And Then We Danced

I’ve been going to the day program for senior citizens here in town for almost a year. We chat, I lead seated exercises, then we do a guided meditation. I have come to love these “abuelitos” dearly. So I was thrown for a loop last month when the director told me the program was being shut down.

Hogar de Cristo, the sponsoring organization, is doing some restructuring and, unfortunately, this program was one of the ones they decided to end. They are pulling back resources from the area around the capital and sending them to programs in the remoter regions of the country, where life is typically a bit harder. I’m no stranger to nonprofit management. I know that you can’t do everything for everyone. But dang it, I’m attached to these folks. The social services and social interaction they received in this program are crucial to their well-being and I am worried about what will happen to them now.

Two young children do the Chilean national dance at a senior citizen day program

Doing the Chilean national dance

Since the closure was confirmed, I tried to spend more time at the center. The abuelitos love our kids. We went as a family for the national holiday a few weeks ago, and they got a kick out of the kids’ dancing.

On Tuesday, there was a little ceremony with the participants, family members, staff, volunteers, and some senior management from Hogar de Cristo. Chileans do love a good speech, and there were six or seven to enjoy that day.

On Wednesday, the very last day for the seniors to spend at the center, they did a special lunch and then a gentleman came to sing rancheras, a style of music much beloved by the old folks. Pretty soon Juan, Willy, and Victor were out on the dance floor with different partners – myself included.

I couldn’t help but smile as we shuffled and waltzed along.

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that this program is ending. I have felt sad, disillusioned, angry… frustrated. Some of the abuelitos have openly expressed their discontent with the closure. But for the most part they are taking it in stride.

Think about how many transitions they’ve had to go through in their lives. Goodbyes they’ve said. Homes they’ve left. Jobs that have changed. A world that has changed.

Just here in Chile – they lived through massive earthquakes in 1960, 1985, 2010. They made it through a military coup and the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Aside from these large-scale events, each of them has had to face the innumerable challenges of living in poverty on a daily basis, for 70 or 80 years. And yet they get up every day and go about their lives. What else can you do?

Dancing to rancheras

So that day, we cried a bit. We packed up the food that was left in the kitchen and passed it out to the abuelitos along with the center’s old mugs, so they could remember all the cups of tea they drank together. We ate some cake.

And then we danced. Because sometimes that’s all there is left to do.



There has been quite a bit of rain in the arid northern desert region of Chile this week. The amount forecast was “moderate,” but the amount that fell was disastrous. As of today, ten people have died as a result of flooding, and dozens are still missing. It is a disaster on top of disaster, since a volcano is already erupting and there are 40 wildfires burning in the south. 

Everyone is talking about how awful it is. Kids at our children’s school have family members who work in the mining industry up north, and within 24 hours of the start of flooding people were asking what we were going to do as a community to help out. 

Chileans are great at mobilizing individual contributions in the face of disaster. As I mentioned, this country is no stranger to the whims of nature – be they fire, flood, earthquake, or something else. Schools, churches, companies, and neighborhoods are gathering supplies to send north. Ryan suggested that this level of solidarity exists because most people here have lived through some sort of emergency themselves, and I agree. 

Our school is doing a “lightning campaign” on Monday and Tuesday to collect toiletries, diapers, blankets, and big jugs of water. I took the photo above at the supermarket yesterday. You’ll notice that there is plenty of water, but the bottom shelf – where they typically stock the 5 liter jugs we are being asked to send north – is picked almost clean (and yes, that lone jug found its way into my cart). I saw three other people in the diaper aisle doing the same thing as I was; namely, buying a few packs in different sizes, clearly not for a baby at home. One lady’s cart was totally filled with an assortment of diapers and formula. Unless she runs an orphanage, she was buying that stuff to send north. 

Stores across the country are selling out of the water jugs in particular. So many people want to do something to help. 

The government has been criticized for being unprepared to deal with the disaster. As I drove home from the store, I listened to two commentators hold forth on the radio about their view of the crisis. One said that she found it “ridiculous” that people in Santiago should be buying water and sending it to the north instead of the government being equipped to supply the affected regions with aid. 

I can certainly see her point. But what she’s missing here is that people have an almost urgent need to collaborate and do something tangible to ease the suffering of these people. Yes, Chile could use a few more helicopters and a strategic supply warehouse. But the human impulse to give? That’s far from ridiculous. 

