by Janna Elwell, Greenheart Travel Volunteer in Chile
It´s the end of day four here in Chile and the excitement has yet to die down. Mauricio and I made the trip out to Malloco yesterday morning and while he made important phone calls the entire time, I gazed out the window and tried to take in as much as I could. The change in both landscape and quality of life was apparent immediately upon leaving Santiago, as Mauricio warned me it would be. Landscaped yards became dirt mounds, tall buildings became squat and tightly packed houses, and instead of chic boutiques on every corner there were car repair shops literally lining the streets.
We went through Maipù, a commune directly outside of the city, and then arrived in Malloco. We had to walk about 10 blocks to the hogar de niños, and I had the chance to get a pretty good look at the area I´m staying in. Fields outnumbered houses, and many of them had piles and piles of garbage lying in them. All of the roads are a strange combination of pavement and dirt, and as we walked I hardly saw anybody outside. Mauricio said to me, “Malloco is a place to live, and a place to die. Nothing more.” And this is where I´m living! I suppose it´s a good thing I have time to travel on weekends.
We arrived at an unmarked gate; without Mauricio I would have had no idea it even existed. Security buzzed us in and I quickly realized there really wasn’t much to see. The property consists of a small office building, a kitchen, the library, a playground area, the volunteer house, and the 10 houses where each family lives. The majority of the kids were still in school when I arrived, so there was very little activity.
Mauricio introduced me to the on-site director, Sole (pronounced so-lay), and once we were acquainted he informed me he would be leaving. Here´s the catch: Sole doesn’t speak a word of English. In fact, nobody here speaks any English. I had it easy in the city–most people knew at least a tiny bit of English, or at least were familiar enough with it to help me get by, but here it might as well be a dead language. So here I am, left by my only English-speaking friend to figure things out. Prime learning opportunity if nothing else…right?
Sole and I toured through the facility and she took me into each house to meet all the tìas. There are 8 kids to each house, 4 to a bedroom. The houses are very basic, but in good shape. All of the tìas are so kind and welcoming, and I´m so excited to get to know all of them! Sole showed me to my house as well, which is larger but much more modest (a nicer way to say old). There is a kitchen area and washing machine on the main floor, then the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs–and by “stairs” I mean an extremely steep incline with some slats of plywood attached every few feet. There are two other volunteers here that I share the house with, but they are currently on an expedition to Mendosa, Argentina and won´t be back until Sunday so it looks like I´m on my own for the first week! They have both been here for about the past 6 months or so, and will be here much longer than myself, so they´re given a little more leeway for travel.
After the tour, Sole ushered me into a meeting with a couple other administrators. Here they proceeded to insist I take a really awful cup of coffee (which by now I have learned happens multiple times, everyday), and each of them fired questions at me about life at home, why I came to Chile, etc. We talked for about an hour, and I would say I caught about 40% of what was said. The rumor about Chileans talking incredibly fast? TRUE. My goodness, I had to tell them all to slow down so many times. It´s been four days and I still have to remind them to speak slowly. That first day I just put a smile on and nodded my head for a lot of it thought. For all I know they could have been talking about me, and I´m sitting there grinning and agreeing! Haha I´m learning though, slowly but surely.
The good news is everyone is really patient with my Spanish, and always willing to repeat themselves 5 times before I catch on to what their slurred words are. Well…almost everyone. The kids think it is the funniest thing on earth when I misuse a word, and will laugh and laugh and laugh until they´re crying. But how can I take offense to that? I think it´s just the cutest thing. Perhaps I´ll start making mistakes on purpose, just to see these adorable kids giggle as they do.
And this brings me to my favorite part: los niños. I absolutely love them. All 80 of them. There are kids as young as 10 months, and as old as 19. There are many that I haven´t met yet, but most of them have approached me with curiosity. I started working in the library my very first day here, and have two young students in the morning and three older students in the afternoon. Around 1:30 all the families eat lunch, which is done in individual houses. Mealtime is my absolute favorite; I get the opportunity to rotate houses each week for meals, offering me an entire hour or two to spend just talking and playing with the Tìa and kids in each house. I do this for both lunch and dinner every day for a week before I move on to the next house.
This week I´m with la familia de Tìa Pauli. Pauli has 6 girls and 2 little boys– both boys are 3 years old, and the girls range from 5-11. All these kids are sassy little things, but I think it´s just adorable. Only the younger pre-school aged kids are home for lunch, but all 8 are there at dinner and we have so much fun! We all cram around Pauli´s table to eat and talk about our days (or try to, in my case). The two oldest girls want to learn English so incredibly bad and every day during dinner it´s constantly “còmo se dice______ en ìngles?” with every item imaginable. After dinner all the younger kids gather in front of the TV for a show while the older girls each get started on washing and drying dishes and sweeping the floor, all without being asked to. After growing up in a house where doing chores is like pulling teeth (not your fault Mom, your kids are just stubborn), this is truly impressive. Honestly, these are some of the most well-behaved, hard-working kids I’ve ever met.