Monday, May 2, 2011


I had two relatively unproductive weeks volunteering. Other volunteers weren't really as present as they usually are and I got sick towards the tail end of the week after I went to Mendoza, so between those two factors I don't feel like I made as much of a difference as I would have liked to in the past couple of weeks.

I did, however, get that poster board project greenlighted. I am currently in contact with a communication therapist back home figuring out how I can make this work down here with these kids.

Last Wednesday night I took an overnight bus to Pucón, which is eight or nine hours south of Santiago. We all know how crappy overnight buses are by now, but the ride down wasn't so bad because the seat next to me was empty so I could just lay flat without any issues and sleep relatively soundly.

Out of all of the trips I've planned for my time in Chile, I was most excited about (and remain the most excited about) my trip to Pucón. This place is literally a paradise. Rivers, lakes, and lots of green things are everywhere. The city is in a valley surrounded by mountains, most of all by Volcan Villarrica, the most active volcano in all of Chile.

Maybe that's enough for words. I'll just let the pictures do the talking from here.

Colo Colo St. in Pucon
I stepped outside the bus and the first thing I smelled was smoke from a wood fire. Seems like every house around here uses them to heat up their place. The fresh mountain air tastes so nice, especially in comparison to Santiago smog.

The town is maybe a little touristy, but that also means that it is in great shape. The buildings and shops were so picturesque. Advertisements for places where you can hike the volcano, visit hot springs, and so much more are all around. The walk to the hostel was nice. The air feels crisp - it's only 40º out in the mornings - but it tasted good and I had a jacket and everything warmed up just fine by noontime.

Lago Villarrica
My hostel was rustic and had individual cabins. I felt like I was back at the Moosilauke Lodge during trips. It was rustic and awesome and, to my delight, within walking distance of everything else in the town. I am from a small town and the idea of knowing exactly which direction you go in to find things to do or people to see relaxes me somehow.

Anyway. The first day I went for a bike ride to get my bearings. Headed to the beach on Lake Villarrica, which borders Pucón, first. I was thrown off by the color of the sand, but realized pretty quickly that volcanic ash tends to be a bit darker than normal sand.

Turned around and headed off to who-knows-where next. Ended up on a road that would have brought me to Argentina if I had gone far enough. I didn't bring my passport with me so this seemed like a bad idea... I took a random left turn and was so happy with what I found. I crossed this tiny little bridge over one of the coolest rivers I have ever seen into Quelhue, a rural area inhabited entirely by the indigenous Mapuche people.

I biked maybe eight miles past the bridge only to find that the road was blocked by a river. I don't mean there was a stream in the way... I mean there was a freaking river in the road. I felt obliged to turn back. Don't regret that decision at all, because once I looked at a map when I got back I realized I wasn't going anywhere fast down that road.

The next day I planned on going whitewater rafting. However, Pucon sort of shuts down at this time of year. I was there at the very tail end of tourist season and they needed to have a certain amount of people involved to send staff off on any particular activity or adventure. They needed at least four people to confirm a whitewater rafting booking, and I was not going to pay for three other people to go whitewater rafting, so I looked around for other activities instead.

They DID have enough people to go horseback riding. It wasn't quite what I had imagined for the day, but I had never done it before and it sounded like it would be fun, especially compared to my other option, "doing nothing."

The sort of road I was dealing with on bike and horseback.
I ended up in Quelhue, the same general area that I was biking in the day before, for the horseback riding. We crossed the same skinny bridge over the roaring river, took the same left onto a dirt road. This time by van, of course. Except this time we pulled into this long driveway that ran beside a smaller river, one which led to an even smaller bridge made of boards that you cross by foot. Me and the three French girls I was with (they were really nice, by the way) followed our driver/guide up a dirt path to this stable with five horses in it.

I got on this big grey horse. Peaceful fellow. Pleasant enough. I don't think he had a name but I was calling him amigo the entire time, so I'm going to refer to him henceforth as Amigo.

I realized immediately that riding a horse is very different from any mode of transportation that I've used before. It sounds dumb, but a horse is a living thing. It's an animal. This means a couple of things. First, unlike with a bicycle, it will avoid annoying rocks in the way. Second, unlike with a bicycle, it doesn't necessarily bend to your will automatically.

