Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The cueca is the national dance of Chile. It is apparently inevitable that we will be asked to cueca at some point in our communities, and since we had the extra time, Allyson and Rad arranged for us to have a cueca lesson. This turned out to be in a restaurant with most of the patrons gone, and the tables pushed to the side. The instructor was Chilean, but might as well have been Irish to look at her, blonde with a hint of red, white freckled skin, and wide cheekbones.

We danced for about 90 minutes, while this older woman in her 60s or so looked on and really enjoyed watching all the gringos having fun trying to learn this thing that Chileans learn as soon as they can walk. When we reached the end of the class, she asked our instructor if she could demonstrate for us--with one of us four guys.

Of course it was me. In any group of normal people, if you need someone to do something potentially embarrassing, I'm your guy. (If you have a group of theater majors or a cappella singers, you'll have so many volunteers you'll have to draw straws.)

A word about how well I can move: it generally excludes dancing. I do very well with aikido, and any sport involving a racquet, and after lots of martial arts training, I can do reasonably well at a lot of other sports. I have a lot of trouble adding in the part of the brain to get myself moving in time with music.

I wasn't any better at it this time, but I did keep up and paying attention and not getting completely lost. Quena (her name) was really good, and a lot of fun to dance with. There's no video; I'll post photos later.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


In the Southern Hemisphere we have to turn in the opposite direction.

Sorry, bad joke, and no good for any non-aikido folks.

I trekked down to Aikido Hakusan tonight. (Sorry, the website is in Spanish. I know that doesn't do you any good, but the dojo's in Chile. I don't know what to tell you.) Gabriel was teaching; first row, far right. He's every bit as nice as he looks.

Visiting a dojo can be dodgy. There are people who do aikido in ways that I'm not interested in: hard, rough, involving lots of pain. I chose Aikido Hakusan because at some point recently they hosted a teacher named Dan Messisco, who a lot of my friends like, and I figure if they hosted someone my friends are interested in, they're probably okay.

Class started, and pretty quickly Gabriel's style looked familiar: he was doing aikido very much like Jane and Neville at Aikido West, and I racked my brain to come up with the name of their teacher, Takeda Sensei. Actually, my first clue was my first partner saying "Oh-toh!" when I took his balance; Jamie at Aikido West, another Takeda student, especially does that, but I've seen it from other Takeda students. It's a funny thing, but I was like "Really? I only know one tradition that says that." (Taking a fall often induces some vocalization as the air pushes out of you. "Oos!" is one, various grunts and noises are others, and somewhere in the lineage of Takeda's teaching, the students say "Oh-toh!".)

And it was fucking awesome. I love. Doing. Aikido. It's amazing to be on another continent and walk into a dojo and have everything be substantially the same. Aikido and Zen were the only Spanish I studied before I left, and it was a Basics class, so I was able to help the beginners I was training with, the same way I find a single sentence to help people at home. Gabriel is a great teacher, who came around to help my partners and play with me a bit, which was tons of fun.


Monday, March 29, 2010

the shoehorn quest: conclusion

I'm still uploading photos to Flickr, but I have to share this one, because I could not make this shit up. This is where you buy a shoehorn in Santiago:

Yes, that's an orthopedics/medical supply shop. They sell back braces and foot orthotics and such. Apparently, also shoe repair. And shoe polish. I had a brief neurotic moment of wondering if I wanted to pay $2 for a shoehorn when I already have one I like better (albeit on the wrong continent), and then I thought, "Wow, you're an idiot. You need a shoehorn, and this is a symbol of triumph."

No joke. I passed by a galería and for some reason I thought, "This is the right block; that might be the one the guy was trying to point me to." I asked a guy at the nice clothing store--the first person in Santiago to know what a calzador is when I talk about it!--and he pointed me a few doors down.

Chris 1, Chile 0. Yeah, bitches!

In the States it's obvious to us: a place that sells shoes that need a shoehorn, will probably also sell shoehorns. New research project: do Chileans actually think, "I need a shoehorn. I'll go to the shoe repair shop that is also a medical supply store?" Or do they think "shoe repair store" and this just happens to be a weird one? (That's possible, one respondent did say I needed to go to a reparador, which would make it just curiously different rather than thoroughly bizarre.) Time for more research.

Today we did an Amazing Race, which is sort of like a scavenger hunt but with an emphasis on speed, and the things to gather weren't very hard, just awkward to get to. It was pretty epic: Jeremy and Sharon took several cabs, but even so they only beat me and Brandi by 3 minutes. We in turn took one cab, but arrived at the final Metro station at the same time as Corrie and Heather, giving us a neck-and-neck final sprint. They'd budgeted 3 hours for the whole thing, but I called them after 45 minutes to say we were on the final mission.

I'd wanted to go running this morning, but instead I spent an hour literally running across central Santiago. So now I'm going to bed.


I guess I slept through a 6.1 aftershock last night. Mind you, it's impossible to walk into my room without waking me up. But apparently earthquakes don't bother me.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I did think about it

I'm sorry about the lack of pictures. I have many--and a video of the changing of the guard at the Presidential office!--but I haven't felt like trying to push all that data through the hotel's pipe. Maybe one morning this week.

This morning 7 of the volunteers ran a 10K race to raise money for earthquake relief. I thought long and hard about doing it, but I've never run 10K before. That's not to say I couldn't do it, because if I pushed myself there's every chance I could. But I thought about that level of activity, combined with how I've been eating, and decided not to add any major stresses to my body just now.

It turns out kilometers 2 through 6 or so were Cerro San Cristobal, so I felt especially vindicated. 10K would have been hard enough, but 30 minutes running uphill? Nuh-uh. Three of us who hadn't run the race hiked up the hill afterward, and it's not a tiny hill, really.

