Their Chilean constitution / my Chilean education

By Posted on Location: 4min read
The majority of the protests were always peaceful. La Serena, Chile, October 2019.

Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

Being British I didn’t grow up with the idea of a constitution in my head. Whilst we have constitutional principles, there is no single rigid document that defines them. We do have some important documents – like the Magna Carta written in 1215 – which state how our countries systems function together, but we don’t have a single quotable text.

As such, the word constitution wasn’t one I’d really considered

It’s possible that prior to going to Chile the word hadn’t passed my lips. I couldn’t spell it. Instead, I was focused on the challenge of voting in the British elections, which, when I left, were only a possibility, but since Britain was bashing its metaphorical head against a wall, seemed likely and did, in December, occur. All I vaguely knew about Chilean politics was that it had previously been a dictatorship but was now a democracy.

It wasn’t the first few days of the protests, when buildings were burning, and we were caged under a military curfew that I became aware of the constitution issue. For the first few days my only real concern was staying safe and working out what was happening on the streets. My phone filled with news and fake news and the media gave a side of the story which grasped the scariest parts but missed the core.

When I went out into the streets though, with a friend who had promised to make sure I got home safe and that we would disappear the moment things became violent, I started to really learn. Of course, leaving the house that afternoon I was scared, in the way a British woman wandering around in a Latin American protest ought to be, but I was also excited.

What’s worth noting here is that I might never have gone if it weren’t for the father

The mother jokes that trying to persuade me to do or not do something will just make me more determined to do it. She fears that if she says ‘don’t go to Colombia’ then I’ll go. In reality, the father did say ‘don’t go to Colombia alone’ and I didn’t, I went to Chile. I rang him and told him what was happening. I didn’t want him to be too alarmed, but I wanted him to have the truth.

The father said, “As your father, I’d prefer you to stay at home, but…”

And so, I left my house and went out to investigate

The people chanted songs I don’t know and words I didn’t understand, but in their hands, I could see placards with words they’d painted on. Pieces of card and board stuck together with words crammed on them. Chilean flags everywhere. Profanities everywhere. Hope.

From amid the crowds I read the words and I tried to understand their meaning

I went home and searched the internet, scavenging for understanding, hunting for clarity, but finding more questions than answers. I learnt that the Chilean democracy was shackled by a constitution written by the dictator Pinochet. My weak Spanish frustrated me; it is always so far behind where I need it to be. Then I downloaded books, fiction and non-fiction, and in those weeks without work I begged my friends for explanations and devoured Chilean literature. Before I started to realize that I would never comprehend entirely and would never solve the sorrow for my borrowed country or my fierce anger at the ridiculousness of it all.

After summer, in the new year, I returned to work determined to use the run up to the plebiscite to ask questions and learn as much as I could from my colleagues and friends. I didn’t want one opinion, I wanted lots of opinions.

Then, instead, the pandemic happened, sending me back to England, to watch from afar

I feared for my friends living under considerably more stressful situations than myself. The loss of incomes, the inadequacy of the health services, the step up in authoritarian control – curfews and restrictions all over the place.

It’s not so strange then that I choose to predominantly teach Chileans when emotionally so much of me remains there. I don’t solely teach Chileans, but the majority of my students are Chilean and almost all of my students live in Chile. With their resilience and fear, their boredom and frustration, they have no idea how much they’re teaching me.

Yesterday, the plebiscite took place

My students described the long queues and the excitement of going to the polls. I worried about violence erupting, as it had done earlier in the week. I hoped though, that each of them would use their democratic right to vote and prayed that they would be heard.

While they were sleeping, I awoke and checked the results. Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

Part five of the repatriation ordeal (in which I board a plane)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
Valparaiso, January 2020
Bedtime.

I hate filling up the car. I particularly hate filling up cars in foreign countries because filling up the car is, like ordering in a restaurant, an occasion where you take what’s being sold before you pay for it. I find that the cards in my purse are much more reliable in England where they belong, and that in foreign countries things go wrong. Imagine my fear of the embarrassment of whatever card is in my purse not working and the inevitable search in the bottom of my suitcase for a spare.

Of course, my Chilean card behaved perfectly

My problem came before that, when the kindly chap who was gallantly offering to fill up my car for me asked me to release the cap to the petrol tank. I had no idea how to do this. I opened the car door and he indicated places where the release might be, instructing me with a friendly polite Chilean Spanish from behind his mask.

