Today, I am braving the storage unit with everything I left in the US when moving to Chile for "a year" then hoping to end the day with some celebratory surfing and tacos. Watching all of my old Libros a Lobitos and travel slideshows with students at my old High School yesterday was such a blast. I didn´t get to play this one so I wanted to share it with all of you. It is one of my favorite videos and really favorite things of all times. It still gives me goosebumbs. These kids elected to study English with me TWO HOURS a day, FIVE DAYS a week for two months. They are such motivated, energetic and good-hearted young people and working with them fills my life with more joy than I ever could have imagined.
Big thanks to Tom Chadwick for this video! You are a beautiful human and wonderful filmmaker. I miss you, friend and I miss these kiddos too.
Today´s post goes out to Nicholas
Michael Bourassa: a good friend and neighbor who left us six months ago today.
It was already a heavy week when
the news of his death reached me. The aunt of one of my best friends in
Peru had recently been killed and I had spent the majority of the week prior in
Talara sitting through burial preparations, family arrivals from Lima and all
of the various stages and formalities of a Catholic funeral. I mostly
just lingered around waiting for Luchito to have a spare second when we could
steal him away from the sadness for a few moments of laughter and an empanada
or two. Later, he would thank us for
being the only glimmers of hope and happiness in the wake of the most shocking
and traumatic loss his family had ever suffered.
On that particular day, I had spent the majority
of my afternoon running around Talara trying to hunt down lice shampoo and
popcorn kernals in 100-degree weather.
Nico texted me to tell me that he and Emi had nabbed the last two spots
in the combi so I knew I´d be cutting it close in terms of getting back to
Lobitos before the kids´ film festival. Somewhere
between my lice treatment and running down to L.C.P. headquarters to make palomitas
for 100 kids in a pan that was comically small, I checked into my facebook and
found a message from Jeff. He had sent
me a link to an article in an Orange County newspaper. I clicked it to read a vague description of a
young man who was fatally injured after being hit by a car on the freeway. I barely had time to process it between the
ticking clock and my itchy head so I shouted goodbye to Mari and ran out the
door to find Emi and get ready for the event.
As we stood over the tiny gas stove
in her kitchen, already popping batch five or six out of a dozen or so pans of
popcorn, I told Emi that I had recently gotten word that a good friend from
college had passed away. Her shock overshadowed
mine. Between scratching our heads and
finding the humor in the horror of having contracted head lice for the first
time in our adults lives, we shared a somber moment for sad news sent from far
away…a reality we both know all too well.
The film festival was a hit. As usual, any stress or sadness I was feeling
was squeezed out of my lungs by the hugs of many beautiful little friends. All mental energy was channeled into
entertaining them, distributing snacks and preventing the event from erupting into
total and complete chaos. An impromptu
game of duck, duck goose (pato, pato, ganso) kept them entertained long enough
to clean up after the event and we even managed to keep them (mostly) quiet
long enough for Nico to introduce the videos.
When the crowd thinned out, I
headed up to La Casona where my girlfriends had gathered to have a few
beers. I wasn´t up for it. I hadn´t eaten all day and hunger and sadness
were starting to creep in. I snuck off towards
the only store that was still open to buy a massive bag of fried banana
chips. As the grease settled into my
stomach, I stomped on thorns and wandered in the direction of the sea. I kicked off my flip-flops and let my feet
carry me to the water. I flopped down to
my knees at the shoreline and let myself cry.
I gave myself up to whatever it was that I was feeling: confusion, anger,
hunger and overwhelming loss.
Everything felt surreal; I had
never felt the presence of death all around me as much as I did during those weeks. It seemed like all of my expat girlfriends had
also gotten unexpected news of freak deaths from home. One of the sweetest men I know had recently
run over and killed my best friend's puppy after a particularly rowdy Corrazón
Serrano concert and, back in Lakeside, my own family was torn up after the
sudden death of my nephew's 20 year-old cousin who was killed in a car crash in
Hemit just ten days before.
I looked up at the gorgeous night
sky at a billion stars that stared down at me, unpolluted by city lights. I gave myself the time to think about Nick
and our big back porch at Gustafson apartments. There, we shared war stories
and confessions over Sierra Nevada Pale Ales.
The porch connected our two little apartments which we shared with our
respective partners. We wandered out when we needed to and sat on the steps for
fresh air, perspective and cigarettes.
