Eli Adams, a senior at Iola High School, felt overwhelmed as he flew into Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 15.
He worried his three years of high school Spanish classes wouldn’t be enough to prepare him for the language barrier. Sure, he spent much of the past year working as an interpreter for three elementary school students from Mexico, but the language spoken in Chile is a little different.
When he arrived, he found the residents spoke quickly. The dialect was different. Even the words were a little different.
It didn’t take long for Eli to adapt, and he soon charmed the locals and the Chilean Rotarians he visited with his grandfather, Bob Hawk.
Not long into his visit, a 5-year-old boy sat down next to Eli and offered to share a slimy goo for playtime. It reminded Eli of the young boys he tutors back home.
“I always speak Spanish to little kids, so I could understand the children better and connect with them,” Eli said.
“In the end, it was easier than I thought it would be. There were more opportunities to listen and understand. There was music playing in the background. I heard people talk all around me. After a while, I started to hear the spaces between words.”
THE TRIP was organized by the Iola Rotary Club. In addition to Eli and Hawk, it included Iolan Alana Kinzle, former Iolan Ellis Potter and his grandson, Hayden Potter, age 15. Only Hawk and Eli speak Spanish.
Iola Rotarians have a long history with Chile, and the island of Chiloe in particular.
Hawk and Potter started traveling to the country in 2000 as part of a campaign to give eyeglasses to the residents. The Lions Club collects used eyeglasses, and the Rotarians would take them to the country to match residents with a suitable set of glasses.
This visit was a little different. Instead of the eyeglass program, the Iola group attended Chile’s Week of the Child. They visited local schools to recognize students and teachers. The members hand out certificates for achievements such as respect for others and commitment to family. It’s a national event.
Unfortunately, Hawk said, it just so happens their visit coincided with a teacher’s strike in the town where they visited. They managed to find two rural schools on the island.
THERE’S something poetic about Hawk’s visit to Chiloe with his grandson.
Hawk has taken other grandchildren on international Rotary trips before. In fact, he took Eli’s older brother, Jack, to Kenya.
But this was the first time that both he and his grandchild were able to immerse themselves in another culture where they both spoke the language.
And that it happened to be Chile is even more personal for Hawk.
He and wife Ginny first visited Chiloe in 1988, simply because Ginny had two free tickets anywhere the airline would go and that was the farthest location. They fell in love with the country. It was beautiful and safe, not just because of a low crime rate but also in regard to the food and water.
“The country is beautiful and the food is good, but the most beautiful thing about Chiloe is the people,” Hawk said. “When we did the eyeglasses clinic, people would wait in line for hours. They were very patient and very polite.”
The experience from that first trip prompted Hawk to learn Spanish. After he returned, he enrolled in college Spanish classes. He would become a frequent visitor to Chile and other countries, including El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
The island of Chiloe is the last place the Spanish left the Americas, in 1826. A Spanish fort is a popular tourist spot. The island exports copper and grows tulip bulbs for Holland. It’s also a source of fruits and produce, especially during the winter months in the U.S., as the seasons are opposite.
“We left Iola in the fall and went to spring,” Hawk said. “All the fruit trees were in bloom. The flowers were out. Everything was green.”
Over the years, Hawk developed relationships with local residents. He was proud to introduce them to his grandson.
They attended a Rotary Club meeting, where Eli was asked to speak about his life. He spoke in Spanish about his work as an interpreter for the elementary school students, and how he’s helping to teach them English.
Hawk shared a video of Eli’s speech. The teenager seemed very comfortable and spoke easily, with no hesitation. The crowd smiled and laughed at his jokes, clearly understanding the words he said. At the end, they clapped and cheered, nodding at each other in appreciation.
“I felt very proud of the way he did,” Hawk said. “His abilities were certainly recognized by the folks down there. He’s probably going to pass me in the language. He has a better understanding of the grammar.”
THE TRIP gave Eli a better understanding of a different culture.
What struck him most of all were the similarities, rather than the differences.
“I had the idea that it would be so different, but the people are just like us. They go to work. They go to school. Kids go out and have recess. They do everything we do, they just speak in a different way,” Eli said.
Hawk said he is glad to offer that kind of experience to his grandchildren. Being able to share the language allowed him and Eli to delve even deeper into a different culture.
“It was fun to share something I feel passionately about,” Hawk said.
“When you visit a country and don’t speak the language, it’s like looking through a keyhole. When you do speak the language, it’s like opening the door wide open.”