Look at your man. Now look at me. Now back at your man, now back at - oh, forget it.
We rode for a while along the same path we drove in on. Movement was slow as I learned how to use the reins, got Amigo going, learned how to make him speed up, slow down, turn, and so forth. Then we took a turn and the hard terrain started. We began moving uphill at a shocking rate. Amigo was slowing down - he was a slow horse in general compared to the others - and it was holding everyone up. Eventually I was in last and they all had to wait for me multiple times. I think I was using the piece of nettle that our guide gave us as a riding crop incorrectly for the first half of the trip, because Amigo was responding a lot better after we turned around.

You think this view is good, just wait until tomorrow.
Anyway. We got to the vista after about two hours of horseback riding. We had climbed more than halfway up a mountain onto this little plateau that overlooked Pucon. It was awesome. I didn't have a single complaint, not even on the ride down when Amigo seemed to be deliberately leading me into places where I would get whacked in the face by scratchy bushes throughout the descent.

Horseback riding is hard. That's what I decided when I got to the top. My legs were tired, I was breathing hard, and it was very difficult to control an animal and get him to do what you want him to. I had no idea what I was talking about. If I thought THAT was hard, wait until we started actually moving when we got to the flat part.

Galloping is breathtaking and exhilarating. Moving quickly on a horse is really cool, except for the part where you are moving up and down and up and down and bouncing and bouncing and you start to realize that the pain you are feeling may mean you can't ever have any children. My feet were coming out of the stirrups and Amigo was flying completely unconcerned for this fact and I was just bouncing everywhere. Had to pull over a few times to straighten everything out.

I have learned since then that there is a proper way to not bounce as much that involves gripping the horse with your legs. Maybe the Mapuche instructor tried to tell me this and I didn't understand, or maybe he just thought it was funny to watch me bounce around.

On Saturday I did one of the most epic things I've ever done.

If I'm sort of grimacing in this picture, it's because
I'm awake well before dawn and it's 35º outside.
My alarm went off at 6 in the morning. I was unable to fall asleep until 12:30 last night so this felt extremely early. I was not in a good mood. "Why am I doing this, why am I doing this..." I had to stumble around in the dark to make sure that I got all of my stuff without waking up the three other people staying in my room last night.

Somehow made it out to the street by 6:45, when my ride to the tourist agency showed up. They dropped me off at Andesmar (apparently people love things referencing that they go from the Andes to the sea, because there are two bus lines named "Andesmar" and "Andimar" and there's another tourist agency called "Andemar") but that was interesting because I booked with Turismo Florencia. Apparently they're run by the same family, and I stopped worrying that I took the wrong bus once I saw that my shoes (labeled "Adam" in red marker) were in the room like I expected them to be.

And so I slept hardcore on the half-hour bus ride to Volcan Villarrica. That is, until I heard an audible gasp from the four other people in the car. I looked out the window:

The stars were shining brightly. More brightly than I had ever seen them before, more brightly than at Sugarloaf or in Colorado. The crescent moon hung high in the sky, illuminating the surroundings with its pacific gaze. Trees popped up on each side of the road, and it was easy to see that their leaves were about to fall even though the dawn had yet to break. But most imposing, foreboding, was the volcano in the distance, glowing red towards the top and wafting gray smoke, like it was waiting for something. For me.

I sat up straight and stuck my head out the window. I was wide awake.
The shadow of the volcano on the freaking sky.
A lot of the agencies offered the choice to use a chairlift to go a bit of the way up. This one didn't, and I understand why now: it wasn't even running once we got there. We hiked for almost a half-hour before dawn broke. There were seven of us: a Brazilian couple from Sao Paolo in their mid-30s, an older Uruguayan couple probably in their early 40s, me, and the two guides.

The Brazilian guy's wife dropped out almost immediately. Complained of a headache and a stomache, which was apparently enough to not go. She did not have a stomachache. She just didn't want to be there...her husband dragged her along and she didn't want to do it. It was so obvious. I hope I never have a relationship where anyone pulls stunts like. She just shouldn't have gone if she didn't want to go. She should have gone and done something she actually liked and then they could have both shared their experiences when they got back.

