I was in the local liquor store last night to pick up some vodka on my way to a mate’s. The security guard said, “I hate to be a pain, but can I look at your ID?”
“You’re going to love this,” I said. “Check the date of birth carefully.” He checked it, gasped in surprise, and passed it onto his curious colleague.
‘Get out of here,” they said.
On the way out the girl at the register also asked for my ID. I smiled and handed it over, and she said, “what?” and passed it back. “You really don’t look it,” she said, to the point that it became overwhelming. I think I was blushing. I paid and grabbed the vodka and left to go to my friends’.
A friend I haven’t seen since before my trip to South America was staying over. He is from Central America and so I was excited to be able to practise my Spanish with him. I was nervous too. After a few drinks we began talking in Spanish. Afterwards, it wasn’t a long conversation, he said, “you speak well. But you get frustrated when you don’t know words.”
It wasn’t frustration and I told him. It was an excitement as I tried to find new ways of something something. Regardless, it was good feedback. He showed me how to take a drink, “para arriba, para abajo, para al centro, para adentro!”
As I entered the house that evening with the vodka, and bragging about how I had to show my ID at 30 years old, twice, in the same store, music was playing on Youtube.
THE worklife has been consuming. And I don’t mind that so much at all, because when it is consuming, life seems to go by faster. I have a Spanish lesson every weekend, I clean, cook, and maybe buy some collectible cards from the local hobby shop.
But in 27 days, give or take a day, I will be on my way to Peru. Assuming that the agent I bought my tickets from isn’t dodgy, because they’ve changed the time of my tickets so many times.
I’ve calculated I will be in Trujillo for a few days, where I lived, and while there I want to catch up with friends and visit the school and visit the students I work with. That’s why I made the trip! I will see my goddaughter and her family, the people that let me rent with them. I will see my ex’s mother. But who knows who else.
Then I will fly to Cusco, and the plan had been to stay a few days, stock up, and then head east over to Bolivia. But I had planned to leave on Easter Saturday. Now I think I will have to stay the day after Easter because travel will be a nightmare on the buses!
I’m not sure how many friends I will see when I return, and in the last few days it has started to sink in. I would love to of course. But in truth I wasn’t happy with the person I was when I lived there. I was tense, stressed, focused on work, and trying to control everything around me.
And I can’t say, as a person now, that I’ve changed too much at all.
I’ve been pushed to work, I end the week exhausted. Perhaps that is why I was reading a book, and realised that I was 10 minutes late into my Skype Spanish lesson.
I rushed onto the lesson, and she was there, but what with the stress from work and from being late to the lesson, I was stressed. I couldn’t absorb what she was saying, when normally it flowed.
She sensed my resistance, and asked if I wanted to have the lesson at another time. That was kind of her. But we pushed on.
It was a sign of a good teacher that she recognised my irritation, and we warmed up a bit before she introduced the concept of conjunctions used for when we’re doing things to our bodies.
But I was resistant to learning, already stress breathing when she introduced an entirely new concept. Unusually for her, she had to speak in English to explain things.
I knew the anxiety was happening. I knew why it was happening…but soon, it clicked. I understood. And it worked out well.
Until the lesson was due to finish. My Skype started mucking up and I basically had to hang up. We’ve booked another lesson, and I know in theory she won’t mind as she still gets paid the same.
But it reminds me that a loss of interest, or stress, or anxiety, can block the goal to become bilingual. As it was in Peru, and as it could be.
And yet as I overcame it, as the lesson developed and I didn’t let it get the better of me, and when I absorbed new knowledge, I felt the stress dissipate, and the mental oppression from work become irrelevant.
There was a TedX video I watched two weeks ago, in which the man teaching it said it was possible to be fluent in a language in six months. I dismissed the idea at first until he explained that it requires knowing a certain number of types of words in order to express yourself.
