Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A few days in

There is a silence in the suburbs that engulfs you. Not a proverbial silence, a literal one. The absence of sound is a presence I wake up to at two in the morning. I have no excuse not to go back to sleep. There are no packs of dogs that roam the street, tearing each other to pieces just before dawn. There are no protestors or processions that pass through my tree-lined street corner. I hear no sirens. Even the birds do not wake me.

There are other details I have noticed. Parsley grows out of the cracks in our pavers like weeds. It wasn't there before. My dad planted a coffee tree, a robusta that is short and thick already with leaves and small budding fruit. My mum tells me her lola used to make coffee from the plant, roasting it, boiling it and reusing the coffee beans afterwards to give to the kids to eat with rice. This was a story I had not heard before. I was surprised. I thought I knew most of those stories.

Just the day before my lolo was showing me the history of our family on three type-writer written pages. He has always been into tracing his roots. I read over the carefully, laboriously typed ghosts of the many great relatives he has outlined. Names I have not heard of, people I do not know. I am intrigued, of course. The question of roots has flitted about throughout my life.

My sister, the one that stayed behind, made me a bouquet. They are all Australian flowers, wattle and kangaroo paw and waratah. She bought them early and worried that they would die. Of course they wouldn't! I told her, They're Australian flowers, they don't die! and I think of all the foreigners that ask me about all the dangerous animals in Australia, all the ways you can get killed on accident as if snakes and spiders were natural human predators and grew in abundance on the sidewalk. I think of how they never marvelled at how much life survived in spite of it.

The room I have now twice abandoned for a total of two and a half years is a time warp. I was greeted with new sheets my sister had bought and newly vacuumed floors but still it was, is, a relic to my past self. Who was this person with such a feminine, such an uplifting room? Boards of postcards from rivers and oceans in Europe, crashing waves and roman column buildings, of Picasso pieces and burnt orange coloured rooftops? The person with heavy necklaces hanging from her closet door, rows of heeled shoes and a fake white flowered head piece hanging on a board?

I remember this time. The time when I was this person who stayed up late reading articles and saving inspiring quotes to my desktop. Was it that I needed this inspiration for myself or was it simply a reflection of how inspired I was, an affirmation of the lightness I lived?

My desktop now is a painting of a boy sitting on a row boat out at sea. He looks alone until you notice there are two heads peeping out from the other end of the boat. He sits out of the boat on the edge with his back facing you. He is wearing a bucket hat, a fisherman's hat, his bare feet dangling in the air and not yet touching the water. Is this, too, a reflection of me? An affirmation of my dangling feet and back turned against your gaze and out onto my own world?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Home Coming

Two years ago, mad with the rush of finishing my undergraduate degree and thirsty for travel, I bought my tickets to South America. It was an early christmas present to myself, a kind of spur of the moment decision to buy them so soon. I should have waited until it was closer to the departure but I couldn't, I needed a destination, a set date, a goal. Seven months later I flew direct from Sydney to Buenos Aires.

I didn't cry at the airport saying goodbye to my family just as I had not years before, saying goodbye on my way to Spain. I knew the tears would come when I was not expecting them at some unknown, later date. And they did. They came saying goodbye to too many friends. People with whom I lived, came home from work to share my day with, sat across from the breakfast table bleary-eyed, went out with for beers and danced in one of Cochabamba's dirty discotecas until the fifth hour replay of the same hottest 100 from 2009 was done.

When I think about the sheer quantity and quality of people I've known this past year and a half it takes every bit of my concentration to try and remember them all and how much each one has meant to me. Sincerely the best class of people one could ever hope to meet. There was no real pattern in their personalities, their backgrounds, their interests. The only criteria that they be of the sort that would come to Bolivia to live for a while.

My heart feels physically crushed by the mass of affection I hold for all of them. The nostalgia of it all. Bolivia's borders will always contain for me this tribe of strange souls with whom I have drank chica, danced at k'oas, climbed mountains and had picnics. I have said most of my goodbyes already, almost always being the one who stayed behind. There are few people I know now who keep on in Cochabamba, most off in their 'real world' lives again all over the world.

