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.

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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.