Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chiloé: Castro rundown

I'm staying at Hospedaje Mirador, which is run by very nice people, has clean and comfy rooms and bathrooms (the rooms are tight, but whatever), and a solid breakfast. (Meat! And cheese! And whole wheat bread! What a concept.) It will have been 3 very nice nights, at $8000 (I think) for a room with two single beds.

I've basically been following tips from the Lonely Planet book. My main goal in my traveling is to avoid normal Chilean food: if I have to eat an empanada, charquican, carbonada, mashed potatoes with a fried egg on top, or any of the standard sandwiches, I'm doing it wrong. If I were to plan so poorly that I had to eat a completo (boiled hot dog with 5mm layers each of tomato, avocado, and mayonnaise), I should just give up and go home early. Probably I would rather go hungry.

The restaurant Años Luz listed in the book closed down a couple years ago.

  • La Brújula del Cuerpo - Perilously close to normal Chilean food. I had a pizza, which was a big white bread with pizza stuff on top and a sauce that looked but did not taste suspiciously ketchup-y. Nothing else was open on Sunday night.
  • Sacho - An excellent Chilote place. I had the pulmay, which was delicious, although the clams were sandy and the giant mussels turn out to be a food I'm reluctant to try, so I stuck to the regular mussels and was very happy.
  • Restaurant Mar y Velas - This is actually out in Achao. I had a most excellent grilled conger eel with butter, simple and awesome.
  • Don Octavio - Oh man. The "Octavio" style is your choice of fish smothered in onions/tomato/bell pepper/little bit of sausage, covered in a pile of mostly-crisp fried potatoes. It's Chilean, but...delicious? and flavorful? I'm confused. Go eat here.
  • Kaweshkar - Actually a low-budget but stylish nightclub, they're open starting at noon serving drinks and food. I had a wonderful, deliciously non-Chilean real crepe with lightly sauteed vegetables and a light béchamel sauce, served with a little dish of ground smoked hot pepper (merkén) so I could season it to taste.
  • Ristretto Caffe - On Blanco near the plaza, this may be the only coffee shop per se in town. Comfy tables, wifi, no power outlets. It's smoky when it's full, but the coffee doesn't suck.
Overall, it's been a solid food trip. Downtown Castro is cute and located on a small peninsula, so you can just walk 10 minutes in any of 3 directions to get a different view of the water.

Stuff To Do:
  • Dalcahue - Pronounced "dal-KAH-way," this is a cute little town. I went for the artisans' market, which is smaller on a non-Sunday; I basically went, bought some naturally-dyed yarn for a friend (which I probably could have bought in Castro), took a bunch of pictures, and came back. But that was nice to do.
  • Achao - Past Dalcahue on Isla Quinchao, this place is cute and has Restaurant Mar y Velas. Pictures here.
That's...actually all I did. I'm on vacation, and it's a nice place to be. Tomorrow I'm off to Ancud, where I have more ambitious plans involving penguins and a restaurant 90 minutes away.

best quote from a head of state this month

The ending context for Ecuador offering residency to Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange:

Ecuador expelled two U.S. diplomats in early 2009, accusing one of directing CIA operations in Ecuador and another of interferring in police affairs.

The government continues close counternarcotics cooperation with the United States, but a year ago President Rafael Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, refused to renew the lease on what had been Washington's only base for counternarcotics flights in South America, the Manta airfield.

He said that if Washington would grant Ecuador an air base in Florida, he'd be happy to host U.S. flight operations.
Well played.

field trip to Achao

Today I'm theoretically going to go eat lunch at a restaurant in Quemchi, but it's almost 10:30 and I haven't even showered yet. Instead, I'll show you pictures of Achao, on the nearby island of Quinchao. (Chilote names are great. I'm going to Ancud tomorrow, and then back here to Castro [not a Chilote name] so I can visit Dalcahue and possibly Isla Mechuque.)

I'm not the world's best photographer, but there were some really nice shots around town. This one in particular gives the illusion I know what I'm doing.

boats at the pier

the pier at Achao

In the most un-Chilean thing I've seen since Anna and I had chicken korma in Valparaiso, Achao has a working and quite beautiful little public library.

the Achao public library(!)

I'm sure there's a great story behind why this dinky village in southern Chile has a working library and Valparaiso, seat of the Chilean Congress, doesn't. (Technically it has one, the Biblioteca Santiago Severin, but it's been closed since the earthquake and shows no sign of reopening.)

The kids' section:

the Achao public library(!)

This is just from the bus ride back to Castro. This kind of scene just crops up everywhere. This is what Chiloe looks like.

bus back to Castro

Click on any of the photos to get to Flickr, or see them all in the Chiloe set.

Like Valdivia and La Serena, Chiloe is also very clean, which makes me think that Region V, and Valparaiso in particular, just doesn't care. In other words, I used to think that sidewalks covered in dog crap represented Chilean culture not valuing clean sidewalks. After a bit of traveling, I now think that in Valparaiso there's a cultural value on having the place look charmingly run-down, and disgustingly filthy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Castro, Chiloé

Whew! It's been a whirlwind week: 7 days ago I was still in La Serena. Then a few days in Santiago for WorldTeach and English Opens Doors end-of-service stuff, and now I'm in Chiloé, an archipelago in Region X. It's pretty far south, and yet there's probably still about a third of the country left before you hit Antarctica. Chile is cartoonishly long for how skinny it is.

