Hargeisaland

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I flew to Hargeisa on a Saturday and left for work at 7.15 on Sunday morning. Losing a weekend ordinarily would be a cause for resentment, but in this case minimising empty time was a good thing. There is very little to do in Hargeisa, especially if you don’t have an established group of contacts outside one’s own organisation, so half a day to unpack was about right. There was no food in the house when I arrived: meals were provided twice a day, but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically of DRC/DDG, no-one tells new arrivals this. I ate bread found in one of the fridges.

The guesthouse is a spacious two storey building, unusually for Somaliland without an accessible roof but with a little terraced area outside. There are 11 bedrooms, but during my stay there were never more than seven filled. Guesthouse life meant that only one person was there for the duration of my stay: around ten other people in total arrived, left, or did both during what turned out to be only four weeks.

The office had changed since my last trip. We stopped renting the old complex, what had previously been a school, and moved into a three storey office block. Happily it was much closer to the guesthouse, although until I arrived and put my foot down the driver still arrived at the same time, 7.15am, making us some 40 minutes early to work every day. The new office was very new, the concrete stairs noticeably uneven, the water supply barely reaching to my second floor. Outside my office was a balcony upon which mugs, flasks, teaspoons, a box of teabags, and a jar of Nescafe and sugar were presented at 9am every day. One of the flasks contained Somali tea, which is delicious. It tastes strongly of cloves and so sweet it makes me wince.

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We had our bags searched thoroughly, every zip and pocket checked, and were metal-detected before the gate into the office is unlocked for us, one at a time. A herd of camels walked past my window most mornings at around tea time. I shared an office with Muhamed Ismael, Mukhtar, and Ismael Abdi. Later we were joined by a charming Pakistani who also moved into the guesthouse and I did much of exploring of Hargeisa with. Mukhtar helped me with hello, good morning, thank you, and goodbye in Somali, and tried to teach me see you tomorrow, a formidable composition which proved a step too far. Muhamed Ismael sheepishly admitted to being an Arsenal fan and after much investigation and phone calls added me to the office Fantasy Football league. I am 13th.

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I was underworked, sadly for the context. The days were nine hours long because the Somalis stopped for prayer breaks and had an hour for lunch. Lunch for the internationals was brought from the guesthouse in little metal lunchboxes, and was usually rice or pasta with fish or vegetables. I ate on the balcony. January and February is winter in Somaliland so it was not as hot as envisioned; I usually wore a jumper or jacket.

Free time in Hargeisa was a different beast. Much of my week revolved around managing long stretches of time with nothing to do. Normally something to be maximised and looked forward to, here it was not exactly avoided but was certainly treated warily. Going out to a restaurant or friend’s compound was possible, but only around once a week, if that. Otherwise we were confined to the guesthouse. On my one excursion out of the office to a conference at a hotel I met a middle-aged man working for one of the EU’s maritime organs. He had been in Hargeisa for a year and a half and compared it unfavourably with being in prison. “At least there you know you didn’t choose to be there,” he said, half joking.

As an introvert I coped better than many; I read a lot, wrote, listened to music, ran on a treadmill for the first time. On the weekends I sat outside in the sun and watched with delight the weaver birds, Borussia Dortmund yellow and black, building their magical cocoons in the tree, being reminded of poring over my dad’s bird books as a child. One of the seven cats, Elán, the largest, oldest, and most domesticated, adopted me. He had belonged de facto to the previous Country Director and clearly missed the attention. I remember her saying that the cats were therapeutic, and they were: as I stroked Elán, feeling how fluid and cephalopodic he was compared to a dog, it occurred to me that living in such a conservative society meant physical contact was absolutely minimal. I would occasionally shake hands with other men, and that was it. Elán demanded my attention, sitting on my laptop keyboard or shoving himself against my book until I tickled his ears or chin, at which he would sink his claws into my legs in delight and start purring like a helicopter.

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I was happier. The weather was good, the food was good, the Somalis were lovely. Work was a little slow but I was glad to be away from the politics of Nairobi. Hargeisa began to grow on me: it has restaurants and coffee shops, good ones, and I had a couple of friends in other organisations. I would go over to Mine Action Group or HALO and drink smuggled whiskey on their rooves, listening to the de-miners swapping stories about Afghanistan and Iraq and partaking in the curious self-effacing humour of the humanitarian community. The curfew was 9pm, unless you had an armoured car, which, as I heard no end of, HALO did and we didn’t. I rode in one a couple of times: they look normal, but the doors are so heavy it takes two hands to move them.

After four weeks, though, I began to feel the tentacles of cabin fever. I wanted to go for a walk or out for a drink. I was living with a handful of middle-aged men of varying degrees of personability, and missed my women friends. My work permit was still processing but I had another three weeks in Somaliland before my annual leave, and then would be based there until October.

Hargeisa

And then we had a security incident. The news arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we were instructed not to leave the guesthouse for the weekend. On Tuesday I received an email from my boss and 48 hours later I arrived blinking back in Nairobi. My work permit was rejected.

