Name: Rebecca Tuttle
Hometown: Silver Spring, Maryland, USA
Volunteer Service: VS4 (July-November 2011)
I love them, but some days they still drive me crazy! My students’ level of English is slightly higher than at the other schools in the area, which allows me to do more creative activities with higher demands on the student’s participation and comprehension. Even still, it’s a daily challenge. Classes are large, and concepts of discipline and what constitutes “silence” while the teacher is talking are quite different from what I’m used to. The first few weeks were pretty exhausting, but after a while I got into a rhythm and got better at planning and teaching lessons–at knowing what was an appropriate level of difficulty for an assignment for each grade, at knowing what was too much or too little to fill a 45 minute class period, etc.
One great thing about being a volunteer was that I was free to get a bit more creative with my lessons, so I did a lot of games, songs and even dances. I also appreciated the age group I worked with, ages 12-15. This is a period of some major growing up and personality development, so it was interesting to see how similar lesson plans played out differently with my youngest “básica” kids and my oldest “media” kids, and to get to know my students as individuals.
After school, I can be found most days coaching my English debate team or my student competitor in the English Public Speaking contests. The opportunity to work with these dedicated, passionate students has been the most validating part of my time here-they are all really talented, motivated, curious and appreciative of my help. We won the local and regional rounds of debates, and then had the opportunity to travel together to Iquique for the inter-zone final championship for a few days of serious debating, hotel-room bonding and a chance to meet some of the other top English students from the north. We ended up winning first place, and it was hard to say who was more excited: me or them!
So much! I often joke that I need a weekend after my weekend. Never have I had such fun, jam-packed weekends before arriving in Chile. As a lot of past volunteers have noted, being one of the only gringos in town makes you a sort of rock star. Antofagsta is big enough that there’s always something going on, but small enough that it’s easy to make friends. A typical weekend kicks off for me on a Thursday night with a local conversation group in a bar (Políglota–I urge new volunteers to look them up on Facebook, they offer meetings in all of the major Chilean cities and it’s a great way to connect with people, practice your Spanish and help others to practice their English). Friday might find me enjoying some live music in one of the small pub venues. Saturday would be a day trip to a beach for a picnic, followed by a drive to the clubs in the desert for some dancing until they close at 5am. Sunday would be a day of sleep recovery, followed by a midafternoon supper with the host family–if I’m lucky, perhaps it would even be an asado, or Chilean barbecue!
My host family is a young professional couple. My host mom works for a telecommunications company, and my host dad is the co-director of a nonprofit arts workshop that invites experts to present lessons and lectures to young, aspiring artists, and that also hosts local art exhibitions and performances. My host family is a bit unique in that they have no children or direct connection to the schools, as many do, but they nonetheless have made me feel very welcome: including me in family vacations and dinners with the extended family and inviting me to gallery openings at my host dad’s work. They are in the process of adopting, so they joke that I’m the trial daughter, and they definitely strike a good balance between treating me as a daughter and as a fellow adult. Because my host parents work long hours, I have a lot more autonomy than most volunteers and usually prepare my own lunches from groceries they supply–however, since I was already accustomed to living alone and cooking for myself I was happy to be able to maintain my independence.
I think my most memorable experience was attending a free concert by the legendary Chilean folk rock group Los Jaivas. Like most of my social life, it was a random, last-minute thing. I began to hear whispers of the concert midweek, and by the weekend, I had secured myself a ride out beyond the mountains that border the city and into the middle of the Atacama desert. We loaded up a car with the makings of a tecito picnic and drove for about an hour through the twilight until we reached the venue. We watched the sun set over the desert, with a crowd that spanned generations murmuring in anticipation. As the moon rose, the band took to the stage with enthusiastic cheers. So began an epic night of desert dancing, with the metallic taste of copper-rich dust in my mouth, the sounds of horns, pan flutes and charangos in my ears, and the Chilean spirit in my swirling body. It was a magical night.
Of all the countries I’ve traveled to, I think Chile has the most admiration for me as an American, which has been a pleasant change from my life in Europe before the program. Here, American culture is adored, and our vocabulary and accent are taught in schools, where nerdy students savor Americanisms and collect our slang. Students love American music and American TV shows, and don’t have the same contempt as Europeans for the less-than-flattering portrait they paint of us. Outside of the schools, Chileans in the community are also genuinely curious about where I come from, as well as appreciative of the work that I do.