To save myself 15 hours one-way on the bus, I flew from Santiago to Puerto Montt before going 4.5 hours on the bus to Castro, the main city on Chiloé. The flight was completely worth it, because hours on a bus, or even worse on a plane, screw my body up for days afterward. Much nicer this way.

Chiloé is pretty amazing. You could put a picture in the dictionary next to "idyllic." The traditional houses look like this, with various shapes of shingles on the side:

the parish house

Chiloé is known for having maintained its distinct culture over the centuries. It's still Chile, though, as I was greeted by the surreal spectacle of the local fire company scrubbing the facade of the church:
firemen washing the church

Today I went out to the town of Achao on Isla Quinchao, a long island right next to Castro. Photos aren't up yet, but they'll be here with the rest of them.

15 days until I'm home!

Friday, November 26, 2010

that's a wrap.

This morning we had the English Opens Doors closing ceremony over at the UN building on the far, far, far eastern edge of Santiago. It's down the street from the U.S. Embassy, located in the middle of nowhere because that's where they could find 5-10 acres. There were several speakers; it would have been nice if the Chileans spoke to us as though Spanish were our second language, instead of full-speed Chilean. (The room had about 9 Chileans and 100 native English speakers, so they weren't exactly responding to their audience.) A couple of volunteers spoke, which is totally fine, except that the Ministry of Education was filming the whole thing, "to motivate future volunteers," and the volunteers' stories were...not exactly motivating. The guy's was, more or less, though he also talked about the exhaustion; the girl's was almost harrowing, since she went through 3 host families, one of which included a father who was sending her inappropriate text messages late at night. (It's bound to happen to someone, with dozens of attractive 20-something American girls living with host families in a macho country.)

I understand that she had a rough year and it's possible she couldn't keep herself from talking about it. She was trying to put the best face on it she could, but in fact she was down in Punta Arenas or something, at the end of the Earth, in a failed school system, with bad host families. There's only so much you can do to spin it.

Listening to many of us, it can seem like the frustrations of our time in Chile have outshined the good stuff. I don't know that it has: it's just that it's easier to rant about frustrating things, and those are the things that have taken our energy and left us ready to move on. And let's face it: we want to be interesting and engaging when we talk, and that's a lot easier when talking about the negatives. Positive things are easy: my host family loved me, the people are kind and generous, I learned (more) Spanish! There's not much mystery there.

The negatives, though, are ripe for discussion. They frustrate us, they wear us down. Why don't Chileans listen and respond to the actual words you're saying? Why is the food so bad in a country awash in cheap, high-quality ingredients? Why does your host family yell at you for not wearing shoes, because that's how you get pneumonia? (Alternately, it's the change of temperature, or you haven't been wearing a scarf, even though it's almost summer. The idea that disease is caused by germs rarely comes up, though they'll allow it when pressed.)

These things are interesting because from our point of view, they're absurd and strange and inexplicable. They're implacable obstacles to the smooth functioning of our lives in this culture. Incredulous that this was for real, we probably bashed our head against the wall trying to change it--"No, I really genuinely honestly do not want fried hot dog slices in my rice"--before developing the necessary mix of acceptance and resignation. We never quite like it, though: like a stone in our shoe, eventually it causes some bruising or blisters. Even if we look back and tell the stories with humor and love, that comes from perspective on an unpleasant experience. In addition to making it easier to be funny and interesting--this is why film or theater critics can get carried away writing bad reviews--talking about the negative stuff lets us process it more thoroughly. It's cathartic, and gives us some distance on it. We can start to associate those things with laughter instead of self-control and forced patience.

I'll try to keep the stories balanced as I unwind over the coming months. Just remember, I'm not the sunshine-and-roses type. It was an excellent experience, and it was the thing for me to do and it was amazing. But: I've done a number of very difficult things in my life, and this was the hardest. I think a lot of volunteers would probably say that, so keep it in mind as we rant about the difficult things.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

La Serena rundown

Similar feel to Valdivia despite the completely different geography; besides what I said in yesterday's post, it's similarly clean, of both litter and dog feces. I wonder if dog crap covering the sidewalks is just a Region V problem? I'm confused.
  • Hostal El Punto - Run by a lovely multilingual German couple. Beds are squishy, but everything is cute and clean. In a shocking display of un-Chilean-ness, breakfast comes with slices of salami and turkey, and you can have them bring you brewed coffee in an individual French press. I paid US$60 for 3 nights, 2 in the dorm and 1 in a private room.
  • Coffee Express - The second place in Chile that makes espresso correctly without instructions.
  • Cafe Colonial - Pancakes, falafel, burgers: a prime stop for different food. The caesar salad has homemade mayonnaise, cheese that is not Parmesan, and the bacon is actually ham (possibly Canadian bacon), but it's tasty and non-Chilean all the same.
  • Daniela II - Sure, it's Chilean food, but it's good. I ordered Garlic Scallops with lots of garlic, and miracle of miracles, that's what I got.
  • Rincon Oriental - I braved Chinese food because the Lonely Planet book listed it. It...could have been worse? I ordered Garlic Chicken with "less salt and more garlic," so I got an enormous pile of chicken with about the right amount of salt and some garlic flavor. Skip it.
Overall, it's a pleasant place to be. There are lots of cool day trips I didn't take, to Valle del Elqui and the Humboldt Penguin Reserve and so on. If I'd stayed a third day I probably would have gotten restless with downtown and gone on an excursion.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

