A view of the fire in Valparaíso, Chile

I was playing frisbee in a park, the wind strong enough that it kept blowing the disc into the building which once served as a powder keg.  We started to notice the plumes of smoke as we were walking down the hill, but it was not the first time I have seen smoke rise from the hills here.  The view of black and red rising over the cemetery was picturesque, nothing else.

We had a barbecue planned, with a mixture of Chileans and Americans, and we kept stoking our little fire as the big one raged, drinking our wine and worrying but not having anything else to do.  The firefighters here are volunteers and it is hard to get fire trucks up the hills in an efficient manner.  The winds remained high, spreading what started as a forest fire to the outskirts of the city.  These high parts of the city are populated by folks who put up their wood and tin houses on property they have no legal rights to, and the fire spread down into other houses as well, so that it seems everyone knows someone who knows someone who lost everything.

We couldn’t do anything else but watch as the smoke blurred our view of the stars and look at the apocalyptic shots of flames on the news.  A state of emergency was called.  We went home to sleep and in the morning to wake and see how we could help.

This city has seen many disasters, fires and earthquakes, and there is thankfully a generous response from all the people.  “Fuerza Valpo” is soaped onto the rear windshield of taxis, the shelters are overflowing with clothes, and the streets that we walked up to help out had many others carrying up large bottles of water and packages of toilet paper.  The hill goes up and up and eventually I remember seeing burned houses in the distance and I thought we still had some distance to go, but around the next corner there were suddenly buildings completely destroyed.  It made me dizzy, seeing untouched houses next to broken down walls and ashes, seeing the flowers that grew outside survive while nothing else did, seeing people resolutely going upwards to help, and seeing people hugging one another as they came to terms with what had happened.

There was a man on the street dressed in clothes that marked him as a member of some church organization, carrying a clipboard and talking on his phone.  He was asking the people around him what the name of the street was but nobody knew.  Cesar, the Chilean I was with, told him to use the name of the school we were by as a reference, but even though the sign was right there the guy didn’t understand.  A passerby asked if he was “half-gringo or something” that he should fail to understand, and Cesar said no, maybe Argentine.  Someone else told us he was in fact from Uruguay, which all present understood to mean, he doesn’t speak our language.

As we got up further a journalist tried to stop us and interview us, as we were clearly a group of mostly foreigners.  One girl from our group stopped to talk to him, although he was asking questions like why we were going to help, when that seemed self-explanatory, and whether people seemed receptive to us helping or whether there were tensions.  It was so silly to the majority of us, since all we had done up to that point was walk up a hill, and our stories did not matter in comparison to the stories of people who lived there and people who were already actively engaged in helping.  But because we were foreigners they followed us asking questions and taking photos when we took up shovels and started to work.  We were helping at the house of a relative of a friend, moving all the rubble into empty pet food bags to be wheelbarrowed down the hill.  We had also brought sandwiches and water to distribute, but there turned out to be many people walking around with these things, and with masks.  When we got to the point where what remained was too hot to be shoveled, besides which there was a growing amount of smoke in the air, we headed back down the hill to see if any of the distribution centers needed help.  After not finding any, we took the metro back to Viña, where sat tiredly, ash raining into the foam of our pitchers of beer.

This is my first time being in a disaster area.  Normally I feel so helpless when something happens in another part of the world, and now I am in that part of the world.  It still is not easy to know what type of help is most needed, but with over 2000 houses burned (the most recent figure I have heard) I know that they will continue needing help for quite some time, and it is important to pace myself and not feel too frustrated if I can’t do everything at once.  I don’t mean to only write about earthquakes and fires, but for now this is what occupies my thoughts.

Fuerza Valpo.

