Monday, July 9, 2018

A Whole New World...The Start of a New Zealand Road Trip

It seems funny to think that this most epic of road trips began with some donburi and teriyaki bento in a little suburb outside Glen Eden, West Auckland. We were hangry and a little hungover and had already argued a little about map-reading techniques within the first ten minutes of the journey, but that's how it began.

We had spent most of the previous Saturday (this was Monday) drinking on a mini wine tour, then beers in the Hallertau brewery, followed by a couple of cans of Woodstock (a sickly sweet bourbon and coke mixture from A's adolescence), finishing off the night with a mix of different drinks - more beers, wine, and finally - ouch -whisky sours. The Woodstocks, I was told, had to be drunk outside, on the beach at Muriwai, and it was explained that this was West Auckland tradition: you couldn't have grown up as a "Westie" without having done that, so I chugged down the sweet alcopoppy thing, whilst realising I was on one of the most incredibly beautiful beaches I'd ever had the pleasure of watching a sunset upon. We started out full of chatter and laughter, but as the bright sun waned and we watched a million colours in the sky illuminated in the many rockpools on the ground, it seemed to quieten us, as if we had to pay reverent heed to what we were witnessing.

Actually, that was the second impressive beach I'd seen already in my first week in New Zealand. We had taken one of our first drives out a few days prior to Piha, a spectacular surfing beach on the Tasman Sea, with a permanent town population of 600. It's incredibly rugged, famous for a giant formation known as Lion Rock and the first ever NZ board-riding competition in 1958, and is surrounded by subtropical forest and various impressive hills and rock formations. It's one of the beaches where The Piano was filmed, and it lends itself well to melancholy art: a song, a poem, a piece of prose, a painting all might suggest themselves to someone so inclined, were they to have visited on a day like we did; overcast, windy, and brooding.

Driving through the countryside towards our first stop in Rotorua, I was reminded of Scotland's green peaks and burns shimmering in the low sunlight, but also of the great American landscapes I have only seen in films: the flat, wide roads, the tall pine forests, and the seemingly endless shapes of mountains forming on the horizon. We started out listening to Maori radio, and I felt inspired by the newness of this place, moved by its exoticness, its duality, its storytelling in two languages.

It was the same feeling I'd felt the evening before, as we had walked out of the house for the first time that hungover day just in time to see the sunset. We had walked to A's old primary school up the road, set on the side of a hill with a huge Macrocarpa tree, and looked out to views of the Waitekere ranges and prehistoric-looking forest. We noticed a Sunday church service taking place in the small school chapel, and the attendees were Pacific islanders, either Tongan or Samoans, speaking in a language we could not understand. Soon, however, as we started ascending the small footpath, we heard the strains of a haunting song sung by a choir of strong voices. It hung around us like the scent of flowers at dusk, and clung to us, silencing our chatter as we reached a magical little waterfall above the path, itself enclosed in a hushed cathedral of green.

I've spent much of the last three weeks feeling awed like that. Maybe the photos below will help to begin to explain it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The World Sleeps Until You Wake

You once wrote to me, “the world sleeps until you wake up,” as we lived our separate, parallel, lives, but we were somehow already joined by that gossamer thread that unites every couple. I’m a romantic, yes, but I know that what I feel about you is more than just some whizzing endorphins doing their thing when I feel your touch on my skin last thing at night and your eyes on me first thing in the morning even when we’re 10,000km apart. You’re a part of my consciousness, someone I think of involuntarily now throughout my day. Wondering about how you are is like taking a breath.

And then, the clock chimes 7, or 8pm, and it’s my turn to be without you. You’re usually going to sleep first, unless I’m awake into the wee hours of the next morning. So in my evenings I get to luxuriate in you. I get to wonder about you, and I’m well aware that in these spaces between seeing one another, touching one another and talking, we could be inventing false narratives, but then I look back at the words we’ve written to one another, and I think about the feeling I get when I listen to your voice, how my feet feel more solid on the earth, how I feel like I’m more inside my body and how my shoulders drop into their correct posture.

I feel warm when I think about you. And I’m usually a person with cold hands and feet, who needs an extra layer with her just in case.