I've been out with the gang the past couple nights: Friday night was California Cantina, and last night we had dinner and drinks with Don and Jessie, volunteers from last year who are extending into this year (although without Ministry support, because they're in the VIII region, even though their towns are fine, the Ministry doesn't want them in a disaster area--it's a long story). Actually it was just Jessie, because Don apparently has a girlfriend here in Santiago and appears to be running on Chilean time, because he didn't meet us during the 2 hours we were at the restaurant, and then failed to meet us for the hour we were at the club before I left. For dinner I had a half-liter of beer (a schop) and a pizza, both bigger than I expected, and then I had my first really good Pisco Sour at the club.

Yesterday I went to La Vega, the big market on the north side of town. I didn't take any pictures, because it was a hot weekend afternoon and I was the only gringo in a narrow, crowded marketplace and I was kind of overwhelmed. Rad (Radford, our Orientation Assistant) had described it as the cheap place to get fruits and veggies; she didn't mention it was HOLY CRAP THIS IS WHAT MOST OF URBAN LATIN AMERICA LOOKS LIKE HEY DO YOU NEED SHOES OR SWEATPANTS OR NOTEBOOKS OR CANDY BECAUSE YOU CAN BUY THOSE TOO. You cross the (completely disgusting) Río Mapocho that runs through the city, and you're immediately in another world. I recognized it from Mexico: dusty, dirty, flaking paint, cracked buildings, street vendors. But I'd never seen that side of things in a gigantic city. It's daunting.

I'm excited this week to try and make it to an aikido class and a Zen sitting. The odds of even one of those actually happening are not good, since, you may have noticed, I'm in Latin America and these things rarely happen on the first try. But it's good to have goals!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

a failure to communicate

Apropos to my experience trying to find a calzador ("shoehorn") yesterday, here's a story. Anna and I were at an aikido party last year at a home in Fremont. There were these adorable little bilingual kids running around--the mother is Japanese, the father American.

There were dogs running around, so I ask the little four-year old girl: "What's the dog's name?"
She looks puzzled. "No, Natu."
Now I'm confused. "Natu?"
"No! Natu!"
I'm in the Twilight Zone. I look at the guy next to me, who says he doesn't get it either. I ask again.
The little girl screws up her face in confusion and walks away.

Later on I find her mom in the kitchen and ask about the dog's name.
Right. Little kids have trouble pronouncing 's'.

on a quest

I own two pairs of shoes that benefit from a shoehorn: my Clarks, and my canvas running shoes.

In a fit of false economy in my last-minute packing, I decided not to bring my shoehorn. I thought, "Nah, I can get by without it." The stupid plastic shoehorn weighs less than my glasses. And my running shoes are actually really hard to put on without one. What the hell? This was not a smart decision.

Okay, so I need to buy a shoehorn. Now, I've never tried living day-to-day abroad outside Latin America, but one of many things Chile has in common with Mexico is that if you need something, you can safely assume that someone sells it, but that it won't be where you expect and it's like a scavenger hunt to figure out where it is. For example:

  1. I'm in La Vega, the big market across the river (more about that later). I ask the guy who sells household sundries about a calzador. He looks at me like I'm from Mars, so I mime/explain a shoehorn. He says, "Oh! Yeah, a calzador. I don't have those."
  2. Find a nice lady and ask if there's a shoe vendor.
  3. Ask the shoe vendor. Nope, he doesn't have them.
  4. Head south back into the Centro.
  5. Stop at a shoe store and ask about a calzador. The guy looks at me like I'm from Mars, so I mime/explain a shoehorn. He says, "Oh! Yeah, a calzador. I don't have those. You need to go to a place that sells dress shoes." Right! Off I go.
  6. Stop at a dress-shoe place and ask about a calzador. The guy looks at me like I'm from Mars, so I mime/explain a shoehorn. He says, "Oh! Yeah, a calzador. You have to go to a reparador, they sell them. There's one down on Paseo Ahumada, between Compañia and Huérfanos."
  7. If there's anything like a reparador on that block, it's closed and has no outside sign.
  8. Stop at a Hush Puppies store and ask about a calzador. The very friendly and helpful guy looks at me like I'm from Mars, so I point to the metal shoehorns in the glass case in front of him. "Oh! Yeah, a calzador." "Do you sell plastic ones?" "No, and these aren't for sale, they're for people to try stuff on. If you go to a regalería, they'll have them. There's one right around the corner, [garbled] La Igriega. They'll have them."
  9. There is, needless to say, no La Igriega anything where I'm pretty sure he told me to go. I set aside the shoehorn quest, get my ice cream, and come home for a nap.
There you have it: at least an hour spent walking around a huge city, from store to store, trying to figure out who sells shoehorns in this culture. And apparently there's something wrong with how I pronounce "calzador" that I need to work on.

(UPDATE 3/28/10: By asking someone else today, I discovered the guy was saying "la galería", not "regalería". A galería is a rabbit's warren of shops in first or lower floors of a building, clustered roughly by type: shoe stores, photo stores, etc. This makes future success more likely.)

awesome paragraphs of the day

Dan Meyer, a math teacher with an excellent blog about his processes of creating lessons for kids to explore and discover:

The Creative Feedback Loop Of Teaching

Where else can you get this? In all of the creative fields that have ever tempted me professionally — I'm talking about graphic design, screenwriting, and filmmaking — ideas often take months to generate and refine, years to produce, and, in many cases, you can't do anything with the feedback except hope it's good enough to get you your next job.

With teaching, you can get any old harebrained idea on Friday, challenge your students with it Monday morning, then adapt it for your afternoon class based on feedback from the morning. The feedback loop is fast enough to give you whiplash. It's so much fun, this job, it seems impossible sometimes that anyone could ever walk away from classroom teaching.



I went running this morning, up, down and around Cerro Santa Lucia, not far from here. I went about 23 minutes with no breaks, and probably could have done some more if I were really motivated. A bit over 2 miles.

