Celebrating travel – Interview with a fellow expat, Camden Luxford in Cusco, Peru

Posted on June 29, 2010

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Last week, I celebrated the beauty of international love by posting an interview with Vago about his marriage to a Morrocan. Today, I’m celebrating expat life with an interview with Camden of Brink of Something Else.  Enjoy her thoughts about moving from Australia to Peru and check out her website and my own answers to her interview here.

 

Where do you live?

Cusco, Peru.

How long have you lived there?

On the 23rd of June it will be six months.

What made you choose to live there?

It certainly wasn’t planned – I was coming to the end of a five month trip through Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia and Peru, and I just kind of got stuck. I had a job I liked in a hostel, a shiny new boyfriend and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to perfect my Spanish, so I shifted my university studies off-campus and cancelled my flight home. Now somehow I’ve wound up partner in a new hostel project and it would seem that I have a new home! Irresponsible, perhaps, but I’ve always made my best decisions on a way, and they generally seem to turn out.

How do you make a living?

We pay ourselves a living wage out of the hostel budget; hopefully once we begin operating this will grow into a living-plus-travelling wage. I’m also trying to break into a sideline in travel writing. Highly lucrative, obviously.

 

Have you lived abroad in other countries before? Where? Was it easier or harder to feel at home?

I did the usual young Australian right-of-passage working in the UK when I was 20 and 21, living in Brighton, Wales, Oxford and Edinburgh. Our cultures are very similar, and obviously there was no language gap, so it was a dead-easy adjustment. The fact that I was surrounded by more Aussies than people from any other country didn’t hurt either.

I’ve also worked in a hostel in Greece for a month, and another one in San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, for three. The language gap made life a little more difficult, but the European culture is still essentially very familiar to me – we share world views, history, political thought, ideas about relations between people, you name it – and there was generally a steady stream of English-speakers pouring through the hostels. Again, it wasn’t a difficult adjustment.

Are you part of a close-knit expat community, or are you closer to locals?

I have some truly lovely local friends and generally don’t hang around other expats. I actually feel a bit weird having an English conversation these days! When I was working in the hostel, I obviously had a lot more fellow gringos in my life, at least temporarily, and when we open Yamanyá Backpackers I will again, but right now, I am the sole gringa in my social circle.

This is great for my Spanish, but it has made the transition more intense. I’m still not able to express myself as concisely and profoundly in Spanish as I am in English, and the cultural differences can be a little overwhelming. But I think that ultimately I’ll be glad of the baptism of fire, and there is a thriving expat community here if I ever need to seek it out for the sake of my mental health.

How much longer do you plan to stay?

Given that I’m contractually tied to the hostel, I would imagine a few years at least! We’ve got plans to grow the franchise (I dream of living in Cartagena, Colombia) but obviously nothing’s decided yet. We’ll see how we go, but I think that South America, if not necessarily Cusco, will be my home for the foreseeable future. I want to finish my university studies, by distance of course, and eventually find work in human rights. This is a great region for that as well.

Do you think about your adopted country as home, or as somewhere you happen to live, at the moment?

I don’t really think of anywhere as home – Brisbane is where my mother is, and where I’ve lived the longest (10 years, more or less), but my family moved around quite a bit when I was a kid, and while I love the city I don’t feel terribly strong ties to it. Although when I’ve had my down moments here, that’s where I think of going. Not Melbourne, where my studies are, along with a goodly amount of my possessions, but back to Brisbane, to Mum. And isn’t that what home is? The place you would run back to?

What were the greatest differences you noticed when you first arrived?

The obvious – traditional dress in the streets, the maturity of the children, the concept of “Peruvian time” and this weird propensity to eat ice-cream in the freezing cold.

What are the greatest differences you notice now?

The pace of life – which includes but isn’t limited to “Peruvian time” – everything’s much, much slower, and people are quite happy to pass hours worth of potentially productive business time hanging out, chatting, waiting for one another. Being steeped in Western ideas of work, work, work, and being the kind of person who must be busy and takes on more work than I probably should, I have to really struggle with my frustration and irritation levels at times. At the same time, of course, it is quite appealing. When I’m capable of taking a deep breath and forgetting the length of my to-do list.

There’s also not the same concept of political correctness – it took me quite some time to get used to referring to friends as “Chino” (Chinaman, for his oriental look), “Negra”, “Gorda” (fat), and so on. That just wouldn’t fly back home. Or certainly only between very close friends, not the wide circle of acquaintances in which it’s used here.