La Serena

I've been soaking up La Serena, by which I mean "wandering about drinking coffee and eating non-Chilean food while I take pictures of churches with weird aspect ratios." I find myself comparing it to Chillán and Valdivia, which reminds me of what Tyler Cowen said:
If you set off to a mid-sized city in South America -- especially in the Southern Cone -- your chance of finding an idyllic spot are high. There may be, in a way, nothing to do there, at least not in the sense that your guidebook can report. But it will feel so fresh, so undiscovered, so representative of the vitality of everyday life, that you will at times think you have stumbled upon paradise. Everyone there will seem so apart from the world you know and there is a sudden (and quite silly) shock at seeing how seriously they take the world they know.
I wouldn't say that people down here seem apart from the world I know, at least at first, but there are some things--their mental distance from World War II, the fact that Christmas is in the summer, that the school year doesn't cross the calendar year, that the sun is in the north in the winter instead of the south--that remind me that they're completely accustomed to completely different things.

At any rate, Chillán is not someplace you'd normally visit, but my brief pass through left the impression of a low-rent, industrial, un-scenic Valdivia or La Serena.


This is Fanny. I thought she was using a pedal-driven sewing machine, which she is, but it's got an electric motor retrofitted onto it. I asked if I could take a picture, and she started to get up.
"Oh, can I take the picture with you?"
"Of course! I thought you wanted a picture of the machine."
"What good is a machine without the person who uses it?"
Which she happily told her colleagues as I left. I think that modern technology does so much to change our lives so quickly, and so much of it is incomprehensible without special training, that we feel like Technology is something inhuman. But the word "technology" comes from the Greek téchnē, which means "art," "skill," or "craft." Setting aside non-human tool-using (which is significant, but not our problem), Technology is the stuff we make, as humans, and it has no meaning or purpose apart from human beings. We're in charge, and if it doesn't seem like it, it's because we're looking at things all wrong. We forget how important we are, because it's scary.

For the past two nights, I've had the World's Worst-Designed Bunk Bed:

obnoxiously tall bunk bed

Notice that I can neither see nor manipulate things on the bed, so in the room I have nowhere to organize my stuff. Note also that the ceiling is like 11 feet tall. Who the hell needs 5ft of clearance in the bottom bunk? Luckily, tonight I'm moving to a private single room, since that's what was available. That works better with my "Cocaine and Hookers" evening plan, anyway.

For some reason, La Serena has a Japanese garden! It's small, but in a country that could give two shits about Japan, it's pretty amazing that it's here at all. This picture just screams CHILE at me:


Yes, that's a Japanese garden pond and bridge. And someone's random dog wandering around.

The ever-increasing set of La Serena photos is here at Flickr.

Monday, November 22, 2010

decompression in 3...2...1...

I'm in La Serena, a coastal-ish town (about 2km up the Rio Elqui from where it hits the ocean) 7 hours north of Valparaiso. It's desert up here, which somehow slipped my mind. I don't really care for the desert. Some people love it; I only visit when I need sensory deprivation. It's not super-interesting. The desert here looks more or less like the desert in California, Baja California, and Mexico. It seems to lack the dramatic geology of the deserts in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, but there's still that theme of rocks, cactus, tumbleweed, brutal sunlight, and not much else. I'm not a visually-stimulated person and I hate sunlight, so, yeah. Not a desert rat.

I'd thought about going to Valle del Elqui, which is the vineyard-laden center of pisco production. Then I thought about what exactly I came here to do, which is roughly "nothing" in the form of "eat food, drink coffee, and read books and the Internet," and discovered that in fact I don't care about seeing Valle del Elqui very much. I saw some pictures. It looks like a moonscape with vineyards. Not really my thing.

Having reminded myself that I don't actually want to do anything, I'm...relaxing. Decompressing, starting gently to understand what's happened the past 8 months. I think the time spent teaching was forging and quenching: you apply heat and pressure to your work, shape it with your hammer, then suddenly you sink in it water, cooling it so quickly that the crystal structure changes suddenly, leaving the steel extremely hard, but brittle.

After quenching, you temper the work, which is actually making it less hard and brittle, giving it some flexible toughness so it can absorb shocks. Heat the steel slowly so the parts you want to soften heat up first, to a certain temperature (in blacksmithing, judged by color), and then quench it again. Done by experienced hands, it's an intuitive but fairly precise process.

Anyway, to get out of geek mode: I've done the forging and quenching. Now I'm relaxing and starting the tempering.

