Friday, 29 July 2011


One word. One little word. Granted it's the sum of of two words in actual fact but in spanish it amounts to one little word. 

My roomate and sidekick M uses this word. When he thinks I've overslept and will be late for my class. Or when I've asked him to wake me after a 40 minute nap. Despiertate. Despiertate. Es la hora de despertarse. 

Yesterday I had a gap between classes and I had already completed my class planning for the day so I came home for a nap. The throb of an incipient migraine was lurking behind my ears so I asked M to wake me in about an hour. I slept for four.

"Despiertate" He said, knocking at my door. "Es la hora de despertarse". I grumble some form of a spanish curse in his direction and turn over. He doesn't insist.

An hour later, I wake. I crawl into the shower, after gulping down the giant sized paracetemol they sell here, I attempt to retrieve the brilliant master-class-plan I had designed for my 1800 class that had retreated to some dark recess of my brain. The bathroom is steaming up, I hear M talking loudly on the phone in his room and I reach for the shampoo.

And it hits me. "Despiertate". Wake up. The time has come to wake up.

In spanish this word goes one better, as it is reflexive- literally, wake yourself up. Suddenly the word is a message echoing in every corner of my brain, my being. Wake up. Shake yourself awake. You have been sleeping too long. 

I have been in this country for months, and on this earth for years. I have seen many things, experienced many more and still not lived even a quarter of what I believe life has in store for me. I am surrounded by inspiration, confrontation, confusion and conflict, and yet I ask myself whether I am equally changed. How long have I been asleep?

I need to wake myself up. Shake the drowsiness out of my body and take up whatever energy I have been graced with this day. I need to pull back the curtains and face this, the new day that I was conceived to face 22 years ago or probably even before. As a friend recently said to me now is no longer the time to live in limbo, but to launch oneself into whatever is ahead. And there is always something ahead. 

This one word has haunted me these past few days. The fear of recognising that I have been asleep, and the fear of being awake can no longer have such a hold on this one, preciously-preserved life that has a purpose (however hazy) to fulfill and a calling (however uncertain) to answer. Location, occupation or orientation are irrelevant. Where you find life, there is a cause for living and the means to live.

 It is indeed time to Wake up.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Ode to the street dogs of Santiago

Dogs Dogs Dogs
Big dogs
small dogs
stumpy dogs
tall dogs
skinny dogs
round-as-a-ball dogs
There are dogs everywhere

Pure race
they come out of hiding
and step on the scene
only when the light goes green
they step quick and step neat
as they cross the street

Tails wagging all the way
bringing sunshine to each day
enjoying every chase
to the homeless they race
and nestle by their side
filled with warmth and with pride

My day made complete
a german shepherd sitting on my feet
a greying boxer to my right
some fluffy lapdogs having a fight
well-fed and very clean
the happiest dogs I've ever seen

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Geyseres de Tatio

"Draw the curtains," shouts the tour guide in her piercing yet not wholly grating voice "There's nothing to see for the next two hours." She obviously hasn't noticed the diamond encrusted velvet tapestry that stretches from the weak outline of the mountains to as far as the window will allow me to see. I have never seen such a clear night sky, where the stars seem so close and so detached from their usual, navy blue embedding. There are 2 hours left until sunrise, but the faint light has already begun to betray the mountain's cumbersome silhouette. M wants to sleep, his head is already bobbing so I shift 'Gustavo' (my trusty travel pillow) onto my shoulder and under his head so that he doesn't get a neck ache and I don't get cotched in the ear- both of which would make at least one of us grumpy. Poor fish, 4 a.m. is a cruel state of affairs under any circumstances.

I'm sleepy too. I only slept a couple of hours last night, the rest of the time I spent trembling in foetal position for fear of giant, desert spiders catching wind of my presence and coming to carry me off to their spidey, desert lairs and do me all manner of evil. The hostal owner promised me 'no spiders or your money back'. I didn't see how money would help once I was strung up in web and had had my innards digested...

Where was I? Oh yes, so I'm the only one awake, the lights have been dimmed so now I'm watching the night sky in all its dark, glistening glory. The guide and the driver had previously warned against leaning on the window, and they were right: as we plunge further upward into the 'región altiplana' frost begins to creep up the windowpane, both inside and out. I press my fingers lightly against one of the icy, floral frost-flakes and feel as the warmth of my skin sticks ever so slightly to the glass. Although I am surrounded by 24 odd sleeping backpackers, I feel like I am completely alone in the world. Just me and that night sky. What a lovely sensation it is! The gentle hum of the truck engine warms me from the feet upwards, and provides a soothing background noise to this utterly complete moment.

I must have fallen asleep. Many people are talking, or rather the tour guide is talking with the volume and fervour of a crowd of people. The door opens and Oh my God it's freezing! What madness! Why would anyone open the door to such temperatures? I draw back the curtain (that I don't remember drawing in the first place) and M informs me that we have arrived. I can't see much, at least not much for what we paid for the trip, a hill and some earthy looking ground, but M hands me the small packet of Coca leaves and instructs me to chew on them. He rattles out 3 minutes of instructions about toxic gas, altitude and coca leaves, of which my poor, sleep-deprived mind only absorbs half. I tell him that I don't know what he's talking about, to tell me when we get down off the bus. He agrees and we head out.

I step out of the bus and immediately understand M's insistence on me chewing Coca. I'm going to faint! I feel like there's an elephant sitting on my shoulders! My brain feels twice its size and I want to be sick. M shows me how to gather the coca into one small mass place it on my tongue. There it sits for a minute or so, it's bitter, smokey taste spreading across my mouth. After a minute, M instructs me to push the mass to the back of my teeth and chew, not swallow, extracting the coca juices which have helped ages of Andeans adapt to living at such high altitudes. It taste bitter and tea-like, but the only when the leaves break up into little pieces and get stuck on my teeth and tongue does it feel unpleasant. After 3 minutes or so my tongue and lower lip are numb, and I feel well enough to keep going. Because of the altitude, we are told to move as slowly as possible and not exert ourselves. With good reason; after walking about 5 meters I'm already out of breath!

