Risk Assessment

Blogging is narcissistic, but check out my new bruise!

Risk assessment. That was the second thing I thought when I suddenly found myself sprawled out on a white sidewalk the other night. My self-sacrificing hand, scraped and scuffed somehow on both sides, just barely saved my face from unwanted intimacy with the concrete.

The first thing I thought was, Has it happened to you yet? A question posed to me one day by a running companion after she tripped on a tree root, but caught herself in a deep lunge, masterfully avoiding a tumble to the ground. I remembered her question the other night as I rolled myself over, sitting up slowly, examining my skinned knee, searching for some kind of culprit in the pavement.

She was from Chicago. A strong, decisive, I-get-what-I-want kind of woman who discovered a lump in her breast at the age of thirty and opted for a double mastectomy. That’s risk assessment right there. I was lucky enough to meet her three years ago when we were set up on a blind running date of sorts through three degrees of separation. Or maybe four. It was unlikely but it worked out perfectly, like so many good things. She told me that all runners fall, and that it would happen to me sooner or later.

Last year, her haunting words proved true. I tripped and hit the dirt hard while running in a grungy beach town in Peru. Slamming into the ground jostled her words out of hibernation, and they bounced around in my memory. And it’s funny because I think I thought I got it out of the way, like once you fall, you won’t fall again. But that’s seldom the case, as I was reminded the other night when I couldn’t quite figure out how I ended up on the ground yet again – this time on a perfectly paved sidewalk, neatly curving its way through cropped, suburban grass.

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And I was suddenly reminded of risk assessment, and a popular article the New York Times published this summer called, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy.” Something about teenage brains being hypersensitive to rewards, yet not developed enough to accurately assess risk. Which explains a lot. Like the kids I used to work with who would recklessly light things on fire. Some of them had underlying issues, of course, but the majority just thought it would be fun and forgot to stop and think, “Wait, what could go wrong here?”

I understand. I forgot to ask myself that very question when I set out to run in the dark that night. In my defense, I started with good intentions. I dug my headlamp out of a paper bag that has been sitting in my closet since I moved here. I found it cramped beneath Bandaids, old batteries, pens, junk I don’t need but also don’t want to throw out for some reason. But when I switched it on, there was no response. A dead bulb. So I decided to run without it. And it was the first cool night in weeks, so I was flying down that sidewalk, my brain elsewhere, thinking all sorts of pleasant, Peter Pan thoughts, when I was rudely interrupted by the sound of hands high-fiving pavement, knees knocking on a surface with no give.

It appears that running in the dark comes with considerable hazards even in the safest (dullest) neighborhoods in the world. Much like feeling nauseas after riding a rollercoaster, the risks detract from the rewards. And I guess this is how you become an adult. You fall hard, or you crash your car, or you get sick from drinking too much, or you date the wrong guy, and then you learn. You remember the pain and stress involved in your mistake, and make a more informed decision the next time. I contemplated these things as I slowly got up, somberly wiped the dirt off my pants, and decided it might be best to just walk back home.

And as I thought that and asked myself if this means I am now an adult, as I pondered the banality and sadness involved in growing up, my legs started running on their own. They didn’t ask for permission, they just started going. Muscle memory outweighs logic, or Reward sticks its childish tongue out at Risk. And away I went. Back down the road, the breeze in my face, the country sky illuminated by a sliver of moon.

This American Life

Blogging is narcissistic, but so are goats it turns out.

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Goats taking a break from their weed abatement duties

My dull American life is making me have strange dreams. And I like it because the metaphysical me gets to experience surreal adventures, while the physical me must endure the humdrum that comes with living in a small, safe American town.

I am now a high school Spanish teacher, and I like it. I love it actually. I remember a time in which I sealed an intent-to-register check into an envelope to attend Baylor Law School. I remember my brother-in-law, a lawyer, said to me, “You are a creative person. Make sure you do a job that allows you to be creative.” Those are the kind of words that stay with you, like a movie flashback where you hear a faint echo in someone’s advice. Those words were a big influencing factor that pulled me away from law school and propelled me toward Cambodia, then Chile, then travels through South and Central America, and ultimately to a love for the Spanish language and Latin American culture. So rather than becoming a lawyer at the age of 26, I became a Spanish teacher at the age of 29, and I don’t regret a single moment. I don’t regret a single decision, even the really stupid ones that I look back on and think, “Wait, how am I alive right now?” And I get to be creative in my work every day. And teenagers fascinate me, and they say amazing things, and sometimes really offensive things too, but I love it all! Sometimes they’re too cool for me, but other times I catch their attention and I can see it in their eyes, and they ask questions that I never anticipated and it makes me want to put the back of my hand against my forehead and tumble to the ground, damsel-in-distress style. Their sporadic yet intense enthusiasm inspires me. It overwhelms and excites me. These are the things that make you want to be good at your job.

