On the New Years Eve of 2017, I tasted Cuy while in the mountains near Huaraz. The next day I was purging my body. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
But I’ve had time to think about it and I realise I can’t let one bad experience at the beginning of my trip dictate what I will and won’t do. It might have been altitude sickness, or travel anxiety, or the potatoes. I had to try again. This time my girlfriend’s mum recommended the restaurant.
The cuy was served in parts but you can have it whole with the offal still in it, although not at this restaurant. Mine was fried with garlic. It had the tiny ribs and little paws.
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.
The year started pleasantly enough. I had mild poisoning from eating a quarter of a hamster, which is on my Peruvian bucket list.
That’s appropriate given that at some point today the ‘cuy’ was likely to be the thing on the list going to kill me.
I exaggerate. A lot. But I have been asleep most of the day in my hostel and actually feeling miserable. I’m feeling lonely and isolated that I even wonder about returning home to Australia.
I realise now as I hear fireworks exploding outside in the streets somewhere to my left that this is sickness depression talking. These feelings aren’t real. I hope.
I wonder about eating that cuy. I had felt like a monster when I tried it out. You could see its paw. It tasted okay – its skin was kind of like a leathery crackling but I feel nauseous even thinking of it. See, what I wonder was, ‘was eating the cuy worth it?’ Straight away you would say no given that trying it has caused a lot of pain. But it was an experience, and I certainly have a story to tell.
Last night I was with a friend as we watched the fireworks along the plaza de armes in Huaraz, and in theory this should have been a perfect moment for me. The sickness was starting to set in but I’m not sure it could account for my odd mood as I watched the explosions whistle over the numerous Christmas decorations. But I felt an overbearing loneliness just for a moment, feeling that something was missing, as I summed up the year that had been.
And it hadn’t been pleasant. It began with being burgled as I was asleep, continued with a break-up and carried on into the later months of drifting, insecurity, and the mind games that came with it.
When I decided to come to Peru I figured there was a 50-50 per cent chance I was going to die here. Not by my hand! I mean, there was yellow fever, and muggings, and dangerous animals, and cocaine fields, and even landmines.
But the scary thing is that I didn’t care. Maybe it was the arrogance of a man in his late 20s who hadn’t felt intense physical pain for a while. Or maybe it was because I hadn’t yet understood loneliness. I’d always loved loneliness, but didn’t comprehend yet the idea of being sick without support.
But then something changed in that I stumbled into competing in a modelling competition – and by a bizarre twist I ended up competing in the nationals in Cairns. Don’t get me wrong, my photos aren’t anything to brag about, but after I left feeling like I was in some sort of brotherhood, and after I took on daily gym sessions and ate a diet mainly of bananas, Greek yoghurt, oats and chicken, I felt different about myself. I suddenly cared more about myself and what I was doing, and I had hope and a new direction.
I was scared about going to Peru.
And then I flew there and met a bunch of people and faced new experiences and challenges. I felt the highs and lows and the powerful feelings in between those. I lost a sense of control and even the illusion of confidence I thought I’d had
“Fuck the ghosts of last year!” I told my friend halfway through the fireworks. And I stood there genuinely believing it.
Like many of my friends I ran away to Peru to hide from something. Except that demon took a different form, and so I had to confront it, or run away from it. I’m still confronting that desire to be liked by everyone, and running away from it (“I don’t need anyone but myself!”), and returning, and confronting, and I’ve got to admit it’s all wearing me down. It’s why Australia is starting to seem appealing in my dehydrated phase.
He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.
And living actually matters.
My favourite part of New Years is typically writing a bunch of resolutions. Last year I wrote four pages worth. I haven’t written any for this year yet.
As I stood there watching the fireworks banish the ghosts as if it was some traditional Indigenous smoking ceremony I realised that maybe writing resolutions is the wrong thing. Maybe what I had to really do was reflect on the past and decide what I needed to learn on.
Or so I thought.
But then again what good does that reflection even do? It’s sort of useless. So far it’s really only been good for depressing blog posts.