Wielding a butter knife

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read

I’m supposed to be writing

In these weeks of uncertainty there is much I am unsure about, the anxiety of all the unknowns eats away at me, yet I know one thing: I’m supposed to be writing. I’m supposed to be writing, and I’m not. I’m not even writing in my diary.

Weeks pass and although my fingers tap away at the keyboard each day, bashing out lesson plans and assignments, I’m not really writing. Practical writing isn’t the sort of writing I ought to be doing. There’s nothing wrong with it, except it’s not enough. I’m meant to be writing something more, something to connect the war being fought in my heart to the outside world through some fanciful linguistic dance.

I’m meant to be writing

I don’t write because I’m numb. I’m sad and heart-bruised. I should respond to my emails and tell my stories. I should build on the scrappy collection of fiction that is stored in this mystical interconnected cloud, and I should translate all this impossible into something more tangible, something I can face, something I can deal with.

I’m homesick for a life I only imagined.

I tell my mother I want a butter knife

She tuts at me and pulls faces and gets one from the drawer. I’m a spoilt white girl with everything at her fingertips. My father obstinately refuses to have anything to do with the tiny precious silver knife. He thinks I’m being overtly and unnecessarily posh.

I live in a palace, although many people I know mistake it for a three-bedroom ordinary little house with a generous garden.

Do you know how lucky we are to have a butter knife?

To have all this food? I use jam spoons and cake forks because I want to treat the food as precious. In front of my eyes it has become precious, something that mustn’t be taken for granted. I’m putting on weight eating all these meals all the time, deserts, ice-cream, fancy cheese. It pains me to see anything thrown away.

I’m supposed to be writing, but I’m still kind of in shock

I’ve forgotten how to be the person I was before I left. On Friday I decided to cook a pasta dish from my Italian recipe book. I read the recipe and it required a certain type of pasta. I could have replaced it with any packet pasta. Tubes would have worked fine, as would spirals or those fancy little butterflies.

I take flour and water and make the pasta, covering every surface in the kitchen with sheets of tiny orecchiette, ‘ear-shaped’ pasta. With my kitchen knife, I flick off shape after shape, exactly as the Italian nonna does in the video. They really do look like little ears. Hundreds of pasta ears scattered across the surfaces of my parents’ beautiful kitchen.

I’m angry

I know I’m supposed to be writing and yet I’m not. I make myself extraordinarily tired with studying and teaching but it’s the inner battle that’s wearing me down. I’m supposed to be writing, and I’m not. I create pasta shapes as if doing so could save the world. It won’t.

I’m homesick for a community I don’t belong to.

I’m the sort of girl who gets to wield a butter knife.

In psychology there’s a phrase cognitive dissonance

It’s a term used to describe what happens when a person’s brain holds two or more contradictory ideas, beliefs or values. The result is a discomfort which people try to escape. It’s through deeply uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that we can change our beliefs about the world. This is always hard work. It’s ONLY through deeply uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that we can change our beliefs about the world.

That’s why people don’t want to change their beliefs.

Traditionally I write when I can’t order the disorder in my brain

It’s taken thousands and thousands of words to get me to here. It’s going to take me thousands of words more to settle with this current discomfort. My heart aches with what I have witnessed this last year. This time though it’s going to take more than a pen. This time I’m fighting not only with ink but with a tiny, precocious silver butter knife.

At least I’m fighting.

Part seven of the repatriation ordeal (in which my apple is incinerated)

You can’t take photos in immigration, so here’s a random purple flower.
Tuscany, Italy
May 2018

I landed in the United States of America very early on the Sunday morning. The sun had just risen.

The aeroplane had landed smoothly enough and silently I’d dragged myself from my seat and like obedient cattle we all filed off the plane and trotted down the corridors to immigration control. Here, two men, one in either half of the hall stood and shouted at us in Spanish and English, ordering us what to do, where to stand, when to move etc.