It feels great to exercise, since my body is going through that wonderful relaxation that happens en route to losing muscle tone. I assume this means my body is learning to extract oxygen from carbon monoxide. Santiago is a great city if you don't need to breathe.

Friday, March 26, 2010

aquí hablamos gringo

Dinner tonight at California Cantina, one of just a few Mexican restaurants in Santiago, and one of the gringo bars. This was partly Corrie's idea, since Baylor played in the NCAA basketball championship tonight and she wanted to watch. I'd forgotten it was a gringo bar, but I walked in, headed to the back room to scout out space for 10 people. I said, "Podemos sentarnos aquí?", and the waitress said in perfect American English, "Sure. How many are you guys?". Turns out she's 18ish, from Bakersfield.

(Baylor beat St. Mary's, but that was a blowout and they were showing the Tennessee-Ohio State game, which went right down to the wire. We decided to root for Tennessee, since they seemed like the underdogs. And they won, which was very exciting. I'm sure the several pitchers of beer had nothing to do with it.)

I had a California-size California-style vegetarian burrito, and almost immediately realized I needed to leave before I passed out. I paid up and left, wandered up and down the street a bit, had a rather expensive but satisfying donut at Dunkin' Donuts, and finally asked directions to the Metro station. Turns out it closes at 11, so I wandered some more, in and out the endless side streets full of bars and clubs (this is in the Providencia district, which is sort of the hip happening clubby place). A taxi would have been easy, but what fun is that? I asked for help from a lady at the bus stop and managed to get on a bus that dropped me on the Alameda--whose official name is La Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, in honor of Chile's hero of independence.

I did get sidetracked into a conversation with one of the hotel guys, and then Allyson appeared with a couple of the volunteers from last year. I'm not pleased with the level of my Spanish right now, but I'm also not working very hard to change it, and it's tricky when I'm spending all my time speaking English with the volunteers.

Not all of my colleagues were willing to try the bus alone at night; it's interesting to see what I'm willing to do, between the Spanish, being male, and having some martial arts training. I have to be careful, too: remember that I'm not bulletproof or knifeproof. I'm just paying attention.

teaching! sort of. a little bit.

We all had to prepare our second lesson plan for today, and teach part of it to the class. It went really well. Beyond well, really. I got some nice outside validation that I'm kind of good at this.

The really interesting feedback was that Teacher Chris is just like Everyday Chris, only "more so": that I don't have to do anything wildly different. I make everything bigger, like my facial expressions and my gestures, and they noticed that it comes from being a performer, in my willingness to do large movements and to not stand still. That's all just me, though normally I don't bother moving around so much. I don't think the crew knows how much of my ability to engage with people and situations comes from my aikido and Zen training, and I don't have any good way to really convey it, but that's okay. They're coming at it as different people with different resources and experiences, and those differences are a lot of how we can help each other.

At the end, Allyson asked if our actual teaching was different from what we'd written in the lesson plan. It was for all of course, of course, but everyone else was talking about how we translate things differently to and from the page, which we do, and I did too, and we had to adjust our teaching to accomodate people acting like they didn't understand. But really, for me:

"Actually, mine was different because I stole ideas from everyone who went before me and I changed a bunch of stuff right before I got up and taught."

Allyson said, "The other great thing about Chris is that he's honest."

chilenismo del día

corazón de sandia - "watermelon heart"

This refers to someone in the police or armed forces who's actually a socialist, or something closely sympathetic. (Remember that unlike the U.S., socialism here has a divisive history of being a real political force.)

Like a watermelon: green on the outside, red inside.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

settling in

Just overheard in the downstairs lounge full of volunteers:
"Awww, man, it's [some event in Connecticut], look what I'm missing."
"Look, you're in Chile. There's nothing to miss."
Some of us are adjusting more quietly than others.

For dinner tonight we went to a sort of cafeteria, which seems a lot like a fuente de soda but bigger and cleaner and has TV. I had a pisco sour and a churrasco, a sliced steak sandwich; I recommend the combination, because the pisco sour was extremely acidic and very alcoholic, and the churrasco was heavy and reasonably greasy. That is to say, if you're going to insist on eating crappy food, I recommend that combination; really you're better off eating something else, like the large salad I scored at lunch today.

Ever notice how you never hear about Chilean restaurants in the U.S., even in the biggest metropolitan areas? There's a reason for that. I think you're not here for the food.

One of my two companions, hungry and stressed from writing tonight's lesson plan, wanted to order a "Naturalista", which looked like some kind of corn-and-rice concoction. The waiter said no, that's for the morning only. I said, "It's breakfast" (she's a beginning Spanish speaker), and she snapped a bit and said, "No. Bullshit. That's not breakfast. What the fuck."

Helpful and understanding as always, I said, "Yeah, it's not like we're in another country where they might do things differently."

Really, when my friends say "Fucking fuck you," it's with affection and I've earned it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

no, seriously. all of it.

I'm feeling tired tonight, I think in large part due to a week spent doing things outside my comfort zone. The traveling is easy enough (especially living out of a hostel and living in the little bubble of WorldTeach training); it's the constant people time that's rough. And it's not like I have a ton of energy for meeting and hanging out with Chileans, since I'm spending every waking minute with my fellow volunteers. (Who I love. I really do. But jesus, isn't there a dark underground cave I can spend some time in? No, there is not.)

Of course, the goal for me with this whole project is to be uncomfortable. I'm not comfortable spending lots of time with people, bonding with groups, managing groups of kids. So I figure the way to fix that is to just jump in and do those things, and trust that I can find a way to be with those things that leads me away from my shutting-down response; a way to stay engaged in the face of the things that are most difficult for me.