But the town I live in is dull. It used to be a farming community, but is now halfway overtaken by rich Silicon Valley tech families who have built giant, polished homes, all clones of one another, sitting in dry weedy plains or up on top of brown hills. So you get this strange juxtaposition of farmers and software engineers. Tractor meets iPhone.

I don’t really know how to answer the question of what people here do for fun. A middle school student explained to me the other day that she shows goats. That’s actually just what it sounds like. She raises goats, then brings them to these sort of goat-raising competitions where she lines them up and shows them to judges. Part of the competition involves picking the goats up so that they’re standing on their back legs to show off the muscles in their hindquarters. I guess that’s pretty cool. Unique at least. But I don’t know if you can really call examining a goat’s ass fun. Maybe you can. To be fair, I’ve never tried it.

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Not in the least bit camera shy

The closest thing this town has to an art scene comes from weekend concerts in the park, in which families sit out on blankets while their small children scream and run around, and cover bands play, well, covers of the kinds of songs you hear at weddings like “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” But at a wedding everyone is generally too drunk to be bothered. Here, the people who attend the concerts in the park don’t appear to be intoxicated, so I don’t really get it.

Yet while I may be a bit bored in this small town, for whatever reason, my subconscious is having a great time. Last night I had a dream that I was offered to be on a reality TV show in which the mafia (a very cliché Italian mafia complete with chubby men in suits) buys you a plane ticket somewhere, and you just go. You don’t get to ask where you’re going; you just get on a plane, land somewhere random, and survive. So in my dream I got on a plane and landed somewhere dusty, noisy and brown. I went to a public bathroom that was rundown and dirty. Then the mafia guys interviewed me and asked if I could tell where I was based on the toilets. I remember proudly saying, “Well, I know I am not in Europe because the bathrooms don’t have running water.” I remember they were impressed, like that’s something that only a seasoned traveler could tell you. I told them that I guessed I was somewhere in South Asia, to which they responded, “No. Wrong.” It turned out I was in India. I remember thinking, “Those dumb mafia guys don’t even know that India is in South Asia.”

Interestingly, I’ve always imagined India to be the kind of place that would trigger my crowd anxiety. I imagine it to be not only overpopulated but also overrun with tourists of the self-proclaimed enlightened variety. That’s the way everyone always describes it anyway. But in my dream, I loved it, even though I was almost struck by a bus full of people. And now I want to go. Now I wish the reality show from my dreams were a real thing and that I could just get on an airplane sponsored by rich mafia men and land somewhere arbitrary and try to survive.

But my real challenge right now is surviving this small town. Part of the problem is that my brain is still in Peru mode. When I see dogs, for example, domestic and harmless, I freeze up and say things like, “Stay. Don’t come near me.” To which they cock their comical heads, wag their tales, and come near me anyway. Nobody has ever kicked them before. They want to be friends. But my natural response is to panic and desperately call out to their owners, “Is your dog friendly?” People here don’t get that. They think I’m a freak. I always want to justify my seemingly irrational fear by saying, “I just came from somewhere with mean stray dogs.” But people here don’t really care about that either. They never ask follow-up questions anyway.

I’m not about to say that I miss the danger of Trujillo, and I certainly don’t miss the rabid stray dogs, or the noise or the pollution. But I miss the excitement. This town is too groomed. It’s the opposite extreme of my previous location. That’s not to say that there is no danger here, it’s just different. In Trujillo I didn’t like running at night because of the very likely possibility of being kidnapped and assaulted. Here I don’t like running at night because of the very likely possibility of being ravaged by a mountain lion. It’s just different.

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Posted along one of my running trails

This post doesn’t have a real ending because I haven’t reached a solution. I am suspended between adventure and the commonplace, searching for a balance.