We generally eat a hearty portion of (usually red) meat complimented by an equally hearty portion of either rice or potatoes and a big helping of white bread. Chileans love bread. They also love mayonnaise–on everything! These culinary passions come together in weekly “asados,” or BBQs, where the specialty is the spicy “choripan” sausage sandwich, slathered in mayo and slapped in a hoagie roll. Tap water is safe to drink in most of the country, although Chileans often drink either a tang-like “juice” from a powder or sodas. I generally eat healthily, so the hardest thing for me to adjust to has been the relative lack of fruits and vegetables in the Chilean diet. You can find salads, though: lettuce with a few tomato slices and a lemon slice to squeeze in place of dressing. Since nowhere in Chile is very far from the coast, seafood is cheap and plentiful, and even the smallest hole-in-the-wall places have deliciously citrus-y ceviche or empanadas de mariscos on offer.
Lunch is the main meal here, and society’s schedule is arranged around it. In my school, we are given a two-hour lunch break to allow time for going home and sharing a large, multi-course meal-in Antofagasta, schools close, shops close, and work ceases until midafternoon. Schools go until 6:15 to compensate for the long lunch break, and work schedules last till about 7. Dinner, on the other hand, is a nonevent consisting of something light–salad and juice, or bread, avocado and tea, and as such, is not even known by the word “cena” that I learned in Spanish class but by “once,” or “tecito.” Chileans are also a fan of sweet snacks throughout the day: chocolate bars, chips, ice creams, candy and a whole rainbow of sugary sodas–although since they overload on these sweets earlier in the day (rather than splurging, as we do, on a late evening desert) they seem to have plenty of time to burn off the calories, and I’ve actually found myself losing weight since I’ve been here.
Chileans are pretty affectionate in general, much to my delight, and they greet each other with kisses on the cheek and incorporate a lot more physical contact (arm pats, shoulder squeezes, hugs) into conversations. They can be very direct with physical comments (some I’ve gotten are comments on my weight, on my hair, etc), which can make you feel a bit defensive but which are generally well-meaning.
Chileans are very relaxed about time. If a party starts at 8, expect it to actually start around 10 or 11–it’s actually rude to arrive “on time”! I’m always running late, anyway, so this suits me fine, but it takes a bit of getting used to.
The large number of stray dogs also takes a bit of getting used to, although they’re usually either friendly or at least indifferent to pedestrians.
The last big thing that took a while for me to get the hang of are the “micros,” or busses. Unlike in other places I’ve lived, here in Antofagasta there are no stops for these buses, nor are there maps. The number on the front of each micro indicates the general route it follows (to find the route for your destination, you have to ask a bus driver or a Chilean), and when you see your micro, you step into the road to flag it down as you would a taxi. When you’re nearing your destination, you have to make your way to the front to request a stop. It’s a bit chaotic the first few times you do it, but it’s fast, cheap, and by far the easiest way to get around.
Be flexible, and laugh a lot. I’ve kept in touch with a number of volunteers during our service, and everyone’s experience has been completely different, but everyone has had at least one aspect of their time in Chile that has been amazing (be it the school, the family, the extracurricular activity, their friends, a new Chilean boy/girlfriend…) Try not to go into your placement with too many specific expectations for the way things will be–in other words, allow yourself the freedom to be pleasantly surprised by the good aspects rather than caught off guard by the frustrating ones.
Also, be prepared: Chile is perhaps the hardest country in the world in which to learn Spanish. Chileans speak rapidly, often dropping consonants. They proudly pepper their speech with Chilenismos, or a type of Chilean slang that is so commonly used that one might well call it a dialect. For example: a common Chilenismo is “po,” which ends up at the end of everything. “Sí-po.” “Ya-po.” “No-po.”
The bright side? It is a lot of fun to learn, and the Chileans are very encouraging of your efforts and forgiving of mistakes. Once you learn to get along here, speaking Spanish anywhere else will be a piece of cake.