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 chicha, 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

Friday, July 4, 2014

Notes on Colombia

Here your travelers paranoia is disproven, it does not apply. A stranger on a bus takes your luggage and yourself suddenly and too soon you are in a taxi heading to a place you don't know. You are practising ways to defend yourself when he turns to attack you which he surely will because nobody is to be trusted - least of all a random passenger from a bus in some small city in Colombia. Cursing yourself silently for being so stupid and unoriginal, sure to end up another irresponsible single female traveler headline in a foreign country. You reply to him in curt, one word answers.

You are wrong. He pays for the taxi and sees you to the bus stop, warning you about the dangers of traveling alone and to always be careful. The bus to the little fish village arrives, as he said, and he sees you on helping you with your luggage. You apologise briefly, rightly embarrassed at the way you were hypothetically karate chopping his neck before running out of the taxi in the worst-case-scenario nightmare playing in your head. 
***

Cartagena is thick, sticky heat that clings to you. You sweat through your thin cotton shirts and tiny shorts while the locals stride by unperturbed in jeans and long sleeve shirts. There are also some of the most hideously unnatural plastic surgery results you've ever seen; Colombia - home to the world's most beautiful women. Their legs are thin yet somehow morph into giant curves that make you want to break out into all the songs you know that have to do with ass. But you don't, your mouth drops and your head turns and you realise now what it's like to be a guy. You keep on. 

The colonial centre is stunning and immediately you are taken aback, you have discovered time travel, or perhaps just travel - the best kind. Vines creep up pale pink walls, you peer into wooden barred windows and walk under balconies fit for serenading. It is undoubtedly romantic and you smile at the thought of coming back here with him and doing it all again. Him who you miss and whose absence reaffirms both that you can, in fact, be alone again and be more than okay and that now he has formed a part of what home means to you, a home that you carry with you always, wearing it around your neck and close to your heart.
***

You travel with a french friend who is every bit as awesome as her name suggests. Most of the time you spend laughing at everything that nobody else would find funny. She asks you questions without easy answers and listens intently to your inchoate replies. There's the absence of self-consciousness in your conversations, topics that might make one frown or cringe but that you dive into without hesitation. The comfort of your chatter and later the silences pave over the discomforts of traveling, sweaty and tired through buses and taxis. You sleep in hammocks by a beach, in a tent in a national park, in a dorm with young good looking french guys and at the hospitality of lovely colombian connections who prove over and over that yes, colombian people may just be the nicest people in the world.
***

Alone you write a lot and quickly the pages fill with your slanted scrawl. You draw occasionally but write mostly and one of the things that stands out are the only true words of a poorly attempted poem I want to live the way I float in the sea

I want to live the way I float in the sea.

I want to live the way I float in the sea.

Monday, June 16, 2014

La despedida

Colombia has been a place in my mind I have run to many times. It was where I stored all of my fantasies of belonging and being blown away. It was where everything would be fixed or at least no longer matter. A wonderland of a country I would talk about with a glint in my eye when my skin was wrinkled and my mind muddled. A place of pure expectation.

It's unfair to have on one side all experience, to have lived through all that was Bolivia for me and to now be crossing over into a world that I had preplanned being in love with. Before I jump into the next affair I have, I must, say a proper goodbye to the place I've called home for the last year.

Bolivia I will not miss your daily manifestaciones about trufi prices or coca cola in schools... but I will miss that certainty people have that the actions they take have the capacity to affect outcomes. 

Bolivia I will not miss having to haggle for everything with the unparalleled suspicion that comes with being a gringo... but I will miss the notion that most things are negotiable, that nothing is fixed, that with a bit of luck and a lot of cheek you can get something you weren't expecting.

Bolivia I will not miss the piles of rubbish that fill the street, every man woman and child contributing to its unfathomable rise... but I will miss the notion of pachamama, the donation and acknowledgment she gets before a beer is drank, at the k'oa every month.

Bolivia I will not miss the choking dust that flies in through the windows, the broken cracked pavements, the packs of street dogs that walk the night that taught me to keep a rock in my clenched fist just in case. I will not miss the generic cholita pop pumping from the trufi speakers with the same casio keyboard sounds behind each souless 'Eso! Esoooo!'

