I had the unexpected pleasure, last week, of witnessing someone actually crying with laughter while reading my blog. I’m not going to lie, I nearly passed out with delight.
Today’s entry, however, is probably not going to make anyone cry with laughter; in fact the only person crying is probably me.
The reason for this is that – deep breath – I’m on my way home. I’m about three hours in to a twenty-one hour bus journey back to Buenos Aires. A couple of days there tying up loose ends and then I’m done. I fly back to London on Wednesday. It’s nearly over, my year in Argentina.
I’ve been trying to write this blog for most of the time I’ve been on this bus but it’s been hard. Largely because, every time I try to reflect on the last year, I start bawling. It’s not that I don’t want to go home: even at Christmas I was banging on about how amazing it would be to be in the UK – it’s just that every time I think about the last year – the things that have happened, the people I’ve met, the things that have changed for me – I feel overwhelmed with emotion. That’s the naffest phrase I’ve ever written but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s like this big noisy ball of feelings that gather in my throat and make tears pour down my face. I’ve lost it! On the Balut Suite Platinum service to Buenos Aires!
I remember the me who arrived here; terrified shitless but full of bravado. (Pictured left, on her first morning in Buenos Aires.) Confident she had cracked Spanish in spite of knowing about ten verbs in total. Quite sure she could eat ten steaks a week and not put on weight. Ready and waiting for an affair to start with a Porteno. I remember how freezing cold Buenos Aires was, how utterly despairing I was the day when I traipsed round all day trying to buy a phone and, after ten hours gesturing and drawing and being sent from one shop to another, I was finally sold a knocked off piece of shit that of course didn’t work. I remember sitting in a locutorio (phone booth) calling the only friend I had made in the city and crying so much she couldn’t even understand what I was on about.
That time feels like a lifetime ago. I was talking to a guy in my hostel last night (he is a Bad Man. He wears a wedding ring and yet insists he is not married; he knows I have a boyfriend and yet insists on sleeping with me. I hope it goes without saying that I have declined) and giggling about empanadas (you had to be there) and I suddenly thought: wow. I know what an empanada is. It’s as much a part of my daily life as… as throwing bog roll in a bin rather than down the loo, as taking my life into my hands whenever I cross a road, as being quite sure that everything I buy from a shop will fall apart within a week.
Furthermore, I realised, I was chatting to someone in Spanish. CHATTING. I am actually capable of being funny in Spanish now; a fact that seems quite miraculous. I remember, back in September, howling with frustration at a local: “I’m FUNNY in English! I have a PERSONALITY! I’m not a knob with the vocabulary of a five year old! You’d want to hang out with me if we spoke in English!” I cannot express how much joy it brings me to be able to be Lucy Robinson in another language. Make no mistake; my Spanish is still a crock of shit but if someone sold me a knocked-off phone now I’d be right back in the shop throwing a right hook and some very threatening legal talk in their face, rather than crying myself to sleep hugging a bucket of empanadas.
It’s not just the Spanish though. It’s everything. Argentina is a breathtakingly stunning country; a land of glaciers, deserts, mountains, nature reserves, jungles, world-class cities, tribal villages, ravines… and wonderful, warm, infuriating, passionate, brilliant people. I could never adequately capture the oh-my-god-am-I-really-here moments; the bursts of pure joy or undiluted rage, the strange whispered conversations in dormitories at 3.20am, the teary skype calls home, the endless cafe con leches, the amazing steaks, the AWFUL salads, the naughty breakfast tortillas, the… actually I’ll stop. It’s impossible.
I don’t believe in going away to find yourself. Finding yourself is something that happens if you are prepared to put in the work and to start looking honestly at your life and I personally think we’re just as capable of doing that in our own homes, doing the same jobs, as we are cutting loose and meditating on the side of a mountain for six months. But by going back to the beginning – which is what you have to do when you go and live in another country – putting yourself in the hands of a whole new system, a new race of people, a new language – does help one become clearer about who they are. I am definitely clearer about who I am. What I can handle, what I can’t, and how I can find the courage to handle the things that I thought I couldn’t. How to accept things and people. When to butt out, when to say sorry, when to help someone.
I feel like the person who arrived in Argentina was still me; I just understand her better now. I look after her better. And those around her.
I’ve met a lot of people out here who are on a fact-finding mission. What their jobs are meant to be? What they are going to do about their love life? Their family? Their home? A lot of them have been around my age and most have quit their jobs; some have gone full hippy and have wild hair, fruity body odour and a disconcertingly casual approach to travel. Others have arrived with goretex, neoprene, quick-dry super-wicking multi-functional tools and militarily-organised rucksacks. They book their hostels online, they eat where the guidebook tells them to eat and they don’t go anywhere without a head torch. Then there’s the folk like me; a sort of not-quite-sure-what-kind-of-traveller-I-am bunch who are just as likely to be found munching an unidentifiable carcass at the municipal market as they are eating expensive steak at a tourist restaurant.
What I love about all of these people though – the converted hippies, the businesslike backpackers and the inbetweenies – is their bravery. The fact that at some point they sat up and said “You know what? F*ck it. I’m going to book a ticket. I’ll worry about the rest afterwards.”
That’s what I did. There were a trillion reasons not to go, some of them fairly serious and none of them easy to ignore. But one day, on the #73 bus trundling down Gower Street towards Tottenham Court Road, I just thought to hell with it. I dug out the Trailfinders Card that had been languishing in my wallet for years and booked a flight.
I’m not saying this to make you feel bad if you’ve always wanted to go away but haven’t done so. There are many good reasons not to take a year-long hiatus from your life. But for me – and all the people I’ve met – it was the best decision we ever made. Across the world there is a tribe of us, arriving into our home airports, bewildered, exhausted, a bit tanned, probably fairly smelly, wondering how the hell our lives are going to go now that we’re back. We can’t even afford to get the sodding tube, let alone a taxi! How will we live without empanadas? What are we going to do about the fact that we’ve developed an unacceptable taste for Cumbia? How will we cope with the shock of a clean public toilet or healthy food? With the novelty of sleeping in a room that doesn’t contain six other people?
But as our planes circle over our home cities and we start banking down into the runway, I bet there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t think: Wow. I will never, never be able to thank myself enough for doing that. I will have these memories for the rest of my life. My year away has thrown shit at me, it’s bankrupted me, it’s changed me, it’s driven me mad, it’s made me the happiest I’ve ever been… and it’s all mine. My wonderful gift to myself.
That’s how I feel. Profoundly grateful to myself for just picking up the phone that day and booking it. For sticking with it, however hard it got. For being present and open and alive.
Thank you Argentina. Thank you Argentinians, travellers and street dogs.
Thank you me.