Around the corner of the bus and we are in another world. The tour guide is prattling on about something to some Americans I overheard asking about Aztecs. I'm not sure if I admire or am wary of anyone with that much energy at high altitude at 6 a.m.. But what matter tour guides and their shortcomings when one finds oneself in such a prehistoric world as this. We are in a valley, or more likely a crater, surrounding by towering mountains casting their shadows and all of us into lugubriousness. To the east, a hint of a golden outline on the mountain top suggests that the sun will penetrate the crater soon enough. But that is not what seems so prehistoric: beneath my feet the ground is moving and warm, and what I thought was earth I see upon closer inspection is dried and dusty ash and what I assume is volcanic rock. Frozen streams of salt intertwine like lace across the ground, which at irregular intervals seems ruptured. From these ruptures, sometimes circular holes, sometimes straight-looking fault lines, bellows clouds of vapour and apparently 'toxic' gas. In a place like this, as big as this, one can truly visualise a herd of brontosaurus ambling comfortably about their dinosaur business.

We wander from geyser to geyser, mesmerised by how powerful the earth beneath us feels. The guide is scuttling from place to place, herding her tour away from the geysers and scolding the many who ignored her safety instructions and are taking pictures jumping over the scalding vapour or leaning into the ruptures. "Let them burn, then they'll learn' mutters M. He wasn't built for taking care of people, bless him. The sun comes out and it's a picture perfect moment as its rays are reflected and magnified by the vapour dancing in the air. With the arrival of the sun the geysers die down and I judge that it is safe enough to unwrap the first layer of scarfing that has been insulating my nose, lips and cheeks. The driver unloads a hearty breakfast, and my heart skips a beat, half for the food and half from the effort it takes for me to turn in his direction. Breakfast is delicious mugs of tea, coffee, coca tea or chocolate milk, bread with cheese and ham, homemade vanilla cake and an odd assortment of cookies and sweets. We help ourselves and perch on the small wall separating the geysers from the carparking area. The sun is warm and the chocolate milk is delicious. What bliss!

We pile back onto the bus to continue our journey to a few somewhat less interesting places. The main attraction was definitely the geysers. We stop at a little Atacameñan village called Machuca, Machuco, Mochuca, or something of the like. It is nestled between several hills, and although picturesque from a distance, we find onl 3 inhabitants and 5 more busloads of tourists. The inhabitants are ready with llama meat (which is deliciously soft and tasty) and an actual llama to pose with for photos at an exorbitant price. The tourists pour out, taking pictures of the people, trying to get into the village houses and leaving noise and wrappers wherever they go. After a while M and I decide we've seen all there is to see, and climb back on the bus for the journey home. Needless to say we both fall asleep fairly quickly and get in a good 3 hours doss before the green roadside sign welcomes us back with a fading 'Bienvenidos a San Pedro de Atacama'.

to be continued...

Northward bound

Nestled in the driest desert on earth, cradled between ranges of salt mountains and scattered oases is the very small town of San Pedro de Atacama. The town itself is very touristic, although having very little within its own, small perimeter to offer the avid deserteer (like a mountaineer but in the desert), it is pleasantly and conveniently situated within (relatively) easy reach of some of Chile's most spectacular, natural attractions.

I had planned to visit San Pedro since arriving in Chile, but given that, as I have mentioned before I think, my contract doesn't afford me the luxury of time-off, planning travel on weekends has proved no mean feat. I was told over and over again that even at a push one would need at least 5 days to enjoy the Atacama in all its glory, but I knew that I would only be able to wrangle 2 days off work at most, arranging swaps and cover for all my classes.

As it turns out, I managed, with the promise of youth, my undying love and confectionery to convince some colleagues to replace some of my classes, and made sure to make the job easier by leaving lesson plans and materials for each one. I booked flights and bought a backpack (yes, one of those awkward, twice-as-high-as-my-head, I'm-carrying-all-my-earthly-possessions-on-my-person fashion accessories) and prepared to head north. Tally ho!

M came with me, as incidentally he had been to Atacama when he was a kid, but didn't remember much. The tickets were also 2 for 1, so it worked out quite well. An added bonus I discovered is when travelling with an Archaeologist, you never have to pay for a guide book or (worse yet) a bubbly tour guide again! M knows everything about everything, and is a good travel buddy as well, albeit a bit disorganised!

In the end I managed to visit everything I wanted to in 2.5 days, without hurrying, mostly because the excursions all started at ungodly hours of the morning. Coming up: tales of my adventures in the Atacama desert, in no particular order or cohesion. Enjoy...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

At the University

Walking about the humanities campus of the Universidad de Chile I am struck at how little it resembles my own humanities campus back in moderate, apathetic and politically correct Southampton. This place bears a general resemblance to University campuses world over: ripped jeans and 70's-band-Tshirt wearing youths scattered about on the grass chatting and smokingaway , books and backpacks neglected at their sides; the odd guitar player perched on a banister or gate; queues protruding out of buildings suggesting the presence of either an eatery or a bathroom.

The first thing that strikes me are the banners. Draped over every staircase, posted on every wall, doorway, notice-board and the back of every chair. Banners advertising Marches in protests of something or another, inviting Young Chile to join the political group that will eradicate such-and-such by standing up and defeating the beast of insert-capitalist-mechanism-here. Lefties, all over the place.

If one were not in the capacity to read spanish, one would not be at great loss, for the tendencies of these banners and (I assume) the people who put them there is undeniable. On every corner, every building, many notebooks and even on the pavement underfoot are red and black variations of every left-wing symbol you could imagine: red hammer black star; gold hammer and sickle and red star, red star and black sickle, gold star and red hammer and sickle; and all with an assortment of anagrams at the centre. As I begin the 15 minute walk to my classroom I make mental notes some of the symbols I come across to ask some of my more politicized Chilean friends about later. After a minute or so I give up. L.P.D, C.U.T, C.C.C. P.T.C,... There's only so much space in one's head at any one time!

Speaking to the friends I have made here, and some of the students at this University (The best in Chile and one of the best in Latin America), it's fascinating to see how multi-faceted political awareness and activism is here. On the one hand, yes, Latin American and Chilean youth are more politically aware and hands-on when it comes to their education and environment, taking to the streets at the mere hint of reform or policy that is not in their best interest. Yet getting to know these people individually, given that most of the friends I have made here are movers and shakers in their various political groups, there is also a strong element of community at play. Aligning oneself with a particular ideology, and with others who think the same way as you does not only offer a sense of acting in the name of social-justice, but also a sense of belonging, a collective righteousness. This could be why so many of the politically active in the country are under 30. I will not attempt to assess whether this is a good, bad, temporary or unhealthy state of affairs, just that it is the way it is.