But I will miss the stretched words and endearing endings of all the words in their diminutive, that particular way Cochabambinos have of making castellano their own. I'll miss the sound of quechanhol spoken en la cancha. I will miss the sturdiness of the women here who redefine the word feminine, women who are the pillars of Bolivian society, raising children on their backs, building streets and working farms, running businesses, leading demonstrations and being generally formidable human beings.

I will take with me the lessons of complexity this country has taught me, through conversations with Bolivians where my image of their president, history, culture and society have been challenged and rebuilt. It has been refreshing to be shown how far Bolivia has come and how far it still has to go. That having the first indigenous president has meant indigenous people have not only been acknowledged but valued. TO learn that this has come at the price of alienating other sectors of society, devaluing other peoples. That the continued insular politics and rhetoric of the current government isolates tourists and other types of foreign exchange be that NGOs or businesses. I leave with Bolivia close to my heart, watching for its rise and cautions of another fall. By no stretch of the imagination have I become an authority on Bolivia, simply somebody who was lucky enough to watch and see and talk to a Bolivia that is and has created a strong image of itself to the world, however far or close that is to reality.

Like any imagined community, as Benedict Anderson coined, it is exactly or exactly not what you think it to be.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Things I've forgotten to remember: Part 2

The ASTI was a world away, albeit in the same universe. There were no fences, no barbed wire and no gates. It was an old motel that was now housing families and unaccompanied minors in the bunk beds and multi-level rooms. It had a shallow gated pool that they were allowed to swim in when there was a lifeguard, no grass and a small back concrete area with a sad-looking volleyball net held down by broken bricks. We walked in after showing our licenses to the guard sitting at the front of the motel, bored and tired looking. We signed in but not before a young girl came up and gave me a hug. We were allowed to hug the kids and sit them on our knees, let them give us kisses and hold their hands. Human contact. 


There was womens yoga inside and mens yoga outside everyday at 11am. We managed to get a tall Kurdish man by the name of M* to join in, he was a towering and formidable figure - thick eyebrows that met in the middle - all off set by a large friendly smile. I learned later that day he was a father, his two children were as gorgeous as they come, the prince and princess of the ASTI motel. His son had almost marble blue eyes that shot through - not blue of the ocean, but a pale almost milk blue of the sky on a clear day near sundown, or of a marble staircase reflecting it.
'He's got gorgeous eyes,' I told M.
'Like his mother,' he said. 
His daughter P had more of his dark features, long eyelashes that extended from here to infinity.
'Where are you from?' I asked M.
'No from. I am Kurdish, we are not from anywhere,' he replied, 'I speak Farsi, I lived in Iran but I am Kurdish.'
***

His name was H* and he spoke flawless english in an almost english accent. He had told us he had studied english for 7 years. He spoke Arabic, among other things. He liked russian authors, particularly Ivan Bunin and I recommended Leo Tolstoy – Confessions and other religious writings to him.
'Christmas Island was disgusting. It was like hell, worse than hell. Everyday,' he held out his hands in resignation.
'I saw people cut themselves, slices up and down their arms.'
He went on to relate a story about an officer who was racist.
'He asked me, “What do you think of this Tamil tiger?” and he tried to act as if he was good, as if it was okay. It was disgusting. I told him “what do you mean?” but I knew what he meant, what he really meant. And he was trying to act as if he was still good.'
H* was extremely articulate and I remember thinking what a great thinker he was. I asked him why he didn't come to any activities and encouraged him to come, 'We want to talk to people like you and hear your stories, we want to listen – even if that's all we can do.' Later that night while I was in North 1 he came to scrabble, without hassle and without spruiking. He came and sat for almost the entire two hours sitting and playing with the others. Another small victory, I thought.