Thinking about home now is a startling dream. Sometimes I am soothed by the thought of pristine toilets you can flush toilet paper down and don't have to pay for. Other times I am horrified at the thought of how sterile it will all seem, too clean, too nice as if I was in an amusement park. Writing this in Argentina I am already half way there - they have shopping centres here, standardised taxis and girls resembling exactly those in Sydney wearing shoes that my sister assures me are in fashion. From the supposed third world to the first. I feel somehow that I am going from the turbulent, unforgiving ocean to the clean waters of a fishbowl. I am trading the gritty and raw for the polished and deliberate. I cannot tell which is the dream and which the nightmare.

Dramatic is the word that comes to mind when I read those sentences over again, yet it doesn't stop the force of what I feel. There is a marked difference in the daily standards of living where the average person earns just over a hundred dollars a month to a country where that is earned in a matter of hours. I am caught in a confusion of what that means to me and why. I like the in your face grittiness of Bolivia, it is unrelenting in its quest to make you humble. Look how lucky you are, it whispers. You cannot forget, in a country whose people fight for literally everything, that you come from a country very much on the other side of many of those struggles.

In Australia, like most 'developed' countries, the message is different. Look at all the things you can have or watch or eat or drink or be. And the humility is obscured, sectioned off to dark corners and the occasional documentary or charity fundraiser. It is easy to forget that these worlds are one in the same, that they are in fact connected in a myriad of very real ways. The lithium mined in Bolivia goes into our smart phones and laptops. The silver that adorns many of Europe's churches has a long and sordid history of extraction in what is now one of Bolivia's poorest departments.

Though it's not all bad news designed to make you feel guilty. One is not Cinderella and the other the less attractive but better off stepsister. Bolivia has its own set of problems, just as we have Tony Abbott. Having spent the last year and a half trying to discern whether I was or could be happy and fulfilled on this stunningly enormous continent the conclusion is that it all comes down to two things. I came to realise that if I had a solid reason to get up in the morning, a purpose as well as being part of a community of people whose company I enjoyed and who supported me - I could live anywhere, be anywhere, be happy.

My problem in Bolivia was that my community kept leaving and I missed the one I had back home. My purpose, working in community development in Cochabamba, kept me challenged. There were certainly days where I questioned the difference I was making, my capabilities and qualifications but I am a strong believer that actually, work is a huge, rewarding and necessary part of life. Despite fanciful throw away conversations about being a traveling hippy who sells feather-earrings for a living to finance my pot habit and circus pants, the hard yards are necessary ones.

And so. Here we are. Close to the end, the home coming. Apart from all the intense mind-racking that has fallen sideways into the words above, the most primal part of me is simply craving my own bed and thai food. Yes, of course I have also imagined my arrival at Sydney airport at the embrace by my oddly bolivian looking tribe/family but it pales in comparison to how much I have so exquisitely imagined my homecoming meal that when it actually comes to it, it will probably be the unseen moment where the flood gates will open. The Pad see ew will be the thing that breaks the camel's back. So maybe I'll amend that list of things I need to live anywhere and add food that isn't potatoes and rice to the list.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

El Tourist

One of these is not like the other. There are many bodies that are self-effacing, you are not one of these. You are the sore thumb on a nimble hand. A foreign object. An amateur artist has painted you jarringly placed and off-colour. There is no business for you in the south side of Quito nor the unheard-of towns bereft of cocktail offering discotecas and cloud forests. Yet there are whole places designed specifically to pique your interest and gain the foreign currency visible in your north face jacket and sun glasses. Locals don't wear sunglasses.

Therein lies the distinction. You are an imported good to be extracted of money and sent home with photographic evidence that the ticket was worth it, that you found yourself in a world stripped of its context. Here you are posing with a tiger, there you are in front of a statue of somebody important whose name you have now given up remembering. Who are you and where did you come from? Why are you there and what is it, that you want?

You see these questions as self-evident, accustomed to being asked by those like you and answering them in reciprocal agreement of getting to know the other. These questions are rarely asked by those who demand more of an explanation, those whose lives bear no correlation to your own, whose world you inhabit temporarily for directions or an artistic shot of the locals. The more you demand to be entertained the more the other question of why and how fades into the background. If you go somewhere and do something but all you have is your own patchy memory, did it happen at all?

