Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beneath Foreign Skies

During the week of August 9-15, Kelsey and I spent lots of time getting to know more of the students and community at St. George’s College.  There is another house of Holy Cross priests that live right next to St. George’s, whom we had dinner with on Monday.  One of the priests there is the rector (principal) of St. George’s and there were two other older priests, one Chilean and one American, who lived through the political turmoil in the early 70s in Chile.  Needless to say, our dinner conversation was pretty interesting and a good opportunity for us to learn more about Chilean culture (luckily we were speaking in English, so I was able to actually understand).  On Tuesday, Kelsey and I accompanied Joe to St. George’s to help with a retreat for 10th graders which was rather uneventful but still a good opportunity to meet more people and become acquainted with customs and procedures in the school environment. 

Twilight in the Chilean countryside
Thursday 8/13 brought the beginning of probably the most interesting experience I’ve had here thus far.  Joe, Kelsey and I departed early in the afternoon to accompany a group of 11th graders from St. George’s on ‘trabajos de invernio,’ which translates as ‘winter works’ but basically is a service trip organized by the school (they organize a service trip during each season of the year with the exception of fall).  Many schools in Santiago organize similar trips, recently focused on aiding earthquake victims.  We left Santiago around 3 pm heading south for the small town of Huerta del Maule (if you look on a map, it’s about halfway between Talca and Linares) and arrived around 9 pm.  There were no paved roads in the town and few lights.  The lack of light pollution during the night gave us an unobstructed view of the night sky in the southern hemisphere.  It was pretty awesome to see the Southern Cross and other constellations that only partially appear in the Northern hemisphere, but it was also strange to be under a different part of the sky.  I’ve been looking up at the same stars for most of my life so seeing the difference in the sky that night really gave me the feeling of being in a foreign place, a wayfarer in an unimaginably different place than home. 

We stayed in a school in the town center, sleeping in classrooms on the floor or on tables.  For a kid who is used to the seasonal ice ages that are common during the Midwestern winters, the winter days here can be relatively warm with temperatures around 50 or 60 degrees when the sun is out.  When the sun sets, however, the temperature drops drastically and hovers just above freezing point.  The cold, coupled with the dampness made sleep pretty difficult, even when I was wearing 3 undershirts (2 of them longsleeve), a sweatshirt, wool hat, scarf, thermal pants and wool socks.  Being uncomfortably cold made sleeping difficult, but being stuck in the same room with about 20 high school kids made it well near impossible.  Chileans are gregarious people and as I previously mentioned, have no problem staying up until 7 am.  Needless to say, a couple hours of sleep is all I got. 

Orlando, Me, Taldo, Peiro, y Marisol
We woke the next morning to prepare for our work, which involved dividing into teams of 5 or 6 and going to different homes in the countryside that had been destroyed by the earthquake to build ‘mediaguas.’  Mediaguas are temporary wooden shanties built for earthquake victims and though the literal translation means ‘half-water,’ it is really just the word that is used for hut or shack.  Kelsey and I were on a team with 3 students, one girl and two guys.  We were helping a couple, Marisol and Orlando, finish their mediagua by insulating it and putting up drywall.  Sounds like pretty simple work, but the only tools we had were screwdrivers, tape measures, and utility knives to cut the drywall.  After working all day Friday and until about 6 pm on Saturday, we finished.  Other teams, however, hadn’t been as efficient as us so we had to help them finish before we could depart for Santiago.  By 8 pm, everyone had finished their work.  It was freezing cold and we were all tired and hadn’t showered in 2 days so we were excited to be on our way back to Santiago.  Or so we thought.  After we had all boarded the bus near our worksite to go back to the town and collect our stuff, the driver got us stuck in a ditch and was unable to maneuver his way out of it.  So we waited around for another half hour for another bus.  We finally departed by 9 or so and made it back to our house, in Santiago, at 2 am.  I was looking forward to a warm shower and comfortable bed to sleep in. 
Taldo, Me, and Peiro insulating the 'mediagau'

A futile attempt to get the bus out of the ditch...
However, the night was far from over.  One of our friends Gusty Simpson, who had been working as a volunteer at some orphanages managed by Holy Cross, was leaving the next morning after spending his summer break here and we were hosting his ‘despedida’ (meaning farewell…a going away party for him).  It didn’t matter that I hadn’t really slept in the last few days, it was Gusty’s last night and despedidas are important.  And since we’re in Chile, the party didn’t end until Gusty finally left our house at about 6 am.  So it was an exhausting weekend overall, but great nonetheless.  There have been some other things that have happened between then and now, but things are becoming a bit more routine here so I think I’ll be able to fill you in with just one update after this to bring us to the present.  Hope you are all alive and well…and missing me. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

