Monday, October 28, 2013

Cochabamba


I live in a place called Cochabamba. Some of my friends from home call it 'bamba and some people here call it Cocha. This city, like everything about Bolivia to me, holds a wonderful sense of deja vu. There is something familiar here that contrasts so much with the novelty of Spain I felt only a few years ago.

Malaga was frivolity, ruffled fun, idle days, constant travel plans, a omnipresent sense of disbelief and an insatiable, hungry restlessness. Bolivia is a calm sense of real life, o sea, how life should be. 

My first love in a lot of ways, Spain had the effect of turning me into the eager, passionate and solipsistic adorer. I loved intensely and sometimes blindly because it was the first place I'd lived out of home, the first language I'd ever learned, the first time I travelled by myself and so many other novelties.

Bolivia, en cambio, has grown on me slowly and naturally. There is none of the butterflies, the surreal feeling that this is not my life, the hyperreality of being child-like again. It is the casual way I came to know this city and build a life here that reminds me of how far I've come from the glassy eyed kid I was when I boarded that plane almost three years ago.

It's true you associate places you've lived and cities you've loved with people who hold your heart and the person you were when you were there. Spain will always be a time capsule of a giant first love. Bolivia has turned out to be a reminder of how far I've come and how a second love, in the shadow of the first, may not be as big an explosion but will burn longer, illuminate more and leave you not dumb-founded but fully awake in its warmth.

To Cochabamba, to Malaga, to Sydney - to all the places you can love and all the ones that may come afterwards.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Everyday Bolivia

Some mornings when I least expect it I am woken up by the Bolivian 'call to prayer' - Pa-pa-ya, pi├▒aaaaaa, pla-ta-nooooooo. A coffee coloured man selling yellow, orange and green fruit from a cart along my street. His voice stretches the words in deep nasal bellows that make the words sound foreign and almost incomprehensible.

On my way to work I walk past the university students, mostly my height, my skin colour, my hair colour. In contrast to my sun dresses and statement necklaces and feather earrings their uniform, despite the heat, is defiantly jeans and t-shirts. The girls have their proud manes of hair and the boys wear their short cuts styled according to their chosen 'look'. They stare at me back, noting the confusing combination of my coquettish show of legs and the boyish hair.

The micro is always interesting. It is a bus about half the size of the ones at home but twice as fun, owing largely to its red chinese-new year style paint job and interior poster pastiches of Che, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and random half naked American pop stars. I open the window despite the influx of car exhaust and dust and watch as the nicely lawned, if unevenly paved, Cochabamba centre becomes a little less trim the more kilometres we pass by on Avenida Blanco Galindo.

Cholitas hurry on with their babies on their back or toddlers in a vice-like grip in their hands, their colourful swags filled with goods they'll be selling that day. Yesterday the seat in front of me was graffiti'd with the words 'Evo Morales, Indio Culo' - referencing Bolivia's president 'Evo Morales - Indian/Indigenous Ass'. The micro music is never a varied selection and usually consists of my children's favourite songs with lyrics entirely inappropriate for six year olds. This makes up my everyday.

The first few months I was here I held an ambivalent curiosity towards my host city and country. I was interested in losing myself in it, escaping into the surface of a place and floating ignorantly on top as so many ex patriates do - and at once I had an almost ubiquitous feeling that I should be seeking out the heart of not only the city, the country but this continent. This continent of guerilla warfare and puppet governments, mythical revolutionaries and everyday coups, of poets turned presidential candidates and extensive pre-spanish empires that still baffle historians.

My everyday life has been my kindergarten education on Bolivia. I snatch glimpses into the poverty that skirts at the edge of La Cancha - the giant open air market that sells everything from baby chickens to hard drives. I furrow my brows with failed understanding when I hear comments from Bolivians I work with and have met who drop lines like 'There are too many indigenous people in Bolivia' and 'Before Evo Bolivia was completely united as a country'. I steal instagram shots of the political graffiti, laugh at the homage of Che Guevera in the main Plaza and follow the recent protest of mainly indigenous Bolivians through the main streets of Cochabamba.

