Wednesday, February 18, 2015

5 years in Chile

February 18th, 2015 marks 5 years since I came to Chile.

I'm actually in the States for a visit home now, so I'm not in Chile on the official 5 year anniversary.  If I had realized it when I booked my ticket, I would have tried to fly into Chile on the 18th instead of the 20th.

Doing anything for 5 years is a significant part of a person's life, and it makes me think of what has happened over this time.

This question was actually brought up by one of my friends a few months ago when we were walking up cerro san cristobal.  She asked me what has changed in Chile since I had arrived.

So, what's the answer?  Well, here's my best shot at it broken down by category:

Economic Development

The landscape in Santiago has changed.  A lot of apartment buildings have been built, and it feels like the city has been taken over my constant construction.  Every afternoon when I look out my apartment window now I see a huge crane constructing a new building on the other side of the street.

In addition, new companies and businesses have been constructed.  When I first came to Chile, there was a ton of construction around the intersection of Avenida Providencia when it connects to Avenida Vitacura.  I remember the sidewalk being blocked off and having to walk the long way around to teach classes at Banco de Chile.  That is now the Costanera Center, which is a huge shopping mall.

There was also construction happening at Plaza Ñuñoa, which is about a 15 minute walk from my apartment.  That construction created an underground parking area and about 8 new restaurants.  The parking has attracted more and more people to the area, and I think it has helped the businesses in the area.

Now that I think of it, there has been even more construction.  Portal Ñuñoa used to just have a Jumbo supermarket, but it became a mini mall with Paris, a movie theater, food court, and other smaller stores.  Mall Plaza Egaña was also built as the first "green" mall in the area.

The arrival of new businesses is another thing that I´ve noticed.  Due to my love of food, it has been easiest to notice the restaurants that have arrived.  Among them are Dennys, Cinnabon, Johnny Rockets, Wendy´s, and probably a few others I´m forgetting.  I´ve also noticed the expansion of a few others: Ruby Tuesday, TGIFridays, and Papa John´s Pizza come to mind.  While these places help stimulate the economy, it makes me wonder if they are causing Chile to lose its cultural identity and also contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Public Health

About 2 years ago Chile instituted a smoking ban on inside public areas, including bars and restaurants.  Some places have an outside smoking area, while others don´t.  People seemed angry about it at first, but from what I´ve seen they have been respectful of the new law.  I don´t know if it has resulted in people to quit smoking or fewer people to start in the first place.  Cigarette prices are still pretty low in Chile, so it still remains affordable to people.

Sometime in 2014 Santiago instituted a program to encourage exercise and walking.  I don´t remember the exact name, but for particular stretches of main streets they close half of the street and create a detour for cars.  It happens on Sundays from 10:00 until 2:00, and people can walk, run, rollerblade, or bike without having to worry about traffic.  There are traffic guards that direct traffic at intersections as well as small rest areas set up with water coolers at specific places throughout the stretches, and it´s nice walking through the area and seeing people getting out to exercise and enjoy being outside.  


Educational changes have been underway.  The student protests that started in 2011 where huge and dominated the headlines from 2011 to 2013 or so.  Students were fed up with getting an inferior education just because they didn't have money as well as being enslaved to a job just to pay back the loans they took out to study.  The loans are so bad that some people work their entire life just to pay them back.  Their persistence paid off, and eventually some of the leaders made their way into Congress.  Government officials had no choice but to listen, and free and subsidized education is going to be phased in starting in 2016.  


Transportation has changed too.  Some new bus lines have been added.  The 422 passes through La Reina and Ñuñoa and connects it to downtown Santiago, and it's a bus that I take frequently when traveling to downtown.  The 106 has been extended to go past Manuel Montt and now goes all the way out to Pajaritos, and the 126 is an additional bus that was added with the same route as the old 106 that runs from the morning rush hour until the evening rush hour.  Other routes have been modified to better serve the traffic of commuters.

I'm not sure if it's every train or just some trains, but there is air conditioning on trains on line 1.  Some people have protested that it serves just some of the people that take the subway and think that putting restrooms into the subway stations would have been a better use of the money.  

And as anyone who lives in Santiago knows, the cost of public transportation has been steadily increasing.  When I arrived in February 2010, I believe the most expensive fare was about 500 pesos.  Now that same fare is 720 pesos.  While this seems like a small amount for 5 years, it´s over a 40% increase.  When you travel and take public transportation multiple times in a day, it adds up quickly.  People say that people fare evasion is a big problem, and it can be infuriating seeing people sneaking on the bus without paying.  At the same time, with the minimum wage in Chile commuting to and from work on the typical fare consuming over 30% of a person's salary I feel that I have to suspend judgement of those people.

Relations with the USA

An easier visa process to enter the United States for Chileans was a big announcement last year.  Chileans can now enter the United States with a passport and by paying for a tourist visa that is valid for 90 days.

Prior to this, they had to complete an application, show that they had a certain amount of money in their bank account, and go through an interview with someone in English to get their visa.  Chileans have told me the luck of the draw and the mood of the person who interviewed you that ultimately determined if you were granted the visa or not.

This will improve international relations between the USA and Chile, and it's exciting to know that travel to the States is now easier for my friends and students here.

So, what's in store for Chile in the future?  I'm not a fortune teller, so I guess we'll have to wait and see!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A wedding, a new city, summer school, and Gringolandia

January was a whirlwind month.