Having had too little to do in Hargeisa, Nairobi was a shock. The boss was leaving and the organisation going through a significant restructure. I was put in a meeting with two Regional Advisers and told that management didn’t have the capacity to “spar with us” as much as they would like; with an average age of 29 and a combined 11 months of service in the organisation, we were designated a “self-managing team”. I worked until 8 or 10pm most nights that week. I couldn’t stay long; Nairobi was over its limit of foreign staff, Hargeisa obviously not an option, Kampala was full, and Mogadishu was judged unwise given the elections there had only just finished. I was sent to Addis Ababa. On a tourist visa, I have now spent a week sitting in a guesthouse on my own. I have four more days here before a much needed break in UK.

What I’m listening to:

  • Sybille Baier, Colour Green
  • Riton ft. Kah-Lo, “Rinse and Repeat”
  • Card on Spokes, As We Surface EP
  • Sons of Kemet, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
  • Burial, Untrue

What I’m reading:

  • Still Aeneid
  • Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils
  • Emmanuel Katangole, The Sacrifice of Africa

Nairobi and Hargeisa

It was a non-transition, in a way; arriving in Kenya felt very much like going into something normal. It had all the trappings of a big change: the many, frequently rushed goodbyes, packing my Limehouse room into two rucksacks and ferrying the remainder to my parents’ house, and flying for many hours with a stopover in Addis Ababa’s great pretender of an international airport, all generating an expectation that things would feel adventurous.

Arriving in Nairobi felt, therefore, unbalancingly routine. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given that I’d lived there for several months not very long ago, and was even living in a familiar area of town. The traffic was still terrible, the wealth divide still stark, the people still laughing. October is a lovely time of year to arrive, not too hot, lilac jacaranda lining the streets and not yet wilting, the giant carapace of the sky clear and blue as jazz. It was good to be back.

I now stay in a guesthouse owned by my employer and share with up to five others, depending on how many people are passing through Nairobi in a given week. As one of only two long-termers it has the feel of living in a hotel, with the attendant perks and drawbacks. I was initially put in a bedroom without access to a bathroom, and it took delicate negotiations with Agnes, the clipped and impenetrable bookings secretary, to move into one of the better rooms. After two weeks of increasingly pointed discussions she moved me into something that is not so much a room as a wing, with a balcony the size of some of the spaces I lived in in London and a family-size bathroom. I was mollified.

My work was slightly unclear to me before leaving UK, and I’m conscious therefore that many of you aren’t sure what exactly it is I’m doing. Let me explain.

I work for Danish Demining Group, a subsidiary of the better-known Danish Refugee Council. DRC focuses on refugees and migration, while DDG focuses on the causes of migration and displacement, especially armed conflict. As well as its eponymous demining wing, DDG has an armed violence reduction wing, which is where I work.

My project is looking at armed violence reduction specifically in relation to border areas in the Horn of Africa. The logic of treating borderlands as areas of particular interest has three explanations: one, Western donors are presently very concerned with international migration, for obvious reasons, of which border crossing in eastern Africa is an important locus. Two, many eastern African countries have recently discovered oil reserves in their hinterlands. Vast tracts of territory that since independence had not been worth governmental attention are suddenly the subject of sharp contestation. Three, border areas are crucial in regional terrorism dynamics, especially with regards to Somalia’s Shabaab.

At present I’m concentrating on the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia border, known as the Mandera Triangle, and the Kenya-Uganda border, known as the Karamoja Cluster. Until January, my job is to collate DDG’s institutional knowledge on border security and management and publicise it on a standalone website. The idea is that any organisation interested in border issues will be able to quickly see who’s doing what where, and identify gaps and opportunities to work together.

I now work in the office, unlike my last time when I worked from home. I much prefer it: meeting people, attending staff meetings, and just being around is much more three-dimensional than sitting alone at my kitchen table all day. It does bring challenges though. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Outliers about something called the “power distance index”. The power distance refers to how directly subordinates are culturally permitted to challenge superiors. In the USA, and to a similar extent Britain, speaking your mind directly is basically encouraged, especially in the world of work. If you spot a mistake, you are normally expected to report it; if your boss tells you to do something that you can see a weakness or oversight in, it normally reflects well on you to raise it with him or her. The power distance in these cultures is short, and these countries are near the bottom of the index. According to Gladwell, in places such as Korea and Colombia the power distance is much greater, and dealing with tricky work situations must be done far more circumspectly.

I don’t know how much the index is accepted social science, but it’s a useful way of framing differing cultural norms. I would say that Kenya is nearer the top of the index than the bottom, and it’s taking more getting used to than I might have thought. For example, Veronica has my key to my office. She knows that I need it. My assumption is that she will find me and give it to me. This is not the case: she will wait respectfully with the key until I go and ask her for it, even if I don’t know that it exists and spend three weeks politely asking my two office-mates if I can use theirs. In another example, I need to have a meeting with David, and offer him a time on Tuesday or Wednesday. Whichever I confirm, he says the other would be better. After several oscillations I conclude David is pitifully inept, before realising that suggesting another time is a polite way of saying he can’t do either.

In many ways it is learning a new language. My speaking and listening skills are still rudimentary, and the real target of my irritation should be my own literacy level, not the people whose language I’m learning.

