how to have a broken heart

August 18, 2013

Backpacking is not for nursing a hurting heart.  A hurting heart needs doonas, the privacy to cry and listen to depressing songs on repeat.  A hurting heart needs days of hiding in bed, bingeing on bad American TV shows and eating peanut butter on crumpets exclusively, or nothing at all.  Eventually, a hurting heart needs friends armed with wine and the patience to dissect the course of events with you, who’ll try to make you eat something, but who’ll willingly join you for a breakfast beer instead, without judgement.  Finally, a hurting heart needs a re-entrance back into the cruel world; puffy-eyed, aching, yet powerful in a strung-out, nothing-left-to-loose kind of way.  Flanked by friends, the world softened by wine, heading out into a night suddenly filled with possibilities and new beginnings.

This, in any case, is how I prefer to coddle my hurting heart.  Youth hostels and cheap B&Bs are not the location for this type of indulgence/healing.  Sheets of dubious cleanliness are a foil to languishing in bed for days.  Seven friendly, enthusiastic and chatty dorm roommates don’t leave space for a good wail.  These things aren’t in my heartbreak recipe.  However this is what I had to contend with as I limped with my insides a heavy mess around the rest of Guatemala.

Some context:

Maybe this sounds a little overwrought, dramatic for what was essentially the inevitable end of a holiday fling.  There were factors at play though.  The thing is – it didn’t really feel like a holiday fling.  I tend to get in deep and quick.  Luke does too, I suppose.  Before it all fell apart there were shy implications that maybe what we had could continue beyond our time in Central America. For a brief little window, I was mentally feeling out my capacity to live happily amongst the mountains, snow and bears of the Colorado of my imagination.  Maybe I’d even begun to consider the logistics of an international wedding.  I don’t even aspire to marriage.  Am I mad?

I move quick.  I move quicker when travelling.  I think it’s somewhat natural.  There’s no time to labour through the preliminary stages of forging a new friendship or relationship when overseas.  There’s no cautiously tiptoeing around the possibility of something developing, as I often do to extreme in my normal life.  It’s now or never.  Travelling with a person accelerates the intimacy and closeness developed too.  It’s proximity and intensity.  It’s every bout of euphoria and frustration and food poisoning, shared.

The other factor that lead to the hurt I felt in the aftermath is the way in which it all played out.  I’ll spare the gory details because they’re boring, suffice to say that the process of dismantling happened very quickly and I had not really seen it coming.  One moment I had a travel companion for two more months.  Maybe the father of all my children.  The next moment I was alone.  The shock of this, combined with how far I was from home, my comfort zone, my support network, made for a pretty tough couple of weeks.  Honestly, I was pretty distraught.  And it was in this state that I dragged myself to the avocado farm and tried hard to sooth the tightness in my throat that threatened to develop into tears at any moment.

Some perspective:

As I wrote in my previous entry, on the avocado farm I met a 24-year- from Germany, Caro, with whom I travelled for another week.  Caro is an impressive, strong woman.  Caro had a boyfriend with whom she was very much in love.  They had only been together for seven months, but they were living together and very committed.  She had travelled to Turkey to meet his family, and he had travelled with her to Spain to help her repair ties with her estranged father.  Her boyfriend loved cooking and every time they visited her mother in Germany he would cook the family a huge Turkish feast.  They loved him.  Caro loved him.

In December last year Caro’s boyfriend died suddenly of a heart attack.  He was healthy, there were no warning signs, it was completely unexpected.  From one day to the next Caro was planning her life and future with this man, and then she was bereaved, living alone in the house that she shared with him, in shock.

Caro and her boyfriend had always planned to travel to Colombia together.  In January Caro set off solo.  She figured that she had two options – either to stay at home in Germany and fall apart, or set out overseas and try to enjoy the holiday for the both of them. She’s been travelling ever since.  Her strength, calm and poise were so inspiring, and certainly put my little bout of heartache in perspective.

Together, Caro and I travelled to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – a huge, beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes and clouds and little villages and everything idyllic.  We were both tired though.  Caro had been on the road for seven months at that point.  I still had a bit of the annihilative nonsense going on from Luke’s recent departure.

We spent most of our time by the lake in the Italian bakery, eating chocolate croissants and using the internet.  It was wonderful.  We felt guilty when we met people who’d done 3am sunrise hikes, gone kayaking across the lake, done coffee plantation tours, though not guilty enough to do anything about it.  There is some kind of terrible indulgence in being surrounded by so much splendour and not doing anything at all.

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Reunited on the Yucatan:

Luke and I spent a couple of days picking through the unreal and overdeveloped frenzy of Cancun, searching for a stretch of beach not bordered by highrises, a meal not dominated by gimmicks. Not so successful our first day, we had an afternoon visit to a beach with long shadows cast upon it by surrounding buildings. We watched a couple having wedding photographs taken, the bride in the full meringue catastrophe, the groom in a casual shirt and rolled up jeans. The horror.

I normally find it romantic when couples indulge each other in weird weddings and other acts of love. How beautiful that a guy so weird that he wants to wear a Pearl Jam t-shirt on his wedding day has found a person who a) loves him b) lets him do that and c) herself wears a tie-dye dress down the aisle (I haven’t made this up. We met this couple in Antigua).

HOWEVER this couple in Cancun was just so incongruous, and had chosen this drab and overdeveloped beach and the shadows were falling all wrong and it was just the most depressing thing I had ever seen.

Later we had dinner in a restaurant with iPad-armed waiters circulating, insisting on taking photos of the diners and uploading them to facebook, setting desserts on fire and balancing precarious piles of entrees on their head all the way to the table.

The following day was more successful, spent lolling in the electric turquoise of the Carribean in a beach without a highrise border, and eating burritos and banana ices in a marketplace amongst children riding miniature electric cars and a clown that we carefully avoided.

We made a fast getaway to Isla Holbox, in search of more of a low key scene. On Holbox we spent our days walking the length of the long, bright, mangrove-lined beaches. We watched flamingos stalk the shallow water, beautiful and but so awkward with their long legs and necks. We ate our way through the menu of a French-run bakery café and were eaten up by ravenous swarms of mosquitoes.

Flamingoes on Holbox

We stayed in a pretty cabin run by a an edgy Swiss man, David, who managed to look sickly and pale, despite the strong sun, humidity and island lifestyle. David portrayed himself as a laidback and friendly host, a façade that he was unable to maintain past the second day when it became clear that we did not wish to partake in his lucrative whale shark tour and he lost his cool. He finally threw in the towel after we declined for the fifth time, conceding defeat with a barb: ‘Of course, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, but if it’s a money thing then I understand. It’s your life, and if you don’t want to spend money on your life then what can I do?’.

Tulum followed Holbox. We visited Mayan ruins bordering the Carribean ocean, swam in what is apparently the ‘Fourth Most Beautiful Beach in the World’, imagined that we were Indiana Jones and fought fiercely about our differing philosophical standpoints while exploring the jungle-ensconced ruins of Coba and ate ceviche for every meal. GOOD.

Mayan ruins in Tulum

From Tulum we moved on to Belize. I crossed through Mexican customs and boarded the water taxi bound for San Pedro with something of a heavy heart. Mexico, as I wrote, was everything that I had been trying not to hope for. There were a few moments of adversity but overall one of the most perfect six weeks on the road I had ever had.

Hobnobbing with the rich and retired, or what to complain about when there´s nothing to complain about:

In Belize we stayed with Wendy, a family friend of Luke’s. Wendy is an American, self-proclaimed ‘part time local’ of Belize, though I don’t think she’s fooling anyone but herself. She is currently boycotting a particular San Pedro bar because of a dispute over this matter. They charge differently for locals and foreigners, and they charge her foreigner prices. Wendy feels that her status as ‘part time local’, i.e. a month or two on San Pedro per year, should entitle her to local prices (what to complain about #1). She introduced Luke as ‘another surrogate son from my home town of Eagle’, though aparently she isn’t from there either. She has another house in Vail and a timeshare on a yacht that circulates the diving hotspots of the world. She might have property on the east coast. I lost track.

