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. 

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