The back yard was filled with raccoons, the smell of orange blossoms and
ferel cats. Though we were a strange little
community, we always had each other’s backs.
Together, we protected our apartment
bike rack from theft (the number one crime in Chico, California). Joe's moms warded off the evil spirits with
some kind of séance ritual, the smoke of which was visible from our perch on the porch steps. Mattie did his part to feed Orangey who had
been abandoned by her alcoholic mother Paula when she was dragged off to rehab. Being the nurturing soul he was, he felt it was
only fair after he had lucked out and scored an apartment so close to two of
his best friends.
Nick and I kept our cats (Nico and Gizmo) indoors in our respective apartments, away from the perils of Chico alley cat life. When I
shipped out to Chile, I left Jeff in Nick's care. They became gym buddies, pizza partners and
eventually, best friends.
Nick was no stranger to death. After serving in Iraq, he knew it well. He showed me the scars left on his flesh by
roadside bombs and talked about the deaths of his comrades casually. The only thing that really got him teary-eyed
was talking about his little girl Melanie, who he didn't get to see as often as
he would have liked to. He was honest
and sincere, tough but not too tough to admit his mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Ironically our friendship actually began with an apology.
A few days ago, I found a photo of the program from his funeral on his facebook. It reads,
"To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die."
Be it a hard pill to swallow that a
twenty-five year old veteran’s “time to die” was on the side of an Orange County freeway, crushed by a reckless driver, fairness was never something that
death took into consideration. Be it by
way of cancer, stroke, shark attack, old age, parachutes that don't open or grenades thrown through bedroom
windows, death isn't something that is earned or deserved. It just is.
As you may have noticed, I am on a
bit of a Passenger kick these days and I thought today would be a good day to
dedicate this song to Nick, a man who understood that life is for living. I hope you will all take five minutes to
listen to the lyrics of this song and let them sink in. At the risk of sounding both morbid and cliché,
we really don't know which day will be our last so make sure you're doing
things right, saying what you need to say and living and loving with all you've got. Do it for the ones that aren't here
anymore to do it themselves.
RIP Nicky boy, we love you man.
"Well grey clouds wrapped round the town like elastic
Cars stood like toys made of Taiwanese plastic
The boy laughed and danced around in the rain
While laundrettes cleaned clothes, high heals rub toes
Puddles splashed huddles of bus stop crows
Dressed in their suits and their boots, they all look the same
I took myself down to the cafe to find all the boys lost in books and crackling vinyl
And I carved out a poem above the urinal that read:
believe in messages from the universe in the same gentle, curious way that she
did. Still, in that moment, I tried to
listen for one. My devout agnosticism
allowed for neither belief nor disbelief in anything. Sometimes I was smug about it; feeling
exalted above the need for false security and “absolute truth”. Sometimes, it was exhausting.
“El universo es sabio,” my expat
girlfriends told me borrowing from a variety of different clichés and languages
-- the universe is wise. “Everything
happens for a reason.”
was a chink in my armor that allowed me to entertain the idea. I try not to linger too long near the doors
of churches in moments like these. There
is something about the things you allow to touch you when your guard is down.
incredulousness wasn´t reserved for conversations on religion. It also extended to modern medicine as a
whole and, with more tangible reason, to the medical system in the small
Peruvian village where I´d chosen to carve out a home. The pain was bad, but the nearest clinic was
not only a hassle to get to, but offered little hope of resolution. I ruled it
out almost immediately though I was vaguely enticed by the promise of strong,
easily-accessible painkillers, illegal in the country I had left behind.
friend from Lima would laugh at me over cervezas and ceviche about the route
that I had chosen to take. “Fucking
gringos,” he would say if though my decision was typical of my kind. His reaction was fair enough, I suppose. I couldn´t keep a straight face through the
story myself and as soon as the word “brujo”
(shaman or wizard) escaped my lips, the table erupted into laughter.
As I walked
home from dinner through the chilly desert night, I thought back to the
so-called “brujo” who had pushed on
the back of my head in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit. In my mind, I had neatly labeled
him as a chiropractor. Still, in his
own, the work he did was irrevocably tied to God´s. It made it hard to maintain the secular little
bubble I so wished to confine him to.