Anyway, we started hiking and it became clear that the pace was going to be slow. I felt like I could have done that hike about twice as fast as we did it, honestly, and at times it was pissing me off. I felt a little better when the Brazilian guy was clearly getting irritated by the reminder that he was no longer a spring chicken. He was panting hard after the first hour and I hadn't broken a sweat.

He looks at me. Says in a thick Brazilian accent, "Do you...practice sport?" I smiled and shook my head.

It suddenly got colder once we hit the snow. Yes, snow. On a volcano. It was hard to walk on and the coats I had taken off at the bottom of the hike became utterly necessary when the high winds kicked in. About halfway up we put on the crampons (spikes that you tie to your feet so you can stay put in the snow) and the hiking became significantly easier for me.

The Uruguayan couple was not remotely in shape and had a really hard time doing anything. Me and the guide took a lot of rests waiting for them, some as frequently as every 200 feet. Though I give them mad props for making it the whole way up the mountain, it was a little frustrating for me, especially when other tour groups up the mountain were clearly going faster. I looked at the guide at one point and said, "Yo entiendo porque tenemos estos descansos, pero siempre digo, 'Puedo descansar cuando estoy muerto.'" I know why we are taking these breaks. But I always say, "I can rest when I am dead." He thought that was pretty funny.

The Brazilian guy dropped out quickly after we put on the crampons. It was about two-thirds of the way up the mountain. I can't imagine quitting that far up. It was so close. One of the guides had to bring him back down. Again, why didn't he just stick it out? What a shame if you ask me, especially because the older Uruguayan couple were troopers and did the entire thing.

A view up toward the summit. Note the smoke in the upper-
right corner from the volcano's pit.
The winds got stronger. The rocks disappeared, covered entirely in ice and snow. We could see the smoke rising over the next hill, but it would always be a little further. Seemingly.

It finally got hard for me towards the top. I'm not saying I broke a sweat at our snail's pace, but I am saying that I was breathing hard. I attribute it to two things. First, because the oxygen that was present in the air at the bottom of the volcano was gone. Second, because that oxygen was slowly but surely being replaced by poisonous gas spewed by the volcano. The last stretch was so hard because the air was just gone. It was just the sulfuric gas, the noxious fumes that Villarrica was spewing out, as if it wanted to keep us away.

The volcano's crater
We persevered. And somehow, after nearly four hours of hiking (it really shoulda only been two), we finally reached the top. It was awesome to see the views and the pit of the volcano and everything but we didn't stay long because it was freaking hard to breathe with all the fumes. I snapped a couple of pictures, ate my small packed lunch, and went on my way down.
Sliding down!

The way down was much easier and a bit more fun. There were a bunch of tracks for you to slide right past the long paths we used to zig-zag up the volcano. We sat on our ass and were instructed to use our ice pick to steer (read: I was flying). It was awesome. I even got some air a couple of times.

It made the downward descent both more pleasant and much faster. It's a little fuzzy because I'm pretty sure I was extremely dehydrated. Shoulda brought more than a half-liter of water.

We finally hit the bottom at 16:00 (read: 4 PM), after starting the hike at 7:00. Nine hours. It was epic. My legs no longer work, not even now that it's been two days, but it was definitely worth it. How many people can say they hiked a volcano, you know?

I certainly can.

Volcán Villarrica. What a beast.
I learned a few things about myself this weekend.

First, I am genuinely able to speak Spanish now, at least well enough to function. I learned how to do two things that I had never done before this weekend (ride a horse and hike with crampons and an ice pick), and I didn't screw either of them up because I understood what everyone was saying. It feels like such a relief to be able to say that.

Second, I just don't think I'm a city person. I'd much rather spend time in a little place like Pucón with the lakes and rivers and mountains and green than bum around in a huge city like Santiago. There may be more options in Santiago, but it is much easier for me to get my bearings in a place like Pucón and there's a lot more to do that's interesting and exciting to me in nature than there is in a city. Certainly a personal preference, but it's now an established one. I don't want to live anywhere as large as Santiago again.

