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Tutor English To A Family In Chile

Overall Rating

10/ 10

  • Social Life

    10

  • Health and Safety

    10

  • Community Impact

    10

  • Living Situation

    10

  • Program Administration

    10

  • Volunteer Experience

    10

EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME

After I retired from my day job, I browsed the Net for a two to three-month volunteer experience abroad that could take advantage of my teaching background, offer me a chance to travel, write poetry and improve my Spanish; and be cost-effective to the degree that it might even provide something in exchange for my hard-earned expertise.

Several organizations I looked into offered little more than adventure travel dressed up as volunteerism, along the lines of participating in archeological digs. You pay for the privilege. Others were more like bed and breakfast arrangements, with volunteerism in the community tacked on as if it were a college requirement. The fees and out of pocket expenses always included room, board and travel expenses, and the longer one stayed, the more it cost.

I began to think I should just buy a plane ticket to Madrid, rent a cheep apartment and look around for opportunities. Not the safest strategy, and I foresaw a lot of long, hot days and lonely nights.

Then I happened upon GeoVisions. Two minutes on the phone with a lovely woman named Jodi confirmed that this organization had it wired. If accepted, I would give 15 hours a week of private English lessons to a family in the country of my choice for in return for room and board. That was it. The one-time fee – just over $1,000 – included a virtually guaranteed placement, as well as travel insurance and access to reference materials and teaching support. Everything about the program was simple, gracious and professional, from the application forms, to the placement process, to the two monthly reports I gave from the field.

This graciousness proved to be an apt prelude to my three-month stay in Chile – a profound and one-of-a-kind gift of unforgettable experiences, personal firsts and lifelong friendships. There was Victor, the father of the family, a brilliant electronics engineer who took out his weekly three hours of English class in conversation. We covered every subject under the Southern Cross, including Chilean politics, Chilean wine, family and business issues, nuances of Chilean slang, difficulties of English idioms and even the World Cup, which took place while I was there.

Victor’s wife, Marcela, who spoke no English whatsoever when I arrived, wanted to learn by doing. We baked cookies together, sung songs and put in three separate gardens around the house, offering countless opportunities to learn vocabulary and useful phrases while getting to know and respect each other. At my farewell party three-months later, Marcela sang one of her songs, “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”, in almost perfect English.

Seventeen year old Vitoco and his sister Daniela, 15, who both studied English in high school, were eager to have help with homework and test preparation. We also translated lyrics to American pop songs, read short stories and fairytales out loud, and watched movies together. Vitoco was an accomplished guitarist and I regularly attended practice sessions with his jazz fusion band. Daniela belonged to a local folk dance group and I was privileged to join the whole family for a showcase performance in a neighboring town.

Macarena, a little eight-year-old volcano, was my biggest challenge and greatest reward. She was eager to have her time, but only wanted to play games, dance around and draw pictures. We played our own version of scrabble, where both English and Spanish words were allowed. I used her Barbie dolls for lessons in parts of the body, along with the “Head and Shoulders” and Hokie Pokey songs. Whatever she drew pictures of -- trees, churches, animals – became vocabulary lessons in English. In the end, she created her own English/Spanish dictionary using her pictures along with words cut out of English language magazines. Like her mother, Macarena also wanted to learn a song, but what she chose was “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel from the animated movie, "Frozen." The vocabulary and syntax were far too sophisticated for her English level, but she refused to learn anything that sounded like Barney. So, for nearly all of the three months, we traversed the lyric, line by line, until she mastered it.

My own Spanish language and travel goals languished for the first few weeks until Victor’s mother and father, los abuelos, took me under their generous wings. Together we made three trips to the World Heritage site of Valparaiso and one as far south as Isla Negra, home of Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Nerudo. Despite my limited Spanish and their gradeschool English, we managed to communicate the essentials via the liberal use of a pocket dictionary and English-Spanish cognates.

But by far the highlight of my travel agenda was a six-day trip to the famous Atacama Desert and the town of San Pedro, a bustling little pueblo of shops, restaurants, hostels and tour operators nestled beneath Licancabur, a perfect Fuji-like volcano on the border between Chile and Bolivia. I came away with a fabulous collection of memories, like the Altiplano at 4,200 meters, so high that I had to slow my walking and breathing to half speed even as I gasped at the breathless scenery; like the wild flamingoes at Laguna Chaxa surrounded by a sea of salt crystals as far as the eye could see; like the brightest shooting star I've ever seen right off the little porch of my room, where I could also take in the Milky Way Galaxy and its long road of diamonds. It was a fabulous trip both in terms of experience and the Spanish language, as I was forced to negotiate the travel, sign up for tours, order food and otherwise make my own way.

Truth is, living for two or three months in another country as a guest and volunteer in someone’s home will not be comfortable for everyone, and it was not always easy for me. It takes a rather high degree of preparation, commitment, personal responsibility and resourcefulness. But thanks to GeoVisions, and Experiment Chile, its sister organization in-country, I had the experience of a lifetime and I will always be grateful.