Mystery Illness

Blogging is narcissistic, but it’s important to recognize the limits of chocolate as a means of medication.

When I returned to Peru in January after having spent ten days in the US for the holidays, it suddenly occurred to me that I had eighteen weeks left on my contract in Trujillo. And after previously having spent weeks distressed over the limited amount of time I seemed to have left in the magical country – inefficient, unequal, ethnically homogenous, yet full of life; true, gritty, spontaneous, meaningful life – I suddenly felt overwhelmed. Eighteen weeks suddenly seemed a cold, lonely eternity, and every honk of the incessant Peruvian car horn made me all the more anxious. And so I decided to self-medicate with chocolate. I popped open a bag of dark chocolates with almonds that my thoughtful sister gave me to sweeten the remainder of my stay, and counted out eighteen – one for each week. I dropped them one-by-one aptly into an empty vitamin bottle, determined to eat just one on every remaining Friday while south of the equator.

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But only about two days after devising this plan, I started to feel at ease again. Peru started to feel once again like home, the cockroaches stopped bothering me so much, the smog of the city became tolerable – negligible really. But I ate my first chocolate on January 10th anyway. I almost crumpled the wrapper without reading the cheesy message printed inside because I’m kind of tired of Dove suggesting I smile more or follow my heart, but at the last minute, I paused to read the wisdom of the tinfoil, which said, not so inconsequentially, “Happiness is in the heart, not in the circumstances.”

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On the sixth Friday of eighteen, I found myself strangely emotional. As someone who fears routine and sometimes seeks change for the simple sake of change, I ironically started to fear the inevitable date that would cause me to lose what I had in Peru. Things I can’t even really pin down. Some sort of half-hatched egg of a relationship and an ever-evolving yet never complete command of a language, culture and city. I listened to “La vuelta al mundo” and held back tears by means of self-suffocation, holding my breath, saying out loud, “Three whole months! Chill out!” And it worked. But I still felt panicked. Like what awaits me back in the U.S.? Some kind of tranquility that I don’t want. Because tranquility feels stagnant. And stagnant scares me.

And then when I got to this point, imagefour chocolatey Fridays left, I went to work with a headache. When I returned home, it persisted, so I took a nap, which unintentionally lasted three hours, and would have lasted longer had my new roommate not slammed the front door unnecessarily in her typical fashion, slowly awakening me. I stumbled zombie-like into the living room and announced to V, my beetle-conquering roommate, that I wasn’t feeling so well, and toppled back into bed, inexplicably exhausted.

That happened on a Saturday. I don’t remember much of the following Sunday because I slept through most of it. I remember waking up at an odd hour and trying to prepare oatmeal, when the room started spinning, and I was overcome by nausea. Sleeping had not cured me of my overwhelming exhaustion, and I felt incredibly weak, so I went back to bed, oatmeal ingredients left out in the open. I was awoken hours later by an intense heat boiling throughout my body, followed by sharp leg pains. I took Tylenol and slept more. I woke up again later because I now felt the discomfort of a cold dampness on my skin. Sweat dripped down my chest and under my nose. It matted my hair. V convinced me to go to the hospital, so I went, (after showering of course – V agreed) thinking I had some sort of flu.

The doctors were confused. “Por qué te has mojado?” Why have you wet yourself? they asked me.

“No, I’m sweating,” I explained, my T-shirt clinging to my skin.

They told me to come back the next day so I could see another doctor. I had no way of knowing that this suggestion was the start of a pattern that would persist for the next week and a half.

Following my first hospital visit, I continued to have daily fevers and shooting pain in my legs, hips and back. Doctors would look at me without hiding their confusion, take my blood, remain confused and send me home, often telling me to come back the next day, or referring me to other doctors. Their only recommendations were sleep and Tylenol.

I saw more doctors in a week than I had seen in my life. I saw one so old he needed a magnifying glass to read my temperature on his thermometer, and another so swarmed with patients that he hardly acknowledged me at all. The most memorable doctor was blind. Once, as I exited his office defeated when he, like the others, sent me home without answers, I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder. I continued to walk out the door and he shuffled close behind. It turned out I was unknowingly guiding him out of the room.