The Hair Hook, and other perils of a Chilean household

The bathroom door in my new home is not quite in alignment with its frame and often takes some encouragement from my shoulder to properly close. When I do this quickly, there’s this fun little feature where my hair gets caught in the towel hook and yanks me back as I take a first step towards the toilet. “Well,” you might say, “Your life in Valparaíso must be pretty swell if your biggest problem is getting your hair pulled every now and then.” However, that is but the tip of the iceberg. Since coming here, there was a period of a few days in which there were three noticeable earthquakes (just temblors, not of the “terremoto” variety which threaten lives and property). As if waking up in the middle of the night to an extended shaking weren’t enough, I’ve had to learn to wear shoes at all times in the kitchen. Anyone who knows me can relate to how difficult this was, but after being shocked by the toaster, the toaster oven, and the microwave (which I just brushed my hand against reaching for the salt shaker) I was willing to sacrifice my toe freedom for that little rubber sole that insulates me from the ground and prevents that pesky electrical current from passing through my body.

Even considering the perils of electric shock from kitchen appliances, of earthquakes, of buses that start moving while passengers are in the middle of getting on or off, my situation here is much safer than many places I’ve been to, inside or outside the United States. My Spanish is far from perfect, but I’m getting over my fear of saying the wrong thing and now I feel comfortable in most conversations. So in this world of sun and beaches and steep hills and fast talkers, where are the challenges? Well, there is certainly much to learn about going with the flow, when classes are cancelled or moved without notice, when plans change or a given time can really mean half an hour later. There is much to learn about finding my way, waving down buses as they get close enough to read their signs and hoping they have time to brake, squeezing past others to press the “stop button,” navigating the hills and stairways and ravines and elevators on foot. Here’s one thing I’ve learned and was thinking about today as I walked with my host brother down the hill to hop on a bus going to some undisclosed location (I told him I wanted to see someplace new in the city, and he brought me to the sand dunes in Concón): that one of the great values of studying abroad is that it makes one aware of the best ways to live, anywhere. So many of the pieces of advice that I have heard from people, or read in the study abroad handbooks, are guidelines like: Don’t judge without giving yourself time to think and to understand something new; don’t assume that because something is different than what you are used to it is worse. Be open to new things, to trying every new food at least once, and to making new friends across language and cultural barriers. Do your best to respect the values and way of life of your family, communicate with them about any problems you are having, and remember to show them your appreciation. Find ways to be involved, in your home, in your school, and in your community. These are all pieces of advice that are necessary to keep in mind and follow for a successful time abroad, but they apply equally well to creating a fulfilling life. Any student who truly takes these to heart will bring their study abroad toolkit with them back home, where the challenges and dangers may be more familiar, but nevertheless where it is always good to practice openness and respect and the endless pursuit of learning.

From atop a dune in Concón

From atop a dune in Concón


Dar Gracias

When I was younger, gracias was probably the first word in Spanish I ever learned.  I did not know then that I would grow up to pursue the goal of speaking fluently and understanding this language, or that this goal would take me ultimately on a five week trip through Peru before coming to live for five months in Chile.  This is what I’ve found myself doing, and now I as I am just starting my time in Valparaíso, Chile, I feel compelled to look back at the past few weeks.

One of the kind and welcoming people I met was a man named Cesar, who jointly owns a tiny farm and ecotourism spot in the jungle of Peru, near the city of Tarapoto.  He grew up outside of Tarapoto, and described to me how when he was going to university, coming home for the weekends or for vacations was always like medicine for him.  I could easily understand – after having spent a few days at Wayra Sacha, I felt physically and mentally healed from the malaise brought on by the bustling city of Lima.  Cesar told me that one’s entropy rises in the city, causing stress and internal disorder, but that to keep my entropy low, I would simply have to remember to give thanks.  When I ate a meal, I would have to remember the earth that it was grown in, the people who had tended and harvested it, just like I had been tending to the crops.  I would have to give thanks.

Now, after a trip that was nothing like I planned but held more meaning for me than I ever imagined, I have much more to give thanks for than the food I have eaten (although it’s been some seriously good eating).  I have to give thanks to my sister Jessie, for telling me of the cheap ticket prices and showing me around Lima, explaining the taxis and the food and the good and bad neighborhoods, and to her husband and kids and the whole family there for giving me a great couple of weeks where the days were relaxed yet full.  I want to give thanks as well to the chefs who I’ll never see but who never let me down; to the bus drivers who had patience with a couple of lost gringas with no idea how much to pay or where to board; to the city of Lima for letting me join in its colorful and chaotic birthday celebration.