Wendy is middle-aged, unmarried and has no children, though boasts a host of ‘surrogate sons’ (no daughters, I noticed). These ‘sons’ seems to range from Luke, who she had not seen in five years, to a young guy who is currently living in her house in Eagle as her ‘housemate’. The relationship she has with some of these young men is unclear, and seems to involve some sort of exchange of companionship for the comfortable lifestyle her wealth can offer.

It’s easy to tell why Wendy has come up with such arrangements in the absence of a more solid community. She thrives on company. She was a kind and accommodating host, but there was always the sense that we were living off her generosity, so obliged to meet her expectations. There was not a moment of our stay that was not planned and organised by her. This was difficult for me at times, as Wendy is more about drinking than eating. I had a couple of vodka-tinged, food-deprived moments where it all felt a bit too intense and a hunger/stress headache began to eat away at the edges of my patience. I thought I’d managed to sneak off for a little siesta one afternoon, only to be woken a short time later, Wendy’s face popping from behind the bedroom door, a huge smile lighting her face in the odd, disconnected way that plastic surgery gives, with a jovial ‘rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty!’.

Wendy was not always easy to live with in close quarters, but there was something endearing about her enthusiastic presence, eternally friendly, even in the face of unveiled contempt (in fact she seems to have a bad habit of happening at people who make little effort to hide their contempt for her, almost taunting them), always with keep-cup of vodka lemonade (she never leaves the house without a roadie), behind the wheel of her golf buggy (the principle mode of transport in San Pedro), never drawing breath. She could be somewhat manipulative with the way she used her money, flaunting her wealth, yet labouring her generosity; but it always felt as if her intentions were good. Deluded sometimes, but good.

Humble lodgings in San Pedro

Wendy put on a barbecue for her friends in San Pedro on one of the days we were there. Ribs, cornbread, coleslaw, beer can chicken and brownies were on the menu. Who knew all my dreams of traditional American fare would be met in Belize. The food was delicious, and plentiful. Luke and I worried that the challenge of getting through it all would rest on us and Wendy alone, as the American expat community of San Pedro seems to be unable to commit to a yes or a no when it comes to an invitation (what to complain about #2). With everyone ‘retired’, a short golf buggy drive away and with more or less nothing to do other than drink and eat it seemed a bit mean to leave Wendy hanging. In any case, a number of people did show up and Luke and I did our best to blend with this oddly miserable-seeming group. I don’t think a single question beyond my name was asked of me the entire evening, which was fine – I didn’t want to try to explain my social development background to someone who owns four houses or openly expresses satisfaction that forest fires have taken control in Colorado because he owns a private fire fighting service and profits from such natural disasters.

We were taken for a visit to Wendy’s friends Michelle and Terry’s house. Michelle is a formidable, tall, blond, plastic-surgeried woman in her early fifties. Terry is a more laidback retired mechanical engineer in his early sixties. It’s a second marriage for both and their connection is difficult to interpret and slightly terrifying. Terry is short, knowledgeable and conversational. Michelle is tall, with a deep voice, and huge, swollen, unmoving lips. In fact her face is mostly unmoving, and whilst it’s possible that she’s actually the friendliest woman on the island with a dearth in facial expressions and a scary voice, it’s unlikely. Reading between the lines, she has two children who harbour thinly contained hatred for her and who she never sees. Michelle doesn’t seem to be too concerned. She´s not the sentimental type. The only crack in the façade of this tough exterior is the weird and unhealthy love she showers on her three Rottweilers. Her new puppy, Rio, in particular has been so smothered by Michelle that it has a nervous breakdown and wets itself every time her ‘Mom’ leaves the house. Michelle for her part follows the puppy around, providing a running commentary on the puppy’s bowel movements to anyone within earshot, whether you like it or not.

Their house is a place of horror. Three huge brown suede couches, high-backed and long, dominate the only common room. Michelle has a bizarre collection of ‘love’ sculptures from around the world, different carvings of abstract couples wrapped in embraces. There are a number of pictures from their wedding, and some very dated-looking school portraits of their kids. On the walls are ugly etchings of San Pedro scenes, and the curtains are in a Hawaiian print. There is a beach scene painted as a mural onto their living room wall. The three huge Rottweilers dominate the space and drool on everything. Rio´s toys are piled everywhere. It´s claustrophobic and dark and tense in Michelle and Terry´s world.

I´m making all this sound much more dire than it was though. In fact, our visit to San Pedro was mostly ridiculously idyllic, to the point that life felt almost painfully good. Luke and I did a scuba refresher course and dove with turtles, nurse sharks, huge groupers and moray eels. We spent days eating ice cream, drinking beer, lounging on Wendy’s balcony and watching the super moon rise over the ocean. Our visit coincided with Lobster Fest – the annual opening of lobster season. A FESTIVAL OF LOBSTER. Seriously. I have never eaten so much (or any, really) lobster in my life. Lobster bisque, lobster pizza, lobster mac and cheese, lobster sliders, lobster burger, lobster in chardonnay with garlic butter. Life felt so perfect at times I began to feel depressed that it would all come to an end (what to complain about # 3).

An ending:

Luke and I exited Belize and entered Guatemala. We visited Flores – a beautiful little colonial town out in the middle of a lake. FINE.

We visited probably our favourite ruins (along with Teotihuacan), Tikal, rising out above the jungle in northern Guatemala.

Tikal

Finally we made our way to Antigua. In Antigua we started on another Spanish school and homestay. Having been so utterly spoilt by Maria and Alejandro in San Miguel de Allende though, it all fell a little flat. The homestay family spoke to us in English, when they spoke to us at all. They owned a cockatiel that enjoyed seeing the sun in a 5am with raucous tweeting. I wanted to do damage to that bird. Our host mother was short-tempered and sour-faced. Though, again, there was obviously so much botox and plastic in there maybe I should give her the benefit of a doubt and assume she was smiling on the inside.

Also, somewhere along the way reality had intruded in on the perfect symmetry Luke and I had found. Increasingly, misunderstanding and distance punctuated what had previously been an easy, affectionate and trusting dynamic. Our vastly different pasts had began to impinge on our present, and ultimately our future. Timing and circumstances weren’t quite right and we reached something of an impasse. Luke and I shared the fourth farewell of out short relationship. And that was that.

It may seem melodramatic, but all this HURT. At times I thought I´d met my match with Luke, and it´s difficult to let go of that sense of optimism. Perhaps I’m receiving karma for gloating about my composure through our previous farewells, because oh boy did I shed some tears on the streets of some quaint little colonial towns this time.

As I wrote to Sophie in the aftermath:

´Well I feel like utter shit. Luke and I had a beautiful last night together with talking and wine and some kind of love but now I feel sick and am on the verge of tears all of the time. Once I calm down it’ll probably be good to spend the next five weeks regrouping and trying to get back to how invincible I was feeling previously. UGH. Who the fuck can be bothered.