But immersing yourself in another country of another language won’t work. People will talk over the top of you and you won’t understand the meaning. You need a native language ‘parent’ who you can express yourself with, even if you’re wrong. I’ve found that in my teacher, but I felt a slight sense of disapproval today because I didn’t come into the lesson fully absorbed.
I’ve started writing again. That’s been one of the changes. Last weekend I told myself to sit down and write for an hour. And not to write something new, but to continue on something I already started.
I did. Then carried on for 20 minutes on the Monday night. And then I did another hour today.
For a bit I’ve felt empty, like I’ve run out of things to say, at least on social media. And that’s okay, maybe, if I’m writing other things.
Now I am. It’s sci-fi fantasy and involves a compilation of works, but the characters are already twisting the story to what they want, and I’m 5000 words in, so that’s a good sign that they are doing that. I just want to write and write and see what comes out of it. I’m hoping for a solid mess of 200,000 words or so. An epic.
The other night I decided to buy face moisturiser. I’ve rarely used it, and I’ve failed to see the need to put more chemicals in my body. But my budget allows me to buy something for hygiene each week, and I wasn’t really needing much food, so I decided to get it.
I tried it yesterday. My face stung a bit like it was sunburned, and then in the evening, something happened.
On the side of my face, next to my right eye, was a white spot. It became noticeable near the end of my Peru trip, and it was a sure sign of my age. I’ve been troubled by it more, and I’ve been touching it a lot, when I’m thinking.
Anyway, the white spot fell off after using the moisturiser.
The same night I went shopping, I bought a muffin tin for apple and cinnamon muffins I’m going to bake for my colleagues tomorrow, at Woolworths, and a work shirt from a clothes store. There’s a cute girl who works there, and I know she’s friendly because it helps her sell clothes, but her interest does seem genuine, like she wants to talk. I joined up a membership the last time we spoke, and she got my birth date, and she seemed so surprised. “That’s my age!” she said.
This time around, we talked about life, and our car troubles, and how she was borrowing her parents’ car. And then she dropped in, “I had to pick my son up.” And I hope I hid my surprise, and I hope it didn’t mean I failed some sort of test.
Girls used to drop in “my boyfriend and I” into the conversation somewhere, if there showed some attraction from either us. Then it got more subtle, and more of the usage of “we” when she did something or went somewhere.
But since coming back to Australia, the women my age who are single also happen to be mothers, and they mention their child. I guess it doesn’t bother me, I don’t want kids for a while, but I suppose then there’s a fear that I need to know exactly what I want. I need to know if I’m going to integrate into another family’s life, and if I don’t, then I should stay out. The time for certainty is now. Or before, perhaps. I’m unsure about when the certainty needs to come into play.
I was driving this afternoon for a short while, and even though the car is still making odd noises, after I took it to the mechanic – who discovered a wrecked head gasket – I feel happy, like I’m getting ahead. I live in a nice place, and I’m able to save a bit of each pay. It wasn’t obvious at first, but my work is paying off for me, financially.
Last night I went to Dan Murphy’s, where there was a Chilean brand of wine I liked to drink in Peru, called Casillero del Diablo. I swear it wasn’t as good when I drank the bottle last night, but I still had a good time. There were times I was holed up in my room in Peru, and I’d drink a bottle, and reach out to everyone I could think of.
I tried not to do that this time.
I’m working on getting more clothes. Most of the shirts I wear to work were the best shirts I couldn’t bear to throw away when I left for overseas. They were for races and rodeos, and so are a bit expensive to wear out. A pink shirt I wore to work for years, before continuing to wear in Peru, is getting shabby and sun worn. I threw it out today.
It’s funny. Things. You get attached to them.
I went to the races with a work friend last weekend. It was the first races I had been to since before Peru. We got drunk slowly and gambled on horses, and I won the first race at odds of 7/1. We met a couple who recently moved to the area, and they met in Iceland. He was Australian but lived in various places overseas for four years, and she was from the Czech Republic. It was a long story but after a year of being friends, they tried to make it work, and she moved to Australia. But all the loopholes they have to jump through, the stress, the difficulty, it seemed to me like it was hard.
