Amazing Race

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Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

Chullachaqui is a legendary devil of the Amazonian jungle. He has the ability to take the physical appearance of a family member or loved one of his victim, to lure you deep into the rainforest where he then leaves you, lost forever.

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Picture by Carina Ramos. On ARF Facebook page.

My loving boyfriend told me this at the starting line of the Amazon Race Forest half marathon that took place last Sunday in the village of San Roque de Cumbaza in San Martin, Peru. I had looked forward to the race so much, that if on my laptop you type ‘Amazon’ in the google bar, the retail company will appear only on the page three of the search results. We had signed up for 21 kilometres in the blazing sun, but there were also people doing the full marathon distance, and a shorter 10k trail run. I looked around and saw mostly lean bodies doing warm ups and wearing the latest running gear that a few months ago I didn’t even know existed. This was definitely no McDonald’s charity run.

If one were to miss the orange signposts, and wasn’t wearing the event sponsor Suunto’s GPS watches (which, by the way, is a Finnish brand. Just saying.), the way to recognise Chullachaqui is, apparently, by looking at his feet. ‘Chulla’ means dissimilar and ‘chaqui’ means foot. If you notice that your loved one has a foot peculiarly bigger than the other, then probably you are being tricked by the devil.

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I imagined Chullachaqui to look similar to Gollum.

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An artist’s impression of Chullachaqui at http://www.amaruspirit.org

In hindsight, my boyfriend might have chosen to share another legend after what became three hours of him limbing in the forest with blue toe nails and a twisted swollen ankle. But according to the race directors, and to their credit, no-one went AWOL. Even if the most experienced trail runners among us were surprised by the difficulty of the route.

To give an idea, the winner of the men, Stalin Carrasco, ‘el caballero de trail’, finished the route in two hours. On a normal road race the winner’s time would be around half of that. Maria Delgado Salmon who came third  in women’s marathon distance, was heard saying that the previous eight hours it took her to finish the course were tougher than the famous 100km desert crossing in Paracas on the south coast of Peru.

But at 7am, tropical butterflies in my stomach, I knew nothing of this. If you really need any further indicators of my naivety, then what better than the fact that I decided to have a french pedicure at the Lima airport while waiting for our departure to the city of Tarapoto, the ‘city of palms’. (Some ultra runners have their toe nails removed, because the acid-based procedure is a less painful one than losing them on the track) Also, blame my map reading (I can read a map, but only in 2D!), I didn’t realise how relatively little running there would be along the course! For the rest of the time I was doing what I usually tell my dear daughter off for: climbing, jumping, crawling, sliding down, falling head first, swearing,  and heaving myself up gripping a low branch or a fellow runner’s hand, as we crossed mountains and rivers, and no, Motown was not playing in my head. There were four points with local people offering water and I couldn’t tell from their expressions whether our little adventure left them anything but bemused. The oncoming traffic consisted of a man with a horse, and a woman carrying a baby in a sling wrapped around her body. I had no idea where they came from, or where they were going, but mostly HOW on earth they’d managed to get there.

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The route. I shall never overlook elevation diagrams again. Source: Amazon Race Forest.

I’m sure waking up before 5 am to train with Miraflores Runners and practicing power yoga almost daily in the past months paid off, however. Weekly repeated hill runs and interval training meant that while my calves were throbbing (and three days later still are), my heart was happy, and not just literally. Speeding downhill I felt transcended back into the little girl running in my childhood’s Finnish forests (often to an outdoors toilet) in the middle of the summer. Ecstatically overtaking many military-fit looking men after ten kilometres of uphill, I remembered that for a considerable time of my youth I had entertained the idea of becoming the first black female in the Finnish army (I wonder if that would have been a better choice than the hours of leadership skill workshops at a management consultancy. Not least because I’d soon be retiring.) At one point, the slight young Peruvian woman in front of me, who probably didn’t weigh more than 50kg and didn’t exactly fit the description, said she felt like Rambo. This is why I guess they say running is like a drug. We were on the same trip.

The beauty of the place was (Ujjayi) breath taking. I’d bathed in insect repellent, which knocked out the wildlife within a five mile radius, but I still saw butterflies as big as birds and birds as small as butterflies. (Luckily, I missed the big eggs that my boyfriend saw.) After the first hour, I ditched my headphones as the pounding of David Guetta started to reach levels of irreverence, just like the plastic pollution left on the path by some of the runners*. Those things belonged to the city; here I wanted to be able to hear the sounds of the nature, which I’d usually pay an entrance for, and leave through a gift shop.