Luckily there is this ridiculous place near to where we were staying that I dragged my heavy heart to. It’s an avocado farm of all things, with communal meals every night, beautiful hikes, yoga in the morning, live music on Sundays, board games, a sauna. It’s ridiculous. I mostly want to hide beneath a doona/kill everyone but it’s still a good place to be in this state.´

And Earth Lodge has been a good place for me to be. The views are stunning. Morning yoga is done overlooking a volcano. The people are mostly morons, but it’s nice to be in company. It’s the sort of place inhabited by the likes of Courtney aka Bird, a 25 year old ‘bicoastal’ American. Bird carts a yellow-pages-sized I-Ching book around with her, literally hugs trees and is crippled by indecision at every juncture. Bird is currently fundraising for her ‘Wish Project’. She interviews people about their wishes and creates multimedia art around their answers. I have a problem with this sort of stuff. It seems empty and obtuse to spring the question: ‘what do you wish for’ on a person, without context, without warning. Bird insisted on interviewing me when we arrived at Earth Lodge, just hours after I’d farewelled Luke, when I was at my most raw, when I hated everything. I gave her some crappy answer. It wasn’t over. I had to DRAW this lackluster wish. With a green biro no less. GO AWAY.

View from the avocado farm

In any case, each day is feeling better than the next. I’ve found a very sweet German girl and her Guatemalan toy boy to travel to Lake Atitlan with. Their constant PDAs are hard to deal with right now, but they’re fun, and it’s been good to speak in Spanish more. I should be in Honduras by the end of the week and then who knows what awaits. Probably not anther beautiful cowboy from Colorado, though.

I spent my time in Puerto Escondido with Beccy, a beautiful Australian woman who I had originally met in Mexico City. Beccy was doing a Spanish course and renting a bungalow on the grounds of her school, and she was kind enough to let me stay with her for three nights. The bungalow was basic but had everything we needed – bed, ensuite, kitchenette, dining table, hammock, palm tree, ocean views and a spider as big as our hand named Nora. Nora’s duty was to eat the mosquitoes. A job she resolutely failed at.

For the first couple of days Beccy and I lolled around Puerto and congratulated each other on how great we are at life. During the day we’d go swimming or surfing and laze around on the beach. In the evening we’d retire to our beautiful little bungalow and make some food and laze in the hammock with a beer. Beccy is an insightful, clever and wonderful woman and we talked about everything under the sun and in our lives and became fast friends. The whole scenario was so idyllic it was sickening. We couldn’t get our heads around the fact that this would all have to end at some point, and reality would resume. It was all very perfect.

IMG_5300

This sense of paradise was broken a lot sooner than we had expected.

Paradise lost:

On Saturday night Beccy and I left the bungalow around 9pm to get some dinner. To get between the bungalow and the strip of shops and restaurants is a set of stairs. They’re not fun to walk up or down at night – they’re badly lit and often quite empty. However, it takes a maximum of two minutes from one end to the other, and residential properties line the path. The alternative is to take a taxi which feels a little ridiculous for such a short ride and would probably necessitate more time standing in the dark hailing a taxi by the side of the road than just walking the stairs. Plus I think Beccy and I felt that there was safety in numbers. We took the stairs.

As we began walking I noticed a man walking behind us. He was getting close, and did not seem to be trying to overtake. I stopped and motioned for him to go past us. He lunged at me, grabbing my arse. I stepped back and he moved to Beccy, grabbing for her private parts, motioning to his own. Beccy pushed him off. We ran. As we were scaling the stairs the man grabbed my arse again and I fell over. Beccy (heroically) spun around and gathered herself to kick him off me, but I managed to get to my feet. We ran. He went in the opposite direction. We stopped and looked, to try to identify him, to confirm that he was fleeing. At this point he reached down and seemed to be picking up an object, maybe a rock, and running towards us again. Time slowed and each detail of those few minutes is so distinct in my memory. We ran and we screamed for help and quickly made it back to the Spanish School, shaking and shaken.

I keep saying that Beccy and I were almost sexually assaulted, but actually looking up the definition of the term it seems that we were sexually assaulted. We were touched inappropriately and against our will.

In the immediate aftermath, the response by the school’s owner (a middle-aged American man) and his Mexican wife were attentive; however the emphasis was always on what WE should have done differently. The horror of the experience, the abhorrence of the perpetrator – all this was absent from the conversation. At one point, the owner even seemed to suggest that according to other eyewitnesses from the nearby houses, the man hadn’t run towards us a second time, but had run away. He seemed to be trying to minimise the incident, to suggest that we’d overreacted. Apparently we should have: taken a taxi, made a lot of noise (we did), be careful (we are), don’t go out at night (how can we live like that?).

When we’d gotten our breath back the owner had a friend walk with us down the stairs so we could get some dinner (actually we weren’t hungry anymore so we had a mezcal shot, and bought beer and chips for our bungalow debrief). But even the friend nominated to walk with us did not make us feel completely safe – he was a young guy who was clearly not neutral to us as a man. He asked us several times if we were going to a party, despite the fact that we answered in the negative each time, despite the fact that he knew someone had just tried to rape us and who the hell wants to go to a party and get drunk around a lot of strangers in such a vulnerable moment. He also seemed greatly impressed with our supply of beer on the walk back and seemed to be angling for an invite to our bungalow. In short: even the guy nominated to protect us from male threat was an uncomfortable presence, ogling at our femininity, wanting a piece of our sexuality.

Assigning complicity:

Many people’s responses since I’ve told them have been caring and beautiful and fully cognisant of the horror of the event, our capacity as independent and smart women to make the right decisions with regards to our safety, as well as concern for us and the urging to take as many precautions as possible. However, in the overall narrative of this event the emphasis has been on what we the victims should have done differently. The perpetrator is invisible. I noticed that even in the writing of this I was careful to justify why Beccy and I had made the original decision to walk down the stairs, why we took the risk. But why should this need justification? Why should walking to get dinner at 9pm be risk-taking behaviour that needs to be analysed or explained? Why should I feel partly complicit in my own attack? I wonder whether, if it were a man who had walked down the stairs and had had his wallet stolen, if the reaction to the incident would be more centred on the fault of the perpetrator, not the man’a part to play in his own misfortune.

Blowing the whistle:

Mine is a relatively minor example of what I see as a huge, deeply-rooted problem. I observed another, far more serious manifestation of this while in India. A component of my masters degree was an internship in New Delhi where we spent a fortnight speaking to refugee women and girls from Burma, Somalia and Afghanistan about the problems they encounter in India. The overarching, almost universal issue they face is rape. These women and girls, even babies, are raped in the home by their landlords, in the street by taxi drivers, in the workplace by their bosses and by police officers when they try to make a report. It is an epidemic, and it is traumatising these already vulnerable and unsafe women.

In India the UNHCR uses the organisation Don Bosco to outsource much of the work they are responsible for. In New Delhi Don Bosco was contracted to address the issue of rape in the refugee community with some training. It is highly problematic in and of itself that the UNHCR chose this Roman Catholic, male-dominated, conservative organisation to address sexual and gender-based violence amongst such vulnerable women.

The women told us about the training session that Don Bosco lead. They were forced to take a day out of their work and forsake desperately needed income. The women were sat down and told that they should be careful about the way that they dress, that they shouldn’t go out at night and that if someone tries to attack them they should make a lot of noise. At the end of the training the women were forced to sign a document saying that they’d completed the course, that it was great and that if they are raped now the UNHCR can wash their hands of it. All this is obviously so appallingly ignorant, disrespectful and irrelevant that it defies further analysis. There are just no words.

Even the Deputy Head of Mission for the UNHCR was no more enlightened in his approach. During our time in New Delhi we helped coordinate a day of presentations and dialogue. The idea was to create a platform from which the refugee community were able to speak for themselves to the UNHCR and other stakeholders, to tell them what was happening and to show the UNHCR how they could better respond to the needs of the refugee community.