The tourist privilege is an awkward one. Tourist - used often now in phrases to denote a lack of understanding, a short or terminable stay. A tourist in the experience of cancer. Limited by the visible barrier of one being entirely misplaced. Redefined as one who does not belong, not to be confused with those who are excluded, marginalised. No, tourists do not belong but their place is marked in US dollar notes, patrons to those who do. Another problem.

A brochure advertises an 'indigenous guide,' others provide a visit to a 'native village'. You readily take up the role of the anthropologist, the western adventurer seeking the unmapped, the unknown - or at least the exotic. How were you to know you would be disappointed? The terrible cycle of seeking something that seeks you out first, a cheap imitation - so you accuse - of what you originally envisioned. A shaman in tourist-ready clothing drinking coke from his corrugated iron roof house, a caricature. Where is the native and why is he not showing you the secrets of the ways of his people? Where, in fact, are his people?

The tourist is in the unique situation of being a spectacle and at once of observing what he or she deems to be the spectacle at hand. Their mistake is of believing themselves inconspicuous, unobserved. The exchange, at least in this non-monetary judgment, is mutual.

This is not what they term a fair assumption, as if assumptions were frequently just. Perhaps you are of the curious kind who has taken the time to learn the language and engage in conversations. Your heart is open, your mind is blank. You are not a tourist. And yet we are all tourists. We are tourists in that which we do not know, in which we do not belong - the world at large, the world outside of our tiny born-into suburbs, adolescent coming-of-age stories and first time accounts, outside of the people we have given nicknames to and the ones we call crying if we are the type that cry, or better said when we are at the edge of the cliff a step away from falling or jumping, perhaps even at the bottom of that cliff because at some point we all end up on the edges or bottoms of cliffs with vertigo. Outside of this, is where it begins.

The struggle of the tourist is one of categorisation. The yearning for a different label, to know more deeply, to make a connection, to go beyond, to seek truth. The test of the tourist is in the acceptance of the truths they are presented with and those which they find independently. To accept the fact that there is more inauthenticity in somebody presenting a culture they no longer practice in private to strangers in public because they know that holds more currency with us than the reality that their lives have been influenced by what we term modernity - packaged junk food and ugly electrical lines. To accept that a culture on display for the tourist need not be so exotic, need not fulfil the narratives we have pre-scripted and that coca cola invades even the farthest corners of the amazon, at least as far as the gringo trail goes.

To accept that perhaps carrying a backpack a significant portion of your weight and spending sleepless, cramped, aching days on end on buses and all the obstacles that come with that can fall short of any truth you hoped to find about yourself, your place in it, its image in your mind, is part of the final exam. You make the leap from tourist when you bring your own authenticity and stop expecting other peoples lives, cultures, histories, stories to entertain you as if they were a new TV show. This is not Heart of Darkness, not Game of Thrones, this is not On The Road, not Into The Wild perhaps more akin to An Idiot Abroad. When you realise the world does not exist so you can play out your own hedonism but rather that whatever theory you prescribe to adds to the broken pieces that make up this endlessly growing mosaic, you are making the leap. You find yourself on the other side with a chest full of the truth, you are not outside of the world but part of it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The long answer

'Where are you from?' is at once an assumption and an accusation. The assumption that you are not from here and the accusation that you are from somewhere else. When you've grown up in a country different to the one you or your parents were born in, you will be asked this question over and over as your accent, dress, word choice, assimilation and right to belong are put on trial. The trial will take place in seemingly innocuous conversations with everybody you will ever meet, in between half-smiling faces and tilted heads leaning on fists leaning on elbows on the table.

Like most people the world over I have trouble answering this question. Perhaps due to the traumatic experience of having to answer this in primary school and constantly getting the answer 'wrong'. You're not Australian, You're Asian! the playground logic went. As I got older this question was asked in round about ways Where are you from originally? What's your background? This is a fair question in itself. It's rudimentary conversation. I ask this all the time, I get asked this all the time. Yet it doesn't erase the heaviness it takes to respond.

