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Reflections on My 15th Anniversary with South America and How One Decision Changed My Entire Life

Scenes from Washington, DC!
American Flags in Washington, DC, Photo from September 2014

Independence Day weekend is always an important one for me, but not just because it’s a fun summer weekend when I usually travel to visit friends or family.

Instead, I often jokingly refer to July 4th as my “Independence from America” day. On July 4, 2001, I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina to spend a year studying abroad in the top universities in that amazing, vibrant city. I remember my plane taking off from Chicago, seeing the fireworks happening below us, and feeling a bit terrified of what I was getting myself into, even though I was more than ready for an adventure.

Considering the majority of my blog focuses on my experiences volunteering and traveling throughout South America, you’d think that I was always adventurous, but that is absolutely not the case. The person I am now started developing 15 years ago, and the transformation certainly continues.

That 19-year-old college student flying to Buenos Aires was an extremely cautious person who had never been outside of North America before. As a kid, I’d been lucky enough to travel around the United States and parts of Canada with my family, and I’d been on a cruise to the Bahamas. Even though I was from small-town NH and grew up in a fairly homogenous area, I’d fallen in love with the idea of speaking Spanish and always thought I’d study in Madrid to become fluent in the language and experience what life was like in a big, cosmopolitan city.

When I’d gone in for my required study abroad consultation with one of our deans, she’d heard my reasons for choosing Madrid and suggested that I look into Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile instead so that I would be less likely to speak English with the hoards of Americans studying in Spain. For some reason, Buenos Aires captured my attention, even though, admittedly, I did very little research on the country before my arrival.

Despite my excellent grades in Spanish over the years — I even received the award for Spanish at my high school graduation! — I arrived unable to actually speak the language whatsoever. On my first or second night in Buenos Aires, I went out to dinner with a group of fellow students and couldn’t even order a salad. I was shy and embarrassed and scared and all of those uncomfortable but important emotions you experience when trying to navigate an unfamiliar city in another language.

Cruz, Tafí del Valle
Tafí de Valle, Tucumán, Photo from July 2001

Thankfully, the study abroad program was prepared for that and took us out of Buenos Aires and to Tafí de Valle, Tucumán, where we would get a chance to take intensive Spanish classes and acclimate to our environment. Now that I’ve run a similar program, I see what a good call that was! They suggested only speaking Spanish for those two weeks, and I did my best to follow through with that. I fell in with the more nerdy, less party-oriented exchange students who also opted to speak only Spanish and within two weeks I was able to speak with much more confidence, my words finally flowing together.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Reencuentro en Cumaná
Friends from Argentina, Reunited in June 2015

This year was transformative on so many levels – I became fluent in Spanish, learned a lot about living in another culture, fell in love with the highly intellectual, artsy city lifestyle, and made some amazing friendships which continue till this day. But I would say the most lasting effect this year had on me was that it opened my eyes to travel and how fulfilling it can be to explore a new location with curiosity and an open mind.

At the moment, I’m wearing a hummingbird pendant that I picked up a month ago on my trip to Nasca, Peru. I’ve always loved hummingbirds, but this has special meaning to me because it reminds me of a lovely talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, where she encourages us all to explore our curiosity instead of looking for the one guiding passion that we’re often told is important for success. And I’ve really started to embrace the curious style of living, of having goals but not plans, of releasing expectations, of realizing that I truly have no idea where one decision can take me.

Cataratas del Iguazú
Iguazú Falls (Cataratas de Iguazú), Argentina/Brazil, Photo from November 2001

When I arrived in Argentina, I had no idea what travel really was or could be, because I’d only ever gone on vacations with my family and they’d always been in charge of the itinerary. I had already started to love travel photography, but I didn’t really get that the world is so, so big and that there are so many places that can fill you with wonder. With friends, I took my first trips to Córdoba, Iguazu Falls and Patagonia, and seeing these vastly different, gorgeous landscapes got me completely hooked on travel. In February 2002, I took my first solo trip to Mendoza, where I grew to understand the appeal of solo backpacking, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

Glaciar Perito Moreno
Glaciar Perito Moreno, Argentina, Photo from December 2001

By the time I returned to the US for my senior year of college back, I’d traveled to almost every province in Argentina and become fluent in Spanish. And all I knew is that I wanted to keep on traveling and that I would certainly be back someday.

In the end, it took me five years to return to South America. Looking back, the reason it took so long is that I felt I had to do things by the book, on the schedule I’d grown up thinking was normal. I got a job in New York City and worked in corporate America for three years, taking advantage of NYC’s awesome opportunities to take classes in all kinds of things and see independent film and eat really amazing food.

After that, my love for South America that brought me to graduate school to get a degree in Latin American Studies, where I knew I would have an opportunity to travel again in order to do my thesis research. Traveling in Salta, Argentina back in 2002 had gotten me curious about the folklore and culture of the Andes, so I decided to write about music in Peru and Bolivia and headed to Lima with an embarrassingly vague research topic and a similarly vague desire to go on an extended backpacking trip around the region.

Plaza de Armas, Catedral
Catedral de Lima, Peru, Photo from July 2007

On July 2, 2007, I left San Diego for Lima, where I embarked on yet another South American adventure. I had never traveled on my own for such an extended period of time (just under three months), but I soon embraced the freedom and flexibility of backpacking.

Cuzco's Main Plaza
Catedral de Cusco, Peru, Photo from July 2007

I met amazing people in the hostels, went on multi-day hikes, asked lots of random people questions about popular and traditional music, and learned that not every decision had to be planned in advance. I traveled throughout southern Peru and part of Bolivia, and then headed back to northwest Argentina and Buenos Aires, falling hard for the Andes and reconnecting with my first love(s).

And then, somehow, another five years passed – I finished grad school, became an ESL teacher, and left California for New England. At the beginning of 2012, I was ready for a change and a new challenge, and I felt called back to Peru. Once again, on July 1, 2012, I headed back to Peru, this time to volunteer for a year in a nonprofit in Huaycán, a developing community outside Lima.

Posing with Zone S Kids and a Puppy!
Posing with the Kids of Huaycán, Photo from 2013

Even though my previous stints in South America had had a major impact on my life, I feel like the year of volunteering was most transformative, probably because it was the most challenging. There’s no question that I loved the kids I met through our programs fully and unconditionally. That kind of love changes you. (As a related note, I absolutely love this Facebook post by BC Serna – he expresses what I learned so beautifully.)

[Side note: I plan to write more about volunteering in the future, because my feelings about volunteering are complicated and I think serving in two very different year-long programs has given me important insight into the pros and cons of volunteering abroad, privilege and dependency, and the true meaning of service.]

By the time I finished my volunteer year, I was a different person. I had learned to let go of expectations, to learn from challenges, to follow through on commitments, to take the long view, to advocate for my beliefs. But most of all, I had learned to live in the moment – to really feel and express gratitude, to embrace my life as it was.

Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, Atacama, Chile, July 2013

On July 1, 2013, I took off on yet another backpacking adventure through South America, this time spending five months traveling throughout Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador. This was the trip I had dreamed of since 2002 – no obligations to research for my Master’s thesis, no real itinerary, just making decisions based on how I felt on a given day and what seemed to be the next best step.

[Honestly, looking back at that statement, it’s a nice reminder of how to live each and every day no matter where you are, but it’s much more freeing when you’re on the road toting all your possessions on your back. :)]

I’ve said time and again that my trip in 2013 was blessed with luck and love. There are so many instances of when things worked out absolutely perfectly just because I trusted that they would. I connected with amazing people who continue to part of my life to this day. I learned so much from others who crossed my paths for just a couple of hours, during which they shared their stories with me, their struggles and triumphs, their philosophies and ways of life, helped me understand their cities and villages, and then continued on their way.

Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile
July 4th Weekend in Guanaqueros, Chile in 2015

Although I started my most recent stint in South America at the end of 2014, I spent last year’s 4th  of July weekend with three amazing people, volunteers-turned-friends, the people who supported me and inspired me and grew with me during our year in the Valle de Elqui. We cheered Chile’s victory in the Copa América 2015 and sang the American national anthem wandering on the beach (even the Canadian!). And we set intentions for how to finish out our volunteer year in the best way possible.