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Until recently, the Chirikyaku population in San Roque mainly cultivated cocaine. This has been replaced by coco beans. Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

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*I don’t know how much extra effort it would have been for the runners to pick up their own rubbish.The route was cleaned by locals afterwards. Picture by María Viloria Ortín published on ARF Facebook page.

The sight of the finish line took me by surprise too. I’d long stopped relying on my Garmin watch. Not because the satellites weren’t working, but because distance became a completely useless indicator. One kilometre could mean anything between five or twenty minutes depending on what the path in front turned out to be. (Did I just come up with a running and life metaphor for Pinterest? No? Perhaps if I paste it in a big font over some instagrammed abs?)

It took me 3 hours 45 minutes. I feel this was a decent achievement but in trail running the position (which are yet to be published by the ARF organising team) matters more than the finishing time. Nearly two hours after I’d taken advantage of the onsite ‘facilities’ and catering – bathed in the river Rio Cumbaza and sucked my teeth in five oranges – people were still reaching the finish line. (Of course some had run the full marathon.)

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Rio Cumbaza. Needless to say, the sight of the river beat reaching the best located hydration point in a city race. Picture by Maria Viloria Ortin published on ARF Facebook page.

For visitors, the Amazon Race Forest is nothing less than bucket list material. For the locals – who rightly took home much of the bling – I hope well organised events like this bring more benefits than the Olympics did for London. I don’t have such data, but I believe this is the case. For one, runners eat a lot (I have a new  Peruvian love affair: ‘juane con cecina’ which is rolled plantain with marinated bacon-like cured pork. Try. It.). They go to bed earlier than the average eight-year-old, and don’t leave beer cans around. Bar some portaloos, they don’t need additional infrastructure – the route has probably been chosen for its inaccessibility. Their adrenaline addiction feeds on the natural environment, so possibly their presence increases the awareness of the region’s fight against the expansion of gas and oil companies in the Amazon.

Perhaps that’s why Chullachaqui didn’t appear. Believed to be a member of ancient species that lived in the jungle long before humans, he started his mischief to take revenge on people who had little respect for the forest or those that lived there first. Which naturally earned him the devil status. With the gas and oil companies, the indigenous people seem to find themselves in the same predicament.

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My half way victory smile. Pinched from the ARF Facebook page.

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Consultancy In ma-La-La Land

I’m really happy that Malala has won the peace prize, even if I had my money on Vladmir. Hey, when I was seventeen, all I could worry about was looking fat.  Gendered problems all the same, but on the scale of feminism, more Emma Watson than Malala.

But I was fortunate enough to be born in a country where we shoot ourselves in the head so  the Taliban don’t need to; where both girls and boys go to school, eat organic, have lovely teeth and get good enough marks to put Finland on top of the PISA education league tables, year on year.  So as any mother would do, I’ve sold our things and moved to a country that has the poorest education out of all OECD countries, just behind Azerbaijan.

So is it a surprise that my first consultancy request is to run a mini workshop on the Finnish educational system. The request comes from Iquitos, Loreto, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest and one that you can reach only by air or boat.  I know I was the one pretending to be busy whenever there was a risk of being sent on a consultancy somewhere you couldn’t access by the Northern Line, but that doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate to drop everything you’re doing and go WICKED WICKED JUNGLE IS MASSIVE.  (Watching Ali G with your 6-year-old is. Unless it’s done to maintain your cultural links to the Commonwealth.)

In my response email, I caveated my experience like no-one in possession of a Y-chromosome ever would, and suggested an agenda for the workshop. They were thrilled. I was exactly what they were looking for in this region that suffers from the poorest quality education in the country. I was the one to change this and train 400 teachers in 100 hours over two months.

Hold on.

Either Mr Rainforest is in lala land or something in my management consultancy CV gave the impression that compressing the five year Finnish teacher training into a two month course in the middle of the rain forest was my special competency. Was it the bit about operationalising payment by results to maximise value for money and optimal yet measurable and demonstrable outcomes in an effective, efficient and transparent manner while engaging and empowering project stakeholders, at the baseline and going forward? Need to re-word that. Again.

Deploying the same rigorous due diligence methods known to bluechip consulting outfits, DP then googled the prospective client, which hadn’t occurred to me yet.  It revealed that he had been on trial for paying for sex with an underaged girl. I started rewriting the agenda. Item 1: No sexual abusing of the pupils, paid or otherwise. Never. Item 2: the pillar of success of the Finnish educational system – all teachers are university educated with a post-graduate degree. Lunch.