After a few
minutes of pressing his fingers deep into my shoulder blade, he paused. He left his hand cupped a few inches from my
head, presumably to stop my soul from spilling over. Moving his hands over a few inches, he went
back to work. Something cracked deep in
my neck and a gaggle of goose bumps flew south down my spine. He slipped softly from the room. I could hear his kind voice from the other
side of the door. “Está durmiendo,” he said—she´s sleeping. I wasn´t.
softened to meet his and their conversation slid under the door into the tiny room
which was barely wider than the cot that supported my wilted body.
come to the brujo with burdens of her own and her hopes that he could help her
seemed to be higher than my own faith that he would put an end to my two weeks
of migraines. Her man, she said, could
not be brought to God. I wondered if the
problem was really his lack of faith or its perceived connection to his lack of
with the machismo reality in which we existed, the latter seemed, to me, the
most probable. I understood her
desperation intimately. I did know a few
honest men who had seemingly been kept honest by religion here. Far more common, however, were contradictions
definitively not unique to this corner of the world. Splattered across the windows of every
motorcycle taxi and family restaurant in town, God was flaunted ostentatiously but
seemingly absent from day-to-day dealings.
The incessant cycle of sin, repent, sin, repent was as deeply ingrained
as the other rituals rarely questioned in Catholic country. It dribbled out of
the churches and into the Peruvian men we were trying so hard to love, or not to.
that was his answer for her; simple and precise. Instead, she held me. Tiptoeing into the room where I lay, she
hovered over me and draped her arms across my bare back. Hot
tears trickled from my pounding head into my ears and I wanted nothing more
than to run. I wanted to run to the
place that felt closest to home here, so far from my own. I longed to sit in his earthen-floored living
room. I ached
for the familiar smell of his mother´s cooking and the resolute way his father
talked about God. I cautiously toyed
with the notion of prayer and how nice it must be to have a one-size-fits-all
remedy for everything. I knew that I was
playing with fire, even just thinking
day, the migraine intensified, just as the brujo said it would. The world around me blurred and pulsed to the
rhythm of my beating head. I strained my
eyes trying to find beauty in the reality I had chosen. The distinct life I had carved out on this
seemingly randomly selected speck on the map made increasingly less sense. At the end of a long day, I collapsed into a
puddle of pain, exhaustion and doubt.
morning, the clouds parted. Once again, I
had the necessary headspace to grapple with the uncertainty of the
unknowable. Once again, everything was
equally as likely as it was unlikely. God
was everywhere, and nowhere. The pain
I didn´t believe in messages from the universe in the same gentle, curious way that she did. Still, in that moment, I tried to listen for one.
Silhouetted by the skeletons of old fishing boats, now
put out to pasture, gulls squawk and ferrell dogs scrounge for breakfast through
the heaps of garbage that line the coast. The sun is rising on Talara; a city
of few charms.
Thirty minutes down a long dirt road from home in Lobitos, Talara houses the
only large, "Western" (for lack of a better word) grocery store in
the area as well as an expansive fruit/vegetable market, bus station and my
preferred internet café. With time, I have come to view my frequent visits
as a necessary annoyance. The burden can usually be softened with some
special treats fromPlaza Vea, fun
school supplies for my English classes and perhaps a tamale and beer fromCocoro's. Today's trip
affords no such luxuries.
Sandwiched between a sleepless night and a full day of teaching, a six am drop-off
at Talara's EPPO Station was less than ideal. Regardless, when Moises brought
the car around to pick him up, I couldn´t say goodbye. Instead, I threw myself
in the back seat like an extra piece of luggage.
"You've never seen this place without Jackson, have you?" Seth
had asked me a few days before. I hadn't.
"To be honest," he said, "it's exactly the same. People come for a while and then they fuck
off. You'll get used to it."
I was only a third of the way through my one-year work contract then and Seth
was just a few months shy of finishing his. Jackson had just completed the
longest volunteer stay in the history of the development organization we worked for; six
months in total. Over the last four, he had become one of my best friends and
an integral part of my life in Lobitos. It was the first, but not last,
significant goodbye I would have to say in this town.
Seth wasn't wrong. Here, “despedidas” come in such abundance that
they rarely mean much anymore. At the
time, I couldn´t imagine my Lobitos life without one of the people who had
become so ingrained in it. Now, the
constant shuffle of employees and volunteers that have come in to and out of my
life over the past year is a virtual blur.