I was exhausted and my little brain wasn’t processing information very well as I put my details into the computer and got ushered into the next queue. I moved along, socially distanced from the rest of the queue, listening to the shouting repeating itself over and over.

It dawned on me at some point in one of the queues that in my rucksack somewhere…

I probably had an apple

I wasn’t sure if I did have an apple or not. I’d certainly eaten one of my apples which I’d bought less than 24 hours previously. I’d bought them for the bus journey. The bus I reflected, would be leaving in a couple of hours, trundling down the Pan-American highway from La Serena to Santiago, my seat empty because I was now in the United States of America.

Maybe, I concluded, I did have an apple. But I couldn’t be sure. In fact, I seemed to have barely any memory of what I’d stuffed in my rucksack on leaving. It had all been such a rush.

I told the security chap who wanted to check all my papers and know exactly which plane I would be escaping the United States of American on. Although he didn’t use the word escape. The security chap explained that apples were banned. Apples were not allowed in the United States of America and as such, my apple must be incinerated.

“How do I incinerate it?” I asked

He tried to explain to me where to go. I was tired. I didn’t understand. He decided that the best thing was to escort me to the special baggage reclaim area for people who accidentally forget to eat their apples before finding themselves in the United States of America.

I collected my suitcase and wheeled it through the door to customs, where a cheerful chap kindly asked me a question. I didn’t understand him, but I said I’d like to please have my apple incinerated because apples are illegal.

He asked me if there was anything else

I shrugged and said I had no idea. Maybe I owned some biscuits, I wasn’t entirely sure. And what about a cereal bar. I might have had a cereal bar in there. I told him I was very tired and that I couldn’t be 100 percent sure.

Thankfully the chap in charge of putting apples in the incinerator said not to worry. He smiled and told me just to pop my luggage through the machine. A Chilean chap who appeared behind me offered to lift my heavy suitcase for me. The bags rolled through the scanner.

Very sure of himself, the security chap told me my apple was in the side pocket of my rucksack.

“It’s not,” I said. “That’s a bottle of water.”

He let me keep my water. He took the apple, remarked upon its large size and told me I was free to go. I could keep my biscuits.

Part six of the repatriation ordeal (In which I compare airlines)

Torres del Paine, Chile
February 2020
This was on the eighth day of continuous hiking (in the same clothes).

In February I went hiking in the beautiful Torres Del Paine National park in the Patagonia region of Chile. My flight back to Santiago was with the airline LatAm. Shortly into the flight, the pilot came on the tannoy system and cheerfully told us that what with it being a really beautiful day, with perfect flying conditions, and a perfect view over the national park, he was going to just take a few minutes and twizzle the plane around a bit so that everyone on the flight could get a good look at the iconic stone towers for which the national park is so famous.

It was quiet flight to Miami with LatAm, but the staff checked we were okay, and they gave us food which to my surprise seemed like real food on what looked like a plate. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until I started eating. I had the entire row to myself as the staff gave us freedom to sit where we wanted to help us keep socially distanced and make use of the available space.

I don’t remember the food on the American Airlines flight to London, except for that when I got off the flight I was hungry and there was an awkward moment where I had to go to the kitchen at the back of the plane and ask for water because we’d been given so little.

The LatAm staff acknowledged the unpleasantness of wearing masks, but they wore their own mask correctly and set a good example.

On the American Airlines flight, I saw one senior looking member of staff not bothering to wear any mask at all, despite it being an obligation for everyone. He walked up and down the aisle from one end of the plane to the other, mask-less, a number of times throughout the night.

You’ll understand therefore if I now have a bias towards LatAm. I was exhausted, anxious, afraid and alone and the staff bothered to recognised it. No surprise that I slept much better on the LatAm flight that the American Airways flight.


On my return I did write to the booking agent, Opodo, explaining the situation. They have still not responded. There has been no apology for their screw up.

My father called British Airways about the first cancelled flight. Nobody ever picked up.

