Two years ago, mad with the rush of finishing my undergraduate degree and thirsty for travel, I bought my tickets to South America. It was an early christmas present to myself, a kind of spur of the moment decision to buy them so soon. I should have waited until it was closer to the departure but I couldn't, I needed a destination, a set date, a goal. Seven months later I flew direct from Sydney to Buenos Aires.
I didn't cry at the airport saying goodbye to my family just as I had not years before, saying goodbye on my way to Spain. I knew the tears would come when I was not expecting them at some unknown, later date. And they did. They came saying goodbye to too many friends. People with whom I lived, came home from work to share my day with, sat across from the breakfast table bleary-eyed, went out with for beers and danced in one of Cochabamba's dirty discotecas until the fifth hour replay of the same hottest 100 from 2009 was done.
When I think about the sheer quantity and quality of people I've known this past year and a half it takes every bit of my concentration to try and remember them all and how much each one has meant to me. Sincerely the best class of people one could ever hope to meet. There was no real pattern in their personalities, their backgrounds, their interests. The only criteria that they be of the sort that would come to Bolivia to live for a while.
My heart feels physically crushed by the mass of affection I hold for all of them. The nostalgia of it all. Bolivia's borders will always contain for me this tribe of strange souls with whom I have drank chicha, danced at k'oas, climbed mountains and had picnics. I have said most of my goodbyes already, almost always being the one who stayed behind. There are few people I know now who keep on in Cochabamba, most off in their 'real world' lives again all over the world.
Thinking about home now is a startling dream. Sometimes I am soothed by the thought of pristine toilets you can flush toilet paper down and don't have to pay for. Other times I am horrified at the thought of how sterile it will all seem, too clean, too nice as if I was in an amusement park. Writing this in Argentina I am already half way there - they have shopping centres here, standardised taxis and girls resembling exactly those in Sydney wearing shoes that my sister assures me are in fashion. From the supposed third world to the first. I feel somehow that I am going from the turbulent, unforgiving ocean to the clean waters of a fishbowl. I am trading the gritty and raw for the polished and deliberate. I cannot tell which is the dream and which the nightmare.
Dramatic is the word that comes to mind when I read those sentences over again, yet it doesn't stop the force of what I feel. There is a marked difference in the daily standards of living where the average person earns just over a hundred dollars a month to a country where that is earned in a matter of hours. I am caught in a confusion of what that means to me and why. I like the in your face grittiness of Bolivia, it is unrelenting in its quest to make you humble. Look how lucky you are, it whispers. You cannot forget, in a country whose people fight for literally everything, that you come from a country very much on the other side of many of those struggles.
In Australia, like most 'developed' countries, the message is different. Look at all the things you can have or watch or eat or drink or be. And the humility is obscured, sectioned off to dark corners and the occasional documentary or charity fundraiser. It is easy to forget that these worlds are one in the same, that they are in fact connected in a myriad of very real ways. The lithium mined in Bolivia goes into our smart phones and laptops. The silver that adorns many of Europe's churches has a long and sordid history of extraction in what is now one of Bolivia's poorest departments.
Though it's not all bad news designed to make you feel guilty. One is not Cinderella and the other the less attractive but better off stepsister. Bolivia has its own set of problems, just as we have Tony Abbott. Having spent the last year and a half trying to discern whether I was or could be happy and fulfilled on this stunningly enormous continent the conclusion is that it all comes down to two things. I came to realise that if I had a solid reason to get up in the morning, a purpose as well as being part of a community of people whose company I enjoyed and who supported me - I could live anywhere, be anywhere, be happy.
My problem in Bolivia was that my community kept leaving and I missed the one I had back home. My purpose, working in community development in Cochabamba, kept me challenged. There were certainly days where I questioned the difference I was making, my capabilities and qualifications but I am a strong believer that actually, work is a huge, rewarding and necessary part of life. Despite fanciful throw away conversations about being a traveling hippy who sells feather-earrings for a living to finance my pot habit and circus pants, the hard yards are necessary ones.
And so. Here we are. Close to the end, the home coming. Apart from all the intense mind-racking that has fallen sideways into the words above, the most primal part of me is simply craving my own bed and thai food. Yes, of course I have also imagined my arrival at Sydney airport at the embrace by my oddly bolivian looking tribe/family but it pales in comparison to how much I have so exquisitely imagined my homecoming meal that when it actually comes to it, it will probably be the unseen moment where the flood gates will open. The Pad see ew will be the thing that breaks the camel's back. So maybe I'll amend that list of things I need to live anywhere and add food that isn't potatoes and rice to the list.