Friday, April 30, 2010

an aikido rant

Last night I visited one of the aikido dojos in Viña del Mar. I want to be non-judgemental about it. I really do. And they're doing excellent aikido there. They have a very strong practice, the teacher is excellent, they take it very seriously. Very. Seriously.

There are various flavors of aikido, deriving from the temperaments and interests of O-Sensei's various students, and when in his life they studied with him. He created and taught aikido over several decades, spanning World War II and a few religious visions he had, so the students of 1935 had a very different experience from the students of 1965.

The main branch, Aikikai, is a vast, sprawling...thing. It used to connote a more unified, defined style, but at least in the U.S., that style now seems limited to the United States Aikido Federation. "Aikikai" just means a dojo or association of dojos is affiliated with the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, and now, many years having passed, there are many such associations beyond the USAF. There's my own community, the California Aikido Association (CAA), larger groups like Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU), the Takemusu Aiki Association, and others. Most of these non-USAF groups seem not to care so much about unity of style. The CAA, in fact, has 3 divisions, each with its own wildly different focus, and we encourage a riot of exploration and sharing and blending, a slightly different version of aikido emerging from each of us as we discover what works for us and what we feel is important to study.

And then there's Iwama, the lineage of this dojo here. Iwama was sort of O-Sensei's farm out in the country, and lent its name to the style.

One of O-Sensei's longtime students was Morihiro Saito, who I know only from stories, since he died right before I started practicing; in fact, one of my first seminars was a memorial seminar for the first anniversary of his death, taught by his son Hitohiro, in Denver. One of my teachers at Aikido West, Cyndy Hayashi, trained at Iwama for a while, and got her black belt from Saito Sensei. What I know from pictures and video and the stories is that he was very strict, built like a truck, and to some extent, did aikido like someone built like a truck. At some point, O-Sensei charged Saito Sensei with maintaining a strong tradition of fundamentals. This wasn't exactly unusual for O-Sensei, who charged several of his students with different things. He told Robert Nadeau Shihan, the head of CAA's Division 3, to "teach the aikido that cannot be seen", which he does: Nadeau Sensei's style is very focused on "feel" and "energy", and less on technique, and most of his students seem to carry that on, at least in spirit.

But there's this story that can be very strong in Iwama dojos, and this is the dogma that they are doing "the aikido of O-Sensei". They are doing the real aikido, the thing that's really important. It's the same smugness of anyone who's drunk the Kool-Aid for anything, and believes the debate is closed because their starting premise is their own complete correctness.

(How is this different from my belief, which I'll state when pressed, that Buddhist practice is the clearest path to understanding ourselves and the true nature of reality? Because I think you shouldn't just take my word for it. I think you should try doing zazen for a while and see what happens, and decide for yourself whether it's useful to you. And I'll steal whatever useful techniques or writings that I like from any other tradition.)

Back to the main point, how did this affect my experience last night? It meant being talked down to (albeit kindly) by the teacher, the entire class. The attitude was "Yes, you've been doing this other thing for seven years, but here's what aikido is really about"--not "Here's what our aikido is about". Communication was sketchy in spots, but I didn't pick up any acknowledgement that I might have been doing something altogether valid this whole time, but *gasp* not Iwama style! They didn't really ask--they heard "Aikikai" and made their assumptions.

Even sadder, they seem to think that Iwama is the only martially effective form of aikido. Which...really? I understand that they've seen the Iwama style to be more effective than whatever they think Aikikai is, and that people in Chile get attacked a lot more often than in the US. However, my teachers are:

  1. a guy who served 13 years in the Marines, including as a drill sergeant and teaching judo at the Hand-to-Hand Combat Center, was then a cop for several years, has been doing martial arts for 55 years, still has a Marine Corps sticker on his car, and occasionally wears a Marines t-shirt that says "Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body"; and
  2. a woman who grew up fighting in a bad part of San Francisco, and starting in 8th grade has damaged several assailants who assumed that a small Asian female was a good target.

Honestly, I feel pretty confident about the martial effectiveness of how I train. On top of that, there's also Yoshinkan aikido, founded by a guy whose revelation was that you could use aikido to control people and who used to go get into fights in bars to try it out. Yoshinkan is one of the things they teach the Tokyo Riot Police. It's a big world out there, guys.

This hard-core Iwama style and the way I train are two different ways to go about it. Iwama maintains a commitment to whatever technique they're doing. If you're doing morote-dori kokyu-nage, you should be able to do it on anyone. So they give as much resistance as they can, and they learn to do the technique on anybody. (I do admit that I need to move more power from my hips. But who doesn't?)

In my world, on the other hand, we focus on fluidity. If someone is huge and stronger than me, why the hell am I wasting my time trying to finesse my way through their strength? I'm going to try a different technique that will be more effective for the mismatch between their strength and mine. Alternately, and more likely really, I do some aikido-esque movement, followed by trying to hit them in the knee/groin/eye/throat. The way we take falls reflects this: we move because if we don't, our partner will find some other way to make us move, and it will probably hurt more.

Long story short, it was a heavy workout (lots of calisthenics to start with) but easily the most disappointing aikido experience of my years of training. I was glad for the opportunity to train, and yet, I would rather just not train than go back. Not that that's likely, since it's a 4-hour project to go to a class there, and I got home around 11:30 PM.

Anyone who has broader experience with Iwama-ryu dojos: is this sort of dogmatic tunnel-vision the norm? My first nine months were doing Iwama-ryu with Kayla Feder Sensei, but she's very open-minded and interested in movement and connection and stuff, and not (that I could tell) obsessed with doing aikido the way Saito Sensei did it and the way O-Sensei looks in photographs and movies. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

teaching: day 3

I had two classes yesterday, cursos B and C, who are the most mellow, focused ones, and then I had the other half of C today. (Well, "half". Marcela divided the class into a group of 18 and a group of 26, though 26 is really too big for my classroom.)

It did suck less. I explained the rules first of all, using just a bit of Spanish to explain to them that I was about to lay out the rules, and they're important for making this class be different from their other classes, and maintaining the classroom as a place where we can learn. I really, really should have done that with G and H, the rowdy classes, but I was too much on edge. I'll start over with them next week.

(Actually, I'll be starting with an apology, both to the class and to one kid in particular. I live with the sub-director of the school, formerly the head of the inspectores who maintain discipline, and he asked if the kids behaved well. I said no, and unfortunately I named the one kid who got his name written on the board. Oscar, trying to help me and thinking that my class is like the other classes, hauled him in and scolded him: the consequence that should only have happened after repeated incidents. So I have a ruptured relationship with that kid, and a not-great relationship with the rest of the class. At least I didn't name the kids whose cell phones I took. I have some apologies to make, in Spanish, and then we'll talk about the rules, and then it'll just have to be how it'll be.)

It sucked less, but it still sucks. I'm still experiencing massive anxiety outside the classroom. I guess "anxiety" is the word. I'd label it more "ancient, paralyzing fear", probably left over from junior high school, which was pretty traumatic. It's the giant mound of emotional stuff that I've been able to feel around more and more over the past 3 years, but never been able to penetrate or unravel it. It's all fear and tension and...something. Old, old habits, things I've gotten so used to thinking of as a part of myself that I don't consciously recognize them, or think they can change or disappear. (Which they can. Don't ever imagine anything, inside or outside your head, is permanent.)

