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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.