As the saying goes, the greatest journey begins with the smallest step. It transpires that for the past 6 months I have been tentatively shuffling forwards to what has turned out to be the proverbial high diving board; what I`m now facing is not the first step, but the product of the first few.
This began in earnest 6 month ago when, towards the latter end of July and disarmingly early in a Spanish holiday I made my decision as the product of a great deal of deliberation to to leave my job selling plastic suitcases to the under-five jet set and realise a slightly vague and deluded ambition to live and work somewhere that English was more likely to get you into trouble than into a job.
Decision made, I set about sealing my fate by informing just about anybody who would listen to my scheme (as a task in itself this was not too hard; my “elevator pitch” was deliverable within 30 seconds, owing to fundamental lack of one thing – detail) thus employing The Crushing Pressure of Potential Shame in the event that my optimistic plans fell into an untidy heap.
As well as bullying myself into a state of enthusiastic momentum, I endeavoured to find out exactly what it was that I would do with my abrupt change in direction. This, as far as I can remember, stemmed from the most part from one person; Louise Whitaker. Lou was (and probably still is) the elder sister of friend`s girlfriend, possesed by a drive and determination equal to that of a blind darts champion. She is a fantastic girl and I have no idea why but, in an act of incredible charity she took me under her wing, introducing me to every conceivable branch of her contact network and graciously labouring my rambling discourses as I attempted to flesh out the definition of my future. She`d been involved in the Fair Trade industry for some years and it gradually became apparent over time and conversations regarding topics ranging from microfinance to aid work and global exporting that I`d developed a very bankable set of skills during my relentless global pursuit of families aspiring to alleviate the screams of their children in transit. The second revelation to offer hope to my ill conceived ambition was that I really quite enjoyed the business of imports and exports, in which I was suitably steeped, and the possibility of a fulfilling career overseas engaged in such pursuits seemed to be almost within the confines of realism.
However, even as the froth of excitement started to accumulate on my lips, it became all too apparent from the range of meetings with Lou`s equally patient and kind contacts that despite my commercial nouse I was woefully lacking in any language aptitude, a skill apparently essential for any aspiring loon wishing to work abroad in Latin America, my shallowly considered choice of location. Despite my most sustained and determined application of optimism it became clear that to work in Fair Trade abroad I would have to achieve fluency in Spanish. Undeterred, I modified my one step plan to involve a preliminary step; my internal flow diagram of intended progress now read thus;
Become fluent in Spanish (1) – Work in Fair Trade in Latin America (2)
Having pursued 2) as far as could be reasonably expected, I turned my attention to 1). Reaching out to everyone I knew that had lived of worked in Latin America, visited or travelled there or looked like they had any vaguely useful scrap of information to impart, I drew the conclusion that my likeliest route to fluency lay in getting a job that leveraged my default asset of being a native English speaker. In teaching English, or at least helping others to teach it, I would be in a position to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking community and through some mystical process emerge from the situation in a state of fluency. Sailing along on the rosy cloud of assumption and an ill-founded prejudice against teaching qualifications, I duly dispatched applications to teaching institutions in Colombia and Peru, inviting the principles of the schools to hire me on the basis of rusty private tuition and water sports instruction experience and an ability to do rather well in making things up as I went along. As it transpired, this was strategically a poor idea.
In the months of fruitless pursuit of my applications the closest to a response that I managed to illicit came from the ill tempered headmaster of Newton College in Peru, in informed me in as many words that without teaching qualifications I would be better suited to an alternative line of employment.
By now it was December 2008, and with the Crushing Pressure of Potential Shame dictating a departure in January 2009 I was feeling my optimism gazing with a worrying lust as the emergency exit door in the back of my brain. I had no flights booked, no idea of the work that I might be involved with, and absolutely no idea as to which country I might end up in. It was partly the desperation at the uncertainty and partly an adolescent knee-jerk reaction to the sour-voiced headmaster`s comments that caused me to decide to book a flight without plans of employment post-arrival, but fortunately this idea was derailed before it had any opportunity to take off.
Fate has been watching me flail around for long enough, and it finally dealt me a good hand; a bubbly and patient Spanish teacher by the name of Claire. She had witnessed my single handed battle with her language of choice, Spanish, some 6 months earlier. She had relied to one of the many emails that I had sent out in in the “carpet-bombing” approach to information gathering that I had developed over the past couple of months, informing me by recommendation of a “language exchange” program run in a small town called Chiapa de Corzo in Mexico. This, it transpired, was exactly what I had been groping around for; daily Spanish lessons in exchange for English lessons administered by me to the unwitting pupils of the Dunham Institute, purveyor of the exchange scheme. I noted with relish on close inspection of their website that all teachers were placed with local families, thereby facilitating the “cultural immersion” that I desired. There was one complication, albeit a small one compared to some of the more sizable issues placed in my path by my unique blend of bloody mindedness and blind faith, that I was required to be qualified to the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) standard. This proved to be a problem easily circumnavigated however, as a single call to the director of the institute revealed that they ran TEFL training courses and delighted in training their own teaching staff. With the teaching semester for the exchange program running from February and the 4 week TEFL course neatly dove-tailing with this for my desired January departure, it finally seemed that things were starting to come together. For the first time in months, I was able to start telling my friends and family about concrete plans and the Crushing Pressure was sated.
The next month was a whirlwind of booking courses and flights and engaging in the organisation of the innumerable things that constitute the tying off of loose ends characterising an old life, and forming the arrangements that define a new one. As the date of my flight drew nearer and the frequency of goodbyes increased, from my work colleagues and friends from university and home, I could feel strange layers of numbness and denial slowly being stripped away as I slowly but surely came to realise that the improbable plan, hatched months ago and tinkered with as if I was a car fanatic doggedly and repeatedly resurrecting an elderly automobile, was actually going to happen and that I was going to leave behind some wonderful friends, a great job and a committed and loving family.
My parents, bless them, put on their bravest faces and drove me to the airport as I frantically stuffed what I deemed to be my most essential possessions into a rucksack in the back seat. All the way to the departure gate, I was incredibly privileged to receive a constant stream of messages on my phone wishing me luck and future happiness.
Owing to a disinclination to pay my remaining mobile phone contract, I was to dispense with my SIM card and leave my Mother the phone to use at her discretion. Having wiped the memory and removed the card, I said goodbye to them with a lump in my throat at the security desk.
As I sat in the departure lounge, turning over the SIM card in my hands I reflected on its electronic list of contacts, contained in a shell half the size of a postage stamp. Despite the knowledge that the world is a small place brought closer together by cheap flights, the Internet, VoIP phones, email and all those other incredible developments, I suddenly felt overwhelmingly alone.
As the sound of the call to boarding for my flight was heard over the tannoy, I folded my SIM card neatly in half and, walking briskly to the departure gate, dropped it in the bin.
2nd January 2009