And now here I am, back in the US for an extended visit, focusing on my online business and building a location independent lifestyle. I know I’ll head back to South America at some point, but this time around, I hear Colombia and Brazil whispering to me. I’m also curious about what life would look like in Mexico or Portugal or even Spain.

Whatever happens, I am thankful for my first “Independence from America” Day 15 years ago, and all the experiences that have come about as a result. Living and traveling in South America has left an indelible mark on me, and all I can do is encourage you to try and get there for yourself.

Whatever draws you to South America, whether it’s the amazing natural wonders of the continent, or the incredibly rich ancient cultures that inhabited its lands, or the widely varying lifestyles in the cities, mountains, coast, and jungle, or even the amazing food, music, dance, and artesanía, you will leave with a deeper appreciation for this corner of the world.

And if you’re as lucky as me, your trip might just change your life. 

A Season in South America: Summer 2016 in Review

Ocean View from the Malecón of Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Super Blue Ocean View from Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Back when I was living in Cambridge and scheming my way back to South America, I started posting monthly reviews about all the cool things I did in and around the Boston area (exhibits A, B, C, D, and E). I like reading these recaps on other travel blogs; writing my own helped me appreciate the everyday a little more and showcase other aspects of my life besides my travels.

When I moved to the Valle de Elqui, I fell into a pretty standard routine: supporting my team of volunteers, volunteering in the local schools, reading by the river, and hanging out with friends. I worked to establish an intentional routine, but felt that I didn’t have much to report otherwise. In retrospect, I actually did travel about once a month, mostly to Santiago, but I also made it to Buenos Aires and Iquique.

Since I left my home in the Valle de Elqui in late December, a lot has happened (to say the least). The first quarter of 2016, or South American summer, has been a period of major growth, both personally and professionally. Here’s a recap of the months of January, February, and March 2016.

Where I’ve Been (January-March 2016)

  • Chiloé, Chile (Ancud, Puñihuil, Castro, Dalcahue, Cucao)
  • Valdivia, Chile
  • Lima, Peru (Miraflores, Barranco, and Cieneguilla)
  • Tumbes, Peru (Zorritos, Corrales, Tumbes)
  • Piura, Peru (Cabo Blanco, Punta Sal, Máncora)
  • La Serena, Chile
  • Valle de Elqui, Chile
  • Santiago, Chile

Fulfilling Travel Dreams

Fields of Chiloé, Chile
Fields of Chiloé, Chile

On January 1, I took the ferry to Chiloé, a place that had long captivated my attention with its islands surrounded by mist, palafitos (houses on stilts), and UNESCO-protected wooden churches.

Penguin Colony in Puñihuil, Chiloé, Chile
Penguins in Puñihuil, Chiloé, Chile

Favorite moments of my stay? Wandering the streets of Ancud, learning how the wooden churches were built at their museum, visiting the penguin colony at Puñihuil, talking to the Chilote (resident of Chiloé) tour guide about his childhood in the countryside and the reality of life on the island, buying native potatoes in the Castro market, and chatting with the artisans in Dalcahue. (More photos here.)

Views of Valdivia, Chile
River Views in Valdivia, Chile

On a whim, I decided to squeeze in a trip to Valdivia, part of the Los Ríos region, boasting a distinct culture from nearby Los Lagos, or the Lakes Region. While exploring the island forts was interesting, the best part was meeting open-hearted travelers in the Aires Buenos Hostel, who reminded me of how important it is to pay attention to our intuition, both in travel and in life.

City of Tumbes, Peru
City of Tumbes, Peru

At the end of January, I decided to head to the beaches of northern Peru in the departamentos of Piura and Tumbes. Máncora’s party-centric backpacker vibe was not the beach retreat I was looking for, but thankfully my research led me to an awesome beachfront eco-hostel in much quieter Zorritos. I spent hours reading in the hammocks and bussed around to the local sites like Punta Sal, Máncora (of course), Cabo Blanco, the city of Tumbes, the manglares (mangroves), and the ancient ruins of Tumpis, also known as Cabeza de Vaca.

Ocean Views from Cabo Blanco, Piura, Peru
Ocean Views from Cabo Blanco, Piura, Peru

Most importantly, I spent a lot of time reconnecting to the present moment, clearing my head, and recalibrating my internal guidance system to prepare me for my next steps.

Revisiting Lima a Year Later

Parque Antonio Raymondi, Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Parque Antonio Raymondi, Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Although I’m currently based in Lima, my visit in January was originally only a temporary one. My main reason for heading to Lima was to attend a Vipassana meditation retreat in Cieneguilla, in the foothills of the Andes. Vipassana meditation receives a lot of favorable press from long-term travelers, and as such had kept popping up on my radar. As my time in Chile came to an end, I decided this was something I wanted to do. When else was I going to have a break between jobs to spend 10 days going within?

I spent a few days in Lima catching up with friends and preparing for the retreat, and then I hopped on the bus to Cieneguilla, handed over my cell phone, and that was that. All the downtime between meditation sessions gave me a chance to brainstorm my next steps. As I describe in this post, it became clear to me that I had to go back to teaching online through English with Kim, and I had to find a base for a few months to do so.

You’ll notice that I’m not raving about the practice of Vipassana itself; I do not recommend the technique. I would suggest reading some critiques of the retreats before committing yourself (more here and here). I think most people researching this retreat, including myself, are more concerned about whether or not we can survive the intense schedule and forget to consider the actual content and objectives of what is being taught.

The plus side to my experience at the retreat is that it made me recommit to my already established practices of yoga and mindfulness meditation. If I can dedicate 10 days to a technique I know little about, I can dedicate a lifetime to my personal practice.

Saying Goodbye to Chile and Falling for Santiago

Late Afternoon Views over the Valle de Elqui, Chile
Vineyards in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

In February, I headed back to Chile in order to officially hand over my volunteer program and say goodbye to the Valle de Elqui. In December, I had had mixed feelings about leaving; in February, I knew it was the right move.

Sunset in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile
Sunset in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

After retrieving the rest of my luggage and saying goodbye to my friends, I headed to Santiago for my last few days of work followed by a week of exploring the hidden corners of the city. While many people say that there isn’t much to do in Santiago, that’s because they are sticking to the fairly bland tourist offerings, but Santiago is a super intriguing city if you take the time to get to know it. Staying at an awesome AirBnB in my favorite neighborhood of Providencia, I started to regret my decision to leave Chile at the end of February (especially with a valid work visa in hand!).

Parque de las Esculturas, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
Parque de las Esculturas, Providencia, Santiago, Chile

But my decision was made, so I reluctantly said goodbye to Santiago, packed my belongings once again, and headed back to Lima. (I describe my feelings on leaving Chile in more detail here.)

Basing Myself Out of Lima

El Faro, Miraflores, Lima, Peru
El Faro, Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Deciding to move to Lima was impulsive. After my travels in southern Chile, I was hoping a clear path would appear for me, but as I recently wrote in an email to a friend:

Before I decided to focus all my energies on my teaching business again, I was trying to be open to whatever… and turns out waiting for stuff to happen to me was not actually much of a strategy. I feel much more empowered now that I’m making decisions towards the kind of life I want to lead.

Lima felt like home – completely familiar and known to me, and with the added bonus that a number of my friends still live here. When I came across a cheap flight from Santiago to Lima, I jumped on it. Although I have spent a lot of time in Lima, I have never actually lived in the city proper – I lived and volunteered in Huaycán, part of Lima province. I decided to give it a try for three months, until I return to the US in June. So here I am.

Sunset from the Malecón, Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Sunset from the Malecón, Miraflores, Lima, Peru

After so much travel and so many transitions, I have really needed a home base. I’m sharing an apartment in Miraflores that is located only three minutes from the malecón. I have a giant closet, which has enabled me to unpack my belongings and get a sense of stability as I decide the terms of my life and career going forward. The apartment is so well located that I can watch the sun set over the ocean from our balcony, but more often than not, I head to the malecón to appreciate it up close and personal.