And finally, that I am finally starting to settle in as the halfway point of my journey to South America comes and goes. I really like traveling around and helping out with the kids and spending time in the city and doing all the things that I do down here. I will definitely need to come back to Chile someday.

Shout-out to my little sister Natalie for deciding on Union College for the fall! Make sure you do a cappella so you can bring your friends and hang out with us Cords!

Spanish Word of the Day: Caballo. Horse. I kept calling them animales and the guide corrected me maybe three times before I got savvy.

Next Time on 11Santiago: The driest desert in the world, a fútbol game, and an update on my posterboard project



Two weekends ago I was faced with a sudden dilemma. I found out that Thursday night that a bunch of the other volunteers, all of whom got to Santiago before me, were going to Buenos Aires for a week. Essentially, I was faced with two options: hang out in Santiago by myself all weekend, or make some last-minute travel plans.
This is the story of those last-minute travel plans.

With about fifteen minutes to spare, I left Coanil for the day, found tickets online to Mendoza, Argentina, found a place to print them, figured out which bus station I needed to go to, packed all everything I would need, and headed to the bus station. Excellent.

A view of Mendoza from the top of Cerro de la Gloria
Overnight bus rides are awful. I don't understand how people sleep because I certainly didn't. It also didn't help that we had to get off the bus for about two hours at the border crossing at right about the time that I was finally falling asleep.

Not to whine, though. My bus pulled into Mendoza bright and early and I could tell immediately that I was going to like it.  It's more what I imagined Santiago would be like. A bit smaller. Significantly less smoggy. I definitely got a feel for the city in the two days I was there, which means that it wasn't too big. Argentina is also cheaper, slightly warmer, and had better-tasting water. In fact, to my dismay I liked Mendoza a lot more than I like Santiago. I think this will be a recurring theme throughout my travels.

The nice thing about traveling by yourself is that you can either be alone or meet new people. I sat down with three people who were sitting together. One couple (Mike and Sheridan) from Australia, and one British dude named Chris. Chris told me he was thinking about renting a bike and going to the wineries outside of Mendoza for the day. I told him that I was on board with that plan. We grabbed a third person, a girl named Leanne from Chicago, and grabbed the next bus to Maipu, the wine district right outside of the city.

Let me put this in perspective for you. Mendoza is the wine capital of Argentina. Probably the wine capital of South America. There are more than 356,000 acres of wineries in Mendoza. That's 560 square miles. ABSURD. The ones we went to were all within five miles of each other, though, so don't worry: I didn't injure myself trying to cover 560 square miles in a single day.

We stopped first at this museum which gave a free glass of wine to everyone that stopped by. We ran into this couple (a Welsh couple, Steph and Adrian) there that Chris had met a few times before: first in Montevideo, then in Buenos Aires. They decided to join us as well.

The three Trapiche wines we tasted.
The five of us split off a bit next. Leanne and I took a turn and went to this little chocolatier that also served us candied liquor. I got this chocolate banana liqueur that tasted delicious if you held it in your mouth and promptly burned when you swallowed it. The chocolate was also delicious.

Our third stop (my personal favorite) was at the Trapiche winery. We got an hour-long tour of the facilities from this really good tour guide, and then we tasted three different wines. The second wine came from a $40 bottle and it was probably the best wine I've ever had. A 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon aged in French oak for a year. I didn't know wine could be that good. I'm talking whole new levels of wine awesome. You have no idea until you've had something like this.

The next place was way further than we thought. Adrian's bike broke so a bunch of them were going slower, but I decided that I had a need for speed and went up ahead. This was my favorite part of the day, I think, because the sun was just right and the trees were beautiful and the grapevines with the Andes overlooking them and I was in the shade and everything was perfect. I don't ever want to forget that image.

The aforementioned picturesque road. I love it.
The fourth and final stop was the oldest winery in all over Argentina. 1872, I think. Familia di Tommaso. Their wine was really good too. I got a chance to try the Argentine Malbec. The young Malbec, which is what my Mom and Dad tend to get back home, was exactly as acidic as I remember it being. However, aged Malbec, Malbec from oak barrels...was phenomenal.

Anyway. Enough of my winenerdiness.