In the meantime, though, I take care of myself balanced with what I actually need to do. Once the crowd going to sushi became 10 instead of 5, I bailed and had a bad local hamburger. This was only arguably an improvement, but at least I had a nice walk.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

teacher training, day 2: holy crap, I'm gonna die

Maybe not so dramatic, but I am feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately it's not just me, there's a group to share the experience with (more on that later, because it relates, as everything does, to Buddhist practice), and I'm not even the most overwhelmed. I can feel my shutting-down sleepiness that comes when I don't want to deal with something; but I have many years of training in working past it and staying engaged and in contact with what's going on, and that's critical to this entire adventure.

Tonight we did (some are still doing) our first complete Lesson Plan, which is one half of the Things That Will Save Your Ass In The Classroom. The other half is your Classroom Management Plan, which is the other reason everyone is feeling overwhelmed. It's a lot of information, but we're also heading into a school system that is alien at best. Of last year's 22 volunteers, everyone agreed that Allyson, our Field Director, had the worst class section: one kid jumped out a window (first floor, but still), and another time a kid answered a question and then casually hit another kid in the face with a chair. On the plus side, there are levers like taking cell phones (negative) and Frugele, for which they seem to have an irrational affinity. It's a lot to take in in two hours in a warm room.

WorldTeach has a Lesson Plan Template that helps a lot, where you write in the objective for the lesson and then work backwards. I actually feel really prepared from having spent those 17 hours or so watching the Advanced Beginner ESL class at the adult school: I've seen the different stages of an ESL lesson, and I know from excruciating experience how long everything takes. (Think 20 minutes to introduce 7 new vocabulary words, or 15 minutes to explain and model the directions for an activity.) I'm finding that with the guidance and the training, once my head was immersed in the material, ideas started flowing about how to generate the kind of experience that would lead to students learning the material. Not that they were all good ideas, but they were there.

Our schedule will probably be to see these kids once a week for 45 minutes. (Later, I'll write in detail about the very exciting Chilean school system.) That's not a ton of time, either for learning or building relationships. On the other hand, it usually means writing just one lesson plan per week, and presumably getting really good at it as we teach it one or two dozen times and adapt it for different levels.

So, yes. I'm not actually going to die. I'm really not even likely to fail, overall, though some crashing and burning seems inevitable. But as we get closer and closer to actually running a classroom, clarity and calm about that isn't always the dominant feeling.Link

Monday, March 22, 2010

There are some longer posts simmering in my head, plus a bunch of photos and one or two videos. This is just some notes about Santiago; there's a saying that "Santiago no es Chile", which is good, because Santiago has the same isolation and busyness of other giant cities--which isn't just my perception, our Spanish teacher has been here for many years and he says it's not as friendly as it was 15 or 25 years ago. I'll be interested to be in a smaller community, that might be a bit more traditional.

There are uncountable street dogs here, but unlike in other cities, they are fed and cared for. The first one we met was an adorable little brown thing whose collar said "Café Central", which is the café a couple doors down from the hotel. We just call him "Café". Chileans will often pet them and leave food out, and I think take them to the vet as the Café Central people are doing for Café's wounded paw. It's surreal to see dogs lounging around in front of the Palacio de La Moneda, the President's office building, drinking from the fountain, and in one case lying tranquilly in the wheelchair ramp of the sidewalk while the rush-hour foot traffic of downtown Santiago just went around him.

Some sort of insect flies around our room and bites me where I'm exposed above the covers, leaving me with harmless red spots on my face. The bites don't hurt or itch. I have no idea what kind of insect it is.

There is no soap in the bathrooms, and restaurant napkins are maybe 3 inches square, and the same not-really-absorbent paper we use for disposable placemats in the States.

I brought a big old Columbia summer sun hat, which I've been wearing around. I was feeling self-conscious about it with people staring at me, until I realized that (a) people stare at gringos constantly (that's not a derogatory term here), and (b) I'm usually walking with a small horde of cute twentysomething white girls, and people are actually staring at them, not me.

I attract very little attention when walking around on my own.

The air here is bad, from the smog. I went for a run on Saturday, and the first 10 minutes felt like 30. We walked another 10, then ran another 10 (8 days earlier at home, I ran 30 without stopping). The four flights up to my room were really easy on Wednesday, got progressively harder, and now seem to have plateaued with a bit of heaving and my heart racing.

The fruit here is amazing. They export the stuff that will survive the ocean trip; everything you buy in every stall or kiosk or market is (a) so cheap that it's considered rude to bring fruit as a house-gift for dinner, and (b) is sold at a peak of perfect ripeness that I couldn't get if I had the stuff on my counter. The avocado in my sandwich was liquidy and perfect; the pear was sublimely textured, soft with a little bit of resistance, and sweet without being cloying; the nectarine was some kind of insane Platonic ideal of a nectarine, perfect in every way. My roommate Jeremy was skeptical of his banana today, but I suggested the Chileans clearly knew their fruit, and sure enough, despite feeling too hard on the outside, it was absolutely perfect inside. I've shown remarkable restraint on the grapes, I think, only buying them a couple times and only a pound at a time (at prices around USD$0.85/pound), though surprisingly they don't beat the grapes I get at the farmer's market in season.

I'm not sure what to say: it's another country. I always feel like I should feel more taken aback or surprised, but in practice, I get to the new place, and I see that they do things differently, and then that's how they do things. Except for the napkins, nothing's been really surprising; but I'm still in the bubble of hanging out with gringos and (starting today) learning how to teach, before I really get into it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

choose your accomplices carefully

Anna's birthday is today, and since I knew I wouldn't be here, I thought it would be pretty great if I could enlist J in a conspiracy to give his mom a surprise birthday present from me. Awesome romantic idea, no? She's sad because I'm gone, a week goes by, and suddenly her kid pulls out a birthday present from me. Perfect.

J is 5, so I recognized the hazards involved. I figured:

  1. He could forget when Mama's birthday was.
  2. He could forget where the present was. (It's not a huge apartment and they only have stuff they use, so hiding it would be tricky.)