Embracing Life as a Freelancer

After the volunteers finished up in December, I took my work as field director on the road, which cemented my desire to have the freedom to work from just about anywhere. This convinced me to leap into working full time on my online tutoring business.

In mid-February, I began the process of reestablishing my tutoring business and re-familiarizing myself with the latest online teaching techniques and methods. Most importantly, I basically gave myself a crash course in digital marketing in order to generate more interest in what I offer.

So far, things are off to a solid start; in particular, March was about getting clear on my teaching approach, making necessary improvements to my website, marketing methods, and social media, and setting goals for the rest of 2016. One major goal is to release an e-course by mid-2016; I’m all about passive income, and creating an online course also helps me reach more students.

What’s to Come on Blueskylimit

Beautiful Clouds over Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Beautiful Clouds and Blue Skies over Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Even though Blueskylimit is not a source of income for me, embracing the freelance lifestyle means I can put more energy into writing high quality posts that provide advice on traveling to parts of South America off the already very-well-established backpacker trail. I love having a place to post my photos besides Instagram, and I genuinely love sharing stories of my experiences.

I do what I do in my life and career because I value connection, and Blueskylimit is an extension of that.

With so many travel blogs focused on bringing in income and opportunities, I wonder if I should be doing more to publicize my work, but then I read this post reminding us that reaching an audience of any size is what matters, even if it’s only one person. I know from comments and emails that my suggestions have helped other people plan their travels, and that’s why I started this blog. So if you’re out there, and you’re reading, I thank you. Most of my “real life” friends don’t read any blogs at all, nevermind mine!

Clouds over Vilcabamba, Ecuador
Clouds over Vilcabamba, Ecuador (Photo from 2013)

In terms of site updates, I’ve tweaked the landing page for my main site and my blog, and I created a Quick Guide to Visiting Ecuador while I’m still catching up on my posts from my 2013 trip.

What’s Next?

Sunset from Skate Park, Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Sunset from Skate Park, Miraflores, Lima, Peru

For the next two months, I’m continuing my work from Lima without any special plans. I’ll probably just keep exploring the new-to-me cafés around Lima as well as a couple of nearby neighborhoods where I’ve yet to spend much time.

I’ll probably do a couple of day trips and go on hiking trips near Matucana and Surco, and I’d like to finally visit Lunahuaná, Huacachina, Paracas, Ica, and the Nazca lines. Basically, I’m going to finish my Lima bucket list from 2013.

At the end of May, I may take a couple of weeks to travel, most likely to somewhere I’ve already been but would like to visit again. It’s been 9 years since I visited Arequipa, Cuzco, and the Sacred Valley, so that’s crossed my mind. Or maybe north again – we’ll see!

In June, I’m heading back to the US to visit my parents in NH, my friends in Boston, and hopefully NYC, but I’m not sure how long I’ll stay. Time will tell! 🙂

Sunset from Parque Intihuatana, Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Sunset from Parque Intihuatana, Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Saying Goodbye to Chile: On Making Decisions, Taking Risks, and Following Your Heart

Flowers in Ancud, Chiloé, Chile
Flowers in Ancud, Chiloé, Chile

I started off 2016 fulfilling a travel dream: visiting the island of Chiloé.  To reach Chiloé, you have to take a ferry from mainland Chile, crossing the canal while watching the volcanoes recede from view.  Fittingly, I made this journey on January 1, starting off the new year right.  Despite the swirling doubts and anxiety I faced at the end of my time in the Valle de Elqui, I went into the new year with an open heart and open mind, filled with excitement for what lay ahead.

Boats from Dalcahue, Chiloé, Chile
Fishing Boats in Dalcahue, Chiloé, Chile

During my last week of backpacking through the Lakes Region of Chile, I explored Chiloé with a lovely travel friend going through her own transition from living in Chile to moving back to France.  I saw penguin colonies, visited small fishing communities and artisanal markets, headed to the national park, and even stayed in one of the famous palafitos, houses on stilts, as seen below. (Of course, this journey will be documented in a future post!)

Afternoon Light and Palafitos in Castro, Chiloé, Chile
Palafitos in the Afternoon Light in Castro, Chiloé, Chile

After a few days on Chiloé, I followed my intuition to squeeze in a visit to Valdivia, where I explored the rivers and old Spanish forts and even tried some artesanal beer.  The best part of this decision was that I randomly met other interesting, inspirational fellow travelers and seekers at the hostel, where we fell easily into conversations that reiterated one theme: follow your intuition, listen to your heart, trust your gut feelings.

Pacific Ocean from Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
Peaceful Moment in Cucao, Chiloé, Chile

Are we noticing a theme here? After a year of listening to others and doing what I could to help meet their needs, I had lost sight of what I was moving towards, what my goals were, and, quite honestly, what I actually wanted to do with my time and even where I wanted to be.  Santiago? Somewhere else in Chile?  Back to the Valle de Elqui?  What about Peru or even Ecuador?

Sunset in Zorritos, Tumbes, Peru
Sunset in Zorritos, Tumbes, Peru

With all this floating around my head, I headed to Lima, Peru for a meditation retreat and to catch up with my dear friends.  Upon arrival, I was startled by how natural it felt to be in Lima, how easy it was to reconnect with my people there, and how much the city felt like home, even though I had never actually lived there.  During the 10 days of meditation, I had plenty of time to think during the off hours, and the answer became clear: embrace your liberty by going back to teaching online and find yourself a home base.

One of my dear friends helped me gain clarity on where to move by suggesting I separate out different aspects of my life: professional, financial, social, emotional, spiritual, familial, and so on.  Where would serve me better in each of these aspects?

Professionally, teaching online gives me opportunities no matter where I find myself, but I want to be somewhere where I can also focus on writing about travel, somewhere I feel inspired to explore, like Peru.  Financially, Chile is much more expensive than Peru and I was only able to save minimally, which I immediately turned around and invested in my travels.  Socially, my support network in Lima is solid and reliable, whereas in Chile I often felt lonely and like an outsider.  Spiritually, I feel a connection to Peru that I never managed to develop with Chile.  And with regards to my family, it is much more affordable and convenient to fly to the US from Lima than from Santiago.  All things considered, the answer was staring me in the face: move to Peru.  Give life in Lima a chance.

Crossing the Bridge in Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Crossing the Bridge in Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

For someone from the outside, this answer may have seemed obvious, but I doubted myself.  To be perfectly honest, on the eve of leaving for Peru, I still feel twinges of uncertainty and anxiety.  But the reality is that nothing lasts forever, everything keep changing, and what matters is right now.  And right now, I am spending my last day in Santiago before heading to Lima.

Two weeks ago, I introduced my replacement to the Valle de Elqui, where her energy and motivation shined through and showed me that the program is going to be just fine.  I spent one last weekend saying goodbye to friends there, packing up the last of my things, and closing that chapter of my life.  While it was bittersweet saying goodbye to the mountains that were my home, my last few days reminded me of why my life is not there and why I need to keep moving forward.

Posing in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago
Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

And that brings me to Santiago.  A week ago, I officially finished my job and said my professional goodbyes. And just like that, I am on my own.  Over the past 10 days, I have invested my time and energy into bringing my teaching website up to date with new photos and new offers, and into exploring Santiago’s most famous sites and hidden corners, trying to get the most out of this truly awesome city in a short period of time.  I’ve had fun with photography and started making lists of all the awesome aspects of Chile I want to write about.  This blog may not bring me income, but it brings me joy to share my experiences with the world, and little by little I am getting more feedback showing that I have helped people plan their trips and learn about South America.

Puente de los Candados, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
Puente de los Candados, Santiago, Chile

Tomorrow, I head to the airport with the rest of my belongings and make the official leap into being a freelancer, living where I want to live, and trusting that things are going to work out.  This is where it is important to take things day by day, to break my plans into little steps towards bringing in income or opportunities or both.  It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed by the uncertainty – I’m American, we do not like uncertainty! – but all of the decisions I have made over the past few years have brought me to this point, to trusting that it’s all going to be okay.