Of course, I'm a different person now, far more integrated and capable in every way. When the moment of crashing reality comes and students walk in the door, I seem to do okay. I spent so many years performing that I'm not really self-conscious about looking stupid; it's easy for me, and I look stupid and the kids laugh and get embarrassed, and I'm not embarrassed, so they eventually (mostly) go along with "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" or the Hokey Pokey, or making faces to express moods.

It's the in-between times that kill me. Waking up at 4 AM, wondering what to do for the next lesson to meaningfully follow up on this mediocre one, imagining that I'm doing this another 7 months. It's hard to stay in emotional contact with the situation when there are so many options for avoiding it: TV, Internet, 950 remaining pages of Don Quixote.

I'm extremely grateful my school's annual anniversary celebration has cut my first week in half. I don't know if that was intentional on Marcela's part or not; I know she is often looking out for my interests without telling me. (And occasionally she isn't, and she doesn't tell me that, either. It is a never-ending parade of surprises here.)

It's hard to remain convinced that the brute-force exposure route was the right one, but it's what I'm doing, so here we go.

Monday, April 26, 2010

it won't always be like this

I taught my first two classes today. I got blocked on this lesson plan, so it got to be 10pm yesterday, I was falling asleep, and had neither an effective lesson plan, nor the important classroom decorations like the rules and the Class Competition as part of classroom management. But the first class was half of section H, and they're pretty chill, notwithstanding my own anxiety and having to expand on a very vague lesson idea. They seemed to have fun and they learned stuff.

In between the two classes, in the miserable feeling of diving into piles of long-untouched emotional issues, I realized:

I came to South America to increase my mental suffering.

I don't mean that in a pessimistic way. That's actually what happened. I knew I had this load of unresolved stuff, and along with doing something useful in the world, this seemed like a good way to bring it up. I might have glossed over or delayed the fact that it would mean many, many moments of unhappiness.

Then came half of curso G. G is the distracted, bored class. I took two cell phones, shouted once (not useful), and wrote a bunch of names down. One kid made it to the Ladder of Consequences on the board, which did settle him down. And I don't blame them for acting up--it was pretty tame by Chilean standards, and it was not a well-designed class. (Though it doesn't bode well for how I have to design all my classes.) They ended up enjoying themselves once we got into "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes", and they definitely learned some stuff.

Anyway. It sucked for me. Except for explaining the rules more clearly to start with, I'm not sure how to make it suck less in the time available. Luckily I've only got a half week this week, because of the school's anniversary celebration.

It'll get better. And it could have been a lot worse.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

even if you knew, would it help?

Before my class yesterday, Belinda asked for my help with in translating something from English into Spanish. She's one of the Chinese teachers; they're both from China, and I don't know about the other teacher, but Belinda's English and Spanish are both kind of low intermediate. I'm not sure why she asked me, instead of someone who, say, speaks Spanish, but I'm happy to help.

At the appointed time, she shows me a list, with Chinese characters on the left and English translations on the right. She points to the first one, which I duly examine, and find:
  • International Paper-cut Fine Works
Which strikes me as an excellent Dadaist company name worth remembering, but doesn't actually make any sense. I explain what a "paper-cut" is in English, and how that can't be what they meant, and what exactly am I looking at? Translation without context: difficult to impossible. (Something to do with the art of intricate paper-cutting.)

Book titles, she said.

Ooookay. I scan down the list of nearly 30 books.
  • Catching the Red Boy
  • Monkey Makes Chaos In Heaven
  • 100 Chinese Two-Part Allegories
  • Advanced Chinese for Business
"What are these books for?"

"For the students. Translate the titles, but then students can't find the books."

I think these are the books the Ministry wants her to use in her class. Notwithstanding the quantity of material, most of the books are in Chinese and English, and the students can't read either one. So the school asked her to translate the titles (already translated into English) into Spanish, I think to enter into the computer for some reason? She seemed very confused, and we were having trouble communicating.

Finally I said, "You know, I am often lost here, because I'm not from this culture either. If they say you need to translate the titles, you just have to translate the titles. It's probably not important to know why."

And if it is, you'll find that out, too.

Friday, April 23, 2010

I miss aikido training

I stopped by the YMCA today. In Spanish it's the Asociacion Cristiana de Jovenes, but they call it "La Y", pronouncing the English "why" instead of the Spanish "ay-kEESE". You'll notice on the website there's a broken link to "Aikido", so I thought I'd investigate that, and maybe if they don't have an aikido class, if they'd like one. I also need some way to get some exercise, and the hills around my house are remarkably unappealing for running, between the endless deserted 15-degree streets and the occasionally quite cranky dogs. If there's a gym with lockers down in the Plan ("the plain", the flat area of town), I can change my clothes and either work out there, or go for a run along the water.

It turns out they haven't had an aikido class in over four years, but they do have ninjutsu, tai chi, jiu-jutsu (which I assume is the injury-inducing Brazilian kind that I'm not interested in), kendo, and tae kwon do. At US$50/month, it's not super-cheap, but if it helps me exercise, that's worthwhile. Plus, guilt-free long hot showers.

I told Oscar why I was going to the Y, and he asked if I could teach aikido at the school. We talked a bit about the equipment needed, about class size (he suggested 10, which is a perfect ballpark), and I told him that there's a certain amount of discipline and responsibility involved, because when training we need to be able to trust our partners to take care of us. He's going to look into the cost of suitable mats.

So that might be interesting.

resistance and discipline

I woke up this morning, at whatever unholy hour I usually wake up because of the dogs here barking at unauthorized cats, or in solidarity with the dogs barking in the surrounding square mile--usually 3-4am. On a good night, they don't bark right outside my window.

My mid-sleep mental state is usually pretty mellow, but today I was experiencing my resistance to teaching. I wasn't satisfied with the lesson I've been running all week, but then there's just...resistance. So I was angsting, and scared, and nervous. And practicing. I'd get anxious. I'd see the anxiety, laugh because it's the same performance anxiety I've always experienced, and pinch it off at the root and let it float away. Every time I'm faced with the risks of performing somehow, I feel this: with all my singing, with aikido tests, but even more so when I acted, because I don't reliably remember lines, and with acting, it's all me. I'm right there, the thing that people are staring at, it's my turn to carry the thread of the performance all by myself and holy crap.

But I push through it, and I get up and do what I'm doing, and (now, at least, after years of growing up and aikido and Zen practice) I'm very present in what I do, and it goes well.

I find this duality-of-mind fascinating. I've been trying for months to write an essay on discipline, unsuccessfully, because I have trouble articulating what discipline actually means in practical terms. The reality of it is that on one level, I often don't want to go to aikido class, or sit zazen in the morning, or whatever; and then, most often, I do it anyway, because...why, exactly? The reasons have varied over time, and in my reasons I don't find any thread of continuity to excuse my eccentric behavior of spending 3 years sitting relatively still every morning for 40 minutes, or 7 years of doing aikido 3-4 times per week.