Shouldn't take more than a couple decades, I'd think.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

a really big boat

This monster has been moored in the harbor for the past couple weeks. It's huge, but I just now measured it on my screen, and as far as I can tell, it's far huger than I thought. Check my math! (Click through to Flickr for big sizes you can measure on your screen like I did.)
enormous boat

Okay, so, that tiny little upright sliver next to the flag on the stern? That's a person. On the "Large" size on Flickr, the person measures 4mm. Assuming they're 5'8" (about 172cm), the boat is 140ft long; if they're 6', it's 150ft. I didn't do all the 5'8" calculations. The tender is somewhere in the 20ft range, and the mast is around 200ft, which is why you can see it from so far inland.

Anyone else come up with a different answer?

so tiny!

A big welcome to Planet Earth to my newest niece, born this week. She appears to be adorable, if understandably confused and tired. Being born is a rough transition, to a big cold world presumably less comfortable than the womb.

That leaves me as the only one of us who hasn't spawned. I already acquired a 6-year old the easy way, though--I skipped the diapers-and-colic phase! but missed him learning how to talk--so I'm not in a hurry.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

the end of teaching

I haven't been writing as much, at least compared to a month ago. Fewer things are happening, as my time here winds down. I'm cleaning things up at school and trying to force myself to plan my traveling.
  • Tomorrow is my last day at school, with a good-bye party at a teacher's house at 6:30.
  • Saturday I go to aikido one last time.
  • Saturday night is a barbecue at Heather's in Quilpue.
  • Sunday I go north to La Serena and Valle de Elqui.
  • Wednesday the 25th is the WorldTeach End-of-Service, which is a 4-hour meeting followed by a party.
  • Thursday the 26th is the English Opens Doors closing ceremony, which will probably be boring.
  • Then I go south to Castro, Chiloe, and putz around Chiloe for a while.
  • Then I go to Puerto Varas.
  • Then I go to Santiago for a couple days, then home.
I have no bus tickets or reservations yet. Need to make some calls tonight.

Meantime, I'm saying good-byes to my students.

Elizabeth with her present

This is Elizabeth. Every time we worked with the weather cards, she'd get really excited and say she wanted "Pablo Neruda!", the Chilean Nobel Laureate who wore hats and berets like what I drew (which I copied from one of last year's volunteer's lesson plans). Following my custom of giving things to people who want them more than me, I gave her the card.

Only 1-C and 1-J have thrown me parties, which correlates with how well-organized and studious those classes are, and how well we got along. A "party" at school might involve soda, but definitely involves chips and cookies and other snack foods on plastic plates. 1-J also gave me little presents: a pencil case and little box that say "Valparaiso," and a framed print of a Valparaiso scene. They were working really hard to keep me out of the classroom while they got the plates ready: their stall tactic was to insist we needed more photos, so we have lots and lots of photos.


This is my main souvenir from this adventure: it's a sign for the 702, the bus that runs past the house. It turns out the same guy has been making bus signs for Region V for 27 years, he's really nice, and his shop is a shack about a mile from here, downtown. It was about US$22 to get it done, with both sides painted. It's huge and I don't know where it will go in a small apartment, but I'll figure it out.

I really am just mentally exhausted, and I don't know that that's interesting to read about. I'm not sad yet, because with me that comes later. Right now I'm just...done. It's interesting to watch how I am when I have no resources left: less patient with students being obnoxious, but still listening and letting them know I care. The cold a couple weeks ago really knocked me down, and it feels like I'm not physically well enough to bounce back from it.

Tomorrow's my last day at school. 26 days until I'm home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

a recursive conversation

Today I had a few minutes alone with a student before or after class, and he asked why I wasn't coming back next year. I explained how I have all my communities and friends back home; sort of futile, since, as far as I can tell, the students do not know what "community" means. (Literally: I was there when my co-teacher Marcela was explaining it at some point earlier in the year, and of course their retention averages about zero since they divert their attention elsewhere as soon as a teacher starts talking.)

Then I was talking about how Chile is a high-context culture, so people don't listen to the specific words that are said, since it's not necessary. Unfortunately, if you're a foreigner and you don't have that context, it means that no one listens to what you're saying.

His responses had very little to do with what I was saying. He wasn't listening to me.

teaching in Chile: an outside perspective

Anna has visited me 3 times here in Chile, and the first two times, in May and August, she got to see my Friday class. (The third time, various classes had barricaded themselves in their classrooms to protest some school decision or other, and the administration sent everyone home so they could deal with it.) I try to describe the teaching environment here, and while I know it's insane, this is also the only place I've ever taught. She has a lot of teaching experience, so I asked her to describe what she sees in a Chilean classroom, and how it differs from, erm, an effective learning environment.

To add some background: my students are high school freshmen, age 14-15, and they have English twice a week, once with me and once with their Chilean teacher. After sophomore year, they only have it once a week. Also, the entire curso of 45 students has every class together: there is no grouping by level, so the few students who actually understand some English are in the same class with kids who understand nothing. None of them, no matter their level of comprehension, can converse.
Chris asked me to write something about the Chilean classroom, as I have observed it on my visits. I am an experienced ESL teacher, and I would be hard-pressed to accomplish anything under the conditions Chris has been teaching in. I'll say more about that, but first a snapshot of the classroom.

