ONCE I went to Barcelona. It feels a lot longer than four years ago. A friend of mine paid for my trip as a birthday present. We stayed for the weekend. Back then, I was overwhelmed by all the Spanish, the names of train stations, of ‘El’ and ‘La’ and ‘Los’ and the idea there could be more than one ‘the’ in a language.
The lady at the hostel reception by the beach was lovely. She taught me ‘por favor’ and I recall the hard rs that she used to speak it. We practiced ‘hola’ but I could never say it with a straight face. And I learned ‘pronto’, for as we returned to the airport I saw the phrase on the sign ‘hasta pronto.’ I thought it meant ‘immediately’. Subconsciously I still do.
My friend knew as much Spanish as I did. We spent another night at a hostel called Wombats in London, and I fucked up our friendship a bit, because in the brick basement of the hostel, where the bar and the foozball table was, she wanted to dance. I did not. She tried to persuade me. I was quite blunt when I said I wasn’t dancing. So we didn’t.
She was the definition of chaos, the one who found herself getting out of trouble by going directly into it. There was always a reason she lost her phone, or broke it. She wasn’t afraid to do anything, and I always felt straight edged and boring besides her. When I returned home, I’d hear about her adventures from a mutual friend and I’d laugh and sy “that’s her”. She never used social media, and I never heard from her directly, except once when she came back for a holiday.
I moved to Peru, and maybe it was because I recognised I had to do something brave, courageous, something different like my friends who moved to London.
In the hard times I wondered how my friend would manage to survive if she was in my position, until I realised it was my journey and my way. I became a bit arrogant about it, feeling that nobody back in Australia could understand my mindset, from the little things like the 15 minute walk to work in the mornings and watching the people gather at the street juice vendors, or to wait for their buses, or the school kids with their backpacks, talking about their school projects, and always, siempre, with that sense of alienation from it all.
I’d pass the police officers with my head down, the panneria, the cafe on the corner near the cathedral which served the turkey sandwiches I enjoyed, but rarely tipped for. There were the grey bleak shops, and then the older, more colonial blue and yellow buildings, mostly converted to become government offices or a McDonalds. There was the super mercado and yet another busy road to cross with a dodgy reputation, Los Incas. There was the drunk men on the curb, sometimes, who began shouting at me until I got so angry that I did something all the locals would have warned me to avoid. I went to them and asked what they meant and because the conversation was in limited and awkward Spanish, they were embarrassed. For me, or for them. They never did it again. And then there was the lady in her fifties, a few houses up from where I rented my room on Avenida Moche, who I think was convinced that I was Venezuelan. I’d always try to avoid her, but sometimes she was in front of her place, sweeping the pavement or cleaning her window usually, and then she’d call to me. And it never seemed to feel nice.
I lived overseas 18 months, and I came back, bearded and blunt and for a while feeling my emotions rise up quickly whenever I was unhappy, until finally I felt a bit more adjusted.
I heard she was moving to South America.
I searched my shelves for a Spanish language guidebook I was given in the Amazon city of Iquitos, the sort of place I knew she would be drawn to, and I gave it to a friend who would be going to her farewell party.
She messaged me on an ambiguous social media account when she was in Peru. I enjoyed hearing how she thought of it, but liked giving advice just as much, and wishing, and waiting, that I could finally return. But that will be in another 12 weeks, and until then, I like imagining that I’m in her situation when she’s figuring it all out for herself. The roads she will take and the foods she’ll taste will be completely different from my own, even if I get pleasure from the sameness.