Except, maybe, there's sort of a direction. Not an ideal, not a target self-image, not a target self, but an...impulse, a motion, an attraction like gravity. I intuitively sense a pattern of how I want to be in the world, how I want to move and intersect with everyone else's lives, how I want to relate to other people, what I want to be able to do to respond to their needs, and my own.

I think discipline is to set aside the most transient of our desires and insecurities, our daily contortions to seek pleasant things and avoid unpleasant things, to work for the growth of something bigger, something we feel is important than our moment-to-moment comfort. When we learn we can do that for something deeply important to us, we learn we can do it for anything we choose: we discover our power to make choices and steer ourselves, despite our habits of mind telling us to stay on the couch and eat an entire bag of Trader Joe's Cheese Crunchies.

(Shut UP.)

I don't know. What do you think? What does discipline mean to you?

end, week 2

For my week "assisting" in the classroom, I created a lesson: different responses to "How are you?", since the kids sort of seize up around anything other than "okay/so-so/bad". I didn't know what to do to work with 45 kids, but I made up a sort of relay game to play after they learned the words, where I'd cover a word on the board and a pair in each team would have to do the dialogue. They liked it, overall: I think they're game for being engaged, and having someone expect them to try.

After the first class, I realized I'd made the classic mistake of assuming they understood the words, without checking their understanding. Won't do that again, although I'm pretty sure the first class to experience a given lesson will have a distinctly less effective experience than the eighth. As I learn how to teach, the starting baseline will go up, and I think it'll all work out.

By the fourth and final class, I disliked this lesson intensely. I realized how much I slacked on it: I didn't want to spend time and materials on making up cards or anything, for what I considered a throwaway, an obligatory sort of thing. I wanted to limit my effort when it wasn't going to be my classroom, a smaller group where I could more directly manage the environment. I probably could have done a full-on charades game, that would have gotten more kids engaged, and they would have learned better. I could have been more effective, and here's how. Go big or go home.

These are the kinds of choices I get to make as a teacher. I control the vertical, I control the horizontal: what they learn, and how many of them learn it, and how well, all depend on how I construct the classroom environment. I didn't have to do more with this lesson, but the consequence was in the students' experience--which alters my experience, because of what I want for the students and what kind of teacher I want to be. It sounds paradoxical that "student-centered learning" depends so entirely on the teacher.

Blaming the students is such a massive refusal of responsibility. It's us. We're it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

the mind, it thoughts endlessly

I went to the English Department meeting yesterday. Or I eventually did. I had some fun watching my mind along the way.

Pamela, the tourism teacher (my school is aimed at training kids for business, accounting, and tourism), asked if I was coming to the teachers' meeting. I asked if I should, and she said if I'm teaching 20 hours, probably. I asked Oscar, pointing out that I wouldn't understand the proceedings, and he said, "Nah, maybe later when you can understand more."Then Marcela says it's an English Department meeting. I said I probably wasn't going to go, and she had a look I interpreted as dubious, though who knows--we're from different cultures and still getting to know each other (though we hit it off quite well). So off I went to deliver my postcards and not be at school, after running my lesson for 3 different classes of 45 kids.

I walked through the feria (market) outside the school, eyeing the grapes I would buy later, the blankets spread on the ground filled with used faucets and new cheap Chinese padlocks, and all this noise came up about not going to the department meeting. I'm working with these people all year; I'm still establishing my relationship with the department head. Will they notice I didn't go? Would they care? Would they see me as aloof from them?

These are all questions of "What do other people think of me?", which I'm used to ignoring. But I'm at a new workplace in a foreign culture. It actually feels appropriate to think about whether what I'm doing is offending or bothering someone, because I don't know what's expected of me yet. My role in the community is not yet defined.

I developed a few ways to rationalize not coming to the meeting, if anyone asked.

I finally decided that if I was constructing excuses in advance (without any indication that anyone cared), then clearly I felt I should go. I would deliver my postcards and then show up late.

I did, and it was sort of nice. They were talking at speed in Spanish, so as usual I understood 25-30% of what was going on: enough to track the topic, but not enough to know how to answer when someone looks at me (because obviously I've been showing signs of understanding the discussion) and asks me a specific question. They were mostly talking about the impossibility of planning the curriculum for the year, when every topic takes longer than they expect; and about how the students don't study and aren't learning, a persistent theme from the teachers in all subjects, which I'll write more about later. And I got my schedule for the debate teams: I think Marcela is keeping an eye out and making sure I have Thursdays free.

I don't know if anyone cared that I showed up. Marcela might have appreciated it a bit, which itself would make it worthwhile. But I felt better.

Monday, April 19, 2010


There's a certain amount of unusable downtime here--waiting around or unscheduled time, when I can't go travel to Patagonia or anything--especially right now when I'm not actually teaching (and coaching the English debate team, which will be special--more on that later). I like reading books in English at home, so I do here, too, maybe more so because it's a break from everything else.

I just finished Reading Lolita In Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, which I borrowed from the WorldTeach library in Santiago. It's...kind of vague. Mushy. Maybe this is what memoirs are supposed to be like, describing a fog in front of a painting, and describing little bits of the painting as the fog clears away, in an excruciatingly slow process roughly akin to watching paint dry. The writing lacks force, impulse, energy. It doesn't have any bite. Maybe that's how she felt, living under the Islamic Republic, but living under psychotic religious totalitarianism seems like it could easily stimulate more vivid prose. I like my books a bit al dente.

It's a fine read if you're in a South American country where books are incredibly expensive, and you want stuff to read in English.

I also just finished Santiago's Children, by Steve Reifenberg, about his two years working at a Santiago orphanage in the early 80s. It's not impeccably written, but it paints a good picture of Chile under the dictatorship, and he also ended up having a hand in most Chilean development projects in the past couple decades, including WorldTeach and English Opens Doors. Just a couple months ago he moved out of his office next to the WorldTeach Chile office, in Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies ("Doctor Class" for short).

This one I actually recommend, especially if, like me before I got here, you know nothing about Chile. Things have modernized quite a bit from the book (and he talks about that in the epilogue), but the culture and cuisine are identifiably the same: bread, avocado, tomato, tea.

Next up, also from the WorldTeach library, is Edith Grossman's translation of Don Quixote. It's 940 pages long, and I've never read it, so hopefully it will take me a little while.

While I'm
at it, can anyone recommend a good translation of Dante's Divine Comedy?

waiting. still. again.

A slight bummer of a day--I'm supposed to observe or "assist" Marcela's classes this week, but the two classes today were just finishing up the activity of making English-language decorations for their classroom. It's totally worthwhile and I support it, but there's no point in my being there when there's nothing to either observe or teach. So I helped some random student with some pronunciation in a poem, and then I bailed for the day.

The other thing is that someone appears to be using the classroom I thought was going to be mine, which means it might only be mine during my class periods, or I might be wrong about which room it is.

What I actually want is to get started teaching, in my own classroom, which is why I came. I started this project in May or so, and it's now been a year and it is all so. Tantalizingly. Close.

(Tantalus, worse than stealing ambrosia and nectar from the gods, also killed and cooked his son Pelops and served him to them. Ew.)