We had some time alone before I left, so I carefully said I wanted his help to make a nice surprise for Mama's birthday. We found a good hiding place, and drilled a bit on when the birthday was. And I checked later.

"Okay, when's Mama's birthday?"
"Is that tomorrow?" [It was Monday.]
"Nope, one week from today. Next Monday. Got it?"

I figured he might get the day wrong, or he might forget and I could just prompt Anna to ask him for her present.

Not knowing the child very well, it didn't occur to me that as soon as I left, he would immediately go and show Anna where her present is hidden, so she could be sure not to look there, and in fact to forget the location exists entirely, so that then she would be surprised.


I think he's all on board, though. Apparently out of nowhere on Friday he asked when her birthday was. I'm excited.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

less of a barrier than a full obstacle course

I had my first Spanish class tonight. Once they applied the bell curve, I ended up in the Advanced class. An awesome local literature professor named Claudio immediately started being helpful.

The relationship of Chilean Spanish to everyone else's Spanish is a lot like that of Scottish English to the rest of the Anglosphere: once you make it past the accent (no small feat) the words you finally hear are not used anywhere else in the world and you still don't have any idea what they said.

Claudio speaks chileno, but he speaks it clearly enough that we can both hear the changed pronunciation from Standard Spanish, and ask questions about the words we don't understand. We had 90 minutes of all-Spanish conversation, and he did a great job of using a page of the newspaper (horoscopes, weather, emergency phone numbers) to teach us just the way we would teach someone in English. There's hope for us yet.

Friday, March 19, 2010

orientation: day 2

Culture shock, day 1!

We spent a lot of time on the complexities of the beso ("kiss"), the mutual kiss on the right cheek. After some questioning, this turns out to be almost entirely gendered, and something that is largely women's problem to deal with. Essentially you're obligated to beso anyone you've ever met, male or female, as well as to beso everyone at a reasonably-sized party, both when you arrive (though you can include it as part of making the rounds) and when you leave, and it's extremely rude to leave anyone out.

Money quote: "It's much better to over-beso than under-beso."

Men beso only people they're extremely close to; otherwise it's a handshake and a hug with the three pats on the back that in America we associate with jocks, and joke about as meaning "I'm. Not. Gay."

You can find this narrative on the web pretty easily, but there are roughly four stages:

  1. Initial Euphoria - This is all very new and interesting, and lots of stuff here is just like home!
  2. Irritation & Hostility - The Angry Period of focusing on and critiquing differences. This country is insane, how can anyone live like this? Sense of humor disappears and small things trigger lots of irrational rage.
  3. Gradual Adjustment - Start accepting how things are, start laughing again.
  4. Adaption & Bi-Culturalism - Fluid acceptance and integration into the host culture and community.

Of course, acculturating sets you up for the same experience in reverse when you return to your home culture. I'm really intrigued to see what happens when I get home for a few weeks and then head off to Tassajara, which is at once both a new culture of its own (an intensive practice period in winter in the middle of nowhere), but also something I'm familiar with and really enjoy (a Zen monastery).

We watched Machuca, an outstanding film about two boys (one rich, one poor) during the Pinochet coup in 1973. It's relevant to our teaching because (a) the severe class divisions have persisted, and we're getting the poor kids, not the rich kids, and (b) the educational culture does not encourage lots of critical thinking and independent contradictory thought, because not that long ago, that was really dangerous.

I got to wear my shiny new khakis and my nicest shirt and shoes today, because after the movie we went (extremely late) to the U.S. Embassy, to see it and meet the nice people and get some basic briefings from them about the U.S.-Chile relationship and what the Embassy does and can do for us if needed. I had a moment of internal snark when one officer talked about wanting us to help convince Chileans that intellectual property is really important and good for the economy and the culture.

Yeah. Not joining that effort, sorry.

My first time inside an embassy! Nice folks doing good work, beautiful landscaping, extremely friendly security people.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

staying in touch

We're at the Hotel Plaza Londres, which I recommend, and it has excellent free wireless Internet. It feels a little weird to use it two or three times a day, but it's possible I won't have that kind of access at my placement. Plus we have chunks of free time, I like keeping in touch, and I'm an introvert and we are doing a lot of group stuff. Seriously, I'm making an effort here. Totally worthwhile. But sometimes it's time to go be off by myself.

I caught Anna on Skype last night and we talked for a long while, which was great. I also broke the second ring she gave me. They were made of red carnelian, and they don't survive being dropped on tile or concrete floors, which is pretty much inevitable given my habit of pulling rings off and fiddling with them. Unless she beats me to it, I'm going to find something made of metal and pretend she gave it to me. I miss her, but I'm also doing cool stuff here. And then I'll be back. And then probably gone again. It's a strange set of feelings.

My little Asus Eee PC has turned out to be an excellent choice, for its size and portability and the amount I use it. When I woke up at 3am on the plane, I wasn't going to sleep again, so I pulled it out, booted up Linux and fixed a code problem. (Nerdspeak: my shell startup scripts seemingly worked fine on a console but crashed when I tried to login via GUI. I don't know why it was running them at that point, or why it was being so picky. Another problem identified by printing stuff to a logfile.) I have to boot Windows to use Skype at the moment, but that's a pretty fast thing, and for everything else I can use Linux without worrying about inevitable virus infection.

Speaking of infection, my lip is not infected, which is fantastic. The inside scrapes are vastly better (and smaller and shallower) today than yesterday, but still sometimes hurt enough to take my breath away. (That first bite of unfortunately-dry roast chicken takeout for tonight's dinner? Ow.) I expect they'll be healed in a few days. I'm planning to take the stitches out on Saturday, which will be its own exciting project.

Once the stitches are out, I think I'll try to make it to an aikido dojo.