For reasons like this my ex-flatmate Barbara, mercifully still in Nairobi, frequently chaperones me around the city in my non-work life, puncturing my vision of myself as a streetwise Nairobian blending perfectly into the crowd. On hearing I was going to a clothes market one weekend she insisted on joining me, and not only because she needed a new pair of work trousers. We wandered into the knotted centre of Toi Market where the cubicle stalls are so stacked with goods you can no longer see the stalls themselves at all, an entire geometry of Vietnamese apparel. Barbara ducked into a tunnel of khaki trousers and began full and frank discussions with its caretaker about the dimensions of her hips. She eventually found a pair that she liked but were too long in the heel. “No problem”, assured the vendor, “the tailor will adjust.”

“How much?” demanded Barbara.

“Very cheap,” evaded the vendor.

“How much?” Barbara called after his disappearing shoulder. “If I have to pay a hundred shillings for this because I’m with your lily-white butt I’m going to be furious,” she hissed at me.

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Later, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stall, I took my jeans off and began trying on the pairs of work trousers that the vendor had given me. I had a paranoid fantasy of a terrorist choosing that exact moment to set off a bomb in the market and having to flee, my picture propelling me to international fame as the mzungu running away from the Toi Market Attacks in pink stripy boxers.

As well as Barbara I met up with a small handful of other old friends, hanging out in their flats or plunging into Nairobi’s glittering, pulsing nightlife. Nairobi’s affluent young are incredibly stylish, the first generation born and brought up in a black middle class and accordingly able to mix a deep exposure to Western fashion with the work of professional African designers. We drank cold beers in the warm nights, watching drunken old men dancing with the gorgeous hookers in the cantinas or going to rooftop bars resounding with Tanzanian r’n’b and Nigerian dance tracks.

After a month, I was sent on my first trip to another DDG office and made my first visit to Somaliland. I flew via Addis again, feeling smug at being part of the small crowd who transferred to a separate terminal for the Hargeisa flight and scowling at two blond tourists for making me look less intrepid.

East Africa is red and green: Somaliland is white. White sand, white walls, white dust, white goats. Hijabs shone turquoise, red, or golden like paint on canvas. There were few people on the streets, which were wide, and often gave onto areas of rubble or scrub with black plastic bags clinging to pointed surfaces. In the centre of town smartly painted banks and hospitals stood out against the weary housing blocks, no structure apart from the minarets rising more than two stories from the ground.

Hargeisa was bombed to the ground by Somali dictator Siad Barre in the late 1980s but won its freedom from him in 1991. It is an irony of the international system that Somaliland, with a bicameral parliament, multi-party elections, its own military, and an independent currency is recognised as a state by zero governments worldwide, while Somalia, barely able to pacify its own capital city since Barre’s demise, is recognised by every government in the world.

Concrete blast absorbers the size of hippos lined the entrance to every compound, watched over by guards dressed in fatigues and carrying old, wooden-stocked rifles. I didn’t see anyone else carrying a gun. We weren’t allowed out alone or after 9pm, and for the week I was there I saw only the office, the guesthouse, and the inside of a van with tinted windows. I went out once, to a shop, full of Turkish biscuits and fizzy drinks. The few photos I managed to take were snatched on the way to and from the airport from the back of the moving pick-up. It didn’t feel unsafe at all, and whether that validated or invalidated the pervasive security I couldn’t tell.

I spent a week there attending a security training. The corridors of the office were lined with disabled ordnance. The Somalilanders laughed a lot and talked more, naughtily picking up their phones and checking their emails despite being told repeatedly not to. They chewed gum with their mouths wide open, filling the lecture hall with obscene quiet squelching. I learned how to say hello and thank you in Somali and practiced frequently, but either my pronunciation was so bad or they were so unprepared for a white newcomer saying Somali words it never elicited a reaction. The men were either indifferent or would greet me with big grins and laugh at everything I said. I would reach towards the women for a handshake before their stillness would remind me. They must have thought an awkward half lurch was a traditional British greeting. In the guesthouse in the evenings I played with Ninja and Elan, the house cats, and watched movies or football with the expats.

In the airport at the end of the week, passengers’ bags were passed through four X-ray machines and our carry-on luggage was unpacked and searched through by hand. We were asked to switch every electronic item on and off in front of the security staff. The painstaking diligence was dispiriting and slow (why is there such a strong urge to get through bureaucracy even when there is only a waiting room on the other side?) but also faintly inspiring. Not just a national security incident but the reputation of a would-be nation is at stake in the security of Egal International, and if was my nation, I’d be diligent too.

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I landed in Kenya at 1.30 on Friday morning, not looking forward to catching the minibus to work at 7.30. As soon as I switched my phone on it chirped with a message from Safaricom, my Kenyan network provider: “Welcome home!” it smarmed. OK, I thought.