I thank the planes that make life easier and shorten a sixteen hour journey into two hours.  I thank the long distance buses and minivans that save money and let you see more, of the life of ordinary people, of the out-of-the-way unvisited towns consisting of stray dogs and houses painted with political slogans perched on sides of mountains.  They let you experience more, when you’re stranded far from your destination in a little town and you realize that the old woman you’re asking for directions is a Quechua speaker who knows less Spanish than you do.  They come and rescue you, when you’ve walked down from Machu Picchu and along a railroad track for two hours only to find that the bridge is out and there are people occupying the train trying to get to Cuzco, when you follow these strikers off the train and down a road that leads to the place where the bridge fell, a rushing river now passable via log, and the train has pulled away so there is not really any choice but to cross, and at the other end to find a driver with open seats who will drive you over curving guardrail-less high mountain roads and tell you about how his parents named him Ronald after Ronald Reagan, and how his schooling to become a guide is going, and how when someone yawns the joke is to ask “from hunger or from sleepiness?”

I have to thank our hosts in Cuzco, for having their doors open at 1 a.m. when Ronald deposited us in a plaza and we stumbled up the long, long stairs and proceeded to hang out listening to reggae and classic rock for several more hours.  We passed some good times in that apartment in San Blas, and that was another opportunity to see another side of a famously touristy city and its surroundings.  Just a hint: if you find yourself in Peru, go to the market, and get the juice and/or the daily menu.  It’s always good value and most of the time good conversation with the woman who’s serving your soup and your tripe-with-potatoes.

So thank you to Peru for lending my travel buddy Maria and I your buses, your hostel rooms, your ancient ruins and gorgeous landscapes, the brightness of your beaches and the intensity of your cities.  And thank you to Cesar for reminding me to give thanks, which is something that I will think of often as I head toward the new challenges of living, working, and playing in the cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar.

Exams and food

It’s not the easiest to explain to my non-math major friends. “What am I doing this Saturday? Well, I’m getting up at 8 a.m. so I can take a six hour long exam, one on which there is a good chance I will get an abysmally low score, for fun. Hey, at least we get to go to the lunch buffet at Gateway to India in between the two halves!”

There you have the Putnam Mathematical Competition. I came, I sat, I conquered, and by conquered I mean that I had way more fun than I thought I would. What’s not fun about having six hours to sit down, look at twelve puzzles, choose a few of them to attempt, and mess around with those until you figure out the trick that makes it possible to solve? For instance, taking an icosahedron (you can look it up if you’re interested), numbering the sides with nonnegative integers that add up to 39, and showing that it is impossible to have such a numbering without causing two sides with the same vertex to have the same number. This was the first problem in the first set, so we got to talk about it over lunch. Rob Beezer is the professor who leads the Putnam Seminar, a weekly gathering to discuss problems from Putnams past, and so he was proctoring the exam for us and doing the problems right along with us. As we compared what we had done (and how long it took each of us to realize that the icosahedron appears in the logo for the Mathematical Association of America, and thus was conveniently pictured at the top of the page), Beezer told us how he’d used graph theory, taking the dual of the graph of the icosahedron. To be honest, I think my solution was a lot more straightforward! We’ll see if it was correct or not when we get our scores back.

Then reading period and finals week happened. My most difficult exam (abstract algebra) was on Monday morning at 8, so at least I got that over with right away! My professor brought us chocolate, and luckily for me he also likes the super dark stuff so that is what was provided us. 85%! My favorite. Almost as good as the time that my IPE professor brought in what I think were pork skewers and a dipping sauce to our final. The sauce turned out to contain a LOT of horseradish, and I had a coughing fit and runny nose in the middle of the test, but I’m willing to pay that price for delicious treats.


