La Campana

While some weekends we have events or excursions, the weekends we don’t I hop on some sort of transport and travel somewhere where there is open space or something new to discover. My host parents told me of a mountain called La Campana not far from Valparaíso that lies between the ocean and the Andes. So one weekend some of my friends and I woke up early and bus hopped our way to La Campana. It was beautiful, but since it was still the end of winter the summit was closed off due to ice. So a few weeks later when one of my friend’s host brother said he was going with some friends I went along again. This time the summit was open so we could climb all the way up. The first time I hiked up La Campana there was a thick fog covering the valley. This was actually pretty cool because as you hiked you looked out through the trees and had no idea what was beyond; you felt like you were hiking through a cloud. But the second time we hiked there was no blanket of fog and so everything seemed new and different. When the thick layer of trees opened up for a moment you saw the valley laid out in front of you, rolling hills and distant towns, small cars winding along roads and birds gliding through the air. Second time round we made it up to the middle point, where we had stopped and turned around the first time, in about a third of the time. We flew up the mountain; I thought it was a tame mountain assent given my knowledge of what we had done the time before. I figured once we passed the midpoint we would just have a short couple switchbacks up to the summit. So once we had finished eating at the midpoint and headed up I was pretty surprised to find that slowly the trail became steeper and steeper. I had heard it was like bouldering near the summit, but I guess I hadn’t thought much of it. But surely enough after we left the tree line we had rock cliffs and steep rock fields to ascend. We would turn a corner and lose the trail, only spying a red flag somewhere across a nearly vertical field of boulders and stones. So we would make our way hand over foot pulling ourselves up over the rocks, clinging to the side of the mountains. And it was absolutely amazing. You heart was racing either because you were panting climbing up the mountain, or because you looked to your side and saw the mountain fall away into the valley below. Either way it was quite the feeling having to command both your mind and your burning muscles to keep climbing. This feeling of amazement and power is amplified by the fact that all around you are views of the mountain range and valley. It’s breath taking even though your working hard enough you don’t have any breath to spare gawking at it. Nonetheless I did my fair share of gawking and “is this real life?” There was no doubt a huge grin across my face the whole climb, which very well caused a few odd looks. Then as I thought it couldn’t get much more beautiful, or that if we didn’t reach the summit soon my arms might give way next time I had to pull myself up over a boulder, we came up to a ledge. All of a sudden it wasn’t tree covered hills and a valley I was seeing laid out below me, now I was staring up completely in awe because for as high up as I felt I had climbed, there stood the Andes towering above me, snow capped and incredible.

I grew up climbing around in the Pacific Northwest, skiing on Mt. Bachelor and backpacking in the Three Sisters, but I hadn’t ever felt quite so taken aback by a mountain range like this before. It was like Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood were lined up and replicated to make a mountain range that stretched for as far as I could see in both directions. My arms didn’t feel so weak anymore, which was good because I still had a good climb left before the top. But it was a climb interrupted with views of outstanding mountains and you couldn’t help but feel their power and energy. Then reaching the summit, I stood wobbly legged and out of breath on the edge of a rock overlooking what I had just climbed and the satisfaction of completing that, pushing my body to do something I hadn’t done before combined with the view was euphoric. The Andes didn’t just stretch in two directions, I was at such a height that the curve of the earth made the Andes stretch in a partial circle around me. On the other side of me the view of the Pacific Ocean completed the circle so that I was entirely surrounded in mountains and ocean. At the summit my friend and I had found the perfect rock where we could lay, our head propped up by another rock and face the Andes. And laying there eating the remains of our lunch I couldn’t help but feel that same awe I felt flying over the Andes, the power of the mountains that is reflected in the people that live in their shadow. Because when living in the presence of such mountains, how could you not help but feel pumped full of purpose and power.

Proof:

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Excursions

On Fridays we take excursions to different locations or organizations to learn. We have gone to one of Pablo Neruda’s homes on the coast to learn about the life and works of one of the world’s most influential poets and social activists. Another trip has been to a leftist labor organization and in the same day to a conservative think thank for lectures about what they do and their thoughts on certain issues facing the country. Our most recent was an excursion to Villa Grimaldi, which was one of the major torture centers during the dictatorship. We began our Friday with a class about human rights during and a background on those that were disappeared after the ’73 coup. Those that opposed the dictatorship, or were suspected of working or organizing against it, were taken by the carabineros, the government police. A Chilean woman explain that she thinks this period where thousands of people were disappeared has contributed to the Chilean culture of being more reserved with those you don’t know. She said she thinks it is harder for Chileans to trust others around them because during the dictatorship they experienced the trauma of having their loved ones taken or fearing they would be taken themselves if the wrong ears heard them saying the wrong thing. After the coup a mother may come home to the absence of her sons with no idea of where they had gone and what became of them and she lives to this day without that knowledge.