The kids come in talking, moving, shoving, yelling at each other and at Chris. The noise level is very high. Six or seven want Chris's individual attention RIGHT NOW, and the other 15 don't allow his presence to disrupt their personal lives at all.

They take their seats in the little chairs with the desks attached, along 3 walls of the room in a big U. They're still talking to each other, texting, eating, writing, and putting on makeup. Did I mention the noise level?

Chris moves in to the center of the room, gets their attention, and the lesson begins.

Doesn't sound too bad, does it? But not that much really changes when the lesson starts.
The kids' conversations with each other are quieter, except when they are shouted across the U, which is not uncommon. They complain intensely if he wants them to get up and do anything, but they leap up on their own to climb on their desks and look out the window, or go to the door or the trash can or anywhere else they feel like going.

Some of them are pretty cooperative, some are totally resistant and sullen. Many of the girls have crushes on Chris and flirt with him, shouting for his attention and wilting if they don't get it. Many of the boys are "too cool" to participate, but Chris manages to make them learn things anyway.

Did I mention the complaining?

Also, they are total drama queens and very competitive. They compete for Chris's attention, for his regard, for his disregard, for each other's attention, and for the prize of being invisible in the room. When they play physical movement games, they bump and kick each other (kind of gently, mostly, except when it's not) and I have seen them body check each other more than once.

For an American teacher, their freedom with movement and noise and interruption is mind-boggling. And I'm a pretty relaxed teacher by U.S. standards. Chilean kids have their own agenda, and they allow the class to disrupt their agenda only marginally, or minimally.

So the room itself is a challenge. But when you plug the classroom into the larger framework, the challenge becomes nearly insurmountable.

Chris sees his kids for 45-60 minutes once a week--at best. Randomly cancelled classes, holidays, and other events mean that it averages out to more like once every other week. _I_ couldn't learn anything as a student with that frequency. Or did I forget to mention that they don't do homework? Teachers often don't even assign it because they just won't do it.

The classes (cursos) are dominant over the teachers. They own the classroom (with the exception of Chris's room), and when teachers come in they are on the kids' territory. Kids have gotten teachers fired this year, and taken over the school to protest something or other.

Chilean pedagogy seems to involve standing in front of the kids and telling them things about the subject, explaining English in Spanish, for example. Only remember that part about the noise level and free movement and whatnot? Guess what--the kids don't listen! Not only don't they listen, but they actually tune out when a teacher starts making mouth noises. Chris is a strange exception to their experience because he asks them to actually do stuff, repeat words, play games, and so on. But they still ignore him; even when they look like they're listening, they're not really taking much in.

To add insult to injury, their curriculum in their regular English class is WAY above their level, and getting further away from them with every lesson.

So, Chris is in a situation where his kids are being demoralized and overwhelmed in their regular English class, what he's teaching doesn't connect to what they're supposedly learning there, they're habituated to ignoring teachers, they don't do homework, he only sees them once a week at most, they resist all new activities (especially anything involving moving around) but they don't learn from him talking, they're used to not learning anything in English class, the kids are constantly talking and yelling and getting up on their own, and they feel they have the power in the relationship. I would find that extremely challenging, and I've had enough time in the classroom to get over all the initial angst and classroom management stuff.
That actually sounds grimmer than the experience usually felt, but I think that (a) I quickly became desensitized as a matter of maintaining my sanity, and (b) the students learned to continue their accustomed behavior only when I wasn't looking, so I only saw one facet of the classroom, which showed me a reasonable fascimile of classroom flow.

The classroom videos Anna took on her second visit, in August, are on YouTube and below.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

snail cream

The little stalls that sell various herbal concoctions and natural beauty care stuff also sell crema de caracol. This means, literally, "snail cream," and it's got a picture of a snail on it. Everyone says it works wonders on scars and stuff. But why "snail cream"? Is it made out of snails? Strange, gross, but hey, who knows. There's a snail motif in Chilean culture that crops up occasionally: Hostal Caracol, where we've stayed a few times, and a couple of galerias with "caracol" in the name, since they're winding, spiraling ramps up the inside of a building (filled exclusively with hair salons and video game parlors).

I finally asked a vendor, who was very friendly and happy to help. It's not the snails themselves: it's snail slime.

I guess that's better.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

back on the beat

Having stayed home resting yesterday, I went in to teach my three classes today. I'm definitely feeling stronger, and the day off was a good idea. Those three classes are so different.

1-C - These guys are just so unbelievably nice. They're calm, patient, smart, sweet-tempered kids. I had a pretty half-assed lesson plan, but it never matters because we just like each other, so it's no problem to just hang out for however long. And we had fun even with the lame directions game I made up.

1-G - I figured this group would be a harder sell, and they sort of were. They're a lot calmer now that Samuel and Marcelo got kicked out of school for fighting each other. (I asked what happened. Apparently Samuel spelled guerra ["war"] as gerra in some context, and Marcelo started making fun of him for it, including asking the teacher what gerra meant, and some other kind of mockery I didn't understand. Samuel clocked him, and the rest is history.)