 

What I’m reading:

  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

What I’m listening to:

  • Ben Pearce, “What I Might Do”
  • Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda and P’tah the El Daoud
  • Nina Simone, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa

 

Return to East Africa

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Mum was practically singing. She had no right to be feeling happy: it was almost one in the morning, we’d been travelling for almost 24 hours and the airline had lost our entire luggage. For my family and me though, being back in Kenya for a two week holiday was more than enough to make up for it. I stood in the grounds of the guesthouse for a moment before bed, absorbing the still-warm tarmac on my bare feet, the raucous cicadas buzzing all around and the quiet smell of the bougainvillea, faintly orange in the dark.

It had been a long time. 13 years, almost, and much of the holiday was spent judging how much had changed in that time. Plenty had. The populations of Kenya and Uganda had rocketed over the last two decades or so, and it showed in Nairobi. If you’d asked me to name infamous traffic spots, I would have said Moscow, Mexico City, Mumbai, but not East Africa. We crawled and baked in the jams, watching billboards proclaiming investment banking and insurance policies, chatting to taxi drivers about politics and football. (“Liverpool,” snorted Kamau. “Most of their fans are ladies in Nakuru.”) I was sad at how completely westernized the development process was: all glossy corporate assurances of a prosperous future.

We spent three days in Nairobi waiting for our lost luggage and getting our hands on a vehicle via an old friend from our residency days. “It’s not a car, it’s a steam engine,” complained Mum as she, Dad and my brother got used to driving the old Land Rover we eventually tracked down. As if the dodgy lights, speedometer that fluttered ceaselessly in a thirty-kph radius and woeful steering weren’t enough to contend with, the ruthless driving practises and pedestrian competition kept things high-octane throughout. Everyone had a car, but the major trunk roads between the biggest cities in the region were still single lane. I saw one working traffic light the whole time, and it was brazenly ignored by everyone.

We stopped in at a giraffe conservation project and an elephant orphanage, both crowded but slightly unreal – almost like watching oneself on television more than taking in how much fun it was. Visiting the giraffe centre was one of my favourite moments of the holiday, as we climbed up to a platform and placed food in the mouth of sauntering, six-meter-tall giants with foot-long tongues that wrapped themselves slimily around our fingers.

Leaving Nairobi, we ventured northwest along the Great Rift Valley towards the lakes: Baringo, Naivasha, Elementaita, Bogoria. Baringo was perhaps the biggest shock, the campsite we’d stayed at years before was almost fully submerged by the lake. My parents reminisced to the owner, Moses, whose courtesy and helpfulness were untroubled by the rising water and falling patronage, even if his business was. We watched crocodiles sunbathing at the bottom of the gardens and went onto the lake in a canoe, where we saw giant fish eagles and tiny kingfishers swooping into the water for lunch.

As we travelled between the various lakes, we made a detour to visit my brother’s old school, where he’d boarded for a year before we moved to the UK. It feels strange being in an empty school under any circumstances, but this venerable English institution in the middle of the Kenyan countryside, with childhood friends still in old pictures on the wall, was important, especially for my brother.

We walked alongside wild giraffe, antelope and wildebeest on Crescent Island, and sneaked up on flamingos that were wading in the warm water of Lake Bogoria. The Land Rover’s engine blasted out a cloud of smoke and we spent a lot of time and money and cortisol on getting it fixed. We drank Tangawizi ginger beer. Every Kenyan we met smiled warmly and talked to us in their beautiful accent, when we could get them to switch away from Swahili with Dad into English.

Halfway through our holiday, we crossed the border into Uganda in a nightmare of traffic queues, persuasive insurance artists and night driving, which is even further from the categorical imperative than day driving. The Ugandan police stopped us to have an exchange of opinion about the Land Rover’s brake lights. Mum got sick. Dad sang. The battery light came on and we all prayed. The car’s electrics flickered on and off and we arrived in Mukono, our home of seven years, five hours later than planned and went to bed.

Over the next three days we explored the town, grown almost beyond recognition. The university where my parents had worked had grown from under 800 students in 2000, when we left, to over 8,000. The journey from there to the capital Kampala, which used to take us maybe half an hour, now took three times that. We met up with old friends, my parents’ colleagues mostly, and Tabitha, the lady who used to work for us. She cooked for us with her family at her home and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we felt like Ugandans. We met students and young professionals we’d played with as children; they looked us up on Facebook on their phones.

After that, we spent a couple of days by the Nile, including Christmas Day when we ate tilapia and the mince pies Mum had smuggled in from England, and headed back across the border. We had one day left, which we spent in a national park, where we were lucky enough to see buffalo, hippo, rhino and two indolent lions all in the space of a few hours. “Gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!” volunteered Dad.

Back in Nairobi, preparing to leave for the airport in an apocalyptic downpour, I reflected on the trip. For us at least, things like water, electricity and internet were much better than I remembered, but both countries had far to go: what little I saw of Nairobi made the glossy “artist’s impression” of development plans in the in-flight magazine look wildly optimistic. I suppose most importantly, on both sides of the border, the people had been wonderful: warm, engaging, welcoming, quick to laugh. I would miss the tin roofs turned thunderous by rain, mosquitos slapped stiffly onto whitewashed walls, vast, bald-headed Marabou storks loitering balefully on lamp posts. Sitting in the Land Rover and watching East Africa go by: blue sky, green hills, yellow bark on the acacia trees, red earth.