The one thing I do know, is I would trade the social awareness and political conciousness of Santiago for the general apathy of the UK in a heartbeat!


Ok so a quick catch-up so that all ye my loyal followers (and the disloyal amongst you as well) are aware of the various changes that have occured in the last month:
1. I've moved house. Due to a major mixup with my housing allowance I couldn't afford to stay where I was, and am now sharing a flat with my friend M. It's working out great as neither of us are ever home so the only time we really spend together is travelling, which is always fun. He's an Archaeologist, and well-handy with a gps or an age-old piece of ceramic. Things were left nice and friendly with my other Chilean family, and I still see them every week or so, which is lovely.
2. Winter is here, and it's freezing.
3. I've been smote with a diverse and exotic cocktail of viruses and flues. Mostly over now. Gave me the always fashionable puffy-squinty eyed look and a deep husk to my voice. I sound like a 12 year old Bryan Adams.
4. Term has ended and the new term starts in 2 weeks. This does not mean holiday. This means two weeks of registration and paperwork, or at least in my case 1 week of paperwork and 1 week of travel, hopefully!
5. My phone got lost then subsequently stolen at work and I am now the proud (and often quite bewildered) owner of my very own Iphone. Yay!

So now you know...

Monday, 6 June 2011


I have been terribly lax. Terribly lax, quite sick and perversely busy, but that is no excuse. Time is a friend to none of us, least of all those who mismanage and misjudge it. I have also been a perfectionist, letting posts sit in my drafts folder because I feel that if I do not check them 10 times before posting them that they are not worth posting at all.

So here we go, some new posts, and some of the poor, neglected posts that have been sitting in my folder waiting for the day where they would, at last, be published...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Time Travel

One of the particular skills I've cultivated since arriving here. 

Lining every main street, on every other block corner there is a billboard sporting some form of adverstisment or other, (this being of little consequence to my point, I will now turn to) what matters is that at the top of each of these billboards is a digital clock that switches between displaying the date, the time and and temperature.

The walk from my apartment to work is a right angle. Four blocks up, then eleven blocks to the left and bam! there you are at my workplace... hopefully not so violently as I've just described but I'm sure, discerning reader, that you get the idea. 

I cross around 5 or so of these billboard clocks on my way to work. The sequence is the same pretty much every day (I opt to vary my walk home as I'm usually not pressed for time). The extraordinary thing about these billboard clocks, (or perhaps it is in fact a freak-skill I was born with that is only choosing to manifest itself in my old age) is that they seem to run backwards.

By 0735, I'm leaving the house. By 0742ish I have reached my first clock, which, as is to be expected, reads 07:42 (or some such perverse hour of the morning to be scuttling about Santiago's streets). Good to go.

Two blocks later, I am met with an alarming 07:52, leaving me with 8 minutes to get to work and be in my classroom ready to inject my faithful students with their weekly dose of the 'present continuous' and 'phrasal verbs'. Heaven forbid they should miss out on even a minute of such delights! Scuttle faster...

Two more blocks, and my spidey-skills kick in. The looming billboard across the road from me reads a comforting (and probably more accurate) 07:50. I sigh the sigh of someone who could have made it in a rush but is relieved that they no longer have to, and slow my scuttling to a reasonable pace.

However my superpowers have not yet had their morning flexing, and only when I come across the last billboard do I find that lo and behold, I've done it again! I''m about to arrive at work 20 minutes early, as the clock reads 07:35- the exact time that I left home.

Impressive, huh? 

My boss doesn't think so...

Saturday, 7 May 2011


(This post was written on April 12th 2011 after recieving some worrying news from home that has since been confirmed but dealt with and thankfully things are thus far going well)

Distance is a beautiful thing. It is air and breath and freshness. It is change and growth and opportunity. It makes the situation more complicated but gives each of us a chance to become resourceful.

I don't have a country I call home. That's probably why I've never understood patriotism. I don't see how you can think your country is great simply because you were born there. Seems a little narcissistic to me.

So perhaps I have always felt at a distance. Home is where the heart is, and so far in my life my heart has gone wherever I have. I spent years on a small island wishing I was on another, and when I finally left I was disappointed that the second island was not as I remembered. For the next three years my heart learned to be portable and travel-friendly.

However one's heart can be in many places at a time. My heart is with my friends, the few I would travel across the world to see; with my greater family, and all those who share my beliefs and aspirations. And my heart is with my family, mostly still on the small island, very, very far from me.

For this reason when there is rupture and disaster, when there is panic and trouble and misfortune, I find myself cursing the distance for being such a double edged sword. For being so appealing an opportunity and yet such a formidable obstacle between me and the ones I love. Although in recent weeks my proximity would not have altered much, I curse the distance for the little lives I am missing out on. I curse the distance for the little support and warmth I could have offered. I curse the distance for extending beyond the reach of my arms and my voice. I curse the distance because there is nothing else that I can do.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Will you be wanting legs with your coffee?

One of my stranger experiences here in Chile...

Walking along one of downtown Santiago's buzzing streets on one of my first days here I was struck with the desire to write. The feeling, much like the need to satisfy an itch or tell someone talking loudly on a mobile phone to be quiet, would not be suppressed, and so being several blocks between both work and home I determined to locate a convenient cafe where I could enjoy a nice cuppa whilst relieving said itch. As convenience would have it, I spotted (or rather couldn't spot anything other than) a giant, neon teacup with the word 'Coffee' (equally giant and neon) flashing underneath it. Hmm, I thought to myself, I must be on the right track...

(Now bear in mind this was some time between 0900 and 1030 in the morning).

I approached the local and attempted to peer into (what I soon worked out were) the large, floor length, tinted windows. I saw nothing. I pushed at the antique wooden door. Nothing. I knocked. Still nothing. I stepped back onto the pavement to contemplate the situation.