Over the past few weeks and even months, friends from all different moments of my life have commented that I am brave, that I live an inspirational life, that they are fans of me and my journey.  This is certainly not the easiest or most clear path through life, and I would be lying if I said that I always feel confident about the decisions I have made recently.  But then I remind myself of the biggest lesson of the past year: remain in the present.  And right now, at this moment, things are totally fine, I am comfortable, happy, energetic, and ready to move into the transition.  I certainly can’t predict what’s next, but when can we ever? Why not just wait for it to happen rather than imagining it?  Maybe that’s the biggest decision I’ve made recently, which I repeat time and time again: release expectations and be with what actually is.

And instead of reading about it, studying it, questioning it, I am practicing it.  Today is all I have.  So I better embrace it.  And on that note, I’m heading out into the summer sun to enjoy my last afternoon in Santiago. 🙂

Sunset in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

Sunset in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

On Change, Endings and Beginnings, and the Past Year Back in South America

Views towards Paihuano, from Rivadavia, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Views of the Valle de Elqui from Rivadavia, Vicuña, Chile

A year ago today, I left Boston for South America, this time without a return date in sight.  I started in Lima, headed to Santiago to get my bearings in Chile, and spent the rest of the year in the Valle de Elqui, working with volunteers and Chilean schoolchildren.  I managed to squeeze in some travel over the year, most notably to Buenos Aires and Iquique.  And now, a year later, I am currently in Puerto Varas, Chile, enjoying a working vacation and the gorgeous blues of the lakes region, as you see in the photos below.

Saying Goodbye to My Volunteer Family in Pisco Elqui
My Volunteer Family in 2015, Pisco Elqui, Chile

I have made no secret of the fact that this has been a challenging year, both professionally and personally.  But at the same time, it has been a year where I have learned how to live a more intentional life, taken responsibility for my own happiness, and continued practicing being truly present when spending time with people close to me.  In particular, my year included developing friendships beyond the professional with the three volunteers-turned-friends pictured above.  We experienced so much together, ranging from heavy rains early in the year to a major earthquake later on, ups and downs coming from volunteering in local schools, and even the early departure of half of their volunteer cohort and adjusting to the arrival of three energetic new recruits to help us finish out the year strong.  Of course, we also shared our own struggles and successes with adapting to a new life style in the very traquilo Valle de Elqui, something we all resisted at first but then were reluctant to leave.

Clouds over the Hills of Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Clouds over Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

The past month has been a month of change and of resisting change, and then finally, finally just releasing any attempt to influence or control the outcome and going with the flow.  Early in the month, the volunteers started to leave, and it made me realize that, like it or not, my reality was going to be different.  My simple life was simply going to feel more empty without the support and company of my volunteer family.  At the same time, I was considering prolonging my life in the Valle de Elqui, looking for work locally, finding a place to live, continuing to develop connections and think about putting down roots, even temporary ones, in the place that had become my home.

Volcán Villarica, as seen from Pucón, Chile
Volcán Villarica, Pucón, Chile

But that’s the funny thing about life: you can’t really make plans.  You have to gesture in the general direction of where you think you might like to go, and see what happens.  Most importantly, you have to think in terms of what’s possible – maybe something beyond your wildest dreams.  For the past couple of months, I began limiting myself to what was comfortable, what was known, what had sustained me over the past 11 months.  Out of fear, out of hope for a stable future, out of the desire for something more profound than that lingering feeling that my life here was just temporary, that I was just passing through, so that any attempts at deeper connections were misguided.  In some respects, I grew defensive of my intentions to stay here in Chile, or at the very least, here in South America.  I left the US without a return date in sight, but having to explain time and again that my intention is to stay here definitely grew exhausting.  One of the biggest challenges of living abroad is demonstrating to people who haven’t been through the experience that you are looking for true connections, regardless of what the future may hold.

Volcán Osorno, as seen over Lago Llanquihue, from Llanquihue, Chile
Volcán Osorno and Lago Llanquihue, from Llanquihue, Chile

But in the end, I realized something: once my friends left, my home felt much less like my home.  And the changes continued rolling in: my living situation changed, a brief but deeply felt relationship changed, my work changed, and as a result, my idea of what was possible changed.  And in the end, I decided that I needed to go with this change and give myself a change of scenery.  Even despite my certainty a few months before that the Valle de Elqui wasn’t for me, I grew anxious about leaving.  Leaving meant losing the semblance of security that I had developed over a year of cultivating connections, routines, and appreciation for the life I was living at that precise moment.  Leaving meant saying goodbye.

Sunset in Puerto Varas, Chile
Sunset over Lago Llanquihue, Puerto Varas, Chile

But that’s the thing about endings.  In the first place, we never know how permanent they are, because life is long and brings many unexpected twists and turns.  But really, endings allow us to explore other beginnings, other possibilities, open new doors.  And for me, leaving the certainty and stability of my life in the Valle de Elqui has led me to southern Chile, where I am now, where I feel inspired by the gorgeous volcanos and deep blue lakes and fulfilled by embracing my body’s full potential and connecting with the earth through biking, kayaking, walking, and exploring.  Instead of spending so much time in my head or working closely with others to try to troubleshoot interpersonal issues, I am in nature and giving thanks for all the beautiful places I have the privilege to visit.  I am meeting new people who have interesting dreams, hopes, experiences, and stories and deepening my connection with multifaceted Chile.

And that’s really what travel does for me – it reminds me of the many possibilities life holds for us.  The funny thing is that I am still working as I travel and explore, but once I hand over my work to my replacement, I have no plan.  I am encouraging myself to let things happen, to let opportunities present themseles, to let the universe work its magic.  I am trusting that it will all be okay because if there is anything I have learned this year, it’s that I do not actually know what’s best for me because my imagination is limited to what I already know.  And I have so much more to learn.

So here I am, a year later, with fewer plans, but more possibilities.  After Puerto Varas, I am heading to Chiloé, an island known for its mystical heritage and relaxed approach to life.  From there, I head to Lima, where I will once again visit with friends, challenge myself and push my internal limits with a 10-day meditation retreat, and potentially head north to Máncora, that famous beach town that I have yet to visit.  In February, I return to Chile to welcome my replacement and introduce her to the Valle that became my home in 2015.  Once I officially hand over the reigns, my work here is finished and I will move on to my next step.  A step that is not certain just yet, because it does not have to be.  No matter how many times I have been asked the question recently, the plan has not solidified yet.

And in the end, that was what I wanted – I wanted to be open to whatever the future holds for me.  Even still, I resisted.  But even still, my life as I knew it came to an end, and I am just beginning the next part of my journey.  That feels light.  It feels like freedom.  Let’s see what happens.

(More travel posts to come on all the beautiful places I’ve visited over the past year!)

Reflections on Having 12 Weeks Left in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Horcón, Valle de Elqui, ChileMountainous Views from Horcón, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Yesterday, I took a colectivo (shared taxi) to the fería, or open air market, in Vicuña, and got to chatting with the driver, one of the few who doesn’t already know me and my destination after eight months living here. Most of the foreigners who pass through the Valle de Elqui only stay for a few days, maybe a week, so those of us who are here long-term are pretty conspicuous, especially someone as chatty as me!

In any case, once he learned I’d arrived back in January, the colectivero asked me, “Do you like it here?” And I answered, “Yes, I like it here. If you had asked me three months ago, my answer would have been different. It was the middle of winter and I was freezing!”  We both laughed.

Post Rain Scenes in Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Horses by the River in Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to tune in to how I really feel about my life here. For the past few months, it has been difficult to separate my reality from that of the volunteers, my colleagues here, and my host family, all of whom have been going through tough times. When I am alone, reading by the river, enjoying embroidery while listening to a podcast, or cooking a meal with the plentiful fresh vegetables found here in Chile, I usually feel joyful, in the moment, and content with my reality. (That’s one of the reasons I wanted to create an intentional routine for myself while living abroad.)

But as a highly sensitive person, I couldn’t help but be affected by all that was happening around me. In fact, it is my job to try to understand and troubleshoot the issues the volunteers were having, and thankfully, at this juncture, both my nonprofit and the Chilean host organization are taking my input and making changes to improve the volunteer experience so that they can better serve the needs of the English project, their students, the teachers they are collaborating with, and the local schools.