And then suddenly, I was on a boat. It was a small boat, and I think I may have been paddling. The sun was warm and I had friends sitting near me, though I’m not sure who they were exactly. But it was nice and I felt pain-free and relieved. Then all of a sudden I heard a fierce, rapid thundering noise drumming into my ears, like that insufferable pounding you hear when you’re driving on the freeway and leave the back window down. And the next thing I knew, my eyes were fluttering open and I was surrounded by strangers in white coats in an unfamiliar, gray room. I gasped for air, looked at each stranger in the face, panicked, trying to figure out where I was, when finally I saw V, desperate and worried by my side. And then I remembered. I was at hospital #2 with doctor #3 who ignored my request to lie down when I said I was weak and dizzy. It turns out I had fainted (the boat was a dream…) and had been convulsing and babbling in English much to the confusion (yes, more confusion) of the negligent doctor and his entourage of interns. V said she nearly cried and prayed – something she is not known to do – and could only recognize the word, “Help!” in my string of exasperated English. I think I may have given her post-traumatic stress disorder. And still, the doctors had no answers.

Over the course of that week, I saw seven doctors, gave my blood eight times, (one time yielding hand-written results on a scrap of paper) and did a sonogram to examine my internal organs. But the pattern continued. The doctors kept sending me home saying everything was normal. They didn’t know why I had so many fevers. One suggested I see a psychologist. (I intended to storm off when he said this, but my energy only permitted me to stand up slowly and hobble away.)

Finally, when I had resolved that I would probably never know what was wrong with me, an epidemiologist cracked the code. He barely examined me, just asked a chain of rapid-fire questions like a detective, and responded, satisfied, with words like, “Perfecto!” and “Excelente!” when my responses corresponded with his suspicions. I was glad he was asking the right questions, but also secretly had the urge to slap him. There was nothing excelente or perfecto about my fevers and pain. But fortunately his inquisition led to more blood tests and then to the blind doctor who ultimately confirmed the epidemiologists’ divination about my diagnosis.

I’ll just keep it simple and say I contracted a virus, one that is common in developing countries and completely treatable. The Peruvian doctors, however, insisted that the only treatment was one month of bed-rest and the consumption of honey and quince, a Latin American fruit. My sister, a doctor, did not agree with honey or fruit as a proper treatment, and my mother was losing a lot of sleep. Furthermore, I only had one month left in Peru and didn’t want to spend it in bed, in spite of my insatiable exhaustion. They also recommended I not eat chocolate, which completely ruined the chocolate Friday project. I went back to the blind doctor one last time for more blood tests, and when the results showed that I had only gotten worse, I decided it was time to go home. Stagnant or not, you can’t beat proper medical attention. He called out, “Come back Tuesday!” as I left, to which I responded, “Sí! Claro que sí!” knowing full well that my next doctor’s appointment would be in the U.S.

So here I am. And much healthier. I can barely tell I was ever sick, actually. And now I am hoping this turn of events doesn’t indicate an end to adventure, merely a resting point until the next one comes along. You can throw your anchor down, but pull it up again, right?

And besides unintentionally gaining knowledge about developing-world illnesses and conquering my fear of needles, I learned how important it is to have good friends. V has been my closest friend in Peru for months, and I therefore had the confidence to share my symptoms with her, rely on her to accompany me to the slew of doctors I visited, allow her to force-feed me when the sight of food made my stomach turn, and unleash my emotional distress on her (not just during my time of illness, I should say). She must have missed a week of work to take countless taxi rides with me to various hospitals, and to hold my squeamish hand when the indifferent nurses pricked my arms, wrist and hand to draw my blood. Only I can fully understand how important her support was to me while the mystery of my illness slowly unraveled, and as a result, I know I will gladly provide the same support to her or any of my friends if ever necessary. Good friends are hard to come by, but their value is beyond words.

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Luciérnagas

Blogging is narcissistic yet satisfying like a sunset in a dirty window.

Luciérnaga is a nice word. Especially if you pop the accent right on the “e” where it belongs. Then the “naga” part falls out of your mouth on your last whiff of air. Luciérnaga. If you just say the “naga” part, it sounds even mystical. I’m getting carried away, but if you picture a geographically ambiguous man decked out in tribal gear of your imagination shaking a stick around and saying, “Naga! Naga!”, the mystical part becomes more understandable, right? Luciérnaga. It means firefly.

