Thursday, June 11, 2015

Let´s See How Far We´ve Come...

music: let's see how far we've come (matchbox 20)

When you start losing hope in where you going,
look back to see how far you have come.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The World´s Greatest

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.

They are hands-down, the world's greatest.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

To Everything, There is a Season...

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: 

Don’t you cry for the lost 
Smile for the living 
Get what you need and give what you’re given 
Life’s for the living so live it..."

Sunday, February 1, 2015


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.  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.”

Perhaps it 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.

My 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.

Later, a 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. 

Her voice 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. 

She had 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 faithfulness.

Familiar 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.

Hold him, 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 it.

The next 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.

In the 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 was gone.

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.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Here, Nostalgia is an Illusion

Photo by: Aino Huotari

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 from Plaza Vea, fun school supplies for my English classes and perhaps a tamale and beer from Cocoro'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. 

The 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, they protrude 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.

“Here, 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.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Coming Home to Lobitos

“Are we there yet?” I said to no one. 

No, we 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.

The house 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 the states.

“We´re out 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.

“Miss 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. 

The little 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.   

Before I 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

VAMOS NIÑOS!” 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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Little Mocos

“Red, Rojo
Red, Rojo

Verde, Green
Verde, Green

Amarillo, Yellow
Amarillo, Yellow

Azul, Blue
Azul, Blue”

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.

“Reeeed, Rojo
Reeeeeeeed, Rojo

Verde, Greeeeeeen
Verde, Greeeeeeeeeeen

Amarillo, YEH-LOW
Amarillo, YEH-LOW

Azul, Bluuuuuuuue
Azul, Bluuuuuuuuuuue”

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.