Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ya, listo.

Nearing the one year mark of my residency here in Cochabamba Bolivia and time is nearly up. I've been looking up flights to Colombia, the weather of the town I'll be living in for three months in Ecuador, trying to rearrange my flight yet again, hopefully for the last time, to be back in Sydney at the end of November.

It's strange how quickly things become invisible to you once you are in it. Before arriving here I never could have imagined The Normal everything would feel and how soon. I've gotten used to putting toilet paper in the bin because the pipes cannot flush it down, gotten used to tripping over on the sidewalk that looks as if there has just been an earthquake, gotten used to buying my groceries and snacks and goods from a plump bolivian lady with braids and a pleated velvet skirt - a cross between a stocky Pocahontas and a sassy school girl.

There have been a few dawning facts about the future that have shaken me.

I am only now realising that the Sydney I will eventually go back to will not be the same. This is due to the fact that my friends have not stagnated while I've been away and many will not be there when I get back. In a selfish and thoughtless way I assumed that all my friends would be waiting happily for me to get back. I was mistaken - they are busy conquering their own mini-kingdoms of professions and dreams. I love them for this and wouldn't have it any other way, except that I would have their kingdoms a little closer to mine. But I've grown out of my middle child jealous bitch primary school days and am immensely happy and mama-hen proud of all of them and eternally grateful that they let me be their friend.

Since my 2011 year in Spain I've planned my life in blocks of one year. My five year plan (my cousin tells me this is because I am an Aries and I'm methodical) reads as a randomised selection of countries - one year in the Philippines, a year in either French polynesia or the South of France or Belgium, a year in Jordan, a year in New Zealand, a year in Melbourne or Adelaide, a year here, a year there. I've only just realised when I live or go overseas it doesn't actually have to be 12 months. Yes, a normal person would realise this but I'm going to attribute this to my starsign.

Despite feeling like no matter what I do I will always feel like I'm dressing up and playing grown ups, I wake up and own my life - the live-in boyfriend, the (minimal) paying job I actually love, the bill-paying and life-decision making.

It's been great Cochabamba but time's up. As the Bolivian's say...
Ya, listo, un besito, ya mamita, listo, chau, chau chau. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Hummingbird

The first time I saw a hummingbird I was sitting in the Plaza 14 de Septiembre here in Cochabamba with a friend who pointed to the tall tree branches above where we were sitting. There it was, wings beating rapidly - a flickering hologram. It was impossibly still, its body hovering, its long pointed beak first before the rest.

Hummingbird or picaflor here in South America has another meaning too. One of the cheeky teenage boys I worked with last year was always harping on about the girls he was with. He would boast about juggling various girlfriends, making sure they were all in the dark about each other. Zulema, one of the teachers at the centre yelled, Eres picaflor! meaning You're a hummingbird! seeing as he was always jumping from flower to flower.

I've spent the last two weeks jumping from place to place in Bolivia and Peru with my cousin, one of my dearest friends. We had never travelled together, despite both having lived in Spain for a year and done a fair bit of travelling between us - we were finally on the same continent at the same time. Two hummingbirds on the same flower at once. After all our fluttering around we were crossing paths. 

We ran around the beautiful Colonial city of Cusco shellshocked at its cleanliness, modernity, narrow cobbled streets and large people-watching plazas. We spent almost an entire day on the outskirts of the city, amongst hills and streams where Peruvian families washed their clothes, where llamas grazed and were chased by dogs, where an Andean band played folk music that echoed through the valley. Somewhere between Cusco and the journey and trek to Machu Picchu we compared notes on life.

We were both hummingbirds who had worried our families with seemingly directionless change, a hop on hop off bus of not yet adult life characterised by beautiful pictures and low bank accounts. But we were different in many ways too, our flights were spurred on by our distinct passions. When we stopped to examine the charters of the past few years, it was evident that we were flying to and from different things and where we were now was in the place the other had been.

More than twenty three years of my life have been spent in my own company and I'm now in the process of learning to share my time and self with somebody else. On the other hand she has spent many years being somebody's other half and is only now learning to be on her own. We were and are both being pushed from life long habits, forced to reconsider ourselves and who we are within new contexts. She, laughing at my questions and insecurities, and me smiling slyly at hers.

Picaflores fly through the rapid beating of their wings which allows them to be weightless in the air or disappear from view completely. But they are always moving, never stagnant. They are always drawn by new scents, new flowers and intoxications. So it is with us. Same bird, different flower.

We never stop moving from flower to flower. Once we draw all we can from what was once a place we wanted to get to, there is always the draw of a new scent waiting. Something unexpected - lifestyle, mindset, relationships, location, jobs, safety-nets.

I've always watched on the sidelines as others seemed to jump from first loves to new loves back to old boyfriends and potentials. It was with curiosity I witnessed so many get togethers, so many break ups, so many get back togethers, so many break up agains. My family and friends have watched as I jumped between my own flowers. I was caught up sprinting between projects, volunteer work or new ideas sparked by growing or rejuvenated interests, fanciful dreams of living overseas and learning multiple languages, of possible career paths - all the elusive and intoxicating lure of a great perhaps.

Having spent the most amazing week of my life in the sacred valley in Peru with more adventure, companionship, lucky good weather and laughter than one could have hoped for - I am now living the great perhaps I've always wanted. True to nature, there are novel dreams being born on new definitions of great and perhaps and that's something that I hope never ends. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Goodbye Twenty three.

In less than a month I'll be heading back from Machu Picchu, Peru with my cousin to spend my birthday here in Cocha. By then I would have been in Bolivia for just shy of a year. Time, you old thing.

Goodbye early twenties, hello mid twenties. If I were to map the changes in my life from the last year on paper there would be an astronomical difference between then and now. Moving to a different continent without knowing a soul, without a set return date, and a questionable amount of savings. Finally getting work experience in an area I've always felt instinctively and passionately about, that happens to have nothing to do with my five year undegraduate degree (whoops!). Remembering how to speak spanish (Hola. Me llamo grace. Me gusta la fiesta). Falling into a long distance relationship (yes, you read it correctly, me - grace - ice queen and emotional runt trying her hand at companionship). Biting the bullet that is my enormously proud pride and asking him to come back. And now fighting all the inner crazy I never knew I had to just be with another person. Oh Life, you crazy minx.

On a day to day basis however my life does not feel drastically different. I still take out the rubbish, clean the dishes, go to work, come home tired, watch movies and drink red wine with friends. The language and geography might be different but the essence is the same. Having a home where people ask me how my day was, swapping stories about how the foster kids my house mate visits are doing or how I had to entertain the kids for a whole hour so I made them do races where the slowest one wins and watched them concentrate harder than I'd ever seen kids concentrate. Trying to stifle my laughter as the kids moved in a slow motion crawl across the concrete floor. Stories and moments like this that make up what I love about life anywhere.

And my cousin is here, my best friend. Having her here, sitting and talking for hours while we eat and watch things (because that is what we do), is like sinking into an old chair with a butt curve fitted expressly to you. No explanations needed, just the easy jumping between then and now, updates on parents and siblings and how far we've come. Realisations that are sparked by our own personal histories and the glaringly different presents we own now.

Goodbye twenty three is a tip of the hat to our past selves that we smirk at smugly, knowingly. Happy to see them, happy to no longer be there. When you're at the beginning of discovering any world you want to try everything, anything. That's who we used to be. Now we are more discerning, we're learning to say no. There is less fear of missing out, because we've been held ransom by that impossible desire to experience everything for too long. You can sift through the things and people that are good for you, versus the ones that take your energy away or are there only to pass the time. Goodbye twenty three is a chau chau to one of the most potentially destructive words ever - should. Goodbye to all the things we thought should be something that they simply are not. There is no real way you should feel, there is no proper job you should have, there is no set person you should be with, there is no acceptable way you should react, there is no one way you should live your life, there is no official way you should be.

There is only the knowledge that with every year, you'll look back on the last and nod your head, then shake your head, then hit your palm to your forehead and laugh at your old self. That is the joy of the years stacking up, the happy knowledge of hindsight - god, if only I knew then what I know now. Which only makes me look forward to what I don't know now that I will know someday.

Chau Chau Veintetrés!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Some of the time

On any given Monday or Thursday morning I might be found on a roundabout in Cochabamba's nicer neighbourhood. What I do there exactly is hard to say. The drivers of the cars lean curiously towards us. Others protectively wind up their windows. Pedestrians steal sideways glances. What are these bunch of gringos doing?

We sit in a circle or a small group on the floor, the grass, the wooden benches or under the small closed kiosk when it's raining or damp. Sometimes we bring a guitar, a mobile school, markers and paper to draw or write on and other times we just go to talk and listen.

Usually when we arrive they are working, cleaning the windscreens of cars, taxis and trufis. They take whatever is given to them from the quick hands that pass through the windows - change, candy and other times nothing. They are young bolivians from different departments of Cocha who have all ended up here. They spend their days here on this roundabout where they congregate, where the traffic circles them and the bystanders and drivers stare into or away from their lives for the twenty seconds the light is red.

Their days start more or less at ten in the morning, if it's not raining. Sometimes in the mornings they're not there, so we drive up to the narrow bridge under which they live. We find them there laughing, yelling, sleeping, getting ready to work or other times all that is left is their absence - the nights it is too cold or wet to sleep there, even for them.

Where are their families?  How did they end up here? Who are they? Who were they before? These are all questions that have been answered in some capacity in one way or another these last couple of weeks. Answers of which I was not fully prepared to bear witness to.

I tend towards the sensitive side and my skin is not as tough as I would like it to be. The soft side of me
wants it all to be better for them pero YA, wants to be part of making it all better for them pero YA, is in despair when the waves of reality hit me over and over with a resounding no, asi no mas. I want to be Oprah and hand out secret keys to life they find under their seats, screaming EVERYBODY GETS ONE! Needless to say it doesn't work like that, there are no keys, I have no secrets of life to give.

They leave the street, they come back. They get sober, they relapse. They are like us, all of us. They are in charge of the direction their lives will take. Most of the time they are trying the best they can. Other times they just want to give up. There are dark rooms full of hidden monsters and silent ghosts, reasons why they are and how they are and who they are the way they are.

They need to find their own way back to a good place, to a good life. We can be there, to offer our time and ears and support but we cannot 'save' them. Their lives have pockets of friendship and laughter, of warmth and security but they are always more vulnerable than the rest of us when night falls. It's rainy season in Cochabamba and often the bridges under which they live flood, taking what few belongings they have and more recently some of the new born puppies of the many dogs they have.

Some days I get home with a chest full of rocks and all the ganas in the world to curl up into bed and not talk to anyone. These are the days of bearing witness to their stories, their lives, their honesty and even their indifference to the hands they were dealt in life. And it continues to amaze me how they carry these rocks around with them, how their arms have grown used to the weight, how their skin has grown thick despite all the scars and fresh wounds that they wear like tattoos - intentional, meaningful and part of them forever.

On my days off sometimes I pass by them in trufi while they're cleaning the windscreens. They're making jokes, or drinking in the middle of the roundabout or drunk or high in the fountain with all their clothes on completely soaked and running after each other acting like kids on an excursion when the teachers aren't looking who don't care if they get into trouble at all.

And between almost all of the days I repeat to myself the truths they've taught me. You can't always help in the way you want. You can't always help at all. You can help sometimes, in some ways, some of the time. You can be there. Sometimes this is the best help. This doesn't mean you stop hoping or despairing or feeling. You need to hold your emotions but let them breathe at the same time. You do the best you can, you keep going, you'll be stronger without realising and your skin will grow thick without being impervious to feeling.   

Tuesday, February 4, 2014



The truth is that I freak out on a daily cycle about how and what I am meant to be doing, that I pay too much attention to the word should. The truth is I am ardently insecure and desperately in need of constant reassurance.

The truth is that volunteering doesn't mean you're a good person, or you have constant gratification or that you're automatically doing a 'good thing'. You're simply trying your hand at what you think is helping.

The truth is that good friends are hard to find but that somehow they always find me or I always find them or they are there for me, thousands of cities and bus rides and imaginary flights away. The truth is I get through life with them here.

The truth is I am less on fire than I was in Spain. The truth is I keep chasing the feeling I had when the world impressed me and I keep trying to recreate the quickening pace of my heart beat even though all I feel is the unchanged thud of the everyday.

The truth is that I am in love with the fact that my life is so full of human connection and that I could live without seeing Machu Picchu or La Ciudad Perdida or Iguazu Falls but I would die a thousand deaths to spend a weekend with irreplaceable and unforgettable friends drinking our feelings and eating our thoughts and airing out the warring factions of our minds.

The truth is I miss my family terribly, I miss Australia terribly, I miss the ocean and the beach and the sand and the siren song of the tide to no end. The truth is that I need to be by a giant body of water to feel calm and relaxed and humbled. The truth is that I need to see that the sea has no end to the horizon to understand that my imagination falls short of the wonders and magic of the world.

The truth is I go to giant swings at night to quieten the voices of confusion in my head, to disappear the too earnest waiting room of decisions, to upturn the closed lid bin of discarded feelings. I swing and I swing and I swing until it feels okay again.

The truth is that my life is great, and all of these things make it so. The truth is that great is not a good enough word but the only one I can muster. That one of my good friends here says true so much it makes me question what that is and why it's important and somehow this is the result of that.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Oh God, seriously.

Buses here in Bolivia and Peru serve as mobile market places where plastic bags of chicharron are sold through the windows, where a man who presumably has an agreement with the bus driver to create some secret hell for passengers by selling a magical cures-all-sickness-and-prevents-all-cancers natural medicine proselytizes for about an hour with a microphone and a giant speaker, where the beginning of each trip starts with a call to the conversion to Jesus Christ.

Grace is a name that literally means the almighty power of God. I was born into a home that prayed the rosary, has crosses in almost all rooms of the house and bears close resemblance to a chapel. But as the man at the front of the bus spouted on about how the world is a horrible place and unspeakable things happen because you're not down with JC I had to bite my tongue and roll my eyes and stop myself from saying what I was thinking. I ain't buying it this crock of... 

You're not about to blame world hunger, climate change, natural disasters and human rights violations on me not joining in with the rest of the bus yelling AMEN! That's not on and that just pisses me off. Being born catholic I've had to deal with an overwhelming sense of guilt for most of the time I've been alive. Guilt for thinking, guilt for doing, guilt for wanting, guilt for ENJOYING guiltily guilt guilt. Somewhere between high school and university I climbed the mountain of guilt, looked down and realised that I didn't have to be standing there at all.

I believe in the almighty power of God, just not in the sense that has anything to do with yelling Amen on a bus because somebody is telling me a story I already know. There is magic in the universe, there is infinite love and absolutely no shortage of cosmic brilliance, all of which I believe wholeheartedly to be what my namesake is. But I don't have to justify that, I shouldn't have to justify that to anyone. God, No God, should not be an accusation, a pointed finger designed to make you feel defensive, or guilty or on trial. I don't quite think that's what the greater higher powers of the endless milky ways and galaxies had in mind for us. Correct me if you think I'm wrong.

When I climbed to the top of the rubbish dump of guilt I decided to set it on fire and let it all go. Before I did that however I decided to pick through the misguided feelings in search of anything worth keeping. I let go of the guilt for the not believing things I could not believe, of wanting things I was not supposed to want, of believing things I was not supposed to believe and a heavy magnetism drew me to    the only thing I knew to be true - love, kindness, consciousness and the need for us to be good to each other.

The need for me not to yell at this guy who was yelling at me. The need to dig deep into the well of my shallow pool of reserves for situations like this and find a way to be good, or at least, not to be mean or unkind or downright belligerent. So here and now, this is how it's surfaced. And it's reminded me of dear Roger Ebert who I only came to know through his thoughtful blog, who was authentic and true to that deeply human voice that echoes inside all of us, who believed in the magic of the universe - played out on the big screen.

“Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

Can I get an AMEN?   HELL YEAH!?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Away from home

The entire coast of Peru looks like somebody left the oven on, yet somehow managed not to completely burn everything to a crisp charcoal black. The land is a washed out yellow orange that is completely unromantic or rich. The indigenous ladies here have taller hats in longer shapes, skirts with patterns and designs you've never seen and speak varying dialects of quechua. The spanish has a spattering of different phrases. There is CHIFA everywhere. They have pedestrian crossings, for gods sake. And you are here now, in the middle of it.

You wake up to fast and the furious playing at full volume, in Spanish. You adjust your neck, your legs, your reclined seat, your awkwardly curled up body. Peru blurs past you, dry and indifferent. The same scene you were watching on your window tv set when you fell asleep with the sleeve of your jumper clamped over your eyes. There are many buses like this. All of them beginning with the impossibility of sleep, hours and many neck cramps later fatigue and bizarre sleeping positions win out and you are closed eyed and opened mouth comatose. You witness a lion-king sun set five hours outside of Lima, where a flaming sun is swallowed slowly and whole by the horizon of the sea – a curtain fall in reverse, rising over the sky. There’s an old Peruvian man who buys you water because you have no change, because they never have change. He gives you his number and says to call him, and you wish at that moment you didn’t speak Spanish so you'd have a valid excuse not to engage in conversation. You talk to a one armed security guard at the end of a beach in Mancora about machismo, the after-life, family and monogamy. His job is to stop tourists like you from going to the part of the beach where you may get robbed or raped, he tells you matter-of-factly.

Suddenly it’s new years eve, you’re drinking out of a giant plastic bottle cut in half, filled with rum and coke by a tall Argentinian guy who calls everyone che. You ogle at the fire works, a five year old child once again. Too busy with your head permanently titled at a forty-five degree angle to take in the impressive explosions of street bought smoke and light you don’t see the car that is reversing into you. ‘AYE! AYE!’ the Argentinian yells to where you are standing in the middle of the bottom of a drive way. You laugh in a way that is a little drunk and in no way sheepish, a happy to be alive and not run over and to see fireworks all at the same time laugh. It’s a night you know you will remember and think back on for many new years nights to come. You’ll remember the wandering the streets in search of a bar or a club, emptying the jarra argentina with strangers, ranting to hamburger stall owners about the misuse of the term chinita and the Argentinian all the while laughing and cheering you on. Tumbling into bed at five am and falling into a heavy, snoring, drunken slumber. This is how you spend the first few hours of 2014. Happy and drunk and laughing and ranting in Spanish somewhere in Peru.

Traveling alone doesn't feel that different from home. Coffees by yourself scribbling furiously into a brown patterned book sold exclusively to tourists in la cancha. Except the scenery and people watching is different. Then there are the conversations. The whatareyoudoings and whereareyoufroms you exchange that occasional give way to forthcoming confessions or wonderings. Lying in hammocks near an oasis you talk with a kiwi about buying a tiny house and a giant plot of land in a secret location somewhere in New Zealand, about when you should have kids and does time run out and they have so many options these days but a baby is not a cat but a life altering decision. In Huaraz the Argentine rants to you about tourists that come with no interest in the culture or the people or the language and treat the entire continent like a giant amusement park and he hates it, he hates it. You nod and agree, thinking of the red-eyed, hungover, loki-loyal backpackers struggling through another day of impress-me-south-america! and try and explain diplomatically that you can't write off people like that because maybe it starts off that way with the culture or the language or the people as a nicely presented side-dish to the main course of partypartyparty and a check-list of sights, but you have to start somewhere.

And you're glad for the unexpected adventures, the unforeseen friends, the lovely and surprising kindness and interest people take in you - just another mochilera traveling through. But the last couple of days you think mostly of being home in Cochabamba. You breath a deep sigh as you cross the Bolivian border near Lake Titicaca, a wave of sheer delight and anticipation. So much closer to home. There are no buses when you finally get to La Paz but you ask around with another Argentinian girl who is heading home with as much ganas as you but hundreds of kilometres and many more buses to go. You follow a man outside a bus terminal who says there is an extra bus, which indeed there is. You both need to pee but they have no toilet so you curl up into a ball and wait for Cocha, eight hours away. Finally you are here, you have arrived. The sky is pouring down a sad grey mess spluttering the roads and the window you stare out of with familiarity and recognition; the same weather that saw you off that early morning in December, last year. You're ready for sleep, home cooked food, familiar faces and a city you navigate with a purposeful stride. You take a taxi to your house telling the chofer the address that rolls of your tongue so easily. It's raining and you don't have the keys so you yell from the gate hoping someone in your house will be awake at 8am on a saturday morning and a face you recognise pops out from the second story window smiling and you know the door is opening and you're home, por fin