I told them to stand up, and about half the class stayed seated; I tried for about 10 seconds, then shrugged, said "Okay," and sat down at my table and started peacefully reading my book. This confused them.
"Are you angry?"
"Nope. I was really sick all last week and I still don't feel great. I have 9 days left here. If you guys don't want to do the thing, I'm not going to fight you."
A couple of kids asked me to keep teaching, but I decided to continue on with the chosen course. I had some nice conversations with smaller groups of kids, and I spent a lot of the time making them laugh (which also amuses me), with all sorts of strange behaviors they've never seen before, certainly not from a teacher.

I explained cognates and false cognates to one group I was talking to. They got a kick out of a couple of the best false cognates: embarasada is "pregnant," preñada is "pregnant" but only used for animals, and perhaps best of all--and let me tell you, embarasada is hard to beat--is excitado, which one might think is "excited" but actually means "horny." (You probably want emocionado.)

1-H - These guys. I did the review for their test next week. They weren't terribly interested. I tried to make sure they knew that they have to actually understand the words they learn, in order to pass the test. Instead of writing stuff in their notebooks, most of them took pictures of the whiteboard with their cell phones. We finished in a half hour and then it was herding cats inside the classroom for 30 minutes. Nice to reconnect with them, though. Well, sort of. They don't sit still long enough for much connecting.

To be clear, I have no teaching energy left. I realize that many times in our lives we strive and work and we discover our limits and we surpass them--see Outward Bound, my black belt test, various other things--and I passed that point a few months ago. So now I'm navigating the experience of being utterly mentally exhausted.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the new normal

A few weeks ago I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which is an excellent book (if a little meandering). Among other things, its detailed description of growing up in the 60s and 70s gives me flashbacks to being a kid in the 80s.

I'd hate to oversimplify that time. Our memory lies, and nostalgia lurks in dark corners like a dormant virus, waiting to corrupt our experience of the present. I do think it was a less chaotic, freewheeling time, though, at least in retrospect. (Our view was just limited for how far things could go, sort of like we thought conservatism had reached its apogee of evil stupidity under Bush II, until we saw what came after.) We had reference points; not healthy or productive ones, but we knew where we stood, or thought we did, which made us feel almost as good. Our enemies and adversaries were easily-identified nation-states (remember when Libya mattered?). The order of the old world hadn't yet completely disintegrated. The nation was still arguing about Vietnam, a festival of recrimination we would continue until President Obama's election in 2008.

(Finally, no one cared what a candidate had done during the war, because mostly he was being a little kid in Indonesia.)

We had structure, we had defined roles and categories. Those are reassuring things; much like what we provide for/force upon children. The structure of the world limited and blinkered us as much as it supported. Like any culture, if you didn't fit the provided roles and categories, you were going to have trouble.

When I was a kid, if you had an earring in your right ear instead of your left, it meant you were gay. As for the kind of bizarre feminization implied at the time by having earrings in both ears...better not to speak of it. But that was it, that was the signal. I don't know if it was real or not, but in our childhood culture, it's not something anyone wanted to risk. (It could well have been real. Gay men have had to use such covert signals for centuries, to survive.) When I pierced my (left) ear in 1991, it wasn't exactly cutting edge, but it was also not universally accepted. Piercing the right ear in 1996 or so felt slightly edgy, probably the closest I've ever come to that hip state of social rebellion.

Can you imagine that kind of coded distinction from today's 10-year olds, born in 2000? They're far more likely to say "you're gay if you primarily like dating the same gender as you." It's not a thing for them. And it's not just us over-educated latte-sipping poofs in the coastal cities. This Slate article about Constance McMillen, the Mississippi high school senior who filed suit to be able to bring her girlfriend to the prom, contains this gem of a paragraph:
And Constance herself is the kind of young woman a state entirely mired in bigotry can't produce. Though she doesn't belong to a church, McMillen describes herself as an "open-minded Christian" and a strong believer in monogamy, which she expresses in a distinctly evangelical way. "Actually, I have a promise ring from my girlfriend, and I'm pretty sure that within the next year she's going to propose. Of course, we wouldn't get married until she's 18." One male student once asked McMillen's girlfriend, "How can you be redneck and gay at the same time?" which seems tantamount to proof that the woman in front of him had that figured out. McMillen would like to live in Los Angeles when she gets older, but that is due in part to many, many hours spent watching The L Word. Her girlfriend says she doesn't want to come because she can't hunt there.
Between that and a black President, no wonder the American right has completely lost its mind. Every month brings more evidence that the old world is passing away, the world of obvious enemies, and women and minorities who "knew their place." By 2050 if not before, we'll technically all be minorities. (Though probably not women. Not even in San Francisco.)

Ever since I was a kid, I have listened incredulously to my mom's stories of "dorm mothers" at all-female Smith College in the 60s, older women who watched over the students and enforced curfews and behavior. Decades before going to college, I absorbed that such a thing was absurd and impossible in my time. It only seemed more absurd when I went to college and visited Smith several times. In the 90s, at least, Smith had a circle-the-wagons mentality about men, a protectiveness of women for each other, as if the culture was dominated by 1500 of your ex-girlfriends, but only the ones who were still mad at you. Who needs dorm mothers when every girl has a posse of bodyguards (many of whom were bigger than me)?