It was now dark outside, my brain was flooded with anxiety because I had to be in the airport in the next twenty minutes, I had found the petrol station because I’d just taken the wrong road on entering Santiago. Ramon was waiting for me, somewhere. And I had no idea where the lever was.

Luckily Latin Americans don’t hesitate to mime when the occasion demands such

The situation, with our efforts at maintaining some resemblance of social distancing, required some excellent miming, and eventually, to everyone’s relief, I found the lever.

The chap filled up my car. I paid.

Ramon was waiting for me when I pulled up on the driveway of the hotel where he’d suggested we meet. He suggested I turned the car around and put it facing the other direction so that other cars could leave. I stalled the car. Put it in the wrong gear. Managed to do a five-point turn when none was necessary and turned off the engine.

I got out the car and pulled my mask back onto my face.

Ramon inspected the car

He found it acceptable. I hopped into the passenger seat and Ramon drove me to the airport. Calm, and with a gentle manner he asked me about my journey, my time in Chile and we discussed the quarantine. I knew now that I was going to be on time for my flight. It had taken a team effort, but I was heading to the United States.

Santiago Airport is a building site, and we drove past the carcasses of future airport lounges and pulled up straight in front of the door for international departures. I thanked Ramon. He lifted my case of the boot of the car and I headed inside. It was obvious where to go because there was one flight leaving that evening. The only other scheduled flight had been cancelled.

I walked straight up and placed my bag on the scale

The LatAm woman at the counter helped me to move a few books into my hand luggage to get the weight down, then I headed to security and was waved straight through. I placed my rucksack on the counter ready to go through the process of extracting my technology and liquids, but the security guards waved me through with a clear attitude of don’t stress yourself.

There were no tester perfumes in the duty-free shop, and the lights were dimed in most of the airport, meaning that I walked straight from security into my gate simply by following the light. It was like Santiago airport had been reduced to something smaller than Doncaster Robin Hood airport. There was a single open shop, some toilets and some seats. We spaced ourselves out and waited.

I expected emotion

I messaged that wonderful selection of Latin Americans and Europeans who had sent me messages like ‘ARE YOU OK???’ to assure them that I was alright and that somehow I was now about the head to the United States…

My brain was dead; I was emotionally in shock. Home was a five-hour drive behind me or a few days ahead of me whichever way I chose to think about it. Mindlessly, I followed the person in front of me onto the aeroplane. No emotion came.

I hoped that my housemates were enjoying the bottle of wine I’d bought for us to share that night. I wondered how it tasted.

Part four of the repatriation ordeal (in which I encounter the police)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
Violent oppression of indigenous communities is one of the reasons why the Chilean police have such a terrible reputation.
Street Art, Limari Valley, Chile.
October 2019

Read parts 1, 2, and 3 first.

I pulled into the queue, slipped on my mask and opened the windows so that I would be able to hear what was being said to me.

I speak Spanish

It’s not a particularly wonderful Spanish. I can’t trill my r, my u scoops down a little too low in my mouth and I frequently put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. All combined, this seems to confuse listeners. However, if a Spanish speaker is patient and is willing to be open-minded to my butchering of Spanish pronunciation, then we can converse, and after a short time, with reasonable ease.

The problem for me is that every time I am about to engage with a new Spanish speaker, in Spanish, I’ve no idea if they’re one of the people who know how to speak slowly or clearly, or if they’re like a certain market stall owner who I have never yet once understood and always end up giving the wrong change.

And I was nervous of course because the Chilean police don’t have what you’d call a kind, loving, we’re out here as servants to society to protect society sort of reputation. Plus, the government website suggested that I needed to have my boarding pass on me, and I didn’t yet have a boarding pass – only a flight confirmation.

From the dark, two, cheerful, masked faces popped their heads through the passenger window

I said I was from England and waved my British passport towards them as evidence of my foreignness. Where was I coming from, La Serena, where was I going, the airport. And then? England.

The other problem I have with police officers – and airport security guards (Spain and Egypt I’m thinking of you) – is that I never have any idea what is a general question of polite curiosity and what is a question that required a detailed and accurate response. Whether they liked it or not, these two friendly looking women who marvelled briefly at my being from England had to have my trip itinerary explained to them and the reasons for my previous residency in La Serena. I babbled.

