I’ve never handled the emotions that accompany a transition well; I bear them stoically and when the goodbyes come, I dissociate and watch myself mechanically fulfill the social obligation that a goodbye boils down to: a tight hug and a tight-lipped smile in response to the feelings I can’t and doubt I’ll ever be able to articulate. Typically, the only exceptions to this are goodbyes to children and my pets.
It’s always been this way; I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the impermanence and unreliability of human relationships, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the joy and genuine happiness they bring. My decision to move to Arequipa for four months to volunteer as an English teacher with Helping Overcome Obstacles Peru (HOOP) was spurred by spontaneity, as I’ve come to realize my best decisions are, and throughout my time I learned to trust my gut feeling and practice letting go of the idea of what I should be in exchange to truly get to know myself. The underbelly of the confident first-born is softer than people might expect, and mine is no exception. Graduating and embarking on a solo venture ten days after graduation largely destroyed the carefully-constructed person I grew into at university, and many times I found myself staring at the rubble of my former persona wondering what, if anything, I could use to rebuild my understanding of myself.
Then I met the other people who worked at HOOP, and things started clicking into place. There’s something hugely cleansing about coming to a place where no one knows anything about you and building relationships based on a genuine camaraderie for something bigger than yourself. For us, it was the kids we work with in Flora Tristán. Our volunteer coordinator has an incredible knack for parsing through applicants and bringing together groups of people that both challenge and bring out the best in one another, turning opposing personalities into complementary co-workers. It’s an environment that demands personal growth and challenges you to crack the chrysalis of your self-perception.
I was supposed to go home yesterday. A lot of things were supposed to be happening right now. Instead, I’m sitting in a café in Cusco, reflecting on four months’ worth of experiences that have been utterly transformative. Trying to pin down the moments in words is like trying to describe the orange brilliance of the setting sun against the volcanoes in Flora Tristán at 5:52 P.M., possibly impossible.
I’m irrevocably different than who I was four months ago. Sharper. More assertive. More selfish. More empathetic. Less willing to share myself, but more giving of myself. More okay with being a paradox, with being a crescendo of internal conflict that ebbs and flows and directly correlates with my need to write.
What’s next? Well, right now I’m traveling around Peru with a stranger who’s become a fiercely-loved friend.
In November I’ll travel to Argentina and live on an estancia in the Patagonia Region to write the story of someone else’s life, all the while continuing to build my own. After that, I’ll backpack up South America, and end where this all started: Arequipa. I’ll visit my Pandas, give a student from another class a soccer ball that says “Italia” on it, like I said I would. I’ll see the women who opened the door to this journey for me, visit the places where my memories wait to be recollected.
Some things will be utterly different, like the faces of the new interns and volunteers in the office, and the height of my former students. Some things will be wholly the same, like the warmth of the sun or the striking beauty of the cathedral. Others remain to be seen, remembered in a collage of moments accumulated quickly and collected in defiance of the end: A nighttime coffee shared over a plaza bedazzled by lights, daytime smiles, conversations ambled around the city sidewalks, an empty common room full of muffled laughter and a señora’s omnipresent disapproval. Intensity interrupted by a twirl and things left unwritten marked elsewhere. A place, a person, a feeling, left to be, so that time can brew what might have been. This, amongst so much else, is what I have to look forward to, and for which to thank mí querida Arequipa.