But no one here knows how long I've waited for this, and it would be meaningless to tell them. I'd just be dragging irrelevant past crap into new relationships, which is what we always do: expressing our anger at something that happened a decade ago, assuming my girlfriend will act like my other girlfriend did that one time, and holy crap that was awful and WHY ARE YOU DOING IT TO ME AGAIN--oh wait, that wasn't you.

Practice is to see that happening, and choose differently: choose to let each new relationship and experience unfold as if it's the first one of its kind (which it is), alive and growing on its own terms only.

40 minutes. one pose. go!

I read Zen teacher Brad Warner's blog, because he's reasonably funny, and while in writing he often comes off as being insecure about his writing, and trying to sound like an edgy jerk to make up for it, I think he knows his stuff (and he's more confident and relaxed in the videos I've seen of him talking). And every now and again we get a gem like this:

"Lately when I give instructions in zazen I've taken to describing what I do as being like a yoga class in which there is only one asana and you hold it for-fucking-ever."

I love this, because it's true. The zazen posture is a yoga posture, even in its variations for those of us who don't like a full lotus. (I can do it, but then nerves get pressed and my leg goes, not asleep, but actually numb and I can't move it.) I noticed last year that as much as I rely on zazen to stretch out my mind somehow, I also rely on it to stretch out my body. If I get to do my usual morning sitting, my mind has already run through most of the nonsense I would have brought into that day, and my muscles have stretched and relaxed into their natural states. (Well. So has my mind.) It's a physical practice, which it has to be, because your body isn't something separate from you; you're not some independent thing inhabiting a container made of meat. You are the container of meat. (Along with a lot of other things. The important part is to note that you are not one thing in particular; there's not a single essential thing that you could point to and say "That's what I am." Go ahead and look for it. I can wait.)

You! Meat container! You should go sit zazen!

Yeah. I dunno either.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

walkabout, and planning

I am uber-phlegmy last night and today. Partly it's the bread at breakfast, but mostly it was the two seafood-and-cheese empanadas yesterday with the WorldTeach gang, plus the Coke and then later the Magnum ice cream bar. All very tasty, but my system's a bit out of whack. I declined bread for breakfast today, much to Aurora's startlement (my host grandmother): the concept of not taking every opportunity to eat bread or drink tea appears to be unknown here. For the most part, the family is very well-educated and worldly, and expects me and Steve to be kinda different, so we're not experiencing any of the more extreme Chilean family behaviors: needing to know where you are at all times, scolding you for not wearing shoes around the house--the wives' tale is that you'll catch a cold/pneumonia/tuberculosis/whatever and get sick, which Oscar seems to think is funny at the same time he passes it on--but I think I finally surprised Aurora a bit more deeply.

This week I am "assisting" Marcela in the classroom, but unfortunately she doesn't have much clarity about what that means, and I'm not sure how much lesson planning she does as such, so we can't just modify her plan to include me; she asked me to "come up with something", probably for 30-45 minutes. Also unfortunately, I've been trained to teach a class of at most 25, seated in some kind of roundtable fashion, not a class of 45 kids seated at their desks in rows. Anna backs me up that it's not just my training or lack of it: it is genuinely difficult to teach a language to a group that size. And because it's not yet my classroom with my rules, I can't guide the experience quite the way I want. The good news is that (a) the kids are generally well-behaved anyway, and (b) the times so far that I've done some speaking with them, they're pretty much all up for it.

The worksheet they're working on is...advanced. (Click for large version.)

I think I'm going to ignore it and work on some basic conversational stuff, which is pretty much what English Opens Doors is here for, anyway.

But in the meantime, I'm here at a café on Cerro Alegre in Valparaíso. I took some photos; the guidebooks don't lie, the city actually does look this colorful and shabby (though Cerros Alegre and Concepción are more colorful than my hill, Cerro Rocuant, and many others). I came across this house, with the residents outside grilling some kind of extremely tough beef, which I accepted a piece of, and tried to eat before leaving and tossing the rest to a very happy street dog. (He ate it without chewing, so it wasn't a problem for him.)

What the hell am I going to do with 45 kids who can't get up and move around?

I'll let you know.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I must respectfully decline your invitation

On Wednesday a couple of the teachers were collecting votes for some teacher union election, and I was chatting with them during a free period: Marilyn, another English teacher, and someone whose name and face I can't remember who I'll call Carla. We talked a bit about teacher unions and how elections get run (they have designated teams to collect the votes, and I have no idea how American unions work). Then Carla starts a new topic.

"Oh! And sometimes we have huelgas [strikes]. You should march with us!"

We went through multiple discussions of teacher strikes during training. There's a long history of grievances about pensions and whatever, and basically we need to not get involved. If there's a strike, we never cross a picket line, and we call our co-teacher and ask if we should go to work.
Also, as Nicole from the Ministry put it, "They're a little water-cannon-happy here." Demonstrations that seem perfectly sweet and peaceful can escalate in a matter of minutes to police with riot gear and people in ski masks throwing bricks through windows.

"Sorry, I can't."
"Why not? It's fun!"
"I'm not allowed to."
"No problem, you can just wear a mask."
(Seriously? This is your solution?)

"No, I really can't."
"If you don't march with us, you can't stay here." (Chile? This school? No idea.)
"I know, I know. But I'm planning to leave in December anyway."
"Aw, you should march with us! And sometimes the police come and spray us with water!"

I don't have to take every opportunity to get involved in the host culture.

Friday, April 16, 2010


The laundry people in Santiago matched up several of my socks with red lettering with socks with black lettering. HOW CAN THESE PEOPLE LIVE LIKE THIS?

Yesterday I finally figured out the calafón, the on-demand hot water heater, so I've had a couple of not-frigid showers. Despite all my past experiences, I think the true glory of a not-freezing shower escaped me until I took a couple of cold showers on 50-degree mornings in an unheated, poorly-insulated house full of tile floors, and walking semi-wet into a bedroom where the window has a big gap to the outside. (Not big enough to admit either of the two kittens who very much like coming inside, but plenty big for a draft. Trust me, it's on my list of things to fix, before it gets really cold.)

Mike from the Ministry finally explained why there's no central heating here, and why everyone's focused on how much hot water you use (I haven't seen this from my family here and I don't expect it, but by all accounts it's common): natural gas is really expensive. And it's really expensive because Chile doesn't have any. Neighboring countries like Peru, Bolivia and Argentina all have natural gas, but they're kind of cranky at Chile, so Chile imports natural gas from someplace far like Russia or Australia.

I'm constantly amazed how much Chile reminds me of Mexico. Somehow, even though the culture is different, the aesthetics are almost the same: homemade houses, stores with the names painted directly on the buildings, similar fonts used on the micro signs. Thousands of street dogs, although the Chilean dogs are well-fed. Where dogs of Mexico seem to have driven the cats into hidden exile on the upper levels of buildings, cats and dogs outside of Santiago (which seems cat-free) seem to have a relative truce. We have three strange but friendly dogs here at the house: La Princesa (the Princess), El Duque (the Duke), and La Chiquitita (the Little One). La Reina (the Queen) was apparently hit by a car. The dogs seem a lot like street dogs that Oscar has brought home and made part of his pack somehow.