Moments later I was still attempting to soothe my confusion when the old, wooden door creaked open and what I can only describe as a character from a Roald Dahl adult novel stepped out, scrappy, tweedy jacket and all. As I was flagrantly the only person on the street at the time, he flashed me what I'm sure he intended as charming but came off as a rather toothless smile. "Consulta... aviso...?"* he mumbled, or something of the like. Now, this was still in my early days here in Santiago, before I had honed the fine art of deciphering the Chilean accent. After a few moments of blank staring on my part, and lecherous leering from his, I decided against this cafe, and pressed onwards towards the high street.

As time went on and I fell into a more comfortable routine I began to take time in observing my surroundings on my walks around Santiago. There seemed to be a lot of giant, neon, flashing 'coffee' signs from the time I start work at 0730 in the morning until just past lunchtime at 1600 in the afternoon. (Yes, lunch here is late!). I'm a bit of a morning person, it only takes me a few minutes to get properly woken up but I can imagine that the last thing a sleep-deprived, possibly hung-over caffeine addict wants to see on their way to work is a giant, seizure-inducing, fluorescent piece of crockery summoning both man and small insect alike to partake of the caffeinated goodness that awaits all who venture inside. Puzzling to say the least.

Weeks later, I happened to point out one such neon sign to my friend M as we walked home after I finished my afternoon's work. He laughed and promised that he would explain the next day. As it happened, the next day rolled on, and, M going one better, I was dragged into a mall, down a spiral staircase (ominous...) up another spiral staircase (confusing...) and into a lugubriously lit and surprisingly well ventilated local littered with leatherette chairs and mismatched glass coffee tables. A few gentlemen were lounging about here and there, with two or three perched at a sort of bar area, all the while (now here comes the legs part) being served by three or four, not unattractive, 30-something women in lingerie.

Suffice it to say I was speechless. As it turns out, so were they, as I soon learned I was the first woman to ever darken the (already rather dark) doors of their, erm, establishment. I've never been to strip club, or even seen an exotic dancer in the flesh, although I had always imagined that such places would reek of stale cologne and give me a slightly sick, churning feeling in my stomach. However, speaking to the ladies who worked there (and ignoring all the the men who soon disappeared off back to the cubicle-farms from whence they no doubt came) was a surprisingly pleasant experience. They were eager to explain to me how the concept worked (an interesting one it is indeed) and defend their career choice as exploiting the ever-present, ever-prevalant Machismo for their own gain (and gain they do!). They were lovely women, mothers each one of them, and without any apparent guise or gimmick. They don't play down their intelligence or lie about their age or background, nor did they attempt to glamorise their line of work. Todo por la plata!"** one admitted to me, laughing unabashedly.

Cafe con Piernas is a purely Chilean phenomenon. Nowhere else in Latin America, or the world for that matter, does this particular concept exist. Although appealing to the same, err, market crowd as chains such as Hooters or the ubiquitous Cafe Caribes with their youthful baristas and their skin-tight uniforms (see my post on Machismo). Cafes con Piernas are open from 09:00 am to 21:00, so no night crowds. They serve coffee and only coffee, so no drunken stag do's or rowdy, letchy customers. They charge around the same for drinks and eats, so they compete with the general cafe business rather than the adult entertainment sector. And the ladies with afore-mentioned legs get to keep all tips they make, which they suggested to me could amount to several hundred thousand pesos in one lunchtime's work. I didn't ask how...

As you can imagine, dear reader, (or maybe you can't, in which case just keep reading and I will elucidate) although fascinated by the human condition in such a place and the possible reasons behind the ladies' choice to work there, the Cafe with legs wasn't really my scene, or M's for that matter. So after the polite and very interesting chat with the ladies with legs, we bid them farewell and scooted off in search of a cafe where the coffee came completely free of any extra limbs. Just the way I like it!

*Help? Advert?
**It's all about the money!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Family Part I

It has been suggested, more than a few times, that the so-called breakdown of moral behaviour and personal values in the "west" is a direct result of the disappearance of the nuclear family. No, not the family living in the shack at the bottom of the garden wearing aluminium space-suits and cultivating Uranium, the other Nuclear family*. Children and young people no longer view their primary care-givers as role models, and the latter do very little to warrant any such respect anyway. Children fly the nest at an ever-decreasing age, and even when still occupying the nest they spend more time with their friends, real or virtual, than with their own flesh and blood. Ask any Southern English youth today what the 3 most important things in their life are, and the idea of 'family' isn't likely to make an appearance in their answer.

Over recent years, with my own development and maturity, the growth of my own flesh and blood and my time being so far away from them, I have come to appreciate certain truths about the family dynamic. The affection, tenacity and endurance of family is one of God's greatest gifts, or at least has been in my life, and anyone who knows me even slightly will know that I do not say that from behind rose-coloured glasses**.

My time here in Santiago has confirmed and inspired my almost all my thoughts and desires about family. Latin America is still very family orientated. There is no Latin American "Super-Nanny" that I'm aware of. Hispanic Youths are not sent away on shows such as "The world's strictest parents". Even drug cartels and crime rings are structured around blood ties, and loyalty (or so I'm told) is to family above all.

Each member is respected. From the smallest baby to the oldest grandparent when somebody talks everybody else listens. Every action is a source of entertainment. Every event is cause for celebration. This week alone I have attended 2 birthdays, a graduation celebration, an acceptance into University cocktail and a retirement celebratory lunch; and all in the same family. And at these gatherings I find all those present are fully up to speed with all the latest goings on in my life. I am peppered with inquiries about my timetable for work, my latest acquaintances, my most recent outings and my general wellbeing and happiness during my time in Santiago. I have been adopted as a member of the family, and my life now forms part of this chain of conversation, where nothing is too mundane or trivial to be left out. Every happening is worth a conversation.

It is true that you do not choose your family, and yes this explains why indeed family can be so hard at times. But even if we do not choose our family, we can choose to jolly well make the most of whatever we've been given.

*To be honest, the nuclear part isn't that important, I would just rather leave out the word "traditional".
**They are distinctly peachy!

Sunday, 27 March 2011


There are many different kinds of traveller in the world. There are many different kinds of traveller in Latin America. There are many different kinds of traveller in Chile.

