Raspberry’s Funeral

Blogging is narcissistic, but also an opportunity to express some sentimentality during chaotic times.

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Lately, my brain has been muddled by politics. Like some kind of mental fog, it has cast a shadow over the small glimmer of creativity I used to possess, leaving me unable to produce anything inspiring. Reading up on world news is important. Being angry is worthwhile. But losing the ability to create seems like an unfair bargain.

But yesterday, something resembling sentimentality payed me a surprise visit. It happened in my Catalan class while we were having an early introduction to the imperfect tense, marking the first time I have been able to speak about the past in this new language. The teacher asked us all to talk briefly about our childhood. What were we like? What kinds of things do we remember most?

The class is diverse. I tilted forward in my chair, trying to see my peers as they spoke in choppy fragmented sentences about being mischievous and cutting class in Morocco, or learning to sew to help their parents’ business in Bolivia. Some shared more painful stories of leaving their native country due to regional conflict. Most read from notes they had nervously scribbled onto lined paper in preparation for this brief moment of public speaking.

When it became my turn, I realized I hadn’t prepared anything, not even a simple mental note about what to say because I was so caught up in everyone else’s stories. I paused, my notebook blank, everyone looking at me. My childhood seemed simple and common compared to that of my peers.

Then inexplicably, a flash of red surfaced from the back of my mind. I could see her clearly blowing tiny bubbles, flapping her red body, gazing emptily at the bedroom beyond her reach. Hardly a remarkable element from my past, Raspberry was my pet tropical fish who swam in silent circles in a glass bowl that isolated her from her adoptive sister (brother?) Blueberry who swam in an identical adjacent bowl. Raspberry lived like an ornament for a full year in my bedroom without making much of an impact on our lives. When she died, however, I remember my sister cried.

The traditional thing to do when a fish dies is flush it down the toilet. Return it to its source, I suppose. But I remember my dad found a little white jewelry box, which was the perfect size for her one-inch frame. It was the carton kind that has a soft layer of cotton on the bottom so that Raspberry could rest comfortably in peace. He dug a hole in the backyard that was also just the right size for her cardboard coffin, and the whole family gathered outside for the burial.

My dad gave a eulogy.

“Raspberry was a quiet fish,” he said. “She never complained. She never bothered anybody.”

My sisters and I giggled, and my dad shrugged at us and said, “It’s true, isn’t it?”

It was.

I shared this story with my Catalan peers and they smiled. This isn’t something I think of often, but it is a beautiful memory.

It is also surprising because my dad is not the sentimental type. I wouldn’t describe him as serious, but he’s definitely practical enough to toss a fish into a toilet, pull the trigger and walk away.

But over the years and in many indirect ways, my sisters and I were taught the value of all living things, the eulogy for a fish being an early example. We didn’t practice any religion, we were just taught that life is to be respected.

As the world becomes more divided and my brain becomes more fogged with politics, this lesson on basic humanity seems like a relevant bridge connecting the solemnity of current events with creativity and empathy.

 

Dabble Away, I Say!

Blogging is narcissistic, but I hope to encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.

I don’t know why it’s frowned upon to dabble. As a high school teacher, I try to encourage my students to dabble. Dabble away, I say! Not to mention, the word dabble is fun to say, although maybe its sound is a bit too close to dribble, which makes me picture myself as some kind of idiot, running around aimlessly, saliva dribbling out of my stupidly cheerful smile. But I still like to say it.

I recently encouraged dabbling to a student in one of my most generous moments: “Not into Spanish?” I asked him, putting on my best I-understand-you face, masking the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me at the very thought of someone not loving a language that so changed my life. “Why not try French next year?” I suggested, once more masking my distress, struggling to suppress a memory of a French man who sat next to me on a long wooden bench at a picnic style restaurant in Cambodia. In an attempt at small talk, I pointed out to the French man that we had ordered the same dish, only his had beef in it and mine had tofu. (Not my proudest social moment.) He acknowledged this fact, then added that he was drinking beer while I was drinking water, explaining in the thickest, most cliché French accent, “I eat meat, I drink beer, I enjoy life.” Ugh. French.

But still, I can prioritize a good dabble over my love of Spanish and my unrealistic expectation that my teaching methods will somehow transform my students into hispanophiles as well. However, in this case my generosity was trumped by the principal who corrected me: “Our policy is that once students choose a language, they have to stick with it.” Oops! But come on, life is not like that. There is a place for people with a clear direction of course, but there is also a place for dabblers. There are, in fact, lots of places for dabblers. So here are some highlights from my years of dabbling, which I hope will encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.

