I am on holiday. An actual, proper, holiday.

Not a trip to see relatives that involves traveling the length and breadth of the entire country five times in three weeks. Not a day off to see the city on the day no-one I know is presenting at a conference. Not an exhausted and guilt ridden afternoon out from field work, where you finally go visit that great big tourist attraction in the center of town everyone assumes you’ve already seen 6 months ago, because you’re obviously just here on permanent vacation for a year, right?

No, I am finally on an actual proper holiday for three weeks, and have refused to do any work whatsoever. Bring on the cocktails, the enormous meals, the frivolous shopping trips and the trashy trashy novels! Hurray!!

Its also great to see my friend Carly, whose house I Paraguay I am spending these weeks lounging about it. Given that both of us are stranded in this part of the world together over the festive season, we made a plan a few months back to spend Christmas and New Year together. Its wonderful to finally have someone to talk about my work with, who knows my project well and is great at giving both insight and encouragement. Carly also has the knack when it comes to persuading me I really do need to buy myself a very expensive pair of gorgeous 6 inch high heels to show off my new bright red pedicure. I’ll be taking a splash of Paraguayan va-va-voom back to Germanic Santiago with me after all.

Carly is doing fieldwork in Ciudad del Este, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and has a wonderfully homey apartment here that’s a lovely relief after my somewhat spartan rented room in Chile. We decided to spend the week of Christmas here and the New Year on a beach in Brazil. The original plan had been to spend the whole time on the beach, but we eventually decided it would be more fun to take advantage of her apartment to cook an enormous and extravagant christmas dinner, and of course indulge in the most glitzy, tacky, over the top christmas tree we could muster. Although I really can’t get used to the idea of a summer christmas being “really” christmas, the sheer quantity of glittery bling we have smothered this apartment in helps get us half the way there. I’m a particular fan of the neon pink “present” tree ornaments, that have holograms of kittens in santa hats on them. Carly is more enamored of the shiny plastic champagne bottles ornaments, that are testing the strength of our poor bedraggled plastic christmas tree to the limit. (It was the last one left in the discount store on christmas eve, and it looks it.) We’ll be finding glitter in our hair for months to come.

I’ve never been to Paraguay before, so its been great to get to know it through Carly, whose detailed knowledge and experience of the city is testament to her skills as an ethnographer. After the subdued urban chic of Santiago, Ciudad del Este reminds me a lot more of my experiences in Peru or Bolivia, but not so much it feels familiar. For a start, the heat and humidity are overwhelming, as are the intense colours: the thick vegetation that smothers the city in lush greens; the rich red earth that seems to be seeping out of every crack in the pavement, sticking to your clothes and skin to follow you into the house. Plus Carly has the most fantastically bright yellow VW beetle that has a habit of breaking down in odd places, adding its own rather inconvenient splash of sunshine yellow to the landscape.

Paraguay is one of the few countries in South America where the entire population are bilingual in both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guaraní. Everyone from the president to the kids on the street speak both languages, code switching back and forth between them all the time. While other countries like Bolivia have large proportions of the population who are bilingual, its always the case that Spanish is the dominant language of power and elitism. That just everyone here is bilingual is remarkable. Not to mention that most people in Cuidad del Este are also fluent in Portuguese, because of the constant movement over the border to Brazil, and many also have some Arabic and/or Chinese because of the very large populations of migrants who have become permanent and prominent parts of the city. Talking to one of Carly’s friends last night, who speaks Guaraní, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and a little German and Italian, I felt really very ashamed of my ungainly Spanish.

There is always something quiet fascinating about border towns though, not only in the kind of linguistic and economic fluency they require of people who constantly juggle 4 different exchange rates and 7 different languages in their head. But also the very particular sense of space and movement they provoke.

Not long after I arrived we took a shopping trip to stock up on ingredients for our Christmas dinner. 40 degree heat be damned: we were cooking roast duck with prunes and red cabbage, roast potatoes and carrots, English christmas pudding with rum butter and English christmas cake with all the usual decorations. This involved heading out from our house in Paraguay mid morning, stopping off in Argentina for wines and some lunch, a visit to the super market in Brazil to get a frozen duck, almonds to make marzipan and some high-heeled Havanahs, eventually making it back home just around 5ish for tea. The whole afternoon involved two time zones, two languages, 4 currencies and nearly 3 pages worth of stamps in my passport.

Sometimes its not so easy. Saturday was a particularly hot day, so we decided to head to a shopping mall on the Brazil side of the border to hang out in the air conditioning and look for white clothes for new year. The road to the bridge that crosses the river-border between Brazil and Paraguay was chocked with traffic, and once we were trapped in there was no possible way of getting out. We sat there in the non-airconditioned bug for nearly 2 hours, in temperatures in the low 40s. It was so slow we had the engine off most of the time, lurching 2 meters forward in a tiny spurt of activity every ten minutes or so.

Once we finally got over the border and into Brazil, the poor bug collapsed at a traffic light, something ominous having happened to the clutch that caused the pedal to suddenly fall off mid-motion.

Two hot and bothered gringas in high heeled flip flops pushing a bright yellow Beetle down the road is probably not a typical Brazilian sight. But I’m happy to say its one that caused several guys on motor bikes to screech to a halt beside us and offer assistance. Sometimes a macho culture has its advantages. The only good thing is that we didn’t break down on the bridge itself, or in that impenetrable traffic jam. But then there is the complication of trying to arrange getting a mechanic from one side of a border to connect with a broken car on the other side, all without arousing the suspicion of twitchy border guards hot on the look out for car smuggling.