Just as dorm mothers sound impossibly quaint to me, so must the earring-as-gay-identifier sound quaint to today's young people. It sounds quaint to me. The numbers agree: here's a breakdown of approval of gay marriage by state and age (click image for original website).
The red dots are people aged 18-29, and the blue dots are people over 65. It's a perfect correlation, with no exceptions: the older you are, the less likely you are to approve of gay marriage. So, it's a done deal: as my subculture started saying as America considered choosing its first post-Vietnam President, we're waiting for some people to die so life can move on. It's a harsh way to put it, but it's true. And yes, we'll still say that when we're old, even if we're the ones in the way.

There's no guarantee we won't backslide. We often think of history as inevitable, because we look at what happened, and we think. "Look! The past only happened in one way! And here's why! It had to have been that way." We're fantastically wrong: just like we don't know what will happen in the coming year or two, neither did anybody 50 or 100 or 3000 years ago. History is full of unrealized paths. Just because conservatives have eased up on hating gays in favor of hating immigrants and Muslims doesn't mean it won't come around again.

But the demographics look pretty awesome.

Monday, November 8, 2010

crawling toward the finish line

I'm down to about 2 weeks left here in Valparaiso, now having lost a week to being sick. I'm feeling about 85-90% since yesterday, but on Saturday I still wasn't up to doing aikido in the heat.

I haven't been sitting this past week, but I started again because first, that's what discipline means, but second because I have a lot of thoughts and emotions going on right now and there's a lot of things worth watching.
  • impatience - I have spent all these months not looking forward to being home, but now it's a bit over 5 weeks left, and I'm mentally very tired. It's called "get-home-itis": when Kelly and I did our epic road trip in 2006, we'd planned to hit the coast at San Luis Obispo or Monterey and then head north over a day or two. Dinnertime conversation revealed that after 2800 miles of curvy back roads, we were both done, so we plowed through and got home that night. I don't mind being impatient, as long as I don't neglect what's really happening right now.
  • frustration - Really? I'm sick again? Really?
  • sadness - I like Chile, and I don't know if or when I'll ever see these people again. Especially my kids: even keeping up with some of them on Facebook, I'll never know what effect I had. Right now, I think they don't know either.
  • satisfaction - I made it. I learned a lot. I changed in ways I wanted to change and in ways I still don't understand. I did a useful thing. I learned that working with hordes of people all day is, indeed, probably not what I should do for a living. Certainly not in a Chilean school.
  • eagerness - I'm studying to turn myself into a better, shinier software engineer. I love learning new stuff.
  • fear - It's daunting to imagine going back to U.S. culture, where the money is all green and prices are familiar and I understand all the conversation around me and holy crap what? Living in a foreign culture leaves you spending a lot of time inside your own head, isolated from the lack of information. It's just shy of overwhelming to think of having all that information again.
  • understanding - There's a self-indulgent reassurance in having people miss you when you leave, but it's also scary to realize how much I miss everyone else. The support of our relationships isn't just a matter of what we're used to, although certainly we're all inter-habituated (I like that word). Looking over the gallery of friends, lovers, teachers, my Zen sangha, my aikido dojo, the tutoring kids at the library, they're all communities I'm in because I fit, because I find them nourishing and interesting and (mostly) relaxing. We listen and share and help each other according to what's needed, to what's happening now. I have...almost none of that here.
This round of being sick has knocked me pretty well on my ass, and I'm only getting back up slowly, because I'm not what I consider "healthy" at this point. It's been 8 months of crappy food (the family cooks almost exclusively with soup mix, for example) and minimal exercise. I have a whole constellation of things at home that give me energy and support and it's all been missing here. Today I did two classes' worth of testing, then I taught a simple review class, and while I did that I realized that I'm not so much "running on empty" as I am "coming to a stop as the engine sputters on the last of the fumes." I already drew on my deep reserves, and I don't have any energy left that I can put into teaching. I'm done.

11 more days until the end of school.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

I'm watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated series from Nickelodeon. M. Night Shyamalan just made a really, really bad movie out of it, which you should only see if you haven't seen the series. Then you can watch the series and both appreciate its own awesomeness, and understand how bad the movie was.

There are two contenders for Best Line so far:
"I'm too young to die!"
"I'm not, but I don't wanna!"
But I think the clear winner is:
"Don't worry, Sokka. Where we're going, you won't need any pants!"

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is Oakland Burning?

There's a website to tell you! http://isoaklandburning.com/, in the tradition of things like istwitterdown.com and isobamapresidentyet.com.

Riots in Oakland come along every year or two for various things. Usually it's the Raiders, but there's also no shortage of police brutality, and this time it's the shooting of Oscar Grant, an apparently mellow guy who was restrained face-down on the ground, pinned by one or two other officers, when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART, the light-rail system) cop Johannes Mehserle pulled his gun and shot him.

This probably would have gone the way of all police-violence cover-ups, except it was New Year's Eve, and a train full of people recorded the arrest and eventual shooting on their cell phones. YouTube has a bunch of videos; they're unsettling, obviously, what with the guy being shot and all, but mostly it's just baffling. It seems to come out of nowhere, and then Mehserle looks as surprised as anyone else at what he just did.

