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