As I read this back I know I have been GIDDY and drunk on you all summer, and I realise that I still am, but that it’s maturing into something deeper than “oh look how compatible the internet says we are”. I think of all of the combined hours we have now spent talking on the phone, each wrapped up in the thoughts of the other, and I find myself wondering if this time spent living thousands upon thousands of kilometres apart will be the thing that we look back on as the making and cementing of our bond. I wonder if it’s a blessing, because most other couples living in the same place might get lots more physical time together, but I wonder if they know one another's brains in the same way as we do after four months.

I suppose it’s not the comparison, anyway, that is important. What is important is that the world still sleeps until you wake, that as I write this I’m fully conscious of how much I desire you, and that although sometimes frustrating to not be able to reach out and touch your arm, lace my fingers with yours, look into your eyes, or stroke your head, noticing how much those moments are missed is as crucial to understanding what this – us – we – means to me. I’m very much enjoying letting that flow over me, and through me, today as I write at my kitchen table, waiting for you to wake up in the tomorrow that you’re already in.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Manifest Your Destiny.

These were three words that came to me as I sat down to write at a busy Barcelona café last night.

I have decided to embrace that spirit, as I feel the strong pull of returning to this place that truly feels like home, but of course in recent months I have been anxiously analysing the details, like not yet having a job lined up, or the ridiculous Brexit deal being floated that treats EU citizens as lesser people, and I worry about the repercussions for UK citizens settling in the EU.

But the new model (cobbled together from plenty of thinking, and listening to others I trust, but little reading on the subject) is thus: Don't worry about what might happen. That's such a waste of energy. Instead, focus on the goal. Envisage it as clearly as you can. Drive all your energy towards it. Imagine how it will feel when it is achieved. What you can imagine, pretty much, can happen. 

I wrote down those words. They were somehow already familiar to me. Googling them quickly I realised they are a best-selling book on spirituality by the late Wayne Dyer, one of the most widely-read self-help gurus, and a former high school guidance counselor. That's the job I do right now, by the way; some weird synchronicity there.

I'm trying hard to live those three words. I'm trying to both live in and embrace the present, as well as envision the future I would like. I think it's important to do both, but mostly to be grateful for what you already have. In the past few days, meeting up with friends I made whilst living here in Barcelona, I have verbalised the plans I have had for a few months now, to leave Costa Rica at the end of my work contract there in 2018 and come back to the city I love, the one I miss when I am away from her.

Of course all of this is accelerated by Brexit in 2019. If I'm going to stay here, I figure, I may as well get here and settle as soon as I can, before my passport makes that more difficult. In the last few days, I have mentioned to my friends the ideal school I would like to work at: The British School of Barcelona, which is not in the city itself but in a small neighbouring town right by the sea. I could spend less in rent there, meaning I might be able to afford a flat with a balcony or some outside space, get a small dog, and come to central Barcelona at weekends. I thought about it first because they have always been a supportive and welcoming school, one which I have had contact with now for several years as I used to visit them for my old job.

So imagine my surprise when I was crossing the street coming from the supermarket this morning in my friend's neighbourhood - a place I just happen to be staying, to look after her cat - and I see, two steps in front of me, my contact from the British School of Barcelona, who was the Head of the Secondary school. I greet her, and she clearly remembers me. We exchange updates, and it transpires that she is now the school's Headmistress. I tell her about my tentative plans to have sent her an email in the coming days and my eventual plan to relocate back to the area. She encourages me to send the email, and we exchange warm goodbyes. I am left stunned, smiling at my good luck and at the universe seemingly throwing me a line.

Maybe it's possible. Maybe it's happening. Maybe that balcony, and that dog, and those walks by the sea, are in my future. I walk along, thanking whatever universal force there is, and I can already smell the salty sea air.

Monday, June 5, 2017

To You, From Recovery

I guess I'm finally ready to write to you.

It's been two years since you let me know that you had cut me out of your life. Thinking about it now, I don't really know how my heart coped with that searing pain. I think of it as if it that raw flesh had an encounter with a branding iron. "SINGLE AFTER 6 YEARS", or "DAMAGED GOODS" are what come to mind as what I was marked with, but I'm probably being overly dramatic.

