…is what I am after four days driving around hairpin bends 4000m above sea level drinking cocaine (well, coca leaves) tea to relieve my altitude sickness and marvelling at the most impresive scenery I’ve ever seen.  We got to Arica on Monday night after five days sandboarding, watching the sun rise and set over mountains, lunar valleys and steaming geysers and finally eating some decent veggie food in the hippie restuarants of San Pedro de Atacama, followed by a weekend in a little desert oasis town two hours from Iquique feasting on mangoes and oranges, swimming in thermal rock pools and relaxing in a beautiful colonial style hotel for only six quid a night. 

We hired a chevvy pick up Tuesday night and headed out into Lauca national park early Wednesday morning.  We stayed at a village on the edge of the park the first day to get used to the altitude (3500m there, 4600m at height of park) and spent the day in some amazing thermal pools nearby.  On Thursday we continued up into the park and took in the breathtaking views of snow capped volcanos and deep blue lakes. We’d planned on going walking, but I despite spending a day at lower altitudes I still suffered from altitude sickness and felt breathless and sick, as well as deathly tired, so more than a few minutes walk was too much.  I tried out the local remedy of chewing or boiling coca leaves to releive the symptoms and it well enough for me to be able to function pretty much normally, so no panic there.  

Yesterday we drove 100km out into the neighbouring national park to see the huge salt flat, Salar de Surire.   The drive was fantastic, over bumpy, dusty desert roads, skirting heavy mining lorries and grazing llamas to be rewarded with a blinding white plain of salt encircled by towering mountains and smoking volcanos and populated with flocks of flamingos and herds of llamas and vicuña.  We drove all the way round and stopped halfway to take a bath in yet more hot springs (unfortunately these were v sulpherous and we still smell a little, but it was worth it!) and got back to the village by nightfall. 

We drove back to Arica today and, I have to admit, were pretty relieved to drop the car off without incident and go eat some congratulatory cake! So it’s back to Santiago by plane on Monday morning, partying with my friends for the last time, then the thirteen hour plane home.  I’ve had an ace time, but don’t think I’ve ever been so excited at the prospect of being in the UK again… nos vemos pronto amigos!

Hola! Am writing this from the middle of the sunny sunny Atacama desert in the tourist centre of the North, San Pedro.  It’s a lovely little place, basically just made up of restuarants, hostals and tour operators housed in little mud and stone buildings, but it’s pretty much unspoilt, peaceful and relaxing.  we arrived last night and plan to go sandboarding letr this fternoon, followed by a trip into the Valle de la Luna to see the sunset.  Tuesday is a trip up to the salt plains in the mountains and Wednesday up at 4am to travel out to the geysers and hotsprings for sunrise.  We plan to do some mountain biking and maybe hike a volcano too, so should be a funfilled week.

Last week we went to La Serena and did horse riding in the Elqui Valley, visited the Virgin Mary at a pilgrimage site up in the mountains and went up to the Mamalluca observatory to see the night sky.  It was afantastic experience – the skies are so clear here that you can actually see the Milky Way plus two other galaxies with the naked eye, as well as Jupiter, Saturn and its moons (through the telescope), shooting stars every ten minutes or so and dozens of constellations.

On Friday we headed further north up to the national park Pan de Azucar.  We arrived there at 9am before teh sun had properly come up and wondered why we decided to go there – it looked like a barren wasteland.  But as the sun rose it runed into a beautiful, if pretty desolate, landscape of huge mountainous sand dunes, cacti, perfect white beaches, green blue sea and screaming llamas (!).  We walked 10k along the desert road to the main viewpoint and got a little sunburnt – typical English – then decided to take the adventurous way back, scarmnbling down teh mountainside and along the rocks on the seashore.  It was pretty hair raising, and at one point we had to climb round teh edge of a cliff above the crashing waves below and I had a bit of a panic attack, but Chris helped me through and it was fine after that – closest I’ve been to realising I could die though!  The ground was speckled with fools gold, beautiful little flowers and cacti and ancient shells, while teh sky was a perfect blue and the air the freshest I’ve inhaled since I’ve been in Chile.  Well worth the near death experience, but we won’t be taking any off piste risks like that again unless we know there’s no cliffs involved!  From there we headed 8 hours north to Calama across the desert and took a bus from there to San Pedro last night.  ANd here I am!