And to me, the longer I was with them, the more I felt an underlining tension.
Work is okay. I’m finding ways to be more efficient and reduce my anxiety. One good way I found was to try to reduce my talking to everyone, and just work quietly. I don’t need to have a presence, or know everything, or have an opinion about what’s going on.
And I’ve found, by doing that, that I worry less about if I’ve said something wrong, or not doing the right thing.
Another thing I did was I bought a news subscription. When I wake up for work (at 7am, formerly at 7.40am) I switch on the TV to ABC, and then read my news subscription’s email which is sent every morning. It gives me the highlights. By the time I come to work, and I have a news meeting, I feel mentally prepared to know what the agenda of the day is. I’m not spending an hour or two trying to play catch up.
I love a good Zelda game. Nintendo released a classic from 1992. A Link to the Past. Geez, it’s good. And hard. And brings in the best elements of legit Zelda gameplay.
I guess I’m starting to feel like I’m not playing catch up.
I’ve been in Australia for a bit more than a week, and I have to admit it’s been a confronting experience. I suppose it’s up to me to try to put it into words as to why.
I landed in Brisbane Airport after more than 35 hours of travelling or being transient (12 hours in the Santiago Airport). I stayed at my friends’ place, and even there it all felt different. My friend Jon had married while I was away and he had moved out.
I couldn’t make decisions for days without questioning it. Everything was a mental haze. I didn’t really feel like speaking to anyone for long.
For 17 months I was surrounded by Spanish speakers and so instinctively I had to read body language. I had a theory that when I returned I would be overwhelmed by all the English spoken around me, and would be able to read body language extremely well.
That was partly true.
Instead I found in large places I didn’t notice the English spoken around me. It was all just noise and could have been any language.
And reading body language and tone was useful, but I could see quickly when people weren’t interested in what I was saying. Or could see they were not interested in what I was saying, but still cared about me.
I realised this too. I wanted to talk about Peru. They wanted to talk about their lives.
We all just wanted to talk about ourselves.
I bought a ticket to WA to see my family. My brother and his girlfriend recently built a house together. They have a proud Bengal cat. A job that’s only five minutes away in a recently built-up suburb. Big TV. There’s a hot water tap for the kitchen sink, and you get to flush the toilet paper. They let me stay at their place. I sleep on the couch. It’s extraordinarily comfortable.
Everything is spaced out and the houses have front and back yards. I can’t believe I miss the banana and strawberry sellers wheeling their carts on the roads, shouting, “fresas! platanos!” and annoying me while I’m trying to rest.
I made a joke that my brother had to drive his homeless brother somewhere. And then I realised it actually wasn’t a joke. For now I am homeless. I’m looking for work but my industry has changed a bit.
We went to the store the other day to buy food. And when we went through the auto check-out, I couldn’t find plastic bags.
“Oh, you have to buy them,” my brother said. Sometime recently the plastic bag was banned.
My mum, brother and I went to Rottnest Island to take selfies with Quokkas. I guess I wanted to show off to my Peruvian friends. The little marsupials were everywhere and have no fear of humans. We hired push bikes and cycled half the island, and this to me was the type of adventure that made me feel like I was still travelling in Peru.
There’s a shack in the jungle, by the river, in the national park of Pacaya-Samiria. I’m there two nights. Other people pass through in that time. Some take tours of three days, or four, or seven. Some can be in the national park for up to a month.
My guide Santiago takes me on a walking tour on the second day for a few hours, while it rains. We see monkeys, and rubber trees, and the sap stretches. He shows fruits, and I taste a little bitter yellow fruit. He cuts through scrub with a machete.
He chops pieces of bark for himself from trees which he says can help with vaginal pain, and cancer, and other sicknesses. Everything we truly need seems to be in the jungle.
We collect strange fish, not just piranhas, from nets. He cooks lunch, we rest, and have dinner. He gets exhausted by my need to speak Spanish when we can ask nearby translators for help, and soon he offers me a boat ride in the night to search for alligators.
