I want to write about Cuba and re-live those darkened Havana bars that conceal everyone from thieves and prostitutes to salseros and bottle blondes. It would be great to capture the capital’s plazas too, what with all the coffee and the doorstep cheese sandwiches and the battered old books and Guantanamera floating through the streets.
There wasn’t a chance in hell Pablo would avoid asking the one question I’m not fond of answering.
“Where are you from?” he said.
I arranged my features into their now familiar half-apologetic, half dumb-blonde-girl pose. The message is clear. I’m English, but I’m far too nice to know anything about the Falklands.
I have traveled and lived all over the Latin American map: Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Panama, Dominican Republic, Peru, México, and other warm places with (sometimes) amazing beaches. I have seen my fair share of dingy buses, overcrowded subways, and lonely stretches of highway reaching into the jungle.
At times, the mountains, beaches, big cities, small towns, empty plains and jungle paths all seem to meld into one confusing Latin American collage.
And along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about getting robbed. And avoiding it.
Home becomes such an emotion-charged word when you live far away from it.
Living as an expat in another country, home becomes a huge word; it can fill your heart so much that you can’t breathe. Home is the past; it’s a house you can’t visit anymore, a town whose streets you can’t walk through.
Home is memories of people that have since changed, children that have grown up, loved ones that died while you were overseas. They are all part of a home that remains unchanged in the past, living only in the memory of the one who went far away.
Home is your identity; it’s why your skin is so pale instead of the deep brown of everyone around you, why your hair is blonde and why you’re so tall in a land of short people. Home is your language, which no one here speaks correctly. Home is your values, and your outlook. It’s a permanent part of you that the passing of time cannot change.
But then home has the other meaning, the more basic reality of where you’re living now, a reality that can change often. It’s changed often for me. I’ve lived in immense houses and I’ve lived in tiny apartments. I’ve lived alone, I’ve lived with just my husband and our pets, and at times I’ve lived with 18 other people. I’ve lived in chilly mountain towns where the afternoon fog comes in and crowds out the activities of the day, and I’ve lived in places where my cacti have died of heat stroke.
But perhaps when I think of home I think of my house. Building a house was a big dream for my husband and I. We wanted to have our own home, a refuge to go back to, a place of dreams and comfort. And we achieved it; we built the house with our own hands in a small town in the Andes Mountains, with a big garden all around to brighten things up.
One of the most comforting feelings I’ve ever has was the one I’d get while walking up to my house in the evening, seeing the yellow-orange glow of the lights on inside, knowing that my husband was there, cooking or reading or writing letters. It was home. It was a comfort that dug its roots deep into my heart, kept me anchored there in that cement house with all my heart inside. Home was a place that was mine and no one else’s, a place where my dreams were born and grew up and filled my life.
I cried so hard when I had to leave that house. I mourned as if someone had died. A part of my heart had died, had died inside that house where I had stored my dreams and my plans and my future.
But leaving home again taught me that the location is not important, that home is what we take with us wherever we go. Now I see home in a pleasant coffeehouse or a friend’s living room. I see it in the knowing smile of someone who understands the joke just the way I do. Or in the eyes of someone I’ve just met but who has the deep, soft, understanding attitude of someone, a family member or friend, who I’ve left behind. These little bits have become my home, a portable version of what makes me feel that all is right with the world.
Where is home? Home is within me.
Courage is the art of being the only one who knows you’re scared to death – Earl Wilson
Almost twenty years ago, just before moving abroad, I scrawled this quote on a little scrap of paper, and I’ve been carrying it with me all these years. My travels have taken me to numerous countries, to remote villages in the jungle and minute tropical islands in clear blue waters; I’ve learned about cultures from around the world and eaten foods I would have considered unimaginable before.
Through it all, this quote has reminded me that being courageous isn’t about being especially strong, a sort of super-hero of the traveling sort. It simply means that others can’t see the small child inside of me who’s quivering in fear at every new challenge that comes up.
Life, of course, affords us many opportunities to be courageous. But living abroad these past two decades has produced quite a few unique situations.
International moves. Moving to another country implies working out many things, some scary and others just tedious. Arriving to a new country where I don’t know anyone, military coups and mob violence have been some of the scarier ones. There’s also all the mundane steps to take; passports and visas and foreign identity cards, moving all those belongings, getting the dog on the plane, learning new laws and customs.
Starting over. A bit of a nomad, I’ve learned quite a bit about starting over. Because of job moves, I’ve lived in more than 20 houses in my adult life. It requires courage to arrive in yet another South American city and learn how to get around, open bank accounts, deal with the particular dialect of the region, and learn other survival tactics.
Learning new professions and skills. And of course, each new move brings new professional challenges. I’ve been a school teacher, tutor, language teacher, journalist, baker, park ranger, translator, interpreter, shop clerk, babysitter, magazine editor, and more. I’ve learned three languages and in the process nearly forgot my own. It’s not getting any easier as time goes by, but it’s become a simple process of learning, moving forward, and not giving in to the fear.