I really don’t know much about fireflies because prior to coming to Peru, I had only seen them once as a child. This momentus event took place years ago while celebrating my dad’s birthday with his side of the family in New York. I barely remember any of it. To be honest, I barely remember the fireflies, only that I saw them and that they blew my little-girl mind. Flying lights. Like miniature, slow-motion shooting stars, close enough that I could touch them, though I’m sure I didn’t dare.

A young English volunteer tipped me off about their existence here in Peru. She discovered them as a semi-happy ending to a scary story in which she and her boyfriend were deliberately driven off course by their taxi driver, robbed and abandoned in the Trujillan ruins of Chan Chan late one night. As she recounted the details of the story to me, complete with the imagery of a gun held to her neck and blows dealt to her boyfriend, I remained mostly speechless, shaking my head, not really knowing what to say. And then she said, “It was really beautiful afterward though,” and went on to explain that as she and her basically blind boyfriend (they broke his glasses) maneuvered their way through the ruins in the dark, they found themselves surrounded by fireflies, luciérnagas. It’s fun to think that maybe the little bugs were sympathizing with them. Or guiding them through the darkness to safety.

This prompted me to want to see the luciérnagas myself, though not by the same means as my friend, of course. I think they must be a little more Biggie than Tupac because I never see them in California. So I added them to my Peru to-do list.

Then the other night I found myself unwillingly jogging through an impoverished community outside the city center. It was not an ideal run. I was upset because my running companion was charging up a dusty hill, while I was trying to keep up but was so winded I could hear myself gasping for air. I felt weak.

Then came the stray dogs. I used to love dogs. In Peru, I hate them. A small part of me feels sorry when I see them limp or scratch their impossibly itchy skin, but a much bigger part of me panics and thinks, “If you come near me I will counter-attack!” when they approach me on the street. Sometimes I release my fear by saying mean things to them, but I make sure to do so in English so they won’t understand. It’s not their fault, after all.

On this particular night, through my panic and frustration, I noticed a stunning view of the city creeping up behind me as I pushed myself up the hill: yellow lights in wobbly rows with the backdrop of a pink sunset. But I was scared of the barking dogs and frustrated by my perceived weakness, which only led to more frustration because I used to love running, and maybe I still do, but it doesn’t provide me with the same serenity I once reaped from the sound of my shoes slapping against the California coast. So I chose to look away from the lights.

I should have reminded myself that I often end up pleasantly surprised or humbled after a run in Peru. Like the time I tripped on a rock and came tumbling down into the dirt and split my knee open. It wouldn’t stop bleeding, so I approached a small home on a dirt road and asked for a napkin. The next thing I knew, I was inside the home, sitting on a plastic chair while a man cleaned me up with alcohol and his wife assembled a make-shift bandage for me with cotton and masking tape.

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Their two small boys looked on while I wept. The man tried to reassure me saying, “The alcohol burns, doesn’t it?” I tried to explain through my tears that that’s not why I was crying, but he just looked at me curiously, quickly patched me up and returned to his lunch. Peruvians love lunch.

On the night of the hill, after lots of complaining and shouting childish insults at the dogs, (“You’re ugly! I hate you!”) I descended back into the steel-colored city scowling. Lucky for me, my running companion tried to cheer me up by asking if I would like to try to find the luciérnagas I was after. It was a generous gesture considering my bad attitude, so of course I agreed. I gripped his hand as we made our way through a completely dark field rendering some kind of unidentifiable crop. And we didn’t see anything. I mean literally nothing because it was so dark. And for some reason the darkness made me want to whisper the way you do when a baby is sleeping. “Piensas que alguien nos va a matar?” (Do you think someone is going to kill us?) I whispered. I was ignored.

And then suddenly, a small spark in some tall grass flashing on and off slowly like a pulse. And then more. And then one floating through the darkness like a chip off a light bulb, only fluttering slowly as though made of paper. It was so silent.

We squatted by a small channel of water that runs toward the ocean to get a closer look, when suddenly I noticed the reflection of the moon, orange and perfectly round, rippled in the water.

And that’s kind of how my time here has been. Sometimes frustrating and painful. Sometimes surprising and beautiful. Sometimes both at the same time like a sunset reflected in a dirty window. And I know there is a lesson to be taken from all this, I’m just not sure exactly what. But I hope that through the periodic challenges and frustrations that undoubtedly await me (because they await us all, right?) I will continue to seek out luciérnagas and other small sources of relief.