As a foreigner in any country there are many puzzles you could choose to figure out. Some only arrive at familiarity - a favourite cafe frequented on weekends, a vendor of strawberries where you have planted your loyalty. Yet there are always other more complicated puzzles to make sense of, ones whose shapes and patterns might not be apparent at first; kaleidoscopes whose rainbow colours serve to distract from the harsh angles and warring pieces of society, of history, of politics, of race and class that signify something more than a beautiful escape for a foreigner if they were willing to see more than the surface.

Four and a half months into my stay here and I am finally begin to scratch, to dig, to see what I was perhaps too busy enjoying myself to care about initially. This remarkable city that brought down a transnational company, this country whose president so cheekily and sincerely gives the finger to the USA, and this continent that breathes heavily and fiery in a way that I can't believe I have only just begun to pay attention to. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

You are still here


Youth is such a good liar. It tells you that things will last forever, that you will always look like this, that you will always feel this way, that you will live forever. But you don't - although youth doesn't let you believe that. Life in general does a good job of distracting you from the point where forever ends.

Death on the other hand has a sure fire way of reminding you at breakneck speed how sharp that point can be. Every time somebody I know passes away I am suddenly, cruelly, throbbingly aware that I am alive and that they are not. Being truly alive is an almost death - one that is not your own, or one that could have been your own; a too close encounter, an almost, a could have been. Your veins pump searing hot adrenaline that burns the thought I am still here, I am still here on your mind.

And that is the only truth sometimes. Everything else cannot be trusted. I think of all the people I know that are no longer. How their memories and words and laughs live on in photographs framed on bedside tables and flowers laid too quietly on the ground. The photographs I have are not precious enough to be framed, I have never had to lay flowers on the ground.

So I think of those who I am scared to be alive without. I think of all the parents of friends who aren't around anymore to embarrass them on facebook or worry if they're feeding themselves okay and combing their hair before they leave the house. And I remember my parents are here still to like everything I do on facebook and worry if I'm feeding myself okay and combing my hair before I leave the house (Yes I get fed Dad, No mum I don't comb my hair). I think of class mates and neighbours and people I barely knew or not at all who were my age. I think of their parents who never had and never will have the chance to do that. I think of how their kids will never be older than thirteen, seventeen, too young, too soon. I think, I know, I feel how alive I am - how alive everybody is in my life.

Because that is it and I don't ever want to forget it. The YOLO people have it wrong, I'm with Moliere - 'We die only once, and for such a long time'. But we're here now and that is it and that's all we have, that's all I have. To be here even if it burns you, even if it makes you sick, even if you are here and alive and somebody else is not. To be here, to live, to know what that means.

You're still here,
You are still here,
You still are,
You are here. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Up Up and Away

Last week I went paragliding. I've always had dreams of flying, swimming in the open air like a seal rather than a bird. Doing tricks and spinning round and moving my arms in big goofy strokes to get higher to the clouds or closer to the ground. While I was up there all I wanted was my instructor to shut up for a second with the small talk so I could just let my mind float away the same way my body seemed to be. Weightless. A part of the wind and so far away from the grid of life below my feet. I could have stayed up there forever.

When you're in your own world it becomes hard to see anything outside of what you're living. Sometimes you forget there is more to life than what you're living day to day. Our minds are hardwired for autopilot, to cruise along without learning how to drive stick shift, without being able to control where we're going or remember where that was exactly. That's how I get sometimes.

I forget how awesome my problems are, how great the mess that is my life is. I forget how much I love that mess and making that mess and how beautiful and brilliant messiness can be. I get so absorbed in the automatic instinct that I should be cleaning up, putting things in their place and making life tidy and resolved that I don't take a second to let myself enjoy it - the knocking things over, breaking rules, the incompleteness and uncertainty and playfulness of being alive. I forget how much better everything looks when you're floating above it, when you let the mess zoom out beneath you and melt from jagged pieces that don't fit to some abstract pool of dotted art.

Being up so high is addictive because you see everything. You see that there are far worse things in the world than what you are immediately feeling, than being indecisive, insecure, confused. You point out your problems from the air like a signpost on a map and see how easily you can get from A to B to the lightning bolt realisation that Your Problems are Problems People Would Kill For. They are where they should be, firmly beneath your feet. It's so easy to lose perspective and it may just have taken jumping off a mountainside to remind me to shut the fuck up sometimes and just enjoy the process.