by Janna Elwell, Greenheart Travel Volunteer in Chile
Well, it´s the end of my first day here in Chile and I am alive and well! After the rough goodbyes in Salt Lake I managed to maneuver my way through a layover in Mexico City and my arrival in Santiago. Thankfully basic Spanish is sufficient in an airport setting, so I got by just fine. I arrived in my hostel here in Santiago around 6:00 this morning, a quaint little place tucked in a side street downtown. It´s a small hostel, and I´m only accompanied by a few other people: Juan, who has taken on the task of correcting all of my Spanish every time I speak; Paul, a man who moved here (to this very hostel) seven years ago; and a beautiful woman named Grace, who owns the hostel, as well as her 7 year old son. I´m only hosteling here in Santiago for one night, but I have so much enjoyed the company of these wonderful, genuine people. What a great way to transition into life here in Chile.
I mentioned before what people have said of Chile being cold– and it is unbelievably true. The first thing I did upon arriving this morning was shower in boiling hot water, and that was about the only time all day that I completely felt all of my fingers and toes. Afterwards I layered up and went out into the city! I just roamed and wandered wherever my frozen feet took me.
Santiago is such a magnificent city, and even though I walked nearly all day I only covered a fraction of what there is to see. It´s remarkable how fast paced and Americanized everything here is here in the capitol. Walking among the huge crowds of pedestrians and street vendors has a strikingly similar feel to Manhattan. It didn’t take me long to learn that as you are walking, if you even stop for a moment to glance at a shop or a cafe menu, you´ll immediately receive service. What I´m not sure of is whether that´s the Chilean generosity showing through or if it´s simply because they see a relatively clueless American as easy income and jump at the opportunity.
Either way, this is the process by which I was introduced to my first Chilean food– chacareros! It was impossible to stand there and interpret the menu while an employee stood behind me jabbering in Spanish, so I resorted to asking his recommendation and this is what I got! Not bad for my first taste of Chile.
Tasting true Chilean food was only the beginning. It was only a couple of hours until I had my very own telephono prepago, which I need to stay in contact with the various volunteer offices here (sorry Mom, this little guy isn´t capable of calling the states…) and a Metro card. Taking the metro around town was a whole experience in itself. I have never seen more people crammed into such a small space before in my life. Especially at rush hour, between 6:00-7:30, people will literally push until the mob physically cannot move anymore and the poor guy on the edge gets his nose grazed by the closing doors. But! It´s clean, it´s efficient, and it´s safe, so no complaints on my part.
Other than exploring Santiago all day, I had my orientation with the organization I will be working under. This was the first contact I’ve had with them directly, as opposed to through Greenheart Travel, which was really helpful in answering a lot my questions. I met the director Mauricio at their main office downtown and we went over expectations for my work as a volunteer. He explained that most of my responsibilities will be in la biblioteca, the library, assisting children with homework and English. He reiterated again and again that my purpose is not to ensure that these kids are continually making progress in their education (which is the main priority of their daytime teachers) but to be a consistent source of support, encouragement, and patience.
Many of these kids have a variety of learning disabilities, making school a frequent source of frustration. This is where my role comes in, reinforcing their efforts and encouraging continued determination regardless of whether they´re progressing or not. The other thing that Maurcio emphasized is the importance of taking breaks. My schedule runs Monday-Friday, and as years of living with 3 younger siblings, teaching swimming lessons and coaching gymnastics all to young children have taught me, working with kids is a very taxing job, leaving little energy to spare. So he strongly encouraged me to look into places here in Santiago as well as places further out into northern and southern Chile to take weekend trips, allowing me to get a more extensive look at the variety of places Chile has to offer. I think this is what they call a job with benefits!
I so very much enjoyed my first day here in Santiago, and look forward to the other areas of the city that I´ll come to know during my time here. Hopefully I can be joined by the other volunteers next time! For today, I did have to wander the city on my own; I have yet to meet anybody else headed the same direction I am. It got a bit lonely today though, and everything is always much more enjoyable when you have someone to share it with, so I´m hoping to finally meet up with the other volunteers tomorrow. Mauricio is picking me up in the morning, and he and I will take the Metro partway and bus the rest of the way to the hogar de niños where I will start my work! It will be another early morning, but an exciting one at that. I´m sure that tomorrow will be the beginning of many friendships that will remain with me throughout the rest of my life, and I am so very much looking forward to it.