“Oh crap, I’ve offended him,” I think as we searched the creek by torchlight. “What a terrible way to die.”
Eyes shine orange in the night. A branch resting near the canoe shakes, and I jump in fright. He shows me alligators close up but they aren’t anywhere near as big as salt water crocs. I relax.
Orange eyes in the dark stare, not looking away from their predator. Sometimes they disappear when I shine the light away and back.
Santiago can find frogs in the trees by torchlight, and shows me, and eventually we return to the shack.
The next day he’ll canoe us both upstream to the park’s entrance, barely stopping except for lunch and to signal the river otters. Sometimes he drinks a brew from a water bottle made from ingredients from the jungle, but offers me none.
This blog post is part of a collection of journal entries set while I journey alone to the Peruvian jungle. It begins with this post, if you are interested.
It’s been a year since I moved to Peru. Seeing the Facebook memories from November, 2017, is giving me perspective. This helps give me confidence. A year ago in Mancoura, I was wrestling with the pronunciation of ‘Gracias’, ‘aqui’, and ‘pan’. Today, I wrestle with the usage of ‘estaba’ and ‘estare’.
The dogs here are surprisingly very well behaved.
It was easy a year ago to think about coming to Peru and the adventure and escape that awaited. But at some point I have to return, and I have no way to do so easily. If you sell everything including your car, and leave your job, and go overseas, it seems romantic, but at some point in time you will have to begin again when you return.
The best cakes I have ever eaten were in Peru. Peruvians know how to eat sweet foods.
Intention is always misunderstood in a foreign country, no matter what you do and how hard you try. This is the part where loneliness really affects you.
Manners are important. The worst thing you can do to block yourself from the surrounding Spanish world is to respond with ‘no entiendo’ when people attempt to explain something to you. And people don’t really know how to respond when you cannot speak enough words.
The same issues of bigotry, hatred, racism, xenophobia, and even nationalistic pride exists on both sides of the world. But even ignorance of the countries surrounding your borders also exist. I couldn’t believe it when a few people asked me if I was Venezuelan. My first reaction was shock. “How could you think I am Venezuelan?” That was bigotry. Then I realised that people really don’t know the countries outside of their borders. Then I realised that I am the same when it comes to countries outside of Australia. I guess I just assumed that in South America everyone was more interconnected. So I started researching on BBC the countries outside of Australia. I began with New Zealand, where I learned there is a river that legally has the same rights as a living person, and then the island nations that made it very clear to me how much the Americans during the Pacific War influenced the emergence and awareness of such places.
It’s easier to see the faults of a system when you’re the outsider, the stranger. But then you realise those faults exist at home too.
Today my students asked me questions about where I lived, and somehow I googled myself in class, and showed them either photos of myself, or photos I have taken. Then they saw a Youtube video of me boxing a Pacific Islander 40 kgs above my weight. This man ended up becoming my housemate. Then I showed the students a video of camel racing. They loved it. And that’s when I realised, I have lived a full life. I knew that already. I guess it’s just that I desperately want others to recognise that. For a moment, these kids did. And it made me happy, and made me feel respected, and made me feel that these kids were seeing a new exciting world beyond the one they had been taught about (the United States!).
The more you learn, and the more you want to learn, and the more enthusiastic you are about what you learn, the more you want to express yourself. I’ve tried to do it on social media but people don’t seem to like it so much. Self-expression is important but if you are learning far more than you are used to in a short space of time, maybe self-expression should be private for a little while until you’ve truly developed.
I cannot remember the last time I’ve been so sick after a night out. My girlfriend rubbed my back or sat on the shower floor next to me in the tiny bathroom. “It’s okay,” she said, reminding me that I likely wasn’t going to die, even though it did feel like dying.
When we woke up, gradually, the following afternoon, she said, “maybe you shouldn’t have mixed your drinks.”
