Al Camino Que Hicieron Mis Zapatos

I spent six months of this year living, teaching, traveling, and struggling in South America through a program with the Chilean MINEDUC (Ministry of Education). It was a life-changing experience in many ways, and I am so glad that I kept a blog while I was trying to sort myself out. This is a re-posting of the last entry, written from a hotel room in Lima, and I’ve added the photos from the experience. 
Originally published on 18 August 2011, and re-published on 22 December 2011. Before the adventure in China begins, it’s good too look back on the first time I taught English Abroad. 

Seven more hours in South America. What does that even mean? In a certain sense, I feel as though it is already over. Everything that I have experienced since leaving la Región de Magallanes in Chile has given me perspective, but it also made the time there feel as distant as its physical location 2800 miles South.

Everything feels surreal. Instead of having to take an extremely uncomfortable bus full of puking Peruvians for forty-eight hours, followed by a collectivo on the fly and a stowaway passage on a cargo boat to get home, I will walk onto my flight to the States and be home within ten hours. It seems impossible. (<–It was. See my story of how I actually got out of the Lima Airport.)

I always find my self grasping at strings to sum up a journey adequately when I confront returning home. Words and phrases that I want to lean on because they are easy fall flat. “Overall, it was a ______ experience…” is not sufficient. “At the end, I see that ______ was _______ all along…” doesn’t cut it. “When I began this journey, I thought _______, but now I’ve learned _______…” just can’t work.

I can’t tie the thousands of experiences and lessons into a nice little box and package them in shiny wrapping paper. I can’t even get them all straight in my mind. Besides, I think somehow that there is no box big enough. Especially not this tiny one on Blogger.
Instead I will make a minor and inefficient attempt to draw the closing lines of Al Camino que Hicieron Mis Zapatos quoting…myself. From the beginning.

“Now this experience is beginning, and it feels surreal still…So much craziness has already happened and I feel as though it can only get better from here (and here is pretty great already)…” -26 February

March 3, Santiago de Chile

“Occasionally a shooting star that only I get to see shows up and streaks across my life. And I get to be satisfied that there are people like me out there in the world, and that we occasionally find one another.” -2 March

Holy shit. I’m about to see someone get stabbed.” -3 March

“Complete And Utter Chaos would come today when my head teacher decided not to come back from his lunch break and the director asked me to substitute with no preparation or lesson plan or materials.” -15 March

March 14, Puerto Natales, Chile

“And maybe all the things that seem to be contradictions are simply juxtapositions that I am not used to. Maybe my definition of contradiction needs to evolve. And maybe I’m over-reacting because this is actual culture shock instead of the “I’m at home!” feeling Italy immediately gave me.” -23 March

“Am I just a cog in the English Cult Machine here in Chile? Maybe.” -31 March

I had no idea how hard I would be expected to work here, nor how hard I would have to push myself.” -10 April

March 19, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

“They all think I am crazy. Also I am covered in cat pee.” -20 April

“I’m not even concerned with breaking even anymore. I just want a little sprinkling of good surprises and minor victories to season the greater confusion, frustration, and lack of progress. It’s enough.” -3 May

“I can’t change everything. Maybe, just maybe, I can’t change ANYthing. I hope that the reality is somehwere in the middle, but it remains to be seen.” -16 May

April 4, Two of my students

“So, what do you do when there is nothing more to do? When you have nothing more to give? When what you thought was the point of your life has been erroded by three months of floundering and you wonder what the point of trying is?

You tell the existential crisis bearing down on you to go fuck itself, and you spend some of the UN’s money on some new boots and a coffee.” -24 May

April 17, Villa Renovald

“The images of all the places I have been able to travel so far on this trip materialize out of the bluish gray light, seeming to shine in the snow and cloudy sky. Torres del Paine. Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia. Natales. Puerto Bulnes. The Straight of Magellan. That big hill over there, that we spent the day climbing yesterday. All the toughness of the teaching and the daily stuggles, did it pay for those places?” -27 May

Crossing the Strait of Magellan, April 25

“Circumstantial changes mimic the coming and going of the weather here. If you don’t like it, wait five minutes. The chaos will shift again and you will be humbled by your smallness in the face of Patagonia. But you will also find that you can change some of it, and occasionally outsmart the chaos for just long enough to move to the next challenge.” -7 June