Answering this question and having it asked in many ways throughout my life I have learned a lot about people, society and myself. I learned that from a young age I came to associate being Australian with being white because that definition came from the indelible conversation I had in primary school and the way people would ask again, after I would tell them I was Australian, No, I mean where are you from? I learned later that it also meant what suburb you lived in, which was another way to judge somebody altogether. Mostly I learned to answer or avoid answering what it was I realised people were really asking me. Questions about race, class, inclusion, identity, the right to belong.  

I've learned that some people take pride in telling you where you are from. At a house party in Spain a group of moroccan guys confidently informed me I was indeed from the Philippines and not from Australia because I was born there, as if the location of my birth directly excluded the twenty years I'd spent in a different country. They reinforced the life I'd spent feeling I had to prove my Australianess and in subtle ways deny or circumvent the reality of my filipino heritage. I was infuriated and a little drunk and so less than articulately and in spanish tried to explain what I am explaining here.

Which is that of course, you've heard it all before, definitions are important, the way we ask and answer and frame questions is important. These little everyday things that happen over and over again are imprescindible because they provide insight into what society values or assumes about those that make it up. This conversation is not so much about the question Where Are You From as it is about what that question is really asking, why we ask it and what the answer is.

People say where you're from is whatever you identify with. This doesn't make things easier necessarily. As an immigrant you are without roots in the country you're in. You grow up feeling your way through the culture you are in, trying to connect to it, be part of it. It feels almost as if you are a limb, amputated from a seamlessly connected body and placed rather hastily onto a new one. You imagine what it would be like had you not been torn from the original but cannot keep but growing into the one you are part of now. The phantom of the old comes back every now and then to remind you that you are not completely from here.

At the same time your adopted body excludes you, however unconsciously. You are conveniently forgotten in the image it paints of itself, often overlooked in a casual way only to later be held up as some token of difference and plurality. Where do you belong, if anywhere? At once the question about where you come from is less and less about the actual state of your birth and more and more about how you define yourself as a being.

On paper I was born in the Philippines and raised in Australia. I live in Sydney's west. Yes, The West. That's the answer I give, the short answer. The long answer is that I feel every day a little more drawn to know the country of my birth - its tongue, its tastes, its chatter - to create a connection that I do not feel deeply, that was severed the moment I left and has not had enough time to grow into anything other than an awkward nod to my ethnicity. On the other hand there is the irrefutable will I have to put down roots in Australia, the country of my first cubby house, my scarred knees, my accent that always leaves out the Rs. I know this is the place I want to continue to write on forms as my Country of Residence. I will also always feel for Spain and Bolivia and look longingly on their progress as I would a sibling in whose life I am merely a spectator.

The long answer is that I feel at home in many places, the two countries who have defined me all my life continue to play a role in shaping who I am despite a few years living outside of both of them. Being cut off from one and replanted in the other endows in me the wondrous luck of being able to be a tourist and a local at the same time; to look into an identical face speak a foreign language and at the same time take pride in introducing other travellers to aussie slang. To be many parts of a whole that cannot be fractioned nicely, that will always have something left over from somewhere else.

Monday, August 4, 2014

My sisters

With respect to my brothers, I've read that having a sister makes you a better person. 'Better' how? Well it's supposed to make you kinder, more human. I have two sisters so by logic I should be extra super duper nice. When I tell stories about Australia, about home, about my life I often find myself starting with their names, their weird habits, their funny stories, their evolutions from fellow confused children to somewhat grown up but no less confused people.

We fought like banshees when we were younger, my sister Bas and I. She was always trying to "ruin my life" by wearing the same outfit as me and I was always making her cry because I wouldn't let her wear the same outfit as me. My face was a clenched fist that would explode 'MUUUUM!' I'd scream stretched out so the single vowel took on five different tones of injustice - 'BAS. IS. ALWAYS. COPYING. ME!' Is there anything more comical than the seeming injustice imposed upon children and the passion with which they seek to right those wrongs? Bas would say I was always. excluding. her. and my dad would say don'texcludeyoursister! and I would say yes dad as if putting the word don't in front of her complaint changed everything.

