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.