Welcome to the 16th thoroughly impractical expat interview with Camden Luxford of The Brink of Something Else! But first, let’s talk about me.
After barely a week back in Shanghai, my body has already readjusted to the intuitive requirements of living in this city.
When I walk on the sidewalk, I automatically look 360 degrees around me at regular intervals to make sure I’m not about to be ploughed down by a wayward scooter who has no intention of diverging from its path, because scooters (and bicycles and probably black cars) have the unofficial right of way on sidewalks here. I once saw a scooter speed down a sidewalk, run straight into the back of a pedestrian, slicing up her calf and bruising the back of her knees and tearing her skirt, and he yelled at her for being in his way. Yes, it can be like that. I once had a car nearly hit me. On the sidewalk. From behind.
When I cross the street on a walking green light, I also look 360 degrees around me at least once to make sure no cars, bikes, scooters or runaway buses are racing through their red lights (as they do) or are making rather dubious left turns directly into my path. In Shanghai, every day is like a remake of Speed and every bus driver aspires to be Sandra Bullock. If this bus goes below 60km/h, even when there’s a red light and pedestrian crossings, Dennis Hopper will come back from the dead to do terrible things to everyone!
As I walk, my eyes automatically scan the people ahead of me to see if any are intending to hoark up a huge wad of spit at the moment I pass (I narrowly missed a mouthful of projectile mouthwash from a woman in pyjamas on Yongjia lu an hour ago).
Shanghai uses up a lot of energy just in daily maintenance and survival rituals. I’m not even talking about the linguistic or cultural hurdles one must leap over. If you are new here, perhaps freshly arrived from somewhere a bit more, um, controlled, it might seem a bit overwhelming and exhausting. Hell, I came here from Turkey and I still found it exhausting. I also found Turkey exhausting. Your mind can never really turn off because you’ll probably get run over or slammed into or trod on or spat on or get a big bucket of smelly crab water, shell fragments and all, tossed carelessly all over you on your way to work. It has happened. You have to be vigilant.
Which, in a strange and convoluted way, leads me to our next lovely interviewee, the fine and daring Ms Camden Luxford of The Brink of Something Else. You see, Camden has written extensively about the inner exhaustions of being an expat. In fact, she even interviewed me about expattery last year for her series on adjusting to living life abroad.
Indeed, it isn’t all beer and Skittles, gin fizz, gated compounds, country clubs, expat bars and serving wenches! No, there is a lot of internal crap that you have to deal with when you have chosen to live a life like this, especially if you do it all not as one who is on a cushy expat package, complete with overpriced housing in all-gringo compounds and private drivers and maids and a salary that can let you pretty much bypass actually living in China (trust me- Shanghai has many such folk).
Some of it gets easier over time (I can vouch for this as I think I might be almost happy-ish at the moment, if you can believe it) but some of it just keeps whacking you across the head, ad infinitum.
Camden is a tough cookie who has been through a very interesting couple of years since settling down to run a hostel in Cusco, Peru. The adjustment from traveler to expat hasn’t been an easy or smooth one. I’ll let her tell you all about it.
I’d been in and out of Australia for about six years when I arrived in Peru; stints working in the UK, Greece and Spain; six months in South East Asia; an eye-opening few weeks in the Gulf Region visiting Dad; Europe by train and bus. My Latin American trip was ill-planned and ill-financed: a very good Hungarian friend, Sara, was studying for a semester in Mexico City, and swine flu had airfares down. I was studying off-campus anyway, so despite the fact that I’d only been home for about six months and had very little cash to my name, I saved what I could, borrowed some from Mum, and flew to Mexico.
Five months later Sara and I were in Lima, saying goodbye. I’d already changed my flight home to have one more month, and flew to Cusco, arriving on Christmas Eve. By New Years Day I was downing Bloody Marys with the owner of my hostel, and had talked him into giving me a job.
A month turned into two; the flight home was postponed indefinitely. Machu Picchu was closed due to disastrous flooding, and I lost my job in Pariwana, found another in the bar of a friend and future business partner. Before I knew it Yamanyá Backpackers was born and Cusco had become home. We opened the doors in September, 2010, nine short months after I’d arrived in Peru.
This wasn’t my first time living abroad, and it had been a long time since Australia had felt like home. It never even crossed my mind that I might have problems adjusting to life in Peru.
But I did. Lots of problems. The stress of a new hostel was enormous, and I was in the sort of unhealthy relationship I never imagined I’d put up with. I felt very alone, very isolated. I was trying to maintain my studies, by distance, although eventually I made the decision to take a few semesters off. My Spanish was getting better, fast, but for a long time wasn’t good enough to really express myself emotionally. I cried a lot, spent a lot of time shut in my bedroom.
It wasn’t until I turned one of my few expat acquaintances into a real friendship that I realized how much I’d needed the support and understanding of someone who got me, who shared my cultural background, who knew what it felt like to be me. That was a huge breakthrough, and while my circle of friends remains predominately Peruvian, I treasure the expat relationships I have as well – both online and off.
