Blurred from late nights, restlessness, inconsistent yet heavy meals in the limbo after Christmas, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the house for New Years Eve.
But the mother of my girlfriend had cooked a roast pork, and I was hungry. So I was lured to the nearby grandparents’ place. I am glad I did, because it was a more sociable time than the New Years Eve before.
There was a lot better food too! There was the pork, some sort of Russian salad, bread, gravy, and rice (of course).
Five minutes before the bell tolled midnight, everyone was handed cute little bags of grapes. “How strange,” I thought, remarking on the ribbon decorating the plastic. So I opened it and began eating.
All the family stared at me and, basically, asked what I was doing. I shouldn’t have been eating the 12 grapes yet.
At midnight on every stroke you have to eat a grape, make a wish, and then eat another. You basically have to shove grapes down your throat to do it in time. I’m not sure the conditions in getting these wishes, and so nobody told me you can’t tell anybody (at least in English), so I wished for health, safety when I travel into the jungle, and happiness, and love, and comfort for my family back home. Damn, I should have asked for a second Nintendo Switch!
The loud banging in the video is from all the fireworks that are going off from the tops of buildings, and in the streets, around us.
And then, if this wasn’t already the strangest thing, everyone grabbed pinches of lentils and shoved them in their pocket or their wallet. It symbolises money.
I’m unsure if this is traditional Spanish colonial tradition, a remnant from times before, or possibly from the family’s Chinese heritage.
The fireworks continued to crack on the streets and above various houses. It seems from my observations that certainly families or households stock up on their fireworks throughout the year and then, at midnight on Christmas Eve and NYE, let them crack.
But over the years these families have competed with each other with the longest lasting, and the best fireworks displays. Their competition has evolved into fucking mind games with each other in an effort to be the last ones burning up a strong display.
At 12.30am there were two houses in different directions clearly mindfucking with each other, because their displays were fairly quiet. Building A on the far end of the park brought out a great display of gold, blue, and green that would have suited any agricultural show back home in Australia. And then they waited. Waited. Waited for the other building close to another side of the rectangular memorial park to make its move.
They waited. They waited. Waited. Then they let off a few more fireworks, to tempt building B. It was fairly ordinary. Then waited, set off a few more fireworks, and kept quiet. It let off a generous display and then when all was quiet for a while, we retreated indoors to drink any alcohol that remained.
15 minutes later they were all fucking going for it, deafening my ears with their final annual showdown.
This might be my last blog post in a while. I’ll be backpacking through the Amazon for the next three weeks. I’m not taking my laptop and I’m unsure how the reception is going to go.
At lunchtime on the afternoon of New Years Eve, I traveled into the mountains of Ancash, on a tour to see some lake in the shadow of a snow capped mountain.
Maybe that in itself is something to be thankful for, but I will not count it. I stopped at a restaurant as part of the tour and tried out Cuy (guinea pig), and by the time I returned to my hostel, I had food poisoning that either kept me in the shared bathroom, or in my bed for 24 hours. I did not have the strength to leave the building and buy food, tablets, or water.
When I did force myself to walk to to the chemist, I realised I had forgotten to charge my phone, and I needed it to explain what I needed to the Spanish speaking chemists.
Health is something jeopardised when you travel through a foreign speaking country, and something to be delayed. Check-ups are intimidating because misunderstandings could have consequences.
For months I consistently had a reoccurring stomach bug, which would react at the worst times (just before classes). I feared something insidious was working within me, but even then I delayed the doctor’s check-up. I took strong painkillers without a prescription and after a few days I felt dizzy and basically fainted on the floor of the 20 hour bus ride to Ecuador.
I have lost weight for months, felt dizzy, and usually get sick every three or four weeks.
For the last few weeks I have been having check-ups, thanks to the support of my girlfriend, who has led to me to the clinic, translated my many appointments at reception, and with the doctor.
I received my detailed results yesterday. I am clear. Nothing, as far as we know, shows poor health. The doctor’s orders is I need to eat more starch and meat.
In other words: eat more lomo saltado.
I am thankful for my good health.
There was a girl I met in March, when I was in a lonely phase at school and at home. I had been in Peru for four months, and I decided that it was a good time to use Tinder.
Well. Use Tinder a lot.
A problem was that most of these girls spoke Spanish. So to talk to them, I would copy and paste their messages, go onto Google Translate, translate, understand what they were saying, translate my response, copy it, and send the reply.
That was okay, I figured. I was forcing myself to learn Spanish. But then when I had conversations with four or five girls, trying to decide who to meet, it was really taking up a lot of time. And then some of them offered their Whatsapp numbers, so half the conversations were on Tinder, and the other half were by app.