The younger guys, the unaccompanied minors or UAMs, loved idioms, so did the men at the centre. The UAMs english was the best out of all of them, probably because they went to school. They were always using any excuse to slip them into conversation, like 'Piece of cake' or 'Green with envy'. They were so eager to practise their english, to improve, to be part of this new country that rejected them so outrightly. 
'Grace! Grace! Ask me how my day was.'
'What?'
'Ask me.'
'Ok, how was your day A*?'
'Same shirt, different day.' And he had a smile that ate half his face up, so wide that his eyes disappeared into full cheeks of satisfaction. He proceeded then to turn to another volunteer who was leaving. They were always making jokes between them and he was not happy that she was leaving.
He said to her, 'T
ouch my shoulder.''What? Why?''Just touch my shoulder.''Is it, cold?'
There was a momentary pause before we burst out into laughter. I loved how they took these idioms literally and made them their own. He had given her the cold shoulder and a warm smile at the same time. 


***

There were a group of Burmese guys who were sitting in the corner. There weren't that many of them, most of the guys in South 1 were from Afghanistan and spoke Hazaragi. I approached them and asked them how they were, what they were doing and why didn't they come over. I asked their names. There was a serco officer sitting with them and he spoke their language too, he would translate if I spoke too fast but A* was the one who understood the most. He was a very skinny guy with large round eyes that seemed dilated like an owls.

'Thanks for coming over, I know it means a lot to these guys. It may not seem it but I know them, even their body language has changed. They are more open. They just want to be acknowledged.' Again, there was that ache in my chest again, the onset of blurriness at the back of my eyes. 'I will remember you guys! You have to come to programs, come to art and yoga!'

I did see them and speak to them after that. A* invited me to play soccer with them and I would smile and wave everytime I saw them, I could see the difference too. They were a minority among a minority. A small group of Burmese guys amongst Afghans and Iranians. In North 1 I heard there were only 4 Burmese guys in the entire compound – North 1 had about 200 people. What loneliness among loneliness I thought.



***


On one of my first couple of days I had my first experience of sadness, the bleak outlook that so many of them must have had. His name was S* and I had never met him before. I was talking to people through the fence, which we only later learned we weren't meant to do, and while the others walked away I saw him there, standing by himself.
'Hello,' I said, smiling.
'Hello,' he replied, taking a step toward the fence. I did the same.
'How are you?'
'Not good,' he replied, straight out.
'Why?' It was such an instant response, it probably didn't occur to me how insufficient and inappropriate it was.
'Because I am here. Everyday. I have too much tension in my head.' He said, fingers rubbing his temples.
I didn't know what to say.
'I know it isn't good, it is a difficult place.
'Do you pray?' I asked, although religion was on the contraband list of topics along with politics, it was the only thing I could think of.
'Yes, but my God does not listen. He is angry with me.'
'No, that's not true. I know it is hard but you must have patience.' I wasn't sure where this was going, didn't want to patronise him or set him off.
'I know, I know,' he said.
'What is your name?'
'My name is S.'
'I hope to see you at activities. We want to listen to you and help you if we can. We can not solve your problems but we can be here just to listen.'



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Things I've forgotten to remember

The other day I found myself browsing through old documents on my computer. I came across a folder entitle 'Darwin.' There were only three files all of which were entries I had written after the long ten or twelve hour days. I was a volunteer in a detention centre for asylum-seekers. My job was to make their hell a little less brutal and remind them us aussies weren't all for locking them up. That month was undoubtedly the most intense month of my life. Here are some of my scribblings, copied and pasted as they were written (except for the names, that have been changed for the privacy of these people I met - the majority of whose whereabouts and safe-being I do not know). 
***

It was the Christmas party and all the volunteers were trying to get the clients involved. We were dancing in a circle in the middle of the mess hall in front of the band doing the sprinkler and the shopping trolley, the dorkiest moves we could think of. We were clapping in the air and stomping our feet, trying not to move our shoulders and our hips. Meanwhile, the clients sat in a circle of chairs on the outskirts sitting, some smiling and tapping their feet, others staring on in bemusement of the volunteers. A young chubby Iranian guy by the name of A* stopped and asked in a somewhat concerned tone, 'Do all Australians dance like this?'