By the time I got out of bed on Saturday morning all of the tour groups had left, so I decided to bike around Mendoza and check out the sights by myself. Problem was, the hostel was out of bikes and the other hostel I stopped to check out was locked. Dang. So I walked around in flip-flops.

I got a traditional Argentinian steak for lunch. It was eight dollars. It was also probably the best steak I've ever had. I was so happy.

Cool statue/monument thing in the park. Note the massive
aloe vera plants, holy crap those things are enormous.
My walk started in the shopping district, but to my dismay most of the shops were closed. I am still not sure whether I think this is because it was a Saturday or because it's not December through March ("tourist season" down here). Probably was a combination of both.

I headed to the park after that. Mendoza has this massive park at the west edge of the city. It's beautiful and awesome. It also was severely underutilized, I think - not nearly enough people were just walking around and doing stuff. I feel like I would go sit in this park every day if I lived in Mendoza.

In the middle of the park is this hill called Cerro de la Gloria. The top gave these awesome views of the city to the east and the Andes to the west. There was also this extremely large monument at the top to the Spanish "liberators" of the Andes. Very awesome. Perhaps even cooler was my view on the way down of people going down another cerro on BIKES. It was ridiculously steep. I kept thinking how intense that must be until I realized I have gone down much steeper hills on skis.

View from the top of Cerro de la Gloria, the non-Mendoza
The policía were nice enough to spot me a ride down to the park. At that point I walked past the city's lake (gorgeous), got extremely lost in Godoy Cruz, and then finally made it back to the hostel.
All in all, the walktook five hours. Awesome. I had huge blisters but I didn't even care. I just took off my sandals and walked barefoot the rest of the way.

Three things from the rest of the walk. First, this massive lake with ducks and stuff that looked just perfect. Second, I got utterly lost on my way back to the hostel. It was so bad it's not even funny. And third, by FAR the funniest thing I've seen in Chile so far, was this aerobics class going on in the park. They had this huge stage set up with some sort of Richard Symons-type aerobics instructor on the stage leading maybe two hundred Chilean women through a routine with techno music blasting. I had to stop walking I was laughing so hard. I wish I took a picture; at the time it seemed like it would have been creepy, but in hindsight I don't really care.

The lake in the park. Gorgeous, eh?
Fell asleep immediately when I got back to the hostel...I walked around for six hours that day for crying out loud. I took the bus back to Santiago the next morning. The views out the bus window during the day were phenomenal, and I had enough foresight to book seats in the front on the top level of the double-decker. This gave me a panoramic view of the Andes mountains for about six hours. Awesome.

I wasn't really ready to leave Mendoza. I like that the city was self-contained instead of a sprawl like Santiago, and it was nice to venture off on my own and do something completely cool and unique.

Work is still going pretty well. I'm starting to get some of my own ideas as to how to actually help these kids out a little more. My biggest idea so far has been to create a sort of poster board so that the kids who can't talk but would like to can communicate more effectively with their eyes or by pointing to pictures on the poster board. More details on this project later.

Spanish Word of the Day: Carne asada. Roasted meat, in the traditional style. Delicious. Yes, I know that's two words.

Next Time on 11Santiago: Adam heads down south to hike an active volcano, along with more updates on Coanil and my other adventures.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Two Cities

Went on a trip last weekend! But first:
"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
This is a terremoto. Or at least, the remains of one. Terremoto means "earthquake" in Spanish, and you all can surmise why that is. The ingredients: a fortified white wine called Viña Pipeño, a generous splash of grape brandy called chicha, and a scoop of pineapple ice cream.

They said it only takes one. I said: challenge accepted. As far as I was concerned, it did not only take one; however, I cannot in good conscience recommend having more than two.

Zetes (and anyone else on for 11X) can look forward to these in the summer.

Anyway, I headed out to Valparaiso on Saturday with Dustin, one of the other volunteers at Coanil. Valparaiso is a port city right on the Pacific Ocean, and the sandy beaches of Viña del Mar are just a stone's throw away. Unfortunately, we went on the only two overcast days that we've had so far in Chile. Stupid weather.