There's a small rotation of outside cats, who would all love to be inside cats. Two kittens and one adult look to be clearly related, and one or two longer-haired cats come and go. At least one of the kittens loves to stick his paw through the gap in the kitchen windows, clawing at the wood to try and open it. The dogs bark at whatever people they're not introduced to by a known person, and occasionally they go into a frenzy at what I assume to be a cat they disapprove of. This often happens late at night; they also respond to the network of other yard dogs barking across the hills and valleys around us.

Like Mexico, there's an exuberance to the rhythms of daily life here, an appearance of impossible chaos that looks as though everything must be improvised. That's not entirely untrue, but the improvisation happens within the framework of a functioning society. Everyone has to get to work and home again, buy bread, cook dinner. It's just...different. And sometimes kind of insane.

put a ring on it

There's a story, that doesn't involve me being married or engaged.

A while ago Anna left a red carnelian ring (entirely of stone) at my house. I would never wear a red stone ring, so when I put it on it reminded me of her and that seemed all sweet and stuff, and she was done with it, so I got to wear it.

We don't usually realize that stone is hard, but brittle. At my going-away party, I dropped it on a concrete floor and it shattered, because I inevitably take my rings off, fiddle with them, and drop them.

She bought me another one, but I knew it faced the same hazards, and said if I broke the second one I'd buy something metal--if I bought a metal ring before she could buy me one, I'd just pretend it was from her.

Apparently she's bought me a ring! I'm very excited. I love presents.

But here, for 1500CLP (about US$2.80), is my new ring of shiny, largely impervious stainless steel. If I destroy a stainless steel ring, I suspect I will have bigger problems, and I won't be worried about the ring.

surely I could always use more

My school is huge, about 1800 students, and 80 or 90 teachers. I've been meeting and getting to know some of them. Betty doesn't speak English, is in her 40s, has cat-eye glasses and the self-possessed air of a troublemaker. We met on Tuesday.

"Do you have a girlfriend?"

This is The Chilean Question. I haven't found out what happens if you say "no," since, well, I have a girlfriend. Apparently, if you're not dating someone, there's something wrong with you, especially if you're a woman.

"Yes, I do, she's in North America."

"Oh! Bah! You need a Chilean girlfriend."

There are a few different ways to respond to this.

"Well, I'll ask the North American girlfriend, and if she says it's okay, I can have a Chilean girlfriend too."

She was taken aback, which was gratifying. Maybe because Chilean men are typically not forthcoming about these things--before you date one, you really need to ask multiple times about existing wives/children/girlfriends, because they may not volunteer the information.

Sometimes the truth is just more fun.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

a change of scene

In Chile, the students stay in one classroom, and the teachers move around. Students can develop a certain sense of territorial possession about their classroom, which the teacher then has to enter into as they try to take control of the class. That's one of the things that makes an English Opens Doors class unusual: we have our own dedicated classrooms, that we decorate and make into our own domain with our own rules.

Yesterday Marcela and I went down to the classroom for curso 1-C, at a groggy 8am. Marcela had just about put her stuff down when Rosa, the inspectora general, came in to give the class a long set of instructions. I caught about 30-40% of it, something about the school and the radio, and the students needed to move to a classroom with speakers. She left, and Marcela looked sort of resigned and said, "Okay, let's go."

Unexpected: the students started picking up the desks and chairs, with their stuff, and carting it all out the door and upstairs to the new classroom.

I walked over to Marcela and said, in English (we always speak English, because she needs the practice): "Is this as funny to you as it is to me?".

Without really smiling she said flatly, "Sometimes."

I was being insensitive, of course: she's extremely frustrated by the students' difficulty in learning, and stuff like this just cuts into her already-limited class time. I was too absorbed in my perception of it as something absurd and funny.

She said that the class was supposed to listen to a radio program on Tuesday (or possibly every Tuesday?), so they were moving to a classroom with speakers.

The new classroom did not appear to have speakers. Maybe one speaker, but it was just an unidentifiable black box in the corner near the ceiling, with no discernible wires.

Also, no radio.

my brain hurts

Oscar commented that I looked tired, and I do, and I am. Some of it is navigating the new situation, judging when I might need to push for something, being patient--being patient takes an absurd amount of energy sometimes, considering you're purposefully not doing something--about getting my own classroom, getting enough teaching hours, getting started teaching by myself in my own classroom.

The real brain-hurt comes from language. For four weeks I was spending all my time with other volunteers, speaking English, and really just needing Spanish for asking directions and stuff. Now, I'm speaking mostly Spanish, surrounded by dozens of new acquaintances at school, doing complicated life tasks in town. I speak well enough that I don't trigger people's "Oh, it's a gringo, maybe I should speak slower" reflex, so in addition to meeting a billion new people each day, most of those billion people are firing full-speed barrages of Chilean Spanish at me. (Most hilarious: my host grandmother Aurora, talking to me, mumbling, with her mouth full of bread, with her hand in front of her mouth to hide the fact that she's talking with her mouth full of bread. Bloody hell.) Somehow the connection between "he's speaking like a ten-year old" and "I should speak more slowly and clearly" just isn't getting made.

I'm often thinking in Spanish, though, which is a fascinating thing to watch my mind do. Sometimes these beautiful fluent sentences will come out, that seem to say exactly (-ish) what I want to say, in the way I want to say it, and after the fact I realize there wasn't translation happening: it was actual speaking.

Marcela's been telling the kids that I don't speak Spanish. I don't like it as a matter of honesty, and they'll find out eventually, but inside the classroom, I don't speak Spanish, so probably it will get chalked up to a loss in translation. Although, where the kids are concerned, it's not much of a stretch: I understand almost nothing of what they say.

I believe you have my stapler

Today was Bureaucracy Day! Even though I've already got a one-year residence visa, in order to stay in Chile more than 90 days, and, also important, in order for the Ministry to give me money, I have to get a carnet, a national identification card. This involves a quick trip to the International/Foreigners Police (kind of a pain to translate: Extranjería y Policia Internacional) to register your visa, then take a photocopy of the resulting document to the Registro Civil, which will not be quick. (The police gave me two copies of the original. I don't know why--the Registro Civil only wanted the photocopy.) The Registro Civil most resembles the DMV back home, but covering things like passports and marriage licenses. Basically, if you need to fill out some forms and wait a while for your turn, you're at the Registro Civil.

Oscar is really excellent about making sure Steve and I are happy and taken care of, so he dispatched René', one of the school's disciplinary inspectores, to walk me through the carnet process, since he knows where the two offices are and he's Chilean, and he speaks excellent English. I could have managed it myself, but with René it probably took half the time, even considering the police screwed up the form and spelled my middle name without an 'H'. I'm hugely impressed with Chilean public servants, though: the woman at the Registro said when we came back with it fixed, we didn't have to wait in line again, and the woman at the police who fixed the mistake not only apologized, but made us replacement photocopies so we didn't have to go make new ones. Everyone is very nice and seems to be trying very hard to do a good job, which I've found is often the case in the States as well, though maybe not quite as often.

