Friday, April 15, 2011

Antofagasta: where the grass isn´t greener, but the barren the better

Please note:  I tried uploading more photos onto this blog and a video, but it didn´t work. However, all my Antofagasta and Santiago photos are now on facebook.

Three weeks ago I arrived in Antofagasta, Chile. Antofagasta is the capitol of the Antofagasta region, and we are a city of about 350,000, but it feels much larger. The city is long and narrow, and there aren´t suburbs where I live... its all city (no skyscrapers). To the west you have the coast, and to the east you have large hills (¨cerros¨) which all the gringos call the mountains. The only greenery here are some plants and trees that are planted and profusely watered. The rest of the landscape is either rock or dusty/sandy ground. There a few small parks, but if you leave the city there is barren desert for miles. Of course there are stray dogs and small panaderĂ­as where you can buy delicious, fattening fresh bread- Chile is the number one consumer of bread and its everywhere you want to be, just like Visa!

Honestly this city has a distinctive smell which seems to be a mixture of dog excretement, seaspray, and possibly trash. Its gross, but if I were to smell it anywhere else I would immediately be brought back to Antofagasta. So far I like the city. At sunset it is most beautiful as the sun changes the color of the mountains when setting on the ocean. Each night I try and catch the sunset at the beach. After nightfall the city is dangerous and loud all night... especially on weekends!

I am in a perfect location- extremely close to my school- just a two minute walk, and I can walk to the mall/movies, supermarket, and beach :). I live in the center of town, and I am 20-30 minutes driving to any location in the city. I thought I would hate the lack of greenery, but there are just enough trees in the city to feel alright. I have visited the Colonial Plaza and La Portada- an arch in the ocean formed after millions of years.

A view from my balcony at sunset. That square building at the front that is in the shade is my school!

La Portada

My family here consists of 4 people: the father Cesar, who is a teacher at my school, his wife Francisca, and their two children: two year old Joaquin and six year old Fernanda. Fernanda is sweet and shy, and Joaquin has tons of personality. He is a little ball of fire- sometimes he gets angry that we don´t understand each other and he refuses to speak with me. This week he has been warming up to me more, finally! The parents are both great and helpful. We live in an apartment and my room is Fernanda´s old room- she moved in with her brother for me. Being six, Fernanda´s room is decorated in a pink and purple theme, complete with a Tinkerbell and Winnie the Pooh border. At night I here nightclubs and car alarms, dogs barking, all this craziness...unfortunately I am a light sleeper but I am getting better! 

Teaching: Do you know Justin Beiber?
My school is fabulous! I was very worried because I heard crazy stories about past volunteer´s placements. Some volunteers got placed in dangerous, bad schools where the teachers had no control and the kids literally did whatever they wanted (example: having conversations on a cell phone... in class.) Kids in Chile can go on strike, and I was prepared for the worst. Wow have I been pleasantly surprised! Although my working conditions aren´t perfect, for the most part the kids are great. And I genuinely mean that. The children treat me like a celebrity, and each day someone asks me if I know Justin Beiber or another celebrity. At first I was mobbed in the school each day. Now the sensationalism of the American has faded, but wherever I go children shout ¨Hello Miss!¨ in their adorable accents. The first day I walked into some of the lower level classes a few children SCREAMED. It was amazing. I have never been treated like a famous person! I was called Miss Perfect, Miss Barbie, told I have amazing eyes, I am the best, beautiful, and intelligent. I opened a facebook account just for these kids last week and have more than 250 friends... absolutely insane!

In Chile the teachers move rooms, and at the beginning of each class when you walk in the students must stand and wait for you to greet them. Then you give them permission to sit down and they thank you and sit. I love love love this. It is part of the respectful culture this school has. I was raised to be respectful towards adults, but I feel USA culture has lost that. Here it is alive and well, and this tradition only affirms that. You are also allowed to be affectionate with the kids. It is ok to kiss them on the cheek, hug them, or play with their hair.

Cell phones... I have only had one cell phone go off in class, nobody has even TRIED texting, and they don´t talk back to you. The most attitude I got was a puppy face. If you ask them to be quiet, they stop talking. IF the students are acting up, you send them to the inspector(s). They are the school´s disciplinarians, not the principal. The staff is mainly friendly and I work with two teachers- Yasna and Ivannia, who are both my age! I love them both and we are traveling to Iquique next weekend together for Easter.

In the classroom
 I work with Ivannia for grades 5th, 6th, and 7th and Yasna for classes 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th. Most of those classes meet twice a week, and I attend each class once a week. If you do the math, I have 12 different classes (there are two different ¨classes¨ in each grade) and about 40 students in each. That adds up to around 480 students whom I see once a week. Names? Forget it, its practically impossible. I really hate this, but I don´t see how I am going to learn so many names when I see each group once a week. It is also very hard to get a feel for the class personality and ability level. With Ivannia, I am probably going to start taking half the class at a time then switch halfway through class (the independent model). Classes are 90 minutes. With Yasna I teach with her for half the class then take a small group of 10 students to work privately with me in my room (flexible model).

