One year in Peru and I’m still learning

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The many faces of Burnzy. This is 1) Halloween Burnzy.

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.

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2) Gringo Burnzy.

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.

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3) Backpacker Burnzy. Not to be confused with ‘Gringo Burnzy.’

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.

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4) Shakespeare Burnzy. Performing the ‘to be or not to be’ scene at school. I think it might be a real skull.

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.

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5) Jungle Burnzy.

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.

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6) Snow Burnzy.

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.

‘Why So Serious?’

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7) Beach Burnzy

 

Heavy thoughts in sunny Ecuador

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On the 20 hour bus ride.

We are not immortal. Often we are anxious and alone. We are trapped and no mind game or change is going to alleviate the situation.

I wrote that in sunny Guayquil of Ecuador.

And while I feel better now, I did not think I could ever be, at the start of a 20 hour bus trip from Trujillo to Guayquil.

It was two weeks into the flu, with stress over a lot of things t, with the fear that I had a reoccurring stomach bug from eating hamster on New Years Eve.

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At the border to Ecuador. 

So I decided to flush it out. I took heavy antibiotics and since then was in a haze. It wasn’t until two days later on the bus, when I took a tablet, that I knew straight away something was wrong. I was nauseous and dizzy. I passed out over the bus toilet. I could not sit up, the only thing that helped was laying down. But understandably the bus porter wasn’t going to let me do that. He made me sit on the bus stairs (double story) and made me drink cacao tea. It was nasty stuff but he assured me it would help.

I was sick, probably flushing out the bulk of the tablet, where I felt good enough to lay down another 12 hours until we crossed the border.

We crossed familiar territory including Mancoura, Zorritos, and the border, where my journey here all begun. Except now I felt a bit weary. Older.

It is an illusion of course. How much different could I be in six months?

My problem is I am much the same, facing the same problems I had when I left Australia six months ago.

Life moments I didn’t realise were important until they were memories

 

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1.  The former leader of the Salvation Army, General Eva Burrows, used to be based at the drop-in centre and church I used to volunteer at in Melbourne. She once talked to me about my poetry (bad poetry now and terrible then). The moment was filmed and when she died that moment was played across the world as part of her memorial.

In the video around the split second my exhausted 21-year-old face is shown (during a bad pimple outbreak too), General Eva is quoted saying something from her 80th birthday speech. “The officer must always finish on a challenge. For those who are listening, it’s this; whether you are 18 or 80 ask yourself the question, ‘am I really using my life to any great purpose? I am what the work I’ve done for God has made me by his grace.”

2. Then there was the time I met my math teacher Alan, in Year 9, when I ripped up the detention sheet he gave me. Soon he had to give me the wooden paddle to the arse in front of the principal and he hated doing it. Corporal punishment was so awkward.

When I left home at 15 (technically the family moved across the country and I stayed) I boarded with a few families and these were miserable experiences. Soon Alan and his wife took me in and said I could stay with them until I was married. I didn’t get married and won’t be anytime soon, but because of them I was able to go to university and complete a Bachelor of Journalism. Without their grace and kindness I wouldn’t have been able to afford to attend university. I wouldn’t have been able to better my life. I still am welcome for dinner or a coffee whenever I visit Brisbane, and sometimes I wonder, ‘do I make them proud?’ Sometimes I wouldn’t.

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I must have been 18 or 19 in this photo! I’m pictured with Alan and Barbara with their daughter Jess.

3. There was the time I turned 15 and I was suspended until further notice after shortly starting at a new school. I went to church in high school and learned about forgiveness and apologising, something about seeking forgiveness from a brother you’ve offended before supplicating yourself to God, and as soon as the sermon finished I walked to the principal and apologised for my behaviour.

She gave me another chance to attend school and I changed my life, even when everyone expected I was going to screw it up.

I screwed up once when I skipped out of science class and threw leaves in the window, but my teacher Mr Young said nothing and didn’t even give me detention. Church was great. I hung out with my friends Sam and Jason and cheersed the grape juice in the communion cups and made up our own version to the hymns.

Jason got married two years ago and their wedding was held at the amazing Maleny Manor to the north of Brisbane. I bought him a clock in tribute to his favourite Korn song ‘I Did My Time’ that we used to sing in class. And he made me a groomsman and I had never been a groomsman before. Some friends last. Some transformations can as well.

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4. During my first year of university I studied Arts because I couldn’t study anything better (come to think of it, this is an entry in itself, a careers advisor at my mandatory dole appointment urged me to study at university. I wasn’t planning to). My school marks were terrible (I mean, I tried in the last few years of school but living away from home and tumultuous earlier years left their mark in any subject apart from English. In that subject I was a natural).

During that year I went to a religious concert and a Salvation Army officer spoke about the needs of the homeless in Melbourne. He inspired me to defer university and complete a program for a year.

I saw shit that broke me and rebuilt me. I saw the world was a horrible place, of white and black but grey as well, but what you assumed to be black was in fact only the white hurt and ruined and in pain. What you assumed to be white was only indifference able to keep itself clean by distance.

I connected to a close group of friends, a community, that would have done anything for you. We are scattered now, each with our lives, families and convictions. I returned to university no longer addicted to video games. My creative writing was much better and so were my marks.

Among the many people I worked with was an elderly lady. I can describe her in detail because she was a caricature. This woman had white hair always curled from rollers, and she wore an oversized coat that was supposed to look like fur and she clutched a walking stick wherever she went. Her face was saturated in make-up and her perfume was the cliche of the old – a bitter brew that burned your nose full of vanilla, musk and roses. She spoke properly and some said that in her younger days she owned a hotel, or an island, or something exhorbitant. It was implied among the drug addicts and ex-convicts and alcoholics and schizophrenics and lonely and young parents and destitute and chronic hoarders that I was grouped among that this woman was of old money, but like the rest of us was now broken in some way. But the only damage she showed was age and an anxiety for loud noises, and what kind of damage is that really?

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At a luncheon that the Thai community hosted for the homeless next to the St Paul’s Cathedral near Swanston Street this woman convinced me that I should become a journalist (and return to my degree).

“There’s just so many bad people in that profession,” the ignorant and rather self-righteous version of me said.

‘That makes it more important for you to be in that profession,” she said indignantly. “That’s when you know you are needed in it.”

That’s the story I’ve always told. But actually, I needed journalism. It has been good for me.

5. There was the time I interviewed a teacher who was cycling around Australia doing stupid dares to fundraise for charity. He was 28. He inspired me.

He made me realise I wanted to do a lot more with my life. I wanted adventures. Nothing should hold me back because there were no excuses. So I went on holidays to the UK for a month but that wasn’t enough.

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The realisation came more than two years ago.

I now live in Peru about to teach history and geography.

…..

I am proud of my life and where I came from, but what I suddenly see are the characters who inspired me without me realising it – whether for a moment or throughout the years.