Fresh out of college, I took a job working at an afterschool program for at-risk teenagers, which on paper sounded fun and even noble. Working there, however, felt like being in middle school again, only this time I felt like the new kid, the chubby kind with braces and acne. Whenever I approached a group of girls, the chatting and giggling would stop abruptly, they would shoot me looks of annoyance, gather up their things and walk away. I had a 13-year-old informant on the inside who told me that the cool girls called me “Poodle”. Oh yeah, this is what I look like.

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It’s hard not to take these things personally.

I simultaneously worked at a mommy-and-me music school. You know, the kind where you sit in a circle, toddler in lap, clap your hands, stomp your feet, spin around, etc. In theory it was my dream job. But it turns out, one can only sing, “Elephants have wrinkles, wrinkles everywhere” so many times before wanting to break things. And this is coming from someone who loves elephants. My boss said I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, to which I almost sang, “Goodbye, goodbye, thank you very much!” and put a sticker on her hand. Almost is the key word here.

At night I semi-actively pursued a singer-songwriter career, playing shows at coffee shops and bars in San Diego and Los Angeles. Whatever you are imagining, you are probably right. Sometimes people love you and show up at all of your shows. Sometimes they can even sing along to your songs. Other times you are singing as loud as you can, but no microphone in existence can drown out the conversation and laughter coming from an audience that doesn’t even know you’re there. And sometimes there is actually nobody there at all except for one person who is listening very intently because he is next up on stage and hopes you will return the favor. The bartender offers you both condolence cocktails, and your new friend gives you a flier for his upcoming show.

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At some point, possibly out of desperation for meaning in my life, I found myself in Santiago, Chile where I worked with more troubled teens. Please interpret the word “more” to mean that there were more of them, but also as a qualifier of their level of troubled. Being called “Poodle” was tough, but even tougher was confiscating hedge-trimmers from a Chilean boy who snapped them in the air as he chased a girl around a cramped classroom. Why were there hedge-trimmers in a classroom? That’s a great question.

Back in the USA, I believed my skin had thickened sufficiently to work once again with at-risk youth. I was hired by a nonprofit organization that offered free tutoring to kids in a neighborhood I never knew existed: Southeast San Diego. Type those three words into Google and it will promptly suggest “gangs” to finish your search. An amateur YouTube video even breaks down the gangs for you by neighborhood, and claims this area to be the murder capital of San Diego. Lucky for me, I had no idea, I just knew it was far from where I grew up, and seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.

The non-profit was disorganized, as they tend to be, neglecting to inform me that one of my students had severe special needs, for example, an area in which I had no training or experience. The organization also sent me to the wrong address not once, not twice, but three times. In Southeast, you do not want to knock on the wrong door. The first time, someone peered at me through a brown metal screen door, the kind in which the holes are so tiny it’s basically a solid metal door. I could not see the frightened woman inside the home, but I realized that she could see me, which is a really strange experience, it turns out. It’s hard to know what to expect when someone who does not trust you is looking at you, yet you can’t see them. It’s eerie. Like being hunted maybe. And in this case the woman behind the door had the right to be on guard because I was a stranger at her home, after all. (Castle Doctrine, anyone?) I asked if the student I was looking for lived there, and she said in a terrified sort of voice, “Who? No, no, thank you, no!” and slammed the interior door in my face.

The second time I knocked on the wrong door I was looking for a recently immigrated Mexican family, but a large white man with tattoos on his neck opened the door instead. He squinted at me almost aggressively, as if to say, You want something? You gotta get through me first. “I’m Enrique’s new tutor,” I said with rising intonation, almost as a question, forcing an I-come-in-peace kind of smile. His features softened, he looked me up and down and then said in a gravelly voice, “You have a beautiful body.” Gross. And scary. But I admittedly think I was at a low enough point with my self-esteem that I almost said, “Really? You think so? Oh my gosh! Thanks so much!” Almost is again the key word here. What I actually said was, “Oh wait, wrong house, sorry! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The laughter of course being as awkward as humanly possible. I set off in no particular direction, hugging a binder full of 9th grade math activities to my chest. He shouted something after me but I don’t know what it was. I came to a four-way intersection and frantically crossed the street, scurrying into a liquor store with barred up windows. I bought myself some condolence cacahuetes. I later learned that that intersection I crossed is known as the Four Corners of Death due to the number of homicides that have occurred there over the years. And all of this basically in my own backyard, and I had no idea. I should say that I loved that job, though. Or at least I loved the kids. I even convinced one of my students to play a “game” that I completely made up called “The Squish Face Game,” which is pretty self-explanatory. He had the chubbiest little cheeks!

Once that contract ended, I accepted a job with a title that is something like Childcare Expert or Youth Specialist or who knows what at a sort of boarding school for foster kids. I left after maybe the sixth or seventh F you. I empathize, but it turns out my skin is not so tough.