My Spanish is very slowly coming back. I don't really need it: we're living in a little bubble of volunteers, which is important as we bond and get to know each other so we can support each other through the year. The times my Spanish feels more alive are when I'm off by myself, for all the good it does me, since Chileans remain only vaguely comprehensible aurally, and a lot of folks here in the city are busy and don't have a ton of patience for a gringo trying to negotiate meaning.

I like the volunteer group. They're not from my tribe, but they're interesting and surprising, and like any group of open people we're all adjusting to each other, just like my sangha did when I joined (and presumably now that I'm gone as well). The Zen thing just came up today:

"You practice Zen meditation?"
"Can you show me how?"
"Oh, cool. Every other person I've asked has sort of said 'Uhhhh, not really.'"
"It's easy, you just learn and figure out a stable position to sit still for a while."
"'s sitting still? I can't sit still."
"Oh yeah. That's why we sit."

Which I think is the best answer to "I can't sit still, my mind is too busy". I wish it were original, but no.

We'll see how that goes.

orientation: day 1

We have orientation for two weeks, a whole stretch of interesting stuff: lots of sessions about teaching, but also Spanish lessons from some outside folks, and a bunch of stuff about Chilean culture and society. It's mostly our field director Allyson and her assistant Rad, with a few outside projects, like going to the Embassy, or a "human rights tour" from a socialist who was imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet. (Also a lot of hammering home the need to be careful talking about Pinochet, because the country is still divided on whether he was good or bad.)

We talked a bit about "icebreakers", which are ways to start off and warm up the start of a class. Apparently kids' other classes are likely to be sit-still lectures, so they'll love us; we're here because kids can study English for years in Chilean schools and not be able to get past "Hello"; and the English skills of our Chilean co-teachers vary widely, but could well be not so good.

We talked a lot about WorldTeach's mission in general and in Chile in particular. Pinochet decentralized the schools into the current division of public and semi-private (which are pretty equivalent) and private schools. The private schools are very expensive and to give you a flavor of the problem, 7% of Chilean students go to private schools, but provide 51% of the students at the University of Chile. One of the vols pointed out that Harvard and Yale could well have 50% private-school students, but the problem is that in Chile that situation represents the entire country and eliminates opportunities for other students, since there are only 25 public and 50 private universities in Chile, fewer than you can find within 15 minutes of Boston.

We looked at the mission statements themselves, which was interesting. I'm going to edit the one for WorldTeach Chile, since I find it a little abstract in spots.

Allyson and Rad gave us a passionate session about the earthquake they just lived through, to impress on us how it's affected the country--the southern regions closer to the epicenter are a serious mess, and apparently the government's relationship to everything outside Santiago can be like the government of Massachusetts's relationship to Western Massachusetts: sort of an afterthought.

And they're convinced we can teach. Which I'm sure we can. But that's next week.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

on the ground in Santiago


Not entirely true. But my Spanish is very rusty still. I'm at the Plaza Londres, in Santiago's Centro. It's a nice part of town, like a cross between Mexico and Prague. I like the volunteers: 4 men, 9 women (4 people bailed at the last minute). The hostel is a walk-up, and the menfolk got put on the top floor: someone thinks we're more robust.

There's a store down the street full of nothing but plastic bags. The field directors who live here don't get it either.

Things are going pretty well. I got some rest this afternoon. The raw parts on the inside of my lip hurt a lot, especially when chewing.

Everything is going according to plan. =)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

one more exciting event

Excellent aikido class this morning! Though during the free-training at the end (where we can use any attack and response) the beginner I was training with went a little wild with a punch. I touched it, saw blood on my hand, got off the mat and into the bathroom and proceeded to say "Fuck!" several times.

1-hour ER visit

As best I can figure, he punched me in the face, and my lip got caught in between my top and bottom teeth; thankfully, my teeth didn't through through my lip as I originally thought, though it turns out not to matter for how they treat it (though it might have made drinking more challenging). A mere hour in the ER and a handful of stitches later, I was home. It's a little sore, and I have to watch how I eat and smile, but it's not so bad. The doctor said it should heal to a fairly small scar, but it depends on my skin; and I'm having faith it will heal better than if I'd not gotten it stitched up.

Funny enough, when we're taking falls we know to keep our teeth together so we don't bite our tongue (or lips, apparently), but it's never come up in the context of throwing other people. So there's a lesson learned.

I'm also interested to see exactly how much a minor-but-necessary ER visit costs, which I get to find out because I don't have insurance. I'm not worried about covering it; just annoyed that U.S. health insurance is so broken, and grateful that so far it's not ruining my life.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

wild horses, etc.

Chile has been experiencing aftershocks since the big quake a couple weeks ago, and not the unnerving-but-harmless 5.5 kind: 6.x and 7.x shakers that in other circumstances might be considered fairly serious quakes on their own.

A few people have asked, with varying degrees of incredulity, if I'm still going to Chile on Tuesday.

The answer is that unless WorldTeach says otherwise, I'm going. I chose this path for a host of good reasons, and I'm going to follow it through.

(Those of you who have ever tried to get me to change my determined course--or pre-emptively dismissed the idea of trying--can now have a loving chuckle.)

dangerous chemicals + good writing = awesome

Google Reader recently reminded me of a blog I hadn't read in a while: Derek Lowe's blog about doing research chemistry for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. I enjoy his writing enough that I want to share it with others, particularly his Things I Won't Work With series. Here's part of his piece on chalcogen polyazides:

Spirited stuff, that tetra-azide. The experimental section of the paper enjoins the reader to wear a face shield, leather suit, and ear plugs, to work behind all sorts of blast shields, and to use Teflon and stainless steel apparatus so as to minimize shrapnel. Hmm. Ranking my equipment in terms of its shrapneliferousness is not something that's ever occurred to me, I have to say. It's safe to assume that any procedure which involves considering which parts of the apparatus I'd prefer to have flying past me will not get much business in my lab, no matter how dashing I might look in a leather suit.