Throughout the day the women bravely recounted harrowing personal stories about their experience of sexual and gender-based violence. The following day we reconvened to hear the response from the UNHCR. The Deputy Head of Mission was an Italian man who had been working in the field for some time. He had had a whole twenty-four hours to think the thing through. He presented his response. He proudly announced his intention to provide each woman with a whistle so that they could seek help when they are in trouble. The end. How did he manage to miss the point so completely? How could he fail to see that there is NO ONE there to help them? How could he expect a mother of eight to blow the whistle on her landlord when he rapes her and thereby have her family evicted and homeless? How could he expect a woman who is getting by day to day in crippling poverty to blow the whistle on her employer and thereby loose her family’s only income? This Deputy Head of Mission was a clever, educated and experienced man. Surely he knows better. It feels that in the case of sexual assault and harassment the misunderstanding is almost wilful. Coming up with real, relevant and effective solution is too hard. Too confronting.

I am tired:

The sad thing is that the experience I had the other night has actually affected me less than I’d expected. I feel sick and furious and saddened, but I don’t feel significantly less safe than I did before. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is the case and I realised it’s because I’m ALWAYS scared of being raped when I travel. Like really scared. The incident on Saturday night shook me, but it didn’t surprise me. This isn’t the first time that a man has made me feel threatened in such a way. It’s not even the third or fourth or tenth or a hundredth time. I’m not downplaying the incident; it was one of the worst encounters I’ve had and it shook me. But living my life as a woman necessitates constant vigilance. I must analyse each situation, particularly when travelling solo, weighing up whether each experience is worth the potential risk. And the problem is that this is an impossible equation. How can I make the call as to whether travelling alone through Central America is worth the increased risk of rape? It doesn’t even make any sense. There is no correct answer. And why should I have to analyse things in such a way? Why should I feel that I must choose between my safety and my desire to experience new things?

We are never safe:

The other aspect is that it’s not an issue confined to travelling. We are never safe. I, along with every Australian woman, was forced to rethink the way I perceive threats in my own neighbourhood following the tragic rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne last year. I don’t want to say too much about this incident because enough has been said and I don’t want to use a family’s tragedy like an anecdote. Suffice to say that the violent, abhorrent events of that night unfolded in streets that I know well, that I frequent, that are my home. Recently, for the first time since I was fifteen, I have felt unsafe walking home by myself at night and I hate that. But what am I supposed to do? I choose to socialise with my friends at night-time. I choose to wear what I want when I do so, and I choose to drink too much if I am so inclined. I need to get home somehow and it is not workable to have my lifestyle contingent on having a housemate, friend or boyfriend accompanying me.

Maybe I could restrict my social interactions to daylight hours. But I still have to work, and we are not safe there either. In my most recent job I was involved in a Critical Incident in which a client cornered me in an empty part of the Community Centre, repeating to me that I wanted him to ‘fuck’ me, encroaching on me. He fled when I called for assistance on my walkie talkie. He realised that I was less alone than he thought I was and he ran for it. I was working with very vulnerable, often unwell, people though, so maybe I could restrict my employment to more stable environments. This wouldn’t work. I recently worked out that I have experienced sexual harassment in every single job I have ever had. The seriousness of the harassment varies greatly across jobs and the perpetrators range from co-workers, superiors, customers to clients. I’ve had about half a dozen jobs over the years across retail, hospitality and the social sector and I wasn’t safe in any of them.

Maybe to stay safe women should forsake work as well. We should remain in the safety of our home. We all know that this will not keep us safe either. As recent statistics from the US attest, more women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends 2001 – 2012 than those killed in terror attacks on the US, US troops killed in Afghanistan and US troops killed in Iraq combined. I have no doubt that the Australian statistics would be comparable.

How are we expected to make the right decisions to protect ourselves when we are never safe? How can the expectation be on us to keep ourselves out of harm’s way when the potential for harm is everywhere and there is nothing we can do to avoid it?

I am not being blasé about the reality of my need to protect myself. The thing is I DO protect myself as best I can. What I want is to be met halfway. I’ll be careful, I’ll consider fully my clothing, my outings, who I talk to. In return – how about men try not to rape us? How about we make this not and never ok? How about we get to a place where instead of the initial response to ‘Someone tried to sexually assault me.’ is ‘That’s horrible. What an abhorrent thing that man did.’ NOT ‘That’s horrible. You shouldn’t go out at night.’.

Alongside self-defence courses for girls in high school we need education for boys about how to treat women and their bodies with respect, not violence or entitlement. I’m sure these things exist, and I know my high school provided such parallel courses, but we need more of them and they need to be better ingrained into our whole education system. We need a million other programmes implemented worldwide that will change the dialogue around these matters.

Unless men are brought into the conversation and a more concerted effort is made to educate everybody on how to treat each other then emphasising the need for women to keep themselves safe is going to look like just another form of subjugation, control, suppression.

Moving forward:

I’m going to do my best to not allow this incident to dampen my view of Mexico. Up until Saturday night I was blissfully happy here. Things do feel a little more strained, more threatening and sinister now. Since Saturday night I have had to take an overnight bus on my own to San Cristobal de las Casas and also a taxi at 4am in San Cristobal in order to get my flight to Cancún. The night before both forays into the darkness unaccompanied I had nightmares in which men sexually assaulted me. I feel exposed and I feel far less equipped to cope with the prying eyes and calls that you encounter from men on the street everyday.

Beccy experienced similar things in the aftermath and has decided to go home. Travelling alone no longer felt like fun. I fully understand and support that decision and I’m glad that as I write she is on an airplane heading for the known quantity of New Zealand and the love and support of her boyfriend. I’m extremely lucky because Luke is also on an airplane as I type, heading over for some more travelling adventures with me. I really have no idea how I would be feeling if I were looking down the barrel of two more months travelling alone in the context of my experience.

So on a happier note I must depart so that I can go pick Luke up from the airport (wish me luck – rendez-vous sans mobiles is fraught with potential complications) and I have confidence that my next post will be far more cheery than this one.

The second week of my Spanish course at Habla Hispana went as smoothly as the first, culminating in a fiesta held for the third birthday of my host family’s grandson, Santí, on my final day. Maria described the party as ‘just a little fiesta. Only 120 guests’.

The day was a long and elaborate affair, beginning at 12pm in a church with a priest performing rites before a kneeling Santí who looked a little dazed, yet satisfied with the attention being laid upon him, and very cute in his white linen short and shirt combo.

The party continued on to Santí’s house which was decked out with multicoloured chairs and tables decorated with cactus plants, a jumping castle and a huge spread of food – mole, tortillas, barbecued pork, frijoles, pickled chillies. A 3-year-old’s nirvana of lollies was beautifully displayed on hay stacks and a large wooden cable reel, along with a cake featuring miniature, edible cacti, horses and a little cowboy. Everyone was dressed in their finery, the women in gravity-defying heels and the men in their finest shirts and sombreros.

Santi with his birthday cake

The children raided the lolly table and then ran riot through the garden and on the jumping castle, pausing briefly to play the piñatas or for a scavenger hunt. The mothers, unable to wrangle the children for musical chairs, ended up engaging in a fiercely competitive round of their own, tottering impressively around the chairs in their stilettos. For the most part, the adults drank beers and margaritas and watched the children tear around in the increasing velocity of their sugar highs. The night ended adorably with a glassy-eyed, sugar-highed Santí, dressed in a cowboy outfit complete with sombrero, initiating a slow dance with a little girl in a frothy, purple party dress.

By this time my compañero de casa – Luke – and I had begun a cute little romance. Through the course of our weekend day trips and afternoon homework sessions something had blossomed. The birthday party was our last day together so we spent it somewhat sombrely, secretly holding hands beneath the table like two clandestine teenagers. The following day I was set to take a bus to Mexico City, Luke had a further week of Spanish at Habla Hispana to go.