I got really lucky with my school, and with my co-teacher Marcela. The school on the whole is extremely well-disciplined (especially for Chilean schools), and Marcela actually practices classroom management. My fellow volunteers have some tougher assignments: J is in a school of at-risk kids, including several doing cocaine on weekends and one girl who's 3 weeks pregnant and smoking crack; B, the small redhead gringa, was initially placed in a school of emotionally disturbed kids, where she didn't feel safe and probably wasn't, so the Regional Coordinator stepped in and she was moved to a different school almost immediately (seriously,
who thought that was a good idea?). Steve, Heather and Allison don't have classrooms--neither do I at the moment, but I'm confident everyone understands the need and that it will happen, while they're having to do some fighting for it.

Marcela is very frustrated that the students aren't learning, and very, very much wants my help or advice or any ideas I have about how to help that. I think I got across the whole "students have to use the language, not have it explained" thing; probably next on the list is to get her to respond more directly to their level of knowledge, which is pretty low. The texts she's using (which are easier than the ludicrous texts handed down from the Ministry) are still too hard for them to do more than do rough translation, and don't encourage use. We're "working together" in her classroom for the classes next week, but I don't think she has a clear sense of what involves. I'm really itching to get my own classroom going, but I can contribute and maybe help her teaching, and get the kids primed for my different way of doing things. If it's what she wants and she thinks it will be useful, there's no good reason to push back on it right now.

I spent some time talking to Aurora this morning, Ximena's mother. I was confused last night when Ignacio, the kid, called Ximena tía, which is "aunt" but used affectionately for any adult woman; it turns out Ignacio is Oscar's son, but not Ximena's. She has 3 kids from her marriage, and they mostly live with their dad elsewhere in town, and stay here at various times. Divorce was only legalized here in 2006, and Allyson told us it's common for people to separate without divorcing (since divorce is only newly available) , and just move on with their lives and live with other partners and have more families. And so it is, which sort of explains why Oscar mumbled a bit on Monday when I asked if there were kids in the house. Ximena's youngest, Álvaro, is almost done with junior high school, and staying here this weekend.

I like Valparaíso. It's got a lot of life to it, but unlike Santiago, it's a manageable size, and not smoggy. The ocean is Right There[tm], with its endless cargo ships and Chilean Navy vessels, and this week, a bunch of tall ships I'll go take pictures of. It's like a Bizarro World version of San Francisco, with more ramshackle houses clinging more precariously to steeper cliffs (which are liberally coated with trash), usable public transit that doesn't actively try to run down pedestrians, and a complete lack of hipsters in skin-tight jeans riding fixies and being ironic and jaded as a persistent lifestyle choice.

Also, everyone speaks Spanish.

Monday, April 12, 2010

on site, day 1

I'm here getting settled at my new house. Another guy from the group, Stephen, is also here: originally there had been another host family for him, but that fell through and Oscar had two bedrooms, so here we are. Es Chile, no? Jeremy and Leigh Ann are also in the same house, up in Las Ventanas.

This morning we got up entirely too early and shuffled onto the bus from the hostel to the bus station. In an unprecedented case of luck and good timing, the bus was allowed to pull up to the platform and drop us off, and about five minutes later our bus to Vina del Mar pulled up. About 15 minutes after an uneventful but pretty ride to Vina, our Regional Coordinator Monica helped us pile our bags into a couple of Ministry cars, and most of us walked the 3 or 4 blocks to the Ministry office and unloaded all our stuff into a conference room. And suddenly: our first acto!

An acto is a ceremony or assembly: announcements, acknowledgements, performances. It seems to be a very Chilean thing. Our classes will regularly be canceled, sometimes without warning, for an acto of some kind or another.

This one was to present the host families and schools with their volunteers. (Present to whom, exactly? Apparently the other host families and schools, since for the most part that's who the audience was.) A woman who I think is from the Ministry said some very nice words, then they called out the placements and schools, followed by our names. I was grinning like mad with the happy absurdity of it all: I had no idea who the people were who seemed to be associated with us, and we were all just moving where everyone was gently pushing us. Plus, I live in South America now, and I'm finally at the hard part of this project that's been kind of doggedly plodding along for the past 10 months.

Our host parents are Oscar and Ximena (who, so far, we call "Oscar" and "Ximena" because that's how things are rolling). They seem to be pretty awesome, more and more so as we all loosen up. There's Ximena's mother, and then at least one kid, Ignacio, age 13; I'm pretty sure there's another brother, but I haven't seen him yet. Oscar is the sub-director (sort of a vice-principal but without disciplinary involvement) of my school, Instituto Superior de Comercio "Francisco Araya Bennett" de Valparaiso; Stephen is down the road at the Colegio Industrial. As I suspected, I requested a less urban placement and teaching younger kids, so naturally I'm in Valparaiso and I'm teaching high school.

It's a little funky living with another volunteer--though I'm not sure it's against our contract, since we've each got our own room--but Steve and I are being pretty good about speaking Spanish to each other about half-time, so I think it'll be all right. We're in a good place, and if we made a stink about it, first of all there would be a stink, but second I suspect we might end up at different schools, which means a school would lose a volunteer: pretty harsh, since they have to jump through a ton of hoops to get us.

We toured the school for a while, then met with the director, which was a lot of fast-paced Spanish that I mostly managed to track, and I'm 99% sure he's a really nice guy. The great bit for me was that I felt the need to communicate, in Spanish as in English, that just because I'm a software engineer does not mean I can fix your computer.

That said, I adore the looks I get when I say I'm a software engineer. It's some combination of "Wow, you must be really smart" and "What the fuck are you doing here?".

I met my co-teacher, Marcela. She seems pretty cool, and very happy to have me. And she speaks excellent English, which is not a given for Chilean English teachers.

Steve and I have TVs in our rooms. Oscar very much wanted to make sure it was showing a good picture, and I said, "I don't watch much TV." I'm pretty sure he said "You have to watch TV--it's a rule!". Which would be a very Oscar thing to say, because he's hilarious.

So far, so good. I think I got really lucky with the host family and school situations.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Our bus leaves the hostel tomorrow morning at 6:20am to bring us to the bus station, whence we go up to Viña del Mar, where our host families and Regional Coordinator will meet us. The hostel is a zoo right now because the faraway people, about half the Ministry group, are leaving tonight: photos, goodbyes, exchanging contact info, hallways overflowing with luggage.

I made a friend last week at the Zen sitting, Pedro; afterward, he said that his wife wanted something sweet and if he didn't bring it he might as well not come home, so we hung out and chatted for 45 minutes or so during his whole adventure of collecting stuff at the grocery store. I think I caught 60-80% of what he was saying, and he said he had a párcel somewhere outside of town where he was doing something that involved planting trees, and they have a picnic there every weekend and if I wanted to come, just ask. I was ill last weekend, but I called him Friday and we arranged for him to pick me up near the hostel.

at Pedro's place

It's a ways outside town, about 45-60 minutes, in Calera de Tango. It turns out it's not a getaway place: Pedro and his British wife Joanne are getting it ready to move into full-time. Their British friend Penny came along too, so it was mostly Spanish conversation with some English, which Pedro understands some of. I hadn't known what to expect, except I got the sense it was a work in progress, so I was prepared to help out with yardwork or whatever as being the nice way to spend the time.

