Tuesday, April 20, 2010

¡Hace frío!

I went camping for the first time in my entire life, not counting the summer when I was a kid and my friends and I slept in the backyard in a big tent luxurious enough to host a cocktail party. The tent sat in the same spot all summer, just long enough to kill the grass leaving a perfect rectangular patch of dark brown. Indeed, my camping trip this past weekend was the real deal. Who would have thought that my very first trial with roughing it in the wilderness  would be in the famous Patagonian national park known as Torres del Paine? I still don’t know the meaning of the word paine,  but the torres are the main attraction. They are huge towers of rock that can be seen from many distances throughout the Magallanes region. I cannot claim that I fended for myself entirely, because I was accompanied by 4 very strong, capable fellows. Greg traded backpacks with me because mine was too heavy, Nathaniel cooked dinner for everyone (rice, tomatoes and tuna) and made hot chocolate,  Chris was our most punctual and responsible leader, and our team was entertained about every hour by Jason’s renditions of “Can’t touch this” and any other song that came to mind.  Needless to say, I would never have made it without them. If we been living a reality tv show, I would have been the first to go.

Our trip began with a short bus ride from Puerto Natales to the entrance to Torres del Paine, which led to a second bus ride much deeper into the park. Our trek to the top passed in about 4 hours with lots of descansas along the way. It began to snow about halfway through the climb, but I continued to de-layer until I was wearing only a light long sleeve t-shirt! No importa the temperature, I was sweating! We decided to put our jackets back on when we made it to a high edge of a mountain side where we had to scoot along, the wind whipping and whirling bitter gusts and tiny pieces of ice. We fought a constant battle against our body temperature, hardly ever satisfied with what we were wearing or how our toes and fingers felt.

We arrived at the camp site ready for a change of pace. Setting up the two tents could have been a great learning experience for me if I had only tried to observe carefully. I didn’t. I stood in one spot shivering, occasionally walking around to another side to watch preparation efforts  from a different perspective and to say, “can I do anything?” I pretended to care, but in reality I was so thankful that someone else was doing the work. I got the main idea. A tent has a main body, poles that unfold, stakes to secure it, and a fly which provides more protection from wind, rain and snow. Next time, I’ll help.

With a few hours left of sunlight, we tried to make it to the top to see the torres. We had seen them already on our trek, but the best view of them rested about an hour trekking from our campsite. A few of us didn’t make it the whole way for various reasons, but Nathaniel and Chris took some pictures that they later shared with us. Back at the campsite, we all gathered in one tent together to eat dinner, devour some cookies and chocolate and to pass around a bottle of pisco sour before trying to fall asleep. We talked about our day, our experiences and feelings for Chile and how much we were really enjoying this crazy life at the end of the earth.

It snowed all night. I shivered and slept in 30 minute increments. I looked at my watch regularly to see that I was getting closer to daylight and the hike to the bottom that would surely warm me up. To make things more interesting, we were accompanied by rats for most of the night. Mama Tatiana had warned me about los ratones and that I needed to guard my food, but in all my frozenness it was all I could do to put on my North Face botties and crawl into my sleeping bag. I couldn’t even muster the energy to walk to the bathroom facility. I could hear the rats screeching and nibbling, and I prayed that they stuck only to my food and not to my hair or ears if I had happened to fall asleep. In the morning when I opened the tent door, I noticed crumbs sprinkled on the tops of our backpacks and found a tiny hole in my bag of bread. They had at lease been polite enough to leave some bread for my breakfast.

The next morning we awoke to one less person, Nathaniel. I asked some other campers at the site if they had seen an adventurous Australian guy attempting to climb the last stretch. Yes, they had. The four of us packed our things, brushed our teeth and ate granola bars and candy for breakfast. Nathaniel returned just in time to leave. The return hike took a fraction of the time, and before we knew it we were resting at the steps of the hotel and gift shop.

Next time, I will do a few things differently, of course. I will have different shoes, a mat for my sleeping bag, and a lighter pack, but I would not change a single thing about my first camping trip in Torres del Paine.  Discomfort aside, it was an incredible experience  I want to relive again.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Me llamo Marie.