One Week Down, 77 To Go

It has been a busy and exciting three weeks since I arrived here in Santiago and it’s been an adventure from the start.  When I got to O’Hare airport in Chicago on Monday, August 2nd, I learned that my flight from Chicago to Atlanta had been delayed.  The flight was pushed back by one hour, which really complicated things, as my layover in Atlanta was only an hour and ten minutes long.  I thought for a few minutes that I would have one last day in the USA but as soon as the thought crossed my mind, the Delta representative at the check-in counter told me excitedly that she was able to reroute my flight, taking me to Santiago via Miami on American Airlines.  I said goodbye to Mom and Dad, rushed through security, made some final telephone calls and was on my way.  Fifteen or so hours later, I arrived in Santiago and was glad to see that my site partner, Kelsey Rea, had waited for me in customs, as her flight had arrived about an hour before mine.  We made our way through customs and were greeted by two others participating in our program, Christine Clark and Joe Coulter, who have been here for a year and will stay with us until January, and Brother Matthew Lyons CSC, a member of the Holy Cross community here in Chile. 

Hermano Mateo (Brother Matt) drove us from the airport to our house, which is not far from the city center.  Along the highway that goes from the airport to the city center, I almost immediately noticed the stark contrast between rich and poor in the city.  Near the airport there are many poor neighborhoods where houses are built mostly from adobe, brick, scrap cardboard, tin, and whatever is lying around.  These neighborhoods lined the banks of the Mapocho, the river that runs through Santiago.  It was easy to discern the poverty from the smoldering fires and garbage heaps near the banks of the Mapocho, just on the outskirts of these shantytowns.  As we got closer to the city center, the scene drastically changed as high-rise apartments and other modern buildings began to dominate the landscape.  We arrived in our neighborhood, Barrio Yungay, which could probably be described as blue collar/middle class according to Chilean living standards.   

Joe and Christine welcomed us with tea, coffee and a small breakfast before we both excused ourselves to have a nice 4 hour nap.  Later that evening, all four of us went to have dinner with some of the Holy Cross priests and brothers that live in community in our neighborhood.  First we had a Mass together and then had some drinks, hors d’oeuvres and conversation followed by a hilarious but delicious first dinner in Chile- Domino’s Pizza.  Maybe the Holy Cross priests and brothers just really wanted us to feel at home in a strange place.  Nothing quite says 'home' like some greasy pepperoni pizza.  The box even said that the pepperoni they use is imported from the United States...I kid you not.  All joking aside, it was a good opportunity to get to know some of the priests and brothers who we will be working with at our schools for the next year and a half.  And for the record, I'm not complaining about the pizza- it was great, just unexpected.      

In the following days, Kelsey and I visited the school in our neighborhood where Christine works called Colegio de Nuestra Señora de Andacollo and the school where Joe works called St. George’s College, both of which are run by Holy Cross.  In Chile there are 3 types of schools: private, public and those like Andacollo that fall somewhere in between.  So while it is a Catholic school, it does get some funding from the government.  Also, many (if not most) schools in Chile are called ‘Colegios’ where there is Kindergarten through 12th grades all in one school.  During our visit to Andacollo, we met lots of teachers, faculty, and we helped Christine teach some 3rd and 4th graders English, which mostly consisted of us asking them if they liked various types of food.  It was basic stuff, but their English was probably better than my Spanish so it was a humbling experience (I feel like a 3rd grader here every day).  We also visited St. George’s the following day with Joe, which is really a world apart from Andacollo.  St. George’s is a private school for well-to-do Chilean families mostly from the upper middle class.  It’s situated in Vitacura, a wealthy, spacious neighborhood in the northeast part of the city.  From various parts of the campus the skyline of Santiago is visible and you can see the Andes as you walk from building to building.  During our visit, we looked around the campus, met with the faculty who works in 'pastoral' (basically campus ministry) and then talked with a 9th grade theology class about religion in the US and about why we had come to Chile.  Being at both schools was great and it was interesting to see the two very different realities of a poorer inner-city school versus the upper middle class St. George’s.  Despite the apparent differences between the schools, we were warmly welcomed at both by the students and teachers alike.

