ON Saturday I was supposed to be flying to Santiago, for a month of backpacking in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. But the world has changed hasn’t it, and I guess it was self-entitlement to think I was ‘supposed’ to be doing anything.
I’m taking two weeks holiday instead of a month, and I am sitting at home. There’s a lot of time to process my thoughts, and there’s a lot of them that haven’t had time to emerge since I first left Peru. And even then I was in reverse culture shock, trying to get a job and a place to move in.
I left a year ago, and I know why I had to leave. I wasn’t happy, I missed Australia, and I wasn’t financially or socially stable. The time was just right to return. But I haven’t really stopped to think about it, except on the one month and six month milestone. And now.
I just read an article about how the death toll of the coronavirus in Peru is about 80, with about 2500 diagnoses. In Australia there are about 5000 diagnoses, from the top of my head, with about 40 deaths. The article was about how an ex-con living in poverty in Lima is struggling to feed his kids at the markets. The money being distributed by the government isn’t necessarily flowing in places where it’s needed. It’s made me remember that I am lucky, that the worst complaint I’ve really got is a holiday is cancelled, and that I’ve got too much free time safe in my own home, with as many books, TV shows, video games as I could want. So many aren’t this lucky, and while my job isn’t safe, it’s safer than others.
Mentally I’m squirming, because all this time has helped me to confront why it is I am isolated by myself. I’m not just self-isolated, I’m also having to confront why it is I’m actually lonely, what behaviours have led me to this decision, and whether or not this is the result of healthy choices, or poor ones. It’s probably a mix of both.
I look back and I feel there’s a long line of women disappointed in me, but I also know the reason they were disappointed was because I chose what I believed to be right at the time, or to choose what I wanted, in the right way. But when I’m the centre of this disappointment, I start thinking what it is I have learned, or what is wrong with me? Can I move on and have a fulfilling life, and is having passions like travel and learning Spanish helping that to happen, or is it getting in the way?
I reflect on the personal mistakes I made in Peru, with friendships, love, relationships, and there were a lot of them. I felt I was doing the right thing every time and not quite understanding why the people around me reacted the way they did. In a way, I was already in a form of self-isolation there.
I have a Chilean bottle of wine waiting for me in the pantry but I don’t think it’s a good idea to use it just yet.
I’m using this time to learn as much Spanish as I can. I have a few skype lessons booked, but I’ve also taken a beginners’ online course called ‘El Metodo’ and it’s been quite practical. I’m eight lessons in and it’s at my level.
It was my first date since I left Peru. And I knew coming into it that it was going to be a challenge. In a way it was going to be therapeutic. I was right.
She was from Taiwan, picking strawberries at a farm for minimum wage so she could extend her visa in Australia. Where she worked there weren’t any Australians, only other backpackers who spoke in Asian languages. This date was rare English practice for her.
And she wasn’t great at it. The conversation over coffee, and later over green curry, was awkward. There wasn’t much of it.
I’d been there, in that same situation when I lived in Peru, before entering a relationship, where I went on dates where they couldn’t speak English. Back then I was the foreigner, and they were the local, and I was anxious, and they had all the power, or so I thought. And I was frustrated easily, and felt they were judgmental.
I realised then over flat whites, in a small Queensland city, how exhausting it was to be expected to hold the conversation as the local speaker. It was draining, but I had the luck of being on the other side of the table. Twice, her frustration showed, but it didn’t last long and it wasn’t her fault.
Questions that allowed for ambiguous answers was hard for her. “What is Australia like?” wasn’t going to get an answer, but “is Australia cold?” would.
By the time we went to the local Asian restaurant, and had ordered our food, I had figured out that even though I had no interest in learning Taiwanese, an interest in it was the way to bridge a friendship. I learned to count to three (and absorbed it surprisingly faster than I would have two years ago before practising Spanish), and asked about the objects, “what’s rice in Taiwanese? What’s water in Taiwanese? What’s fork in Taiwanese? What is chicken in….”
And I thought back to the time I was in Peru, and I saw my dating life there in an entire new light. And I saw the people there no longer as impatient, but as kind and confused as to how to bridge a connection.
It has been a while since I have posted. It hasn’t been abandoned. Resuming a normal life after an ex-pat one is still worth recording. It’s been a confusing time, and I have been so busy trying to sort out adulting (finding a place to live, set a household budget, get the hot water working) that I haven’t processed emotions until recently.
The date was healing, and before that I was kind of grieving.
Today I bought wi-fi from Telstra, and now it’s set up and I’m listening to Spotify. I’ve taken a few hours off since the last sentence, with a few old friends from the west coast passing through and inviting me out for a few beers.
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.