Santiago Dogs

At some point on the thirty-six hour trip from GDA to Santiago de Chile, it ocurred to me that this was the furthest south I’d ever been. I knew in my head that Chile was not going to be much like Mexico, but it didn’t really sink in until the door of the plane opened up: it was cold. I had been cold at various moments in Mexico, but not really: a kind of nominal cold that came of not being actively hot. I hadn’t seen my breath for almost a year. This was the kind of cold that inhibits the dexterity of my fingers, tempts me to wear socks in bed and turns mealtimes from a pleasure into tactical warmings. I shivered from the airport all the way to my first hostel and into bed. “It’s only going to get worse,” warned a sympathetic Chilean at breakfast the next day. “Tomorrow it’s going to go down to fifteen degrees.”

I booked three nights at first, to adjust, and look for work. Most of the days were taken with finding hostels, armed with a CV translated into Spanish and my most charming smile, and asking if I could man the reception in exchange for a free stay. In the meantime, I was getting used to Chile’s money, language, and culture. Currency was the first concern: there are headspinning quantites of zeroes flying around. After three or four weeks in Mexico, I found that I stopped having to convert pesos into pounds, so I live in hope that the same will happen here fairly soon. However, twenty is an easier number to work with than 780, and things are not made easier by the shopping system, which is gratuitously complex. You start by getting the items you want to buy, which you then present to someone behind a counter in exchange for a ticket, which you take to another counter where you pay and get a receipt, and are reunited with your shopping upon presenting said receipt to a counter which may or may not be the first one.

Chilean Spanish, sadly for me, lives up to its reputation. Little phrases and mannerisms that two weeks ago marked me as someone who belonged, now mark me out as someone who doesn’t. Feria, for one of dozens of possible examples, means “cash” in Mexico. Here it apparently means “supermarket”, and now the lady who works in the kitchen smiles at me with more than a hint of suspicion and speaks to me in individual syllables, enunciating as though to a toddler. (I am reminded of one of the teachers in the school I worked in in Honduras, who was well-meaning but unable to separate not knowing Spanish from having an otherwise capable brain, and would show me how to do things like hand over money in exchange for using the photocopier, or rub out pencil marks with a rubber.) A friend who learned Spanish here while I was there assured me that it’s great once it clicks, but I wonder if two months will be enough, especially given the amount of English I speak at work. In terms of language, my progress in Mexico was so formative that I suspect I do just now speak Mexican, and, unless I end up spending serious amounts of time in another specific dialect, other Spanishes will simply feel foreign. I find that doesn’t bother me too much.

After three days, I found a place that let me help out on their extension project for a while. This turned out to mean digging holes for foundations in what used to be a store room. Someone would crack the concrete and clear maybe thirty square centimetres, and my job was to sink that square seventy centimetres straight down. I had a crowbar and a pair of gloves. I used my hand as a bucket, scooping big handfuls of earth out of the holes, and the gloves had so many holes in them the dirt stained the skin on my fingertips so that there was no shifting it. Soap, washing powder and hot water faded it, but for days afterwards I was left with blackened cuticles. I went for lunch on the first day and was presented, as in all Chilean restaurants, with a white bread roll. The restaurant had been recommended to me as a good place to get traditional Chilean food, but was a little higher-end than I’d anticipated. I was conscious of the very white tablecloth. I was too hungry to wait for my order to arrive, so I went straight for the roll, hoping no-one was watching me put chunks of bread into my mouth with my dead man’s fingernails.

It was an experience. In the evenings, half-way between staff and guest, I hung out on the internet and emailed other hostels. Pretty soon I found Hostel Dominica, from where I am writing this entry. They taught me how to check people in and out and where to buy the bread from breakfast, and I do the night shift four times a week and get to stay here for free. I enjoy the car-park attendent who sits just outside the gate and whistles like a songbird to let people know there’s space. I’ve never heard anyone whistle like that before. He sits out there, as far as I can tell, every hour it’s light, and every time a car rolls by, off he goes. Wobbling the notes like Whitney Houston.

I also enjoy talking to the people who pass through. A fair few have bought in unreservedly to the backpacker identity of boho clothes and a lifestyle hooked around alcohol, casual sex and cheap drugs. Which is fine with me, as long as they recognise that’s not the only way to do it. I prefer talking to the solo travellers, like Jean-Yves, the half French half French-Canadian emerald dealer, a polyglot entrepreneur who unconsciously dropped bits of French and Portuguese into our Spanish-and-English conversation. He told me stories about multiple bankruptcys, hunting for stones in the Amazon in northern Brazil, and getting his suitcase with $10,000USD-worth of emeralds getting stolen on the metro just after he landed in Santiago. Or Daniel, a softly-spoken, highly intelligent Icelander who is travelling very slowly around the world for “twelve or fifteen years.” I asked him what he was going to do after that, and he said probably become a teacher. I think he should probably become President of Planet Earth, but I don’t think they’d let him, and he wouldn’t enjoy himself if they did. He’d do a good job though.