On Friday 8/6, Kelsey and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon working at  ‘el comedor’ (literally, dining room) or soup kitchen in our neighborhood with Christine.  There we met Señora Christina, the woman in charge of the place who put us to work right away in the kitchen, chopping pumpkin, onion, and other things for the soup she was preparing.  After we got everything together for the soup, we started setting the table and preparing the dining room for the ‘abuelitos’ arrival.  Most of the folks who come here, the ‘abuelitos,’ are older people from our neighborhood who for a variety of reasons don’t always have enough to eat.  Many bring along containers to take soup to their spouses, other family members, or to save for the weekend.  After we served the abuelitos and sat down to eat, it didn’t take long for them to start questioning the two new ones who they’d never seen before (Kelsey and I).  Kelsey managed to understand and communicate pretty well, but unfortunately much of what was said was lost on me.  One of the gentlemen asked me if I worked for the Congregation of Holy Cross, to which I responded "yes."  He then proceeded to talk at me very excitedly for a good 5 minutes without me understanding a single word.  I nodded my head and muttered “sí” every so often so as to appear that I was hanging on to his every word.  A few minutes later, after the rest of were seated and eating, he was on his way out and thanked me graciously followed by a “chau padrecito” (goodbye, father-as if I was a priest).  Christine, upon hearing this, asked me what I had told him.  I told her that I had understood little of what he said but that he had asked me if worked for the Congregation of Holy Cross to which I had responded “yes, I’m doing mission work here in Santiago.”  Apparently he took that to mean that I was a priest, so when he left and said “chau padrecito!” everyone else in the comedor started laughing.  Chile: 1, Blair: 0. 

Only a few minutes after one man in the comedor had mistaken me as a priest, an old woman told me “that she had only seen such a beautiful person as me in her dreams.”  I mean, maybe, but that’s the funny thing about being a gringo (especially a 6' 2" gringo with blond hair and pale skin)- the sheer fact that you look so much different makes people say some pretty hilarious things.  She then proceeded to talk about  some hilarious scenario in which Christine and I would be married and Kelsey would play the violin at our wedding.  Some of the abuelitos also seem to be on the verge of senility, which probably helps explain why some of them say such, uh, interesting things.  Needless to say, we met some fascinating people at the comedor.  It was a great afternoon and I able to share in some pretty good laughs, even if most of them were at my expense.  Chile: A lot, Blair: still 0.   

Friday night our housemates who have been here for a year, Christine and Joe, threw a party to welcome us to Chile and to introduce us to some of their friends down here (both Chileans and gringos).  Needless to say, Chileans know how to have a good time and many of our guests didn’t leave until 5:30 or 6 am.  Apparently 6 or 7 am is the norm for calling it quits during weekend festivities, which sounds like fun but doesn’t sound like something that we’ll be doing every weekend…I promise, I’m here to work too.  Anyway, everyone we met was friendly and even lots of our neighbors showed up to welcome the new gringos to the neighborhood.   

On Saturday and Sunday, all 4 of the OLMs (my 3 housemates and I) spent a short weekend with our director, Fr. Mike Delaney, and Brother Matt in El Quisco.  El Quisco is a small town on the pacific coast, due west of Santiago, where the Congregation has a sizeable house right on the beach that we stayed in.  It was a nice weekend for all of the housemates to really get to know one another.  We didn’t do much besides play cards, check out the beach, and visit the adjacent town of Isla Negra, where Pablo Neruda’s house was (Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1971 for literature).  The quiet weekend gave us a chance to get to know each other and relax before we really jump in with our work down here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Eagle Has Landed

So I have arrived safely here in Santiago, Chile.  First, let me explain the title.  'Algunos cuentos Chilenos' means 'Some Chilean stories.'  Pretty simple.  '¿Cachai?' is the Chilean way of saying 'You get it?' or 'You understand?' but it's slang so, 'You know what I'm sayin?' might be the best way to explain it.  Anyway, Chileans, especially the younger ones, say it all the time. ¿Cachai?  

I'm new to the blog scene, but I hope to keep up on this 2-4 times per month to keep you updated on what's going on down here south of the equator.  Sorry for a boring first post but I'm a little preoccupied right now as me and my 3 roommates are preparing to host a party at our house (within the next hour or so we'll be hosting 25-30 people in a pretty small house so...).  In the next couple of days I'll write a proper first post and really let you all know what happened this first week, it's been exciting and I have a few hilarious stories already (mostly due to my inability to understand Spanish).  More to come, hope you're all well.  Chau!