There is the kind that plans meticulously and packs in anticipation of every possible need. They always carry a satchel or backpack brimming with first-aid implements and emergency numbers, and are wary of any food sold in the street or any brand that doesn't look like it has an english-language equivalent. The kind that carries all their money on them at any one time, but hidden in various (intimate) parts of their person. The kind that panics upon discovering in transit that their connection is located on the other side of the airport. The kind that calls home. A lot. 

There is the kind of traveller that dives headfirst into the culture of the new country, making considerable noise as they go. That has a dubious past and has assumed a new identity to accompany their new surroundings. They have often chosen a particular niche of society, the maya in (on?) the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, the Mapuches in the South of Chile, and have learned to perfectly imitate the language and behaviour of their host society. They have cut ties with the outside world, and are in the habit of popping up every so often at the sound of an anglo-accent or a word of english, offering advice and directions whilst all the while attempting to draw attention to the fact that they were once, like you, a traveller, but are now a superior species that has completely absorbed and acculturated to their new environment. The kind that is usually seen riding a rusty bike with half a handle. The kind that often sports matted, slightly greying hair no matter their age and an unwashed look, as if to say to the world that they are so atune to their new environment that they are no longer bound by capitalist habits of cleanliness, or apparently the even hygiene of their host culture for that matter.

There is the kind of traveller that likes to like to travel. They like to make conversation and tally up the places they have visited, notching their belt for every museum, ruin, gallery, monument and national reserve that they lay foot on. They invest in package tours, and end up experiencing places in ways unknown even to it's residents. They take crash courses in the language, spend on souvenirs, pose for picture after picture in front of tourist attractions and are rarely seen without an (oh-so-fashionable and oh-so-handy) bum-bag/fanny pack. They do not scour for discounts or barter with local merchants (not successfully at least). They travel in packs and can be seen following an umbrella or flower across town squares or the nearest, picturesque field. 

There is the kind that bought into the idea of travel in relation to their situation at the time. Perhaps they chose their destination for it's similarity to their current surroundings, or the fact that the official language was the same as their mother tongue. Upon arrival they scout out the nearest pubs/bars/restaunrants that serve the food they're accustomed to. They make friends with other anglophones, and manage to live for months, even years in their host country without learning more than a few words of the local language. When they travel home they bring back supplies in bulk to sustain them until they can make their next trip back to (as one such traveller recently referred to it) "Civilisation". They congregate with other, like-minded travellers for conversations based around the general theme of 'this country' and its shortcomings.   And when they leave, they take with them friendships that could have been found elsewhere, and the memory of the views of the towering mountaintops or rolling seas, from over their morning, starbucks cup of coffee.

I have met all these kinds, and more in my life. Especially since being here. I have found myself, at different times and in different circumstances to be one or a mix of every kind of traveller I describe here. But there is a kind of traveller I want to be. The kind that considers their new environment their new home, not a temporary fix or a experience that brings them to count down the days 'til they leave. The kind that appreciates help and advice from fellow foreigners on how to settle in and struggle through the red-tape of moving country, but quickly sets about trying to get to know the residents of their new host country. The kind that understands the appeal of the natural and manmade attractions that the country has to offer, but is more interested in getting to know the country's greatest resource and export- it's people. The kind that can find humour and amusement in the quirks and differences between what they're used to and what they're faced with, without allowing their humour to turn to condescension or frustration. The kind that is keen to see the lay of the land through the eyes of those who live in it. The kind that refuses to speak their mother tongue unless it's absolutely necessary. The kind that is willing to entertain different ideas and attitudes, even when they surpass threatening to the point of being offensive, but is able to appreciate the difference in the root attitude that is being expressed. The kind that leaves having impacted and been impacted by the cultural differences and similarities between the host country and their country of origin. The kind that leaves taking with them a few or many precious relationships and unforgettable experiences. The kind that by the end of their sojourn can truly say that they have 'lived' in every sense of the word, in the country in question.

I'll let you know how it works out in 8 months time...

6 things

Some things you're unlikely to find in your Lonely Planet guide or any Internet search.

1. You need a ticket to be served (see my post on being served). In any business in which you need to be attended to, there is sure to be a little box-machine thing dispensing tickets with numbers to minimize queuing and ensure everyone is attended with steady regularity. I would have loved to have been aware of this before coming. Would have saved me a lot of time!

2. There are fans in the metro that spray water at regular intervals. My first few experiences standing on the platform awaiting my train when suddenly sprinkled with cold water left me scowling around at the other people on the platform, mentally accusing each one of opening a well-shaken bottle of fizzy water, or shaking out their freshly washed and still damp hair. I was relieved, to say the least when I worked out where the water was coming from, and am now grateful for this revolutionary (no pun intended) invention, especially during the hot, sticky rush hour.

3. (Speaking of being ambushed by water) The buildings leak. Avoid taking the sharp end of a sharp corner around a building. You will get splattered. It feels just like have a bird drop one mid-flight, and the feeling when realising that you are in fact bird-poo free is a mixed one... "Where did this water come from? at least it doesn't stain!". They call it 'el sudor' (the sweat) which, as one can imagine, does nothing to make you feel any better about falling victim to it. I'm told it's actually faulty air-conditioning units.

4. If there is a protest, everything will close. And of protests- there are many. Stock up on essentials.

5. Tea is drunk without milk. Should you want 'tea' in the British/African sense of the word, you need to stipulate 'té con leche' (tea with milk). And this is readily available in a whole host of disguises- milk with a teabag; hot milk with a teabag; hot water, teabag and glass of milk; hot water, teabag, jug of milk; amongst others.

6. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is a night owl. Well past 22:00 babies still roam the streets and invitations to 'go out' are usually only valid from 23:30 onwards. This isn't just hip, young, Chilean twenty-somethings sporting all white bopping from side to side in electronica night clubs, this is also family gatherings, dinner in restaurants, movies, visiting friends etc. From birth chileans are groomed to stay up late and still get up and do a decent day's living the next day, or so I'm told. Interesting, as this contradicts the 8-hour theory, suggesting that the amount of sleep we need is actually very relative and dependent on our environment and what we're used to. I'd like to say that my body-clock is adjusting, slowly but surely, but unfortunately, that would be a lie. Thank God for coffee!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Nation to be admired

In 2010 Chile garnered the attention and gained the respect of the world. It suffered a devastating earthquake and the massively covered mining accident that left 30 miners trapped underground, as well as a return to a right-wing government. Being here one can but admire the 'keep calm and carry on' attitude that Chileans have towards the lives they lead and the environment in which they lead them.