The dogs that roam every street in the city aren’t so much stray as communal – almost all of them are sleek specimens, fed, watered and patted by pedestrians and stall-owners. At least, they are compared to the stray dogs of Mexico and Honduras, who looked more like childrens’ drawings of dogs that had the misfortune to hobble off the page and into real life. They seem to me to embody the difference between Chile and the other Latin American countries I’ve been to: a lot cleaner, and less dangerous. My next move is out of big cities, even if I haven’t decided exactly where yet. I suspect there will be less dogs. It’s a privileged position to be in, even if I am now paying increasing attention to the calendar to see how long until I get home. The aim, I have found, is to get to a point where I enjoy the thought of staying and of leaving, equally.

Pineapple and Glass: Leaving Guadalajara

“That’s so crazy that your year abroad is like, woah… it’s over, you know?” Skyping a friend a week or so ago, it began to sink in that yes, in one sense, I am done. Technically I’m now on holiday until October. Classes finished at the end of March, and in three days’ time I am leaving Mexico indefinitely. The two weeks after school passed vaguely, partly because GDA shut down almost totally for Semana Santa, Holy Week, as most of the city headed to the beach or to family in more rural areas for a week’s holiday. Alone in the apartment, I disciplined myself not to sleep in too late and made lists of things to do to keep busy, ticking off small tasks that needed to get done before I left and making trips to corners of the city I hadn’t got round to visiting yet. I found that the only memento of Mexico I need is a photo of Frida Kahlo, the only artist I know whose paintings speak to me. Fortunately for me, she remains a cultural icon and in virtually every tianguis (street market) there is a stall or two selling antique-style photographs of GDA, heroes of the Revolution, stars of the Golden Age of cinema, and Frida.

I find myself still making mental notes of elements of Spanish I don’t understand so I can ask my teachers at school, then realising that I don’t have any more lessons to go to. And then realising how much my approach to learning has changed since the days when I grumbled privately and publically that technical, classroom learning wasn’t “real” learning, and not a method that helped me very much.

On Sundays, Avenida Vallarta, one of GDA’s major roads and the road on which I live, closes to vehicles and for half a day is filled with joggers, cyclists, dogwalkers and rollerbladers. It’s a lovely time of the week for the complete change in atmosphere it brings, and I have often spent an hour on the terrace of my apartment block or in the outside seating area of the café across the road and just enjoyed the sun, the absence of traffic and the variety of people rolling past. Last weekend, someone set up a soundsystem as well. When they finally moved on from We Speak No Americano I was prepared to forgive them for starting at eight in the morning, and by the time they got round to playing Blondie’s Heart of Glass I was wondering why I was leaving.

I am, after all, very comfortable here. I have long since beguiled the truculent front gate that baffles visitors, I know where to get the best tacos and coffee, and the people in the corner shop let me bring them the money later when I dozily show up without any. I will miss the zealously cool teenagers who forever hang out on Chapultepec, and being able to pick up two-kilo pineapples for eighty pence.

Having made you all jealous, I need to admit that my last six weeks in Mexico have probably been the hardest of my whole time here. The problem with my bank I alluded to in the previous entry is still ongoing, which, having lasted over month, has now left me with the prospect of having to move country with my new debit card lost somewhere in the ether of international post. The Mexican people, as I hope I have accurately conveyed, are uncommonly warm, hospitable and friendly, but there is a surface that is very hard to get past. The culture is much more family- than friend-based, which creates something of a glass wall in terms of feeling truly at home. Saying goodbye to one of my remaining friends last week, I had a conversation about the difficulty of being a single foreigner in Mexico – as she succinctly put it, “if you don’t have a family here, you’re fucked.” What we were trying to express is that without a pre-existing support network here, it’s very hard to create one. Tenuous contacts for jobs not working out, a cracked if not broken heart and the miserable form of Blackburn Rovers have also contributed to a final few weeks that, sadly, have left me eager to leave Mexico and make a fresh start.

The fresh start is Chile, a fairly arbitrary choice and one that, despite what I have written above, causes the “survival” section of my brain to throw anxious pins of mirth, scorn or bewilderment at the “decision-making” department. Why am I leaving a country where I can order quesadillas from taco stands virtually twenty-four hours a day? Why am I trading a Spanish that while far from perfect is at least clear and familiar, for a sound-mangling variant filled with impenetrable slang? Why, in other words, am I not staying in a comfortable environment with lovely housemates, working leisurely on my dissertation, doing a wee bit of travelling and then going home?

They are reasonable questions, even more so given that I’ll (probably) be unable to take money out of cash machines. But the fact is staying in GDA without having anything compulsory to do every day would inevitably lead to boredom. There is of course much more of the rest of Mexico to see: the Baja California peninsula, San Luis Potosí, virtually every beach in the country, the coastal cities, Monterrey in the north… but it’s impossible to visit everything, and if I did all that I’d have no excuse to come back. So, balancing the impulse to make the most of my free time with the instinct to go back home and see everyone, I decided that a new country would be the best thing to do before flying back to Britain. Having my few emails to potential contacts remain unanswered, I don’t have much of an idea how the next two months will pan out. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

“Life is like the surf”

For the first time since arriving in Mexico, I feel that the weeks were settling into a rhythm. School continued as ever before; I enjoyed increasingly the new apartment. A couple of weekends in, Jonny invited me and Nick to his home in Guanajuato, the neighbouring state. A scatterbrained trip followed, with a disproportionate amount of time spent driving round dusty towns looking for Jonny’s ex-girlfriends, but Guanajuato city, surely one of the most beautiful in the whole of Latin America, and a spectacular, blinding-white crater lake made up for it.