Karma:

The next day Luke saw me off at the bus station. The scene had an element of karma in it for me. It made me recall a similar scene, only in reverse, that I had encountered when backpacking around Europe. On my bus ride from Florence to Venice I ended up sitting next to a tearful and hungover Australian. As the bus departed she clammily leant over me and cried and waved out of the window to a similarly dishevelled-looking man standing by the side of the road. Once we’d lost sight of him, and the woman had composed herself, she explained that she had just had to say goodbye to her ‘boyfriend’. ‘How long have you been together?’ I asked. They’d met at a camp-site last week. As she dry retched into a plastic bag I passed silent judgement on the level of drama generated around the inevitable conclusion of a holiday romance.

Fast-forward 10 years and I`m ensconced in a melancholy last embrace with a man I had just barely gotten to know. Though in my defence I was neither dry-retching nor sobbing.

Fortunately, during his walk home Luke had an epiphany and realised that an adventure in Mexico City would be much more fun than a final week with the eccentrics at Habla Hispana. The following day Luke took a bus to Mexico City and a beautiful little week exploring the sprawl and wilds of the city ensued.

Walking the City:

We wandered the streets, making our way through the strange happenings unfolding in the Plaza de la Constitución. We saw traditional rites involving fragrant smoke, conches, bunches of herbs and drums performed by men and women in leather loin cloths, feather headdresses with taxidermy animal heads and rattling shell anklets. There was a tent city occupying much of the square, seemingly protesting something, however the subject of the protest and the protesters were always difficult to spot. On my last night in Mexico City the wind was high and there was a dramatic sunset spreading itself amongst the clouds and lightening. Hundreds of people stood in the square flying kites or lying on the ground and watching it all unfold. I went underground into the Zócalo Metro stop and encountered crowds of people with bandanas around their face who had co-opted the metro and forced the gates open. The masked people were shouting for commuters to enter through the barriers without paying. I went back up to ground level and found a dozen police cars and vans descending on the scene, amongst ash and smoke from a nearby fire. Alone at this point and a little spooked I made a hasty getaway.

Kite-flying in Zocalo

Normally visits to the metro were less tumultuous and Luke and I had fun negotiating the system, doing our best to devour rapidly melting ice creams whilst staying upright when the trains came to sudden and jerky halts. The metros were populated with Mexican couples locked in noisy, passionate embraces; PDAs that I hadn`t expected in quite the quantity that we encountered them.

We made the mistake of making eye contact with a clown in the middle of his act in a public park. Before we quite knew what was happening Luke had been incorporated into the act and cajoled into competing in a dance competition with some other innocent bystanders. Luke stood surrounded by a circle of around 100 onlookers, whilst I stationed myself nearby and considered escape routes. After `competing` in stages including the chicken dance, salsa and playing dead, Luke was declared the winner and festooned with gifts of balloons shaped into a crown, belt, revolver, magic wand and more. Winning a dance competition really is no small feat in a country where people are serious about their salsa and even a 3 year old instinctively sees the night out slow dancing with his lady. After the competition concluded and Luke was released several bystanders approached and requested photographs with the foreigner in his inflatable finery. Having performed his duties to his fans Luke and I distributed the balloons to a hoard of eager children and made a hasty getaway, never to look a clown in the eye again.

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Another day we spent taking the bus out to Teotihuacan, a complex of pyramids and location of what was once Mexcoamerica`s greatest city. The journey began and ended with thorough checks of each passenger`s bag and person, and the bus driver recording the face and seat of each passenger with a video camera. Apparently hijacking has become a problem on this particular route. The structures at Teotihuacan were grandiose and an impressive feat of 1st century technology and manpower. We spent the afternoon sitting atop the third biggest pyramid in the world, admiring the view and watching the sky.

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We adopted the Mexican habit of the siesta with relish, making use of the wifi in our hostel to have cultural show-and-tell YouTube parties. I got a crash course in rodeoing, skiing and the landscape of Colorado. Luke was introduced to Australiana via clips of Muriel`s Wedding, The Castle, Priscilla Queen of the Dessert and Strictly Ballroom. As far as cultural nous goes Luke probably had the upper hand. Whereas I have never really seen snow before, nor do I even really feel down with Australian culture at the best of times, it turns out that Luke is a Man from Snowy River fan from way back, and even dressed in theme one Halloween.

We had a few outings to some great bars that would easily have fit in the laneways and rooftops of Melbourne. I wasn`t expecting such an accessible, young and creative culuture in Mexico City. A highlight was a mezcal bar in which a very knowledgeable bartender took charge and lead us on a tasting tour of mezcals from across Mexico. Our drinks were accompanied by fruit covered in chilli powder and a meal of blue tortillas with melted cheese, crickets, cactus, chillies, salsas and beans. We found another bar atop various levels of exhibition spaces and studios with a great live band AND palatable wine (joy of joys).

We visited the house where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived their magical lives. For me this was something of a pilgrammage – I`d wanted to visit the blue house ever since I was little. The collection of artwork wasn`t remarkable, but the experience of being inside the space that Frida and Diego created and inhabited was profound and intimate. Poignant details included the tiny bed from which Frida painted when her body failed her, her workspace including a wheelchair and customised easel given to her by Nelson Rockerfeller, Frida`s ashes stored in her bedroom inside a pottery urn in the shape of a toad (a reference to Diego), and a poem written by Patti Smith to Frida Kahlo after Patti had visited the house (this was particularly timely for me because I`d just finished reading the beautiful Patti Smith memoir Just Kids):

Noguchi’s Butterflies

I can not walk

I can not see

Further than what

Is in front of me

I lay on my back

yet I do not cry

Transported in space by the butterflies.

Above my bed

Another sky

With the wings you sent

Within my sight

All pain dissolves

In another light

Transported thru

Time

By the butterfly

This little song

Came to me

Like a little gift as I stood

Beside the bed of Frida.

I give it to you with much love,

Patti Smith

More farewells:

With our time up again Luke and I said farewell, this time with Luke making his way back to Eagle and me boarding an overnight bus to Oaxaca. Again, I`m proud to note that I was neither dry-retching nor sobbing, though I did spend the 6 hour overnight bus trip mooching and staring out the window as if I were a teenager again, listening to music in an attempt at drowning out the incessantly coughing man and his crying baby son sitting behind me.

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Of late I have been basking in the golden-hued, cobble-stoned, old-world charm of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. I have been wandering the laneways, devouring books, eating well. It`s been everything that I was trying not to hope for from Mexico. Horribly tedious stuff to read from a travel blog, I know.

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Right now I´m in San Miguel, a place that is known as something of a Disneyland for American retirees, and there`s truth in that description. The picturesque laneways and fashionable shops on the south end of town are crowded with ageing foreigners; men with skin tanned to leather, women with plastic cat faces and perfectly round and buoyant breasts. The bookshop is filled with mid-life-crisis memoirs, self-help books and `Gringo`s Guide to…` series. The local newsletter advertises 12 step programmes and support groups aplenty. I´m not criticising though. If I end up here in the twilight of my life with a new set of youthful features, a villa overlooking el Jardin Principal and a pretty young man to come and clean the pool once a week well that would be just fine.

Maria y Alejandro

I am halfway through a two week Spanish course in San Miguel. It feels good to be learning and I feel like my Spanish is getting somewhere. I`m staying with a family and this extra aspect of immersion has pushed me further. It`s satisfying to be able to joke, converse and have actual relationships with people exclusively in another language.

I live with Alejandro and Maria, a couple in their 50s. Maria is jovial and friendly; patiently negotiating and drawing out the jumbled Spanish of her lodgers. Alejandro works on a ranch close to San Miguel, growing alfalfa among other things I assume. Somehow the business of alfalfa seems incongruous with his tall, masculine presence. Alejandro is less effusive than Maria, but equally patient and friendly. He wears his cowboy hat even at the dinner table and this, combined with his deep voice, big moustache and sideburns and tanned and strong forearms, impresses me greatly.