They took my temperature. It was thankfully normal. Then they wished me a pleasant journey, all without checking a single document.

I continued south

It was thankfully no longer foggy, but from time to time I’d see a bashed in vehicle or two on the side of the road with people gathered around. What’s more, cyclists, without lights, seemed to appear at the edge of the road, cycling against the traffic. There was no risk of me falling asleep with the adrenaline rushing through me as I endeavoured to drive quickly without hitting a seemingly suicidal cyclist or adding myself to the carnage that I passed. There were more cars now, and the traffic seemed heavier.

Then police lights and we were ordered into another queue

This time a young policeman came to the driver’s side window and asked in his mask-muffled voice, for my documents. He also eagerly wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going and what exactly was my business in Chile, but he asked in the sort of way that made me sceptical whether he was requesting only the personal data that pertained to his task. He had a look in his eyes which I recognised from the University’s students. There’s a point where they realise that they can ask this real, live, English woman questions and in their excitement stumble over asking me if I have any brothers.

I had a heap of documents laying on the passenger seat beside me, all prepared for his viewing, but the chap had now decided that this was a great time to start throwing in his high school English. All I wanted to know was which document. I waved them in front of him one after another until he exclaimed, I’d got the right one. He didn’t then scan it, he merely waved me on and wished me a good trip home.

Thankfully, that was the police encounter done

Next, I had to fill up the car and find a chap who called himself Ramon.

Culture shock

This is England, in late-spring. When I left La Serena it was late autumn.
Haworth, England
May 2020

Culture shock happens in both directions

When I’m on the outbound stretch of an adventure, I feel somewhat prepared for it. I expect things to be unusual. I know local street food is likely to make me sick. I expect to take ages navigating the supermarket and to finish my shop still not sure what I’m going to eat. I pretend I’m prepared, but, in reality, I never am. Culture shock isn’t merely something that happens in your mind, it also happens physically. Bodies do not like being uprooted. They like the status quo. When you screw around with your habits, your body kicks up a fuss.

I mention my impromptu driving to Santiago from La Serena and people are aghast at what I did, but the drive was not as hard as the moment of body shaking realisation when you realise all you have had to leave behind, all the goodbyes you couldn’t say and those you said but wish you didn’t have to. That is painful. We are social, tribal creatures and the faces of my every day are now thousands of miles away. In a way, it’s like being cast out of one tribe and suddenly finding myself embedded in another. My name changes, the language changes, my role is different. Although I am still me, I am not the same.

And going back, this me that I am is not the me that I was

A student of mine tried to explain to me that there is a huge unemployment problem in Chile. I listened, took notes of his English and thought about how unemployment is ravaging the lives of some of my Chilean friends. Those who aren’t unemployed do not, by any means, take their employment for granted. It creeps into the edges of conversation. People worry about how the pandemic and the inevitable economic impact will affect their jobs. It seems it doesn’t matter how hard some people work, how generous and caring they are, life remains unfair and cruel.

This stands in contrast with my life in England where I live in a house which now feels like a palace. I come back to England and within a week I’m ordering a computer chair so that when I sit at my desk my body is supported and the impact deskwork doesn’t have too detrimental an effect on my posture and long-term health. I have a laptop stand and a separate screen so that I’m not craning my neck to read. I have a separate keyboard and a full-size mouse. I wonder how many of those ‘there-is-no-Chilean-middle-class’ colleagues I worked alongside this year have a similar set-up.

This feels unfair.

The anger that houses itself inside me is proving hard to tame

How do I come to terms with all the privilege that I am suddenly faced with when it stands in such contrast to the realities of the lives of people I’ve come to care for and admire? No, England is not all filled with safety and security. There is poverty here too. There is racism and there is desperation and there are too many people living without a fulfilled sense of meaning, but at least when they get sick there’s a hospital that will accept them and the state education system tries to educate.

I am angry. In my opinion, Chileans often underestimate themselves and each other. Many sighingly see fault in their compatriots, complianing of their materialistic desires, credit card debt and apathy. Chileans are always asking me why I would want to be in Chile when I could live anywhere in the world and I have not yet found an answer that satisfies them. Chile is home to some wonderful, kind, loving, generous people but I believe this truth is dominated over by their fear. I am angry; maybe my anger is sadness strangled by my fear.