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Have Fear, but Don’t Be Afraid.

Blogging is narcissistic, but it can also be reassuring.

I stand up tall in this city. Homo erectus. And I take long purposeful strides, as though my posture poses some kind of threat, and my gait reveals a confidence that will protect me.

I never say, “I am afraid,” simply because in Spanish, it is not said that way. In Spanish, one would say, “I have fear,” and I like this better. Afraid is an adjective that describes you, but I will not be described in such a way. I will not be defined by my fear. Fear is something I have, something I possess, and therefore something I control and can get rid of when I please.

When my doorman asks me, “Pero no tienes miedo caminando por estas partes sola en la noche?” (But aren’t you afraid walking around here alone at night?) I tell him no. No, I do not have fear. I threw it out in the trash can on the corner on my way home. But this is only half true. There is some residue of fear still clinging to me as I make my way home at night.

With every story about another mugging by the beach, another gun-point robbery, another home being broken into, I admit I am starting to tense up. Starting to suspect random people on the street of wanting to harm me. And I increase my pace. I hold my shoulders back. I hold my keys, silver sextuplets, in my fist like some kind of make-believe switch-blade. I imagine them making a swish sound as I reposition one between my knuckles, just in case. I shoot my fiercest look at the men who make kissing sounds at me and don’t bother to make room as I try to pass, leaving me no choice but to walk between them on the narrow sidewalk. I hold my breath and push past them.

I never used to be like this. My sister can vouch. For years we shared pink bunk beds in a room with ribbons painted on the walls in probably one of the safest neighborhoods in the U.S. Our home even had an alarm system. But still, my sister was nervous. “What was that sound?” she would ask. “Did you hear that? Should we wake up Mom and Dad?” To which I would invariably respond that it was nothing, and that I wanted to sleep, and no, we shouldn’t wake up anybody.

Our grown-up selves are pretty much the same. She worries and I always assume that everything is fine, even sometimes in circumstances in which all evidence indicates otherwise. And I’ve been known to do things, careless things, like accept rides from strangers when lost, (and I get lost quite often) or fall asleep and forget to lock my door. But I’m different now. And I’ve never been this way. And I don’t like it. I’ve contracted fear like some third-world disease. It has infected me, and I don’t know how to cure it.

My friend says it’s good. He says I should have this experience, I should know what it’s like. And somehow this reassures me when I walk alone at night. Like it will be OK because this is an experience that I am meant to have, it is something I will look back on, so it’s clear I will come out of it OK.

But I still feel anxious sometimes, and this angers me as I run laps around the stadium in the center of the city after dark. I am angry that I am in possession of fear, yet unable to give it up, like something sticky and annoying that you can’t wash off your skin. I am angry at the man who calls out to me, “Amiga, cuantas vueltas?” (How many laps?) when I pass him for the third or fourth time around the bend of the stadium. It’s a harmless question, but I don’t want strange men to talk to me, and I hope he will be gone by my next lap.

When the man in the purple shirt locks eyes with me and leans in close to my face as I jog by, I jump and increase my pace even more. I feel my heart speed up. Maybe he is just doing that creepy thing some men here do, invade your personal space in some sick attempt at flattery, or maybe he has other intentions. And now I am angry at him. It’s my run. I deserve to run in this city just as much as the two men I see lumbering along in (hideous) green track suits. It’s my run!

I want peace of mind but feel nervous as I pass the parked car stuffed with men who watch me jog by for the fifth or sixth time. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” I whisper in English. Five. Five of them just sitting there. What are they doing? Are they teamed up somehow with the man in the purple shirt?

I see more purple, this time on the back of a young boy, and I eye him suspiciously. I decide it’s a bad time for an aversion to purple as my roommate has just painted her walls lilac. It’s a bad time for all of this. I’ve come this far. Almost 10 months in this gloomy city, and now, two months left, and so much fear.

But it is my fear, just like it is my run. I control it. It’s mine. In an almost literal way, it strengthens me. I run harder. I stand taller. I play, “The Age of Worry” by John Mayer on repeat in my mind and shout internally, “Rage in the age of worry!” I have fear, but I won’t let it define me. I will not be afraid.

Escarabajo Dorado

Blogging is narcissistic, but it only seems fair to share the secrets of immortality.