Everyone gets their heart broken at least once, right? Everyone grieves, and has those days when they can't get up and they can't go to work and they can't eat and they lie there, in whiteness, in soundlessness, and wonder how their heart will ever recover. And you, in your grief, after losing your father, no doubt experienced the same. And then your heart disappeared, and burrowed itself away. And mine? Well, it went into hibernation.

You see, our hearts had shared a beat once, and mine, without yours, hurt in my chest. Sometimes that chest-ache is felt right at the beginning, when you know you're falling for someone. Maybe you also felt the ache when you ended us. Maybe you didn't. I don't know. You were very far away, and even when you came on a plane to see me, I still didn't know what you felt.

These days, my heartbeat has had to self-regulate. It beats with no-one else's, stronger and more stable (strong and stable leadership is a thing these days, apparently), with a regular rhythm. It's not been won over, nor damaged, since it beat with yours, but instead I've been working on making that most important of all muscles more resilient; running, singing, surfing, driving in Central America. I've done so many things that scared me, to build up that heart until it felt Ox-like. It feels like it could take a beating, because, well, it did.

My heartbeat is stronger because of, and in spite of you. And all I have to say for that is: thank you.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Morning Mass

I worship at your 7am mass
We are missionaries, 
Whispering prayers to one another’s backs
Feeling the morning’s light 
Caress us in its urgency

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The other side of Pura Vida

Oh, that’s the preventative pill, right? You don’t have something for a mistake with contraception that happened yesterday?” I asked at the counter of my small local Costa Rican pharmacy.

The junior pharmacist smiled sweetly at me. He must have been little older than 22 years old.

“You mean la píldora del día después? Oh, no that doesn’t exist here. Está prohibido,” he shared, looking kindly at me with something akin to camaraderie.

I did a double-take. We had experienced a fairly good pharmacist-client rapport until then. I tried again, certain that somewhere my Spanish had let me down.

“So what does a woman do here, in the case that her usual contraception has failed, as is the case for me?”

“Well,” he said, looking sweetly at me, “if your usual method of contraception fails, and you fall pregnant, then hay que tener un chiquitito.” He beamed, as if this was the greatest gift anyone could hope for. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica.

I stared at him, not quite believing what I had heard. This whippersnapper was telling me, a 34 –year old woman new to his country, that if I fell pregnant, now, single, and living and teaching here, 6 months into a 2-year work contract; that if the unimaginable had happened and a split condom meant that I was now pregnant by a man I had known for three weeks, I was going to have to GIVE BIRTH TO A HUMAN BEING.

This kind-faced young man, still with traces of post-pubescent acne on his jawline, had laid eyes on me all of 2 minutes ago, and yet, here he was, telling me in no uncertain terms what I was to do with my body. The decision was made. Costa Rica said so. It was possibly the most powerful “computer says no” moment I have ever experienced in my life. And I’ve been to the DMV in New York City, where they have a lot of computer says no moments.

Before you judge me as some kind of promiscuous gringa; someone whose knicker elastic is as loose as her morals, some harlot who goes out corrupting young Costa Rican men with her worldly European charms and her tales of travel and the Theory of Knowledge (the subject I teach), let me make something clear. I’ve had three long relationships since the age of 16. My first lasted 6 years, and we stayed together all through high school and university. I slept with precisely no-one else aged 16-22. Then, upon that relationship ending, I fell in love with an older guy, and we were together for 2 years. He proposed.  I accepted. We realised we had made a mistake. I moved out to a shared house and slept with again, precisely no-one, until a few months later, when I met the guy who I thought was the love of my life. We were together 6 years, and we lived together for 5 of those, moving our lives and work from London to Barcelona. When that relationship ended in 2015, I had a few partners, but you could count them on one hand. I think I was fairly restrained, after a lifetime of sexual restraint. I like being choosy. Not that it should matter, choosing to be choosy is just that: a choice. An equally valid choice would have been to tear up society's rule book and go to wild sex parties, but I'm basically too much of a germaphobe.