Chile is a distinct country in so many ways. Different from the rest of the world, but also very different from the other countries of Latin America. Talking it over with a work colleague called N he pointed out to me how naturally inaccessible Chile is- to one side the endless pacific, to the other the almost insurmountable Andes, to the south punishing Antarctica and to the north, Atacama, the driest desert on earth. Have these circumstances caused Chile to develop the independence and self-sufficiency that is in many ways makes it so distinct to its Latin neighbours?

Geography aside Chile has also suffered one of the bloodiest dictatorships of Latin America, and consequently one of the most famous in the history of the world. The almost 20 years under (the US backed) General Pinochet ushered in neoliberal reform and saw the mass oppression, repression and at times, violation and murder, of the people and their most basic human rights. Moreover, Pinochet and many of his henchmen were never brought to trial, let alone justice, and were allowed to die peacefully, not even in exile. On the "compassionate" grounds of the UK courts. Nice one, Britain.

Yet to speak to those who lived through the brunt of those 20 years, you would think they were telling you about a story they had read in the paper long ago, or something that had happened to a friend of a friend of a friend. They are not reticent, nor blazé, but rather exhibit such a clarity of mind, such a singular understanding and such a strength to carry on despite having been subjected to years of oppression and terror beyond what most of us could conceive as surmountable.

They display the same stoic resistance towards the very earth that seems to punish them. There is something terrible and fearful about an earthquake. Beyond all that it damages, destroys and engenders. Hurricanes and Cyclones are terrible, but they are dangers that come from outside, from the exterior, and strike the very same chord of fear in us humans that keeps us going to movies about Alien Invasions and other exterior threats. Droughts as well, are caused by the absence of an exterior agent, and can be outrun and, if lucky, outpaced.

But there is something truly formidable about the very earth upon which you stand; upon which you have built your houses and planted your crops; throwing up great heat and motion and rejecting you from it's very surface. It cannot be outrun. It cannot be outpaced. Until we learn to fly there is truly no escape. We remain subject to the earth's caprices. And caprices it has many.

And yet Chile remains- damaged in places but unbroken, conscious of the danger but unfazed. Many criticize the previous government for not rejecting many of the policies put in place by the dictatorship, just as many criticize the current government for delays in reconstructions in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. But Chile truly remains a nation to be admired. 

When the Earth moves

The other evening a friend was telling me about the first time she kissed her fiancé (boyfriend at the time). He's European, and had been living in Chile for only a few months before they started dating. As they stood outside the cinema and passionately locked lips she said she had butterflies in her tummy and the earth began to tremble. Literally.*
"did you feel that?" she asked,
"feel what?"
"That." It happened again. "The earth is moving"
"Yea, baby, the earth is moving..." he replied, moving his face closer to hers once again
"No, seriously," She insisted, pulling back, "The earth is moving."
"We're experiencing and tremor."

Ok so maybe she didn't describe it to me in that much detail but that's I reckon that's the way it should have happened, at least to make it an anecdote worth retelling.

I looked forward to experiencing my first tremor, but during my first months here I began to worry that I was immune to them. My lack of experience in the movement of the earth's plates had somehow dulled my spidey-sense to detect tremors. I blame my parents for raising me in countries devoid of any natural hazards. In Mauritius the risk of cyclones is still very much an exterior one. In the UK you aren't really at the mercy of mother nature, (more at the mercy of the coalition government). And in the DRC, the dangers are definitely potent, but mostly manmade.

In the middle of one of my classes the students looked up at one another from completing an exercise in silence and announced "¡Está temblando!". I felt nothing. They advised me to sit down on a chair to better feel it. I felt nothing. One of my students told me to crouch down with my palms flat on the floor to feel the vibrations. I felt nothing. I leaned up against a supporting wall. I felt nothing. Disappointing.

The first tremor I actually experienced was in my sleep. Well, I say "experienced"...

I was napping (a habit I have cultivated since arriving to the point of making it a talent) and had fallen into that light, half-sleep stage where your subconscious somehow translates whatever is going on around you into your dream. I began dreaming that there was an old man trapped under my bed trying to get out. (I think I should take a moment here to thank my older sister for the one horror story she told me when I was 13 that to this day evidently haunts my dreams. Love you C.) He was writhing about under my bed shaking it violently. I woke up to find my whole room shaking but, believing I was still dreaming and it not being an unpleasant sensation, I turned over and fell back to sleep.

I woke up half an hour later and stepped out of my room to find Daisy and her husband waiting for me right outside my door, which was odd to say the least. Apparently they had been hesitating whether or not to knock on my door and see if I was OK and hadn't been too frightened by the tremor (bless 'em!). They found it very amusing that I had, at that point, no recollection of feeling it whatsoever. It was only hours later when thinking my dreams over that I realised that in fact my bed had been shaking, thankfully not because of a writhing, old man but rather because the 14 floors below me were jiggling about from the tremor.

There have been 3 tremors in the past 24 hours. For all 3 of them I was in the apartment, on the 15th floor. It's quite a pleasant sensation if I'm honest, kind of like the beginning of a ride in Disney land or the first few moments of take-off in an aeroplane. For the most part these tremors are small, and happen all the times to the extent that some people tell me they hardly notice them anymore, although the one this morning did knock a few things off my nightstand, but that may be more the fault of how precariously they were perched on the mountain of books, papers, chocolate boxes and hair-bands that ever adorn my little bedside table.

I've been told that lots of little tremors are a good sign, it means that the plates are moving about in a quiet but regular way. I'm no geologist, or geographer, or seismologist (just in case anyone had come to the conclusion that I was), and have yet to look it up for myself.

*About the earth trembling. She didn't literally have butterflies in her tummy as far as I'm aware.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Does that come in a bag?

