Day One. I had the raging shits and my face had broken out in an anxiety rash. Stuck to the loo and shedding skin like a snake, I began to fear that I would spend the rest of my life trapped there because I couldn’t remember the way back to the hostel. I was in a Spanish language school in Ecuador thinking I can’t do this, what am I doing here, which fuckwit told me this would be a good thing? Oh yes, that would be me.
That was seven years ago. I was in my thirties and had taken a year off work to travel solo around South America. I had woken that first morning in Quito feeling sick. I tried desperately to remember landmarks on my way to school so I wouldn’t get lost on the way back. The only thing I could recall was a shop with a ladder outside called ‘Shop of Ladders’ (it reminded me of a shop I once saw in Blackpool called ‘We Sell Fags’). Waiting for my name to be called, I watched the other new students, twenty-somethings, talking to each other, laughing, looking relaxed and happy. Cue massive panic attack.
I tempered my burning face with cold water and thought back to the evening spent with one of my dearest friends, Bobs, when we watched ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ and I fell in love with Gael García Bernal and decided at that moment that I would go to South America. Resolve stiffened, and walking like I’d secreted a small mammal up my arse and was desperately trying to keep it from scrambling out, I squidged out of the toilet and made my way to the classroom for my fluency test. The first challenge over, and I was placed in the ‘you know fuck all Spanish, do you actually understand English?’ class.
Two weeks on, and learning grammar had become less of a challenge than sharing classes with 22 year-old gappers. Asked the question in our conversation class “what do you hate?”, the youngsters answered passionately with things like “inequality” and “deforestation”. I said “cheese” and “dogs”.
My fellow students had never heard of The Thorn Birds (“Aren’t they that band out of Sweden?”) or Haircut 100. They showed off when asked to tell the class what they had done the previous evening, burbling on about full-moon parties and drinking games. I had to make having a few beers and doing my homework sound more thrilling than sleeping with Ryan Gosling. Even my teacher was younger than me but married with ten children, so I took comfort in the fact that my breasts were still defying gravity whilst hers were cleaning the floor.
It was refreshing to use the parts of my brain that I thought had atrophied long ago, and once I was over the initial shock of being a pupil again and not having to wear a uniform, it was fun. But I had to unlearn years of entrenched work practices. I had to write everything by hand and soon developed a severe case of wanker’s wrist. I had to ask permission to go to the toilet. I couldn’t send someone to get me a coffee, nor could I waste half an hour googling on the computer (there was no computer).
Tip for older travellers: don’t get anxious about end-of-week exams. There’s no point feeling humiliated because the man-child from Leeds gets more verb endings right than you; you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that when he dies, the only thing he’ll be able to leave his children is the debt from his enormous student loan, whereas you enjoyed the heady days of the government grant and pot noodles.
I might bore you with more tales from my South America trip later. But the reason for writing about my travels now is this: last week my dear friend Bobs called me as she arrived in Buenos Aires on a work trip. On the plane, a handsome man had sat next to her and they got chatting. It was Gael García Bernal. They talked about their children, politics, favourite books. And she told him about me, and how we had watched ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ together, and how afterwards I had carefully planned what became the most amazing year of my life.
And it all came rushing back.