Not to say it wasn't pretty, but these pictures are going to make the place look extremely glum. I promise Valparaiso is extremely awesome and you should all go if you are ever in Chile:

Not pictured: the idyllic beauty of Valparaiso
Valparaiso is built on some hills. When I say on the hills, I mean ON them. This city makes no sense at all. It defies gravity, and by that I mean struggles constantly against it. The city has no organization, no order. The buildings are of all shapes and colors and heights and the whole place is a complete mess.

Again, I thought the backdrop would be prettier at the time
In other words, I loved it. I like my cities messy.

I also can't stress how awesome it was to smell ocean after all this time in the city. I think I'm going to have to live on the coast whenever I settle down.

Took an hour and a half to find our hostel. Not exaggerating. That city is so confusing. We were so close at first, too, but we wandered off on a wild goose chase for no apparent reason. Ah well.

The hostel's owner was named Jorge. He told us where to go in town, and we followed his advice to a T. First stop: this restaurant in the docks district called Punta Linta. They served us pisco sours and local beer - I got one from Patagonia, which is down south - and one of the best seafood meals that I've had in a while. They mixed up all these different seafoods. Clams, mussels, shrimp, fish, even some sort of red-colored mollusk that I had never seen before. Added lemon and greens and some sauce. It was fantastic and more importantly utterly filling. I haven't been that full in a really long time.

Also, the man knew how to tend a garden
We next followed Jorge's directions to the house of Pablo Neruda, famous Chilean poet. It took us a while to get there too; as I said, the city is very hilly and there is no sensical layout. We ended up enlisting the help of an eight-year-old Chilean kid named Tomas to bring us to the right place.

Pablo Neruda is dead now, but his house is still there, commemorated in museum form. I am really glad we went. The house was extremely cool. Five stories high and narrow, but with space for anything and everything you could ever want. A welcoming floor. Floor for the kids' rooms. Third floor is a dining room, a party room, a bar. Fourth floor for the bedroom. Fifth floor with the coolest study you could ever ask for, with a view right over the city and tons of old maps and handwritten poetry and and paintings.

Did you know he had a signature drink? Champagne, cognac, cointreau, and orange juice. I'm bringing this back to Dartmouth and serving it right next to the terremotos.

The view from Neruda's study.
I want Pablo Neruda's house. It is so cool. And he was a really cool dude, too. I would have bought a book of his poetry right there but all the ones with both Spanish and English translations were way too expensive. I'll get one around here or back in the states. Seems more economical that way.

A few last pictures from Valparaiso:

Valparaiso at night - see, I told you it was pretty
Cool graffiti
More cool graffiti
In the morning we headed out to Viña del Mar. It was still pretty overcast but it was for sure nicer than on Saturday. We first headed to these awesome botanical gardens. So nice to see all that green.
Pictured: the biggest tree I've seen in a while

Viña del Mar is a much more typical beach city than Valparaiso. High rises along the beach, pretty scenery, shops everywhere. It actually reminded me a ton of Old Orchard Beach back in Maine, except it was a lot bigger and probably a lot nicer. People from Maine will get what I'm talking about, and if you aren't from Maine, OOB is one among many reasons to visit.

Enough about Maine. After we toured the botanical gardens we stopped at this fantastic empanada restaurant. An empanada is like a calzone but butterier and more delicious. Mine had chorizo sausage in it, which was a good call. They also served the best hot chocolate I've ever had. I'm convinced they melted down the chocolate specifically for me to drink at that exact moment.

We saw this cool salsa band out front of a restaurant as we walked from the restaurant to the beach:
The lead trumpet was hitting high-high Gs. Ridiculous.
The beaches of Viña, from rocky to sandy
We essentially relaxed on the beach for maybe three hours. I decided to take a dip in the Pacific because I wasn't going to get this close to the Pacific Ocean and not go in. I don't regret this decision, but I also don't regret the decision to get out almost immediately. I forgot that the Humboldt current brings up a TON of freezing-cold water to the coast, so the water was almost as cold as in Maine. With weather that dreary I was unable to handle it. Also, the tide was breaking really hard, so even if I had gone body surfing like I wanted to I would have eaten a lot of sand.