I cannot pull all my disparate thoughts and feelings together

My mind is in a state of shock. I am struggling to come to terms with my newfound perspectives and the contrast of these two lives. My stomach churns. The discomfort shows itself in more ways that one.

Inevitably the culture shock on coming back to the United Kingdom hits me with more force than I anticipate. It never seems to get any easier.

Part three of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drive through a foggy desert)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
The Limari Valley, south of La Serena, Chile.
October 2019

If you want to know how I came to be driving to quarantined Santiago read part one and part two.

I set off heading south on the Pan-American Highway

…or ruta cinco as we tend to call it, stabbing my finger at the various buttons on the radio, twizzling the knobs and trying to work out how to use the radio since I hadn’t any time to stop and contemplate the device. I had a five-hour journey ahead of me and five hours before I needed to be at the airport.

The dual-carriageway double-laned road was empty apart from the occasional lorry trundling along in the sunny afternoon. There were beautiful views as the road winds along running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and from time to time beautiful empty beaches in magical looking coves appeared, then the road would snake around, through more cactuses and I’d feel like I was in the wild west.

The radio played half a song and they the signal went

Then another half song might play and then the signal would go again. At least focusing on the radio distracted me from the fact that in all the chaos, I hadn’t thought to use the bathroom before I left home. Emotionally I was in shock, all at once loving the freedom of being out on the road and actually moving yet, at the same time panicked, with my foot on the gas not daring to dawdle.

My fears were the following:

  1. The service stations would be closed
  2. I would get lost trying to fill up the car before dropping it off by the airport
  3. I would be missing some important piece of paperwork when the police stopped me
  4. In all my anxiety, I would cause myself a fever and set off a load of coronavirus alarms
  5. I would arrive at the airport too late for the plane

On this beautiful sunny afternoon what I hadn’t worried about was fog

The road sign indicated that I could go at 120km/h. The fog (or do you call it a deep sea mist) that descended threatened to slow me right down. I knew that if I continued to travel at 120km/h I might end up being posted back to the UK.

I saw a lorry ahead, then it disappeared, and a game began where I hunted down lorries and crawled around them. I switched the radio off to concentrate.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies cleared and the fog disappeared. I switched the radio back on and the sort of song that makes you want to dance came on.

Time however was ticking by

Two and a half hours into the journey I stopped at a service station, yanked on my blue floral mask and dashed inside where to my delight not only were there open, clean toilets but also a woman selling take away coffee. I checked my position on the map, shared my location with the chap who I had to meet to give back the car, and set off.

The sun set, the fog returned, I could no longer see the cactuses

So I practised taking long calming breaths. Everything was going to be fine. I prayed that all the lorries on the road had working lights. At least, I reasoned, there was no chance of me getting bored on this solitary trip. Thankfully, as I began to turn inland, Santiago is not beside the sea, the fog disappeared, however, the traffic grew heavier. I began to look out for the first of the police cordons.

A line of red lights, uniformed officers waving their arms and I slid into the queue

I rolled down the window, put my mask back on my face and wondered which of all my documents I would need to show. The British Embassy (contacted in part one) had never responded to my query. The government website suggested I needed my boarding pass and my passport, and then I also had my ‘I don’t have covid-19’ QR-code.

I didn’t have a boarding pass. As I was driving my dad was busy trying to do the check-in for my flight, but for whatever reason, the website didn’t allow him to simply send me my boarding pass. Two smiling highway officers poked their head through my passenger window.

Courage versus comfort (or not as the case might be)

Peering towards that which we cannot see.
Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
January 2020

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I find myself craving a little comfort

Actually, I find myself craving a lot of comfort.

Instead I find myself trailing the streets trying to find some place of education which is willing to employ me so that I might have a contract and stay in the house which has become my home and in the city where I have made friends. Comfort would be to stay in this odd place on the edge of the world, facing out towards the great Pacific Ocean, speaking my uneven, clunky Spanish and weathering viruses and social unrest.

It’s sad to realize how much of modern life is designed to lull us into being comfortably numb; we’re expected to go about doing what we’re told because it’s easy.