The other night I was in the kitchen when a big, scary something started frantically buzzing around the room, smacking its chunky body against the walls, seemingly desperate to escape. Meanwhile, the window was, as always, wide open to cleanse the space of my roommates’ tobacco habit. I let out a little yelp and waved my hands in the air, which only seemed to offer the opposite of my intended message as it zoomed toward me in a state of panic as if wanting to grab me by the shoulders, shake me and cry out, “Help me!” I was not sympathetic. If I were a character in a comic strip, there would be a speech bubble filled with asterisks and at-signs coming from my mouth.

I heard one of my roommates say, “She’s shouting in English again,” and the two of them came rushing faithfully to my rescue.

“Cockroach?” asked one.

“No! I don’t know what this is!” I gasped as it propelled its seemingly light-brown body toward us. All three of us screamed simultaneously and ran for the kitchen door. M (it’s not cool to use their full names, right?) shut it behind us and we laughed at ourselves.

“What is that?” she shouted. “It’s enormous!”

At the time, I didn’t know the word for moth in Spanish. (Now I do. Polilla. I’ll never forget it. High stakes situations make for great learning experiences.) So I opted for the word for butterfly because once I read that most insects that appear to be butterflies are actually moths. I figured it was my best bet.

“A butterfly?” They asked, skeptical.

“Something like a butterfly but with a fat body,” I explained. They both stared at me.

“Well we can’t just stand out here,” my other roommate V said, entering the kitchen and heroically grabbing the broom. She struck at the fat-body butterfly, which was still making circles around the kitchen, using two hands to wield her domestic weapon. M and I screamed and laughed from a safe distance, when suddenly, after one swift sweep of the broom, we watched it come spiraling down. She got it. It wasn’t dead, but injured beyond flight, rattling on the kitchen floor. V leaned over her kill to get a closer look, and let out a little gasp.

“It’s not a butterfly!” she shouted, almost angry. Yes, that much I knew, I just lacked the necessary vocabulary. “It’s an escarabajo!” A beetle.

“Escarabajo!” I shouted, not particularly out of concern but mostly because I love that word. So onomatopoeic. When I hear it, I picture a little black beetle scraping and digging through the dirt, making a whispery noise that sounds like, “escarabajo”. I actually only know the word because a little black one crawled into my backpack one time, and a Spaniard pointed and shouted, “Escarabajo!” I remember she told me not to kill it because “los escarabajos no son malos.” They’re not bad. Fair enough.

It turns out the escarabajo in our kitchen was a bit different than the one in my backpack. “It’s a golden beetle,” V explained. Escarabajo dorado.
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I had never heard of that and didn’t care too much until she said, “It’s a symbol of immortality.”

For some reason those words resonated with me. To be fair, this is a girl who lit the end of a small branch and waved it around our apartment to expel bad energy, and who charges her crystals by moonlight (though I know of no better way), and while I love her and admire her earthy spirit, I usually remain unaffected by her beliefs. This is not because I claim to possess superior spiritual ideology, just that I’m kind of lazy when it comes to these things. Afterlife? Can’t be bothered… But this time I felt bad. Was I an accomplice to the murder of a bug that only wanted to offer us immortality?

“It’s suffering,” V said looking at me seriously, “and you have to kill it. I did my part.”

“I don’t like to kill things!” I protested. She shot me a look of death. I get it. OK.

Both of my roommates returned to their respective rooms. The golden beetle squirmed on the floor, its gem-like shell glistening under the fluorescent kitchen lights. Not knowing what to do, I swept it into a dustpan and tipped it out our seven-story kitchen window, hoping maybe it would catch flight.

“It committed suicide,” I announced loud enough for V to hear, though she didn’t respond.

Later that night, I Google searched “golden beetle” and giggled to myself when Google promptly suggested “Golden Corral”. I found various articles about the insect, my favorite from a gardener saying she is both frustrated and delighted when she finds these beautiful pests among her plants. Another funny bug-nerd article said something like, “Everyone keeps talking about golden beetles.” Oh yeah. People just won’t shut up about them! Nowhere did I find anything about immortality, though the words that affected me most came from an article about insect collections (what?). It recommends that you not add the golden beetle to your collection as it loses its golden color once it dries out, saying, “these bugs are most beautiful kept alive.” Ouch.