April 26, Ushuaia, Argentina

“I am not working here. This is not a job. This is something at I am choosing to do and that I can just as easily choose not to. I am a volunteer.”- 8 June

“There was no assistant teaching. No orientation. No gradual transition from non-teacher to Miss Coleen. Hell, there wasn’t even an observation period. I made the transition in a day, in front of a room full of seventh graders. But honestly, I think I’ve risen well to the challenge. After four months of the struggle in this school, I can say with some confidence that I have at least a tiny claim to that kick ass brotherhood of teachers making a difference.” -22 June

Campo de Inbierno, Late June

“I have done the best job I could do to change and adapt and accept. A lot of what I have learned and changed is great, and I will use the new point of view Chile has offered me to judge my own life more carefully. But that doesn’t mean I should lose myself completely either. My own culture and identity have a lot to offer, and the exchange should change Puerto Natales and the people I meet as well.” -30 June

With three of my Chilean sisters, July 24, Puerto Natales

“You did it. You did what you came here to do. And you did it so well.

I didn’t look back. Really, I couldn’t…the more pressing needs to watch out for stray ankle-biting poodles, speeding POS cars on the avenue, and boot-swollowing mud puddles pressed me back to Chilean reality. The Goodbye Spell complete, I walked home.” -8 July

Mobbed by my students on my last day, July 8

“To any observer including me it appears that she has been trying to kill me…but she was actually trying to save me.

Chile woke me up and made me realize that I have a lot of work to do on myself before my life can have stability and I can truly be happy. She laid my own issues and those of the world bare, forcing me to deal with pain, sadness, lonliness, anger, and my own personal tormentors from the past.

Valparaiso, July 29

She forced me to give up a lot about my own way of viewing the world and to try to get by on fumes (and a ton of white bread) even when I was exhausted. She made me feel so tiny and powerless in the face of mountains and the problems of her society, but yet huge and powerful as the most noticeable gringa this side of Puerto Montt and able to do something to help those students.” -18 July

In one week, I’ve literally done Chile end to end. Punta Arenas to Arica.” -9 August

San Pedro de Atacama, August 1

“I don’t want to give up on one of the things that I’ve always held dear to me… The idea that I could act and change something about the world for the better. It is easier to choose to be jaded. The narrow path is not convenient.” -16 August

With Sandra, On Lake Titkaka, August 9

All the tethers to this experience are breaking free, one by one, to flutter in the wind. This week I felt the surprise of already missing Patagonia and everyone who was witness to my adventure here.

Likely whatever change there is within me will only become clear in the stark contrast this last, short leg of the journey will inevitably bring. I have an inkling that there is a big enough physical change that people may be shocked.

With our host family in Taquine, on Lake Titikaka

South America stripped pounds from my frame, changed my hair color, and put the first lines on my face. Also my clothes haven’t had a real washing in almost six months.

A girl in my hostel (a random, faked-tanned and overly-bleached California blonde) listened to a few lines of concentrated six months in South America the other day over a mediocre vegetarian sandwich. She was shocked at how long I’ve been here, and clearly had no grasp on how far South Puerto Natales is. She couldn’t stop complimenting my Spanish (that language I did not speak six months ago that I now take for granted).

Cusco, August 11

“Would you do it all again?”

I hesitated. This was, without question, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. A few weeks ago, I said that I wished I had never come to South America, through tears in the fancy SkyBar at the Punta Arenas casino.

“Yes. Yes, I would do it again.”

My answer surprised even myself. Something must have shifted in the 3000 miles since then. I don’t know what that shift is yet, but that tiny glimmer of light peeking out from the darkness seems to be a good omen.

Machu Picchu, August 13

“It is known that one who returns never left…” -Pablo Neruda

2011 By Playlist

1/9/2011 Santa Cruz, California

Imagine that you are lost in the fog of dementia. Your tired old brain has all but given up on the attempt to return to normalcy, and you’re not even aware that you’ve forgotten your own family and friends. But suddenly an old tune you once listened to, once loved to and grew to, cuts its way through the fog. You know all the words. You sing and dance, for a tiny moment the memory is as sharp as if it were contemporaneous. The fog lifts and suddenly remembrance floods in.

3/7/2011 Valparaiso, Chile

Researchers of elderly patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have discovered that music is one key to the brain that we have yet to fully understand. Even in the deepest throes of memory loss, sometimes a song seems to touch a place that is so much deeper than our current understanding. They sing, in tune, they know all the words…they even remember the choreography (at 10:00).