When we arrived, their gate was shut and a dump truck full of smooth soccer-ball-sized rocks was waiting, destined for the large square hole forming the leech field for the septic system. Unfortunately the guy managed to dump only a third of the rocks actually into the hole, leading Pedro to shrug and say, "No problem, I guess we'll, um, move them by hand." There's a very Zen chilenismo, "es lo que hay"--"that's what there is". So in between watering the plants and eating lunch, we spent a few hours throwing rocks into a hole.

we moved all these rocks

Here's the full photoset.

After passing out both in the car and back in my room, I joined the WorldTeach group for dinner at Las Vacas Gordas, which was awesome and you should go eat there. I got a scalopa, which was flattened steak stuffed with arugula and mozzarella, breaded and fried. It was delicious enough, but Allyson won by asking for whatever the waiter recommended, and getting some perfectly-cooked thing that might have been a skirt steak, but was just falling apart and amazing and delicious.

Today was supposed to be pretty mellow, but I needed to get money, then went and met a crowd for gringo breakfast at Café Melba (delicious, one of the few places you can actually get eggs for breakfast), and then my plans to lounge around and read were hijacked by suggestions of going to the Los Dominicos artisan market, which was really nice. I decided not to buy anything, since I'm expecting to be back in Santiago at least a few times, for visiting Aikido Hakusan and retrieving Anna and whatever else.

My disappointment about Valparaíso is falling away, and I'm getting excited about the possibilities. Our host families are supposed to meet us at the bus station in Viña del Mar tomorrow; I'll know more then, and I'll write again whenever I can.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Ministry orientation is officially done. The American ex-volunteer employees urged us to be brutally honest, so I wrote a couple pages of script (I started out printing but realized it would be too slow) listing some of the various contradictory or cracktastic elements of the training. My final comment: "It's better than nothing, but it doesn't come close to preparing first-year teachers to teach in a foreign culture."

(The young folks are pushing better changes year after year, but apparently everyone always says the orientation was great--either to not hurt feelings, or not having anything to compare it to--and then the midyear survey says the orientation sucks and didn't prepare them at all. If everyone can be honest and say it sucked right at the beginning, that's data they can use to make more changes.)

Tomorrow I'm headed out to "the country" with a guy I met at the Zen group last week. His name's Pedro, and we hung out talking for a while after the sitting. I'm not exactly sure where his out-of-Santiago place is--by "not exactly sure" I actually mean "I have absolutely no idea and didn't bother to remember the name"--but apparently he and his wife and baby daughter go picnic for a bit there every weekend, and he invited me along. Allyson encouraged us to accept these kinds of invitations (unless you're a girl and it's some skeezy guy), because it's an invitation to participate in a more traditional, non-urban aspect of Chilean family life. I've no idea what to expect or what to bring, but I like hanging out with Pedro (who also doesn't like to drink much) and I figure it'll be fine. As long as they don't try to kill and eat me I'm perfectly capable of making my own way home if need be.

Here I am, mere days away from the 6am bus to Valparaíso. I don't know if school has started, what my host family's like, what part of town I'll be in. Not-knowing has been a delicious part of this whole thing; people back home would regularly ask me if I knew what ages I'd be teaching, or where I'd be, and when I'd say I wouldn't know until I got there, they'd give me this look of...incredulity? I don't know what they thought: that I was brave or crazy or just that they would never proceed under those conditions, or what.

But if I knew, what good would it do? If you tell me I'm teaching 5th-graders or 11th-graders...I've never taught before, I've never managed a classroom full of any age group before. It's not a meaningful distinction to me. If I had found out I was going to be in Quilpue or Quillota or Zapallar (those lucky bastards, Lauren and Bennett), that doesn't mean anything more to me than it does to you. I could look it up on Wikipedia, but what else could I do except create a fantasy about it in my head? The Internet can't tell me if the people are nice, whether my host family has a dog, what my students will be like, whether my co-teacher will actually speak English (definitely not a given with Chilean English teachers) or whether s/he will be open to how I want to teach.

We want so much for everything to be under control. In our lives in the U.S. most of us are able to plan things in advance, to have an idea of what to expect. We want our jobs to go well, our lovers to behave the way we want. We go through all sorts of contortions to avoid the panic of not-knowing, the falling-off-a-cliff feeling of having to meet each moment as it comes without knowing what it will bring. We don't realize that not-knowing is the nature of things, and to live with intention in not-knowing is perfect freedom, because we never know what each moment will bring. We just think we do, and we're right often enough to solidify it into a delusion we cling to for protection against a world we think is separate from ourselves.

No knowing, no control. I just have to see what happens when I get there, and respond to it with whatever I've got.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

wisdom, little kid edition.

From Tiffany at electric boogaloo, which is kind of a mommy blog, but is generally so awesome it doesn't deserve to be pigeonholed so:

Third thing was at dinner. He’s not great at the whole dinnertime conversation flow yet, with its bewildering turn-taking and letting other people speak. But that’s what meals are for, right? Meals certainly aren’t for eating your chicken. So tonight during a lull he said, “People’s lifes are their LIFES.”

“Wow, oh. What do you mean?”

“That’s all I mean. People have a life and it is their life. Your life belongs to you and it is your life. And every person’s life can’t belong to another person.”

“Huh.” I say that out loud a lot. It’s a sound that means I am patiently waiting for the moment where I understand this.

Nicolaus guessed, “I think he means that two people can’t ever be the same person. Because they are both alive and they are different people.”

Graham was frustrated. “No, that’s not what I mean. I mean your life is YOUR LIFE. And nobody can really be your boss. Or really tell you to do everything. Because YOUR LIFE is your life.”

Oh my god. He is going to get fired from a lot of jobs later on, isn’t he?

Yay. He's going to be an excellent Zen student someday.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


My stomach hasn't been working since the pork in Pomaire last Thursday, so I'm changing my diagnosis from "mild alcohol poisoning" (which didn't make sense anyway) to food poisoning. It had gotten better, and then it was worse yesterday and I made a poor food choice. So this morning I skipped the first 4 hours of training sessions and stayed at the hostel. I would rather have been well and gone through it with my compañeros, but overall I wasn't sorry to miss it. I slept and read a bit.

Field Director Allyson and one of the Americans working for the Ministry both confirmed that security and safety probably had a lot to do with me being in Valpo, inasfar as they will never put women there. As for it being me and Steve, Steve asked if they noticed my black belt and decided I was a better choice, and the Ministry guy said that while he didn't do the individual placements within the region, if the Regional Coordinator saw that (I put it on my WorldTeach resume because I thought it was interesting) they could well have done that. And Steve's passport photo makes him look like a cranky bouncer, and there's only four guys to choose from.

(Stephen, who is hilarious, suggests that we should each put in a few thousands pesos in a pool, for the first one of us that gets robbed.)

Given the need to put people in Valpo, it's not hard to rationalize that one of them should be me. It's just a little sad because it's not where I want to be, and it was probably avoidable, had I made a different choice about my resume. Of course I will be in some small sub-community that I'll integrate into and enjoy, and Valpo's a great little city, with at least a few things to do that don't involve drinking. (Although I'm pretty easily entertained these days.)