Facing loss. There are a lot of things we lose each time we move. The loss of family and friends is one of the most painful. I leave a piece of myself behind in every person whose life I touched, every person that became a part of me for the time I lived near them. We become who we are because of the people whose lives we’ve become a part of. But it’s hard to rip out those roots, planted deep in the heart, and move on to another place.
The amount of people that tell me I’m courageous always amazes me, since in reality I feel scared of anything and everything. When I try to figure out why people think I’m not scared, I guess it comes down to just not showing the fear. I maintain a big smile, stand up straight and move forward, one step after another. And suddenly I’m there: I’ve reached my goal.
So in a way, courage is really about deception. It’s fooling everyone else so much that I fool myself into thinking that I can do something, and then I do it. And in the process the journey has made me grow into someone better, and I become that person I wanted to be.
“I’m sorry. I marry an old man for money?” I repeated, as I leaned forward to study the cards on the pavement.
“No. Listen again,” Julio said. “You marry an old man. He doesn’t function in the bed.”
“Oh,” I gasped. You’re kidding me, I thought, this is because I bargained the fee down to half price, isn’t it?
“Any more questions?” the oracle smirked.
“How many children will I have?”
“No function in the bed. You understand?”
All too clearly. I paid Julio his bloody five soles and held my horror inside until I’d turned the corner.
The guide book warns you to avoid showing scepticism towards the mystic practices in this part of northern Peru but it doesn’t warn you erectile dysfunction will arise.
I’d arrived in Chiclayo the previous afternoon, as this coastal desert city was enjoying the last of the sun. I’d strayed from the tourist trail, there were no hostels and I’ve yet to see another obvious foreigner but I did find a guesthouse. There were not enough light bulbs but the place does have a dog that howled throughout the night.
I survived until morning when I found a minibus (combi) to take me to the nearby town of Lambayeque, home to Museo Tumbas, which ‘showcases the dazzling finds of the Royal Tombs of Sipan’.
I was distinctly undazzled by the finds, a grotesque mummy and a collection of stone jugs, and wondered why I was alone in a world class museum at eleven on a Saturday until I realised I’d visited the wrong one.
There was no mistaking Chiclayo’s Mercado Modelo though, an enormous outdoor market with clothes, cats, meat, dogs and make-up all thrown together in one.
I was hunting for the witch doctors, hoping to erase my experience with Julio, when I came across a fat wizard in a Homer Simpson t-shirt. He was drinking a beer and burped as I approached.
“You need love?” he said, pointing to his potions.
“No,” I giggled. “Is that a voodoo doll?”
“It is not,” he cried, grabbing the little black body and waving it against his leg. “You use it to clean yourself.”
Homer was equally enthusiastic about all his witch doctor wizardry and sold me a painted wooden rattle, which will either turn out to be a mass-produced children’s toy or a genuine defence against the dark arts. I was walking back to the guesthouse, waving my new rattle, when a stranger approached and asked where I was from.
“England, but I live in Colombia,” I said.
“My name is Jorge,” he replied, opening his palm to reveal tarot cards similar to the ones I had already endured. “You want me to tell you about Colombian men?”
Gathered around a wooden dining table, demolishing a bottle of red, I asked a fellow tourist the first three words that entered his mind when I said the word ‘Chile’. I had only spent a few days in the country then and was worried I was missing something.
“Pinochet,” he said.
I forget the other two, but Pinochet? Really? Does the name of a seventeen-year dictator still define a country of eighteen million people?
I do appreciate that we Britons managed to embroil ourselves in all that, it’s our greatest talent after all, but the guy has been dead five years and out of power a lot longer. Should his name really be the first on anyone’s lips?
With that in mind, having spent five weeks in the country now, I think it’s time to take the ‘P’ out of Chile, but if that letter still lingers on your tongue, here are ten excellent alternatives:
I’ve found Chileans to be dryer, more sarcastic and all-round funnier than your average Latin American. As someone who appreciates a joke told without a smile, the people of Chile are my favourite thing about the country.
Astounding. Torres del Paine is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. It has to be, a wine-and-chocolate loving girl wouldn’t walk eight days and haul twenty kilos of crap all that way for nothing.
The wine is… very good in Chile.
My favourite Chilean night out was in Valparaiso, at a live salsa bar called La Piedra Feliz. Four guys played relentless salsa to a packed floor then switched to rock’n’roll sometime around four. They ended their night with Easy Like Sunday Morning. We ended our night with avocado-stuffed hotdogs and a walk home at dawn.
You’re not supposed to like street dogs. I like street dogs. Like the iguanas in Cartagena, they’re a pet you don’t have to feed. I’ve noticed the strays in Chile are even more personable than their northern counterparts. If they hadn’t seemed so at home, I would have adopted several.
- Peculiar forms of transport
The Navimag (the tourists’ ferry through the fjords) is a Chilean gem. It’s four days of being looked after, from the moment the skipper wakes you up to the moment he advises you to leave the bar. You eat, you sleep, you look at the scenery, you nurse a glass of red. It’s heaven.
I don’t know how much I love those avocado-stuffed hotdogs, but if this country of coastline were to make fish its national dish I would not complain. I’ve survived on seafood from Valparaiso to Chiloe. The salmon and chorizo special in Ancud probably takes top spot.