I had never been so popular on Tinder, especially coming from a small and remote mining town where most people knew me. It became an addiction. Between the time I wasn’t translating, or setting up dates, then I was combing through Tinder checking out other girls. “No more swiping right!” I thought. But I just couldn’t help it. Then there would be more matches.
Then, I wouldn’t bother messaging. I was that arsehole. But still, the messages from the girls came through. It appeared that I had mastered my bio, after years. “Looking for a cute girl with glasses.” Turns out there were a lot of cute latinas with glasses, but it just so happened that out of these girls, one particularly stood out. She spoke perfect English, insisted on going dutch on our dates (which was rare here), and either knew all the same nerdy or Australian things I did, or was interested in them. I think what it was, most of all, was that she always was, and still is, so fascinated with my stories. She has always listened. To every word.
She has been there in my lonely times. Invited me to her place to feed me when I wasn’t eating enough. Gone on trips with me. Tolerated my moments of doubt about our future together, considering at some point I have to return to Australia. Listened to me complain about my work and my students, over and over and over. Brought me food and tablets when I was sick, and made me breakfast of pancakes. She has seen my pile of dirty dishes and cleaned them, despite my protests.
And she bakes the best brownies.
“You’re going to meet a small Peruvian girl!” my friends and colleagues back in Australia had told me before I left. “No way!” I said. “I do not want a relationship.”
But I did meet a small Peruvian girl. I am thankful for that.
I used to have this university lecturer in my digital classes. He was nuts. Chaotic. He had this prince charming type hair which made him look young, elegant, and a little nerdy, and he was a smart-arse who stood on tables occasionally. He would interupt his lectures to give advice on how to get free drinks in bars, by making bets.
I guess if I imagined I would teach it would be like him. I would be a suave chaotic man in his thirties everyone would admire and identify with. I just never imagined I would be a high school teacher, or that I would be teaching Peruvian history and geography. But somehow, that’s what has happened.
I have spent much of my time researching into Peruvian history and I easily know more about it than I know Australian history. While gaining this knowledge and an awareness of South America is something to be appreciative of, and to see a more global insight into concerns of immigration, it’s what the students are teaching me which I am thankful for. Even though sometimes I’m not grateful in the moment.
I find that I am sometimes that cranky teacher that escalates the situation, or reacts too quickly. I am sometimes that teacher who accidentally spits when he speaks. I left Australia to try to find a way to become more humble, and I guess I am getting there. The students are more likely to listen to me if I am tolerant, and patient, and they see that I am being firm but fair.
I find that I don’t always have to follow the exact plan for the class, and that I need to read the attitude of the room. It’s about getting the most of the students, it’s about persuasion, and it’s about compromise, and letting the students beat me in a game of wits half the time. I’ve been a journalist, I’ve done stand-up comedy for a year, and this is something else. In stand-up open-mic spontaneity is often rewarded, and is encouraged, but in class it can lead to reactions that can harm.
On Monday we stopped talking about ‘decentralization of Peru’ when they asked me about Australia, and where I lived. I Googled myself (I know. In class!) and they spotted a video of me boxing a Pacific Islander in a boxing tent that was on Youtube. We watched it and they cheered and then I showed them a video of camel racing in the Australian desert. I weakly brought it back to ‘decentralization’ by saying the country’s isolation and population density had shaped its culture, but none of us, especially me, bought what I was saying.
“What did you learn in class?” I said, hoping they might refer to the 25 Peruvian regions.
“Oh no. What else?”
“We watched the camels.”
I was invited to a thanksgiving breakfast one of my classes was hosting in their room this morning. And one of my students handed me the invitation yesterday. We have a secret handshake and our own ‘gang’ called X-Force and although it sounds really silly, it helps us to understand each other. Soon she will outgrow the idea and find it dumb, but for now it helps me as much as her.
The invitation said, “From X-Force. You are invited to our breakfast for thanksgiving.” And then, in a really sweet way which teases my disciplinary system and my rules, she wrote, “knock on the door please. If you don’t knock on the door, you will get a strike!” (we have a strike/point system).
And as I sat between the students including next to my fellow X-Forcenese, I practiced speaking Spanish, and watched them play Apps on their phone. I watched one of my students who has recently discovered the love of dancing, grab his phone, set up a dancing app, and connected it to the computer screen and projector. Four students danced and the computer registered their movements simply by how they held their phone, and I watched in shock not realising that advanced technology like this was so accessible.
They have learned to live in a world like this, without question, and that’s okay. I’m thankful that I can learn from them, but only if I remain humble, and learn to bend, and adapt.
I am thankful that I have the chance to express myself, and to share my stories with you.