Things were different with my youngest sister. She has always been the baby and my memories, our memories, of her are set apart from the bickering and bitter I'M.NEVER.TALKING.TO.YOU.AGAIN! fights (that would come later, during the teenage years). With Gel it was almost like playing house. I was just shy of five when she was born and I remember being at the hospital to visit this pink fleshed martian sister of mine. Too fragile to play with, to innocent to fight with, too young yet to be our equal. We had to learn how to be softer and quieter and kinder around her.

All four of us 'older kids' have grown up, growing her up but I have never and will probably never stop calling her my baby sister. People ask me how old she is when I say that and I am forced to remember sheepishly that she is almost twenty. I know for certain when I am eighty and she seventy-five I will still speak fondly of her to the other old bats at the nursing home referring to her in a tone reserved for puppies and infants as my baby sister.

There is a fierce adoration, competition and loyalty bred between me and my sisters. I imagine there is some similar invisible spider's web connecting my twin brothers. Living away from them the web stretches but never breaks. After fourteen months my baby sister and I are in the same country and in a few short days we'll be excluding everybody else by talking in a language only we understand, it will be her and I on the same side of the skype screen. And we'll skype Bas (Hi Bas!) who I'll be seeing in only a few short months. August is here already and I can count the months I have left on one hand. Months and weeks more of this life before the two best things in the world - home and family.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The first week in Bahia

Monday to friday I wake up early. I get out of bed fifteen minutes after the alarm sounds at seven to cut up bananas and strawberries and have the coffee Joe's made for me, the cheap instant kind we mask with small teaspoons of brown sugar. We sit in the dining room with its large french style doors that are always open, showing small balconies with pot plants of knee-high aloe vera. Orlando, an ecuadorian equivalent of my dad, usually knocks on the door at eight.

We walk with him to buy coconuts - he buys the ones with the least flesh because he only likes the juice while we buy the more mature ones for 25 cents more. We eat them later when the sun is high and the sweat soaked into our shirts on what we now call our Coconut Break. This means Orlando talks about how much he likes coconut juice (but not the flesh!) while we suck out all the water under the shade of the bamboo hut's thatched roof. After all the juice is gone Orlando hacks them into quarters with his machete and we scoop them out with his pocket knife.

The hours pass as we water plants, weed, move the small trees in their plastic bottles from the corales to the nursery, we separate seeds, prepare soil, mix the compost and supervise groups of school children who fight over how many plants they can take home and which kinds and how big this one is or how small the other; the child's right to complain for complaining's sake. We learn to distinguish the leaves of the chirimoya tree from other kinds, the purpose of using rice husks in the soil, fine and thick compost and which weeds to pull out even though they have grown so big they look like the trees we want to grow.

It is not Cartagena humid. A pinch of cool water sits in the air - not enough to make everything permanently sticky. The mornings have been cool, the sun peering out as we board the twenty minute bus passing painted walls advertising last year's regional candidates Cristi - Mujer Con Pantalones. Despite the motto she didn't win but Orlando says nobody wants to paint over the walls because they're all still too attached to their favourites.

Joe and I have already tried the different almuerzos, scoped out dinner places when we don't feel like cooking and have designated Coco Bongo as the regular wifi and coffee spot. During the week I bake brownies and banana bread like I did in Cochabamba. Trips to the local market a block away are made once a day to buy fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. We are early retirees - living not off our pensions but our debt or savings and spending leisurely hours reading, writing and taking naps.

The pace of life is different here, from traveling through Colombia, from the year in Bolivia, from Sydney life, from spain. The sun doesn't set later or earlier at any time during the year. The equator has that effect of evenness, of balance and I find I am liking more everyday having my hands in the earth in the morning and my feet in the sand and ocean in the afternoon.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The things I count

These days I count
the time since I last saw
the half moon, my sister's face
the southern cross, my lover

I do not count on my fingers
but in my closed eyes dream
as I walk through palm trees
on mountains, so far from the sea

I count the pages of my life
double checking that none are missing
that the naked parchment will be filled
by words as earnest and full as the last

There are things I cannot count
like my missing him, them, home, out
I cannot count on how I feel, the words I speak
that the past will not be forgot, on tomorrow

Yet I keep counting
mostly my blessings
giving perfect thanks
for the countless times
I've seen the half moon
my sister's face
the southern cross
my love