There was an old mine discovered in the more recent years. Looking at it what would strike you is the beauty of the surrounding landscape. There is an eerie mysterious feeling of old forgotten life because the entrance to the mine, a tall castle like structure, stands out as worn away by time and weather, seemingly abandoned. But the feeling of eerie forgotten life becomes all too real when you enter the small doorway and find the deserted building full of bodies. Unknown remains fill the space, the bodies hundreds of people taken after the coup and buried alive in attempts to suppress the forces that were rising up against the oppression and torture. This is what befell the first people to discover the mine after the dictatorship ended, now it is almost entirely destroyed, leaving little evidence that such a horror existed there.

Being disappeared was one threat that Chileans faced after the Military Coup of 1973; another was being taken to a torture center like Villa Grimaldi. They say the centers were to extract information from the opposing forces, but many believe that they were also used to strike fear into those that had hope of overcoming the military government.

We arrived to Villa Grimaldi in the afternoon after our class. Without the sign reading “Villa Grimaldi, Center for Torture and Extermination”, you might believe it was a park, an old open space for wandering and admiring trees and flowers. That was the original purpose, it was the Villa of a rich family, with a large house, outbuildings and gardens to relax and enjoy the space before the military took it over and made it a secret torture center. It’s pretty unsettling recognizing the contrast, especially when victims tell of their experience while contained within those four high fenced walls. How while they were being tortured the smell of roses wafted in by a breeze. The area itself tells its own story; you feel it just by standing on the grounds. But we had the amazing and truly powerful experience of being guided through the Villa by a woman who 40 years ago was brought to this very location and tortured. But she continues to tell her story and share her experience because for her remembering and learning from what has happened and working to make sure it never happens again is most important. She walked us through her experience; we entered through the gates she was brought through when she first arrived. She showed us where she was kept; small dark wooden boxes where they would have to take turns sitting and standing because there wasn’t enough space to all sit. She showed us where they were taken to be tortured and told us stories and moments she remembered. She brought us into the tower were they were tortured then locked away in small compartments in complete darkness and where others were exterminated. We walked up into this tower. I was alone and it was completely dark, sun pierced through the slits between the wooded boards of the walls, but other than that you were left with yourself, your thoughts and the stories you had been told. This experience became all too real to me in a way that was truly unsettling and very moving. It was something that words, stories in books or history documentaries couldn’t convey, because walking through the Villa, the feelings and stories you sense take form.

Now Chile has harnessed the power of this experience in a way that so directly fights against what happened within those walls not all that very long ago. Now the Villa is a memorial park, a place that embalms those experiences erasing ignorance. It is a place to remember and honor not just those that passed through Grimaldi’s gates but all those that faced oppression, torture and unexplainable horrors in the face of transforming their country and bringing about justice. What strikes you most while walking through the Villa is the indomitable power, vision and perseverance of those that said no to the military government and fought with all they had against the system of injustice.

Chile

And just like that within a week I went from Acholi, red brown dirt roads and hot equatorial climate to Spanish, busy concrete roads and crisp southern hemisphere winter. I traveled over 17,900 miles, four continents and many time zones to arrive in the wintery Chile. While the plane ride was not much compared to the one I took to reach Boston from Uganda, it was still quite a long one, although I was just very accustomed to it at that point in time. I spent the plane ride reading Pinochet and Me by Marc Cooper, which narrates the Military Coup of 1973 from the experience of a young American journalist. He was living in Santiago, Chile and working for President Allende when the US gave the cue for Pinochet’s violent overthrow and following dictatorship. It is an amazing book and finishing it as the sun rose over the towering, snow capped Andes of Chile was both beautifully powerful and chilling. As the sun’s rays peaked through the Andes I was left in complete awe of just how impressive they are and in amazement from the fact that I would be spending the next 5 months learning and exploring there. The Andes are one of the longest and tallest mountain ranges I have witnessed. They just seem to go on forever and you could feel the power that emanated from them, a power that seemed to resonate in the strength of those that lived under their shadow. Those that stood up against the dictatorship and gave all they had to the voice of justice and change in Chile. That sense of power and devotion to integrity and change is something I have felt in such an apparent way here in Chile. And it is truly awesome to witness.

