[Exhales deeply as his fingers touch the keyboard]
It has been a frantic couple of weeks in Chile. So much has been crammed into just seventeen short days that I haven’t had a moment to take it all in, let alone produce a blog post. I hope this will make up for lost time. I am writing this blog post from Monte Patria, in the Coquimbo region of Chile. It is worth a google maps search just to see how rural my placement is. The weather is erratic, like a teenage girl deciding what to wear for a night out. The mornings are about forty degrees and with no heating in the house it is frigid. I bundle up the layers as I head to school, still in the dark, resenting the fact that the majority of the button down shirts I brought are short sleeved. But my resentments are short-lived. By ten, once the sun has risen, it is a pleasant seventy degrees without a single cloud in the sky. When I received the information about my placement from English Opens Doors, they described the weather as temperate. I think they misspelled temperamental. Monte Patria is a small town, nestled in a valley and surrounded by hills and a few snow capped peaks of the Andes. It is arid, and has been experiencing a drought for the last ten years. There are a plethora of cacti, and small bushes; all of the flora that doesn’t require a significant amount of water. The valley is home to a variety of agriculture, the most common being grapes for the famous Chilean wine or pisco. Pisco is a clear liquor, smoother than tequila but still packing a punch. I have yet to determine if these grapes are watered by artificial means or naturally. Whichever way it is occurring, the results are delightful.
Most of you know me by my name, Matthew Tibbitts. However, I should inform you that my extended name is Matthew Tibbitts-Cortes. This is because I have been unofficially adopted by my host family. They have welcomed me into their home with open arms, big hearts, and all of the typicalities of family life that I treasure. Living in the house with me is Daniel, the father, Milene, the mother, and the sons Daniel and David. When I arrived in Ovalle, the closest major bus terminal to Monte Patria, I only knew the names of the family members. I glanced around anxiously at the crowd of Chileans hoping that somebody would recognize me. All of a sudden this dark-haired, wide smiling man entered my field of vision. He rushed up to me, immediately embraced me, and said, “Yo soy tu papa!” (I am your father!) That is Daniel. He is the patriarch, and head of the family. He enjoys entertaining and making jokes that probably wouldn’t be as appreciated in the politically correct society of the States. He works hard, both as a supplier and distributor for the health center in town, and remodeling his own home. He told me he only sleeps for four hours a night. His hands wear the signs of sixty odd years of labor but his smile illustrates his youthfulness. He refers to everyone as ‘hijo’ (son) or ‘hija (daughter) and is always inquiring if I am happy or if I need anything. Milene is the mother in the household. She is considerably younger than Daniel, and he had another family previously with a few sons whom I have also met. There is certainly no division of families. She cares for the household and the youngest son, also Daniel, who is only five years old. She has the motherly characteristic of making sure I’m about to burst before permitting me to leave the table. She enjoys asking about life in America and my previous travels. I know when the father Daniel has made a risqué joke because she giggles, blushes, and scolds him. Daniel, the youngest son, is an energetic boy who batters me with a barrage of Spanish. He’s still undecided how he feels towards me. At first, he resented the fact that I was receiving so much attention. Then he was agitated by my insufficient level of Spanish. But he’s coming around, and we spent much of last Sunday playing with a kite that was bought for him at the local, weekly market. Although David lives in the house with us as well, his work often takes him to other cities. I only met him the other day and although he is a bit more reserved than the rest of the family, he enjoys sports and was fascinated by videos of me playing lacrosse and by my harmonica playing. The person with whom I’ve formed the closest relationship is Bryan, the elder son from this marriage. Only two sons were included in my email about the family so I wasn’t expecting to have several brothers. He lives just down the street with his wife, Angie, who is expecting. On the first day he came into my room as I was unpacking, shouted ‘brother!’ and wrapped me up in a bear hug. He is an unyielding optimist, and possess a contagious enthusiasm for life. We have a lot of similar interests and I’ve really enjoyed our time together. He collects currency from all over the world and was ecstatic with the addition of a Malaysian ringgit. He enjoys athletics as much as I do, and we’ve battled in tennis and pingpong. It’s been an adjustment for me as I can’t be my normally over competitive self. It’s difficult to do so as you prepare to serve for a set point and the opponent is chanting your name, encouraging you playfully, but sincerely, from the other side.