But I decided to give it a benefit of a doubt – we’re after all in Peru, where it’s easier to buy the justice system than sugar free yogurt. Let’s be professional about it i.e. I need the money; and when before have I been promised “a team of psychologists to help because the atmosphere in Loreto is special,” despite the fact that in my experience the atmosphere is always a bit special from the moment management consultants arrive.

I email Mr Rainforest – so perhaps you are not looking for 100 hours introduction to the educational policy in Northern Europe, but a course in pedagogy. Which I’m not qualified to do, so best we meet or have a phone call to clarify the project objectives. In the meantime, if you could kindly tell me about the project…such as who it is funded and managed by?

To this email I didn’t get a response – and DP told me to forget it. But nearly a week later:

“It probably wasn’t a good idea to tell you about the reality of the educational level in Iquitos. But this is the truth and we want to change this little by little. We want to be taught to apply the Finnish educational system in our class rooms. Do not worry, we will find a specialist who is willing to do this. I profusely apologise for bothering you.”

Today I woke up convinced that I’d been in Peru a month longer than I actually have. I don’t think even a hundred hour workshop could have prepared me for all this insanity. To all my Facebook friends who are sick of seeing me wearing lycra at sunrise: running is no longer a hobby, it’s a lifeline. Because it really says something, if the sanest, most normal people I’ve met here are the ones who get up at 4am on a Saturday to drive 50km out of town to then run 7.5km uphill. And then for the fun of it, run it up all again. Booyaka booyaka.

If anyone is interested in an education consultancy, all expenses covered, a team of psychologists included and good prospects for a Nobel prize, send your CV and cover letter to the author.

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As the picture demonstrates, the hot topics here right now include online bullying at schools, hence commissioning a Finnish education consultant. Picture from DS Lands.

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Not So ‘Lone Runner’ in Lima

Whatever my idea of a sabbatical was, it wasn’t getting up at 5.10 am on most days. Now that I’m used it, I consider sleeping ’til 6am on a Sunday a lie in. This has nothing to do with DD starting school, as it has with the pre-mid life crisis of once the runner-up of the fifth grade school trail running championship suddenly bestowed more spare than there are Youtube videos to watch. So she becomes completely outdoorsy.

I’m no speedy gonzales, but I’ve always loved running – even before I spent an hour a day reading the Runner’s Magazine. But me and trail running hit the rocky road when I became a single mother/management consultant. For the first couple of years especially, my nose would be running more often than my feet. I’d be reaching my maximum heart rate at the top of the escalators at King’s Cross.

As often happens with the taken-for-granted things in life, I realised how integral running was to my identity in a hospital bed. High as a kite from morphine the day after my spine surgery, I read ‘It’s Not About the Bike’ by Lance Armstrong, and googled swimming instructors in London.  As if reading my thoughts, my neurologist (what, not everyone has their personal neurologist?) said the words that have followed me to South America: “You will be running soon again.”

And so I am – but in Lima rather than London.  I’ve joined a local sports aficionado group Miraflores Runners led by a Peruvian elite distant runner. Mr Ricapa likes taking photos and making people get up at 5am. There are now so many unflattering #nomakeup shots of me on Facebook that cancer charities would probably return donations on seeing my account removed.

In the past month I’ve taken part in three of Lima’s big races. Toyota 21k, Maraton RPP and New Balance 15k. If you’ve clocked most of your miles in Europe, the first thing to note is the absence of fund raising, but you can take comfort in your nice new t-shirt in which you’ll be raising the awareness of car manufacturers/fast food chains. Someone’s got to burn the calories. The second thing to note is that the Maraton RPP is not a marathon. It’s a 21k. But, hey fifty percent margin of error- let’s not be so pedantic.

The third thing is the gender balance. As you walk to the race start area, you are greeted by (presumably) Argentinian models. You can’t miss them, because they are tall and blonde and their boobies that have more gel cushioning than my trainers, are at the eye level of the average height Peruvian man. Qualities that would make them excellent pacers, but despite the misleading clothing, they are not there to run. They have more important things to do. Like to be blonde.

So that’s the women done…

I’ve observed about 1 to 4 female-male ratio at the events. It’s great if your bowel is telling you that carb-loading before a race (you learnt about that in Runner’s World) is not for people who tend to load on carbs anyway. Welcome to your first public event ever where there are no 5-mile queues for the ladies’! On the other hand, this means Lima’s trees get watered extra well (before eventually dying of ammoniac). But most importantly, mind the machismo on the track!  Some say that men are worse at pacing themselves. My guess is that they have been to South America. In which case they, like me, may have noticed the first aid treat someone at the 1km point.