Hope all is well back home, can’t wait to see everyone again. Love to all xxxx

Sorry I haven’t posted for so long, it’s been a bust last couple of weeks, and my laptop’s still dead *sniff*.  I have to keep it short as am going out for a goodbye meal with all the Los Navíos team in a bit… (yes, I got there in the end!)

So the last group session wnet really well, the kids were all v excited about the star charts and I got them all little prizes along with bigger prizes for the ones who reached the end of the chart, because they’ve all progressed and in general worked and behaved very well since I’ve been here.   Last week’s trip to the zoo was less traumatic than I expected – nowhere near as bad as Mendoza, but not good – andthe kids had a fabulous time, most of them had never seen any of the animals before, and we were running from cage to cage like mad things.  Last Thursday the police came and dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and did a little show on their motorbikes – I got to ride on the back of one and then lie at the end of a ramp with some of the other tías while they jumped over us – v exciting!

This week we played in the big park at Quinta Normal, visted some museums there and had a mini football competetion on Wednesday.  It was lovely to spend so much timewith the kids and we chatted and laughed loads, testament to how much my spanish, or chilean, has improved.

Last weekend was the second jornada, we went back to the mountain retreat and did similar group reflection and awareness raising activities with the new volunteers and played in the snow – see photos – amazing to see snow in July! It’s actually got really war the last couple of days – cold at night, but only need one jumper during teh day and it’s beautiful and sunny.

Today was my last day at work and I arrived crying because I spent the whole micro journey planning my little speech.  The team gave me a wonderful present of a leather bag handmade by the mapuche (native Chilean) tía Isa, and said all sorts of lovely things, while I succeeded in moving them to tears – not my aim, but what I said came from the heart, and I relaly will miss them and the children, as well as just being part of the Centre.  I’ll write up my experience more thoroughly when I get back, but the unavoidably cliched conclusion is that it has been a life-changing experience, as well as one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, and I feel proud of the way I dealt with it.

Chris will be on his way here right now – v weird that my two worlds are coming together, but I’m v excited of course! We head off on our travels on Monday, I’ll try and post while we’re away if possible.

OK so I’d best go get ready, I’m deadly tired from all the goodbyes this week, plus not sleeping more than five or six hours a night since Sunday, but I’m so pleased that the team organised this despedida (goodbye dinner) for me… to think I thought they’d never accept me!

Hope all is well back home, I’m incredibly excited about touching down on UK soil (my patriotism has grown even more since I discovered it for teh first time in Paris) and seeing everyone again, but I think there will be tears on the plane.

Besos a todos.

Let’s get the bad out the way first :

4am Thursday morning, Laura tumbles out of bed, feverish, gasping for water.  Fills glass in bathroom, returns to room, trips over power cable, spills entire glass of water over laptop.  In blurry eyed, half sleeping, now thoroughly irritated state, makes feeble attempt to mop up water.  Goes back to bed.  Gets up 11am.  Laptop is sitting in pool of water.  RIP laptop.  RIP internet connection.  RIP PR work.  Laura weeps.  In all seriousness, it doesn’t matter too much, it was on its way out anyway, but I’d forgotten to back up the photos I’ve been taking, and I only have about 150 on my camera and the 100 on my flickr, but hopefully some technokid will be able to retrieve something from my hard drive, I don’t know.  I can still take plenty of photos here and we’ll take loads when we go travelling so it’s not too much of a problem.

My housemates have split up and Camila’s moved out.  Nata is really sad, obviously, so I’m going to do my best to cheer her up, but once I leave she’s going to be on her own, poor thing.  Looks like all her friends are rallying round though, so I’m sure she’ll be fine.