(On another occasion, I plan to revisit my thoughts on what to consider before becoming a long-term volunteer, because both the organizations I have worked with in South America have seen a fair number of year-long volunteers resign before their commitment was up. If you are thinking of volunteering abroad, you should also check out this well-written article providing even more food for thought about the realities of international volunteering and what you need to think about before doing it.)

Rivadavia, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Clouds over Rivadavia, Valle de Elqui, Chile

There are many avenues to living abroad and being able to experience the joys of travel. When I accepted this position, I wasn’t sure how long I would stay here in the Valle, but I knew I wanted build a longer-term life in South America. I see the advantages to sticking around; in the past few weeks I have made many more connections with local businesses and see opportunities for greater cultural exchange and positive impact on the community, all because I live in the Valle and express curiosity about people’s stories, including their wants and needs for the future. (This is really why we are here, not to teach English, but to connect, but it is easy to lose sight of that when you get lost in the mundane challenges of the day-to-day.)

However, the reality is that this is not the place for me. Thanks to the broader perspective I have gained here and during my travels to Santiago, Iquique, and other parts of Chile, I am thinking bigger and noticing a lot of untapped opportunities here in Chile, as well as in Peru and Ecuador. I am realizing how I can pursue freelance teaching and translating opportunities by making connections with other small businesses and entrepreneurs who want to meet the needs of tourists and share their love for their culture through its food, drink, and landscapes. I know that having a solid internet connection will enable me to offer my specialized lessons through English with Kim and finally catch up writing about my travels in northern Peru and Ecuador, which I am now sharing pictures from for Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday on Instagram.

Cloudy Days in Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui
Cloudy Day in Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui, Chile

But even though this particular location hasn’t worked out for me, it has shown me a lot of things. First, though I love having backpacking adventures, I now know I like living somewhere long-term and developing relationships and routines, using my base as a place to travel from. At the same time, I like the idea of being my own boss and having the flexibility to visit family and friends back home whenever I’d like and to take my business on the road for a few weeks, especially in those cold winter months. So that’s what I’m aiming for, and as scary as it is, I know that it is the logical next step for me and something I’ll commit to because it’s what I truly want.

Another thing I’ve realized is that I do need my community around me. I am proud of using the solo time here in the Valle to go within and recharge my batteries, but in the end I have felt isolated here. Making connections is not the same as making friends. Having limited internet access to call and Skype my support system has been my biggest challenge, and now that we *just* got a slow but unlimited internet connection, I am reaching out to everyone to reconnect and show them that our relationships are important to me. I am really looking forward to moving somewhere where my people are, be it Santiago, Lima, or elsewhere.

Posing with the Volunteers in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Posing with My People in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

It’s also interesting to contrast how I felt when I entered the countdown to the end in Huaycán versus now.  There, I was always on high alert due to the safety concerns of living in a shantytown. Here, life couldn’t be safer (if we ignore the occasional major earthquake and its aftershocks and the flooding from heavy rains). There, I was living with 8-12 other people, couldn’t really control my diet, and had trouble establishing any routines other than doing yoga on the roof; here, I live by myself, get to cook whatever I want as often as I’d like, and have even found my favorite local café and other places to relax, like my beloved river. There, I connected deeply with the kids we worked with, because the relationship was so personal and even informal because of all the games we played together; here, I still love the kids, but our relationship is much more formal, a product of working in the schools and Chilean customs regarding respect for your elders.

Even considering the differences, there is one thing that continues to be clear: the highs and disappointments, frustrations and successes all come and go as part of a natural cycle. I continue to learn how to let go, accept the reality that things are how they are, and recognize that everything changes. And I am seeing even more clearly how I can choose joy on a daily basis by being appreciative of all the lovely small moments that come my way.

Spring Flowers, Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Spring Flowers in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Yesterday, I was feeling super sick but, as I mentioned, I went to the fería to stock up on nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables. While there, I ran into two of my students got to meet their mom. That unexpected encounter gave me a chance for me to tell her that her son is the best English student in first grade and for her to tell me that he has come home saying how beautiful my eyes are and that she has to meet me. We chatted for a while, and I told them that they re-energized me and brightened my day. I also thanked her for raising a lady and a gentleman, as her kids are noticeably better behaved, poised, and respectful than many.

Maybe it has been lonely here at times, but moments like those matter. That’s what I’m about, that’s why I do what I do, that’s why I travel, teach, and volunteer, and then write about it here. While I’m excited for what’s next, I’m glad I’m moving into the best part of the cycle – that of embracing every moment, made more poignant by the fact that this reality will end soon.  Thankfully, this coincides with spring and summer, everything in bloom, and fun activities to close out the school year.

Fiestas Patrias Sunset, Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Sunset over Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

And what, exactly, is next? I finish here on or around December 18, and I am heading south to explore the Chilean lakes region, Chiloé, and Chilean Patagonia, hopefully making it to Torres del Paine. These have been some of my travel dreams since 2002 and I am perfectly poised to make it happen this year.

From there, I’m heading north to spend the South American summer on the coast, but whether that will be in Chile, Peru, or Ecuador remains to be seen. I’d rather keep my options open and stay flexible to all the surprises life has in store for me. But one thing is certain – I will be looking for a place to stay for a while, a place where I can build relationships, routines, and my business. And I can’t wait to discover where that is!

Felices Fiestas Patrias, Chile! Viva Chile!

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Flags in a School in the Valle de Elqui

Today is September 18, which in Chile marks the anniversary of the establishment of the first independent governing body in the country; in other words, Chilean Independence Day. Cars, houses, schools, streets, and even people are covered the colors blue, white, and red, representing Chile’s flag. Families across the country will be celebrating with an asado (barbecue), empanadas, and lots of red wine. Chileans everywhere will dance the cueca, Chile’s national dance, visit pampillas or fondas, basically big markets selling food, clothing, and everything Chilean, and enjoy time with friends and family.

This year, the celebration is especially welcome. This past Wednesday, just before 8PM, an 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Illapel, reverberating through the central region. I was at an outdoor birthday barbecue with Chilean friends, and we quickly walked out to the orchard, away from the buildings. Although by now I am used to temblores (tremors), this one was different because it was much more powerful and it didn’t end for what felt like two minutes. It was definitely scary, but, thankfully, since we live in the mountains, there was actually little effect on us. I was only a minute walk away from my home, so I checked on my host family, spoke to all of the volunteers, and sent out updates that we were all fine. The construction of my house was solid, and only a few non-breakable items were shaken loose off their higher perches around my apartment.

I headed back to the party for a few hours, drinking wine to steady my nerves, as the aftershocks kept rolling in. Even though they are normal, they are still unnerving, especially the strongest ones. Around midnight, one of the volunteers arrived to my house with her parents, visiting from the US; they had been in nearby La Serena, in the tsunami zone, on the 11th floor of an apartment building, and had to evacuate quickly. It was nice to be together after a major earthquake, and I did my best to help them relax after their very real scare.

That night, it was hard to sleep due to all the réplicas, or aftershocks, but they decreased in intensity over the course of the day. Power came back, allowing us to charge our phones and reach out to friends and family around the world who were concerned about us.

While the impact of this major earthquake is still being assessed, it has caused a reassessment of plans for Fiestas Patrias. Many local schools had to reschedule their celebration; Coquimbo decided to cancel the artistic performances in their major Pampilla due to damage and safety concerns in the seaside city; and overall people just feel a bit uneasy. But Chileans are resilient, and they are going to celebrate their country with shows of solidarity and moments spent with loved ones.

And thankfully, they are going to include me in these celebrations! Felices fiestas patrias, Chile! Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le! Viva Chile!

Creating an Intentional Routine While Living in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Views from Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Inspirational Views from the Valle de Elqui, Chile

I may be an English teacher by day here in the Valle de Elqui, but on the evenings and weekends I spend a lot of time expressing myself through creative pursuits. There isn’t really another way; life here is very, very relaxed, and the nearest major city is two hours away by bus.