We left the SUB on a cold, clear Saturday morning, and I sat like a zombie through the car ride, munching on my container of kefir and Uncle Sam cereal.  This was to be my first Habitat for Humanity “build,” although technically there was no building involved, just a lot of hauling, dumping, shoveling, raking, wiping, painting, and washing.  Since the build site is not just a house but a whole development (a “gated community without the gate,” as one future resident told me) there was ample work to be done for every stage of the process.  Many of the tasks called to my mind and muscle memory the work that I did this last summer, picking up odd jobs all around the Tacoma area.  It was fun to get back into the rhythm of manual labor, to be in a place for several hours with the sole intent of putting as much of my sweaty efforts into that development as I could.  Well, I guess not the sole intent.  Along with a sense of well-being, the other volunteers and I got paid in baked goods and good company.  The homeowners who were working with us were very friendly and appreciative of our work, and the ones I met seemed happy with the process as a whole, even though it involves a big investment of time and work.  There is time spent waiting to get approved, the time it takes to build a house, and 500 hours of work they are required to put in.  Even though the housing is designed to be affordable, it is still out of reach for many.  Nonetheless, it feels to me like a substitute for the old-fashioned helping one’s neighbor raise a barn.  I’m told the world’s getting smaller, so it seems reasonable to help some neighbors who live a couple towns away.


Here’s a picture of some volunteers from the University of Puget Sound chapter, in front of our pet dirt pile that we were shoveling out to make nice, even lawns.  There will also be a big park in the middle of all the houses – I like all the green space!  Anyway, that’s one way to spend a Saturday morning and afternoon that will get you outside the college bubble, while still hanging out with some college friends.


It doesn’t have a name, or a gender.  If you’re around campus you may know it as the blue Centurion LeMans waiting for me outside Thompson, missing some of the foam padding that came with the seat, the handlebars mostly bare metal at this point, the derailleur bent out of shape from being dropped too many times, with broken baskets for my feet and, if you look closely, two spokes on the rear wheel popped loose.  I’m working on getting these things fixed.

The seat (mostly unnecessary anyway):

It was only recently, when I started racing cyclocross, that I got into the habit of standing up when pedaling up a hill.  Or at any time.  My new trick is standing up without holding on to the handlebars, which only works on a downhill or briefly on a flat.


The handlebars (grab life by them):

When I woke up this morning it was dark, I mean inky middle-of-the-night dark, which I am getting used to on my early Friday mornings.  It has been so cold these last few days that I was tempted for a moment to drive the five blocks to the SUB, before realizing that my boyfriend’s car was covered in frost and it seemed like too much trouble to scrape.  Instead, I got my bike from the garage.  As I was wheeling it out, I noticed something strange.  Stars.  Bright stars, shining in close proximity to a half moon.  The frigid clear air made their light so piercing that I woke up out of my zombie state to say good morning to them.  And I pedaled to work, holding my back light behind me and looking over my shoulder at the moon, and I was the only person on the street, the only person in the world to observe the hidden treasure of an early morning skyscape.  By the time I reached my destination, the hand on my handlebar felt frozen on, a claw that I could hardly unclasp from the icy metal.


The baskets (make a little noise):

I bike around campus a lot, end when I round the corners my foot baskets tend to graze the ground, because they’ve devolved from baskethood to pieces of metal that are tied to what should be the pedals on my bike.  They’re good for alerting pedestrians, who dart glances at me to find the source of that ungodly noise.


The rear wheel (heading in a different direction):

I went in to get my wheels tightened and trued at the bike shop on campus, only to find that Friday afternoons are apparently a rush time for them.  I curled up on a couch with a friend who happened to be there and watched Daniel fix someone else’s bicycle for about an hour, before telling me that he would stay late to fix mine.  I tried to protest but he insisted, lifting it with care to the operating table, by which I mean the clamp that holds the bike in the air (I’m really bad with these terms).  I told him about the bike’s significance, how it’s my first road bike, salvaged from a garage sale, used to commute to work and school from high school onwards.  How it took me from Seattle to Portland with my four siblings and brother-in-law during the 2011 STP.  How it doesn’t have a name, but its value to me is far higher than whatever someone would pay for it, and so I’m going to go on fixing it and keeping it alive as long as I possibly can.  He nodded, understanding, and made it rideable once again.