Lisa left today, and another member of my class is leaving at the end of the week. Sad.

Buuuuut there’s more good things than bad:

I’m not ill any more! Which means…

I can go to work tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to it.

The repair day at the girls’ home Entre Todas went really well, we repainted nearly all of the inside and the menfolk played with drills and saws and started constructing a computer room.  The girls all pitched in too, which in some cases was a little more of a hinderance than a help, but they had a good time.  I had some nice conversations with a few of them, and one even asked if I spoke English, so I was pretty chuffed with that!  The girl I befriended at the first Liga thanks to us both being useless at volleyball was there and really pleased to see me, so we had good times (she’s on my left in the photo). 

We spent another extremely pleasant Sunday in Barrio Brasil, buying fruit at the feria, playing frisbee and pingpong in the plaza and hanging out in our favourite veggie cafe getting a little overcompetitive playing kids’ card games.  Aisan also bullied me into getting a very chilean braid put in my hair.  Hmm.

It’s sunny!

I forgot to mention that the last Friday I worked I took all ten of the older group on my own to the park after they finished their work early, and they all behaved really well.  We had lots of fun, one of the girls confided in me that she’d just got her period and I was able to make her feel happy and confident about it, and all in all I felt like I was really doing something worthwhile by being there.

Another thing I forgot to mention is that in our last planning meeting, my boss told me I’m the most organised and useful volunteer they’ve had, that I’ve brought a lot of fresh ideas to the Centro and they’re really going to miss not having me around; if I was a kid I’d get a grade 7, the equivalent of an A. Woo!  And when I think how annoyed and confused I was back in my first week when I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing or how I could help…

Am off to buy prizes for the kids who’ve filled up their progress chart now, along with some little presents for everyone, as they’ve all developed in their own way even if they didn’t make it to the end of the chart.  Then there’s a mammoth soup making session on the cards yum yum yum.

Besiiiitos.

Seriously, why would anyone choose to live here full time?  I’ve been properly off work sick four times now in less than five months, all following periods of extremely bad pollution (although not reaching emergency levels, think I’ll be fleeing for the hills if that ever happens).  This week I have a spectacularly horrible bout of tonsilitis combined with fever (now dissipating, fortunately), ear ache and general all over feel like I’ve been kicked down a flight of stairs aches and pains.  I managed to get to a doctor today and, after forking out £15 just for the privilege of doing so, muttering fierce socialist oaths under my breath, got a prescription for antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and strict instructions not to go to work until next week.

I’m not too happy about that as I only have three and half week left, plus we’re dealing with a difficult topic – sexuality and reproductive rights – and I’d like to be able to help R out there, but it’s better that I get well and avoid infecting the kids and staff.  In fact, next week will be my last week of group sessions, as the winter holidays start on 16th July, but we’ve organised some day trips out around the city, as well as my despedida (goodbye party – *wipes away a tear*), so that should be fun. Assuming the kids can get up for 8.30, of course, which could be a task.  Send me get well vibes, we have a repair day at one of the hogars on Saturday and I missed the last one, so really want to go.

The new VE website I’ve been working on since I’ve been here is now up! I did a fair old bit of translation and proof reading and wrote a couple of the pages, including this one on volunteer life. I’m pretty pleased with it, I have to say.

The weekend passed most constructively and merrily, filled with language exchanges, copious amounts of BK veggie food, finally realising that I can actually say I speak Spanish without having to qualify it with un poco or mas o menos, sighing over my previous life in Paris at the cinema (Paris, Je t’aime), marvelling at the almost smog free views from Cerro Santa Lucia, birthday brunch with the kids at Lisa and Charlotte’s residencia, exquisite hot chocolate, fresh fruit and popcorn from the feria and, bizarrely enough, drag queens dressed as Britney Spears.

I’m a happy bean.