And finally, the deep current of spirituality that runs through daily life. Even the 25-35 year old big-city club-kids in my close circle of friends consider it natural, indeed fairly necessary, to make the occasional offering to the Pachamama. I’m used to a fairly hefty dose of cynicism when it comes to religion!

To what level did you speak the language when you arrived?

Intermediate – I learnt some in San Sebastián, more on the trip down from Mexico and was in a Spanish school for a month when I first arrived.

How did the language difference affect you?

I thought I was pretty OK with it – I had enough to make friends, chat, work, go about daily life – but it wasn’t until I moved out of the hostel I was working in that it got a bit tough. Denied my daily dose of English, life got a bit trickier. Not only did I miss the easy connection of an English conversation, I couldn’t talk to anyone in more than a superficial sense about how I was really coping with the transition. Now, though, things are easier. My Spanish has improved out of sight, and I have some very close friends and my boyfriend who “get me”, even if I can’t find exactly the right words.

Do you have a local partner? How does or doesn’t that help you integrate?

I do – I’ve been seeing Gabriel for about five months, we live together and along with a friend, Willy, we’re working together on the hostel. That looks awful in print! It’s ridiculously fast, I know, but, well, we’re both protected legally with the business should things fall through, and living together (in the hostel) makes financial and practical sense right now.

As a relationship, its probably the most comfortable I’ve been in my life. As for its affect on my integration, that’s debatable. I get a handy window on his world, and the best sort of language coach, but I also have to be vigilant that I’m not getting lazy, expecting him to make everything easy for me. This is still my journey, and one I more or less have to take alone.

Have you taken out or would you consider taking out citizenship? Would you lose your home country citizenship? If you would, would that change your mind?

I wouldn’t – purely because I don’t see my future as being in Peru. I love this country, and I’m taking out residency, but I want to live in a few more places yet before I get tied down!

Australians can take out dual citizenship, so if I ever did decide to naturalise somewhere it wouldn’t be a problem. If I were to lose my citizenship, I’d have to think seriously about what I was doing. From a purely practical standpoint, the Aussie passport has a lot of visa-free travel opportunities attached to it. From an emotional standpoint, while I don’t feel terribly strong ties to Australia nor any urge to live there, I’m not sure that, when it came to it, I’d want to sever what ties remain.

If you don’t have citizenship, what are your feelings on living in a country where you have no political voice? Is having a political voice important to you? Could you stay on indefinitely without it?

I’m a politics student so participating in the political life of my country of residence means quite a lot to me! Mind you, at this point I’m so confused by the Peruvian political system I’d probably break into a nervous sweat if presented with the opportunity to vote, but I do intend to figure it out eventually.

This is something I want to address in a bit more detail during the “Adjusting to Expat Life” series on The Brink of Something Else, so I won’t go in to it too much now. But given the high levels of labour mobility and immigration in the world today, and the decreasingly likelihood that residents take out citizenship and thus gain full political rights, this is becoming something of an issue. Is a democracy really a democracy if, say, 10% of its population are resident workers who don’t vote on the laws that bind them? And can you truly integrate and become comfortable if you periodically have that reminder that you don’t really belong?

Was there a moment when you suddenly realised the extent to which you had integrated? To which you hadn’t?

I think every day I realise how far I have to go! I like the fact that I can sit around over beers tossing Peruvian slang about with friends, but that’s really integration in the most superficial way possible. But there hasn’t really been a moment where I’ve sat back and thought, “woah, I am such an outsider!”, either. It’s more just a general feeling of low-level disconnect.

What advice would you have for ‘newbie’ expats? What do you wish you had known before moving to your new home?

I’m still a ‘newbie’ expat so I’m looking for advice! I guess I would say that it helps to establish a bit of a network at your destination before arriving. I started off living and working in a hostel – built-in, if transitory, crowd of friendly faces – and basically eased out of that circle and into my current one. Nice and gentle! I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to turn up to an empty apartment and no friendly faces. Twitter, couch surfers, six degrees of separation through friends of friends of friends… whatever it takes to establish something of a connection before turning up.

What do I wish I’d known? That I was going to stay! I would’ve put my affairs back home in better order!

-Photos and words by Camden Luxford, introductory text by Denise Pulis @ www.travelwithdenden.wordpress.com

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