My first few days have been unbelievable. Here are the facts. I work at an all girls’ catholic school called Liceo Maria Mazzarello in the center of the small town Puerto Natales. The walk to and from school is about 7 minutes, and lunch is usually waiting for me at home by 2:00 when I finish. There are two main English teachers in the school (one for básico and the other for medio), and I am the only volunteer. I will be working with the students in básico classes, from Kindergarten to 8th grade. Lucy is the English teacher with whom I will be working. Her classes typically have 30 students. I will take half of them for the first semester and we will swap at the beginning of the second. I have my own classroom, painted a lilac purple and complete with desks, bulletin boards, markers, cabinets, etc. Truthfully, it is a lot more than I expected to have as a volunteer. I can tell that the school has a great appreciation for the EOD program, and I just hope that I can exceed their expectations. Lucy is already preparing for the national English language debate and speech competitions, for which it is hoped that I will polish presentation and pronunciation.

For the past two days, I have been following Lucy around the school and observing her classes. When she enters the room, in English she shouts “Good morning students!” and they all stand to respond, “Good morning teacher!” Lucy then habitually acts a little annoyed and tells them to sit down. When they notice that the Angloparalante (me, Marie) is standing beside her, they all begin waving hysterically and whispering “Hello! Hello! Hello!” A few of them rush to give me a kiss on the cheek and say “Good morning Mary!” It’s adorable, and I simply can’t tell them to sit down. I am going to have to be authoritative someday, but not now. Not tomorrow, either. I need all the positive reinforcement I can get, and the love they are sharing with me is what is keeping me happy and excited to be in Puerto Natales.

My new Chilean family could not be more loving, either. My mom’s name is Tatiana, and her daughters are Belen and Maria de los Angeles. Tatiana’s husband works in the park, Torres del Paine, twelve days at a time so I haven’t had the opportunity to meet him yet. There is an aunt living with us also, but I am ashamed that I can’t remember her name. My room is tiny, but perfect. It is painted a happy lime green. I have a television, a desk, a closet, a comfortable bed and wifi! I can tell that Mama Tatiana and I are going to be very close by the end of this experience. She and I spend 70% of our conversations trying to explain ourselves and the significance of the words we say. Sometimes we just hang our heads, laugh, and agree to return to the subject later (or in a few weeks when I have a better vocabulary). Thank goodness for little Belen, for the most enjoyable conversations that I have are with this 6 year old. Maria de los Angeles, of 14 years old, tries to translate sometimes, but she pretends to speak less English than she is capable.

I know that Belen and Maria de los Angeles will only continue to amaze me. Maria de los Angeles is exceedingly artistic, incredibly intelligent, interested to know more about the world around her, but very shy. Belen is the most responsible 6 year old to have ever lived. Two nights ago, she and I were playing tennis on Wii. In the middle of the game she stopped, turned to me quickly and asked “que hora es?” I told her the time, she sighed with relief and proceeded to finish the game. I asked her, “do you have to go to bed soon?” thinking that she was worried about being in trouble with her mom. She responded, “no, tengo que tomar mi remedio.” Huh? What was she saying? I know that a 6 year old did not just tell me that she has to take her medicine. What planet is she from? Either American parents are doing something wrong, or Chilean parents are doing something so right in methods of child-rearing. It was astounding.

All of the changes in my life are incredible and inspiring, but I cannot deny that they are wearing on me. They say that your brain can hold an infinite amount of information, but today I learned that it’s not true. I was sitting in the back of the classroom and had been observing an activity for which pairs of girls had to recite a dialogue in front of the class. A little girl by the name of Rima came to me to ask for help with pronunciation. First, I asked her in Spanish “is there anything on this page that you don’t understand?” She pointed to the word “too.” So, I grabbed my notebook and pen and wrote the words: to, too, and two. I began to explain the meaning of the first and second words, but when I got to the third word, I blanked. I literally did not know what to say. Something was wrong with the way I had written it. What did it say? That can’t possibly be how you spell the number 2. I asked myself over and over, “how do you spell 2?” I was terrified that I had lost my mind. For a few seconds, I even considered the idea that I had had a stroke. Did I need to go to the doctor? What is happening to my brain? Then I realized. There is no reason in the world why we English speakers should spell the number 2 "T-W-O.” For the past few days I have been thinking, talking, and stressing in Spanish so much that my mind had begun to work phonetically and could no longer understand the spelling of words that are considered “exceptions” in the English language. My brain was working in overload, and it was trashing the excess one word at a time, beginning with the least complex.