Alejandro and Santi

Dinnertime is my favourite with the family as we often watch novellas on the television. Each night our empanadas are accompanied by convoluted storylines featuring gory deaths-by-coyote, illicit marriages, surprise pregnancies, montages of kissing/crying/kissing and crying/kissing while lone saxophonist performs a solo in the background.

Hostage roll call:

We`re an eccentric and unlikely bunch at the Habla Hispana Spanish school. I´ve been reading Bel Canto, a book set in an unidentified Latin American country telling the story of a hostage scenario gone awry. It`s put me in mind of our own group dynamic and how a hostage scenario might pan out among us. Allow me to introduce the kidnapees:

LUKE also lodges with Maria and Alejandro. Luke is 29 and used to earn his living touring rodeos. Now he lives in Eagle, Colorado and works as a ski patroller during the winter (helping people who get into trouble in the snow, inducing avalanches and other acts of daring) and as a river guide in the summer. I like the fact that he works with the same water all year round but in different manifestations. Luke may be the only really sane student at Habla Hispana, so I feel pretty lucky to have ended up lodging with him. We had a nice couple of days this weekend, visiting the nearby hot springs and the botanical gardens and negotiating cultural differences – turns out that Australian and American English are worlds apart.

LEVI is a bright-eyed, gentle and nervous guy from Tennessee in his early twenties. He is very sweet and earnest and very committed to his church. Levi is a Seventh Day Adventist and fully ensconced in the missionary and `soul-winning` aspect of his faith. He is learning Spanish in order to further his missionary work. Levi feels that he and his god are in regular dialogue and talks about this in the same way that I might talk about regular Skype dates with a friend. Levi bases most of his life decisions on these communications.

JOSEPH is in his early 40s and lives with his two young children and wife in a small New Mexico `pueblito` called Lama, named after the Dalai Lama. They live an essentially hippy lifestyle, growing much of what they eat, with their kids attending a school that teaches practical things such as milking a cow or planting crops in amongst literacy and numeracy. This is all great, and good on them, but I WANT TO KILL JOSPEH. He habitually expresses basic ideas (`buy quality, not quantity`, `don`t live an excessive lifestyle`) in a painstaking and profound way, as if what he is describing is something novel and interesting and not something relatively mundane, unambitious and fashionable. It`s possible that the lack of nuance he has in expressing himself has something to do with fluency in Spanish and not arrogance. BUT IT DOESN`T AND I WANT TO KILL HIM.

FELICE is a student in her late 50s. Felice has spent her whole life sucking it up and doing the right thing. She was a dutiful daughter. She was a good wife, leaving her native New York to live in a sleepy coastal town in Maryland when her husband took a job there, even though the place bores her. When her husband left her five years ago she continued to be a good mother to her 20-something year old son and eventually a good partner to her deadshit rebound boyfriend. She was a good employee in a social work job that wore her down. Felice was a very good woman to everyone who needed her. She was all of this until four weeks ago when she quit her job, ended her relationship, sold her house, offloaded her cat onto the local crazy cat lady and her dog onto her son and fucked off to Mexico. In one fell swoop. This process of dismantling took Felice just twelve days. TWELVE DAYS to put her house on the market AND sell it, to cull her belongings and pack her suitcase. Felice now lives in a state of elation, liberation and panic. She is suddenly homeless, unemployed and stripped of responsibility. Felice is quite delicate and seemingly overwhelmed by the about face that her life has just taken. She spends a lot of time praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe for guidance.

LISA is a 22 year old flight attendant from Canada who has struck up a very unlikely friendship with Felice, to the point that they are almost inseparable. Lisa is hyperactive and prioritises being ´free`. When not breaking up Mile High Club escapades in the washrooms of airplanes she is hitting rave festivals. Hard. Lisa can`t get over my ignorance when it comes to electronic music. I can`t get my head around how much she loves the soulless drone of the stuff. I suspect Felice might have found in Lisa a freedom and devil-may-care attitude that she desperately wants to embody yet fears.

DARIUS is a 30 year old of Polish origin who has been living in the States for the past 20 or so years. Darius is eccentric, outspoken and idiosyncratic. He`s studying social work at a university in North Carolina and seems to like me because I have a nose ring. Darius told me that he used to wear a nose ring as a symbol of his alternative nature. He wore the nose ring until someone pointed out that he doesn`t have to signpost his individuality with a piercing because this characteristic makes itself abundantly clear as soon as he speaks. Darius agreed with this observation, immediately removed his nose ring, and has not sported a piercing since.

VICKIE is more or less a member of the San Miguel expat retiree crew. She`s a 65 year old Arizonan who is living here with her boyfriend. Vickie is emphatic that she hasn`t retired, that she`s still working. Her `job` is to own and receive an income from the seven properties she rents out in the States. Apparently this occupation can be very taxing. It`s hard to be Vickie.

Getting this all down I`ve realised that we might be in better shape as a group of hostages than as students. As students there is a fair amount of butting of heads and mutual incomprehension. As hostages we`ve got quite a practical assortment of people. Joseph can fashion us a house out of some twigs and cow dung. Darius, Felice and I can mill around and try to practice capacity-building and a strengths-based approach like good social workers should. Lisa can cook us up some mood-enhancers from the native cactus plants when we get bored in our captivity. Luke can tend to our wounds and administer CPR if our kidnappers get out of hand. Levi can save our souls (just in case). Vickie can finance the ransom to get us out of there.

Impressions:

LA was big, busy and impenetrable. CARS EVERYWHERE. PALM TREES EVERYWHERE. The notorious public transport system was just as unwieldy as legend has it. I persevered and saw a couple of great things: a Stanley Kubrick exhibition at LACMA, the palatial Getty Centre, eccentric Venice Beach, tacky Santa Monica Pier.

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I ate well too and of course in huge quantities despite the fact that I learnt quickly to always order small. I had a ´Godmother with the lot´ mega sandwich at the Bay Side Deli in Santa Monica (messy fabulousness). I ate Gumbo Yaya, cornbread and collard greens at the Farmer´s Market. I had an amazing vegan chocolate milkshake made with nut milk, carob, dates, avocado, agave and hazelnut. I endured the free hostel breakfast of horror because LA is EXPENSIVE and the day prior to my arrival I made two mistakes that tallied $1500.

Godmother with the lot

I enjoyed countering the big city gloss of the tourist attractions I visited by reading James Ellroy’s gritty The Black Dahlia. Overall I enjoyed the book’s Chandler-inspired wise cracks and the insight into a seedy, corrupt and dangerous LA that doesn’t really make its presence felt to a somewhat cautious tourist like me.

Real life authentic American date:

On the final day I agreed to go on a date with the travel agent who worked next to my hostel and who I´d been going to for public transport advice. I wasn´t mad keen on the idea – there were no fireworks, no great soul or mind connection – but out of inherent Australian politeness, a desire to have a conversation with someone other than myself and lamely reasoning something along the lines ´I´m travelling, it´ll be an authentic American experience with a local, why not?´ I said yes. I can´t actually remember this guy´s name. It may have been Austin. I´m going to leave him nameless though because I can´t be bothered dignifying him with a proper noun.

I have in fact never been on a date. All my boyfriends have somehow just happened. My impression is that Australian men live in such terror of being rejected that their approach is to insinuate themselves into their beloved´s lives to such a point that if they do ever try anything they´re pretty darn sure they´ve got it in the bag (or ´les doigts dans le nez´, right Flo?), and if they are turned down there´s almost enough space to laugh it off as a miscommunication. Australian men, I lamented, why can´t they take on more of a casual, American approach to dating?