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.
MY landlord asked in Spanish if my girlfriend and I could be the godparents of his six-year-old daughter. I guess I didn’t really consider the responsibility. I only saw it as an adventure.
I said yes.
It wasn’t until we were on the way to the church for the baptism on Saturday night that I really even got to speak to my goddaughter. She stared out the window at the traffic pushing its way on-and-off through the narrow Trujillo laneways, in the backseat with my girlfriend Tiffany and I.
I remember how formal it looked, how nervous or vulnerable she was pretending not to be, in a white baptism dress and a garland of pink flowers on her head.
She spoke few words in English, maybe a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, but when we first met she did recite the Lord’s Prayer, at the request of her mother. But somehow, I began talking in Spanish. It was broken and clumsy and needed some work, but slowly the conversation became less awkward between an Australian and his goddaughter.
“Cuantos anos tienes?” she asked Tiffany and I. How many years do you have.
At first I didn’t understand, but it clicked in my mind, and with a proud ‘ohh. Entiendo!’ I said, happily, “Tengo Veintiocho anos.” I have twenty eight years. (In Spanish, think of external forces like cold and warmth, hunger and thirst, and the years you have as a possession, and not a statement of who you are).
“Te ves mas de treinta,” she said. I knew enough to know this meant, You look more than 30.
It was the first time I have been considered looking older than I am, but she was six, and I wore a tie, and had grown a beard. And my beard was showing the occasional gray hair.
There was another moment that really stood out to me in that taxi ride, during which the car continued to stop and start and push its way ahead of the disorder through the laneways. We were talking about kangaroos and koalas and crocodiles, although she only reacted to the kangaroos.
I said that I needed to learn Spanish.
“Por Que?” she asked. Why?
And maybe I was over examining the basic question from a young girl, but in that ‘Por Que’ I saw a girl in her own world that had continually been taught that English was the important language, that Spanish wasn’t as necessary, and that as a foreigner who already had mastered the one language, didn’t need Spanish. It made me sad.
“Porque todos aqui hablan en Espanol,” I said. Because everone here speaks in Spanish.
‘Ah,’ she said, and accepted the answer.
And that’s when we arrived at the Santa Rosa Church.
I have these doubts and wonder what it is I can do for a godchild when I return to live a world away. At the very least, presents for Christmas and birthdays are important, and so I think are the occasional letters.
By this action alone it is clear to me that I cannot just return to Australia with some happy memories and some stories to tell. I am collecting knowledge, but responsibilities too.
I have rarely been in a catholic church, but the last time would have been in visiting the second floor of the Church of Francisco in Cusco, with giant pillars and gold chandeliers, and wooden carvings that took decades for slaves to craft. Compared to that church, or even to the one on the hilltop of Huanchaco, this was a humble building. It was old, with remnants of the original painting on the walls, with the elaborate designs of the Mother Mary and of Santa Rosa and crosses in various shapes and forms around the building.
We stood at the front at the baptism bowl with the padre leading the service. Eight family members stood by the two pews recording the event on their phones. The padre spoke in Spanish and everyone repeated, knowing exactly what to say, and moved their hands to the signs of the cross in a specific order.
It was then clear to me that nobody had really considered the ignorance of a foreigner, standing at the front with everyone. It wasn’t only just the lack of Spanish. The family knew that. What they hadn’t considered, perhaps, was a foreigner who didn’t know how the structure of catholic ceremony worked. I hadn’t been actively involved since I was expelled from my catholic school in grade 4. These aren’t things you tell the parents and grandparents of your goddaughter.
But there was a powerful moment. It felt like it had meaning, the sort of intensity in which I now try to reach for my phone to collect it. My goddaughter stood at the bowl and the padre poured water down her forehead. I stood less than a metre away. She didn’t shy from the water. Her face was calm. It barely dripped. She stepped back, as did the rest of us, and then we held lit candles as the padre read to us in Spanish.
I’ve been thinking about my own baptism since Saturday night. It was a different sort of event. My family didn’t celebrate it, that’s for sure. They treated it like a 15-year-old getting a tattoo. Well, no, with a tattoo there would have been a reaction, and that is not the same as indifference.
There’s a church in Perth designed for suburbanite snobs to keep walls up and pretend they are better than everyone else around them, and my uncle and aunt took me there. I am glad they encouraged it because I wanted to do it for some time, but I sat in a bathtub full of water and in front of everyone in the church in swim shorts, and the pastor pulled my head into the water carefully. When I emerged the room cheered like I had done something great, and I suppose I wanted that feeling of acceptance from the crowd to last, like with my friends who sang with the band every Sunday.