One of my favorite jobs at which I stayed the longest (read: one year and a half) involved giving stop-drop-and-roll presentations at schools across San Diego. Yes, I was the stop-drop-and-roll lady who taught the eight-year-old-you what to do if you ever catch on fire. I speak with no sarcasm when I say it was so much fun! Whatever that says about me is unclear, but I loved it. This job also involved interviewing juvenile firesetters, the oops-what-did-I-do? kind, and the habitual I-wanna-watch-this-burn! kind. I also got to install free smoke alarms in senior citizens’ homes, which was oddly empowering. I admit I enjoyed carrying a heavy drill and picking through a box of screws, even if it meant boring holes into popcorn ceilings and letting the asbestos flutter into my hair and onto my goggles. Much like working in Southeast, I loved the overall experience of this job from the seniors to the pyros, but even stop-drop-and-roll has its limits. Plus, I discovered an intensive Spanish program in Panama that I couldn’t pass up.

If you have read this blog before, you may know that I recently spent some time working with kids in Peru. I did that as a one-year hiatus from graduate school because two years of anything is too long for me.

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And now I’m a high school Spanish teacher, which I love even more than being the stop-drop-and-roll lady. I love it more than the Squish Face Game. But I still sometimes find myself searching for jobs in places as unrelated as Santa Cruz, California and Cork, Ireland. Because who knows?

Sometimes I think back to when I was one of those teenagers for whom artsy and angsty kind of blend. I had the capacity to find poetry everywhere, and used to write inspiring (or sometimes dark) phrases and quotes all over the place. I would paint them on my bedroom walls, write them into my notebook rather than writing down math formulas, and scribble them into my glasses case. Some of them were stupid. But some of them were nice. A nice one that I still remember is: “Chase your passion, not your pension.” My passion keeps running around, and I hope I never stop chasing it. And you shouldn’t either. Even if that means you look like an idiot, saliva dribbling out of your stupidly cheerful smile.

Oh yeah, and I’ve also learned to eat meat, to drink beer, to enjoy life.

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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.

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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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.

Associations

Blogging is narcissistic, but just for fun, I want to talk about associations.

There is a colleague of mine whose hair smells like apples. This matters because I once bought apple-scented shampoo from a grocery store I found somewhere in Pnom Penh, Cambodia while traveling alone for the first time. When I first got a whiff of her apple hair out here in Peru, I couldn’t place it. The memory it evoked was so vague that I couldn’t even tell if it was positive or negative. Just some distant sensation that I was blindly groping for in the back of my mind. Kind of like déjà vu, when you know you know something, when some strange flicker of a memory flashes in front of you, and then it’s gone.

But lucky for me, the apple scent was strong enough (or maybe the memory was strong enough?) that I was finally able to trace it back to Cambodia. The jungle. A weird feeling of displacement, disorientation, distance, but ultimately relief and exhilaration. At the risk of sounding creepy, I must admit I love when she passes by me and the scent follows. I love the mix of feelings that the simple scent invariably triggers.

But I guess that’s not that weird. Humans are animals, after all. And scents are not the only stimuli that stir up these kinds of visceral associations. I imagine that every time I hear a horrendous (yet secretly delightful) Nene Malo song in the future, I will be transported back to this place, for better or worse. I think about music’s power to affect us in this way all the time.

Sometimes I hear really well-written love songs and wish I had someone with whom I could associate them. Like “As Simple as This” by Jake Bugg, a 19-year-old no less. I wish I could hear that song and think back on someone who was my simple answer during some complicated time.

Not to get too personal, but I once loved a person for his character and thought that was enough to make him the one I should be with. We went and saw The Lumineers in a small bar in San Diego, (I won tickets on the radio) and I really wanted him to hear the song “The Dead Sea“. I wanted that to be the song I would associate him with. I imagined him hearing the song live and for the first time, and understanding immediately that it was written for us. That every word represented the mutual support we provided each other. I imagined him, such a strong man, reaching some kind of emotional epiphany and responding to it in the same way I did when I first heard it. But he took a work call right before “The Dead Sea” was played, and spent the duration of the song outside on his cellphone. To be fair, he has an important job that involves protecting people’s lives, but I remember standing alone in the dark on tip-toe trying to see the band as they sang, “You’ll never sink while you are with me,” and I realized he probably was not the one I should be with.

But that’s OK too. You can’t force associations. The best ones are those that are formed spontaneously. I love the unexpected way in which they sneak up on you and temporarily displace you when you are grounded in your current reality. Like the smell of artificial apples that stopped me in my tracks and carried me away for a moment. Temporary relief from the day-to-day that too often becomes banal without you even realizing it.