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I have had the privilege of immersing myself fully in the study of the dictatorship and powerful movement against it through my study abroad program, School of International Training (SIT). I am in a program based in Valparaíso called Cultural Identity, Social Justice and Community Development. We spend our days studying in an intensive Spanish immersion class from 9am to noon and then after eating lunch head to the University of Valparaíso for classes about Chilean identity, social movements and political and social development, as well as many other awesome topics. We have had classes about gender equality, student led social movements, the role of music in Chilean culture and social change, the economy and its influence the environment and many more. The topics we are studying are truly invigorating. I have to admit that having class from 9 am till 4pm or 5pm all in Spanish can be pretty exhausting and often my brain decides of its own accord to simply turn off. Most of the time my brain is so exhausted that when I come home I can’t speak in English let a lone in Spanish to my host parents. So it’s often a one sided conversation at the dinner table. But I enjoy that; my host parents have really interesting things to say. It’s really quite amazing being able to learn about such important topics and then go home and get to hear first hand about them from Chileans’ perspectives. I will tell myself I’m going to get to bed early then end up sitting at the dinner table till close to midnight talking with my family about things like the Chilean feminist movement, the role of the government, the dictatorship and what they believe needs to happen to bring about social change in Chile.

I am living with a young couple in this great one level flat. I have 5 cats, which has its ups and downs seeing as the one thinks he is king and appreciates sleeping on my bed and climbing all over me at 3am when I really want to be asleep, but still they can be entertaining I guess. But my host parents love them so that’s what counts. Despite being avid cat lovers they are pretty cool people. They are my host parents, but they feel a little closer to older siblings or friends, which is nice actually. They show me cool hiking trails, sand dunes and the best empanada spots. My host mom, Lisi works at the university teaching journalism. She also is into yoga and nontraditional medicine so she will sometimes have clients over to help heal them. My host dad, Nico, plays the guitar, which is awesome because there is always live music in the evening as he plays around on one of his many guitars. Nico is also a teacher, but works with elementary school age kids up in the less wealthy neighborhoods.

How Valparaiso is set up is somewhat contradictory to what I am used to. Valparaíso is made up of a bunch of hills, where the main part of the city is located in the port, the valley where the hills meet and as you move higher up in the hills the wealth becomes less and less. Those that live higher up in the hills are typically the most disadvantaged. They are disadvantaged because, as we have experienced and learned, one result of the dictatorship and its nation wide privatization is systemic inequality. Much like the US, the money and power is concentrated in the hands of very few who lack the point of view of the population affected by their decisions. In Chile there is a small handful of families that own and run most all of the economy and thus also the political influence. It really is something to in one day experience all too numerous broken-shambles and then great mansions far too big for any one family. After walking among trash littered streets lined with falling in aluminum houses, walking along clean streets lined with manicured flower gardens makes your stomach nauseous. Too add to the nausea those clean streets often lead to bright flashy malls that are brandishing advertisements, many of which are for American clothing brands with American models or movie stars. In a country where the vast majority of the population is not blonde with blue eyes, it really gets me to see advertisements where the people in them look nothing like Chileans, but instead a distant American style supermodel. But I guess American advertising is universal; big posters of distant celebrities line streets in the US just as they do in Guatemala, Uganda, Chile and other countries I have yet to travel to I would guess. But viewing them in the context of a different country makes you question them even more.

There really isn’t anything like throwing yourself into a new environment, culture or country to make you see in a new way. While the classes here in Chile have been enlightening, the bulk of learning comes, as it always, does from the experiences and conversations you have. I find that when I am talking about what I have learned, my stories center around examples I have gathered through the process of living and exploring here. And that’s just it, education isn’t a classroom, textbook, tests and teachers, its much simpler than that; it’s being curious, attentive and courageous enough to trust that desire inside of you to go out and explore.

Home, for a mo

What a quick turn around. One moment I was in Entebbe, Uganda coming to terms with saying goodbye to such a special place, the next moment I was arriving sleep-deprived and exhausted in the Boston Airport. But even though I hadn’t truly slept for about a day and a half, my bed didn’t sound as enticing as a big plate of delicious, spicy Thai food. So my mom and sister took me straight from the airport to a Thai restaurant. Hot, spicy food was something I had really been desiring for along time, exactly two months to be exact. Posho and beans have their own taste and special place in my heart for being the food I shared with my Ugandan family. Nonetheless Thai food also has a special place in my heart because it is delicious and spice gets your heart pumping. After filling my belly past full, we made another detour before heading home. I am somewhat of an REI fanatic because outdoor adventure is awesome and therefore so is the equipment for it. So since there is a REI in Boston and none in NH we stopped there to look at backpacking backpacks since mine conveniently broke before I left for Uganda and I figured backpacking in Patagonia in Chile would be a bit miserable with a broken backpack. After some good time in REI we finally headed home where I received a warm hello from my pup and then finally crawled into bed and fell asleep. I wasn’t home for long, just 5 days really, but long enough to fill my stomach with as much home-cooked food and veggies from mom’s garden as I could and go hiking for mom’s birthday. The rest was full of errands, packing and readying my things and myself for the journey down south to Chile. While my time home was short, I appreciated it nonetheless. When you get out into the old New England mountains, New Hampshire has its on special charm to it. Even if a place is as far from foreign or exotic to you as home is, it still won’t fail to amaze you if you let yourself embrace it.

