GIFT Bursary Tom Brown's Report

Wed 11th June 2014

Tom Brown's blog telling of his recent work and experiences in Chile

Tom Browns Blog on his experiences in Chile



May 16th 2014


Hi everyone! l'm now exactly three quarters through my year in Chile, and a lot has happened since I last posted anything here.

The Earthquake

Most of you probably read about the Chilean earthquake on the news, and I wanted to talk a little bit about what it was like for us to experience. lquique, about 30 hours from Valparaiso (where I live), is the city that took the main impact of the earthquake. Barney and I have both felt an earthquake before, nearer to Valparaiso, so l'll give a brief description of what an earthquake feels like:

The first thing you notice is that things in the room are shaking very slightly, like teacups and dishes on the table. Only very slightly at first, as if someone was sitting under the table shaking it with their hands. More things start shaking, until eventually everyone in the room notices it. Paintings on the wall start shaking and the chairs and tables start vibrating a bit more, until eventually it's a rattle. You feel yourself being shaken by the ground and then things in the room, like teacups and plates, start falling over and breaking.

It gets frightening then, especially the first time it happens, as you're not really sure what's going on. That's about the point where most people leap up to protect stuff in the room from falling over (the TV, the chairs and precious furniture) and everything becomes extremely loud. You can hear everything shaking around you and the building groaning under the force of the earthquake. Eventually it gets to the point where you have to hold onto the walls to stop yourself from falling over. But that's as far as it got for us, after that, it passed over.

Following the earthquake in lquique, the radio announced that Valparaiso had been put on tsunami alert (something we actually have school drills for every so often) and the coast guard recommended that the entire city be evacuated to the ceros (hills at least 20 meters above sea level) for the next 20 hours. Everyone in the house quickly packed a bag with warm clothes and a few vital possessions, and then we drove up to the nearest cero amidst hundreds of other people who were doing the same. Outside the roads were packed with traffic, so we took an alternative route that took us up one of the ceros a bit quicker. Traffic jams filled the whole city and we could hear police sirens all night, patrolling the inner city for looters who might be taking advantage of the lack of people. We finally went back home to bed at about 5 in the morning, unharmed and danger over

The Fire

On April 12th, a fire started in one of the ceros (slums in the hills) in the city of Valparaiso, which lasted for over three days and destroyed over 2,500 houses, leaving more than 11,000 people homeless. 15 people lost their lives in the fire, and the city was declared a disaster zone by Michelle Bachelet (Chile's current president).

I first noticed the fire at about 5pm, after taking a walk on the boulevard near the beach. The smoke was so huge at first I thought it might be a polluted cloud from Santiago (which sometimes pass over the city in specific weather), but as I got closer to the house it became obvious that it was smoke coming from somewhere over the hill. I asked Manuel and Eliana about it, who told me it was nothing to worry about, that fires like that happen occasionally in the ceros, and that the fire department (which is completely voluntary in Chile) usually puts it out after an hour or two. About an hour later, lsaac (who is in the Chilean fire department) was called away to assist the fire fighters while we were having lunch. We didn't think anything of it until Elian came running downstairs and shouted at us to come and look out of the window.

When we got to the balcony the whole sky was black from the smoke, and the fire had spread to two more ceros. The reports on the news were devastating; the footage was showing whole areas where streets were completely consumed by fire. Outside the roads were screaming with the sound of police and fire-engine sirens, and packed full with cars of people trying to escape the city. One of our family's aunts arrived and told us that a lot of looting was going on up in the hills because of the people that had abandoned their houses and that we should probably stay indoors.

At around 10 pm, we heard a frantic knock at our door and were asked for help by a family outside, holding a small girl in their arms and a few possessions. lt was one of the families who had been living up in the ceros, about a fifteen minute drive from our house, who had been forced to watch their house completely burned to the ground and now had nowhere to go. Franco (the oldest brother) let them in and gave them all blankets, asking if they needed anything and helping the youngest one (a five year old girl) up the stairs. Most of them were crying, having lost everything they owned in the space of a few hours. Bear in mind that there is no insurance in Chile for the poor areas, and so the 11,000 people who were affected lost their homes and everything else that they had in a single night.

The family told us how they had been forced to run through streets with houses burning all around them. The mother of the family told us how they had seen a group of people trapped by the path of the fire, but because of a fallen house they had been unable to help them" They said they had no idea what had happened to them. The crying mother said she didn't know if their old neighbour had made it out of her house or not, but that there hadn't been time to check. They were picked up about two hours later by a friend and presumably taken to the house of a relative or friend who lived down by the port. We never really found out what happened to them.

The day after the fire burned itself out, me, Barney and Elian went up into the ceros to help with the volunteers who were busy clearing the wreckage left by the devastating fire. We spent most of our time helping deliver food and water to the workers and other people who had lost their homes and had come to salvage what they could.

We now teach roughly 40 kids at our school who are homeless because of the fire. You recognise them by their clothes. The kids who lost their houses are always in their own clothes rather than in their school uniforms, which were obviously burned to nothing by the fire.


Philip, our English teacher who I've mentioned in the previous posts, has left and we have a new English teacher, Fran. She is very sweet and engages the students very well in classes. She has been very encouraging towards the new projects we've been working on and classes overall are fun and productive. Outside of the lessons we teach with Fran, Barney and I are still teaching classes by ourselves.

We have just finished preparing a project to set up a designated hour where we take a group of around 5 or 6 kids who are far above the rest of the class in terms of their English ability, and work with them outside of the class with more challenging activities so that they're not sitting in class for an hour without anything to do. The following hour we then return and take out the kids who struggle the most in classes. The problem isn't that they don't want to learn English, a lot of them try very hard, it's that they have no confidence with the subject and often don't believe that they actually can understand the activities.

I feel so at home here now that it's strange to imagine leaving. Looking back it's strange to think how easily teaching 200 kids every day in South America whilst speaking Spanish becomes routine. Being in Chile stopped feeling strange for me a long time ago. Now it just feels like a second home. Having said that, l'm really looking forward to seeing everyone back in England, don't think I don't miss you all... see you all soon!