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Running away from her problems as usual. At RPP.

The New Balance 15k is a nice fairly flat race and my favourite of the three: you can even win a trip to the Disney 21k,  if you are wearing a new pair of NB trainers. AND you make your best friend happy when they will be carrying your chip as you’re recovering from a knee injury for breaking the runner’s rule #1: ‘do not try anything new the day of the race’.

So, Lima and its races. Are they worth it? I wouldn’t be booking flights… unless you want to tell your Facebook friends you finished a ‘marathon‘ in an hour, or you’re a woman and have a nervous gut like me.  But if you happen to be in Lima and not that busy on a Sunday morning – as they say here: ‘alas y buen viento!’ (wings and good wind) You may see a race regular English bulldog El Biuf on skateboard enjoying just that.

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Source: Maraton RPP Facebook

But it seems that as with everything else, the most amazing things about Peru are found far outside the capital. We are currently booking flights to Tarapoto for the Amazon 21k Race in November. Trail run in the jungle – now that’s what I call a sabbatical.

IMG_20140929_182212ASICS, Brooks, Nike, if you’re reading this, I will review your latest runners in exchange for a free sample. Who cares I have 100,500 fewer followers than El Biuf? I can write better than the bitch.
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Tuesday is a Point of View

Now that DD has finally started in a school in Lima (DUN-DUN-DUUUN!!!), I can close the phase of the home educator with the most grateful amen ever uttered on this continent. Although it had only been a week since the kids in London were back to school, my anxiety  (and jealousy) was multiplied by the possibility of our ‘summer holiday’ extending until the next term… or beyond. That in addition to entertaining and trying to keep calm and blah blah blah, I’d have to start pay serious attention to some curriculum – don’t even know of which country – so she’d not fall behind. In the four weeks we’d done the Museo de Ciencia y Tecnología (the day I got robbed); the mini city for kids Divercity, ChocoMuseo; climbed Peru’s biggest indoor climbing wall (three times); gone surfing, cycling and visited most playgrounds with little to do or see, apart from around twenty five homeless cats, half of which appeared to be pregnant. We’d even been to the exhibition of contemporary chair design, as you do. We’d done it all apart from paragliding.

Lima is not necessarily a great city for kids. They don’t do amazing or even pretty basic attractions, like libraries. They seem to value primitive anthropological concepts such as friends and family and spending time together.

We obviously don’t. Thanks to all the years spent in nursery and school, DD seemed to have got this idea that at 8 am she and I would sit on the carpet, and I’d call the register and reveal a white board with a list of twenty-seven fun and developmental structured activities planned for our day together. When spotting her mum’s failure to plan was heading towards planning to fail she started injecting our day with some direction:

What are we doing today? An art gallery? What’s a gallery? I don’t want to go to a gallery. Is there a cafe there? How long are we going to be in the gallery? Can we go to the cafe after? Can I have what I choose? What if they don’t have what I want? What are we doing after the cafe? After we’ve eaten? Draw a picture? A picture of what? And what are we doing after that? What are we having for lunch? What are we doing after lunch? What are YOU going to do after lunch? … and after you’ve been to the loo? Can I watch Frozen? What are we doing now? And if it rains?

IT NEVER RAINS IN LIMA!

Yeah, but what are we doing today, if it rains?

I tried to think what my home schooling friend in London would have done. She organised the ‘Forest Club’ in a true Finnish ‘we-fought-the-Russians’ spirit in Hampstead Heath. There are no forests in Lima, but there are the rocky beaches. I’m sure my friend would have said something like: “Let’s go down on the beach and paint!”

We sat together, back to back, with our paints and brushes. I mixed greys and blues. It’s Lima, it’s the winter. It’s always overcast, it’s always grey, polluted and it never rains. School hunt sucks and I need a job. She was reaching for the purple, pink, yellow and orange with her paint brush. I was going to remind her the point of this planned curricular exercise was to observe and reflect on our environment – not paint rainbows or hearts – but thought better of it. She was engaging in an activity, at least, and wasn’t asking what we were going to do next -

DONE!

(Now, dear readers, here comes my Buzzfeed link bait moment: “I always knew me and my 6-year-old saw things differently, but then I saw this and OMG THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED!”)

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Photograph from GuiaGPS

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‘Tuesday’. My interpretation.

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‘Tuesday’. Her interpretation.

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Photo from Nirvanadmc.com.