The BART transit police, while legally equivalent to real police, are a sort of under-supervised, over-armed version of real police. They've been known to go walking the trains in full paramilitary uniforms, with body armor and automatic weapons. That seems a little excessive considering they're usually dealing with violent drunks, rather than drug cartels or cult militias. But hey, the department spent all that money for the equipment, why not use it?

BART's response to the shootout was almost comically awful: first complete silence, then the inevitable support for the officer in question, denial of wrongdoing, claiming the victim had been a threat to the officers. More than anything, it looked like they were trying to buy time to come up with a credible story to get Mehserle and the department off the hook (and I'm pretty sure that's what it was). This is standard operating procedure for a police department, but while BART refused to comment on anything, all those cell phone videos spread like wildfire, and the rest of us drew our own conclusions--"He shot a restrained, motionless man in the back"--and moved on to speculating about motives. It was so smooth and fast that it looked almost like an execution, but then Mehserle was obviously upset afterward, and what kind of idiot would purposefully kill a guy under those circumstances? With several other officers and a station full of witnesses?

The other option was that he meant to go for his Taser and screwed up. This also seemed barely credible, because a Taser and a Glock are nothing alike, and the cops are theoretically well-trained to know the difference and which side of their belt they're kept on. And why was he going for his Taser when Grant was already restrained?

Well, never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, and it turns out Mehserle was just an idiot, went for his Taser and pulled and fired the gun instead. I didn't follow the details of the trial, so I don't know why he was even going for his Taser. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. A lot of people I know were upset (or at least annoyed) by the verdict, but I don't know why: he accidentally killed the guy without meaning to. That's what the involuntary manslaughter charge is for. So he's going to jail, and his life is ruined.

Today is Mehserle's sentencing, which is why everyone's on Oakland Riot Watch. Thankfully he won't be a cop again: whatever his previous record, I, uh, don't think he's a good choice for the job.

UPDATE: He got "two years," with credit for time served, so he'll probably only do another couple of months. Bleh.

durrr, you're sick

I went to a doctor this morning, of all the crazy things, and for being randomly sick, not for something obvious like a broken bone, or a chunk missing out of my lip, or an obvious case of conjunctivitis. Usually, if I can't figure out what's wrong, a doctor can't either. But sweating and chills, plus tactile hyperesthesia, will get my attention, so after a day or two I decided to go pay someone to tell me it wasn't anything serious. Whatever, it's covered by the program insurance.

The people at Clinica Valparaiso are very nice and helpful. The doctor said I have a virus, which is sort of obvious since this started with having a cold. The sweating and chills are "toxins from the virus"; I don't even have a fever. The dizziness/balance issues are because both my ears are seriously obstructed by earwax. (I'm not sure of the mechanism on that, but it seems intuitively possible and the Internet agrees.) She prescribed a particular over-the-counter anti-cold thinger, and next week I go see an ENT doctor about the ears.

In the meantime, I seem to be needing a 1-hour nap for every 3-5 hours of activity, which is lame, although I do feel less awful than yesterday. Hopefully I can go in on Monday to run tests with the kids.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Crazy enough, I have a fever today, which I haven't had in many many years. I did crawl in to school to run tests with 1-A, but crawled back home again immediately afterward, followed by alternating heat and shivers. And everything hurts, although that's mostly due to some rock-hard back muscles. I think I've been storing up all this crap for the past 8 months and then finally it all just snapped and my body fell to pieces. If I'm not feeling better tomorrow I may see a doctor, but I think I'll be improved.

New pics are up from the past few weeks, though not yet labeled. More cats, of course, and pics of Anna's visit.

Not much going on, frankly. Just a couple of weeks of classes left, so there's a bit of short-timer syndrome, and I'm focused on testing all my classes (tricky with classes being randomly canceled).

Tomorrow will be 39 days until I get home.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

not dead, just resting

Anna visited again! In return for chocolate chips, mini-Snickers bars, and a couple of books, there was "conversation" and "spending time together." At home I would have grabbed a beer and told her to go knit me a sweater or make me a sandwich, but living in a foreign country necessarily involves some hardship. And relationships are full of compromise, I suppose. But, hey! Snickers bars!

Now she's gone again, and I have to knit my own sweaters and make my own sandwiches, which is sad. Luckily, I'm coming home in 6 weeks. Six weeks! Not even 2 months. Crazytown. Here's the tentative schedule:
  1. End of classes: November 19th. Possibly the 22nd, but I'll try to avoid that.
  2. WorldTeach End-of-Service thing: November 25th.
  3. English Opens Doors/Ministry of Education End-of-Service thing: November 27th.
  4. South to Chiloe and wherever else: November 28th - December 11th.
  5. Santiago: December 11-12.
  6. Fly out of Santiago: December 13.
  7. Land in San Francisco: December 14.
Then you'll get to read about culture shock again, but in reverse.

I'm also sick, which is lame, but not so bad, since I'm sort of mentally exhausted and not feeling an urge to teach that would make me push through the nose-blowing and coughing and repeatedly falling asleep.

41 days until I'm home.