Atacama Desert

Made it up to Arica, a costal city in Chile’s Atacama Desert and the pathway to the precordillera and the altiplano of Bolivia/Peru/Chile, with half of the SIT program (the other half is down south in Temuco with a Mapuche community). The weather is pretty consistent on the coast year round at about 18 degrees Celsius during the day and night making for a very calm and pleasant climate.

After resting a bit at the beach and hotel on Wednesday upon arrival, we immediately picked classes back up on Thursday morning- consisting of Aymara Cosmovision and Cultural Patrimony. Through being taught by local community members and Aymara people, it’s been very intriguing learning about the Aymara’s way of life and their incredible respect for mother nature (Pachamama), a sense of balance (equilibrio) in all aspects of life- material and spiritual, and expectation of reciprocity in all encounters. On Friday morning, our classes consisted of Chilenization (basically the history of how the State has discriminated against the indigenous Aymara people and how the Aymara still persist in preserving their culture and human rights) and Aymara medicine (two Aymara women came in to show and explain to us a bunch of different herbs, flowers, remedies that are used in the Aymara methodology of health treatment- all so natural and pure).

On Thursday afternoon, as our gift of reciprocity to the communities that will be receiving us during our time in the precordillera, we began preparing for a small theater play to present to the children of Putre, a small pueblo west of Arica in the precordillera at around 3800 meters above sea-level, where we will spend the second half of our excursion before heading out to other small pueblos in the region to live with Aymara families. On Friday afternoon, we went to a textile-producing community of Aymara women outside of Arica in the Azapa Valley, and were graciously welcomed by the women, who create beautiful ponchos, scarves, and bags out of alpaca wool. We were taught about the entire process and actually got to try it out! It was extremely wonderful to be taught the techniques by these women who were so friendly, generous, and excited to teach us how to make the yarn from the raw alpaca wool, prepare the weave and finally realize the clothing- all of which is a very tedious process that requires much patience and cariño. A truly beautiful interaction with this community ended with a spectacular sunset over the desert hills- a great complement to the sunrise that a friend and I saw earlier that morning after hiking to the top of the cliffs overlooking Arica.

Later on Friday night, we gathered in Arica to join an Aymara community would had traveled to the coast from their pueblo, Guallatiri (close to the Bolivian/Argentinian border in the Altiplano), to share some special traditions of the culture. First, the night started with a common Pawa ceremony, a way to ask permission, give thanks and respect to the Pachamama, los Mallku (spirits living in the hills), the sun god, ancestors, and to welcome the participating members of the gathering. Following the ceremony, the people of Guallatiri had prepared two traditional Aymara dances for us which we reciprocated by singing them Marvin’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to the best of our abilities. The night ended with more dancing and conversing together over a rico spread of traditional food of the altiplano including multiple types of potatoes, avocado, llama, altpaca, choclo/maiz, olives, cheese, and chicken soup. A beautiful and special experience that all of us are extremely grateful for.

Saturday was spent climbing 3800 meters in altitude to Putre. We took the trip very slow a to avoid altitude sickness and thus were able to take in all the dramatic, stunning landscape through out the entire day. Now being high above the ocean in the driest desert in the world, the sunset is stunning, reminding me of Colorado’s mountain sunsets, and the temperature significantly drops (good thing I forgot my long-johns back in Valpo!). I’ll hopefully find a warm pair of pants and moccasins tomorrow to wear this week. We’ll be here in Putre until Wednesday morning before our short homestays (10/23-10/27) and will take Tuesday to travel up to the altiplano, visit one of the highest lakes, have a picnic and swim in hotsprings. Should be another great day.

These past 4 days have already proved very distinct from the past 8 weeks in Valparaíso, now drinking Mate, chewing coca leaves, and learning some of the Aymara language. The SIT staff is so wonderful, warm, welcoming, and caring wherever we go and I’m extremely thankful for their incredible organization that’s gone into these trips to make sure us as students can get the most of out our time in Chile, and now specifically in the desert (even if it does mean falling asleep in our alpaca and chicken soup at the end of the day).

 

Onto the next

Ah, finally now I have more than 10 min of free time to write another blog post…,which I guess, is not a bad thing and am certainly not complaining. Since coming back into real life in Chile after Fiestas Patrias, life certainly picked up again to 100mph.

Now after 6 ½ weeks of classes, 5 hours each week, while living with our host family, the first segment of the semester is coming to a close. The courses I’ve taken have been great and I am truly grateful for the organization put in by the SIT staff. Apart from our daily Spanish classes, which are taught by the same professors each morning who conduct very high-spirited classes and enlightening excursions around Valparaíso to observe and interview (to the local fishermen’s dock, the local feria, plazas, etc.), our seminar classes each afternoon are taught by a different professional and/or passionate activist in the field of that day’s class.

SIT program and our Spanish teachers

SIT program and our Spanish teachers

We’ve had a very skilled documentary director, Sebastian Moreno, whose film is extremely powerful and a worthwhile watch about photographers in the streets of Santiago during the dictatorship (http://www.laciudaddelosfotografos.cl/), another speaker, Camilo Ballesteros, who’s a leader in the Student Movement , and multiple survivors of torture and detainment during the 70’s and 80’s. Needless to say, these classes and our excursions are great first and second hand encounters with the very sensitive and complicated realities of this country.