‘Tannoy’ is apparently, like hoover, a brand. I think it looks ugly capitalised mid sentence.

#LanguageForResilience

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
Valparaiso, January 2020
Care for one another.

The boy can barely keep his bum still on the chair. He has so much he wants to tell me, so much he needs to do, right this moment. His limbs move with such excitement and yet he’s only at school, sat in the corridor practising his English.

He is not an easy boy to teach. He’s bright and enthusiastic but seen as disruptive and undisciplined. He doesn’t fit in the system and so he’s hard work. It’s hard work for him, for the teachers and for his fellow students.

Students misbehave and play up for all sorts of different reasons

If you’d asked me when I was at school myself about classmates who couldn’t keep their mouths shut, I would have been quite disparaging. Emotional regulation seemed like a reasonably basic concept and I couldn’t understand why some people seemed not to have it.

Of course, as time passed my own ability to regulate my own emotions became rather tested, and my emotions, so strong and so true, dominated, blinding me, delaying me from having any perspective of how I was impacting other people.

To an extent, this is normal and happens to all of us as part of regular life

People burst into tears, they lose their tempers, they stamp and the stomp and then hold grudges or feel guilty and the emotions work their way out and life continues.

A child bursts into tears on one Wednesday in March, you don’t worry too much about it. A child bursts into tears every Wednesday in March, you start to worry.

Recently I completed a tiny little course on the impact of trauma in the classroom run by the British Council. Trauma, I know from first-hand experience screws up your ability to regulate your own emotions. It can turn a sensible, disciplined adult to a wailing screaming shouting violent mess in an instant without any warning whatsoever. It can also make a determined, hard working student lose belief and become apathetic to their studies.

Trauma effects that part of the brain that gives us the self-control to study

It effects the way we process information. That internal voice that we tend to need to remind us that we’ve put the washing in the machine and we’ll soon need to hang it on the line, falters. A student might be given a task, but it doesn’t mean they recall what they were told to do five minutes before or understand why they are here in this classroom learning these verb forms. Trauma plays games with the memory. Verb forms are irrelevant if your brain is still hooked on an event from the past, an event which haunts the present. Past and present merge and mingle and you’re sitting safe in the classroom, with part of your mind wandering through hell, and someone’s asking you when to use the present perfect continuous.

I have been thinking about trauma and classrooms and students who might want to learn but don’t know how to learn and teachers who want to teach, but who can’t reach their students.

I have been thinking of all this, and studying that course, because how I think is now defined by my past. I no longer wander though hell on a regular basis when I ought to be doing something else, something more productive, but the path of trauma is embedded, neuron to neuron, throughout my brain. I don’t wander that way anymore, at least not so often anymore, because I’ve learnt to look after myself.

Trauma results in an inability to self-regulate

Students who have been, or who are being traumatised may seem uninterested, unfocused, volatile, reserved, defensive, threatening, insecure or unaware. This, understandably, makes teachers insecure and defensive.

The same drama has played out in my own brain time and time again, the critic and the victim, the pain driven need to rescue and defend, the anger and the irritation, the wailing screaming shouting violent mess.

But I am not a wailing screaming shouting violent mess today. And I haven’t been a wailing screaming shouting violent mess for some time now. I’m uncomfortable and emotionally fraught. It’s been a few tough months and at times quite distressing, but fundamentally, emotionally, I’m looking after myself.

And it’s creating safety that makes the difference

It’s a steady, genuine care that is willing to be patient. It’s providing a stable environment, structure with routine and predictability. It’s acknowledging emotions rather than trying to box them up. It’s sharing relaxion techniques, learning how to be mindful, being quiet, listening and showing respect.

We all must learn to do this for ourselves and for others. We rarely know who has been traumatised and we cannot know which of us will be traumatised next. We can all though improve how we respond to people who cannot control their pain and who struggle to fit within our rigid system of acceptable societal behaviour. Which is why I did the course.

As for the disruptive child whom I had the pleasure of teaching

For me he’s a role model.

One day, in one of our conversations I asked him about daily routines. He explained, every morning before school he runs 5km attempting to manage his energy levels and do what he can to keep his bum sat on his chair.

Often, students are working a whole lot harder than we give them credit for.

Part five of the repatriation ordeal (in which I board a plane)

Valparaiso, January 2020
Bedtime.

I hate filling up the car. I particularly hate filling up cars in foreign countries because filling up the car is, like ordering in a restaurant, an occasion where you take what’s being sold before you pay for it. I find that the cards in my purse are much more reliable in England where they belong, and that in foreign countries things go wrong. Imagine my fear of the embarrassment of whatever card is in my purse not working and the inevitable search in the bottom of my suitcase for a spare.

Of course, my Chilean card behaved perfectly

My problem came before that, when the kindly chap who was gallantly offering to fill up my car for me asked me to release the cap to the petrol tank. I had no idea how to do this. I opened the car door and he indicated places where the release might be, instructing me with a friendly polite Chilean Spanish from behind his mask.

It was now dark outside, my brain was flooded with anxiety because I had to be in the airport in the next twenty minutes, I had found the petrol station because I’d just taken the wrong road on entering Santiago. Ramon was waiting for me, somewhere. And I had no idea where the lever was.

Luckily Latin Americans don’t hesitate to mime when the occasion demands such

The situation, with our efforts at maintaining some resemblance of social distancing, required some excellent miming, and eventually, to everyone’s relief, I found the lever.

The chap filled up my car. I paid.

Ramon was waiting for me when I pulled up on the driveway of the hotel where he’d suggested we meet. He suggested I turned the car around and put it facing the other direction so that other cars could leave. I stalled the car. Put it in the wrong gear. Managed to do a five-point turn when none was necessary and turned off the engine.

I got out the car and pulled my mask back onto my face.

Ramon inspected the car

He found it acceptable. I hopped into the passenger seat and Ramon drove me to the airport. Calm, and with a gentle manner he asked me about my journey, my time in Chile and we discussed the quarantine. I knew now that I was going to be on time for my flight. It had taken a team effort, but I was heading to the United States.

Santiago Airport is a building site, and we drove past the carcasses of future airport lounges and pulled up straight in front of the door for international departures. I thanked Ramon. He lifted my case of the boot of the car and I headed inside. It was obvious where to go because there was one flight leaving that evening. The only other scheduled flight had been cancelled.

I walked straight up and placed my bag on the scale

The LatAm woman at the counter helped me to move a few books into my hand luggage to get the weight down, then I headed to security and was waved straight through. I placed my rucksack on the counter ready to go through the process of extracting my technology and liquids, but the security guards waved me through with a clear attitude of don’t stress yourself.

There were no tester perfumes in the duty-free shop, and the lights were dimed in most of the airport, meaning that I walked straight from security into my gate simply by following the light. It was like Santiago airport had been reduced to something smaller than Doncaster Robin Hood airport. There was a single open shop, some toilets and some seats. We spaced ourselves out and waited.

I expected emotion

I messaged that wonderful selection of Latin Americans and Europeans who had sent me messages like ‘ARE YOU OK???’ to assure them that I was alright and that somehow I was now about the head to the United States…

My brain was dead; I was emotionally in shock. Home was a five-hour drive behind me or a few days ahead of me whichever way I chose to think about it. Mindlessly, I followed the person in front of me onto the aeroplane. No emotion came.

I hoped that my housemates were enjoying the bottle of wine I’d bought for us to share that night. I wondered how it tasted.

Books and the Yorkshire dialect

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read
A bit of Yorkshire.
May 2020

One of my favourite books as a child was The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett so I’m not sure why it is that I had never read The Secret Garden. My sister who never used to read much, until her beloved Blacksmith came into the scene, has read it. The father thinks it’s a most excellent book. It turns out we even have it on the bookshelf here.

So why hadn’t I read it?

I knew the vague outline of the story, because when we were children my sister and I had the film which stars Maggie Smith as Mrs Medlock and we must have watched it over and over again, delighting in the magic. However, I hadn’t appreciated the full wonder of the book itself.

The Secret Garden is a beautiful depiction of the Yorkshire accent, with the protagonist Mary slowly taking on more and more of the Yorkshire dialect as the story progresses, simultaneously becoming a nicer, kinder person as she adopts a playful ‘tha’ for you and the single aspirated alveolar stop of ‘t’ for ‘to’.

Away from the sound of home, I’ve gained deeper appreciation for the accents of the North

I expend so much effort trying to clean up my speech that sometimes I forget the wonder of its original form, with its double contractions and missed consonants. There’s no shortage of un-official English in my family. Apparently, my southern grandfather used to say skellingtons and my mother still does slip into such a form from time to time and so there’s no wonder it’s my natural inclination to say skellington too (dear students: the word you want is skeleton).

But Yorkshire, with it’s ancient twists of words, is also a place of wisdom

If anyone is currently bored by the lack of freedom to socialise, the ‘born ‘n’ bred in Yorkshire’ character of Martha in The Secret Garden has some advice:

Martha looked perplexed.

“Can tha’ knit?” she asked.

“No,” answered Mary.

“Can tha’ sew?”

“No.”

“Can tha’ read?”

“Yes.”

“Then why doesn’t tha’ read somethin’, or learn a bit o’ spellin’? Tha’st old enough to be learnin’ thy book a good bit now.”

“I haven’t any books,” said Mary.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

It makes my heart sing to read such a conversation written on the page

The book includes this beautiful explanation on the word ‘wuthering’ which was famously used in the title of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights written and set here in Yorkshire where I currently live. I don’t personally recommend the book. I thought, when I picked it up, that it would be a romance. I was wrong, it was a horrible portrayal of domestic abuse.

Mary did not know what ‘wutherin’’ meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and the windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.

Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden

Continuing the reading update, I’ve also finally finished Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I enjoyed but in my ranking of 17th century Russian literature it falls below Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

When someone makes a remark on how certain politicians seem to believe that they are above the rules, I’m reminded of some of the long, meandering convoluted essays of thought portrayed in the book.

Yet I wondered if they book should be re-written using the structure of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) which has an appendix of unnecessary philosophising conveniently disguised as an alternative reading option. Or at least I think it does… I’ve only read the short version.

Trying to curb my book buying habit a little, I continued with foreign literature, reading Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for which I had high expectations. I remember James Wood waxing lyrical about Flaubert’s impact on modern fiction in his book, How Fiction Works, but I found that since I didn’t like any of the characters it was difficult to find much appreciation for the style. My favourite moment was when Flaubert described the animals all gathered up for the agricultural show:

The beasts were there, their noses towards the cord, and making a confused line with their unequal rumps. Drowsy pigs were burrowing in the earth with their snouts, calves were bleating, lambs baaing; the cows, on knees folded in, were stretching their bellies on the grass, slowly chewing the cud, and blinking their heavy eyelids at the gnats that buzzed around them.

Gustav Falubert, Madame Bovary

At least I felt like I could relate to those marvellous beasts.

Part four of the repatriation ordeal (in which I encounter the police)

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Violent oppression of indigenous communities is one of the reasons why the Chilean police have such a terrible reputation.
Street Art, Limari Valley, Chile.
October 2019

Read parts 1, 2, and 3 first.

I pulled into the queue, slipped on my mask and opened the windows so that I would be able to hear what was being said to me.

I speak Spanish

It’s not a particularly wonderful Spanish. I can’t trill my r, my u scoops down a little too low in my mouth and I frequently put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. All combined, this seems to confuse listeners. However, if a Spanish speaker is patient and is willing to be open-minded to my butchering of Spanish pronunciation, then we can converse, and after a short time, with reasonable ease.

The problem for me is that every time I am about to engage with a new Spanish speaker, in Spanish, I’ve no idea if they’re one of the people who know how to speak slowly or clearly, or if they’re like a certain market stall owner who I have never yet once understood and always end up giving the wrong change.

And I was nervous of course because the Chilean police don’t have what you’d call a kind, loving, we’re out here as servants to society to protect society sort of reputation. Plus, the government website suggested that I needed to have my boarding pass on me, and I didn’t yet have a boarding pass – only a flight confirmation.

From the dark, two, cheerful, masked faces popped their heads through the passenger window

I said I was from England and waved my British passport towards them as evidence of my foreignness. Where was I coming from, La Serena, where was I going, the airport. And then? England.

The other problem I have with police officers – and airport security guards (Spain and Egypt I’m thinking of you) – is that I never have any idea what is a general question of polite curiosity and what is a question that required a detailed and accurate response. Whether they liked it or not, these two friendly looking women who marvelled briefly at my being from England had to have my trip itinerary explained to them and the reasons for my previous residency in La Serena. I babbled.

They took my temperature. It was thankfully normal. Then they wished me a pleasant journey, all without checking a single document.

I continued south

It was thankfully no longer foggy, but from time to time I’d see a bashed in vehicle or two on the side of the road with people gathered around. What’s more, cyclists, without lights, seemed to appear at the edge of the road, cycling against the traffic. There was no risk of me falling asleep with the adrenaline rushing through me as I endeavoured to drive quickly without hitting a seemingly suicidal cyclist or adding myself to the carnage that I passed. There were more cars now, and the traffic seemed heavier.

Then police lights and we were ordered into another queue

This time a young policeman came to the driver’s side window and asked in his mask-muffled voice, for my documents. He also eagerly wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going and what exactly was my business in Chile, but he asked in the sort of way that made me sceptical whether he was requesting only the personal data that pertained to his task. He had a look in his eyes which I recognised from the University’s students. There’s a point where they realise that they can ask this real, live, English woman questions and in their excitement stumble over asking me if I have any brothers.

I had a heap of documents laying on the passenger seat beside me, all prepared for his viewing, but the chap had now decided that this was a great time to start throwing in his high school English. All I wanted to know was which document. I waved them in front of him one after another until he exclaimed, I’d got the right one. He didn’t then scan it, he merely waved me on and wished me a good trip home.

Thankfully, that was the police encounter done

Next, I had to fill up the car and find a chap who called himself Ramon.

Culture shock

By Posted on Location: , , 3 min read
This is England, in late-spring. When I left La Serena it was late autumn.
Haworth, England
May 2020

Culture shock happens in both directions

When I’m on the outbound stretch of an adventure, I feel somewhat prepared for it. I expect things to be unusual. I know local street food is likely to make me sick. I expect to take ages navigating the supermarket and to finish my shop still not sure what I’m going to eat. I pretend I’m prepared, but, in reality, I never am. Culture shock isn’t merely something that happens in your mind, it also happens physically. Bodies do not like being uprooted. They like the status quo. When you screw around with your habits, your body kicks up a fuss.

I mention my impromptu driving to Santiago from La Serena and people are aghast at what I did, but the drive was not as hard as the moment of body shaking realisation when you realise all you have had to leave behind, all the goodbyes you couldn’t say and those you said but wish you didn’t have to. That is painful. We are social, tribal creatures and the faces of my every day are now thousands of miles away. In a way, it’s like being cast out of one tribe and suddenly finding myself embedded in another. My name changes, the language changes, my role is different. Although I am still me, I am not the same.

And going back, this me that I am is not the me that I was

A student of mine tried to explain to me that there is a huge unemployment problem in Chile. I listened, took notes of his English and thought about how unemployment is ravaging the lives of some of my Chilean friends. Those who aren’t unemployed do not, by any means, take their employment for granted. It creeps into the edges of conversation. People worry about how the pandemic and the inevitable economic impact will affect their jobs. It seems it doesn’t matter how hard some people work, how generous and caring they are, life remains unfair and cruel.

This stands in contrast with my life in England where I live in a house which now feels like a palace. I come back to England and within a week I’m ordering a computer chair so that when I sit at my desk my body is supported and the impact deskwork doesn’t have too detrimental an effect on my posture and long-term health. I have a laptop stand and a separate screen so that I’m not craning my neck to read. I have a separate keyboard and a full-size mouse. I wonder how many of those ‘there-is-no-Chilean-middle-class’ colleagues I worked alongside this year have a similar set-up.

This feels unfair.

The anger that houses itself inside me is proving hard to tame

How do I come to terms with all the privilege that I am suddenly faced with when it stands in such contrast to the realities of the lives of people I’ve come to care for and admire? No, England is not all filled with safety and security. There is poverty here too. There is racism and there is desperation and there are too many people living without a fulfilled sense of meaning, but at least when they get sick there’s a hospital that will accept them and the state education system tries to educate.

I am angry. In my opinion, Chileans often underestimate themselves and each other. Many sighingly see fault in their compatriots, complianing of their materialistic desires, credit card debt and apathy. Chileans are always asking me why I would want to be in Chile when I could live anywhere in the world and I have not yet found an answer that satisfies them. Chile is home to some wonderful, kind, loving, generous people but I believe this truth is dominated over by their fear. I am angry; maybe my anger is sadness strangled by my fear.

I cannot pull all my disparate thoughts and feelings together

My mind is in a state of shock. I am struggling to come to terms with my newfound perspectives and the contrast of these two lives. My stomach churns. The discomfort shows itself in more ways that one.

Inevitably the culture shock on coming back to the United Kingdom hits me with more force than I anticipate. It never seems to get any easier.

Part three of the repatriation ordeal (in which I drive through a foggy desert)

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
The Limari Valley, south of La Serena, Chile.
October 2019

If you want to know how I came to be driving to quarantined Santiago read part one and part two.

I set off heading south on the Pan-American Highway

…or ruta cinco as we tend to call it, stabbing my finger at the various buttons on the radio, twizzling the knobs and trying to work out how to use the radio since I hadn’t any time to stop and contemplate the device. I had a five-hour journey ahead of me and five hours before I needed to be at the airport.

The dual-carriageway double-laned road was empty apart from the occasional lorry trundling along in the sunny afternoon. There were beautiful views as the road winds along running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and from time to time beautiful empty beaches in magical looking coves appeared, then the road would snake around, through more cactuses and I’d feel like I was in the wild west.

The radio played half a song and they the signal went

Then another half song might play and then the signal would go again. At least focusing on the radio distracted me from the fact that in all the chaos, I hadn’t thought to use the bathroom before I left home. Emotionally I was in shock, all at once loving the freedom of being out on the road and actually moving yet, at the same time panicked, with my foot on the gas not daring to dawdle.

My fears were the following:

  1. The service stations would be closed
  2. I would get lost trying to fill up the car before dropping it off by the airport
  3. I would be missing some important piece of paperwork when the police stopped me
  4. In all my anxiety, I would cause myself a fever and set off a load of coronavirus alarms
  5. I would arrive at the airport too late for the plane

On this beautiful sunny afternoon what I hadn’t worried about was fog

The road sign indicated that I could go at 120km/h. The fog (or do you call it a deep sea mist) that descended threatened to slow me right down. I knew that if I continued to travel at 120km/h I might end up being posted back to the UK.

I saw a lorry ahead, then it disappeared, and a game began where I hunted down lorries and crawled around them. I switched the radio off to concentrate.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies cleared and the fog disappeared. I switched the radio back on and the sort of song that makes you want to dance came on.