It started off with a friend's wedding.  Erin came to Chile at the same time as me, and we both worked at the same colegio through TeachingChile.  She has been a great friend over the years here, always willing to listen and give advice when I was struggling with a decision or difficult situation.  The celebration was in the backyard of a family member's house, and it was amazing to see people flying in from California, Canada, and even France to be there. It was a really beautiful event and they are such a nice couple, and I felt honored to have been there to take part.

The wedding was on a Saturday night, and the following day I was off to Talca to prepare for the training and summer course I would be teaching..  I already had my bags packed and was pretty much ready to go, but I still get anxious leading up to any type of trip that I'm forgetting something.

The bus was comfortable with air conditioning and wifi, and we even got a drink and snack included with the bus fare.  My boss met me at the bus station, and she showed me a bit of the campus and got me to my hotel.

The three weeks went by quickly.  For the first two weeks we had professional development in the morning, and I got to meet the other people that work at the university.  There are actually campuses in Talca, Cuircó, Linares, Colchagua, and Santiago, so it was a convergence of people that don´t always see each other.  I really enjoyed getting to know the others and being in an academic atmosphere talking about effective language teaching and seeing what the university is doing with language teaching.  Everyone was really friendly and helpful, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of such a great team.

Walking on the campus for the first day of
classes and training
At the same time, I was also teaching a summer course to undergraduates.  It was a really interesting experience, as I had never taught a summer course before.  I had an eclectic group of students.  Some of them only had the summer class left to graduate.  Others decided to take the course in summer to be able to focus on English, and I don´t know if it was true for my students but some of them take the course in summer because they failed it during the academic year.  They also came from a variety of different majors.  I had a class of musicians, accountants, agronomists, and even business and a dental student.  The students made an effort to get to know each other, and they were such a nice group.  Three of them had birthdays during the class, so we sang for them.  The music students planned ahead when they knew a birthday was coming, and they sang Happy Birthday with harmonies based on their vocal ranges, and it was so amazing to hear.

I was strict with the students and gave them homework to do.  Homework isn´t considered a part of their grade, so I wasn´t sure if they were going to follow through and do it.  All of them did almost every single assignment, and it really helped them develop and improve their writing.  In the end all of the students passed, and they celebrated with a barbecue at the end of the course.  It was a really nice way to finish the experience.

The days in Talca were long.  We started at 8:30 and had meetings until 1 or 2 each day, and then I taught the summer course from 3:15 to 6:30.  I was pretty exhausted by the time I finished, and so I didn´t have much desire to go out and explore Talca during the week except to get something to eat.

So what is Talca like you wonder?  It's smaller and calmer than Santiago.  The buses are smaller, and they only cost 500 pesos.  You can flag them down anywhere along their set route and get off at any point along the route.  There appear to be more family-owned businesses and a sense of community with people attending church each night of the week, others standing outside talking with neighbors and kids playing in the streets.  There are a few malls, but the one I went to was quite small.  There are some movie theaters and a few big supermarkets, but beyond that there isn't too much of a big city vibe.  

I did, however, find one place that made an impression on me: a restaurant based on Homer Simpson.

In contrast to the actualy city of Talca, there's plenty to see and do in the surrounding area.  Coworkers told me about taking the old train from Talca to the beach town of Constitución, hot springs to the north, la ruta del vino (the wine trail), and a nice national park called siete tazas.  I stayed in Talca for one of the weekends I was there, and so I decided to do a beach trip that Sunday.

The train left at 7:30 in the morning, so I was up early and got to the train station by 6:50.  

I was greeted by a long line of Chileans that were in line buying their tickets.  I was getting excited as I got closer to the front of the line.  Then four people in front of me the tickets sold out.

It would be an understatement to say that the people in line weren't happy.  They immediately started complaining to the woman at the ticket counter about how it was unfair that they couldn't get tickets (there's only one train per day), and she calmly explained to them that there were no more seats on the train and that they have no way of knowing when they are going to sell out.  They then turned to the security guard complaining in the same way, and when he didn't have an answer for them they did the same with the man in a suit that was walking into an office next to the ticket counter.

I asked them about the possibility of buying tickets online or in advance, and they don't have that capability with the old train system.  I feel bad for the families that woke up early with their kids and spent time waiting at the train station, but for me it didn't really matter that much.  It ended up being a nice day to walk around, do some journaling, and relax at the pool.

Before I knew it, the three weeks were over and I was saying goodbye to Talca and everyone there.  It was nice getting out of Santiago for a bit and being in a place with a slower pace of life.  I will definitely miss the collaboration and community that I experienced on a daily basis in Talca, but at the same time I was excited to return back to Santiago and start seeing how things are going to shape up with the English program at the Santiago campus.  

Back in Santiago I got to visit the campus, and it is really nice.  It is modern, and the classrooms are large with whiteboards and projectors.  The building is air-conditioned, and I got to meet a few of the directors of each of the different schools.  I got a campus tour and met some of the staff too, and it was nice getting to see my office and the materials I have to work with.

I had a few days back in Santiago before flying home for a visit, and it was really nice.  I got to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in a while, and I did some souvenir shopping.

Catching up with some former students, now friends of mine
Now I'm back in the States for a visit, and I'm enjoying the time with family and friends as well as the food.  I'll update more about that in a few weeks.

Ciao for now!