Disclaimer: Sorry beautiful Australian men of my life. This is just a generalisation and of course it´s not the man´s impetus to initiate anything anyway. Go with me for the sake of storytelling though, would you?

This is why not:

Rookie error – I didn´t ask his age. It was the first question he asked me as we walked to our destination. He didn´t hide his surprise when I told him that I´m 27. I was less surprised that he was 23. His assertion: ´I´ll be 24 next week´, just made him seem even younger. UGH. 23. Who can be bothered.

Scanning my outfit, he redirected me from the destination he´d originally planned ´where all the celebrities hang out´. His glance read thinly veiled disappointment I hadn´t dressed up for the occasion. Come on dude – I put on mascara. He should feel lucky that I even did that as I was due to get on an overnight plane flight in a few hours.

He took me to quite a great Santa Monica rooftop bar. We sat outside and enjoyed the sunset, pounded by a cold wind. I was freezing. He saw me shivering and told me I should ´relax´, as if I were nervous from his carnal proximity and not the gale blowing in our faces. GIVE ME A BREAK.

Making small talk:

He studied IT at college but boasted that he did some English courses and that even though he didn´t enjoy them, he did very well. He did mention that he was a fan of the short story though. Great, I thought, some common ground at least. I mentioned Raymond Carver as a favourite. He didn´t recognise the name. Phony.

We tried again – Ernest Hemingway he said was his go-to and he hated F. Scott Fitzgerald. How predictable for this man who was fast revealing himself to be naive, chauvinistic and YOUNG. I mentioned the scene in A Moveable Feast where Fitzgerald in a drunken fit of insecurity shows Hemingway his cock, asking for reassurance regarding its size. That anecdote dropped like a lead balloon.

He mentioned that The Sun Also Rises is his favourite Hemingway. This reminded me of my theory that Hemingway was actually gay and that a lot of his machismo was compensation and veiling. He countered this argument with the fact that the Hemingway character in the book boasts that he ´knows that he could fuck the female character if he wanted to, but doesn´t want to because she´s a whore´. I asked him why he thought this proved that Hemingway wasn´t gay. Silence. Another lead balloon.

Lady´s man:

I think he could tell that he was losing me. I think he was also realising that I wasn´t his type (read: not playing dumb), but for men like him it´s more about the ego trip than a connection. So he pulled out the big guns.

Apparently he´d travelled around the States for several months up until recently. In San Francisco he´d met two Australian travelers and had been invited to backpack with them. Why? ´Women are just always attracted to me, they´d always come up to us in bars if I was there. These Australian guys, they called me “the hunter”´. I commented that I´d never heard that term used in such a way. ´You know, a lady´s man, a champion´. SPARE ME.

He went through his repertoire. Apparently black women are drawn to him (he is a very white, preppy-looking Middle American). ´They always come over to me and they´re like “hey sugar” and I don´t dress like a homey or anything, but they can see the hoodlum in my eyes´. Apparently Swedish women are ´popsicles´ – ´cold and with a stick up their arse´. The technique is to loosen them up with plenty of booze. URGH.

I suggested that he was very ´multicultural´. LEAD BALLOONS EVERYWHERE.

Icing on the cake:

Glancing at my watch I realized that I had 10 minutes to get to my airport shuttle bus. I legged it. I left him waiting outside while I went into the hostel to grab my backpack. The shuttle bus came and left. This guy didn´t even attempt to make it wait two minutes for me. I took it pretty well but of course his response was defensive ´what, are you mad?´.

I´d left myself plenty of time so public transport did the trick. I spent the bus ride feeling dirty and thinking of all the comebacks I could have dished out, but that I just couldn´t be bothered with.

I take it back:

Give me the passive, painstaking and indirect Australian method any old day.

First impressions:

On the first evening we were made to fill in a comprehensive questionnaire including details of any drug ingested (I left it at alcohol and nicotine) and a ‘biography’ with prompts including ‘family situation’ (‘stable’), mental situation (‘stable’) and any major life crises (‘nil’).  They would have left more space if they really wanted a run down of my crises, surely.  The questions made me concerned though.  Why did they need to know about personal crises?  What was going to happen to my brain?

After settling in the genders were segregated and our vow of ‘Noble Silence’ began.  From that time on we could only speak to our teacher regarding meditation-related questions at designated times, and to our manager regarding any other issues (forgotten tooth brush, another blanket, or in my case an infected spider bite).  Other than in the meditation hall we didn’t see the men again.

Off we were herded into the meditation hall where we were allocated our own little square of real estate.  It was surreal – the hall had the pine smell of a sauna, the lights were dimmed and each student (around 110 in total) sat on their square cushion, swaddled in a blanket (blue for the men, cream for the women).  Facing us at the front of the hall were our teachers – two men, two women – dressed all in white, wrapped in white shawls over white garments, meditating serenely on daises as we fussed over our cushions.  The lights were dimmed and it was warm.  I felt good.  Once everyone was settled a voice boomed, godlike, from the speakers above us, chanting in this droning, nasal way.  The tone began to feel somewhat sinister.  The teachers, though serene, had the mechanical, almost reptilian look of an alien creature in a horror movie that would unblinkingly eat your face off.  I wondered if they were replicants.

I didn’t sleep that night and so woke easily enough with the gongs at 4am.  I walked silently with the other students through mist and darkness to the meditation hall for a two hour sitting.  6:30-8am was breakfast, followed by meditation 8-11am.  Lunch was 11am-1pm and four hours of meditation followed until 5pm.  5-6pm was ‘tea’.  Reading the program, I thought ‘tea’ meant dinner.  Tea meant a cup of tea and a piece of fruit.  There was no dinner.  Horror of horrors.  Walking up the stairs to the dining room on the first evening and being confronted by a lonely old fruit bowl at the top almost had me in tears.  After dinner we meditated and had discourse detailing the vipassana theory and practice until 9pm.  Lights out at 9:30pm.  And repeat.

Settling in:

For the first six or so days I was almost enjoying myself.  I was in the one place.  I had no external demands on me, I didn’t have to worry about anyone but myself, I didn’t have to TALK to anyone – magical.  I was getting enough sleep, my booze bloat was deflating, I felt healthy and, for the first time in months NOT bone-achingly, numbingly tired.

The setting was also stunning.  Our dining room overlooked mountains and valleys and bushland almost untouched.  Every evening the sunset was perfectly timed with our tea break.  The sunsets buoyed me – they were luminous, entrancing.  The sunset on Day 3 almost made me cry for the beauty of it (yes, I was still somewhat overwrought).  It made me realise that every single day there is some amazing thing happening in the sky.  Every day. For the first few days I was planning a tree change and a life in which you can see the sky and watch all the little birds (albeit with wine in hand and the option of a chat).

The experience would have been a lot more difficult had the natural element not been there.  The morning of Day 3 I was walking through the cold and mist at 5:30am, struggling to maintain enthusiasm, when I spotted two wallabies hanging out ten metres away from me.  Seeing them propped me up.  Another time, walking the bush track three black cockatoos with yellow crests and faces swooped low over me, warbling and wooping.  It was nice to have the space in my brain to appreciate these things in a way that I’ve always wanted to but have never really felt.

 In practice:

The vipassana practice itself was more difficult than I had expected.  During the first four days our attention was to be completely focused on the triangle from the top of our nose between our eyebrows down to the skin above our upper lip.  There is no visualisation or guided meditation, it’s a very pared back practice.  There is no distraction from yourself.  It’s about being present in yourself fully, and experiencing the sensations that are occurring constantly but that our minds are dulled to.  On Day 4 there’s a big reveal and the full vipassana technique is taught which incorporates the whole body.  But still – no stimulus, no external thing to focus on.  It’s just you, your body and your fucking thoughts.