That procedure deserves a closer look, though. You can't just crack open a can of selenium tetrafluoride whenever you feel the urge, you know. That stuff has to be made fresh, as far as I can see, and the way these hearty sons of toil make it is by reacting selenium dioxide with chlorine trifluoride. Yep, that stuff, the delightful compound that sets sand on fire and eats through asbestos firebrick.

I don't understand about half of the chemistry terms, but the joy of his writing is that you don't have to.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chile update

In the Annals of Improbable Outcomes, the Ministry of Education is only delaying our program by a week, so we're going to leave Miami as planned on Tuesday, and WorldTeach will provide us with an extra week of training in teaching, Spanish, and Chilean culture. (This is also an extra week of drinking Pisco Sours, and of me maybe being able to do aikido someplace.)

I stopped my preparations when I had 16 days left; now that I have 6, the schedule feels a bit tighter, and Anna and I had gotten used to having another week together, so that's a little weird.

But! Adventure!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chile update

I know, lots of updates. I've been asking lots of questions and gotten good answers from the WorldTeach field director in Santiago and the program director in Cambridge, and they've also been communicating any new information as they get it. The short version is that, if you'll pardon the language, everything is fucked five ways from Sunday.

  • The English Opens Doors office building sustained heavy damage, and they're still not allowed inside. Their database with the information on volunteers, host families, and placements is down.
  • English Opens Doors has other volunteers already in-country--WorldTeach is just one source--and those people were assigned to regions VIII and IX, which were the ones hard-hit by the quake. Contacting those volunteers was a priority, and I imagine pretty difficult, but they're all okay.
  • The Ministry has to contact our host families ("which in itself can be quite difficult") to make sure they can still host a volunteer; they have to make sure the placement schools are safe; and they'd have to find new placements (which is time-consuming) if original placements are no longer workable.
  • Once the program is delayed, it can't quite be spun up on a moment's notice, so WorldTeach is thinking to give us 3 or more weeks of notice before any departure date. (I have a cogent argument for them that the 17 of us who have already quit our jobs and given up our apartments would be more than happy to pick up and be in Miami on a weeks' notice.)
The other volunteers have been sending email to the list, and except for a couple of older women, most of the rest do seem to be 25 and under, as you'd expect. They may be in worse shape than I am, since I have unemployment and money saved up, and I gave up my apartment to my girlfriend, so I have a place to stay.

From the sound of things, we're not going to get a departure date before May, and I'd be grateful if it were that soon. In the meantime, I'm doing some paid research for one of Anna's clients, and I think I'll take off on an extended road trip around the 23rd to visit folks in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. I'm also looking around for volunteer stuff in the continental U.S. I can do for the next couple months.

("Virginia? Sure! Never been there! Just give me the address.")

Given how much I wanted to go and how long I've been unemployed, I'm doing really well, and largely on an even keel. That's not quite the same thing as "good", but it's doable.

weird dream

I had some sort of adventure-dream last night, which is common for the stuff I remember. There was a casino, a very strange elevator with cars two stories high and full-length wooden doors, and the cars moved like buckets on a Ferris wheel. Secret agents, occasional gunfire, the usual.

Right at the beginning, though, I discovered I'd traveled to Mexico, but managed to leave my passport at home. The Mexico of the dream was a really, really bad place to not have your passport, so I was getting really stressed and anxious. Suddenly I thought, "Wait a second. This is my story I'm in, so I'm going to back it up a bit, and start right from this place and time, but with my passport, so I won't be anxious." And then my passport was in my hand, and I relaxed and continued on with the adventure.

Neat. We can do this every day in our waking life, making decisions about how we're going to respond to events as they unfold. We just have to realize it's our story and we can do what we want with it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chile update

Current status: chaos!

Calmer than chaos; more of an opaque, abiding lack of knowing.


  • My flight on the 16th has not been moved or canceled.
  • The English Opens Doors program still wants us to come.
  • WorldTeach was assigned the Santiago and Valparaíso regions this year, and they weren't so hard hit by the quake. People went back to work a couple days ago and life was normalizing.
  • If there's no established departure date by the end of the month, the WorldTeach program will be canceled. There are backup plans for providing us with volunteer opportunities, the earliest of which would be May, and Ecuador would be an option, as well as a possible delayed Chile stint.

That's about it. There's not a lot of hints in there about probable final outcomes. I'm asking the field director what's up with English Opens Doors that would cause delays; I don't know how this whole thing works, but my first guess would have been that 2 weeks before our arrival, most of the details would have been worked out already. (That could be wildly wrong for any number of reasons, or our host families' houses could be damaged, or...anything, really, which is why I'm asking.)

We're continuing with my good-bye parties, because I'm leaving for somewhere. Depending on the Chile delay, I'm exploring a Colorado-Idaho-Portland road trip. I'm done with having nothing to do: it's not good for me (or anyone), and I've spent 9 months unemployed to get out adventuring and I can't take waiting any more.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Nordstrom Rack

Last week I actually made it to Nordstrom Rack to buy clothes. I hate buying clothes. I bought two pairs of pants, and left them to be altered. They were supposed to be ready on Saturday the 27th.

I went in today, without the claim ticket, because I hadn't seen it recently and I figured "Hey, it has my name on it, I'll show them my ID, it'll be all good." My hidden assumption was that the pants would actually be there in the store, ready to go. They weren't.

The employees started looking, examining their stacks of tickets, looking at their logbook. I left my phone number and went home to find the claim ticket. Phone call #1 was a little garbled, but ended up like this:

"It appears the pants were altered, but one pair was put back on the floor, and the other magically disappeared. We have another pair of one of them in-store, and the other pair I can go pick up from our Westgate store and bring them here, and we can measure you on them and get those altered."
"Can I just get a refund and then figure it out?"
"Of course, just let me get to a register and I'll call you back."