After being a guest for three days, seeing the sea of lights of GDA appear on the horizon was as welcoming as a hug. I was surprised at how relieved I felt to be back in the metropolis, where I didn’t need to rely on getting a lift to go anywhere. Here the only tools needed to survive and flourish are a phone and a wallet.

Time passes slowly when I have less independence – I have now spent almost as much time in the apartment as I did with Ruth and Juarez, but it feels as though it has passed about twice as fast. I find myself becomg more used to “Mexican time”, but not less frustrated by it. I know perfectly well that “Let’s have dinner at 7.30” means we’ll start cooking at half past nine and eat at half past ten, or “We’ll leave at 4” means sometime after six, but the knowledge does not take the edge off. Perhaps I am more British than I like to admit: swapping stereotypes with Jonny’s father, the first trait he said was “punctuality.” Mercedes, my teacher for Level 8, is still liable to bring a conversation to a irreperable halt with an extraordinary opinion (“Gerard Pique is gay. Have you seen how he kisses Shakira? I kiss my dog with more passion”), but spoke about Mexican time with typical insight. The future tense is barely ever used because it borders on the blasphemous – if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for tomorrow. Instead the subjunctive, the possible, the wished-for, is used, which doesn’t often translate to English, but it makes me wonder if there is a relationship between that mindset and one’s attitude to arriving on time.

I taught Jonny how to cook pasta, which, to give him his due, is more complicated for a beginner than we in the west would think. After a lengthy question and answer session I started work on an essay, and returned half an hour later to find Jonny with a plate of plain, boiled pasta, solemnly forking one piece at a time. He has in return taught me how to heat up a good tortilla, which I imagine is a fair equivalent: six weeks later, he still laughs until he can barely breathe over the time Nick let his tortillas go dry. We had a barbeque, a carne asada, to see Nick off, and after a sad farewell tequila he left for the airport on Sunday morning. He is probably glad to escape the girls downstairs, who live life at a volume more suited to a football stadium, and have an unfortunate taste in music which does not make for good neighbours. Skyping Mum last week, they got back from wherever they’d been and within minutes the shrieking started. “What is going on down there?” Mum broke off, alarmed. “Is it domestic violence?”

Term finished on Friday and, after rushing slightly guiltily through an essay, I finally escaped academia and left GDA to begin my travels. As I write I am in DF, for the third and perhaps final time. The metro still enchants me effortlessly, with punk bands at the La Raza station and melancholy buskers shuffling through the carriages. Oaxaca, Chiapas, the Yucatan, Cuba… the names alone set my feet tingling.

The Trees and the Buildings

“The difference between a language and a dialect,” said Nick, my new class- and room-mate, “is that a language has a navy backing it up.” Having been taught that all language is dialect in my literary theory course last year, I was pleased to find someone with a similar angle on things, even if our approaches to learning are different. “I love grammar!” Profa Rosa had beamed in the first week of Level Seven. Semester one had ended and semester two brought two new classes and two new teachers.  After the inauspicious start, Level Seven has improved, although the commitment to an a posteriori method still feels to me like switching the ends and the means. Level Eight is, happily, the polar opposite, where Profa Mercedes chatters away to us about GDA’s social divides, the varying offensiveness of street slang or the best places to buy Chinese. We occasionally do half an exercise in the workbook, but Mercedes inevitably remembers a funny story or has to ask someone a question about their home culture and half an hour later we have learned a lot about Shanghai’s marriage trends but not much about the subjunctive.

The end of my first five-week term conincided with an appointment with the Immigration Office over my student visa. Having had a bad first experience of Latin American bureaucracy I was preparing for long-term conflict but, in the end, the paperwork and fees were not overly stressful and with two trips to various offices in the city centre I was presented with my laminate student card, which allows me to stay in the country continuously for twelve months but does not fit in the card slots in my wallet.

Shortly after the visa episode, the more pressing issue of moving house kicked in. Living with Ruth and Juarez was taking too much of a toll both on my finances and my sanity, and after much searching and tapping what fragile networks I had formed here, I found an apartment with a couple of Mexican students within walking distance of my school. The process of searching a foreign city for accomodation on my own had not been fun and I was grateful not to have to move to a different colonia completely, which would have meant starting from scratch with bus routes, landmarks, names and junctions of major streets and shops. My final week with Ruth and Juarez was hard, as Ruth was dramatically unwell and left her bed only to be carried to an ambulance. “I wish they would just tell me if I had cancer,” she sighed several times that evening. I judged it would not be politic to suggest that the fact all three doctors she had been to see had told her she did not, in fact, have cancer, probably meant that she did not have cancer. The following day, after much ritual with the medecine box, Ruth was in fine form, dancing to swing hits from her youth and cracking jokes about not having washed for too long. The next day the illness that had been in her throat and stomach had somehow spread to her knees, and she returned to horizontality. The following day the knees were no longer giving her pain but the right foot was thickly bandaged. Illness is not, in general, a laughing matter, but my sympathy grew increasingly limited as the sighed comments about not being able to afford medicine after I deprived them of my rent became more pointed.