I’m not sure whether it was past experiences traveling and living with a host family, or the culture of Chile that has allowed me to adjust so flawlessly to life with the Cortes’. They are a special group, and the lack of other foreigners in the area hasn’t crossed my mind. They introduced me to the truly wonderful aspects of Chilean culture. If it wasn’t obvious already from the previous paragraph, affection is an integral part of life. Hugs, kisses, and physical contact are a part of every interaction. Whenever I enter the teachers room at school I make an effort to greet almost everyone individually. The females are greeted by a light kiss on the cheek, whereas the men receive a handshake. Those with whom I have a stronger bond turn the handshake into an embrace. The routine with Bryan, my host brother, is usually a handshake-hug-handhake-handclasp-back to a handshake. It took me a few tries to properly master it. In addition to the abounding warmth is the ritual of meals. I was surprised in Honduras to find that my host family only ate together on Sundays, after the lengthy mass. In Chile, every meal is taken together. I am picked up from school to have lunch at home, and then brought back afterwards. I thought it was a huge inconvenience and presented this to my family only to have them react as if there was no other conceivable option. At the conclusion of dinner, usually later in the evening, the plates are stacked to be washed but no one leaves the table. Conversation can carry on for hours. It is a great time to practice Spanish, both listening and speaking, and to enjoy the familial sentiments. On Fridays and Saturday, my host father and I drink wine and pisco to mark the end of the week. Since his other sons hardly drink, we’ve really bonded over this mutual appreciation of adult beverages. My cup is never empty for more than a moment before it is being refilled.
Although I’ve been engulfed by Chile and its people, I’ve had some memorable interactions with other foreigners as well. In Santiago, there were seventy other volunteers with whom I attended orientation. Although the majority were from the U.S. I was surprised by the diversity. There were people from Russia, Finland, Austria, Australia, England, China, Tanzania, Vietnam and others. I was put in a room with Shuaib (pronounced Shwayb) who is from the U.K. and placed in the capitol city of my region in Chile. I spent the orientation week translating for him with the Chilean shopkeepers. We quickly gave up trying to explain what halal meant, and instead substituted that he was a vegetarian. He expanded my vocabulary with British colloquialisms, and we both reveled in dry British humor. We spoke about the Brexit, and life as a Muslim in London in a time where one was just elected mayor. Together we attended sessions on a variety of topics including Chilean culture, creating a classroom management system, and accessing our free healthcare. I’m glad I was paying attention during that last session because shortly after I came down with tonsillitis. My tonsils, inflamed and covered in white spots, practically prevented me from swallowing. Within an hour there was an ambulance outside the hotel, operating as a mobile clinic. The doctors, in perfect English, explained to me that I had two choices. The first was to get a prescription for penicillin, which I would have to pay for and be reimbursed later, and would require an entire week of taking pills multiple times each day. The other option was a painful shot in the butt. I think my belt was unbuckled and pants were down before he finished explaining the options. It also made for a great story with the other volunteers, as well as an assurance in the healthcare system here.
Before I arrived in Santiago I spent a week in Lima, Peru catching up with a friend, Max, from the Fulbright program in Malaysia. He has also continued on the path of international teaching, and is working at Newton College in Lima. College is a deceptive name because it is preschool through high school, and Max currently teaches a group of fourth graders. I had the honor of accompanying him to school on two separate days. The students were flabbergasted by two gringos both wearing absurd floral patterned sport coats. They insisted that were twins. In the evenings, Max guided me through the city of Lima and introduced me to his favorite spots. We spent our meals reminiscing about our travels last year, and the absurdities both within Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia. Stifling our laughter as to not interrupt the meals of other patrons, we recounted my verbal spat with an Indonesian taxi driver and his interaction with Vietnamese tour agents who in response to him saying ‘I can’t wait’, instructed him that he in fact must wait, and that they were worried about his ability to do so. You never truly know the impact that an event has on you until much later. I know that Max and I, as well as the other two Ms, will be looking back fondly on those memories together for a long time to come. And at the same time, I’m excited to make some new ones here in Chile.