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