A few weekends ago, a few friends and I took a few days to travel outside of Valpo and head about 6 hours north by bus to La Serena. It was great to bum around a different funky city for a day, play soccer on the beach with some Chileans, and then also went up in into the Elqui Valley which offers quite a unique landscape filled with extremely dry mountain spurting out of the valley floor that is filled with endless vineyards for wine, but mostly pisco. Here in the valley is a dinky town called Pisco Elqui, where we went on a tour of a pisco distillery and camped underneath beneath a beautiful clear sky that night. Apparently Elqui Valley is home to some of the clearest skies in the world and some of the world’s most prominent observatories.

Pisco Distillery

Pisco Distillery

Valle Elqui

Valle Elqui

Last weekend our program planned for us to do some community service in one of Valpo’s less developed neighborhoods very high up on the cerro of Playa Ancha. Danko, one of the SIT main staff members, told me that “this high up on the hills, anything can get robbed, but never the view.” And indeed, the view is breathtaking. However, now tall apartment buildings are being built on the hills every day and stealing people’s miraculous views.

view from Montedonico, Playa Ancha

view from Montedonico, Playa Ancha

Although many of us in the program wish we could have done a lot more for this neighborhood, we helped build a small soccer field enclosure and built/painted a small playground made out of car tires. After completing the work, SIT and the local community center organized a small parade to march through the small neighborhood to try and rally kids to come down to the new playground- a very fun, lively atmosphere inspired off of “Mil Tambores,” which we celebrated the next day. The entire community service experience again proved to me the authenticity of Chilean hospitality and how it almost felt they were spoiling us more than we were helping them. Nonetheless, I’m always extremely grateful for Chilean welcoming spirit.

Opening of the new playground

Opening of the new playground

The next day, a few of us went to celebrate “Mil Tambores” (1000 Drums), a celebration of life, community, and cultural preservation, which takes place every year in Valpo. After last year’s celebration got too rowdy and turned into a riot of sorts, the government initially banned all Mil Tambores festivities seeing that presidential election are now less than a month away and the government would like the keep people off the streets in mass gatherings as much as possible during the next few weeks. However after much disapproval from the people, the city allowed the parade to take place. The parade is filled with naked bodies artistically painted, elaborate costumes, jugglers on stilts, thousands of people playing drums and dancing in the streets.- Was such a scene of love, life, art, and compassion. And much to our surprise later that evening, while waiting in the ER for a friend who fell off the bus and hit her head (who thankfully now is healthy), we saw ourselves on the nightly news TV channel, half naked dancing to a drum line. I think I can go home now that I’ve finally made my appearance on Chilean news.

Mil Tambores

Mil Tambores

Some body art at Mil Tambores

Some body art at Mil Tambores

Mil Tambores

Mil Tambores

Caralee, myself, Cristal

Caralee, myself, Cristal

Mil Tambores

Mil Tambores

Mil Tambores

Mil Tambores

Earlier in the week, when we had been waiting for 4 ½ hours in the civil registry to get our ID cards after the employees there had been on strike for over 25 days, a few of the girls decided to take a nap on the floor and were subsequently caught on tape by another Chilean news station and sure enough found themselves in the news reel later that night (Maybe us gringos actually aren’t doing that great a job at lying low after all).

After Mil Tambores, we were lucky enough to hear Michelle Bachelet, one of the favorite liberal candidates in the upcoming election who was president 2006-2010, speak for a few minutes in the main square in Valpo. It’s been very cool to witness the process of a crucial presidential election happening elsewhere than my home country, that’s continually filled with inspiring examples of pride and protest.

Protest sign during Michelle Bachelet's speach

Protest sign during Michelle Bachelet’s speach

Earlier in the weekend, I went to a see “Inti-Illimani” (Chilean version of The Beatles) in concert in Valpo. They’re a folk music group of political musicians, genre of Nueva Canción who were forced into exile during the dictatorship and have always been and remained a symbol of communist perseverance. It turned out to be a very talented yet mellow concert as everyone in the theater was sitting down and composed for most of the show (a bit of a different scene from Red Rocks Amphitheater), but authentic to say the least.

This weekend, being the end of our program’s first phase, was fun and jam-packed with a Chilean fútbol game against Columbia (which we unfortunately lost but still have one more chance on Tuesday to qualify for the world cup!), a beer festival in abandoned train cars and warehouses, a picnic with all the students and families on my program, a 21st birthday complemented by great live skah music in a dance bar (Mano Inquieta  and LaSmala , and a day of surfing and some lacrosse with Valpo Surf Project.

Valpo Beer Festival

Valpo Beer Festival

Now, besides getting some more sleep these next few days, I am preparing to leave Valpo/Viña for 2 weeks to travel to Chile’s northern Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world, to live with an indigenous Aymara community. I’m very excited for this unique opportunity and am sure many stories will come of it. Upon returning from this 2-week excursion, the month long independent research period commences. I am still finalizing the logistics and hypotheses, but no matter will be teaching lacrosse in physical education classes in a public school and a socioeconomically contrasting private school and comparing the kids’ reactions to this new sport as an indication to which demographic may hold higher levels of ‘openness to experience’- and filming it all! Until then, hopefully all the logistics come together and my project will turn into a success of some sort.

There’s always so much and too much to do here and so little time to write about it all, but I hope to continue keeping people in tha loop when I come back from the desert. Much love to all. Keep happy and healthy.