Thursday, June 4, 2009

Downtime to Reevaluate

After circling back through Buenos Aires for my 4th visit this trip and stopping for 3 days in Mendoza to settle down, I have ended up back in Viña del Mar, Chile where I spent 5 weeks for a study abroad 5 years ago. Viña is where I attribute my initial decision to make Spanish a principal focus of study, and therefore partly the reason why I am back here in South America now. I may be looking a little rough around the edges and travel-worn, but I'm feeling energized and inspired after 5 days of downtime to assess the last 5 months since starting this trip. The two principal questions I've been pondering are:
What are some of the most important lessons I've learned? And how do I apply them to the next leg of the adventure? Here are some thoughts:
  • It is essential to spend substantial time with social projects to understand how they work and what internal and external factors influence operation. At the beginning of the trip, I envisioned working with a multitude of organizations for a short period of time each and helping to raise awareness of what they do. It finally hit home after working with Cruzada Patagonica at the CEI San Ignacio school in Junin de los Andes that true understanding takes time. We extended our stay an extra week and still felt that after 2 weeks we were just beginning to get to know the people and how they live. I've given myself a month here in Viña, though the usual red tape and difficulties in communication have been chipping away at my active involvement time. That leads to my next point:
  • There is always something productive to do. With all this waiting time, I've been occupying myself with learning the Chilean slang, discussing social and cultural issues here in Chile with my slang professors (hostel workers), as well as participating in interesting student-lead community outreach efforts. After talking about the reason for my extended travels (which is common hostel chatter) and my volunteer efforts, one of the hostel workers invited me to join him on an outreach program that he participates in every week.
    The outreach program is organized by students at a local technical institute. Every Monday the students prepare and deliver hot coffee, tea and simple meals of pasta and bread to homeless people in the area. I spent the evening talking with a wonderfully welcoming couple in a modest 6x10ft shack built in the city's old sewer canal (El Estero Marga Marga), which is now used for parking and flea markets among other things. Something as simple as offering a hot cup of coffee on a cold night helps begin the process of bridging the gap between the marginalized section of society and the relatively privileged.

(Old sewer canal Marga Marga in Viña del Mar)
  • I can't do everything on my own. Trying to accomplish all that I set out to do was perhaps more ambitious than realistic. The majority of planning for the trip was done with two people in mind, and when it became a solo project I decided to go ahead with all the multimedia ideas anyway. First, I generally have to deal with logistics of where I am going, how, when, and where I will stay when I get there. If someone is hosting me, the first things to do is spend time getting to know my host. It would be rather rude to say, "Hi, nice to meet you. Will you leave me alone for a day or two so I can edit some video?" Second, it is next to impossible to carry around a video camera, get useful footage, interact and establish relationships without making people feel uncomfortable (with a video camera in their face), and actually be productive and useful all at the same time. Therefore...
  • Focus on the goal. The goal is to begin to understand cultural differences and local economic, social and environmental factors in order to help people and start working together effectively. While I want to share what I learn and provide a full multimedia production of the adventure to help others understand, I am not capable of being an internationally mobile production team. It would be great if I could be, but I think that I've found my personal limit. I suppose that is still a productive lesson to learn. What does that mean for the rest of the trip? Vamos a ver...
  • On a more supernal level, the idea that there is a reason behind every event and delay, large and small, is something that was pointed out in a simple but powerful way during my short stay on the permaculture site in Brazil. That realization has followed me during the last two months and helped me to start looking for opportunity or significance when something goes awry. It is difficult to explain why, but there is something sublime in the accumulation of many seemingly unrelated factors from the past and the present producing a situation that is somehow more favorable, even though it may be wildly different or a slightly uncomfortable, than the one envisioned. So here I sit in a hostel without heat, freezing los coquitos off, and unable to get things moving at a preferable pace with the volunteer work. In spite of this, I'm not worried because there are a large number of factors in my favor, and I'm learning, finding inspiration all around me, and beginning to see the ways, means and the ends of the project more clearly. I may not have made as much geographical progress North as I originally planned, but learning to accept and flow with the obstacles and opportunities that present themselves is a more important type of progress.
So with the next blog post, my characteristically "American" optimism says I will have good news to share about my volunteer status with the organization here in Viña. Send happy thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. You're the best, James! Just hang in there and you know things are going to come together!

    Love ya much!

    Allison, your fake cousin.


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