It’s 2017, it’s April, and you’re not supposed to be here.
You stand in the middle of a field with your parents’ fat, elderly collie panting softly next to you. The collie nudges you with her nose. She’s saying, let’s go.
But…you are supposed to be on the second floor of the office on Calle Julio Pazmiño. Out that second story window is a view of the towering red hillsides. You glance at your watch. It is 12:00pm in La Paz, the sun would be full and bright out that window. But it is 9:00 am here, and the sky is plump and overcast.
Your brain is a spinning top: where you are/ where you should be/ where you are going.
The streets are crowded with minibuses, trufis, taxis; so many ways to get around the city for less than $1.00. At first, the streets seem impossible. Walking, you get lost. You ask a cholita perched on the corner of the sidewalk for una consultita. Where is Achumani? The new word clumsy in your mouth. You Smile. Nod. Follow her outstretched finger.
Gradually, the city lays itself before you. Your weekends become elaborate plans of how to make friends:
1) Sit in coffee shops and smile at strangers. Drink a lot of coffee.
2) Write obsessively kind introductory messages on ex-pat websites. You worry you sound desperate. Hi, would you want to grab a beer? I’m new to the area and looking to explore! Wince. Erase the exclamation point.
3) Go for long, breathless runs.
5) Start reading memoirs. Don’t just read them- devour them. Maggie Nelson, Terry Tempest Williams, Chloe Caldwell, Ann Richards, Mary Oliver, and everything Mary Karr has ever written. Your kindle is running out of space. Avoid your credit card bill.
Your favorite is called, “Cooking Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” a collection of short stories about the meals authors cook for themselves when they’re alone. You underline passages like, “Taking solitude in stride was a sign of strength and of a willingness to take care of myself,” while microwaving canned refried beans at 2am.
But for you, loneliness is more simply defined by a walk down street: everyone stares, but no one looks you in the eye.
Finally, you move in with two kind and dedicated women. You live closer to the office than before, but in the morning you find yourself raising your hand, hailing minibuses. Your chest feels heavy.
First, it is throat pain, a difficulty breathing. 13,000 feet of elevation, you remind yourself, is two thousand feet higher than Mt. Hood. The diagnosis: throat and lung infection. A needle full of penicillin. You smile at the doctor when he injects you, to show him that you are tough gringa. You don’t flinch.
Your ears start hurting, then your stomach, then your lower back. You go to another doctor, he prescribes more antibiotics. You get sicker. You start flagging more minibuses, more taxis, but now it is to get between the doctor and the pharmacy. Weeks go by. Groceries rot in your fridge. Your roommate, who watches with big kind eyes as you continue to deteriorate says simply, “I think you should go home.”
You moved away from this Portland suburb when you were 18. The neighborhood is almost unrecognizable: old houses have been bulldozed and rows of gleaming, neutral colored mansions have been erected. The rain shines off the new concrete. When you were small the street was full of kids and dogs, bikes and rollerblades. Now, it is eerily silent.
The bulldozers destroyed your favorite paths too: ones that cut through neighbors yards and skidded along blackberry bushes. But the collie knows where to go. She pulls you through unfamiliar back roads and past empty driveways and suddenly you are there: an expansive green field. A field you haven’t walked in a decade, suddenly laid at your feet. A map blooms in your mind. Now you lead the collie, breaking out into a run, through a thin dirt path until, there it is: a huge pond, swollen with rain, and a family of ducks clucking softly as they glide across the water. The collie lunges in, and you follow, up to your thighs in mud and water, laughing.
Later that day, your boss calls: “We want you to come to the Quito office.” She says. “There’s more work here.” She says.
La Paz, with its crowded streets and ragged hillsides begins to slide from your mind.
This, this is the Spanish you speak. “Aychaychayyyyyy” Your coworkers say, rubbing their arms for warmth in your icebox office. The air smells like eucalyptus, the “Revolución Ciudana” posters that were fresh in 2012 are peeling from billboards, replaced with, “Lenín 2017”. “Despasito” plays from every car, every office window, every cell phone stuffed in a teenager’s pocket.
Quito has changed since you were 22. There are food truck pods, craft breweries, men with man buns and thick rimmed glasses. There is a restaurant called “Fuck Trump.” You smile. People smile back. The park next to your house, Parque Metropolitano, is bigger than Central Park, with miles of well-maintained trails that you slowly plod along. You are still a little weak. The elevation is still a little high.
Quito is a stream- a long, thin expanse of neighborhoods and high rises tucked between two mountain ranges. You know the major street names. You know how to ride the bus. You’ve found a cafe in La Florestra where they play good music and you can sit and write. The barista has started to recognize you. You have two friends- Allie and Don- and the three of you order pizza and cook curry and go dancing. You begin swaying to the rhythm of your Quito life.
Then, an e-mail from your boss: “We’re moving your internship to the coast.” She says. “There’s more work for you there.” She says.
You take a breath.