On Christmas day we were meant to paint Christmas trees. Instead, they painted my face. A dot in the middle of my forehead like an Indian princess. A circle around my face, and A* painted eyelashes on my eyelids.
'Is it bad?' I asked A* H*.
'No, it's not bad.' He said laughing some more.
'Then why are you laughing?' I asked, confused and adamant that it was something bad he had taught me.
'Because I feel like I am talking to an Afghan girl.'
I smiled smugly and more than chuffed, satisfied it was far from bad.



One guy had gotten his visa and his friends had pinned him down to the floor. The Iranians were always louder and more outgoing. This chubby guy on the grass being held by his larger friend while the other tickled him, sending girlish squeals throughout the compound. We stood by and laughed, giggled - amused at the normality of it all. School boys in a playground.

The Indonesians were something else all together. They played guitar and smoked constantly, grabbed you and tried to propose. They were cheeky, if there was one word to describe them. 

The Hazaras were gentle, I had always said. Quieter and gentler than the Iranians and the Kurds. They looked slightly asian and had eyes that were bewitching. Their faces told story after story, mystery after mystery. 

A young Hazara only 20 years old with brown curly hair and a lazy eye was one of the favourites. He always seemed to be by himself and being one of the youngest in the compound the volunteers seemed to take to him quickly. His name was A* R*. One day he was singing a hazaragi song, I asked what it was and he wrote it out for me, singing as I tried to read the lyrics in the appropriate accent. 

It became an instant hit at lunch and dinner, in programs and making friends with anyone who spoke hazaragi, they would clap at the end when I finished and smile unexpectedly when I began, amused at this filipino-australian girl singing this hazaragi song from start to finish.  'Do you know what it means?' he asked. 'When you are not here, I will miss you... you are like bird flying with a broken wing.' It was sad, so sad. All of the hazaragi songs were. About forbidden love and goodbyes, mothers aching for their children and friends separated by oceans. They were all love songs. Everytime I sang 'Balak Balak' - to fly - I would raise my arms in a flapping motion, up and down like a bird. 

'How do you say "I appreciate you coming"?' L* was always asking questions. He had a pen and paper on him at all times and was one of the most eager students. He asked what the meanings were to all the words he didn't know, he wrote them down and used them in sentences. He asked me to check his work and took his english very seriously. He had a close shaved head and brown eyes, he looked almost like a monk. 

'You are very good. We had volunteer like you before, she was of Arab background and very good. How do you say, how do we tell the volunteers like you were a good volunteer.' I almost welled up in tears.

N* wrote on the inside of connect 4 'Grace is smiling and friendly. She is very nice, I hope she has a handsome husband or boyfriend one day.'

'What religion are you?' he asked on my last day.
'I'm Catholic.' I said, one of the first conversations on the topic of religion that I had there.
'Is that like Christian?'
'Yes, almost the same.' I said, not wanting to confuse him by going into the detail of the history of the Catholic church.
'When do you pray?' He asked, in all seriousness.
I paused, smiled a big at the bluntness of the question that was the first time I had ever been asked that.
'Ahm... well we have mass on Sundays.'
'What's mass?'
'It's where everybody goes to pray together and the priest leads it.'
'What's a priest?'
'Like... the person who leads the prayer.'
'But when do you pray, do you pray everyday?'
'Well.. before eating, if I remember.. and before I go to sleep sometimes.'
'Where do you pray?'
Again, I was amused - both at my unpreparedness of an answer and the directness and keen interest of his question.
'Anywhere. Before I go to sleep in my bedroom or before I eat wherever I am.'
'How do you pray?' There were a bunch of guys around me as well while L* asked the question, interested and watching.
'Well, like this...' And I motioned the sign of the cross saying 'In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit' and I put my hands together.
'What do you say?' He asked, a glimmer of a smile played across his lips.
'Thank you God for my family and friends, for their safety. I pray for all the struggles going on in our lives and in the lives of people around the world. We offer up our worries to you. Amen.'
He seemed satisfied with that. 
'Will you pray for me?'
Tears welled in my eyes and I had to fight them back. 'Of course I will pray for you. I will pray for all of you I said and looked at them all.' I had to blink back the tears, we weren't allowed to cry. 

I saw A* through the window peering in and I gave him the biggest smile I could muster, waving him to come in. I knew I had to tell him it was my last day, he didn't know yet.
'A* how are you?' I said shaking his hand.
'Good, how are you?' 
'I'm good. I have not seen you for a while. You are always playing Sangrak.'
He laughed, 'Yes.'
'Come sit and play with me, today is my last day.' The phrase was so final. 
His face dropped and his mouth opened. 'Your last day.. today?'
'Yes.' I had to force the smile to stay there, ordering the corners of my lips to stay upward.
'So come and play.'
'But.. why?'
'Ah, don't be sad. There will be so many new volunteers. H-gapneeya doostiman.'
He didn't smile.

A*H*  was a smart young guy who said he was seventeen although he looked about twenty two at least. Most of the unaccompanied minors did. You couldn't tell if they had lied to get into the ASTI or if their experiences had aged them. Either way they were smart beyond their years and lacking something of the cavalier and self-indulgent attitude of my generation of Australian friends. He had a scar on his cheek, a burn from when he was younger. He was from Afghanistan but lived in Pakistan, which was meant to be safer. He had told another volunteer, how he had seen dead bodies in the water coming over. How the captain had told him 99% of people that got on the boats would not survive, how he was lucky to be of the 1% that survived.

'What will you do once you're out?' I asked. 
'I will just enjoy my life. It is a time for enjoyment. I have had too many difficulties in my life.' I smiled and hoped he would, hoped it was true and that he would – Inshallah – get to finally enjoy his life.  

***

Rereading this reminds me of how much I have forgotten, of all the faces and names and phrases I swore I would not have erased from my memory. The truth of the nature of memory and experience shocks me, especially when I realise that so many of the things that are so real to me here - every routine, quote, inside joke, encounter - will be less in focus with every new day, new routine, new quote, new inside joke, new encounter. Nobody can live in the past or the future, it's a magnificent way to miss out on real life but still I lament the faults and holes in my remembering. I made a lot of promises to myself and to other people that month - mostly about not forgetting, about changing, about making sure other people knew. I've done my best to be true to that and still stand by the fact that those were some of the most intensely lived days of my life. They may not get as much spotlight as the way I harp on about Spain or Bolivia but that is because it had nothing to do with location or cuisine, culture or self-discovery. It was where I learned the stuff that we are all made of.  It's where I saw what people mean when they talk about 'our shared humanity'. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In sight

Having learned a second language and to be breathing it everyday has changed my perception of English. I read words with spanish pronunciation. I translate spanish directly back into english instead of the other way around. I'll say of useless actions, thoughts, things - it doesn't serve for anything (No sirve para nada). And I don't see the difference until I catch myself, a little later. When I was learning it, fluency seemed such an impossible and distant place that I would never reach, no matter how much I walked in one day. Now it is an afterthought. When I was tongue-tied and nervous trying to connect my brain to my tongue to a second language, there were days I would rather stay in bed than go out to face my Spanish and Italian room mates. Now mornings speaking spanish doesn't cost me anything (no me cuesta nada). 

Being with someone is like this. My mind is stretched and shaken constantly to make room for a new way of saying what I want to say. I am learning this third language which is made up of reading my own silences and moments I bite-my tongue as much as his eye-rolling or rants. Deciphering the way we are together, in all the voiceless touches and unsaid hints, remembering what he's done rather than what he's forgotten to say. Wrapping my head around the way I am now not a completely unattached being floating in the world with only myself to think about - that's a language I'm not used to at all.

The more I learn about being in a relationship the more I understand what I did and who I did not understand for such a long time. I breathe a slightly regretful sigh at my childish demands of friends trying to neatly divide their time between everyone they loved and who they just wanted to get along. I shake my head at grace before version 2.0, slapping on labels and judgments because it's funner not to have to consider the complex alternatives. That's all the hindsight, now that I am in sight.

In hind sight, I am more acutely aware of the space and distance I need from others to function on a daily basis.  My close friends tell me not to make myself small, not to shrink so others can be big. Which implies that I do that, which I have realised I do. Why do I do that? I have always been so big for a person so small. Being small doesn't serve for anything. The advantage of being In sight means I can edit my life while it's happening, before it's printed in black ink on uniform pages I so desperately wish to tear out. 

If there is any insight I have now more than before it is that we are all so many different people. I am not the same person with everyone. We have no one personality, no one side to us. I don't think anybody can really know us totally. There may be a face we wear the majority of the time but there are millions of masks we store away, masks we may never wear but have nonetheless. 

On here I try and avoid sentences that begin with but it seems I have no other point of reference. I used to not hesitate beginning sentences at all but I am too self-conscious now, clumsy and paranoid holding my cards close to my chest. What do I write here? What do I have to say? What is worth saying? Who gives a damn? On here people I know well or not at all read what I choose to write. But it does not define me and when whatever is written here takes them by surprise - people who have known me for years, or are with me everyday - it reminds me that this is just one of the faces I wear.

I used to care in a more earnest way what everybody thought of me, as everybody does at one point or another - even those who grow up to beyonce (that being, beyonce). In hindsight even if I could rewrite those years of my life, I wouldn't rub out the insecurity because the feeling of learning to untie the weight of expectation was almost certainly worth the carrying it all around for a while. And in sight I would tell her that you can be more than one thing, one person. I would tell her that no one thing and definitely no one person has to define her, ever. And that it's okay to begin sentences with I. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On having left, but not behind.

It's one in the morning bolivian time and I've just watched a video my dad sent me. Of course, I'm crying. If I had opened it at a different time of day, in a different swarm of feelings, I would be smiling, laughing, aww-ing. Timing is everything. 

Like the time I gave my brother the scar between his forehead, probably one of my earliest most traumatising memories. The timing of the hard plastic edge of the swingset hurtling into his face. And I thought it was all my fault, I hid under the bed and cried while they took him to get stitches. When they came back to find me they told me it wasn't my fault, silly.


My family has always been good like that. A lot of people leave home because there is nothing good for them left there, all the conversations are too loud and sharp, the looks mean or absent. There are entirely too many people who have no choice but to leave their families rather than stay in a ticking bomb. I know because I have worked with them, travelled with them, lived with them. I struck gold in the lottery of life and this has never been why I leave, left.


I have a well of strength infinitely deep that I go to draw from when I am fatigued, hungry cranky, lost in my purpose or confused in my relationships. This I credit to my home and the people that grew me up and around. Yes, I just wrote grew me up and around. Because that's how I write in English after almost a year in a spanish speaking country, yo. 



You can leave because you know you have love and warmth and soul to come back to.
You can leave because the same ones who taught you hello are the ones who will swallow their tears and say goodbye with a smile
You can leave because they were the ones who nodded their heads and said, go for it.
You can leave because you carry them, no matter the weight, in the suitcase of your heart
You can leave because they send you ridiculous videos and messages and all at once you're ambushed by love being sent from far, far away
You can leave because you can come back, anytime.

I've felt the pull of home stronger now than I have at any other time I've been away. This may be because I know it will be like this for a while, that the choices I am making for my life may mean I will continue to miss out on Easter Egg Hunts where Phil pushes Gel into the bush just to get ahead, or Christmas where we've all stopped pretending it's about gifts we mostly don't like anyway and are increasingly bad at pretending we do and go straight for the food binge bender and Remember When stories. I will miss out on new jobs landed, graduations attended, funny jokes at the dinner table, sibling banter and disgustingly fat movie nights. 

It's rare moments that hit me when I realise how much I am missing out on by being over here. How do you figure out the equation of greater or lesser than when on the one hand you have the moments in the lives of those you love and on the other the life you are living yourself? I am spoilt with having left, but not being left behind. I can still feel the familiarity and love of all My People despite the oceans between us and the abysmal bolivian internet connection.

I am rich in luck and all the good things (my family sent me tim tams and nutella) I know that this is where I'm meant to be for now and all I have to do is go to that infinite well of Everything I've Ever Needed, draw a bit of water, and go on my way again - to The Worlds I want to live in and fall in love with for a while.

'Cause I can go back anytime anyway, Silly.


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 un 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. Now I am on the other side. 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

True.

True?

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!?