A few more pictures from Viña:

Some sand art

Epic pelican
Viña del Mar, everyone.
Work has been better lately. It is nice to get settled into a single classroom and get to know particular kids. They may not all be able to speak to me but that doesn't mean they don't have something to say. It's hard to tell at first but each of the kids I work with has a very distinct personality.

One girl, Carmen, likes me a lot. She likes the texture of my watch. It's very smooth and cool. I don't think she gets to feel anything like that very often. But besides that, she always gets this huge smile when I walk into the room, though, like she is excited to see me. 

One of my other favorites in the classroom is Mary, who is always smiling but not super loud. Pleasant. Can feed herself. She can even speak a little, which is awesome. A nice girl.

I am gaining more responsibilities. I helped feed one kid today. His name is Carlos and he is one of the kids who is the most out of it in my classroom. He only seems to pay attention when he hears his name or when food is in front of him, as though he is acting more out of reflex than out of conscious thought. One of the nurses says he has to take a lot of drugs because he has spasms and seizures a lot. It makes me sad because I want to see something - anything - going on with this kid.

I didn't have a lot of hope for this to happen, but today I saw him really pay attention to something for the first time since I got to Coanil.

One of my favorite things in the classroom is the guitar. The tías let me play during the downtime between class and lunch, and also once we're done cleaning things up after lunch before the kids go back to their rooms. I don't have any instruments of my own to play here and I don't get to sing with the Cords (or anyone else, for that matter) while I'm in Chile, so having ANY music in my life is really nice.

I had played for the kids before. This was not the first time I had done this. I wasn't even singing along today, I was just practicing the chords to some songs I wanted to learn better. Maybe it was because I fed him and then played, I don't know. But Carlos was really feeling it. He was touching me, touching the guitar, making eye contact, making noises.

This near-catatonic kid was actually interacting with me.

I'm sure this sounds cheesy. But in a place where I don't get to see much change or progress with the patients I work with, things like this mean a lot. Seeing that change in Carlos, even though it was very brief, reminds me that everything I do here matters. Even dumb stuff like playing guitar, stuff that has nothing to do with medicine or physical therapy or the things that I came here to learn.

I'm starting to think this trip to Chile isn't really about that, though. I'm starting to think this journey is about learning something completely different.

Spanish Word of the Day: Gringo. Depending on the connotation, this word either means "foreigner" or "f%#$ing foreigner."

Next Time on 11Santiago: Probably going to be a little while until I update again, so I'm not quite sure. More on the work situation. Maybe I'll head over to Argentina in a couple of weeks? Regardless, there is still a lot in store.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Not In Kansas Anymore

Let's get this thing started. This is the view from my apartment window:
Hells yes.
Santiago is an awesome city unlike anywhere I've ever been before. One great part is how it's been 85º and sunny every day so far (can't complain) but there's so much more to Santiago than that. The people are extremely friendly and don't mind helping some random foreigner who can't speak much Spanish get around. There are endless attractions and parks and green things. I think my favorite part, though, is the dichotomy of the city. I think this picture (which I didn't take) illustrates it nicely:
Plaza de Armas, Santiago

Plaza de Armas is the literal and cultural center of Santiago. Local legend has it (meaning, Chilean history establishes) that Don Pedro de Valdivia hiked up Cerro de Santa Lucia, one of the many tall hills in the city, pointed to the area where Plaza de Armas would eventually be, and said, "This is where Santiago will be." And yet, you can see the huge skyscraper standing right behind these four- and five-hundred-year-old buildings. The mix of the old isolationism of Chile's past and the modern globalization of Chile's present and future is an interesting dichotomy that I expect to manifest itself throughout my trip.

So what am I doing in Chile, exactly? I found this extremely cool internship through Experience Learning International, which is an awesome non-profit organization with all kinds of cool internships and volunteer opportunities all around the world. I applied to do a medical internship here in Santiago and they gave me the opportunity to do so with a non-profit called Fundación Coanil.

Coanil serves the physically and mentally disabled population of Chile in two ways. First, it teaches and gives job skills to the disabled who are able to work and provide for their families. Second, it takes care of and gives a home to the disabled who are too disabled to work. They are a fantastic foundation with centers in every corner of Chile and I am very lucky to be working with them.