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Help

Help

“Under segregation, black women were so rigidly excluded from good jobs that 60% of those who were employed in 1940 worked as maids.” The Economist, 30/08/14. Picture fromthe Help (2011)

 Wednesdays are special days. On Wednesday afternoons I can never find the phone charger, a bottle opener, and it took three weeks and a CSI unit before I found the tampons. This is because Wednesdays mornings Doña Lucha comes to clean our home. I can’t begin to tell you how often the single mother management consultant version of me in London, was dreaming of a doña lucha.

It is therefore very fitting that now that I’m doing nothing, I have a doña lucha here to help me allocate my precious time better. I’m therefore living like most women over the poverty line live in Peru. Except that most would have a live-in maid and a nanny plus additional garnish of your choice (gardener/chef/driver etc). We have really gone for the diet option. On the other hand, the one kind of help that’s been my lifeline in the past six years, a babysitter, is a completely foreign concept in Peru. I’ve found myself explaining over and over again that I don’t want someone wearing an apron and plaits, who calls me a señora and who sleeps in our bike shed. Oh, you mean a ‘cama afuera nana’ (live-out nanny)? No-one seem to understand the idea of a cash-strapped student who’s happy to sit on your couch for five hours doing course work/check Facebook/watch bad TV while your precious offspring sleeps/does graffiti/watches bad TV. This, I think, is because generally cash-strapped people don’t study in Peru. And generally those who study don’t do minimum wage jobs.

The Economist had an article on domestic servants yesterday: “In 1935, six out of ten urban white families above the poverty line in the South had a full-time domestic servant, compared with under 20% in the North. Now hardly anyone does. People who want help with the housework typically hire cleaners (also called maids) for a few hours a week, not as live-in flunkeys with whom they pretend to have a warm relationship”

Welcome to Peru in 2014, bringing you ceviche, Macchu Picchu, llamas and an environment where you can still pretend to have a warm relationship with your brown live-in flunkey! If your vision is not clouded by Lima’s wintery fog, it is clear as day that this warm relationship is rooted in slavery and colonialism. This spill over effects are everywhere: the boys pushing your shopping trolley all the way to your front door. It’s not the same as home delivery as you’re not saving any time. It’s a power display. That or a management consultant doing the field work part of a leadership workshop.

20140822_180322“Keep up, boy. The turkey is defrosting”

The whole economy seems to be based on servitude. Innovation management consultants – don’t even bother. There is no need to come up with products that would help me be more efficient in my daily tasks because someone spending their whole day doing a job for me inefficiently is cheap as chips. And makes me the high man on the totem pole. People who work as domestics often can’t have a family themselves and if they do, who do we think serve them and other low wage people? Anything to do with the fact that at least 6% of children in Peru work in domestic services.

If wages were more equal this would obviously diminish. (And not coming last in OECD education rankings might help). If this blog was by a clever economist right now there’d be a chart that shows that income inequality correlates with domestic servitude. I’m no longer a management consultant so I don’t need to pretend I’m smart.

But I can still offer my opinion. Peruvians, you’re big boys and girls now – emerging economy… OECD… All really exciting, can-barely-keep-your-pants-on stuff, but keep it in your privacy and you don’t need, ahem, a hand from the help. Expat Americans: that segregation in the U.S was kind of abolished like, sixty years ago, does not like give you a reason to boss brown people in South America. Hipster backpackers: why is it cool and eco and sustainable to pay a local ten times less than you’d pay in Shoreditch? And the rest, Europeans, ex management consultants and especially bloggers who’ve assumed a moral higher ground because you’d never use domestic slavery… Well, forget it. This blog is not about sock factories in Bangladesh, anyway.

We found a babysitter. She studies bar tending and mixes amazing pisco sours. According to DD anyway. We tip generously.

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Our Crêpe Shaped World (Moving from London to Lima)

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Note from the editor (that’s me): From now on this blog uses Mumsnet style abbreviations to refer to my dear daughter (‘DD’) and dear partner (‘DP’) to protect them and their current and future careers against my big online mouth. This is a  necessary measure taken as a response to a surging popularity among the two family members and five or so spammers who occasionally visit this site.

“Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne

For me ‘another way’ meant dumping our clutter at a Cancer Research shop and cramming the rest into nine bags and a box for the bicycle. I wasn’t so much worried about moving to Peru as such, as I was about having only one way tickets; having different family names in our passports; and no document whatsoever that would show her completely absent biological father was in agreement with our emigration. However, after the 20 hour flight, my fears of long questioning evaporated as soon as the officials gestured“adelante” through a dedicated fast-track for families with young children. Being 6 years old at the Lima airport is a bit like being an EU citizen at Gatwick.