3/14/2011 Puerto Natales, Chile

I knew this already. Music always pulls the very taste of a memory from the void. Without it, I would’ve lost it long ago. Since the short 365 days of 2011 have felt to me like ten years, I cannot find the words to accurately sum up my year. But I can find the songs that take me back to the places I lived, the people I loved, and the experiences I ventured throughout this decade of a year.

Someday when I’m old and I’ve forgotten everything else, I hope that this post and this music will cut through that fog and I might feel 2011 again.

3/20/2011 Torres del Paine, Chile

(Please click here and make sure your Grooveshark is not on shuffle to hear 2011 by Playlist)

Gregory Alan Isakov- The Stable Song

Yoga on the roof of the hostel in Santiago, for a friend across the mountains. The stars were nearly blocked out by the light pollution of 8 million, but Istill feel them there. The green of the largest shooting star I’ve ever seen. And later, stars. Just stars. Everywhere. The bus between Natales and Punta Arenas on a clear night.

 Missy Higgins- Forgive Me

The nightly walk home from the Costanera in Puerto Natales as I made my laps around town, trying desperately to shake the frustration at my volunteering and living situation. Ice under my boots and the haunting moan of the radio tower in the wind next to me. The air tastes like wood smoke and I steal a solitary moment.

4/3/2011 Punta Arenas, Chile

 Florence + The Machine- Rabbit Heart 

Taking ten minutes to lay down and rest in between teaching all day, decorating and arranging my classroom all evening, and the dinner rush at Hostal Carlitos. A silent offering to Pachamama in the hopes that Claudia wouldn’t burn the casuela that night too.

4/3/2011 Puerto Hambre, Chile

 Don Omar- Danza Kurduro

Um, everywhere? But especially dancing in front of my kids in the gym at Escuela 5 for Students’ Day in April!

 Metric- Collect Call

Villa Renovald. Boarding the bus in the rain in the middle of nowhere, and running across the emptiness back to Puerto Natales.

4/9/2011 Torres del Paine, Chile

Plan B- Si No le Contesto

Ushuaia, walking down the main street after dark in the glow of a churro shop. A happy dance over understanding Spanish (finally).

Nickel Creek- When In Rome

Realization that Puerto Natales is kind of West Virginia. Comfort for this teacher who knows that her students didn’t give two shits and that people valued books for fire fuel over learning. The crystalline winter light from the top of the hill, turning woodsmoke purple against the mountains.

4/24/2011 Ushuaia, Argentina

Wicked-For Good

First graders staring at me with wide eyes and listening so well, entranced by the song. They can’t understand the words that I’d written out on paper in English and Spanish, but they see my teary eyes and smile. “Tia, la quiero mucho!” “Tia, nos va a extrañar!” “Tia! “Tia!”

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

5/15/2011 Torres del Paine, Chile

Yann Tiersen – Sur le fil

My refuge, the cafe in centro. Planning for the next trip, the snow, fading light slowly dissolving the experience in Puerto Natales before my eyes.

8/1/2011 Vina del Mar, Chile

Emancipator- First Snow

The last bus from Puerto Natales, in a snowstorm. Across the vast unempty emptiness of Patagonia one more time, my third hometown in the world fading into the condensation of forty people’s breathing.

 La Roux- Bulletproof

Valparaiso, in our hostel’s kitchen. Standing with wet hair next to the only source of heat in the old house, the barely functioning stove. Can’t get the chill out of my bones after showering with the window next to me open and lukewarm water that turned icy after a minute. Seeing my breath indoors.

8/5/2011 San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

StroMae- Alors On Danse

Cusco Pub Quiz. The bizzare overlap of French house music in Cuzco, knowing that the next step was Annecy yet not able to imagine how I would ever escape South America. The anticipation before Machu Picchu.

 DLZ- TV On the Radio

Late summer, late afternoon, a welcome back. You made it.

8/9/2011 Taquile, Peru

The Decemberists- Down By the Water

Between Silverthorne and Kremling, windows down, singing loud as possible as rain blows in lightly on my face. The intoxication of open spaces.

8/29/2011 Mt. Bierstadt, Colorado

Wilco- One Sunday Morning

Setting sun in Annecy, the yellow light on the balcony. Rosé’s tang cutting through a block of goat cheese, and grapes. Listening to the kitties below on their nightly walk. Realization of healing process from post-South America Stress Syndrome. Sunshine, friends, food, language. These are the ingredients to heal myself, when the tougher times come in the future.