The weekends flew by, with nights out in the bars of Chapultepec, the local football derby in a 70,000 seater stadium, and DJ Shadow fresh from California. Shadow was so late getting on to stage that the crowd got restless and began heckling the techies. When Mexicans start taking issue with your punctuality, you know you’re pushing it.

The lady who owned the apartment we were to move into postponed. Six more days with Ruth and Juarez. The Day of the Dead arrived early in November, and altars and marigolds burst up overnight into all the public spaces in the city. We tried to get into a cemetary that night, but after a long queue we were told the event had sold out days before. What the tour would have involved still intrigues me; I am to this day still slightly unsure of what El Día de los Muertos actually constitutes.

On Thursday at midday I finally received a text from Jony saying the apartment was ready and we could move in that afternoon. After classes finished at 1pm, I went home, ate lunch, explained what was happening to Ruth and Juarez, and packed. By 2pm I was sitting in an empty room, everything I had brought with me to Mexico in a my backpack and a smaller rucksack. Mexican time usually runs roughly an hour and a half later than the given time, and this time I didn’t have a given time. 3pm. 4pm. “Still here?” laughed Juarez. It was a curiously vulnerable moment, sitting there, having said my goodbyes and with not even a photo on the wall for encouragement. 5, 6pm. At 7 my phone buzzed again: there’d been a mix-up, we’d have to move tomorrow. I felt embarrassed, confused, hungry. I knew about urban loneliness only from books and films, but I have experienced it here: there are five million people right here, I remember thinking, and I have not one of them I can talk to.

The move the next day, in the end, went fine. Jony rolled up in a car with his cousin and we cruised downtown to pick up Nick. We moved in, three between two bedrooms, with the promise of a bigger apartment “soon” keeping humour good. At around five in the afternoon we were sitting in the living room/kitchen and we looked at each other. “Anyone fancy a beer?” said Nick. That was a turning point: no more having to plan days in advance when I wanted to go out for a drink, no more having to wait for Ruth’s (quite literal) blessing before leaving the house. The bigger apartment has not emerged but I don’t mind. Jony was great with practicalities, his rapid Spanish sorting out the rent and the utensils the flat was missing before he settled into the sagging armchair in front of his TV and got on with the real work of browsing the hundred-or-so cable channels for cleavage. A couple of nights ago, we got back from a bar at around 11pm. “I can smell gas,” warned his cousin immediately as we walked in. “I don’t think so,” assured Jony, thrusting his nose into the hob and flicking the ignition a couple of times to make sure.

My friend Greg organised a trip to a canyon just outside the city that weekend, so for the first time in six weeks I escaped the metropolis and could see no buildings or roads in any direction. I was reminded of Spud’s miserable cry in Trainspotting when he leaves Edinburgh for the highlands: “It’s not natural, Tommy!” The path down the canyon was steep and rocky, but when we arrived at perhaps 9.30am there was already a stream of Mexicans returning from the floor. The morning sun tickled my eyes and I sneezed loudly. “Bless you,” wheezed the nearest jogger. Rambo ran past us at the bottom, wearing denim hotpants and weights attached to his wrists. We admired the river with the horses in the distance, drank some lukewarm water and ate sandwiches. Got our breath back. Rambo began to do press-ups.

I run now for half an hour, which is perhaps not directly impressive, but  at around twice the time I could manage when I started I feel is definite progress. Between 5 and  6pm is the best time, when the sun has dipped low enough to cast shadows over all the streets but still makes the tops of the trees and the buildings glow. The days are noticeably shorter now; the clocks went back at the same time as Britain’s. October brought the end of the rainy season, which had dragged on unusually late this year, with the hurricanes on both the Atlantic and Pacific coast contributing. GDA is too far inland to be affected directly, but the storm that hit Puerto Vallarta, the beach town on the west coast, sent three days of ceaseless rain to the city. Now the “winter” is here, temparatures in the morning and evening are enough to set the tapatios grumbling for their jackets and sweaters, although the heat of the day still reaches 25° comfortably.

I visited Tequila, birthplace of the licor, and was surprised to like the town itself as well as the tour of a distillery. Maddy and I got on the wrong bus on the way back and it took an hour to get back to where we started; I missed the first half an hour of an independent film from DF I’d agreed to see with Greg. That was my last sociable act for a week as I went underground to write my first essay for Warwick. I ended it with a paragraph on the plasticity of time in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which seemed appropriate as I now feel time is passing about twice as fast as it was two weeks ago. I find myself with a pleasing balance of being busy but also having lots of free time. I have two weeks of school left and one more essay to send back to Warwick, and then I have a whole month to myself… the rural south of Mexico beckons.