Tag Archives: nonfiction writing

Team Gaucho: Gaffes and Gallivants

What happens when two Yankees with an empty tank and wallet take to the open Patagonian road?

Join me on the journey of two victims of their generation, taken directly from a worn, leather-bound journal that joins others like itself in chronicling the travels of an ignoramus. This was my guest post at the now defunct Real Bloggers United in response to its “Holiday” theme.

 

Patagonia:  Pesos, Pussycats, & Petrol

 

This memoir is a direct transcription from my 2007 travel journal, when my husband (fiancé at the time) and I traveled to South America’s Patagonia. This particular entry involves our roundtrip road-trip from El Calafate, Argentina to Torres Del Paine, Chile.

El Calafate, Argentina, 29 March 2007

The Blackberry calleth us to consciousness early yesterday morning, but we waketh not early. Both needing sleepy long-time, we snoozed a bit longer until, rriiiipp! Off had to go the Band-Aid of blissful sleep so we could ready for our next adventure. Off we went around 10:30am to seek out Ruta 40. Missing our intended turn, we luckily remained on route to Esperanza, which was a longer, but easier way to take—paved all the way until the border, whereas approximately 70km of our originally mapped journey would have been unpaved in addition to the 100km or so leading into Chile and to Torres Del Paine national park.

Once past Esperanza, just as the guidebook promised, we could see the jagged torres on the horizon for the rest of the drive in. Between us and that wicked vision looming in the distance was a vast openness of dry plains and low hills, much like the American West. Turning onto a gravel road to cross the border, the Argentinian immigration/customs site came out of nowhere—a couple white buildings standing solitary in an ocean of uncultivated, unpaved land, making its sister Chilean border patrol seem like a bustling metropolis in comparison.

Just driving into the park was an experience in and of itself: the sinister blades of stone once in the distance now crept in upon us before we knew it—utterly thrilling to behold. The whimsy-factor was certainly upped by the plethora of guanacos we encountered roadside (at one point, they must have numbered at least 50), as well as ostrich-like birds, the choique. Check 2 off the wildlife-indigenous-to-the-area list, 3 if you count the dead skunks on the road; happily, we did not check puma off this list.

Feeling lame that we naïve, Starbucks-and-ATM Americans had not thought of withdrawing more Argentine pesos or exchanging to Chilean ones in preparation for our border-crossing, the park guy at the administrative office let us pass on the condition that we’d pay on our way out. Reaching our campsite off Lago Pehoe after more twists-n-turns, we were ecstatic to leave the car and stretch our legs in the presence of such awe-inspiring natural wonder.

Perhaps just as awe-ful (really, as in awful) was the simultaneous realization that we needed to spend our remaining pesos for the camp site, and, therefore, had to find a way of obtaining Chilean cambio in a realm of no ATMS, as well as fill our car with fuel.

Prior to finding fuel that evening, we had—after a brief hike around our new surroundings—walked a kilometre to the neighboring hotel in hopes of exchanging cash or using a credit card. No. So we walked back to our site, hopped into the car and drove the other way to the other neighboring hotel. Si. I was able to exchange 120 USD for 60,000 Chilean pesos, 30,000 of which would cover our park access. The remaining 30,000 had to be budgeted carefully, a concept neither my husband nor I are very savvy with.

It was at this hospitable location that we were directed to our fuel source 15 minutes up the road to take care of Desperate Need #2. Before we left the hotel, I had befriended a baby gato that was killing me with its cute mewing in the parking lot until we nearly killed it when it crawled under the freaking car when we needed to back up and leave.

The rest reads like a hybrid drama/horror movie: I had to tempt the kitty far from the car so my husband could start it up and maneuver it for exiting, at which point my guilt-ridden goodbyes to el gato were replaced with the shrill yell, “Open the door! OPEN THE DOOR!!” as I ran to the car to out-chase the kitten running after me. You see, the door on the passenger side of our ancient VW Polo always had to be opened from the inside because it was broken. Regardless, when I looked back in the midst of screaming bloody-murder, the kitten had since stopped following me a great distance off; it was instead preoccupied with new people who’d just driven in and likely thought I was an American Psycho not only ditching a poor kitten but running screaming from it and trying to hop into a moving vehicle. The pièce de résistance would have been if my husband, in trying to make a speedy getaway, had dropped the transmission right there.