One of the first things I’ve realised, is the difference between ‘immigrants’ and ‘expats’. Where DP was an immigrant in the UK; me and my daughter are expats in Lima. He would still be an immigrant if he took his PhD to an investment bank. I’m still an expat even if I’m sipping down DP’s salary at Starbucks on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s the difference between ‘you are a cleaner’ versus ‘you have a cleaner’ (wohoo, I have a cleaner!). It’s the difference between making pancakes (me) or crêpes (him). Yet, apart from my good taste for chocolate, my consumerism, I don’t know what it is I’m contributing to the Peruvian economy. I’m trying to see if any of the local election banners promise “serious measures to tackle expatriation”.

So while I’m waiting for an expat task force crackdown at Starbucks, the Mission One for our new little family is to find a school for DD. Education is insanely expensive in Peru – by expat standards, let alone for the average Peruvian. In the event capitalism has worked out for the undeserving (single mothers? black people? indigenous people? atheists?), the other school admission requirements – which include a parental psychiatric test; references from two existing school parents; a family photograph that “includes the entire family” (particularly difficult since our only family dog is a mongrel) – will guard the country’s elite from mixing with mortals. Yet, I dare argue, access to a private swimming pool and personal psychologist aside, basic levels of literacy and numeracy are fairly mediocre compared to what one gets for the price of a school meal in London.

Being the economist that he is, DP thinks human capital investment should be treated as any physical asset. Will $10,000 enrolment fee + 10* $1,000/monthly fee over ten years plus inflation and family fun day entrance fee supplemented with home tuition and ballet classes etc give a better return than handing a publicly educated 19-year-old $100,000 to invest however she wants to? (I am happy to volunteer in the control group if anyone is interested in administering a study and doesn’t mind a participant who falls outside the age criteria by a couple of years.)

 I have to remind myself that we didn’t move to Peru for the quality of its British education or its corporate prospects for me. We  moved because there’s more to life than exam results and career, and the next time I’m bothered by such deep thoughts, I don’t want to be in hospital bed recovering from a spine surgery.

So I’m writing this sitting on the beach watching DD on the surf board. Every time she disappears into the waves my heart nearly stops and I nearly drop my new Mac which makes my heart stop again. I refuse to think whether the instructor is qualified, CRB checked, health and safety trained or what he knows about pedagogy. I just concentrate on waving at DD as she approaches the shore, standing on the board on her own for the first time.

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Letting It Go And Getting the Timing Right

In the past weeks apart from learning to lip synch to Let It Go (because apparently my voice is annoying), just as important as not holding back is knowing exactly when.
For example, in case you have forgotten, learning to ride a bike without stabilisers is hard work. It’s especially hard if when it comes to the practice of calm mindfulness, your mum is the opposite of a yogi, because she’s yet to get eight weeks off from work to do yoga and eat croissants (after literally – not metaphorically – losing some back bone). And if your dad was around, he would possibly have more patience but only after having exchanged the bike for cannabis.
So my daughter’s inability to ride a bike without training wheels was just a metaphor for the guilt I felt about our incomplete family. Yet her stabilisers hardly touched the ground so I knew she could do it, but she was as confident as the Bank of England. I’d hold and run behind her and then let go without warning. I thought this was commonly practiced pedagogy. “Are you holding? Are you holding?” “Yes! Keep pedalling!” I’d lie. But rather than cycling to the sun set she’d get completely hysterical and probably lost all trust in me for the next ten years.
Then one of these days, I didn’t let go. “Are you holding? ARE YOU HOLDING?” “No! You’re doing it yourself!” I lied. “SERIOUSLY? AM I GOING ON MY OWN? I’M PEDALLING ON MY OWN!” she cheered and the next time she demanded I step aside and just watch as she went by: “I’M THE CYCLING CHAMPIOOOOON!”
The thing about kids is that I suppose one can always plunge them into the water. But if they don’t sink they’ll get back to the surface more bitter than when they went down. I hope I can remember our cycling experience through her childhood and teenage years: Let her go in spirit and think she’s doing it herself.

This is the lesson number two: parenting is not a job for the credit hungry – they’ll never give you that and that’s ok, it shouldn’t be. But maybe when she has her own kids, I will tell her, guess what, I was holding you that whole time. That’s why you didn’t fall.

 

bikeCold never bothered her anyway.