They say, “He who hurries in Patagonia, loses time,” and most people I’ve met follow that mantra to the letter. Whether it’s questions about camping or worries about the weather, someone always has time to listen. Similarly, the dear and patient Chileans seem to understand my ‘gypsy’ Spanish. Their Argentine cousins look at me like I’ve fallen from another planet.
There’s a big drama about whether Pisco is a Chilean or a Peruvian thing but whatever, the Chileans mix theirs with coke and call it… Piscola.
You’re not going to make me explain that one, are you?
In recent years more and more people have taken to travelling; as a gap year, for employment, to explore, have adventures. They sometimes even take their work with them. Travelling is becoming increasingly popular and those who aren’t travelling wish they were.
Many people travel for long periods of time, working as they go or writing about their adventures. People who wish they were travelling have lots of questions for those who are out on adventures. If I had a pound for the amount of times I had been asked or heard the following statements, I would be able to travel wherever I wanted to around the world.
Bogota is progress. This megacity has had an amazing turnaround in the last decade. A new international airport, an ever-expanding bus system connecting the immense city, and constant improvements to infrastructure promise a bright future.
Culture is alive and well in Bogota. Named UNESCO City of Music for 2013, music festivals showcase everything from jazz, rock, hip hop and opera to the very Colombian cumbia and bambuco. Colombians love a good rumba (party), and Bogota has numerous bars and clubs to learn to dance salsa, cumbia, tango or any other Latin moves.
The Gold Museum presents Colombian culture from pre-Columbian times. National and international art can be admired at the Botero Museum and the jail-turned-museum Museo Nacional. In bohemian La Candelaria and La Macarena, tiny cafés fill up with artists, writers and musicians. International theatre and film festivals, book and food fairs, sports venues and a very active nightlife scene ensure that there’s always something going on.
Dining sectors chock full of personality such as Zona G and Usaquen include an abundance of international restaurants as well as chefs experimenting with getting Colombian cuisine into the international limelight. The plethora of coffee houses dotting the city serve, of course, 100% Colombian coffee, and are a common place to meet with friends for leisurely conversations.
There has been incredible growth in the city to the north and west, and housing is easy to find and varies from affordable bohemian to luxury residences.
There are many small towns near the city that are easy to reach by car, like Villa de Leyva and Zipaquirá. National destinations such as Caragena and Medellin are easy to get to by plane, and there are many cheap flights to Europe and the U.S.
Of course, living in Bogota is not without its problems. Traffic is heavy most of the time, and air pollution is a constant problem. The cost of living is higher than in most other areas of the country. But the city is vibrant, work is easier to find, and a larger expat community means it’s easier to connect with people from around the world. The year-round spring-like weather is also an attraction to many people.
Links to English-language newspapers, websites, blogs and radio shows:
Digital newspaper: Colombia Reports
Gastro-news in Bogota: Flavors of Bogota
Insight into expat life in Colombia:
General Colombia travel info:
Six months ago a friend of mine got sick. She was just thirty years old; a vibrant, joyful, beautiful woman. She had a smile that would brighten anyone’s day.
She had cancer.
She died last weekend. Her brief and painful struggle with cancer ended, leaving grieving friends and family. So quick. So unchangeable.
Her sickness and death has made all those close to her think about the value of life, and how we want to use our fragile lives.
These days I hear so much talk about bucket lists and the things people feel they should do before they die. These lists are full of places to visit, foods to try, achievements to pursue.
As I mentally compile my list, I imagine what I would plan to do if I were told I would die within six months. What things would I want to try for the first time? What things would I like to do for the last time?
But really, I find few things on my list.
It’s not because I don’t enjoy travelling, eating or learning. I’ve filled my life with those things. As an expat travel writer I’ve had my adventures. I have shared my bed with scorpions and spent time in a South American jail. I have sailed on canoes out to deserted islands in the Caribbean. I have swum in red jade rivers down by the border of the Amazon jungle.
But I don’t have a bucket list full of those things. My bucket list is not focused on the outward, physical world around me. It’s not about what travel destination I should have visited, it’s not about what adventure I should have tried, it’s not about what bizarre food I should have eaten.
My bucket list is inward.
It’s about love. It’s about appreciating people around me. It’s about opening my heart enough to overlook weaknesses, forgive wrongs, and enjoy the uniqueness of each person.
It’s about giving, about enriching other people’s lives with a word of comfort, a bit of wisdom and a lot of empathy. It’s about keeping in touch with loves ones whether they are near or far away.
It’s about contentment, loving each day despite the difficulties that come up.
In the end I don’t think it will matter if I drank wine in Paris, or ate pizza in Napoli, or swam on the shores of a Greek island. Perhaps I will do those things, but they aren’t the important things.
The value of my life will not be counted by the stamps in my passport or the amount of countries I visited or the exotic cuisine I ate. The important thing will be how I lived on the inside, how I loved and trusted others, how I was enriched by them and how they were enriched by me.
That’s because my bucket list isn’t about dying. It’s about living fully.