The gears (clicking into place):

When I came home this afternoon, after hours of work and class and homework and play, the sky was a hazy shade of winter.  Not as striking as the stars in the morning, not a spectacular vision of colors, it was just enough of a sunset to ride off into on a broken-down bike like mine.

Bats and Bacon: Behind the Scenes

Warning:  This post includes references to dead animals in edible and inedible forms. 


One of my regular duties as a student worker at the diner (aka the SUB) is making bacon on Friday mornings.  The methodical laying out of sheet after sheet of bacon and putting them into the oven has turned out to be a perfect way to start out my morning.  I was doing this last Friday when I had a weird, sleepiness-induced déjà vu moment, as if I had dreamed about these bacon pans the night before.  A few minutes later it struck me that I had indeed been lifting pans of a similar shape two days before, except instead of containing bacon they were full of bats.

Let me explain.  These bats were specimens that had been prepared for the Slater Museum of Natural History on campus. We had taken them out of their cases for Bat Night, an open house event where we showed off our many bat specimens, a live fruit bat from Pt. Defiance Zoo, and even some guano that visitors could look at under a microscope.  It’s fun getting to be part of these events as a Slater volunteer, even if I felt a little underprepared for the questions of a few genuine bat experts.  My station consisted of two large trays filled with big brown bats (eptesicus fuscus) from Oregon, most of them from 1974.  Examining these preserved, stuffed skins made me wonder about the future of the skins I have prepared.  When properly cared for, these specimens can last a mighty long time and hopefully be of service in education, outreach, and scientific investigations.  Through natural history museums like Slater, scientists have a physical record of how species can vary over time and geographical location in response to changes in their environment.

The usefulness of natural history impresses me greatly, but I’ve been impressed by Slater since a friend who works there gave me an impromptu tour freshman year.   There is so much wacky and beautiful and awesome (in the awe-inspiring sense) to be found in the collection that I knew I wanted to spend more time there, which is how I ended up volunteering.  It’s always great to discover another little world inside the bounds of campus, and this has happened to me again and again.  Working for the diner is another example.  While I have obviously eaten there hundreds of times, I never had any idea who the chefs were or how all the food gets made.  Outside of the kitchen, you only get to see small quantities of each dish at a time, and I never really thought about the mass of food consumed by the student body every day, the trays and trays of bacon, the spices that get measured in by the cupful rather than by the teaspoon.  I’m sure that many students walk by Slater every day without having any idea of the trays and trays of bats and other animals inside.  Our campus is not large, but there is so much that goes on unobserved by many, and much for the curious mind to discover.


And the winner for best teacher goes to…

A few weekends ago Clearcut, the women’s ultimate frisbee team, had our first tournament.  I had mixed feelings going into it: at most of the previous practices I had been devoting most of my energy to catching our newer players up to speed, and had been neglecting my own improvement.  My monologue went something like this:

So here’s this pie plate, okay?  Well, it’s a plastic disc that has evolved from a pie plate.  And you can throw it by spinning it with your wrist, not your arm, holding it level like you’re spinning it off a table.  When you’re not holding it, just keep running up and down the field like mad, stopping only briefly as you plant your foot to turn around and cut in exactly the same direction as you came from.  Also, there are picks to think about, and tapping the disc on end zone line, and soft cap and hard cap and universe point and… and… have I shown you how to force forehand yet?

Most first year ultimate players join the sport with minimal background knowledge, not really aware of what the rules are, or how to throw properly, or what the basic strategy of the game is.  I’ve been trying to impart some of my great wisdom to these players, and I’ve realized that there is a heck of a lot for them to learn. It was difficult to imagine how it will all come together under the pressure of facing an opposing team for the first time.  Well, our first tournament (Beaver Brawl in Corvallis) was a testament to the power of learning from doing, and over the course of three games and a scrimmage I saw our rookie players improve by leaps and bounds.  Running around looking confused evolved into…Catching the disc!  Getting D’s!  Making assists!  Scoring points!  By the end of the tournament they were all presences on the field and threats to the other team.  We managed to field two teams, and our combined score at the end was 3 wins, 3 losses.

Despite my efforts to be a teacher, I’m no match for the learning curve of competitive play.