Srdja Popovic and Mathew Miller, Blueprint for Revolution

One plan has me going to a new town somewhere else in Chile

I’d know nobody and be doing the whole thing from scratch, albeit with better Spanish. It’s not an ideal solution but it would keep me learning and teaching and it is at least a plan. It may remain just a plan though, as it depends on much more freedom to travel than I currently have.

Another plan has me in England until this is all over, which would be comfy indeed – there would be Yorkshire tea – but perhaps I would lose something of what I’ve been fighting so hard to have. Not to mention, I have yet to get to England.

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough’.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak (read more on deliberate practice)

Truthfully, I am exhausted by the emotional taxation of the changes in my life

Bitterness seeps in. Frustration rests within my muscles, which are tense from the continual strain of the stress that I’m facing. There is a deep anger inside of me. Now I finally trust myself to be able to work and function in a sociably acceptable manner, the situation around me makes doing these seemingly normal things a whole new level of difficult.

Knowing that pretty much everyone is going through a tough time should help. I know talking helps. Although, in a way, I’m overwhelmed by the uncertainty that everyone around me is feeling. Tempers are short – mine included – and I reckon we’re all tearing up a bit more than before. What do you say to a friend who fears her nephew has the virus? I’m a little more equipped at such difficult conversations nowadays (post-therapy), but I still struggle for words of comfort.

Yet, I think it’s the disappointment that hits hardest

People had plans. My sister’s supposedly getting married. I booked my flights and arranged my dress-fitting especially for the wedding. I also planned on doing a course whilst I was in England, which is now postponed. Students, who want to learn, find themselves stuck with online learning and a substandard education that will further divide the rich from the poor. The teachers don’t enjoy it either, teaching a class where you can’t see the student’s faces is a horrible experience. You’d think we could do video, but the internet connections we’re relying on won’t necessarily handle it. Yet, if the classes don’t take place, how will the teachers be paid?

…whenever we venture into the world as travellers, our capacity for wonder, engagement, and growth is directly related to the capacity of our hearts.

Don George in his introduction to Better Than Fiction 2

Today, in the middle of doing yoga, I paused and reflected on the battles I am facing, and the battles that other people are facing around me. It occurred to me that now more than every I need to be clear about what my priorities are.

When you prioritise some things, you have to also deprioritise others

Painfully and achingly, what keeps getting deprioritised is my pride. I’m from a family who rarely admits anything’s wrong and often don’t have a clue how to ask for help when they need it. I am coming to believe that this is partially because they don’t recognise when they need help. We are a family of highly proud people.

And yet I do not have a single plan that doesn’t include a need to ask for and accept help. I am unable to pull myself together and manage independently. You would have thought I’d have learnt this enough times going through my dependent, can barely look after myself phase when I was in therapy, completely reliant on my parents. But no. It seems my dependency is something I must continue to learn.

What I love about travel is how it shows me a different way of living

I’m thrown into situations where I need help. Frequently I have little idea what’s going on and rely on the help from people who barely know me. The other day a Japanese friend brought me a gift of chocolates, face masks, hand sanitizer and sterilizing fluid. It is a simple gift, but thoughtful and well timed. Since at some point I’m going to have to travel a quarter of the way around the world in the midst of a pandemic, I will be needing what he’s given.

The more conversant and comfortable you can be with your emotions, the richer your experience of life will be, and the more capable you will be of forgiving.

Archbishop Desmond TuTu and Reverand Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (read more on forgiveness)

Humility is not my natural guise

Admitting that I’m overwhelmed by this situation and the uncertainty that I now face isn’t easy for me. I can get angry about it, but the greater fear is that getting back on my feet and have a foundation that I can be proud of, is going to require an awful lot of asking for help. It’s humbling seeing person after person reach out and offer me assistance.

I sit here writing, listening to the neighbour practising his guitar

A close friend told me that I have to remember that although I don’t know what will happen in the months to come, what I know is that right now, I am in Chile, and I’m in the place I want to be. Maybe it won’t last, but I have to remember that today exists and I need to remember to live it.

Brené Brown writes that we can choose courage or we can choose comfort. I think she’s wrong. I believe that comfort comes when we trust that we have the courage to do what is necessary. My discomfort, I believe, comes not from my courage, but from my fear that I don’t have the courage to do what is necessary.

I can be a good, kind and generous person without necessarily being independent. Ain’t that a shocking idea?