In my life therefore I have taken the morning after pill exactly twice.  Once after a very young and very stupid experience with my very first partner, a manipulative older guy, aged 15 ¾, and once again last year, after a night with a close friend, a guy my age (we should have both known better – but – mojitos – and we trusted one another a lot. A pregnancy wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but he was moving to Colombia and I to Costa Rica.)

What I had taken for granted in my EU liberal bubble, I suppose, is how easily available that option had been to me. Even so, in my very first experience at a sexual health clinic, I was terrified. I was technically under the age of consent, by a month or two, and a nurse had to give me an extra assessment to ascertain if I was mentally able to make the decision to receive the morning-after pill without them informing my parent. They also had to check that I wasn’t asking for it as a result of abuse, or something untoward. I had to go with my high-school best friend, whose older sister knew where the clinic was, and assured us it would be confidential. I trembled throughout the assessment, feeling like I’d been sent to the school principal’s office. All of the nurse’s questions seemed designed to make me feel slutty and wrong.

My second experience was much more straightforward. I walked into a Barcelona pharmacy, asked for the pill, paid, and gulped it down. I sent a text to my friend to let him know. He treated me to an ice-cream and a hug, and we resolved to be more responsible.

In a different country, with a different prevailing set of beliefs, with a different partner, I too feel different. It was clear that my values and judgements about what was correct were not totally aligned with the law in Costa Rica. I'd noticed snippets of machismo in daily life here - catcalls, being called muchacha, or girl, by older men, enduring plenty of ogling - but I hadn't imagined that my right to a safe, legal way to control my fertility would have been questioned. After some heavy googling and plenty of frantic whatsapps on the subject, it became evident that Costa Rican women do of course have another method. The Yuzpe regimen, as explained by the World Health Organization, is an equally effective post-coital method of emergency contraception alongside the copper IUD and the morning-after pill. It's sightly more fiddly, requiring two megadoses of the combined ordinary pill taken 12 hours apart, but it exists. And boy, was I glad it did. But I had to question what I would have done had I found myself in the same situation aged 15 
¾. Or were I not an educated woman with access to information from trusted sources and not just the final word from a spotty pharmacist. I asked myself what the outcome might have been for a young Costa Rican girl living in a rural part of the country, or in a very strict Catholic household. I asked myself what many women must have to do in other parts of the world. And even as a committed feminist, a liberal, a teacher - I myself was shocked by how little time I had spent reflecting on what the reality of access to contraception and choice must be for many women worldwide.

For this, and so many other reasons, I marched on International Women's Day, March 8, here in San José, amongst thousands of other women and men, protesting femicide, domestic abuse, inequality, lack of access to legal and safe abortions, and the right for women living here to make their own decisions about their bodies' destinies, as well as their ability to work, live, love and exist without fear of judgement, harassment or comment. As I walked alongside people of all ages, holding placards with slogans like "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries", or "Ni una menos!" (a call to action on the number of femicides, several this year already shaking the bedrock of Costa Rican life to its core), I thought about a time when this won't be necessary. I hope I might live to see it. I also tried to think of my sweet junior pharmacist ever having someone tell him in no uncertain terms that he would have to be a father. (Maybe he already is.) That's the thing about this blinkered approach to birth control. It's offensive to men and women alike, robbing both sides of their sovereignty. It no doubt makes both genders feel trapped, and less trusting of the other. I wondered what the correlation is between countries with legal abortions and widespread access to birth control and equality of opportunity in terms of education, pay and opportunity. This paper from Georgetown University's Law Center helped answer my query.

Don't get me wrong, Costa Rica is a stunning place, with so much to recommend. Its people and way of life are often embodied by the phrase "¡Pura Vida!", which generally means, "no worries, no fuss, no stress, life is good", but I now see: there's still a little way to go.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dinosaur Bones

We found
swatches of sea glass -
glitteringly littered near a half-broken, salt-eaten
backbone of a whale
or a dinosaur
large, antique, resilient bones
hugging the rocks
on a coastline
proudly facing a daily battle
with the ever-changing, ever-eroding, ever-exposing surf.