I came here knowing I would have a lot of down time and prepared myself as best I could, buying a Kindle so I could read a ton, purchasing new embroidery patterns and thread the day before I left, deciding to toss my watercolors and watercolor pencils into my luggage. I also came armed with my dSLR camera and my Macbook, not realizing that (a) internet would be nearly nonexistent in my home and (b) my Macbook would bite the dust in March, leaving me without access to my tens of thousands of photos for the rest of the year. When I lived in Peru, I was often holed up with my computer, watching TV series, reading blogs, and going through my photos. I also managed to read a lot of books, got into a regular yoga practice on the roof of the volunteer house, and tried out watercolor pencils. Here in Chile, I still read and do yoga, and I’ve managed to find my way back to knitting.

Una foto publicada por Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) el

100% Natural Wool from Chile

A few months ago, I happened to wander past a store window in Vicuña containing lots of yarn cakes proclaiming 100% natural wool. I wandered in and bought a blue skein along with a pair of circular needles. I got to work knitting a hat for the approaching winter, teaching myself the magic loop method in the process. I also learned how to knit cables without a cable needles. I enjoyed the feel of the yarn in my hands so much I went back for more, cranking out fingerless gloves, perfect for the chilly Chilean classrooms (yeah, I went there). I learned how to do a lateral braid again and finally made individual fingers on the gloves. Currently, I am working on another pair of herringbone mittens. It’s nice to be back to my old speed, which means whenever I go back to the States (eventually, no scheduled plans to return!) I can dig out my unfinished projects.

I’ve also finally started an embroidery project. Embroidery is a little easier on the hands and is something I can easily pick up and put down. I don’t think embroidery will ever become my favorite craft, but it provides a nice break from my other hobbies.  Recently, I bought a mandala coloring book, inspired by a friend’s Instagram post about the Secret Garden coloring book. I was surprised by the variety of mandala books available in La Serena, and opted for one containing mandalas inspired by the various cultures of the world, pre-Incan cultures of South America included. It is nice to play around with different color combinations and do something intentional and focused while listening to podcasts.

Views from Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile

Looking for Inspiration in the Colors of the Valle

Speaking of podcasts, I have recently discovered their appeal. Considering I am a person who learns best by listening, I kind of missed the boat over the years when it came to podcasts. I would use them in my classroom and listened to the occasional yoga or meditation podcast, but I never saw them as a form of entertainment. Well, this has changed – I listen to podcasts nearly every day now while working on my knitting, coloring mandalas, or cooking meals.

One that I have found particularly inspiring is Elise Gets Crafty. Many of her guests talk about finding a creative routine, finding balance in your life, and setting goals. While I’ve always done all of those things to varying degrees (last year I completed my Goodreads reading challenge of 30 books, for example), I find myself especially motivated this year. Part of it is that the nature of my job and living situation means that it is has been somewhat hard to shut off the “work Kim” and relax. Another part is that I am realizing that in the next few years I will probably make life decisions that will leave me with less solo Kim time, so I would rather get the routines established now.

In April, I decided to start giving myself a monthly challenge. I came across the oft-cited statistic that it takes about a month to create a new habit and decided to try it for myself. In April, I started drinking warm water with lime every day, since limes (limón de pica) were plentiful in the orchard. I managed to do this every single day and people kept observing that I lost weight. I kept up with it for a while, but once it became winter, grew cold, and stayed dark until almost 8:30AM, it became harder to get out of bed and give myself that extra 30 minutes before breakfast to let the lime water do its detoxifying work.  The days have gotten a little bit longer and the slightest bit warmer, so I am back to my old routine once again.

When May came around, I decided to get serious about meditation. I downloaded the Stop, Breathe, and Think app, which gamifies the meditation practice and provides simple but effective guided meditations. I managed to meditate almost every single day, missing a few days when I was traveling or when I had friends staying with me. I may not meditate every single day, but I do it much more regularly and it seems much more important to me now.

June’s goal was to write every day. I used to use Day One on my MacBook, but have found the Journey app on my Android pretty good for a quick place to jot down my thoughts. Some days, I wrote a sentence, while on others I filled up pages of my paper journal. A few times, it slipped my mind to write, but this has been a good habit to reestablish.

Una foto publicada por Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) el

Finding Inspiration in the Cultural Centers and Museums of Santiago

My challenge for July was to do something creative every day. Since I traveled for two weeks, this ended up meaning photography for most of the month. I generally do something crafty every day anyway, but making it intentional gives it added weight and importance.

It amuses me that it took me so long to set creative goals, considering I have always found lists motivating. It also surprises me that it is fairly easy to create a new habit when you set your mind to it. Now I understand the appeal of the 365 photo projects or the reason people do 30 day exercise challenges. The whole goal is to not break the chain, and then after those 30 days, it is a lot easier to keep the momentum going.

Una foto publicada por Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) el

Looking Inward for This Month’s Inspiration

What about August? As is easy to imagine given the South American travel focus of this blog, I found myself seriously inspired by my two week vacation around coastal Chile. I revisited cities that had piqued my curiosity back in 2013, I explored hidden corners of Santiago on bike, and I found myself inspired by the creative lifestyle of Pablo Neruda embodied by his house in Isla Negra. Most importantly, I headed north to Iquique, where I revisited the high Andes with its pre-Incan history and living textile culture (and amazing scenery). After this trip, I feel more inspired than ever to use this blog as a vehicle for my passions of more authentic, local travel and South American culture. August’s goal is to do some sort of work for this blog every single day, which can mean sorting pictures, drafting posts, or getting to the internet cafe to get this information out there.

Una foto publicada por Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) el

This Beautiful Location Can Be a Little Isolating

My new creative routines and challenges are helping keep me motivated on a personal level during my year here in the isolated Valle. In fact, now that I am halfway through, I feel the pressure to do as many things I initially intended; time is running out! In the next four and a half months, I need to come up with a few new fun projects to make sure I get as much out of my year here as possible.

For anyone considering long-term volunteering or living abroad, I highly suggest figuring out a way to establish a creative routine early on. It is easy to get caught up in exploring your new environment or to succumb to some of the lows of culture shock. While writing a journal or a blog are a good way to preserve memories for the future, and photography (particularly of the camera phone variety) is essential for sharing your new world with family and friends back home, there is something special about being able to put on a knitted hat or display a completed painting or drawing and say that you made this while living in Chile, or wherever you may be. Memories are woven into the fabric or embedded into the paper with every stitch or stroke, and these are the kind of visceral memories that will bring you back to a place years later.

Adjusting Expectations in My Life Abroad: Five Months In Chile

Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Letting Go of the Controls in Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui, Chile

A short year ago, I wrote an honest, reflective post on releasing expectations of how things should be and enjoying the way they actually are. I mentioned the importance of my goals, hopes, and dreams in moving me forward, but that I had learned to release the need for plans, for needing things to be a certain way in order to be happy.

Interestingly, just over a year later, I am actually living one of those dreams. I am living in the Valle de Elqui, Chile, and working for a respected nonprofit, the same one I dreamed of working for when I was finishing my volunteer year in Peru. I am in charge a group of volunteers and using everything I learned from my year in Peru to help them adjust to their new reality and deal with the inevitable challenges that arise from starting a new, if temporary, life in another country. Five months into my life here and four months after the volunteers arrived, we are finally finding stability in our volunteer roles and living situations.

It has taken longer than we all expected, but life is like that sometimes. And that is the thing about expectations: there is no point in having them if you are not willing to adjust them. I am still learning how to do so in my life in the Valle de Elqui. Part of this has to do with the fact that I constantly float back into American culture, with its demands and inherent beliefs, while interacting with my colleagues in the US and my volunteers here in the field. Another part is because I still have room to grow. I am learning to accept that I cannot control what happens, and that is where life gets interesting.

Last month, I had the chance to talk with my parents about how different my reality is from what I thought it would be, and I laughed constantly at the completely different experience I am having from what I thought I was getting into. Being able to laugh makes things a lot easier here; you realize that your problems actually come from being frustrated that things are not the way you want them to be, even though the way they actually are is completely fine.