It’s my second birthday in Peru, and the plans were almost the same, without realising it until I checked the blog post about it: Feliz Cumpleaños. I didn’t get so sick, but it was a late night involving pisco and pizza.
There were two observations I made this year about my birthday. The first was that everyone hugs you when they wish you well. And given that I spend my life in relative isolation with only physical touch from one or two people, away from family or the overly familiar bro culture of ‘Strayan blokes, the manly hugs from normally conservative people is actually welcoming.
The second thing I noticed was that when you turn 29, nobody is interested in the fact you have turned 29. It instead is, “wow, not long until you are 30.”
But who cares about 30? I’m 29.
I had invited a bunch of people to a favourite pizza place of mine, and after splitting the bill, most went home. A few of us continued the party at a favourite bar of mine, at the intersection next to the Plaza de Armas. I drank a Machu Picchu and because I held balloons that said ’29’ and wore a crown (corona), I caught the attention of the Spanish singer who constantly asked questions about who my girlfriend was, and where I was from. She tried to get me dancing along with the others, but I preferred to watch. But my refusal to get up and dance with my girlfriend, I sensed, drew some irritation from the crowd.
A year ago all fresh with the novelty of trying to be a new person in a new continent, I would have danced.
That night I preferred not to be the token gringo that couldn’t dance. We watched traditional dances from across the country, before moving on to a place on the other side of town we called ‘the Irish bar’. It wasn’t Irish, exactly. How could it be when the first word of its name began with ‘El’, but because it was green and had that rustic, British colonial vibe to the walls and the roof and the tables and chairs, we labelled it as such.
The night before that I had a small get-together at my girlfriend’s house. We played Jenga and ate burgers (with beetroot from Australia), and Tim-Tam Slams. For a Tim-Tam slam you need a hot chocolate and a Tim-Tam. Use the Tim-Tam as a straw and suck the hot chocolate through it until it’s about the melt and collapse in on itself.
I opened a present from my girlfriend. My favourite thing among the gifts was a shirt that looked like the cover of ‘Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”, but had been given the Peruvian treatment. Link looked out at Machu Picchu instead of Hyrule, and the shirt said “The Legend of Peru”.
I almost refused to wear a Halloween costume to school today. I hadn’t saved any money from my last pay check, and I spend all my money on living, and really, in the end, shouldn’t I just focus my energy on what is important? Shouldn’t I care more about teaching my students and preparing for it?
I reconsidered and thought that even with no money I could still leave my rented room and walk to the costume store with my girlfriend and at least find out how much it would cost to get a costume. And, as it turns out, there was an entire building in this town devoted to Halloween costumes. Three stories of stores filled with rented costumes of pirates and princesses and supergirls and Mad Hatters and Freddy Kruegars.
I decided to wear my signature costume; The Joker. Everyone was as in as mad a rush to get their costume as it would be to grab the last item in a boxing day sale. The fire hazard of the windowless room in the third floor corner was crammed with clothes and people and I needed to leave, desperate for air.
I am glad I changed my mind. Because today at school I had a lot of fun. I had one successful class of teaching (against all odds) before the Halloween dance contest was held. One of my students, who I struggle to connect with despite my efforts, is obsessed with comics, and likes clowns. When he saw me he was shaking with happiness and had the biggest smile on his face. I walked away with warm tears bubbling in my heart not knowing how to express myself, but the costume was worth it for this moment alone.
I watched all my colleagues and even students’ guards drop all day, not just with me but with the other costumes. I saw a teacher I was scared of, who I assumed disliked me, laugh when I smiled because she was dressed as a bunny rabbit.
I believe Oscar Wilde said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” I think that if you wear a mask, people treat you like a stranger. Wear a costume and people will treat you like a character they might already know, and love, or love to hate.
This week I have felt really down, and quite frankly, perhaps for the first time, I might understand the meaning of the word ‘depressed’. It wasn’t just a flat feeling, but like a physical feeling, as if a heavy steel capped boot was stomping on my chest and pressing down, and squeezing, and continuously pushing. The more my body found space to relieve itself from the pressure, the more area the pressure took up. All I could think of was this pain.