More photos of Uganda

Some Stories

This sweet boy is the one who would light up my day when I came home from working at the school. He was my littlest brother. Like so many of the kids I met there, he was such a curious, silly and playful person. I couldn’t upload any of the videos I have of him grabbing my hands and dancing with me. But he very much enjoyed dancing. I would play music from my phone, often times Sade or Bobby McFerrin, and a grin would come across Junior’s face as he began to do a sort of jig. Then he would reach for my hands so that I would join him dancing. My other brothers would dance also. I feel sometimes in the US we grow to a certain age and our courage to be fully ourselves evades us. I see little kids dancing or singing and doing the things that bring them joy without consideration of how others might perceive them, but as we are grow older I feel we don’t have that same carefree energy to follow through with the things that bring us joy. But in my time in Uganda I didn’t just see little ones dancing. My brothers that were older also loved to dance I would put on music and everyone would sing. It is pretty cool to be surrounded by joy in that way, actual physical expression of emotions.

One brother that would dance for us all when my music came one also loved to wear my backpack. For the first bit of time I didn’t understand his interest in my backpack and school supplies. Then I found out that while he loved school, he only had the money to go every couple of weeks. So then he got to wear my backpack like it was his whenever he wanted. He also tried on my sunglasses and become the videographer a few times, which he also seemed to very much enjoy.

My home was right next to the CCF office where I would work and also the CCF café. I would eat breakfast with the CCF team every morning in the cafe. I became good friends with the girl who worked in the café. I would watch her cook and she would teach me how she did it. Her stove was low down and made of mud. You cooked from it using the heat from the burning coals. She showed me how she flipped the rice before she cooked it to let the wind take away all the loose shells she didn’t want cooked in with it. She is the one I would go with to the market daily to buy more supplies for the café.

The market was a pretty cool place. I very much enjoyed the time I spent there. The women selling in the market would be so excited when I came back day after day gradually learning new words in Acholi to be able to speak and respond to them. The same women would be at the market throughout my days there. They would sit in their same stalls; arriving before I was fully awake I am sure and staying there till sunset sitting with their babies strapped to their backs, joking, laughing and talking amongst themselves as they sold their goods. I made friends with one little girl who spent her days running around playing with the other kids at the market. We never exchanged any words, but often I would look down while shopping in the market and there she would be staring up at me with her big brown eyes. She would grab my hand and bring me to the other kids who would all laugh with joy when I chased them around the market.

My mom and sister from the United States came to visit me and spend 10 days meeting my family and working in the school with the CCF girls. They happened to arrive in Uganda the day I began having a fever from malaria. So someone was looking down on me with good graces and decided if I were to get malaria I would get it at a time when my mom could take care of me. I am thankful for that. The whole laying in bed not being strong enough to lift my head up part of malaria would have been a little more troublesome if I hadn’t had someone there to pick me up. But it all worked out in the end. I had had them bring an entire extra suitcase completely full of art supplies because I couldn’t find a good art supplies store in Uganda and then I also made them fill the rest of it with fun silky fabric to use sewing with the girls.

So once I wasn’t glued to my bed by weak and aching muscles my mom, sister and I went to work in the Nwoya Girls Academy together. On our first walk back from the school, the bottom of mom’s shoe came away. But then we walked to the market and there was a boy and his friend sitting down fixing shoes. Mom showed him her broken shoe and he took it and went away on it. He sewed all the way around the thick sole with a needle and thread. It was pretty awesome the work he did and mom’s shoe ended up better than new.

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This is my Ugandan family. Only part of it could actually fit sitting on the mat with my mom, sister and I. This was simply because my family was so immense and others were away working at the time photo was taken. My Ugandan mom sits in the middle next to my mom and to the other side of her was her mother. It’s a photo of many things, two of which are strong and inspiring Ugandan women I had the pleasure of sharing my summer with.