My exhaustion might also be explained by all the activity to which I have said “yes!” Yesterday afternoon Mama Tatiana invited me to a workout class at a gymnasio across the street. The gym is a community center and the classes are provided by the government’s Ministry of Health. She and I stomped across the street in our cold-weather work-out gear only to find a small circle of people sitting in conversation. They told us that we had been misinformed somehow. No class. Instead, Mama Tatiana and I decided to attend another class elsewhere in Puerto Natales. It began at 9:00 pm, so we returned home to snack and chat before our trek across town. It was literally a trek. I think tomorrow I will bring a stick and a sleeping bag just in case a snow storm sets in. The class was fantastic, challenging, and all the things that will keep me coming back for more. I am signing up for the next month, so hopefully I can work off some of this pan y mantequilla. Maria de los Angeles accompanied us to the class, and during the workout she began to feel a pain in her stomach. Mama Tatiana insisted that we go to the hospital in order to check it out. So, at 10:30 PM we arrived to the hospital on foot. Mama Tatiana left Maria de los Angeles with me there to chat in the waiting room while she ran home (literally) to get some money to pay for the visit. She returned and joined us in our conversation about inches and feet and how stupid Americans are for not joining the rest of the world in using the metric system. As we sat, a woman from the other side of the room burst into tears. Naturally, we all stared. When the lady had gone, Mama Tatiana explained to us that she had been eavesdropping and had learned that the woman’s friend had died, an old man and an alcoholic. Our conversation was again interrupted when the large, round body wrapped in a white sheet was rolled through the waiting room in front of our very eyes.

To my own delight and benefit, I slept very well after the visit to the hospital. Wednesday morning came a little too soon, but I was out the door in no time with my French-pressed coffee in hand. Chileans are not Starbucks, fresh-brewed coffee addicts like we Americans, and Nescafe is just not cutting it this week. I was lucky enough to have found a French press in Santiago, but the one thing I am lacking is plain, non-fat Greek yogurt. Mama Tatiana tells me that it is sold in Punta Arenas (3 hours by bus) or I have to go to Argentina (probably a little closer). I am finding this to be a theme in Puerto Natales that many items do not make it onto the shelves. To add to the disappointment, I had found a vegetarian restaurant/coffee shop owned by a British couple that has declared they will be closing for the winter season beginning next Monday. I can say goodbye to the homemade honey-comb ice-cream that still visits my dreams. Surprisingly, I received a phone call today from Greg, another volunteer living in Punta Arenas, telling me that he was standing in the yogurt isle of the supermarket and could only find one type of yogurt that might satisfy my ridiculous, stubbornness and resistance to adaptation. He is bringing it to me this weekend by bus, so vamos a ver.

En serio, I can’t say that any of this is truly disappointing. I am having such an amazing time here in Puerto Natales, Chile that it would be hard to imagine anything ruining my day, week, 8 months. I can’t complain, but only to joke about how terrible my life really is here at the end of the Earth without the material things that don’t matter to me at all.

This weekend I will be going to Torres del Paine with 4 tour guides, also known as my new best friends.

Look forward to some breathtaking photos.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Viviré en Puerto Natales

The long awaited question of where I am going to be living was finally answered yesterday! My new home will be Puerto Natales, a town of about 20,000 people and considered the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. It is difficult to know what to expect, as a wealth of information is not available online or in tour guides. I do know that a lot of tourists pass through the town, and I have read that some British expatriates have opened a vegetarian restaurant. I have been told that my host family is very nice, though my apoyo curiculare (my school representative) cannot remember much more about them and continues to forget to bring her packet of information to orientation every day. I keep telling myself that the continued uncertainty only adds to the excitement. Orientation does seems lengthy at times, but it will be over before I know it on Friday. I will have Saturday and Sunday free to explore more of Santiago, and my 3-4 hour flight to Punta Arenas leaves Monday morning. From Punta Arenas I will take a bus to Puerto Natales! There will be more details to come.