This isn’t how I had envisioned my life at this point in time: after a long day at work, headed home in a chauffeured sedan to a four-bedroom house with three bathrooms, small but functional kitchen, laundry room, large living room, cable TV, a gated driveway and enough yardage for an adopted, sprint-happy German Shepherd renamed “Honey”.
As the dark gray sedan got started toward my home for at least the next five months, I thought this all so jarring to my compass, and that instead of the backseat of this shiny late-model car I should be somewhere in the Andes Mountains or salt flats of Bolivia, making my way from the northern arid deserts to the cool blue southern glaciers of Chile, with an overstuffed backpack firmly attached to my probably aching back.
But life throws up detours and sometimes roadblocks and it’s left to us as individuals to decide what’s the wisest choice: take the road and forge ahead; scale the obstacles or turn back – in essence quit – and just go home.
This was a big one. While I was in Peru the call came: come to Chile for six months to teach English to the bigwigs of one of Chile’s several mining companies. Many of these executives and managers need to learn English – or in some cases just improve what they already know – because English has become necessary in their jobs. Chile exports billions of dollars worth of copper to the world and the men and women who run these mining companies sometimes travel abroad or do business with others who speak English and little or no Spanish. So there’s been a push for English lessons at these multi-billion dollar corporations.
I must say I have actually been enjoying. Of course, there’s been a few glitches here and there, but that’s the case in any job. Nothing ever goes smoothly 100 percent of the time. And yet, the experience is one that I won’t shed any tears over once the fancy car is gone, the house has been vacated and the job is done. Such is my love for travel and to explore the world. Being stationary for a total of six months – I’ve been on the job for a month now – was never part of “the plan” when I left Miami in February. Eight to 10 months in South America, tops, and it was supposed to be “Hello Europe!”
But I had made a decision last month, not knowing exactly what to expect, and it has turned out to be a wise move, even if I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I have gone from sometimes sleeping in a tent and couchsurfing the homes of perfect strangers or toughing it out in crappy hostels, to now working on a luxurious corporate campus where I’m fed each day a fantastic lunch and evening snack while I rub shoulders with men and women the miners and other workers practically bow or curtsy to and treat with the reverence reserved for religious figures or heads of state. I watch as some of these top executives walk down a hallway or through a lobby and how employees quickly move out of their path and greet them with the tip of a hat. Power. Powerful.
These thoughts racing through my head are interrupted by the chauffeur. I hear him call out “Don Misha-El” – most people in Chile mispronounce Michael as it would be pronounced in Spanish. He asks where I wish to be taken. He just picked me up at a park area in Calama, Chile, that doubles as a pickup, drop off point for commuters. I tell him “home” and repeat the address he already had been given by dispatch. “But don’t call me ‘Don’,” I tell him. “I’m no ‘Don'” Maybe out of force of habit, a sense of respect or decorum mandated by his employer, he insists on “Don”. I stop correcting him after three or four tries.
For those who – oh, heavens! – are not regular readers of this blog, get up to speed on how I got the job and ended up in Calama, Chile. Do it now then come back and pick up the story here. Or do it after 🙂 For the rest of you keeping up with this twisting travel saga, read on for the scintillating details of my day in Corporate Chile. [Hmmm…why doesn’t that have the same stinging ring as Corporate America?]
My new routine: Twice a week and soon-to-be three times a week, my alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Those days are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with Thursdays to be added in August. At 6:10 a.m., my ride arrives. “Good morning Don Me-sha-El” – “Good morning. Just Michael, please.”
He drives me to Monolito Topáter – a monument to the Chilean heroes of the war fought against Bolivia and Peru, known as the Pacific War. The monument is a rendezvous point for vans and buses that take workers to the copper mines and other work sites.
At Topáter I leave my chauffeured car and board a large private bus – soon to be upgraded to a corporate van – reserved for executives of the company. The bus is very comfortable, has cushy seats that recline, with pillows and blankets provided. Given the hour and the length of travel, most people just grab a blanket and a pillow and go to sleep. The trip from Topáter to Mineria Gaby, a copper mining business co-owned by a private consortium and the government of Chile, is 1 hour and 30 minutes. I arrive at Gaby by 8 a.m., when I sit down with my first bleary-eyed student. For now I have a total of eight students at Gaby, but I will take on several more. Each individual lesson is 90 minutes.
I conduct the lessons in the offices of each executive, a challenge because some of them can’t seem to turn off work, hold off on their calls, for the duration of the lessons.
At about 1 p.m. it’s lunch time. I head for the “casino” – that’s what Chileans call a cafeteria or dining hall. There, hundreds of miners and other company employees are chowing down on what is usually a fantastic lunch prepared on-site. Lunch options are three to four options with a variety of salads and desserts. And of course, cold beverages, tea and coffee are always on the menu.
After lunch, I conduct workshops that usually include speaking and working on grammar or on whatever weakness the student wishes to work on. The workshops are voluntary by I encourage them to come, especially the ones that need it.
My afternoon continues with more lessons, usually three or four more students. By 8 p.m., I’m making a mad dash to Bus No. 3 that will take me back to Calama where my car and driver await. An impressive caravan of buses leave the corporate campus with miners and other workers assigned to specific buses. Bus No. 3 is reserved for the executives, managers and other administrators and their assistants.
On the bus, I watch a movie on my laptop – I’ve been catching up with missed episodes of “Lost” – or simply plug in my iPod and go to sleep. I arrive in Calama at 9:30 p.m., home by 9:40 p.m., in bed by 11 p.m. or by midnight.
On Mondays, I teach English at the language institute with whom I have a contract to teach at Gaby. The institute is located right across the street from where I live. At the institute my students include everyone from execs to students to housewives. That breaks up the monotony of just dealing with corporate types. I walk home for lunch on those days 🙂
Since my days are long when I am at Gaby, I get three days off – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Works out great for me because I can use those perennial three-day weekends to explore the region. I’ve already gone off to San Pedro de Atacama, a small desert town I really like. Other towns reachable by bus in a matter of hours include Iquique, Antofagasta, Chui-Chui and several others worthy but not in any tourist guides.
I’ve slowly gotten used to the routine of working in Chile among Chileans. But as I sat on that bus home, looking at the mass of people on the bus, tired from a long day on the job, I think to myself, “What am I doing here? I did I get here?” This, working in Corporate Chile, the house, the car, the dog named “Honey”, was the farthest thing from my mind. But I automatically smile and say “I like it. Just don’t get too used to it!”