Lesson learned this week: never mention the black belt in any offiicial form or piece of paper.

But who knows? Maybe Valpo was the only place they could find a host family that didn't have cats. There's no way to tell, and plenty of times I've had these "It must have been X" chains of reasoning disintegrate in the face of some simple, unconsidered reality.

Apparently I'm significantly bothered by the whole thing, since I keep coming back to it. That has to do with my expectations of and desires for what my experience will be like, and what kinds of places I think I like living. That's an impossible situation: it was never going to be what I thought I wanted, and I'm not here to experience everything being the way I want. I came looking for difficulty, and I've probably found it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

and my home for the next 8 months is...


On the one hand, it's pretty and supposed to be a really nice place, albeit with lots of petty crime aimed at tourists.

On the other hand, I wanted to be someplace smallish, and Valpo is 275,000 people, so I've got some disappointment I'm making some space for. But, of course, it will be fun and I'll enjoy it, and it will be how it is, in all its is-ness.

We leave here on Monday at 6:20am. We won't find out about host families until we get there.

Day 2 of the Ministry of Education orientation. My internal monologue...has many criticisms, which match everyone else's (WorldTeach and not). Over the coming few weeks, my observations will distill into constructive criticism, and maybe I'll share that later.

The hostel is on Calle Cienfuegos, which means "Hundred Fires" and is currently my favorite street name anywhere in the world.

Monday, April 5, 2010

another temporary home

The hostel is an enclave: isolated from the neighborhood outside, with a large shaded patio-yard with comfortable chairs. Many of the chairs, and all of the table umbrellas, bear the logo for Brahma beer, which is also sold in the lobby, along with Escudo, Corona, and bottles and splits of red wine. Speakers play a party-oriented radio station during waking hours (the patio closes from 12-7am, so it's not entirely out of control, at least so far). We referred to the Hotel Plaza Londres as a "hostel" out of habit, but it was really a hotel. This, a Hostelling International establishment, is a real hostel. There are luggage lockers in the rooms and they sell beer and wine in the lobby.

Susan, the ASL interpreter, struck up a chat with the shaved-headed deaf Russian guy who was hawking up a lung in the bathroom this morning.

"And he knows ASL?!"

"No! It's really interesting!"

We had an earthquake last night, a cute little 4.5 that wouldn't have woken me except for the Chinese volunteers panicking very loudly about it in the halls. It was short, so when they woke me up, the building was finishing swaying and mostly I wanted them to shut up before I woke up even more. I did get a kick watching my half-awake mind try to get worked up and anxious about a big earthquake that OMFG COULD HAPPEN ANY MINUTE DIDN'T YOU FEEL THAT LAST ONE HOLY CRAP, which I'd notice, breathe, let go of it, watch it happen again. My mind goes into its loops sometimes when I'm sleeping poorly.

An hour after that, around 4:45am, a group of Chileans either started or ended their day smoking by their cars under our window.

Today was the first day of Ministry training. It's a bunch of really great people, but so far it's talking and PowerPoint slides. Good information, though not much new, but especially after the dynamic and interactive WorldTeach training, it feels a little...bureaucratic?

We already knew it, but it's increasingly clear that the extra money paid for WorldTeach is more than worth it, for the better training and the in-country support. It creates a funky dynamic with the other Ministry volunteers, who are here on more of a shoestring, jumping into even more unknowns than we are, and almost without a net. Benefiting from WorldTeach's special relationship with the Ministry, sometimes it feels like we're on a sort of Cadillac teaching program.

It's going to be a long week, and I'd like to be moving on to my placement.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

17 days in, and a glimpse at the future


Here's all of Allison's Picasa photos, and Heather's. We've been together for most things and we all go to the same places, and they're much better photographers than I am, so maybe this is better than my photos.

My phone is broken. The lady who sold it to me warned me that if you put an old SIM in a new phone, sometimes it stops working, which it did after a couple days, and I've been sick and it's Easter weekend and I haven't gone to bother people about it. Not that you were trying to call, but FYI.

Tomorrow at 11 we're moving from Hotel Plaza Londres to Hostelling International Santiago, for a week of Ministry training. I don't think anyone's looking forward to it, because (a) HI is likely to be noisier and more party-oriented, with new volunteers just reaching the country, (b) we've already had a lot of intense training and we'd like to get on with teaching, (c) HI is in a dodgier neighborhood that requires yet more attention to not getting robbed (the cops are incorruptible, but petty theft is huge here), and (d) we're all ready to get out of Santiago.

The Ministry training agenda is a lot like the WorldTeach training agenda: Health & Safety, Lesson Planning, Multiple Intelligences, etc. But apparently, instead of a small tight group doing a lot of interactive learning and practicing, it's 51 of us and a lot of PowerPoint decks. Bright sides: last year it was over 100 volunteers. And they feed us dinner as well as breakfast.

On Thursday night, I went to Zen Montañas y Mar, a local sitting group. It wasn't quite as exciting as visiting the dojo, because there were fewer people and I just don't get as exuberant about Zen stuff...possibly because I can (and usually do) sit zazen by myself, but for aikido I have to share and work and connect with other people in a very immediate and obvious way, while sangha is a more subtle thing, that takes a bit more time for me. But I spent some time chatting afterward with a new pal, Pedro, who I will hopefully get to see before I leave Santiago.

Finally, cross my fingers, but I think I'm almost well. Lots of Coke at the group asado (barbecue) last night, which didn't help anything, but today was digestive cookies and lots of vegetables, and I'm feeling much better. At least I managed to get sick when I didn't actually have to do anything.

Friday, April 2, 2010

my friends

I have one (as far as I know) practicing Catholic friend, whose second job is as a parish musician, leading the music for services. His Facebook status:

Crucified: check. Dead: check. Buried: check. Time for late passover with friends, and get ready for the most overtly pagan of catholic feasts of the year tomorrow night.

I love you people.

poor eating behavior

We had a free day yesterday, so after consulting my Lonely Planet book, I decided to get the hell out of Santiago and go visit Pomaire, a tiny little town known for selling ceramic cookware and good traditional Chilean food (I figured I'd probably have lunch and come back). This involved a one-hour bus to Melipilla, then a short micro (mini-bus) ride to Pomaire. The old woman who helped me figure out the right micro suggested I go to the restaurant El Parróne.

I asked the guy what I should get, and he recommended the Cordero, which Jeremy says should be lamb, but I'm pretty sure was pork, slow-cooked over a fire. And I got a beer. And he brought me a pisco sour, on the house, which is where things went wrong, because I drank the pisco sour, and the beer, and I ate the whole pound or so of meat. It was delicious, but no one should eat that much meat.

It's hard to say what would have happened without the pisco sour, but somehow I went from "sober" to "mild alcohol poisoning" without any interval of "drunk". So that's had me slightly cranky and knocked on my ass for the past 24 hours--at least it didn't happen when I had actual stuff to do. I'm in the final recovery phases now (sadly, this has happened before), which means a couple of days of eating lighter food--luckily, it's Easter weekend and I went to the grocery store to feed myself for the next couple days anyway.