It’s cold.  Very very cold.  So cold it actually snowed this afternoon; for one of my coworkers it was the first time she’d seen snow fall in 15 years.  The rain was impressive today too, the streets around Los Navios were so blocked with water that there were little men in yellow waiting on the kerbside to ferry pedestrians across in rickety old carts.  The kids didn’t come to group today, so we spent most of the afternoon staring out the window and talking about the weather (see title).  The Chileans certainly give us Brits a run for our money when it comes to meterological chatter.  Despite only seeing my Thursday group this week – and their out of character hyperactivity and inability to concentrate left me so worn out that my hour and a half’s kid time was quite enough – I’ve really enjoyed myself.  I feel like I’ve finally got the hang of Chilean – I no longer feel ridiculous adding ‘po’ to the end of every other phrase (the equivalent of sticking ‘mate’ on the end of a sentence in English) or cooing over anything and everything que liiiiiiiiiiindo, que boniiiiito, es chiquitiiiiiiito (how preeeeeeetty, so cuuuuuuuute, so smaaaaaaall) – and my workmates have responded really well.  I understand probably 70% of what they say now, up from about 30% when I started, and I can make them laugh and be myself a lot more, rather than being the silent, nervous, overly hard-working weirdo gringa that I came across as towards the beginning of my time at Los Navios.  I’ve been told a number of times this week that they don’t want me to go, that they’ll miss me lots and that I’m like a member of their family, and I certainly feel like part of the team, at long, long last.  It’s just a shame it’s taken almost four months to get to this stage – only five weeks to go!  We actually only have three weeks of group sessions left as the kids are on school holiday from the 16th July, but we’re doing lots of trips in the last two weeks which should be fun. Although I’m kind of dreading going to the zoo after my Mendoza nightmare.

Other things that have made me happy are the arrival of the new class of volunteers last week -all very nice and a couple I feel like I’ll really get on with, being able to see the mountains at last, my little heater I bought for my room to combat the previously inescapable cold, finding a whole host of beautiful little streets untainted by hideous seventies architecture (photos to follow) and, of course, the lovely Charlotte and Lisa.  Lisa’s leaving at the end of next week, but we’re having a reunion before I go back on the 21st August, along with Chuy, who left on Wednesday to go meditate and enjoy the sun in Brazil.  I’m a little jealous, but in a way I’m quite enjoying the novelty of experiencing Winter in June.  On the negative side, it’s horrible to think about the kids at home without heating, or just one communal gas heater in their front room, and being forced to do their schoolwork in freezing classrooms with no heating whatsoever.  Of course, this doesn’t apply to the kids who are fortunate enough to go to the better off schools in the centre of Santiago.  The city’s severe social and economic inequality certainly makes itself felt in Winter.  I’m glad to be a part – even just a tiny part – of an organisation that’s committed to changing this.

My little project at the moment is an exhibition of the work my kids have done on the subject ‘My Family’.  They’ve produced some excellent paintings and drawings in the last couple of weeks and I’m going to mount and display them for their parents to come and see next week.  We’ve also been making family trees and hopefully the parents will be able to help their kids complete their trees at the exhibition.  A representative from the overseers of our project, the government child protection department SENAME, is coming to observe the group on Thursday and analyse all the masses of paperwork we’ve been doing, so fingers crossed it all goes well.  It’s like my own little Ofsted inspection – eek.

Think that’s about all my news, am going to visit Baz’s BK friend Maria tomorrow and have lunch – I spoke to her on the phone just now and she said I sounded more Chilean than she does – then I’m determined to make use of my weekend by not partying til 5am and actually getting up and partaking of some culture.  We’ll see how I do on Monday…

I’m feeling better now, but missed the guaguas on Saturday because I was still a bit dodgy and didn’t want to risk making them ill. I also had to go and buy a tonne of clothes because the laundry people still hadn’t washed the massive load I left on Tuesday, in fact they weren’t really sure where my clothes were, with a bit of luck they’d turn up on Monday. Fortunately they did, but I didn’t appreciate the stress of having to potentially buy an entire new wardrobe, nor of being confronted with an empty underwear drawer an hour before I needed to go to work. Moral of the story being: rich people should wash their own pants.

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