome and comfortable. As we enter my last few weeks here in Maria Elena, my excitement to start exploring other parts of this country – like Patagonia! – is only increasing.

A Feel for History: Walking with Pinochet

Anyone who knows me knows I love history. It was always my favorite subject in school. I read presidential biographies for fun and The History Chicks is one of my favorite podcasts. For crying out loud, I used to be a volunteer docent at a small historic tavern museum in my quaint colonial town (holler, Gadsby’s Tavern). So, it has been fun for me to explore Chile through its history, and here in the mining lands of the desert you can ride around through these abandoned towns and literally walk through history you guys. It’s super awesome.

One of the more interesting chapters in Chilean history is undoubtedly the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973 and the installation of Pinochet who ruled through a military government until the 90s. I am far from an expert on the man, but Pinochet is widely recognized as a dictator who really enjoyed building the nation’s infrastructure but had a very casual regard for human rights.

But it isn’t black and white. Many hate him and are deeply affected by what are referred to as “the disappearances” – the thousands of intellectuals, political enemies, old people, and other ‘undesirables’ or enemies of the state that vanished during the Pinochet years never to be seen again. It was at this time that the cueca, the national dance I saw performed dozens of times during fiestas patrias, became a form of protest. Traditionally a pair dance, women would dance it alone to highlight their missing partner. It was such an important act during those years that Sting even made a song about it.

Others appreciate what Pinochet did to build the country, including some of the roads that unite the country and allow thousands of people a year to visit Patagonia (as I will be doing in a few weeks, hopefully). Furthermore, I have heard that as long as you didn’t speak out against Pinochet you actually had more freedom under him than under the previous Allende communist regime (which, for example, limited freedom of movement in and out of the country). This side of the debate doesn’t sit too well with me, though. It is too close to saying “well it’s not a problem for me, so it’s not a problem” …

Regardless of your opinion, it is strange to think about how recently all this happened. Pinochet didn’t leave power until after I was born. There are constant reminders and touchpoints of the Pinochet years. I saw it even in my first week in Chile, when I was in Santiago for my program’s training and orientation. Every day we went to our classroom on Calle Londres, and we would see walking tours stopped at the building next door. For some reason, it took a few days for us to investigate further because it appeared to be a normal building. Until I noticed the graffiti that said “aqui torturaron a mi hijo.” Here they tortured my son.

In addition to this prison/torture house in the middle of a modern city, I have also seen literal signs related to Pinochet in the desert. In Pedro de Valdivia, someone left a poster next to someone else’s grave, hot pink and eternally hopeful, begging for information regarding one of the “disappeared.”  Recently, I had the chance to go to a place called Chacabuco a former mining town that closed its gates in the 1940s and became a national heritage site.

In the 1970s, the Pinochet regime turned this heritage site into a concentration camp for men who were predominantly intellectuals and political enemies. The guide informed us that other than one suicide, no prisoners died here. Just your regular torture, I suppose. It was eerie walking around the abandoned towns seeing messages on the wall, both from those who were imprisoned there and those keeping the memory alive.

News and popular culture consistently refer to these years. The news has recently been covering the death of a woman who had spent the majority of her life trying to find her husband, children, daughter-in-law, and unborn grandchild who got caught up in the disappearances as well. People still frequently listen to Victor Jara (rest in peace) and Illapu, some of the bands famous for protesting Pinochet in that time. History is never gone.

To wrap this up with a positive note, while we were wandering around he ruins of Chacabuco my friend Andres asked me if the US has ever had a dictator. Of course, the US is far from a perfect country and has faced very rough times both in the past and at present. While the current states of politics in the US is definitely cause for concern, we have not lived under a violent dictatorship that completely suppresses freedom of speech and creates a culture of fear to the extent that Pinochet did. May it always be that way.

**Para que nadie pierda la memoria porque soy parte de esta historia/ So that no one loses the memory because I am part of this story**

— From the song “Tres Versos para una Historia” by Illapu