Here is the specific place that I work:
This particular Coanil building is in the La Reina neighborhood just outside Santiago, about a half-hour commute from my apartment in Providencia. This particular center houses people who are too disabled to work. All but one of these people are wheelchair-bound. Many of them are unable to use their hands, speak, or even control their bodies in a basic way. All of them have physical deformities. Most of them have mental disabilities.

In short, I'm glad to be working with a population that genuinely needs help.

My day-to-day job is not yet completely established. So far I have helped in classrooms, helped feed people, worked on art projects, and assisted with physical therapy and kinesiology. I expect to do some work in the infirmary and the ICU at some point as well. The more variety I get in what I do day-to-day, the happier I will be at this job. I'm sure I will have more updates about this the next time that I work.

Everyone at the Coanil center is extremely nice. My fellow American volunteers rock, and the local staff is friendly and easy to work with. Chilean Spanish is fast-paced and has a thick accent, but everyone is happy to slow down and speak more clearly if I ask them to. My Spanish is coming along much faster than I expected it to, by the way, and I am already understanding a large amount of what is going on around me.

Also, the center is in the beautiful Santiagüino suburbs. Check this out.

The Andes. This is the view from outside the Coanil center. Outrageous, eh?
Though I am grateful to have an opportunity like this, I would be lying if I said it was easy to do. Far beyond the language barrier, the heat, and the hours, the most difficult part of this job is the utter lack of progress that the people I am working with make. 

It is hard to teach a curriculum to someone who cannot control her hands. It is hard to help a person draw parts of the human body if he cannot see.

I knew that coming to work at this job with developmentally disabled people would take a lot of patience. I did not understand that this job would require more than that. Working at Coanil means understanding that your patients probably will not make any progress at all. Every single person at this Coanil center will spend their life there, interrupted only by occasional field trips to exotic places like the park and the beach. Volunteers, interns, and employees will come and go, and the patience will enjoy their presence in that moment, but when those volunteers and interns and employees leave they will not know for better or worse.

All of the work I am proudest of in my life has had a lasting impact on others. The idea that my work here will almost certainly have little to no lasting impact no matter what I do is a hard pill to swallow.

This is not to say that my work here is without purpose or meaning. I think it is intrinsically good to make all of these people as happy as possible, whether that is through teaching, art, physical therapy, or medicine. All people, developmentally disabled or not, deserve a happy life, and I think that being part of that is worth doing, even if these people will not remember my name, my face, or even my existence as soon as I leave Chile. Or even as soon as I leave the room.

Sorry for getting all somber on everyone. Here's another picture from my apartment window:
Awwwwww yeahhhhhhhhh
That hill over there is Cerro San Cristobal. I'm going to hike it sometime soon with some of the other Coanil volunteers, all of whom are extremely awesome and fun.

Today we went to La Vega, which is this huge market in the center of Santiago. Like many things, it stands out as old-fashioned in a modern city. To get there, you have to cross what my Fodor's Guide to Chile referred to as "the majestic Mapocho River."

I'm calling bullshit on "majestic." Actually, I'm calling bullshit on "river."
La Vega is extremely cool. They sell all sorts of fruits and vegetables at extremely good prices.
I didn't take this picture either. So sue me.
I bought two pounds of grapes, two pounds of bananas, a half-gallon of raspberries, six apples, and ten bread biscuits. It cost me about five dollars. Awesome. I am having a feast for breakfast tomorrow.

Afterwards we went to Bella Vista for drinks. Happy "hour" lasts from 12 P.M. to 9 P.M. here (it goes as late as midnight at some places, apparently). Anyone who visits Santiago should try a pisco sour, which is made with their national liquor, a sort of grape brandy. Some people like it and some people don't. I thought it was pretty tasty myself.

It strikes me that I have just barely gotten my feet wet in this city. I am all moved into my apartment, I have started my work, I have met my friends through the Coanil program, but there is still so much to do, so much to explore.

I personally can't wait.

Spanish Word of the Day: Taco. In Mexico this means a delicious meal. In Chile it means a traffic jam. Son tacos where there is a lot of traffic on the road, like during rush hour (7 to 8 PM).

Next Time On "11Santiago": Terremotos, a weekend trip to Valparaiso, more updates on my life and the times