The pressure in my body is a pressure of the external circumstance as an ex-pat. As an ex-pat I have felt that I haven’t been able to express myself properly. Life and the people in Australia become distant and in many ways through language barrier, among other things, kept me distant from those around me too.
In two days it will be one year since I arrived in Peru. There has been ups and downs, challenges like you wouldn’t believe, frustration and pain and misery and so much gaining of knowledge. It’s been a life, not a holiday, and one where presumptions and assumptions and stereotypes and ego have had to break, or bend, or be questioned, or tested.
This moment today alone has almost made the year worth it. I created an expression of joy in someone by being myself (by being someone else).
In the last week I have reflected on what to write for this anniversary post. And I was going to write about the mistakes I made this year, or what I would do all over if I had the time again. It just felt so negative though, and needlessly hard on myself. But what I wish I had done is something that maybe I am still beginning to learn. Education and teaching is important, but at some point in the year I immersed myself too much in teaching. I focused all my energy into a job and relationships that doesn’t necessary give back as much as you put into it, not because these are necessarily horrible, but because we and others only have so much to give.
I caught myself ranting at students last week, who have one last term before graduation, ‘I’m sorry I take your education seriously. Too seriously at times, maybe.’
I could have refocused my energy so that I was a pleasure to be around, fun to be with, a colleague and a teacher to enjoy having. So I have to end this blog on this point, spoken by the great Heath Ledger.
There’s a bombardment of market stalls, souvenirs, and statues of the Incas, and all in your face the moment you leave the train. The mountains loom above and the first thing you instinctively do in Aguas Calientes is look above to see if you might be able to see the ruins of Machu Picchu.
The river stream descending from the jungle splits the small town in two, and from the train station you almost straight away cross a bridge to the bus station and the main square. If you arrive at any time in the day you will notice a long line rising up the hill. This is for the bus to get to Machu Picchu.
The trains bellow.
Restaurant waiters persuade.
The children are crazy. And there is a frantic manic energy to them, as if they are the hijos of carnies. Two infants are playing blocks with each other when I pass by, and one of them grabs a block and starts chasing me and hitting me.
There is fascinating artwork weaved into the stone of the town, with its own stories. My favourite is of the ancient Peruvian god Viracocha, because it had an insight of him emerging from nature, but some of the other artworks are spread across the town and almost hidden from plain sight unless you stare from the right angle.
There were hot springs in Aguas Calientes but I couldn’t go in without thongs (flip flops), swimmers, and a towel. These could be hired but I didn’t want to be ripped off.
This is a town of transience. Even the locals in the poor end of town, in the dodgy lanes of stairs cut into the hills in the corner of the end suburb, don’t feel local. There is a desperation, a hunger, an aggression, among the waiters that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Peru. The most reasonable meal I could find was a Peruvian menu for 15 soles (which was to include a salad platter for an entree, lomo saltado for the main course, and a crepe for desert).
They forgot to give me the desert and charged me 13 Soles for each beer. At another place the alpaca steak was 40 soles and when I said this was far too much, the waiter brought it down to 25 soles. The other waiter who brought me the check didn’t realise I was given a discount, and also charged me a service tax not mentioned on the menu! My understanding is this is illegal, but no gringo questions it.
Travelers were in the mood to talk here. I met visitors from across the world who had time for friendliness and to share their adventures, including a trio from Argentina who taught me how to say the name of their country properly, and a Canadian.
The main thing to do in town while waiting for your trip to Machu Picchu is spending money, or trying to avoid spending it. You can also walk the steep climb to Machu Picchu, or you could take the bus. From memory it was 50 soles for the return journey, but it could be more.
The trip is worth it but you are at the mercy of the long lines at the start and the return journeys. I woke at 4am for my trip to Machu Picchu and was surprised to see that I had not beaten the line.