Thankfully, I work for an organization that values reflection, something I personally love to do and which has helped me squeeze even more out of the experiences I’ve had in South America. As I have been planning sessions for our mid-service conference, which is now just two weeks away, I have decided to include activities and discussions based on comparing our expectations coming to Chile and our current reality, and revisiting the goals that we set at the beginning of our time here. Personally, staying focused on my own goals has helped me weather the (sometimes literal) storms, and will be the subject of a future post.

As always, I feel that it important to do what you ask others to do, and by doing so, I have realized (yet again!) how much I personally need to relax my own expectations and embrace what is actually happening at the moment. Here is a list of what I thought life was going to be like in Chile, contrasted with my current reality. In most cases, my life here is better because I didn’t get what I thought I wanted.

Expectation: I would live independently and be in charge of my own meals.
Reality: I live with a host family and my dinners are provided for me.
Brightside: My host mom and I get along really well, and she is my biggest support and ally here. She understands my vegetarianism and is a good cook. She makes an effort to provide lots of delicious salads and healthy, fulfilling meals. Having my biggest meal of the day provided for me helps me save money and time. Beyond the food, it is nice to have company. Her kids are also adorable and entertaining, and by watching her take care of them, I have learned about the ups and downs of being a parent. Her extended family is also part of my social circle now. Without them, life would be a lot more boring here!
Downside: Family drama is universal!

Expectation: I would not have to live with any of the volunteers. In fact, I verified this before accepting the position, so reluctant was I to sign up for another year of cohabiting with coworkers!
Reality: I live with one of the volunteers. Technically, I live in a separate apartment, and he lives with the family “next door.” But for all extents and purposes, I am still living with a volunteer, even if I don’t have to share a bedroom this time around.
Brightside: I always have company and someone to talk to, and it makes our dynamic with our host family that much more interesting. Since there are already two of us in the same location, we often have a reason to have the other volunteers over.
Downside: It is really hard to maintain professional boundaries when you live with someone you are technically in charge of. After a year living in a volunteer house, I was already well aware of this reality and am not really any better at it this time around. That’s just life!

Expectation: I would live and work in Paihuano.
Reality: I live and work in Vicuña.
Brightside: I actually much prefer Vicuña to Paihuano, so this has been a blessing. Vicuña has two supermarkets and is that much closer to La Serena, the closest city. There is less tourist exhaustion here, so people are generally very curious about me and my work. Since I take public transportation all the time, people are starting to recognize me, which is quite amusing.
Downside: The project we work with is just getting started in Vicuña, and there have been a number of setbacks related to finances and supplies, which are finally getting sorted out, even though that we are just three weeks from winter vacation. Because of the newness of the project, the schools and teachers I work with still are learning how to best work with volunteers.

Expectation: We volunteers would be helping to meet a serious need for English teachers in the Valle.
Reality: We actually work with co-teachers. The majority of the teachers we work with speak excellent, fluent English and they are all talented, experienced, dedicated teachers. We provide the “native speaker” motivation factor and an opportunity for cultural exchange. I wouldn’t say teaching English is our primary role here.
Brightside: I have been able to pick up some good techniques on working with kids, especially very young learners. One of my co-teachers is super receptive to my participation in class and I really enjoy sharing my teaching style with her and the students.
Downside: I miss being in charge of my own classes.

Expectation: The small towns in the Valle would be like the quaint villages I passed through in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes, like Vilcashuamán.
Reality: Despite being a rural area, the general feeling of the Valle is fairly suburban. You do see a lot of horses and fields, but for the most part, the communities of the Valle remind me of the small town life I fled from when I left New Hampshire 15 years ago!
Brightside: Because the towns are small, they are very safe. It is refreshing to not constantly be on guard here.
Downside: There is a common saying in Chile: Pueblo chico, infierno grande (Small town, big hell). I am not a big fan of the gossip and small town dramas. I definitely miss city life.

Expectation: I would have a convenient, nearby escape to the coastal city of La Serena, just like I escaped from Huaycán to Lima.
Reality: It is actually really expensive and time consuming to go to La Serena. Buses come every 20 or 30 minutes, and there are no buses at night. Hostels in La Serena are expensive. On top of that, I don’t even really like La Serena, try as I might to find its charm!
Brightside: I am not spending as much money going out, and am investing my time and energy into other projects on my weekends. I really appreciate my time in Santiago when I have to go there, and I especially enjoyed revisiting Buenos Aires a few weeks ago. I appreciate cities a lot more now.
Downside: Sometimes you just need a break from the quiet routine of the Valle, and La Serena just doesn’t meet that need.

Expectation: I would keep up with this blog and finish writing about my 2013 trip.
Reality: Due to my very limited internet, it takes a lot more planning than I expected to write blog posts, and especially to upload photos. I can only upload photos when I am not physically in the Valle, so this means on my trips to La Serena or Santiago!
Brightside: This month, I have given myself a writing challenge (more on that in a future post!), and this has helped me to jumpstart my desire to blog once again. After the winter vacation in July, I am going to plan monthly retreats to La Serena to write blog posts. I also use Instagram a lot more to make sure I am documenting my Chilean journey. I have also started drafting posts on my computer, but because my blog is so photo-focused, it is more challenging.
Downside: This blog is not getting the attention I want to give it. I started this particular blog post three weeks ago on my phone, and I am going to publish it without my normal amount of photos because it takes too long to choose photos from Flickr when in the Valle.

Expectation: I would have consistent internet and be able to use Skype to keep in touch with family and friends, as well as to continue tutoring students through English with Kim.
Reality: My internet is incredibly limited and unreliable. I cannot use Skype where I live. If I am lucky, I talk to my friends or family over Google Hangouts or Skype once a month when I am in Santiago or La Serena. English with Kim is on hold and I had to give up my students for now.
Brightside: I use the internet less and have adjusted to not having constant access. I still have consistent access through my phone’s data plan and tend to chat or send emails more. I plan in advance what I plan to do during my internet time and do more in my off hours. I know I will use my time at the computer more productively when I once again have consistent internet. I am more motivated than ever to pick up where I left off with English with Kim, and am brainstorming other ways to keep it going over the next six months.
Downside: I really miss working on my business and this blog. When I was really dealing with culture shock in April and May, I needed to talk to my friends and family more than I was able to. I can’t do as much with social media for my job as I would like.

Expectation: The Valle would be really beautiful.
Reality: Okay, this is true. 🙂

As you can see, I have been able to embrace my current reality, and what hasn’t worked out has helped to highlight what is truly important in my life. As I mentioned above, our mid-service conference will be in two weeks. My winter vacation starts in three weeks, and a dear friend from Boston is coming to visit! After the break, the last six months of my position will fly by, and I will be moving on to other adventures, still completely undefined at this point! If I’ve learned anything, I’m better off going into the rest of the year without any expectations!

(Check out my Instagram for the latest pictures of my time in Chile. I am still taking as many pictures as always, even if they aren’t reflected in this post!)

Valle de Elqui, Chile: A Season in the Schools and Settling Into New Routines

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile

When I made the decision to move to the Valle de Elqui, I knew very little about what I was getting into.  After so much time living in Peru, I had grown more comfortable with expecting the unexpected and going with the flow, but I still found it challenging to remain flexible on my short visit to Lima.  Now that I have been back in South America for four months, I can safely say that nothing is as at all like I was told it would be, except that the beautiful valley is filled with vineyards, as you see above!

Views from Diaguitas, Chile
Crossing the Bridge in Diaguitas, Chile

For starters, I live in Diaguitas, a small town in the comuna of Vicuña. I live in a small but cozy apartment attached to the main house of a local family, which means I have my independence but also plenty of company. One of the volunteers lives in the house, so we share dinner on a nightly basis, swapping stories from the local schools.

Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
“Typical Town,” Diaguitas, Chile

While I never expected to live with a host family and was super skeptical about sharing space with a volunteer after a year in the volunteer house in Huaycán, my living situation has actually been a blessing in disguise, because this means I always have the opportunity to socialize in what would otherwise be an isolating location! The other volunteers even come over from time to time to sing karaoke, take advantage of the extensive garden covering the property, and wander down to the river.