Phone call #2:

"Hello, sir. Are you in the area? I need the receipt in order to do a refund."
"Um, okay. I'll come in later."
"Any time you'd like. In the meantime I'm going to check the [security] tape and try to figure out what happened to the pants."

Phone call #3:

"Hi sir, yes, your wife actually picked up the pants for you. She's the one who showed her ID and picked them up."
"That's interesting. I'm not married."
"'re not? It shows her on the tape picking up the pants."
"Uh...really, I'm not married. Can you describe the woman on the tape?"
"She's about five-foot-three, light blonde-brown hair..."
"Okay, I don't know who you gave my pants to, but I'm not married and my girlfriend is about five-foot-ten."
"Okay, thanks, I'll get back to you."

Phone call #4:

"Hi, this is the head of Customer Service. We can't figure this out, so we're just going to refund you for the pants."
"What happened?"
"A lady picked them up."
"Right, how did she do that without the claim check or an ID?"
"That's something I'll be looking into immediately."
Oooookay then. This is the East Palo Alto store, by the way. In their defense, they're very, very nice, and they were really helpful during the buying process. But you've been warned.

UPDATE (9:45 P.M.): The Customer Service woman called again, and the latest story is that they have the pants, already altered, and I can just come pick them up. They were "in the store" somewhere. My confidence is not increased, but we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chile update

The damage in Chile turns out to be worse than the initial reports. President Michelle Bachelet said they wouldn't need international aid, but asked for it two days later; one of the voices on the radio pointed out that it sort of symbolizes Chile's self-image, where they're tending to see themselves as a fairly developed country--which it is, in many respects--but in practice, they're not quite there yet. There's a vivid photoset up at The Big Picture, and the news out of Concepción and Constitución seems to get progressively worse. It's clear that Chile will be rebuilding stuff for a few years.

We don't know yet what this means for the WorldTeach program. I had a pretty bad day yesterday, because WorldTeach finally got some information and sent us a pretty grim-sounding email saying that the English Opens Doors program we're associated with is "suspended" and might be canceled. WorldTeach is scurrying, trying to assess things and working up contingency plans for us, including possibly diverting us to the Ecuador program, which would be a May departure, and I think they have other ideas they're tossing around.

What does "suspended" mean for a program that hasn't started yet? I asked the WorldTeach folks, and part of the answer is that the Ministry of Education staff can't get into their building in Santiago right now, because they're not yet sure it's safe. They have a lot to deal with, and probably getting a volunteer program running isn't a priority compared to getting the school year started in the midst of a natural disaster. WorldTeach also says that this year's placements are in areas that aren't severely affected by the quake, although last year's were (meaning people who signed up for another year in the same placement were assigned to affected areas).

At any rate, things are far more uncertain than anyone would like them to be. I'll write more as soon as anything concrete turns up.

By the way, we're waiting a couple days before canceling the going-away parties. If nothing else, we can all meet at the Dutch Goose and watch me drink.

Monday, March 1, 2010

better in retrospect

The mathematician Steven Strogatz graduated from Loomis in 1976, learning calculus from Don Joffray. Strogatz has a book out, The Calculus of Friendship, talking about his correspondence and friendship with Joff (who I could have sworn had died, but he's still alive at 82, having had a couple of strokes, and long since retired to his house down on the Connecticut coast).

Strogatz is funny and articulate, and in 2003 wrote the excellent Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, so public radio people know him and he's been on at least five different shows in the past couple of weeks. As a result, all my memories of 2 years of calculus with Joff have been coming back (actually 2 1/3, since I got kicked out of Pre-Calculus up into the last term of his Calc AB class, then I had Calc BC and Multivariable). Every time I hear Strogatz on a call-in show describing his time with Joff, I want to call in and say "Yes! That's exactly how it was!". Strogatz tells this story in an October episode of Radio Lab:

There were several striking and peculiar things about him. I mean, probably the first thing is that he was physically incredibly impressive. He would hold the chalk between his enormous fingers, and write on the board, the chalk would pulverize with each stroke, so there'd be this cloud of chalk dust all over him and his big sweater. Another thing that was very unusual about him, he'd be in the middle of a calculation at the board, chalk dust all over him, as usual, then he would space out. He'd get a look in his eye, a kind of far-away look, and then he'd say, "Aw, this reminds me"--with a hushed tone--"This reminds me of the time Jamie Williams calculated the formula for the Nth term in the Fibonacci sequence."

Where Jamie Williams was some random student a couple years ahead of Strogatz. And Joff did do this constantly. He spoke of his past students with love and reverence, especially the ones like Strogatz who surpassed him and went on to be actual mathematicians. Joff sees math problems in everything: at the end of the Radio Lab segment Strogatz talks about seeing him recently, and Joff was thinking about the hawks flying overhead, and how to describe the section of spherical space a hawk can see as it flies overhead. Waves, bicycles, swimming pools, furniture. One day he came in talking about the top knob of staircase railing (what appears to be called a "newel"), theorizing that you'd get that shape as the space carved out by the intersection of 3 orthogonal pipes.

I haven't thought about Joff's classes since I left Loomis. Interestingly, while I remember him and the classes fondly now, even for the better students, Joff's classes were boring to experience: lots of long silences and rambling discourses, a low-energy class in an especially dusty classroom in an old building.

I always feel like I was his most disappointing student: I didn't try very hard, and I am a very bad mathematician, so the kind of exploration that makes Joff happy, and that gives math its vitality as an art and a discipline--modeling problems and constructing proofs--is frustrating rather than fun for me. (It might be a fun project at some point in my life to see if I can learn those things.) Being reminded so vividly of Joff's pure love of the game, I might write him a letter to tell him that even though I was a bad student, he got the point across.