I’ve been in Peru for just over a year and eight months now – the longest I’ve stayed in one place since I was 20 (6 years ago). I ended up here through a serious of little decisions that turned into one whopping great one, and while I used to pride myself on flying through life, making travel decisions on a whim, following my joy wherever it took me, I think this time I took whimsy to a dangerous extreme.
I’ve been very depressed at some points. The hostel was never supposed to be a full-time gig for me, and having fallen out with my business partners I find myself with a considerable weight on my shoulders. I can’t help but rebel at this permanent millstone around my neck, a permanent tie to place, and my writing and studying both suffer. My relationship ended badly (but at least it ended!). I dug myself into a rut, and it’s taken a long stretch of time outside of Cusco on a disastrous, but ultimately hugely beneficial, roadtrip, to give me the impetus to say, “that’s enough.”
I love Cusco; but I can’t live here anymore. This is a strange part of the world: a spread of dusty red roof tiles and Incan stone spread in a shallow basin in between green-brown Andean hills, eucalyptus forests, snow-peaked mountains in the distance. The Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. I open my windows every morning and marvel that I live here.
But there’s a peculiar Peruvian phenomenon of distrust. An expat friend theorises that it stems from the tragic history of political violence within the country, and I’m inclined to think there’s something in that. Peruvian after Peruvian has warned me not to trust Peruvians, and I’ve discovered the hard way that trust can, frequently, be misplaced here. There is a certain – and I hesitate to put this in writing – ethic of survival over ethics. A naturally trusting – too-trusting – person, I’ve found this an incredibly confronting and wrenching mental adjustment to make.
I have wonderful friends, but few I would trust implicitly. Gossip runs rife; used to big city anonymity I loathe having my private life bandied about.
And yet I don’t want to go home. I’m planning to leave, yes, but even in my darkest hours, crying on Skype to Mum, when she would beg me to come home I couldn’t even entertain the thought. Yes, sometimes I feel alone, disconnected from people back home who can’t understand what it’s like to be here, and disconnected from Peruvian friends here who can’t understand what it’s like to be a foreigner in the Peruvian Andes. But I love my expat life. I love that every day I’m challenged; I love that I’ve learnt to joke and dream and flirt and negotiate in Spanish; I love being surprised; I love that reading the papers or talking to taxi drivers in an intellectual exercise in the politics and culture of a place I once knew nothing about.
I don’t want a conventional life. Mum once sent me an email. She said, and I paraphrase, “life can’t always be an adventure. You should come home, and get a job that maybe you don’t like so much, and pay off a mortgage, like everyone does.” I thought that was the most depressing thing I ever read. I love my mother to death, and I know she meant well and was worried about me, but oh my word. “Like everyone does.” I want – always wanted – my life to be an adventure; I want to suck every possible experience out of it. And that’s not always roses and sunshine; sometimes it hurts, and is the difficult, rocky, high path instead of the straight road. But I wouldn’t change it.
I used to say I have no regrets, but I think that’s kind of a cliché. Yep, I got regrets. There are choices I wish I hadn’t made, and experiences I’d rather not have lived. With last year to live over again I wouldn’t spend so much time crying in the dark! But I own my choices, and they’ve made me who I am today. Tears in Peru have made me stronger, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learnt. I’m unrecognisable to myself, and I’m more comfortable with myself every day.
I’m at a turning point. Life in Peru is coming to its end and I think, for me, there may never be a permanent home: I guess I can blame my parents for moving me around a bunch as a kid! I never had that one picket fence closing in my entire universe. I used to pore over National Geographic, planning future routes, and I still get this little panicky feeling sometimes that oh-my-God-there’s-too-much-world-out-there-and-I-need-to-get-moving-or-I-won’t-see-it-all.
At the same time, though, I do feel like my time here in Peru – and especially the last few months – have been a kind of disorganized mess. I’m unfocused, splitting my attention between too many things, reeling around on last minute, super-tight-budget trips in an attempt to escape Cusco, narrowly holding my professional and scholastic life together. I want the next stop to be a long kind of stop. I definitely want to unpack bags – I’ve never even really had a house in Cusco! I’ve moved between friends’ places, the hostel, my own apartment, then another one, then a long-ish trip, then back to the hostel. More than anything in the world I want a desk and a bookcase. I want to concentrate on the things I want to do: a kick-ass internship, finish my degree (no more stress-induced semesters off), write, translate. Join a gym. Learn to tango! And that home will join a long line of temporary homes where I leave a life half-built, a few friends who will be friends for life. And I’ll take away a thousand lessons and a million memories and one day I’ll be sitting on a beach somewhere else and a song will come on my iPod and I’ll smile and remember who I was, in that previous life.
Ooooh, so excited! I’m applying for internships in Buenos Aires like there’s no tomorrow, attempting to break into translating work, and feeling, finally, like a year’s worth of writer’s block is clearing.
Once the hostel sells, I’m heading to Lima for a few weeks to pay Peruvian cuisine the farewell it deserves, and then Manu – my dog – and I are off to Argentina. I need a real city for a while, and I loved the grit and the art and the culture and the food and the wine.
Long-term? Who knows?