Ah, but returning to the Gas Quest, we drove to where the hotel had directed us. The owner of whatever that establishment was informed us this wasn’t where we could get gas, yet at the last-minute called out to offer to sell us some. We took his word on the price, and our 4 litres were delivered to us in a juice bottle and “pumped” into the tank with a jerry-rigged device that likewise appeared to be made of some sort of beverage container…

When we got back to our site with a tank filled in unorthodox fashion, we found there were slim pickin’s at the wee campsite store for dinner, so we thought long and hard about how to allocate our remaining pesos: 14,000 to dinner at the restaurant since there was zero available we could cook ourselves (unless we desired a Starburst/marshmallow/M&M bouillabaisse), and I think another 12,000 to water, oatmeal, marmalade, and firewood in prep for that night’s warmth and this morning’s breakfast. This newfound necessity for frugality, however, didn’t stop us from investing good American dough in a bottle of wine (Chilean merlot) to have with dinner, the very tonic that probably contributed to the Fight-Heard-Round-the-Camp, which eventually unfolded during said meal.

Ah, well. It was a kiss-and-make-up morning with the new day amidst pink mountains and hills full of rainbows. The melancholy thing about rainbows is that no matter how clearly they appear, when you chase them, there is nothing there. They are fleeting. The magical thing that happened to me this morning, though, was that, just as I was gazing out the window and registering this very thought as I watched a rainbow dissipate on reaching it, another one leapt out from behind the hill almost immediately thereafter, even brighter and more vividly distinct in its color spectrum than the first, if that could have been possible. Huh. Not so fleeting after all, those rainbows…

Well, once we awoke this morning, packed up our tent, and ate our most delicious oatmeal/marmalade-combo, we washed our dishes, got the auto packed, resigned ourselves to a 2nd day without showering, and set out around 9:30-10:00am Argentine time to retrace our steps out of the park—but not without making a wee side excursion for a brief and easy hike to a nearby waterfall. Well, easy in the wide-gravel-path-and-low-incline sense, fierce in the wind-is-so-strong-it’s-as-though-the-wicked-mountains-don’t-want-us-here sense. The spattering rain was actually painful, and the lake waters whipped upwards in broad plumes of spray…not a bad day to not spend in the park. The hovering clouds prevented the fantastic views of the torres we had yesterday, so perhaps it was just as well we had to leave…

…until, holy mother-f***ing s***. Life became The Amazing Race.

We had just barely enough gas to reach Esperanza, the next town with ever so slightly more commerce than the “towns” we’d been through—indeed, the beacon of “hope” (the town’s namesake) we relied on to employ automated machines accepting credit cards, perhaps.

Instead, as we rolled into our 2nd station of the day (the 3rd fuel source of the previous 24 hours), why no, in fact, they do not accept credito and apologize for the inconvenience.

We drive to the café across the street, with persisting hope that they will exchange cambio or accept the plastic, but our situation became increasingly hopeless. And we still had almost 300km more to drive.

As we walked out to the lot, a tour bus just unloaded its human cargo for leg-stretching at the café. I told my husband they might be our only hope, that we would have to beg for “money, honey” (yes, I used those words in a time of crisis). I wouldn’t have considered it had I not seen it successfully executed so many times on The Amazing Race after non-elimination rounds. Sadly, reality TV differs significantly from “reality” when you don’t have a cameraman running around with you. Who knew what leverage that could be internationally, when good Samaritans will come out of the woodwork for their 15-minutes of fame.

After asking a tour member for cambio given our predicament, he insisted that the station would offer credit as an option. This was seconded by another man, despite our insistence that they didn’t. We got back in our car, pooled our cash and held our breath; I pondered anything that we could possibly pawn. Though we saw a credit card machine on the station counter, just beyond loomed the same sign we saw before stating cards wouldn’t be taken. It is not often that one finds oneself in the situation of slapping down 3 different denominations of currency on a gas station counter, asking for the attendant to please accept. He and a coworker thumbed through our combined 4,000 Chilean pesos, 2 Argentine pesos, and 4-odd U.S. dollars (barely exceeding 10 USD in total, and our U.S. coins no doubt being worthless to them), which they somehow deemed acceptable and worth 15 litres to us.

With assurance that this would bring us back to El Calafate (and an actual 17 litres added to our malnourished tank out of the goodness of their hearts), we were on our way with sighs of relief, a grin on our faces, a sense of adventure, and a great lesson learned on not taking modern alternatives to cold, hard cash for granted.

The tranquility of yesterday’s sunshine and low winds, though, remains at the forefront of my mind when I think of Torres Del Paine. I think of its aqua-grey lakes and how their waves sounded like a million pearls tapping and colliding as they cascaded and rolled over one another in crashing to the shore. I think of the twilight looked upon through a teardrop-shaped tent window. The experience wasn’t restful, but the memories already are.

And that much more so three years later. We can’t wait to return…with a wallet loaded with local currency and tank filled with fuel. 🙂


The Monkey Meltdown

Real Bloggers United

What happens when you combine a tiki, whiteboard, and woman pushed to her brink?