After that photo with my family there was a pretty difficult goodbye. In those final moments my mom and sister helped me pack up my hut and fit it all into backpacks and then somehow I had to find a way to say goodbye to some of the most generous, warm and welcoming people I’ve known. My family and my friends in the café and CCF office all became very important to me. It’s a pretty awesome, but also difficult feeling to have such close friends in distant places. It’s awesome because they will always be part of your strong connection to a place and culture that was once new. But it is also difficult because after sharing yourself with others in such a meaningful way, it’s hard to fathom the fact that millions of miles separate you and for many reasons seeing each other again and sharing time as you did before may not come for a very long time. But I hope and believe that it will come, sometime in my future I’ll find my way back to that distant village in that beautiful place that is Northern Uganda.

Conclusion of Uganda

Time works in an odd kind of way moving more in a nonlinear indiscernible fashion. It holds you in moments but also whips you through space until minutes become a blur and then all of a sudden you find yourself in a completely new place. A combination of the two tends to be how my last few months have gone by, many beautifully distinct and meaningful memories in what seems like a flash. I often ask too much of time, as if I can tell it to move in an impressionable fashion to accommodate for all the things I need it to, but it doesn’t. It moves in a much more meaningful way than I could ever think to ask it to. Nonetheless the last few weeks have somewhat swept me off my feet. So you learn to flow with the current of time at whatever pace or direction it chooses. You learn to do what you can when it’s possible and to devote the rest of your energy to enjoying the experience of flowing along and all that it brings.

Even though I am currently over 7,000 miles away from Uganda the distance has made the country and my time there all the more beautiful to me in a new way. It’s awesome how immersing yourself completely in a new place and group of people can cause it and them to become so deeply in engrained in you. How now hearing about Uganda in passing, in the news, in others’ stories makes my heart do a little leap in a way it wouldn’t have done before. Because those people there are mothers I lived with, teachers I worked with, little boys I played soccer with and girls I ran, sang and danced with. They are all vibrant and full individuals in my mind and heart now. They have become real to me through the process of sharing space, stories and experiences. I think this is simply awesome how that act of engaging can foster such strong and genuine feelings of compassion and connection. Even more awesome because as I am finding out I learned and am still learning so much as a result of knowing Uganda; the process didn’t end when I left the country.

I am finding myself continually making connections, using experiences I had or stories I heard while I was there in discussions now. Uganda continually comes into my thoughts in a way that causes me to view the world around me differently. The experiences I made in there remain with me in a way that allows me to contrast the communities and cultures I am in.

One of the experiences that I find most valuable and universally applicable is the broad concept of community and family I discovered in Uganda. The boundaries of family really are far grander and more generous in Uganda than what I have witnessed back in the United States. In Uganda society is very much community oriented in the way that sharing and caring for others extends to most everyone around you. I found the result of this to be very rewarding to me as an outsider, but also to those that lived within the community because it allows for many strong and generous relationships.

There was a study that found Uganda to be the second friendliest country in the world. I have yet to visit the first, but I couldn’t agree more. They are invested in one another. I have not witnessed more singing, hellos and warm smiles than I did while in Uganda, especially from children. The children are so extremely full of life and laughter. Yet if you took a snapshot and looked at it out of context you may only notice their tattered clothes, dirty feet and hands, runny noses and comparably thin bodies. But if you made a conclusion of these children’s quality of life based on this information, you would be grasping at generalizations and completely missing the truth. While these children’s clothes may be tattered, that doesn’t stop them from grinning and shouting “Hello, how are Yoouuuu” then bursting into laughter, grabbing your hand and walking with you. Their bodies are dirty because they spend their days running around playing outside, building toys from the bottles or containers they find and enjoying them just as much as a child living in Los Angeles would enjoy their truck bought from a store. And their runny noses and small bodies don’t stop them from exploring and enjoying the world around them. It is far too easy to completely miss how vivid and dynamic the truth is when looking at a snapshot of something. It is far too easy because those figures aren’t real to you, not real in the way people you know are. Yet these people in photos aren’t distant and their stories are as authentic as yours, both beautiful and difficult.

For this reason I would like to share photos of a few of the many people and stories I have of Uganda, because I want them to become real not just to me but to others. I want them to become real just as every person and being we share this world with should be real to us whether we know them or not. So as I share my stories and pictures I challenge you not to look at these as a snapshot, not to draw generalizations, but to look at them with open understanding that their kindness and happiness is some of the most genuine I have witnessed. And isn’t that what we are all essentially searching for? Aren’t we all searching for simple and authentic happiness?