From being a student to being a tourist

"Cien veces la miraste, ninguna vez la viste."
(Gabriela Mistral)

During this four-month sabbatical, spent traveling through the Americas, we have followed a certain pattern, settling into a single city for three or four weeks (Antigua, then Xela, Guatemala; Monteverde, then San Jose, Costa Rica; then Valparaíso Chile). We have enrolled in a language school in each city, and spent three or four hours each morning in class, and one or two hours each evening in study.

We were learning Spanish, but our ongoing relationship with our teachers meant that we could also bring them all our questions about our experiences, about culture and politics, about religion and economics. When we noticed that Chileans seemed somber, or that they were disinclined to say "sorry," our teachers could tell us about some of the resonances remaining here from the Pinochet regieme. When we noticed that the houses highest in the hills of Valparaíso were the poorest ones, our teachers also helped us see that those were the sites that had the best view -- the largest, broadest vista -- of the harbor and the New Year´s eve fireworks display.

For the last two weeks of our trip, however, we have ceased being students in those fairly conventional arrangements, and have instead become full-fledged tourists. We are traveling as far south as we can get (we are now on the Grand Isle of Chiloé). We take local buses, arrive in a new town every day or two, wander the streets until we find a hotel we like that also has room for us--and then going exploring.

Following this method, we´ve seen lots that´s new and different and interesting to us: the beautiful wooden churches throughout Chiloé, the small towns nestled into each of the bays, the astonishing repeat vistas of fjords, and the string of snow-covered volcanoes which keep re-appearing across the water. But we also seem very much to be skimming the surface and--this is important--to be doing so under the instruction of our (not very good) guidebook.

Our experience puts me in mind of Walker Percy´s 1954 essay, "The Loss of the Creature," which uses the tourist as a metaphor for what the student should NOT be: someone who follows the expert´s instructions on what to look for. This means not just what churches to see in Chile, but how to read a sonnet, or dissect a dogfish. (Percy actually advocates the unexpected appearance of dogfishes in English classes, and of sonnets in dissecting labs; he´s encouraging less mediated, more direct encounters than those that school usually provides).

What this experience is showing me is how little most of my trip has followed protocal (despite the "schooling" that structured it all). I wasn´t studying what I´ve been trained to study. I wasn´t pursuing my speciality, but allowing myself to go wandering, to see what I could find.

I was being a student. Not a tourist.