Well Understood

Tonight is the last night of summer vacation. Our sweet lovies start back to school tomorrow. The Big Girl will be in kindergarten, with big chairs and big tables and four textbooks – and feels a big responsibility to visit her teachers from last year every day. The Little Boy has expressed his deep hope that this year, he will fly a hot air balloon at school. I hate to disappoint him, but…

Ryan and I made it. We survived the summer. We had many wonderful moments and made some beautiful memories (more to come on those), but I personally struggled a bit with parenting. It was a lot more “togetherness” that I’m used to. And let’s not forget that parenting little kids is just…hard.

Which brings me to this.

The readings at mass today fit together nicely for my current state of mind. (I love it when that happens.)

First reading: the Ten Commandments. At least five or six of them should be pretty familiar to most folks today, even those who don’t hold the Jewish or Christian faiths. But I will freely admit to having memorized the version that appeared in my Catholic school religion textbook, and not having spent much time with the actual scripture.

Here’s the part that caught my attention: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may live a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.” (emphasis mine!)

Let that sink in.

Gospel: Jesus drives out the people doing business in the temple. Fr. Jim Martins has a really nice reflection on the depictions of Jesus’s anger in the gospels (read it here). The passage ends with the news that many saw him and began to believe, but that Jesus “would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.

I take a deep breath. And despite the long days, and the bickering, and the threats of being locked out of the promised land… somebody gets it.

Words Fail Me

The kids have been out of school for 71 days. We have 16 more days of “summer fun” before classes start up again. That’s all I will say.

I was at the Hogar de Cristo senior center on Tuesday when an earthquake happened. It was a small temblor, but it lasted a decent amount of time. Long enough for us to have a debate about whether we should get out of the building or stay put.

We had finished the exercises and stretching portion of the class and were just starting the guided meditation. Nothing like an earthquake to shatter a sense of calm. As I sat with them, I reflected (not for the first time) on what these folks have seen in their lives. They have a healthy fear of earthquakes because they’ve lived through two of the worst: the 1960 quake in Valdivia (magnitude 9.5; strongest earthquake ever recorded) and the 2010 earthquake in the central zone (magnitude 8.8; this one actually knocked the earth off its axis slightly). When the ground starts shaking, they take it seriously.

I found my vocabulary somewhat wanting while trying to calm them down. I said something along the lines of, “Calm down, it’s over” — which was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. They looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and dismissal. I’m just a young person from another country. I have no idea what Chilean earthquakes can do. I could be more precise in English, I’m sure.

This is a common theme in my work with the abuelitos. I frequently convey less than the full meaning of what I’m trying to say because my Spanish is okay — but not great.

Leading them in exercises is challenging due to the fact that there are so many different abilities in the room. Some are able-bodied; others are in wheelchairs. There are several blind gentleman, and two adorable ladies who are profoundly hard of hearing. Several are in the early stages of dementia. Many have diabetes. Arthritis is common. Depression, I suspect, is the thread uniting most of them.

I do the best I can. When I don’t know exactly the right word to describe a movement, I show them. Then I remember the guys who can’t see, and I try to find the words. When that fails, I ask permission to help them move their arms or legs in the right way. Then I remember the ladies who can’t hear, and I go over and show them again. Then I realize that the lady with Alzheimer’s isn’t quite sure what she’s doing in the room. And so it goes.

They accept my limitations. I accept theirs. We smile. We get on with it.

By Design

Our daughter, a few months shy of her sixth (!) birthday, has a knack for arranging things. I find this particularly astounding because, while I can definitely appreciate artistic order and patterns, I have zero talent for doing it myself.

Below are a few designs she came up with over the past week. Some say necessity is the mother of invention… I say it’s boredom. This is shaping up to be a loooong summer…

Rocks and flowers Flower display Playdough art Playdough art

Peace at the End

Happy new year! We had a wonderful Christmas and New Year celebration with visiting family. It’s funny, but we agree that this feels more like “home” now that we’ve hosted visitors from the US.

I have been going to a day center for older adults in Talagante weekly for the past few months. Run by Hogar de Cristo, the center serves a few dozen seniors who come on a regular schedule — some come every weekday, while others come only a few days per week. I’ve been doing gentle seated exercises with them (using a fantastic resource called Sit and Be Fit) as well as guided meditation and relaxation exercises. Just a few small things to aid physical and mental well being.

Let me put it simply: I love these abuelitos.

I was sad today when Isabel, one of the program staff, told me that one of the abuelitos had died a few days ago. He was part of a group of guys (really nice guys) who hung out back in the garden and didn’t really come inside for activities. Isabel said that the Hogar de Cristo staff were the ones who actually took him to the hospital, but once he was there his family descended and stayed by his side until the end. She said that his ex-wife even came to see him, and he asked her for forgiveness. I did not know him well at all. But hearing that he was surrounded by family and truly at peace made me glad for him.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death. I think he was with Don Orlando earlier this week. May he rest in peace.