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Zombie Child

I have often thought there is a special place in hell for people who schedule meetings to start at or after 5pm. Before I got sick, I imagined my death would be recoded at 18:17:24, on Hornsey Lane when I was trying to undertake the number 41 while revising a novel way of apologising for, for the third time in the week, being 17 minutes and 24 seconds late picking my daughter up from the afterschool club. Having said that, should these two scenarios come real, my after life would be very much like my current one minus the worry of trying to make it to the after school club for 6pm. In that sense the eternal flames could be an improvement in the quality of life.

I would miss my daughter though, but if the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is to be believed in, she is already a zombie. A study published today warns of the effects of children as young as four spending as much as ten hours a day at school, from breakfast to the evening snack. (Some of them spend on average around 10 hours and 17 minutes – I know, because it was me who bought her the watch.)

“These children walk around like ghosts, do not talk to anyone, fall asleep frequently, do not progress as quickly as their peers. Their parents are also ‘too busy’ to support them in an adequate way at home,” a teacher said in the Guardian.

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A ‘Zombie’ child playing ‘Zombicide’.

Unless ghosts have “excellent speaking skills” but are not such great listeners, as in my daughter’s reception year school report, I think this teacher might have been generalising a bit. But that’s ok. We are used to generalisations, us single parents. Even when we are generalised by omission, which this report is guilty of through depicting the time poor hard pressed as the nuclear family, where both parents have to – wait for it – work. In Finland both parents work, but primary school kids finish school by lunch time. And the school starts at age seven, for that matter. So contrary to a popular misconception, Finns don’t acquire their national zombie like characteristics until much later in life, and even the school murderers obtain their Finnish equivalent of GSCEs before being presented with a rifle at their 16th birthday.

But I’m getting all too EU labour policy-ish/Scandinavian noir here, when the point I was trying to make is that if the ten hour school days are true for any particular demographic segment, surely the single parent families would have their free hand up, even if in the Coalition’s dictionary, the word oxymoron is explained as a ‘working single parent’. This has even been unintentionally observed by my department’s leadership, in a cc all email to the practice: “it has been noted that some people leave at 5.30pm… to have an easier life… this is not acceptable.” So, guilt ridden after spending the 10 minutes of quality time with the daughter every evening (not shouting counts as quality, yes?), I try to bridge this gap between my easy life and acceptable humanity on my laptop until I collapse after midnight.

Clearly, until the day I can clone myself (which may be soon, based on the number of samples of tissue I’ve had taken from parts of my body during this long cancer diagnosis process), this all suggests that my default position is failure, whether as a parent or an employee, and from this position I want nothing more than kick Sheryl Sandberg’s ass when she’s leaning in.

But on the other hand, whether it is a question of your prognosis or your child’s progress, statistics and averages are mostly irrelevant at an individual level. My daughter does brilliantly at school – particularly on the verbal expression side, so the headteacher was surprised to learn she is actually bilingual (you see, the English view the knowledge of more than one language, that is English, as a handicap and hence this is not encouraged until one goes on a gap year to teach English to poor indigenous children in South America, because it is still a bigger handicap not to speak English even if one might argue they would benefit more of learning Spanish).

And this parental pride in itself qualifies me to give some advice, which apparently blogs can get famous (read sponsorship) for. Firstly, we do the homework during the school commute. It works. Secondly, lots of parents cram weekends full of activities. I used to take her to three different lessons on Saturdays and Sundays, because getting home at 7pm obviously means she can’t train as a classical pianist on a Tuesday afternoon. But I got fed up and tired, let alone bankrupt. Now we only do activities that have some enjoyment and benefit for both of us. So, for this not so much ‘tiger’ as your average hedonistic ‘family cat whose partner no-one has ever heard of’ mum this has involved swimming (I swim during her lessons); athletics (I train for my 10k PB while she’s in her session); being together at a djembe drumming workshop;  dancing salsa in Hyde Park; or playing a (good) board game. I realised that I can only genuinely do this quality time thing they go on about, if I’m actually relaxed myself.

But it’s possible that more drastic changes to the work demands and marathon school days are needed to make the time to develop some other skills. Not maths or literacy, but learning to ride a bike was our personal mountain. How fitting that we have now successfully climbed that one – during my sick leave.

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Why It Seems to Be Better to Be Fat than Black and Other Serious Illnesses

I was telling Taika about the time I had chicken pox. “I was eight and my sister was five, we both had chicken pox and we were at home alone while our mum and dad went shopping,” as the 1980s laissez faire Finnish parenting permitted. “When they came back, we got a surprise. We both got Barbie dolls.”
“Ooh, what kind of Barbies?”
“Mine was a Disco Barbie, she was black and called Dee Dee.”
“Ha! And what did your sister have?”
“I think she also got a Disco Barbie but a white one.” (Sometimes my mother and adoptive father went to some lengths to recognise my Afro-heritage – most of the time they didn’t)
“Your sister was so lucky,” she said with a sigh that contained six years of experience of how the reward of merit is not life’s business (Julian Barnes).
“But why?”
“Because she got the white one.”