My thoughts – it was a confronting, educative experience to be forced to sit with my own thoughts for ten days and realise what actually happens in my brain.  Utter rubbish.  Rehashing old hurts, having imaginary arguments with people, rehashing old hurts again, imagining new ways in which people could hurt me, playing that out, and then arguing with that person for the hurt I speculate they may incur on me.  Or the flip side – going over and over pleasant memories and experiences ad nauseum.

In theory:

And that’s the whole point of vipassana – the teachings are founded on this dichotomy of aversion/craving that we all play out in our head constantly, and that influences our actions.  The theory is that reacting to these aversions and cravings create these marks on our soul that continue to multiply and harm us.  The technique of vipassana is about learning how to let these aversions and cravings slide and to not become invested in them, not to react.  The idea is that misery is inevitable, craving and aversion is inevitable and we must learn how to observe these things calmly and not to become invested in them.  Nothing is fixed, change is constant and nothing good can come from identifying ourselves and investing ourselves in something that is bound to change sooner or later.

This is taught by giving us a direct, visceral experience of pleasure and suffering, and its transience.  And this is achieved by exposing us to almost unbearable pain for ten days.

Twelve hours a day of meditation from 4:30am until 9pm HURT.  I had no idea how physically challenging the experience would be, and I´m glad I didn´t because I may have reconsidered.  After Day 4 there were also three one hour meditation slots daily during which you weren’t allowed to move.  In a perverse way, these group sits of ‘Strong Determination’ were the best parts of my meditating day – the pain of not being able to shift my burning shoulder or bring my foot, dead with pins and needles, back to life was all-encompassing.  The challenge of this required my full attention, and it was only really during these moments that I could get the mess in my head to subside a little.

The challenge was to approach all of these sensations with ‘perfect equanimity’.  Not to respond with craving for the pleasant sensations (sometimes your body would be alive with a tingling sensation like an electric pulse spreading through your body), and to not respond with aversion to the unpleasant sensations.  And it was true that when I began to feel the gentle pulsing in my body I felt relief and a sense of achievement and that I was on track.  They would disappear as soon as these thoughts began to form.  Likewise, when I sat in agony and fantasised about the massage I would book when I got home, or the epic Epsom Salt bath I was going to take, the pain would become so much worse.  I had stopped trying for acceptance of these experiences and become invested in them.  And during this tussle finally the impossible happens – the hour that has dragged into eternity is up – numb legs are revived and backs stretched out and the pain that was almost breaking me minutes ago suddenly feels irrelevant.

And, the vipassana teachings say, such is life.  Misery is inevitable, pleasure is fleeting.  The game is to not get invested in this, to not allow these ultimately physical experiences to influence the way we live in the world.

Vipassana is a Buddhist technique, supposedly taught by Buddha himself.  There’s a lot about living with compassion, egolessness and loving kindness.   It’s about recognising the ego in our relations with other people – how love is about the beholder enjoying the bodily sensations that their beloved invokes in them (sex, but also the experience of love, which is ultimately something physical too).  And conversely, aversion to people is about us and our reactions, and less about those people themselves.  It’s about making choices around how to react to things, and not blindly reacting along the craving/aversion dichotomy.

In my own brain:

At least for the first six days all these teachings felt so timely.  I realised that particularly this past year, I had been trying so hard to grapple with the mess and noise in my head, but not in a sustainable way.  I’d been unable to confront it so I used a constant stream of stimulus – the radio, podcasts, talking on the telephone, alcohol etc. – to shelter from my own mind.  Vipassana is about learning that this stream is inevitable, accepting it, but not becoming invested in it.  Likewise I began to feel more accepting of my personal hurts, less angry.

But it wasn’t as neat and streamlined as all of that.  It was a constant struggle and it was only really on the last day that I realised how it was all coming together.  Day to day I battled with my mind, trying to force it to quiet down, not realising that the point was that it never would.  Each night I had a vivid nightmare that set the theme for the pre-occupations of the day.  And I’d be off – constant rehashing of whatever deep-seated fear or hurt that the nightmare had brought to the forefront.

The themes of the nightmare and the thoughts that popped up weren’t particularly surprising to me.  Many people report having memories that they didn’t know they had, or old issues arising that they thought they had moved on from.  I wonder if I had done vipassana at a more stable time in my life if the issues would have gone a little deeper and further back.  Or perhaps I just carry my hurts close to the surface (I know that I do).

Challenges:

All this played out in me relatively calmly and easily for Days 1-6.  It was a challenge, but one I was up for.  Days 7-9 were not so smooth.  I began loosing patience with the process.  The nightly discourses were less about the practicalities of the vipassana technique and more about the Buddhist aspect, which I am less interested in.  Even the sunsets became less spectacular.  It was fitting – on Day 7 I realised that I had begun to experience craving for the sunsets.  Day 7 was a pretty non-descript sunset, as were Days 8 and 9.  I looked for solace in nature, but the only thing of interest I spotted was a spider slowly killing and mummifying a struggling bug.  I never considered going, but my concentration flagged and I felt impatient for the course to be over.  In hindsight that was a necessary part of the experience also – having a nice ten day break from reality wasn’t the point.

All over:

Day 10 was described as ‘a balm for the deep operation performed on your mind’.  We learnt the final stage of the meditation technique – basking in loving kindness and sharing this with the world.  I didn’t feel it.  I wanted out.  We were also allowed to speak to the other students on the last day.  People had teeth!  And accents!  And facial expressions!  The woman I thought was 18 was actually a painful 36 year old with the sort of horrible dye job only excusable in an 18 year old.  The woman who had been irritating me because she had begun fasting (as if the whole process isn’t difficult enough, woman) and then meditating next to me with her rumbling stomach turned out to be quite great.

Day 10 soured the purity of the experience for me a little though.  It wasn’t speaking to people, that was fine.  It was the people who ran it.  There’s speculation that vipassana is a cult.  It’s not.  The teachings were DVD recordings of the discourses of a man from Burma called Goenka.  He is responsible for the revival of vipassana after many hundreds of years of dormancy.  He is an incredible teacher – funny, illustrative, charismatic.  He’s spoken at the UN World Peace Summit, Davos, the World Economic Forum.  There’s a hilarious picture of him doing the vipassana course with the world’s top 125 business executives – all these suited men in the lotus position.  Goenka genuinely believes in the practice and has a beautiful way of getting his point across.  He subscribes to the whole body of belief – the practice and the Buddhist foundations of it.  But the idea is that vipassana is non-sectarian and can sit with whatever other spiritual beliefs you have.  The emphasis is to adopt the practice, and believe what you want; if it’s Buddhism then so much the better.  The volunteers who run the Blackheath centre (and I suspect any of the centres worldwide) kind of make it cult-y though.  Once they’re speaking the in/out group they’ve formed around the practice becomes clear and it’s a bit gross.  Obviously all these people desperately needed something in their lives and they have found what they’re looking for in vipassana, but it was all a bit tedious.

So that’s that.  I’m not sure if I’d do another one.  The idea is to learn the technique and then to put it into daily practice.  The ‘old students’ tend to be ones who have committed in that way.  I feel like it would be a sort of meditation tourism, a misuse of the technique, for me to do another one down the track.  There’s no way that I’m going to practice vipassana regularly.  I don’t have it in me.  And I’m not sure that the course should be use as a mental health detox, which is how I did use it, and what it would be for me in the future.

There are also parts of the technique that I don’t think sit naturally with me.  It’s a very disconnected way of living in the world.  It’s not me.  It’s also very visceral in its approach.  I think I need a cerebral aspect teamed with a visceral one if it’s to be my salvation.

Another approach:

Watch this fantastic documentary about the introduction of vipassana into a high security prison in the States: