Stories written by Catherine

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.

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Books and the Yorkshire dialect

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.

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

By Posted on Location: 3min 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.

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Culture shock

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.

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

By Posted on Location: 3min 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.

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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.

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Part one of the repatriation ordeal (in which the first flight is cancelled and I fill out forms)

Closed borders and the like.
Elqui river, La Serena.
September 2019.

Last Monday, I awoke to a message from British Airways saying that my June flight to London from Santiago had been cancelled. This wasn’t such a surprise. The Chilean border is closed and the only flights out of Santiago at the moment are to the United States. Although, the British government website advises that there are still flights scheduled from Santiago to Europe and Brazil for June.

I called my father, then called my father again and then called my father again. We discussed the options. Getting home does matter because my sister hopes to be married and well, visas… We contemplated a flight via Barcelona. I went to pay the house bills and then returned and called my father again. The Barcelona flight no longer existed. My father was concerned that any flight we booked mid-May might well be cancelled by the beginning of June. I was concerned that come June I would have nowhere to live (although this would not actually be the case as my Chile-based friends are between them so generous that someone would have rescued me).

My mother had her word. She told my father to get me home as soon as possible. So my father booked me a flight for six-days later: Santiago – Miami – London.

At this point my life suddenly turned upside down

Or maybe it was upside down and simply revolved to point in yet another direction. I was heading to the USA for the first time, planning on doing three continents in three days.

By Friday I had given away or thrown half of my belongings. I’d been to the bank and I’d booked a bus ticket for the Sunday morning to travel into Santiago. On Friday, Santiago went into complete quarantine. To go to the supermarket, you now needed a certificate of permission declaring that you had none of a long list of symptoms. And there I was, planning a nearly 500 km journey by public transport right into the capital.

The certificate proved tricky. It asks you for the address of the residence, hotel or place of lodging to which you are going in Chile. You can only put a location in Chile and I was planning on lodging myself in an un-address-worthy, economy-class aeroplane seat. My housemate and I called the British Embassy, the phone suggested we email, I emailed the British Embassy asking for advice. Meanwhile, I created myself a variety of these certificates pertaining to all eventualities with a selection of possible addresses covering travel by bus and plane. The British government website declares that LatAm flights require such a certificate. The bus company told me I’d need one to board the bus.

On Saturday morning I bought myself two apples and a banana for my adventure

And four additional facemasks. Heading back home, I ambled through Puertas Del Mar in the sunshine trying not to think about the achingly long bus journey, there were horses in the street eating the grass. I had my train ticket from London to Leeds, I’d checked that the London Underground (metro) was running and I knew my route. I even had my ESTA for my planned 12-hour stopover in Miami and new travel insurance as my normal travel insurance covers me for everywhere except the United States of America.

Lawn-mowing.
Puertas del Mar, La Serena
May 2020

In the circumstances, I felt that I was doing quite well

I logged onto my computer and clicked onto the LatAm website to pay for my suitcase. I clicked through, parted with yet more pennies and was about to close the browser when the word SATURDAY caught my eye.

Saturday 16/05/2020 11.10pm

My flight, I thought, is not for Saturday. It’s definitely for Sunday.

I checked my email because it would not be the first time that I have found myself flying on the wrong day this year. The emails definitely all said Sunday. I checked the junk email folder, nothing. I tried to think it through, was it a result of the time difference? If so, why would it still say Saturday. I checked my emails again. It was definitely a Sunday flight.

I called my father

The chaos, it seemed, was only just beginning.

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The gods have been playing their games again

Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama.
January 2020.

I wake up some days and stare at myself in the mirror. There’s a dull look in my eyes and I think, here we go again. I feel my thoughts being to roll into paranoia. Sometimes my hands shake from the anxiety of living. My skin is a mess; my stomach clenches tight.

This pattern of behaviour is so familiar it seems almost ridiculous.

In sports people talk about recovery time. This is how long it takes your body to go back to normal after you’ve done exercise. Resilience works on the same principle – it’s not a measure of how far you’ve fallen or how damn bad it hurt, but how quickly you can rock back up to healthy.

I wake up and stare in the mirror and I see myself all ghostlike. The energy is robbed from me. I’m lethargic but I can’t rest. The negative thoughts come. I wonder for how long I’m going to need to grieve. I wonder how much I’ve lost. I wonder how long it will be before I feel generous towards life again. And then, because this is my ingrained training, I do something about it.

And sometimes I feel that my life is a woven patten of me falling in and out of grief time and time again. Things nowadays aren’t so bad though. Each weave is shorter, cleaner. Now I’m more skilled at pulling the threads back up, pulling them together. I remember when the time between feeling good about myself and my life was measured in weeks or months not days.

Every time is hard, but you do get quicker at recovering from setbacks as you become more resilient. I only believe that you can become resilient by doing the hard work, by learning to actively accept and grieve what you’ve lost rather than clinging onto a fantasy of what might have been. I believe that as you learn to recognise your defences you can learn to do yourself and those around you less damage each time you fall. I believe that recognising your coping strategies and being reasonable about them is vital for preventing long term harm.

Some weeks you lose your house, your contract terminates and there’s no way you can get a new visa. Some weeks a friend gets upset because you didn’t fall in love with them and it hurts. Some weeks you say goodbye to someone you fell in love with, not knowing how many months it will be until you are in the same continent again. Some weeks your flight home is cancelled and you find yourself with the prospect of an unexpected three days of crazy, mask wearing adventure to get home, passing through three continents with a bundle of certificates and permissions to evidence the necessity and validity of each step of the journey. Some weeks are more difficult than others.

I wake up some days and I look in the mirror and smile. My hair’s a mess and my skin pink and blotchy. Yet there’s a twinkle in my eye. Look, I’m here, I think. I exist in this mess of a world, but I exist and that is a truly wondrous thing. I smile and turn away from my reflection, ready to fight whatever the gods have chosen to throw at me next.

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Courage versus comfort (or not as the case might be)

Peering towards that which we cannot see.
Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
January 2020

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I find myself craving a little comfort

Actually, I find myself craving a lot of comfort.

Instead I find myself trailing the streets trying to find some place of education which is willing to employ me so that I might have a contract and stay in the house which has become my home and in the city where I have made friends. Comfort would be to stay in this odd place on the edge of the world, facing out towards the great Pacific Ocean, speaking my uneven, clunky Spanish and weathering viruses and social unrest.

It’s sad to realize how much of modern life is designed to lull us into being comfortably numb; we’re expected to go about doing what we’re told because it’s easy.

Srdja Popovic and Mathew Miller, Blueprint for Revolution

One plan has me going to a new town somewhere else in Chile

I’d know nobody and be doing the whole thing from scratch, albeit with better Spanish. It’s not an ideal solution but it would keep me learning and teaching and it is at least a plan. It may remain just a plan though, as it depends on much more freedom to travel than I currently have.

Another plan has me in England until this is all over, which would be comfy indeed – there would be Yorkshire tea – but perhaps I would lose something of what I’ve been fighting so hard to have. Not to mention, I have yet to get to England.

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough’.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak (read more on deliberate practice)

Truthfully, I am exhausted by the emotional taxation of the changes in my life

Bitterness seeps in. Frustration rests within my muscles, which are tense from the continual strain of the stress that I’m facing. There is a deep anger inside of me. Now I finally trust myself to be able to work and function in a sociably acceptable manner, the situation around me makes doing these seemingly normal things a whole new level of difficult.

Knowing that pretty much everyone is going through a tough time should help. I know talking helps. Although, in a way, I’m overwhelmed by the uncertainty that everyone around me is feeling. Tempers are short – mine included – and I reckon we’re all tearing up a bit more than before. What do you say to a friend who fears her nephew has the virus? I’m a little more equipped at such difficult conversations nowadays (post-therapy), but I still struggle for words of comfort.

Yet, I think it’s the disappointment that hits hardest

People had plans. My sister’s supposedly getting married. I booked my flights and arranged my dress-fitting especially for the wedding. I also planned on doing a course whilst I was in England, which is now postponed. Students, who want to learn, find themselves stuck with online learning and a substandard education that will further divide the rich from the poor. The teachers don’t enjoy it either, teaching a class where you can’t see the student’s faces is a horrible experience. You’d think we could do video, but the internet connections we’re relying on won’t necessarily handle it. Yet, if the classes don’t take place, how will the teachers be paid?

…whenever we venture into the world as travellers, our capacity for wonder, engagement, and growth is directly related to the capacity of our hearts.

Don George in his introduction to Better Than Fiction 2

Today, in the middle of doing yoga, I paused and reflected on the battles I am facing, and the battles that other people are facing around me. It occurred to me that now more than every I need to be clear about what my priorities are.

When you prioritise some things, you have to also deprioritise others

Painfully and achingly, what keeps getting deprioritised is my pride. I’m from a family who rarely admits anything’s wrong and often don’t have a clue how to ask for help when they need it. I am coming to believe that this is partially because they don’t recognise when they need help. We are a family of highly proud people.

And yet I do not have a single plan that doesn’t include a need to ask for and accept help. I am unable to pull myself together and manage independently. You would have thought I’d have learnt this enough times going through my dependent, can barely look after myself phase when I was in therapy, completely reliant on my parents. But no. It seems my dependency is something I must continue to learn.

What I love about travel is how it shows me a different way of living

I’m thrown into situations where I need help. Frequently I have little idea what’s going on and rely on the help from people who barely know me. The other day a Japanese friend brought me a gift of chocolates, face masks, hand sanitizer and sterilizing fluid. It is a simple gift, but thoughtful and well timed. Since at some point I’m going to have to travel a quarter of the way around the world in the midst of a pandemic, I will be needing what he’s given.

The more conversant and comfortable you can be with your emotions, the richer your experience of life will be, and the more capable you will be of forgiving.

Archbishop Desmond TuTu and Reverand Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (read more on forgiveness)

Humility is not my natural guise

Admitting that I’m overwhelmed by this situation and the uncertainty that I now face isn’t easy for me. I can get angry about it, but the greater fear is that getting back on my feet and have a foundation that I can be proud of, is going to require an awful lot of asking for help. It’s humbling seeing person after person reach out and offer me assistance.

I sit here writing, listening to the neighbour practising his guitar

A close friend told me that I have to remember that although I don’t know what will happen in the months to come, what I know is that right now, I am in Chile, and I’m in the place I want to be. Maybe it won’t last, but I have to remember that today exists and I need to remember to live it.

Brené Brown writes that we can choose courage or we can choose comfort. I think she’s wrong. I believe that comfort comes when we trust that we have the courage to do what is necessary. My discomfort, I believe, comes not from my courage, but from my fear that I don’t have the courage to do what is necessary.

I can be a good, kind and generous person without necessarily being independent. Ain’t that a shocking idea?

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El Coronel

The towers of San Gimignano
Tuscany, Italy, May 2018
On route to learning… Spanish.

A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.

On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.

As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.

I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.

“Perfect, we can talk in English.”

They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.

In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.

Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.

I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.

Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.

But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.

When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…

The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.

I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.

I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.

So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.

In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.

Reading it seemed like an impossible task.

Today, nearly two years later, I finished it.

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