Maybe I just didn’t expect my 6-year-old growing up in North London in 2010s – in the most diverse borough of the world’s most cosmopolitan city – have exactly the same reaction I had had twenty five years earlier in Finland, where the only black faces ever seen were in the church collection boxes. (How Dee Dee even ended up in our local supermarket’s stock is unknown and the police are investigating. Dee Dee – if you’re still there, go back home or face arrest, the Immigration are coming.)

She went on to elaborate that black was the worst, white was the best, and lighter brown – now she pointed herself – was alright “I guess”. “But you fancy Joshua?” and then, as if there was some logic-based point to be proven, I listed all the people that were darker than us that were our friends and who we loved. She shrugged and I could have launched on a trite parliamentary speech about every child matters. But before you judge me for not doing so, you should know how unsuccessful my “There Are No Girl or Boy Colours,” or “Boys Can Wear Pink. Girls Can Wear Blue,” or “Now Put This On or I’m Going to Get Mad” was. She would just give me a perfunctory nod to please me and next time keep her thoughts to herself for the protection of my outdated world view.  I’d be punished with premature condescension by my offspring only because of my hipocritical reaction to an honest cultural observation, one that she perhaps hadn’t thought anymore significant than “why do teenagers like to look cool?” and “why do Americans sound like someone was pinching their noses?”

Instead, I went to You Tube the next day to search for the famous doll test.

The direct in-your-face kind of racism is a pretty rare – although not non-existent – experience in my life these days. But despite being a woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a red-brick university educated city professional with a mirroring social circle, nonetheless she is sometimes reminded of the existence of certain world views when subjected to open discrimination and humiliation from the occasional cab driver or a night club door man. But what possible experiences are my six-year-olds views based on? Perhaps little every-day enforcements like this, which prove this is not an American issue. Or a Mexican issue. Or a phenomenon of a by-gone era.

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Superdrug, I don’t think ‘Naughty’ is quite my shade. Don't suppose you have any ‘Promiscuous’ in stock? 
And look at my friend over here. She needs something leaning towards the shade of a fetish?

Does it matter that I like to colour my hair honey blond? (But I also sometimes wear braids to be gaped by my colleagues as if I had gone through an overnight sex change. “You look like a recipient!” wins the award for the best compliment, ‘recipient’ in our context referring to the Sub-Saharan beneficiaries of one of the international aid programmes our consulting practice charges a few million quids to manage.) Or that I use contouring to make my cheek bones look more prominent and nose slightly narrower? Do these things matter?

Does it matter that judging by what we see, being obese today is a more acceptable beauty standard than being black? When Debenhams introduced size 16 mannequins last autumn this was celebrated – the average size of British woman is officially over-weight – and the equalities minister (yes,  I know) Jo Swinson endorsed this “latest move to show women off in representative lights.” Whether we think it’s beautiful or representative or full-figured or whatever, obesity comes with serious health risks. Being Black does not.

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The saints come marching in, in their representative lights

I will continue to tell my daughter that brown skin is not a disability and her light-skinness is not why she is pretty – and that girls can wear blue. It feels a bit of a one woman battle that I don’t know where to start. But in the first instance, right now I’d like to go home from the hospital and hug her and tell her how beautiful she is.

Today even more than on any other day, because I have just been told by the doctor that I have cancer.

It is not life’s business to reward merit.

So now if you excuse me, I will get up, comb my hair and put some make up on. Let the one woman battle commence.

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A Post Card from an Easier Life

Thought this would be as good time as any to include some inspiration from the corporate leadership from the past year.

“We do have a high performing culture; we’re bright, ambitious, energetic and driven people…”

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“…It will mean that we have to work really efficiently and effectively all of the time, and sometimes work at unreasonable and long hours – that’s the deal for any high performing team like ours.”

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“…concerned that some people are having an easy or easier life, relying on others to cover for them. The economic and competitive environment is too tough for us to do this.”

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“35 hours of activity is not a ceiling! Our best performers at the year end review combine high client utilisation with business development and practice support activities.”

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 “It’s not acceptable to opt out of this!”

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“Mum, I think you should find a new job. Like a librarian or a dog walker or something.”

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