To start off on a tangent, I’m back in London and rubbing together what brain cells I have to work with during my lingering jet-lag…zzzzzzzz…

I promise to get back up in my tree and swingin’ on the vines again this week, but first allow me to share another guest post of mine that featured on Real Bloggers United (“RBU“). This is a personal memoir that I offered up for RBU’s July theme, “The Day My Patience Died.”

 

No Child Left Behind…That Can’t Bring His or Her Own Self Forward

“We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
Robert Frost

There was a time last year when my patience was whittled to its tender core, its raw, throbbing nerve exposed until it one day collapsed in the throes of death.

Allow me to provide some context.

Three years before my patience died, I began my career as a high school English teacher after leaving the Finance field. It was a challenging first year of self-doubt and pining for the safe confines of my cubicle, questioning if I’d made the right decision in sacrificing money and lifestyle to pursue this entirely different path. But I persevered—it was a shift in identity, but one I’d chosen, and it taught me that it isn’t all about me after all…Helping teenagers recognize their abilities and become the best versions of themselves is a calling and a blessing.

Three months before my patience died, I moved to London as a newlywed. It had been a summer of transition—of ending a school year, of beginning a marriage, of packing…of resigning. After a few months of settling in, I registered with a London teaching agency, interviewed, and found a long-term substitute (supply) position on the outskirts of the city, to commence just after the New Year.

Three weeks before my patience died, I was touring Ireland with my husband on our way back from visiting the States for Christmas. That rolling landscape, unfathomably green for January, helped to quell what was steadily curdling within me: panic. Panic that I’d accepted the job within hours of flying home for the holidays; panic that I was now only days away from starting; panic that the school provided me with no materials so I could plan my units. For those who haven’t taught, I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to plan out lessons in advance. Sure, you end up having to modify on the fly depending on what’s working and what isn’t any given minute, but that’s exactly why you need the game-plan coming into it. The unpredictable is inevitably going to happen, so having an organized, logical basis to work with is all that will give you some semblance of control when the day sucks you into its current, taking you where it may as it tosses and tumbles you on its foaming pedagogical waves.

Three days before my patience died, I was poising to quit, and the next day I phoned the teaching agency to request replacement. My patience was already on its death-bed, you see, and it was time to call in the sick nurse. A unique intersection of factors (which I endearingly call “The Perfect Storm”) had gotten me down—the emotional trauma of relocating as an accompanying spouse, the aforementioned lack of resources/support from the school as I tried to adjust to a new national curriculum and procedures, the guilt that my lack of UK training could possibly sabotage student achievement. But the one factor that proved to be the last straw to break the proverbial camel’s back, however, lasted right up until…

…three seconds before I banged my Tiki stick on the floor and spontaneously decided on a new methodology.

(FYI, the Tiki is a carved wooden stick I bought in New Zealand and use as a pointing tool and “zero noise” signal—no, not for corporal punishment or conjuring hexes…yet).

Right. It was time for a change in tack. Why? Because after breaking up three fist-fights my first week and continuing to enjoy that privilege over the next, I was a bit tired. I came from a suburban school district in which a light congratulatory pat on a student’s shoulder could’ve gotten me sued, and here I was practically shoving my foot against one student’s face to gain better leverage to pry the other off and grip him (or her!) in a bear-hug, thereby preventing another pounding. And when they weren’t fighting, they were incessantly hopping out of their seats and jabbering off topic, as students will do.

As a result, lessons never reached fruition due to behavior I admittedly couldn’t manage effectively (despite learning I could be quite the physical powerhouse when need be). The advice I always received from the toughened urban teachers was to yell and yell loudly, which I really did try. But aside from hurting my throat, it really didn’t make a difference and only left me not liking who I was by the end of the school day. Ultimately, I knew I had to stay true to myself, and if that wasn’t enough, well then, I wasn’t meant to be in this position.

Nonetheless, I still had to survive the last week. And, as an educator, I needed to teach! So my patience finally died when I handed my Years 9s a worksheet and asked them to silently read it and write their responses. On seeing that only six students had, in fact, followed the directions, I was done.

It was time to leave children behind.

“Okay, if you, you, you, and you, you, and you could please gather your things and come up here to the front of the room, please,” I asked as I pointed to each of the six diligent students. Might I add that these were also my quietest kids, thus the most reluctant to participate in class, especially when their shy ideas were squashed by their more unconstructive, attention-seeking peers.

I could tell the chosen students were confused, but I warmly encouraged them to continue toward the front. As for the disengaged kids already sitting there:

“All right. You guys’ll have to move back.”