Views from Diaguitas, Chile
Views from Diaguitas, Chile
Views of the River, Diaguitas, Chile

During the summer, the river was my sanctuary and escape from the day to day routine. I have always been drawn to the water, and sitting on the riverbank, reading a good book, enabled me to get a mental break from the demands of my job and my volunteer work in the schools. Now that fall has set in, I tend to spend a little more time indoors, knitting warm hats and gloves to help me get through the imminent winter!

Peralillo School, Valle de Elqui, Chile
School in Peralillo, Chile

Speaking of the schools, I am working in three schools: a medium-sized school in the town of Peralillo, located across the highway from Diaguitas, and two small schools called “microcentros,” which are in the smaller towns of Gualliguaica and El Arenal. After so many years teaching English on my own, it has been a challenge to adapt to my new role assisting the main teachers. That said, I am lucky to work with talented teachers who are giving me new ideas for working with children and who also appreciate the activities I bring to the classroom from my own experience. I came here curious about what it would be like to work with children in schools, and I am definitely getting a first-hand view of how the system works. I have always been a skill collector, so I trust that this information will be useful in a future endeavor.

Love the first graders! <3

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Of course, I am embracing working with the kids, who are adorable and super excited to spend time with me. Peralillo is even smaller than my own elementary and middle schools were, so each grade fits in just one classroom. This means that I get to know all the students, and vice versa, so it feels like I belong to the school community, especially at a school like Peralillo, which is working to be bilingual in the future!

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile Dressed Up for a School Event, Peralillo, Chile

I personally love working with the preschoolers, kindergarten, and first grade, as they are super receptive to learning English and do not find it challenging or embarrassing in any way. Seeing how fast kids at this age learn and retain language skills encourages me to work with smaller kids. It reminds me of when I volunteered with a reading program in a public school in New York City and read books in English to kids whose first language was actually Spanish. Things to think about for future career moves!

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
School Event Honoring Gabriela Mistral, Peralillo, Chile

Because the school hopes to transition to bilingual education, the school assemblies often incorporate English, and the daily greetings and routines are often done in English. This particular event was in honor of Gabriela Mistal’s birthday. Gabriela Mistral was a Nobel laureate famous for her poetry and support of childhood education, who was born in Vicuña and grew up in the Valle de Elqui.

Peralillo, Chile
Honoring Gabriela Mistral, Peralillo, Chile

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Peralillo, Chile

Peralillo is located in the foothills, so on my walk home to Diaguitas, I often admire the landscape.

Peralillo, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Peralillo, Chile

I spend three days a week in Peralillo, and the other two in Gualliguaica and El Arenal with two other teachers. This enables me to get a sense of the other, smaller schools and learn more about the rural communities that dot the Valle.

Gualliguaica, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Views from Gualliguaica, Chile

Gualliguaica is a small town with strong local traditions and a fascinating history, which will be the subject of a future post. Suffice to say that the town used to be located down in the Valle below, but the government decided to relocate the town to expand the nearby reservoir, which has since dried up.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Today, the students attend school in a new, modern building, and the fifth and sixth graders whom I work with have no memory of living anywhere else. These students love English class and, after some initial hesitation, have now adapted to the reality of working with a foreigner like me!

El Arenal, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Views from El Arenal, Chile

My last school is El Arenal, located in another town close to Diaguitas. This is a true one room schoolhouse with a family feel, and our English class has six students. They also love learning English and both they and their teacher are embracing the English-only method as much as possible. Because of so many Friday holidays and cancelled classes, I do not get to the school as often as I’d like, but I really enjoy my experience there as it feels I am a true partner in the classroom.

It was awesome being in charge of the class again!

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to take charge of classes while substituting for the English teachers. The above class took place in Rivadavia, where I have been filling in. (One of our volunteers decided to leave early as she missed her family more than she expected.) The main teacher had to go to a meeting, so she asked me to take over for her, and it happened to be the same day that the coordinator of the Chilean partner organization was taking pictures! I love being in charge of the classroom, though students do sometimes treat me as a substitute and misbehave, just like when I was in school. Even still, it keeps my teaching skills sharp!

As you can see, teaching in Chile looks somewhat similar to my work in Peru – co-teaching is part of the deal and I still love the kids! But rather than working in after school or weekend programs, I am seeing the school system from the inside out. We will see how I incorporate this experience into my teaching journey, but I am happy to get more insight into working with children.

Paihuano, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Clouds over Paihuano, Chile

Of course, I am here to do my job coordinating the group of volunteers, and that is going very well and I am learning a lot about managing a volunteer program. As is normal, we have all been experiencing the growing pains of culture shock and adapting to the different style of life in the Valle. As I mentioned, internet access is challenging, but not being constantly connected has enabled me to work on being more present. I miss writing here and am going to post more frequently to document all the stories I am experiencing. But mostly I am embracing what looks to be a quiet year, enjoying my hobbies and the break from city life. That said, I am absolutely a city girl at heart; I am actually writing this from a restorative escape to Santiago, where I am getting work done before picking up the new volunteer who will join our team this week.

The biggest lesson of the past season has been this: the quicker that you can embrace the reality of how things are rather than how you wish they would be, the quicker things become enjoyably easy. While I have certainly struggled in the past few months, I keep coming back to the same place: a place of balance, acceptance, and living in the moment. And I have the past few years of growth to thank for that! <3

Greetings from the Valle de Elqui, Chile!

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

It has been exactly two months since the last time I wrote, and this time has flown by.  I finished my trip to Peru by traveling to a place that has long interested me (Sechín…and Tortugas), re-visiting the organization I volunteered with in Peru (and the kids!), and celebrating with my friends.  I undertook a two day, budget-oriented journey to Chile, spent a week in Santiago reconnecting with my friends and getting started with my work, and finally moved to the Valle de Elqui, where I will be living until December.

One month ago, I welcomed the 2015 cohort of WorldTeach Chile volunteers, and we spent three intense weeks in teacher training, interspersed with cultural excursions, Spanish classes, and other important sessions.  One week ago, we celebrated the end of orientation by touring two pisco distilleries in Pisco Elqui.  This past week, we have all begun classes and gotten a taste of what our lives will look like here.

(Click on the links to see related photos on Instagram – I now have a smartphone and it is much more efficient for me to post snapshots of my life there on a regular basis!)

Volunteers at the Pisco Mistral Distillery, Pisco Elqui, Chile
Celebrating with the Volunteers at Pisco Mistral Distillery, Pisco Elqui, Chile

The good news is that I seem to have made it through culture shock, the growing pains of my new role, and the intense scheduling required during orientation, and today is the first day I feel fully myself again.  Part of this is because I have been able to reconnect with my family and friends back home; the internet situation has been challenging, but after troubleshooting yesterday, I have been able to connect with a more consistent (though still slow) connection, enabling me to write emails, call my parents, upload some photos, and write this blog post!

Sunshine Flowers in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

Beautiful Flowers Outside My Apartment in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

It’s funny how much we struggle to let go of who we think we are and adapt to who we actually are right now. Before I left for South America, I was an avid biker with an online English tutoring business and two active blogs. Now, none of those identity markers apply; I am still able to practice yoga, but I spend most of my time reading by the river and enjoying local foods (like the delicious grapes, figs, and avocado which grow all around the region). I haven’t been able to post a new blog post in two months, and I had to give up all of my online students. That’s just how it goes.

Palta in the Valle de Elqui, Chile
Palta in the Garden Near My Home, Valle de Elqui, Chile

That means more down time. More peace and quiet. Trying to connect with the people I meet. Trying to connect with myself and figure out what I most deeply want from this experience. I wanted a life with fewer distractions, and I got it. Instead of resisting my new reality, I need to open to it. I’m determined to stay up with my blog one way or another and resume the tales of my travels, but I have to embrace what is happening around me right now. Here and now. Here’s to the journey!

Sun Drying Figs in the Valle de Elqui, Chile
Sun Drying Figs in the Valle de Elqui, Chile

(PS – My photostream on Flickr is pretty up-to-date, in case you want to check out my adventure while I get caught up with writing about it!)