Time however was ticking by

Two and a half hours into the journey I stopped at a service station, yanked on my blue floral mask and dashed inside where to my delight not only were there open, clean toilets but also a woman selling take away coffee. I checked my position on the map, shared my location with the chap who I had to meet to give back the car, and set off.

The sun set, the fog returned, I could no longer see the cactuses

So I practised taking long calming breaths. Everything was going to be fine. I prayed that all the lorries on the road had working lights. At least, I reasoned, there was no chance of me getting bored on this solitary trip. Thankfully, as I began to turn inland, Santiago is not beside the sea, the fog disappeared, however, the traffic grew heavier. I began to look out for the first of the police cordons.

A line of red lights, uniformed officers waving their arms and I slid into the queue

I rolled down the window, put my mask back on my face and wondered which of all my documents I would need to show. The British Embassy (contacted in part one) had never responded to my query. The government website suggested I needed my boarding pass and my passport, and then I also had my ‘I don’t have covid-19’ QR-code.

I didn’t have a boarding pass. As I was driving my dad was busy trying to do the check-in for my flight, but for whatever reason, the website didn’t allow him to simply send me my boarding pass. Two smiling highway officers poked their head through my passenger window.

Part two of the repatriation ordeal (in which I discover the second flight is cancelled)

Through the fence.
September 2019.
Elqui River.

You might want to read part one first.

I called the booking agent, Opodo, who acknowledged that indeed, it did seem that my flight on Sunday was cancelled and that the airline had rescheduled the flight for the Saturday. The signal quality was terrible and the agent at the other end just kept repeating that it appeared I was correct. Yes, the flight had been moved. No, nobody had contacted me. Yes, this was very inconvenient. Yes, getting to Santiago from La Serena with eight hours’ notice wasn’t ideal. However, they were unable to provide any support or guidance other than to advise me to ring the airline operator.

I rang LatAm in Chile

And thankfully they found a lovely lady who spoke beautiful English who wanted to help. The reason why I hadn’t been informed of the change to my flight was simple, the airline had no contact details for me. Opodo had failed to pass such information along. However she could now confirm that I had had my flight moved to the Saturday, and if that were inconvenient she would be happy to swap it for any other flight to Miami from Santiago.

I didn’t know what to do, so she offered to leave a note in my file saying that I would get back to them and choose a flight.

I called my father again

He asked if there was any possible way of getting to Santiago in the next seven hours as financially this seemed like a better option than trying to change the Miami to London flight. My darling housemate called the bus station and confirmed that there were no buses. I already knew there were no planes. I frantically contacted people at random asking if anyone had any idea how I could travel the 500km in the next seven hours.

My father looked up the car hire places in the city, but they all seemed to be closed. My housemate did the same and found one place, located by the supermarket, which offered to hire me a car which I could drop off near Santiago airport. I had to be at the agency within 45 minutes.

So I packed

My housemate made me a sandwich and filled my flask with tea. The other housemate called an Uber to get us to the agency on time. In a mad rush, I applied for another certificate this time to state that I was travelling by car, to the airport and that I still had no symptoms of the virus.

Mask on, I dashed out the house, into the car and we were off to the agency.

Now… punctuality is not a Chilean skill, nor is moving with anything resembling haste

I handed over my driving licence, passport and identity card and waited whilst the man behind the counter bashed down on the keyboard, failing to copy out my name, leading to a multitude of errors flashing on his screen.

After half an hour of this, at 2:30 pm, five and a half hours before I needed to be at the airport, he restarted the computer and decided to begin again. His friend arrived to lend assistance. My housemate went around to the other side of the counter and sat down at the computer to try and help. The three men stared at the screen, muttering quietly in Chilean Spanish, breaking all rules of social distancing, whilst I paced up and down the office.

Just before three o’clock I gave my housemate a huge hug, sat down in the driver’s seat, thanked the gods that the car was a manual and set off on the 500 km trip south.

There had been no time to think.