One crisp and sunshiney tuesday morning I was asked by a teacher to contribute part of the day's lesson, as I had observed one of her lessions the previous day. The previous day's content had been quite heavily grammar based, so I was grateful that I wasn't the going to be the one to inflict the stodgy rules of the present perfect continuous onto the poor, unsuspecting 8 o'clock class.

The content I had been given was fairly simple to the point that I was struggling to find an interesting way of presenting it. The topic was "in the kitchen" (be still my beating heart) and my job was to teach the various types of containers that one would find in the 'average' kitchen cupboard. If there's one thing that this particular lesson taught me, it's that the idea of an 'average kitchen cupboard' is a highly relative one.

Since I hadn't had the forsight to bring with me the various containers to make the lesson a nice, kinaesthetic experience, I resolved to simply sketch said containers on the board, and allow the students to draw on their own common sense. Again, a sense of what is common: highly relative. And so I drew: a can, a tin, a bottle, a box, a jar, a packet and a bag.

The book we were using was British based and gave some strict(ish) guidelines as to how to explain and justify what sort of food was kept in each e.g. liquid in a can and solid food in a tin (something I had never really noticed but interesting when you think about it. Well... relatively at least). After sketching (a dubious semblance of) said containers onto the whiteboard, I handed the board markers out to the students and asked them to come up to the board and list all the things that could be stored in them next to the appropriate drawing. 

I wasn't really sure how to react when all of the students unanimously decided that every possible type of food and drink was sold in a bag. With the exception of wine and beer, my little sketch of a bag of walkers crisps found itself surrounded by the names of every food and drink you could imagine. Milk, jam, dog food, oil, orange juice, cream, mayonnaise, fruit, honey, you name it, my students thought it came in a bag. At first I thought they may have misinterpreted my drawing, but upon eliciting more information from them they too seemed confused as to the purpose of this excercise. "But you can buy it all in a bag?" one student said, with polite but poignant undertones of "what is the point of this, you foreign teacher who obviously doesn't go out shopping very much?". I was confused.

I put it down to 50% misunderstanding 50% possible cultural packaging differences, and on my way home I stopped at a little supermarket to investigate the omnipotence of the bag as a Chilean packaging solution. To me, honey is a fiendish substance to manage even with the most sophisticated of pots and spoons, so you can well understand my surprise at finding, yes indeedy, bag upon bag of honey, milk, jam, cream, oil, orange juice and, wait for it, even wine.. It would seem that my students were right, the mandates of the book I had been using did not hold water here. (I was later told that the last item was the worst and cheapest form of alcohol available. If you think drinking wine from a box is tasteless, imagine wine from a bag)

The lesson to be drawn from this is that although there must be structure and content in our teaching and our perception of the world, (see my description Re: the fiendishness of honey), everything is always and ultimately extremely relative, varying from person to person and from place to place; and in Chile, apparently sold in a bag.

We are all Students

My first few days working here at the language school I didn't have all that much to do. The academic year here begins in March and runs until November, so January and February are the longer (summer) holidays. During these months (or so I'm told) Santiago is empty, as all the families make the most of having time off work and school to retreat to the mountains, the coast or the south to get some rest. The school I'm working at offers intensive courses over the summer, but by the time I had arrived they had all been allocated teachers. So, in order to justify paying me for two months, I was despatched to various classrooms to observe other teachers at work and, when I felt ready, was expected to co-teach a section of the lesson that followed.

Although intially I resented the feeling of being fobbed off onto "observations" by my coordinators who didn't seem to have anything more productive to give me, the experience soon proved to be an infinitely enriching and enjoyable one. I was priveledged to watch every shape, size and design of English teacher I could ever imagine. There was the quiet, soft-spoken R with his North American lilt and his expertise in phonetics and sound formation; and the loud and boisterous I who cracked joke after joke and and kept his class in hysterics; then there was the bubbly V who spoke with soothing condescension to her students, like a mother pigeon cooing to her chicks, eager to laugh at their jokes or reassure them of their progress. I watched teacher after teacher and slowly began to piece together a semblance of the sort of educator I want to be. Teaching, in this sense, seems to me to be like any form of modern art- part original creativity, thoughts and ideas; part reinvention, reconstruction and inspired by other's performances.

Another facet of what I observed that made a great impact on me was the humility that these teachers possessed. Not all of them, to be sure, as I have outlined before TEFL attracts people from all walks of life and seems to provoke misplaced-ego-syndrome in the most unlikely of victims, and to this my current environment is no exception. But for the most part, I have so much to learn from the attitudes of the teachers here. There are about 70 odd teachers employed at this particular branch of the school, 6 of whom are native-speakers, the rest of whom are chilean. Most, if not all of the chilean teachers have a 5 year bachelors and masters degree in teaching, as well as years of experience teaching English. They are well-versed in grammar and linguistics, and have transformed themselves into that rare and desired breed of bilingual chilean, admired by the rest of society. And yet, when I walk into their classroom, barely 3 years experience and not even a degree under my belt, they are just as keen and eager to learn from whatever small contribution I could attempt to make as their students. They are quick to correct themselves and take notes and ask questions just as much if not more than the actual paying students. After the observations they rush to ask me what I thought and if I had any feedback on how they could improve. I am there to learn from their experience, and yet they want to hear from me. 

I see in this attitude something that I never want to lose. In order to be a good teacher, one must remain a good student- ever learning but moreover ever ready to learn. One cannot learn if one sees oneself as superior to the person who is imparting information or expertise. One cannot learn if one dismisses some people on grounds of age, experience or talent and accept only to learn from certain others. I truly admire this about the teachers I have met here. I don't know if this can be generalised to all chilean TEFL teachers, or chilean teachers, but the ones I have met so far, in the situations I have been in up to this point have inspired my admiration and sparked in me a genuine desire to remain ever as humble a student I can, in order to become as good a teacher as I ever could be.

Friday, 11 March 2011

A word of gratitude

I really like getting to know people. I look forward to the stage where a relationship is no longer polite and civil; when you've had a few ugly days, a few misunderstandings, and now something has taken root and is growing in a healthy, honest manner. I was very fortunate upon my arrival here- arriving with no expectations and a somewhat broken heart I didn't have the energy to put on a brave face and act like a good guest or entertaining foreigner. And as luck would have it, Daisy, the lady I live with met me with open arms and has, since then, truly adopted me as one of her own children- caring for me but also setting me straight when need be. Her entire family have treated me as one of their own and willingly gone out of their way to see that I am taken care of. I bless the lord for their generosity and I bless them for their golden hearts.