I’m still surprised how no one really questioned me at this point. The obedient and disobedient alike followed my instructions and got up. They loved being out of their seats, after all.

“Okay, so you six, let’s bring these tables a bit forward, and if you two don’t mind just bringing those chairs round so we’re close to the whiteboard. There, that’s great.”

They got themselves situated, and, within close range of the Chosen Six, I proceeded to explain in a normal speaking voice (i.e., not the teaching one that speaks over students instead of bringing their volume down):

“Okay, so this isn’t going to be easy, but what I need you guys to do is concentrate really hard on listening to me. Just ignore those yahoos in back. Let them screw off; we’re not going to care. I can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, so I’m letting them choose for themselves whether they want an education or they don’t.” At this point, I wasn’t even looking at the outlying students, only my Chosen Six. “I refuse to raise my voice—we should be able to speak civilly, so just stay with me, and we’ll be okay.”

With their modest, smiling faces nodding in assent, I proceeded to ask the same question that minutes earlier had met with blank expressions because three-fourths of the class hadn’t read what they were supposed to. This time, my quietest students had the confidence to answer.

“Yes, very good!” I said, promoting their esteem further by writing responses on the whiteboard, transcribing their intelligence for posterity (at least until I had to erase it for the next period…).

Their smiles grew and their eagerness to share more ideas flourished in multiple raised hands. There was no question they felt the buzz of receiving individualized attention and having earned status among an elite few.

The Unchosen Ones were quick to pick up on this. And, after a time, some of them wanted in on it, too.

One girl who typically looked at me with a deadened stare from the back of the room while sucking her thumb was never one of my allies in successful lesson execution, usually only pulling her thumb out long enough to share in the smacking and unruly chatter that prevailed back there. This day, though, she collected her bag and stood to walk to the front of the room. She politely asked for another handout, as hers had been balled up and thrown elsewhere by then.

I should probably address at this point what, precisely, was going on in the back of the classroom while I was conducting this little experiment. Well, brazen tomfoolery, that’s what. A little over half of the other students were up on their feet and throwing paper wads into the rubbish bin that they’d positioned on top of a table. They were yelling and jabbing and singing with Dionysian abandon given this new, unusual liberty. The seated ones, however, eventually turned to face the front again, and from their eye contact, I could tell their ears were straining to hear what was transpiring among the Chosen Six.

Or should I say Chosen Seven now that the thumb-sucker had joined us and started offering up her ideas—very good ones at that. A minute later, two other girls left their seats to drag them up front as well. One by one, some boys made the move, too, including the one who’d started to yell to me, “Hey, Miss! Hey, why aren’t you teaching us? Miss, why won’t you look at me? Hey!”

I handed each newcomer a fresh handout and welcomed them with, “In coming up here, you’re choosing to learn. If you can’t participate in this lesson, I’d honestly prefer you go back and do whatever else you want. I won’t get mad; you won’t get in trouble. It’s entirely your choice.”

They stayed with me.

By this time, given the loud ruckus in the back managed well enough by only a few boys, the Chosen Seven + Several More (who shall henceforth be named The Ones Who Chose Education) had felt the need to abandon the tables altogether and pull their chairs closer to the whiteboard, forming a tight semicircle around me.

By the end of the period, only three boys remained in the back.

“This was our best lesson, guys! Awesome job; I’m really proud,” I congratulated as The Ones Who Chose Education exited after the bell rang.

But as my day continued, other challenging classes had to be endured, and I was yet again demoralized by the time I returned home that evening.

Consequently, the next day as I walked back to the classroom to confront my Year 9s again, I had already given up on the experiment and figured I’d just resume instruction (or lack thereof) as usual and engage in survival mode for the last couple days. In trepidation and defeat, I approached the classroom door. I passed through the threshold, and almost audibly gasped at what I saw…

* * *

There was a day I had believed my patience died, but I lived to tell the tale. And live on I did with a renewed sense of satisfaction and confidence, as well as a question on my mind:

Had my patience died that day, or did what didn’t kill it only make it stronger?

* * *

I passed through the threshold, and almost audibly gasped at what I saw: a group of Year 9 students who arrived earlier than me. I had caught them out of their seats and right in the middle of—

—pushing tables back and dragging chairs forward. They were rearranging the classroom into exactly the way we’d left it the day before. They were making the decision for me.

I followed their cue, then, and conducted the lesson in this way again.

Two students (only one from the day before while the other had been absent) shot baskets between empty tables filling the open expanse of the rear two-thirds of the classroom.

Twenty others squished together with their notebooks on their laps in a semicircle around the whiteboard, choosing Education.

 

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