Now my room is a different story... at first I was given a small room with old desks barely large enough for high schoolers. My first room was not big enough to take half of Ivannia´s class. I got a second room to fix this problem which looked a lot nicer, but there still aren´t enough desks and there are no curtains in my room. There is also a bad echo, construction outside, and gym outside in the courtyard. Since I am supposed to do listening and speaking activities, all of this this makes it hard to see the projector or listen to someone speaking. I am not sure what I am going to do about this room situation... I think it is a disservice to the students to be in the big one, but the small one will not work unless I continue taking small groups.

I do not make tests, nor can I grade papers or meet with parents. This leads to more personal time than a regular teaching job and lesson planning is not so bad; I am starting to get the hang of it. The first couple weeks were crazy because I didn´t have supplies to be organized and the class schedule changed. The school changed the schedule because one teacher left and a substitute with different hours got hired. Since the kids don´t move rooms, all of the hours had to be rearranged! Next month it will completely change again when a regular teacher comes! Apparently last year the schedule changed 4-5 times. Its also an adjustment working in a new place with their rules and procedures... for example, if I want to make photocopies for class I have to submit it to an administrator 48 hours in advance!

To be organized I finally bought myself an overpriced binder! I make six lesson plans a week and repeat each one once. Some of my lessons have gone well, others not so well. That is how teaching goes, but like I said it is very difficult to get a feel for each class since there are twelve and each time I work with different students! I am trying my best to make effective lesson plans. I want to do this as a career so I take my position very seriously. We are supposed to teach only in English, but I have been relying on Spanish just a little. I am trying to break this habit, but its hard when you have blank faces staring at you!

Besides my room situation and millions of students, I love my school. I could not have asked for a better school. I have great faculty, wonderful kids, and its so close... just outside my window! I will say my concerns in my pre- Chile post were valid. There are people in my program who have bad schools and even teachers who don´t care too much. One girl almost got hit over the head with a dustpan by a student, and the head inspector (disciplinarian) of Antofagasta had to come to her school! She also saw people being pickpocketted in the school neighborhood.

Next week is Semana Santa (Holy Week for Easter), and since my school is a semi-private Catholic school, we have lots of religious activities all week. It should be an interesting cultural and spiritual experience.

Personal Life
Good... Since I get along so well with my teachers and there are other volunteers in the program, I have a built in support system. This is wonderful and I feel it is making my experience great as opposed to so-so. I have friends to hang out and people to make travel plans with. It is also hard to get lost! Since the city is so long I just head out in the opposite direction I came from and look for my apartment building (it has green and yellow stripes).

Antofagasta is ridiculously expensive. Its the most expensive city in Chile- I paid $4 for floss today! It was the cheapest one I could find! $4 for the cheapest deoderant that is 2/3 the size of mine from the US. Lady Speedstick, my usual brand, was around $5-6 for a smaller amount. I also am on a limited budget, which sucks because there is so much to see here. I am trying not to spend too much.

And I am sick! I got a cold last weekend and I thought it would go away. It didn´t, it turned into a cough and of course, laryngitis. For some awful reason I get this frequently. I finally went to the doctor today and he gave me ibuprofen. All the Chileans told me ¨I told you so¨ and said this is all they ever give out. That is just dandy. I have doubts as to how well this will work. If you have laryngitis more than two weeks you are supposed to see a voice specialist. Tomorrow is the two week mark and that is not happening. I hate laryngitis, especially since I have to teach. This is driving me crazy and my health is my biggest concern. So moving on....

They eat so many carbs and meat here I am worried I will gain weight. My family asks what I would like from the supermarket, and my diet is different than theirs, so I greatly appreciate this.

Luck, Fate, God, what have you...
So about the possibility of carbicide on my waistline: Friday afternoon upon returning from the doctor I had the best dumb luck ever... I ran into a YMCA. Not just any YMCA, the only YMCA in Antofagasta (a big city), and it just happened to be on my street. Why didn´t I notice this before? It is at the very beginning of my street where I hardly ever walk... I live on the other end. Anyway its definitely not as nice as the one I frequent in the states, but the director was extremely happy to have me! He spoke with me for half an hour about how they had a partnership YMCA in Canada and needed help translating, and how when I go back to the USA I can keep in touch with them and form a new relationship with the Y in Willoughby. They may have out of date equipment, but they have spirit! He told me I can use the gym whenever I want! (Sort of, members are only allowed to go three times a week. Good enough for me: Its free!) Think about this for a moment. There are only 6-8 YMCAs in all of Chile. Antofagasta is a big city and I happen to stumble upon the only gym I can use for free, and it happens to be on my street. I´d like to personally thank God for that one.

Besides being sick, these odd and wonderful things keep happening. For example, I was bummed that Chile was going into fall and we would lose an hour of daylight so quickly upon arriving. BUT then the country decided to conserve energy and push the date back to May.

I was also on the news and in the newspaper! Wednesday we had a welcome ceremony from the miner foundation that supports EOD. The local news came and although I didn´t say anything, I was in the background of the story. (This further increased my celebrity status). I was also in a local newspaper, although I feel I was quoted strangely.

I love it. This is the best time I´ve ever had in my life. Yes, I have had bad days and there are certain frustrations I am experiencing. I have a long way to go with Spanish, and it is really dificult and frustrating sometimes. Antofagasta is not an amazing city, but there are some tourist places nearby to visit. EOD, my school and my family have been supportive. I am highly considering staying till November. At the end of the day its not where you are, its who you´re with. And I´m with some great people.