I´ve seen four members of our tiny team arrive and four others leave, abruptly. With less than one year in
Peru, I am currently the longest-standing international staff member on site.
I've seen well over a hundred
volunteers pass through the organization.
I've lived with them, cooked with them, dined with them, worked with
them, surfed with them and said goodbye to them. Each time, the deck is shuffled again
and a new hand of friends is dealt.
With it, comes a new soundtrack, a new routine, new recipes, new jokes
and new values.
last few months have been sprinkled with a handful of goodbyes that were
particularly hard to swallow. Tied to fond memories and paths that vow to cross
again, theyprotrude from a bleak
backdrop of a dozen meaningless ones. A
fresh batch under my belt, I am reminded of another conversation that I had
with Seth, many months later.
nostalgia is an illusion,” he interrupted as I started to wax poetic about some
false notion of the “good old days”. We
were sharing a few beers on the tree swing at La Casona and looking out over
the ocean. Life here, he reminded me,
has always been a constant cycle of adjusting, recalculating and scrambling to
pick up the pieces.
In the span of six months, I watched every member of the
staff that received me upon my arrival to Lobitos as they packed up and left
town. Between the four of them, they had
taught me almost all of the simple, but important, things about daily life here. They taught me when to take public
transportation, how to pump water and where the vicious street dogs hang out. They taught me how to avoid being eaten alive
by mosquitos, how to light the oven and how to coax coffee out of a
particularly fickle espresso machine. They
taught me a lot of the big things too. It
was largely through my conversations with them that I came to understand what
we were moving towards, what we were fighting for.
At times, I still find myself clinging to the memory,
though perhaps partially flawed, of a team that marched together triumphantly
towards a common set of goals. I remember each individual blow as that train
was repeatedly derailed by one unexpected despedida
after another. As the cliché goes, the only thing that has been constant is
change. Ironically, it can also be
summarized succinctly with a classic Tali-ism: adapt or die. There
were times when the latter seemed all but inevitable.
Now I find that
reminiscence comes in a variety of flavors. Sometimes it curls up
the hole left by a particular person´s departure. It's the caffeine
headache around noon because your standing coffee date is gone
now. It's the lazy feeling of rolling out of bed late now that your
solid dawn patrol crew has been broken up. It's the guitar
collecting dust now that Tom isn't there to play Shins covers, Seth isn't
singing Bob Dylan songs and Jackson isn't incessantly strumming the four chords
that make up the chorus of “Fast Car”.
There are times
when I miss the naivety that once allowed me to feel like I was part of
something solid; secure, stable. Luckily stability comes from other sources. I find it in the tranquility of small-town
life. I find it in my relationships with the amazing people here and
even long-distance from loved ones elsewhere.
I find beauty in a lifestyle that allows for days filled with surfing,
ceviche, sunsets, good chats with Zoe and hugs from small children. I find comfort in feeling one step closer to finally
figuring out what I want to be when I grow up.
I find hope in the knowledge that dovetailing interests and paralleling
good intentions will continue to spark group synergy. Wonderful people will continue to find their way here and happy things
will continue to happen.
weren´t. In fact, only two hours had
passed since I had silently asked my imaginary travel companion the same
question. I was anxious; squirming in my luxurious 160º reclining Exclusiva bus
seat. I wanted to be home. Fourteen hours and seven “are we there yet?”s later, I finally was. My
twenty-hour bus ride from Lima was followed by a quick moto-taxi transfer and
thirty minute combi which finally dropped me at my door.
was in virtual shambles. The long, white tiled hallway was caked with mud and
every dish in the entire kitchen appeared to be dirty and piled by
the sink. “You must be Alicia,” said the unfamiliar face at the table. She was
Michelle; one of the new staff that started during my three-week vacation to
of water,” she informed me. I smiled, settling back into the realities of life
in Lobitos. She also told me that all of the other volunteers and staff were
down at the point, doing the last of the winter vacation kids‘ surf
classes. I was off. I kicked my shoes into my room which was
exactly how I´d left it, only covered with a thick layer of fresh dirt. I dashed down to the beach, taking full
advantage of the carefully cultivated callouses that now cover and protect my
feet after four mostly-barefoot months in this town.
Aliiiiiiiiiiiiicccccccccccciiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” Half a dozen
wetsuited children swarmed me the instant my toes hit the sand. Their tiny arms latched onto my legs and soon
I was enveloped in a big, wet group hug.
The water was filled with familiar faces; coworkers, long-term
volunteers, Lobiteño friends and all of the usual surf class kiddos.
ones were taking off on considerably bigger waves then I´d ever seen them catch
before. A stupid grin plastered to my face, I even let the kids talk me into
jumping in for a (fully dressed) swim. I
figured it was the closest I was going to get to a shower after a long day of
travel, considering our current water situation back at the house.
knew it, I had been roped into playing personal assistant to Adriana; a sassy seven
year-old with a healthy fear of the ocean.
It was her first surf class and she was clinging on to my neck for dear
life. We soon had our routine worked
out. I would crouch down in the water so that we were both up to our chins then
spring to my feet each time a small wave rolled in towards us. She would
shriek, presumably in some combination of delight and terror. Then, after the wave had safely passed by, we
would burst into laughter and nestle down into the calm waters again.
I had allotted myself a few days in Lima prior to my
arrival in Lobitos. My hope was that this pitstop would
lighten the load of the fourty-three hours of travel from Los Angeles to Lobitos and provide
for a bit of time and space to process a heavy trip home. It didn´t. The first twenty-three-hour leg of the journey had
wiped me out pretty bad and melancholy backdrop of a Limanean winter didn´t do
much for lifting my spirits. That isn´t to say that it was all bad. I had a chance
to meet up with a few different friends during my short stay and chat to some
interesting people in the hostel. I wandered through city streets, spent lots
of time snuggled up in the kid´s section of bookstores (for research purposes) and
met up with an old co-worker for the first night of his Peruvian despedida.
Surf class was over. Seth´s voice barreled down the beach, “A LA CASA!” Heeding
the words of their beloved surf instructor, the “niños” ran to shore and
climbed in the back of the trusty burro (the trailer towed by the WAVES´ motorcycle).
I stayed back for a moment, watching the chaos from afar. The warm Lobitos sun
on my face, I lowered my head back into the cool water and smiled, looking up at
the perfect, cloudless sky. It´s good
to be home.
The singing voices of twenty-five small children fill the
dimly lit classroom.Most of the kids
are holding hands in a large circle.They are jumping up and down wildly and chanting the new rhyme that they
have learned in today’s English class.
With each repetition of the song, I change things up and try
to make it even more fun and ridiculous than the last version.The students started the class sitting at
their tables (which are conveniently painted to match the four colors mentioned
in the song) and touching each color as we sang about it.Then, we got to our feet and sang along to a
little dance that involves lots of clapping, drumming on our legs and shaking
our heads around like lunatics (the latter is obviously their favorite).Now we’ve moved up to the front of the class
to form our big group circle.Holding
hands seems to be helping keep the kids together and minimizing the chaos.
In the three-year-old room, keeping everyone engaged and on
task is no easy feat.Not only is this only
our third English class of the year, but they also lack general experience in
the classroom since it is just their second month of school.Despite my best efforts to round everyone up,
there are still a few kids who haven’t quite made it yet.
Luckily, I have the help of a WAVES volunteer, as well as
the students’ regular teacher during my two weekly classes.This gives me the freedom to concentrate on the
students who are on task while my helpers work on integrating the stragglers
into the larger group or working with them individually, if needed.
Kristin, my volunteer for the day, also helps me later in
the class when we go around the room and evaluate the students
individually.They are very excited
because, after correctly identifying the color of each item, each child is
given a paper bracelet, some stickers and a small piece of candy.
Sometimes, the rewards for repeating a word or arriving at a
correct answer are even more simple. Although, like
any group of three year olds, they spend a good part of their day playing in
the dirt and picking their noses, handshakes have become a staple in the classroom. When I saw how much excitement this simple gesture evoked during our first few class, I put aside my urges to dip the kids in a large vat of Lysol and started using handshakes as one of our primary sources of positive reinforcement. Pair that with a few simple words of affirmation (in English) and you're golden...germs be damned!
Although I have quite a bit of experience with kids, this is the youngest group I've ever worked with and it continues to present new challenges and personal learning opportunities. Their unbridled enthusiasm and endless energy make them a pleasure to work with and the fact that they're just stinking adorable doesn't hurt either.