There and Back Again *

* I have been informed that this title has already been taken.

We’ve been in Chile a little while. Got a place to live. Kids have started school. I even managed to find a proctor and took my first MPH exam outside the U.S. earlier today.

Now that we’re settled, what’s the logical next thing to do? Leave the country.

One of my friends from the U.S. was planning a trip to Argentina, and we figured it would be great fun to drive across the Andes and meet him in Mendoza. So we started planning our getaway. Hotel reservation? Check. Winery tours and vineyard lunches set up? Absolutely. Duh. Obligatory Mercosur additional car insurance? Yeeeeesss. Payment of reciprocity fees to cross the border into Argentina? What do you take me for, a rookie? Document that says the car we bought does, in fact, belong to us?


We realized four days before departure that we still didn’t have the car title. Long story, but the notary who did the transfer didn’t exactly finish the job with the Registro Civil, so technically, as far as the Chilean government is concerned, that car still belongs to someone else. And once we brought it to her attention, it takes about two weeks to fix.

Cars waiting to cross the border back into Chile from Argentina, Paso Los Libertadores

Chilean side of the border crossing

I actually called the central office of the Chilean customs agency and even the border crossing itself to see if there wasn’t some way we could drive across with the paper that said we bought it and the ownership is “in tramites” (being taken care of) … pretty bold, if I say so myself, but no dice. There was no way they were going to let us drive our own car out of this country. (If you’re interested in the requirements to drive a car across the border, go to the web site of the customs service, Aduanas. This page is in Spanish.)

We found this out on Thursday around noon. We had been planning to depart on Friday around 5:00 a.m. Ryan made the excellent point that he never thought he’d see a process that made buying a car in the U.S. look easy. Well. There you go.

We can laugh about it now, but it was a rather stressful and frustrating experience. But of course, it’s also a pretty trivial problem to have. We couldn’t go on this vacation and drink fancy wine because the car we bought (in the country we chose to live in) wasn’t through the bureaucracy yet. With everything that’s going on in our world today, I felt a bit ashamed when I put it into perspective. We went and got coffee after our trip to the government office on Thursday and decided it wasn’t that big of a deal. Maybe we needed to make a little room for the Holy Spirit to work here.

Meeting a truck going around one of the switchbacks on the Chilean side of the Andes Mountains

Going up the Chilean side of the border

So, in that mindset, my dear husband insisted that I buy a bus ticket and go by myself. I got on the Andesmar salon cama the next morning at 9:30 and settled back for a relaxing trip across the mountains. The bus ride itself was great. It’s the three hours I spent at the Argentine crossing that wasn’t so awesome. I think maybe it was a blessing in disguise that the whole family wasn’t able to go – that would have been a nightmare with the kids. We rolled into the Mendoza bus station around 6:00 p.m.

There were two ladies sitting in front of me with their little boys, who both looked about two years old. Of the five and a half hours we were actually moving on the bus, the boys were awake maybe one and a half hours. HOW DO PEOPLE MAKE THEIR KIDS DO THAT? Seriously, any tips welcome.

The scenery on the drive was astounding. Mountains are probably my favorite of all the earth’s physical features, and the Andes do not disappoint. The switchbacks on the Chilean side of the border can be a little harrowing – I deliberately chose a seat in the downstairs portion of the two-level bus to minimize motion sickness – but the driver didn’t take it too fast so I didn’t mind too much.

Glass of late harvest wine from Bodega Lagarde, Mendoza AR

Wine pairing at Bodega Lagarde outdoor lunch

Mendoza itself is a delight. I immediately felt the cultural shift – things are closed in the afternoons, evenings begin very late, and there is a wonderful café culture. Things are also a lot cheaper than in Chile (a nice bonus). The city is full of huge trees, plazas, and parks and has a good balance of busy commercial streets and quiet residential areas (the latter are dotted with a notable number of apart-hotels and hostels).

Places I went that I would recommend: Bodega Lagarde, The Vines of Mendoza tasting room, El Palenque, Brillat Savarin bakery and chocolate shop, and pretty much anyplace selling you an alfajor.

Places I didn’t get to this time: Gimenez Riili winery, Andeluna winery, Atamisque winery, Vines Spa and Resort, 1884 restaurant, and the dozens of cute shops I passed but didn’t have time to enter.

It was a nice break. It was fantastic to see Jason and to meet his friend Rosie. And coming back to Chile felt like coming home.

Glowing sunset with shadows of trees

Sunset at our house