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

My Travel List

Torres del Paine, June 2011

Torres del Paine, June 2011

Yes. This is a travel list. Yes. This can be a hackneyed practice. Like my Mama taught me to say as a two year old, “Oh well!”

I know my last post was a bit depressing. It wasn’t really meant to be, but the darkness that is slowly taking over as winter approaches must have seeped in. Also, I wrote it in the minutes before leaving for work, with no time to proofread for existential crises.

This post is a lot more positive. I may have attenuated my expectations, but I have not given up on dreaming. I have not given up on travelling, the one true sinew running through my life. The red string of fate (紅線) brought me to the man I will marry in about two weeks’ time through travelling, and I believe that it pulls us inextricably onwards…on to the next place, on to the next adventure.

The next adventure is still hazy, but then I’ve learned to be comfortable in the fog. In six months’ time, I might be writing from the same place. But I might be writing from a world away, in a village I’ve never known. In Saigon, in Kuala Lumpur, in Shanghai, in Busan. I spent time today in Dalston, London…it reminded me forcefully of the Bronx.

After 36 (38?) hours of travel in 2011. Chile to Peru.

After 36 (38?) hours of travel in 2011. Chile to Peru.

I’m making a list. I want to check it off. I want to see these places and to live the biggest, broadest life possible. I remember standing in someone’s backyard, the summer before I began my last year of high school, crying. I was at a graduation party, I think. For a friend of my high school boyfriend. I didn’t know what had upset me. It was probably someone talking about mortgages, again (a long and burdensome theme in my life). Get out of high school, go to college, get married, get a house, work, retire, die. My poor constant and helpful high school sweetheart tried to console me.

“I just want a broad and beautiful life.”

I was 17, and pretty idiotic most of the time (thank the gods of the Internet there was no Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat when I was that age). But then, I could see myself being upset over the same things ten years later next spring, in 2015. I still want that broad and beautiful life. I am a traveller above all else. Above the M.A. at the end of my name. Above my current work as a bee who fetches delicious, intoxicating nectar for others in the hive. Just look at that picture after 36 hours of travel and one of the worst bus journeys I’ve ever endured, taken in a Chinese Wanton Soup shop in Puno, Peru. So happy.

Machu Picchu 2011

Machu Picchu 2011- A bucket list moment.

So, a list. Hopes. Goals. Concrete ones. Nothing to do with money, except as a means to an end. I’ve made a lot of travel feats so far, but there is infinitely more to do.

I will see these places in my lifetime. I promise that. Hold me to it.

Middle East – A challenge. Let’s do this.

  1. Petra
  2. Turkey
    1. Istanbul
    2. Somewhere less safe
  3. Jerusalem
  4. Tehran (I hold out hope for a free Iran in my lifetime)
  5. Dubai
  6. Abu Dhabi
  7. Mecca (I wish!)

Central Asia – Wide open spaces

  1. Kazakhstan
  2. Dushanbe, Tajikistan (because of the teahouse back home)

  3. Odessa
  4. The Himalayas (yes, I’ve technically already been there, but just the foothills)
  5. Nepal
  6. Leh, India

East Asia – The call has always been strong here

  1. Mongolia
  2. Irkutsk
  3. Siberian Forests (the Taiga)
  4. Chengdu
  5. Xi’an
  6. Shanghai
  7. Beijing
  8. Many Chinese cities that westerners don’t always know
  9. Hong Kong
  10. Busan
  11. Jeju
  12. Japan (especially the North and Kyoto)

Southeast Asia – Possibly the next stop

  1. Ha long Bay (Vietnam)
  2. Hanoi
  3. Mekong Delta
  4. Kuala Lumpur
  5. Angor Wat
  6. Indonesia
  7. Many many other places….

Oceania – Unexplored territory

  1. Australian Outback (and the rest…I feel a kindred nationhood with Australia, being from the vast Western USA)
  2. New Zealand
  3. Tahiti
  4. Bikini Atoll (radioactive, I know. I need to see how we are become Death, destroyer of worlds)
  5. Nauru
  6. Rapa Nui

Africa – One of two Continents I’ve never set foot on

  1. The Great Rift Valley
  2. Oldowan Gorge, South Africa
  3. Cape Town
  4. Accra, Ghana
  5. The big slave trade castles of the West African coast (I need to testify to their existence and the feeling they have)
  6. Egypt
  7. Tunisia
  8. So many many other places

Europe – Travelled a lot here, but nowhere near finished

  1. Poland
  2. Prague
  3. Eastern European countrysides in various countries
  4. Serbia
  5. Sarajevo (my great-grandmother Lela said this was one of the most beautiful places she ever went…I have to see it)
  6. Iceland
  7. Skelefteå (land of my Swedish forebears)
  8. Norway
  9. St. Petersburg
  10. Sicilia
  11. Cyprus
  12. Greece
  13. Mont St. Michel, France
  14. The catacombs of Paris
  15. STONEHENGE (relatively easily accessible)
  16. The Scottish Highlands
  17. Bruges
  18. Berlin
  19. So many many more places

South America – I lived on the extreme, still need to see others

  1. Sao Paulo
  2. Mendoza
  3. Caracas, Venezuela
  4. Bogota, Colombia
  5. Coyhaique, Chile
  6. Villarica, Chile
  7. The Amazon
  8. Uruguay
  9. more of Bolivia
  10. Mexico (especially Chitin Its a)
  11. Nicaragua
  12. Costa Rica (living here, maybe!!!!)

North America – Yes, I’m from here…there is still more to see

  1. Vancouver
  2. Seattle
  3. Alaska  – especially Denali
  4. Montreal
  5. Maine
  6. New Orleans
  7. More of Los Angeles
  8. The Appalachian Trail

And finally…SPACE! When I am an old woman with nothing to lose, I want to go into orbit.

“Pisco Sour,” London-Style: Cocktail School Summer 2014

Just like in South America!

Just like in South America!

Pisco is a liquor that is made in Chile and Peru. When I lived in Patagonia this drink was a beautiful aperitif, which I shared with friends and my adopted Chilean family.

It was always refreshing, and I’ve been craving it lately. My lack of travel is wearing me down, causing me to tear up at random airline adverts and pulling me hard in the direction of some very silly place thousands of miles away in the coming year. The London Pisco Sour is a balm to soothe the wanderlust, if only for tonight.

This one is an approximation, because Pisco is rather difficult to find in London.

  • Juice of one lime
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 50 ml of cheap Brandy (it must be cheap to taste right) 
  • One egg white, raw

Make certain that there is no yolk in the separated egg, as this will mess up the foam.

Add ingredients to cocktail shaker (or Mason jar with a metal lid, as in my case). Shake very hard over ice, and tap on the counter when finished. Double strain over ice, and serve with cocktail straws if you’ve got them. If you don’t, whatever…many bars in South America don’t, either.


Look at that foam!

Bonus Hair Progress picture:

Nearing my shoulders!

Nearing my shoulders!

How Does a Hippy Dress for Work?

In lace and Huayruro seeds

At my mall job, I’m allowed to dress down on Sundays. That means jeans, Peruvian accessories, and layered clothing.

Clothes: Target, Buffalo Exchange, and H&M 
Leaf Earrings: Annecy, France
Huayruro Seed Necklace: Cuzco Market
Leather Booties: Lima Market

I also got to choose all the beverages for my parents’ Christmas Open House last night. Which meant home-infused whiskey and wines from all over the world. And Colorado microbrew, of course!