Please use your own fork...

The one thing I really like about where I am staying, is that I feel like I am part of a family. It takes away the pressures of being completely self-sufficient, and ensures that every experience I have will be shared, or at least recounted and therefore intensified and better appreciated. For instance, when coming home from a recent weekend of city-hopping, I loved the few moments I spent telling Daisy and her hubby about my adventures- at once practicing more Spanish but also sharing and reliving all the fun and enjoyment I'd been blessed to experience. Travel is about building relationships- with the people you meet and with the places you visit. Staying with a family (rather than renting my own place) ensures that that happens.

It's about sharing really. I don't like living alone, and although at times I need my space and I do enjoy my own company, I would rather share as much as possible than live things alone. Everything is shared in a Chilean family home. Adventures, stories, bills, laughter, meals, crockery, cutlery...

Yes, cutlery.

Now, when traveling, I'm not usually one to complain about the differences in how food is prepared, or even served. Different Culture, different rules and all that. Heaven knows how odd my family's behaviour and manners must seem to the hordes that have cross our threshold over the years, so I am definitely in no place to judge. The only concern I ever have, is that of hygiene.

So, those who know me well enough can imagine my facial expression (for those who don't, try harder) when seated at an amply stocked dinner table, down whose centre are various dishes of assorted salads drenched in sumptuous dressings, each with their own serving fork, upon seeing my fellow diners reach for said serving forks and help themselves to salad before putting the same, used fork, back in the salad for the next person to use. Imagine the intensifying of my expression when the next person, without qualm or flinching, does the same, with the same, used fork!

Just to clarify, these forks are not used to pile salad from the serving dishes onto the diner's plate, they are used as personal cutlery- to shovel salad from the dish into the diner's mouth. And then they are put back. And used by the next person. Et cetera. Et cetera.

So far I don't think anyone has cottoned on to how alien this community approach to eating utensils is to me. I'm not sure if this is a Chilean habit, or particular to the background of the family I'm living with, or if they are just a VERY close-knit family on more levels than I am accustomed. I'll probably never ask, and consequently never know. Suffice it to say, I soon took up the habit of piling my serving of salad onto my own plate before anyone else has had the chance to dive in. I'm still a fan of sharing, but some things, in my opinion, are still better left unshared. And yes, cutlery is one of them.

The Menfolk 'round these parts

I thought it was important that I write about Machismo before writing this post, in order to put it in context.

I would recommend to any woman feeling a bit rubbish about herself to walk down a Latin American high street. And I would defy her to not be bright red by the time she got to the end of it.

Growing up in Mauritius, I've gotten used to receiving male attention whilst walking about the town. It's not really that much of a compliment, as they aren't all that discerning, and to attract your attention they make noises as if calling a puppy. The two times I ever actually turned around and asked the gang of young Mauritian boys whistling and clucking at me whilst hanging out at La Gare** what they actually wanted, they were all stumped for words.I'm not a demanding person, but I would appreciate having some sort of follow-up to simply clucking at me. Most disappointing. Suffice it to say, I was left quite cold.

Living in London, cat calls are either obscene to the point where I feel like calling my mother or taking a shower after receiving one, or nothing more than a whistle and a disgusting, lustful look. I have learned to just keep walking and have cultivated a fairly horrific scowl that I would like to think works as a powerful deterrent.

And it is wearing this very same scowl that I find myself walking down the high streets of down town Santiago. Armed also with my ipod in my ears (and therefore supposedly immune to any attempt at attracting my attention) I charge forward, focusing solely on my destination and the various stray animals that wander the streets.

On the street corner near my apartment block there is construction going on. Mixed in with the constant hum of the concrete mixer and the machinery, one can hear wolf-whistles and cat calls emanating from this site from opening to closing time.

My strategy is usually not to let anyone have any level of false hope. I have to walk past this site twice a day, and usually armed with my Ipod am immune to whatever it is that they are saying. I feel dirty just remembering the filth that these particular construction workers have been heard to say. Walking past the site one afternoon, without my Ipod, but with my ubiquitous frown, I was treated to a "¡Tú eres la reina de mi vida, y haré cualquier cosa pa' hacerte feliz!"*. I, in turn, treated the gentleman to one of my most pronounced scowls, before charging off, reaching the end of the street and thinking to myself: "ooo... actually... that sounded quite nice to me!"

Cat calls aside, I was little prepared for the other Chilean strategy for grabbing female attention. Although two or three men have been polite and just approached me and began talking- a strategy I respect and feel comfortable politely rejecting, The majority, however, adopt a rather odd and quite startling method of dive-bombing me. I have never felt more flustered than when I was walking down the amply spaced high street, I experienced several men, one after the other, walking in the opposite direction as me, approaching me a great speed, as if to kiss me on the cheek, and scuttling off. "What on earth is going on?!" I asked myself. They were acting like cats who'd had half their whiskers cut off.

This dive-bombing kept occurring (and startling and confusing me) until I mentioned it to Chilean friend M, who explained that they were (or attempting to) whispering "sweet nothings" into my ear. He warned me not to try listen to what they were saying, as they were probably obscenities. So, "sweet obscenities", more like.

And then the day came when I left my Ipod at home and had to walk without any audio entertainment. Once again, sporting a scowl, no makeup and a quick march I charged out onto the high street determined to ignore any attention I received. And then it started.

"¡Qué hermosa!"
"¡Mi Princesa!"
"¡Me enamoro!"
"¡Tan linda!"
"¡Eres el sol!"***

In soft, dulcet tones I was told that I was Rodrigo's  princess, that I was Marcelo's sun, that Cristóbal had fallen in love with me, that Miguel thought I was beautiful. And so on. Granted, still by strange, dive-bombing Chilean men in the high street  in the middle of the day. My thoughts? That Chile's idea of obscenities is far removed from what I'm used to taking offence to.

**Bus Station
*You are the queen of my life, and I will do anything to make you happy!
*** "How beautiful!" "My Princess" "I'm falling in love" "So pretty!" "You are the sun!"