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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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!