One Sunday Morning, I woke up speaking French.

10/11/2011 Annecy, France

Florence + The Machine- Cosmic Love

Fog over Lake Annecy, pink in the dawn. Practically running across the quay, envious of the efficient business people on their scooters whizzing past. Late for class again, but The Visitation on the hill calls to me. Church bells over Florence’s voice.

 Asa- Be My Man

The slow quickness of a cab ride at 6 AM in Brussels, trees glowing in the streetlights slipping by and making me dizzy. The delight of finding a new place to fit in. Mist on my face in the corn field. Repetition of a midnight walk six months earlier in Patagonia.

10/16/2011 Paris, France

The motto of 2011 was “Into the Unknown,” drawn up by me on this date last year. The song that best captures its feelings, restlessness, heart-wrenching, happiness, wild nights, quiet days, relentless change, and ultimate growth is Comptine d’un autre été : L’après-midi by Yann Tiersen.

And the first song of 2012 is: Florence + The Machine- What the Water Gave Me

I’m grasping at straws for the theme of 2012. It’s another year of going into the unknown, since I will be moving 6,000 miles away again for the third time in four years.  2012 feels a like it’s hiding behind a curtain, waiting for the right moment to spring its lessons on me.  But after 2011…it can only get more interesting from here.

12/23/2011 Louisville, Colorado

Peace to all in the new year.

Second Autumn, 2011

Autumn is my favorite season. It lends itself so perfectly to my inner mental landscape. My brain is full of trees so orange they look as though they are on fire.

Since I lived in the Southern Hemisphere from February to three days ago, I get two in 2011! I’ve been calling it The Year Without A Spring, because I won’t see any flowers poking up from the Colorado snows until 2012. Three transitions to winter in a row, Colorado and France sandwiching Chilean Patagonia.

One thing that is inevitable about autumn is the constant change of temperature and weather. The need to dress accordingly can seem an impossible task at times, although after the It-Was-Literally-Pouring-Two-Minutes-Ago-But-Now-It’s-Hot-As-Hades transitions of Colorado and Patagonia, I’d like to tell myself that I have some skill in dressing for change while still looking put together. I made three new outfits for this fall by cleaning my closet out and using the spoils to sell at consignment shops and then give away to Good Will when the girls behind the counter inevitably sneered, “Well, this jacket has a slight ketchup mark on the cuff here…Sorry…”

Results: Five new pieces, lots more space in the closet, and people who need clothes helped. And I am only $20 in the hole. Without selling, it would’ve been over $100, and without shopping at the consignment stores…well, I don’t even want to know. Part of living this confusing and foggy part of my life is that I am BROKE all the time. Or rather, that I constantly have to save money to be able to follow my callings to travel and languages and living off of cheap-ass baguettes and cheese in Annecy. Because of this, I’ve found ways of creating style and looking put together without paying money I don’t have. A lot of thrift stores and flea markets, a lot of DIY, and a lot of reusing and layering pieces so that they can transition from season to season.

For your consideration.

Outfit #1

Belt, Top, and Skirt by the infamous Tar-jhey (Target). Boots by Annie. Necklace from Cuzco Market. Wrap from Ferrara Market.

Total cost: $80 (boots were an investment of $50 but I wear them every day in Fall/Winter

With a pair of cheapo tights, this could move into late autumn. Right now it is 95 degrees outside. Tights are a no.

Outfit #2

Belt from some shirt my mom gave me. Wrap from Ferrara Market. Tunic from Buffalo exchange. Tights by Target. Same boots.

Total cost: $70 (Everything but the boots was under $15)

NEW TUNIC. I love it. And again, with a thicker tight it could work for winter.

Outfit #3

Belted shirt from Plato’s Closet. Necklace from Ferrara Market. Jeans by Levis. Boots from Peru.

Total cost: $110

Jean are one of the few things I cannot buy in consignment stores. Being 6’1″ really limits the availability of pants that are long enough, so I usually have to buy them new. I wear them into the ground (or until the crotch rips out, as has happened with my last five pairs).








I hope to make these little cheapo fashion interludes a regular part of this blog, in addition to the travel, photography, opinion, and soul-searching that it might take as its direction. Then again the Reverse Retrograde may take its own direction once it is established and go somewhere I would have never imagined.