Hopefully the bug will be resurrected in time to take us to the Brazilian bus station tonight. We have a 16 hour bus journey booked to take us to Florianópolis in southern Brazil, where we’ll be spending the new year on a beach. I’ve never in my life had a beach holiday, and I’m not entirely sure what one is actually supposed to do. But I have a few James Bond novels and some recipes for rum cocktails, so I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out. In fact, I think this holiday m’larky could be something I may develop a knack for.

I arrived in Santiago yesterday, and so far things seem to be going well! Despite the fact I was flying through Atlanta, and on the 4th July weekend, the trip was pretty easy and remarkably uneventful. I had two little girls kicking the back of my seat and giggling for 9 hours, but hey, that’s the joy of airtravel.

Arrived at my hotel around 9, but then had to hang around till 12 when the room was ready. Santiago is nowhere near as cold as Chicago or La Paz in the winter, but after an hour of wandering about waiting for cafes to open so I could get a coffee I was pretty cold. Not having got much sleep on the plane (thanks to the brats) didn’t help either. I stumbled about as a wide eyed, shivering little bundle of confusion for a few more hours before crawling back to the hostel and collapsing in bed.

Its strange, because I didn’t think I Santiago was that high, but I could have sworn I got a little altitude sick yesterday. I thought at first I was just reacting to that evocative smell of pollution, or maybe having a psychosomatic reaction to the experience of being in a South American city again. But I got that mildly queasy, dizzy, headachey feeling not long after I landed. Weird.

But today I’ve been feeling much more sprightly, and even managed to have my first coherent exchange with a stranger in Spanish! (The guy who owns the shop next to the hostel showed me how to use a payphone, and then we chatted a little. He understood me… ish.) My feelings of total linguistic inadequacy are going to haunt me for a long time methinks, but it makes each semi successful conversation feel like a small victory!

Longer term than working out how to cross the road or use a phone, my first aim is to find an apartment, and so far today I’ve seen two.

The first is a room in a house shared with around 6 other people, that is advertised as gay-friendly and multicultural. The walls are painted various bright colours, the neighbourhood is full of bars, there’s an english language ex-pats drama group that meets downstairs, one of the owners gives dance lessons each evening in one of the larger rooms, the bathroom is small and rickety, they claim to have late night parties only at the weekend, and most of the bedrooms had either tie-dyed wall hangings or burning incense when I visited.

The second is a room in the house of a Swedish-Chilean couple, who live on the 10th floor of a luxury apartment building that has two pools, a gym, and a very sweet concierge. Its calm, clean and very stylish. The building next door is a designer wedding dress shop.

While the pool is enticing, I’m perversely tempted by the first. It could be the hippy student experience I never had. A have a few more to see later, but want to make a decision by the morning so I can move in as soon as possible.

Ok folks. So I’m back. After nearly a year of hiatus, I’ve decided to deal with my “issues” and relaunch the Wrong Side of The World.

Perhaps to start off I should give an apology for disappearing. I’ll be honest about it: I was having a nine month sulk. I think I got a little dispirited with the idea of blogs, a little over enamoured with the quick fix potential of facebook, a little over-anxious about being labelled an “anthropology blog”… in all, it was complicated. And rather petty at the same time.

I spent the last nine months concentrating on some other projects: doing some creative writing, taking up painting again, that kind of thing. But I realised I missed writing here and so have decided to give it another go. First, though, I want to take this opportunity to talk a little about some of the things that made me start writing this blog in the first place, the direction I hope to take it in the future, and some more general musings about academic and internet writing. Partly as an explanation for the sulk, but partly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts on what I want this blog to be in the future.

When I first started the Wrong Side of the World back in 2003, I was just about to start grad school, and very sad about leaving behind a wonderful community of friends in Cambridge. I wanted some way to keep in conversation with them, some way to keep a connection other than sending awful group emails. I envisaged the blog as a way of carrying on the kind of informal, friendly debates about life, love and politics that I knew I was going to miss.

Grad school can be, particularly at my university, an isolating experience that slowly tears your sense of humour and self confidence into a thousand tiny little pieces. Particularly here in the US, I find, people are wary of what they write or say in public, cautious about what they feel prepared or able to defend. In writing the blog I wanted a space in which I could speak more freely, throw some ideas around and talk shit without necessarily having to worry so much about whether I could back it up with the requisite collection of citations.

As the name of the blog suggests, I also needed a space to deal with some of the total cultural confusion that I encountered in moving to a new country. Talking about the bizarre situations I found myself in was perhaps also a way of dealing with the loneliness that comes when you’ve just moved somewhere new and don’t have any deep friendships yet.

But, of course, the internet is not really a cozy night in the pub, and conversations take on a life of their own when they are overheard by the whole world. My biggest worry was always about whether I was writing something too personal, or something that wasn’t respectful of a friend’s privacy. (Or, lets be honest, that I would tell a stupid story about someone and they would then find it and be pissed off…) What caused my extended time-off (aka “sulk”), however, was more to do with me re-evaluating my relationship to the idea of a blog tself.

My initial reasons for blogging were to look for a safe space to share ideas, a space away from the rigours of academic speech/writing. But blogs are not that really that space. There are some pretty terrible stereotypes of academia that many people (inside and outside) share. The image of a bunch of egotistical arseholes constantly getting into cat-fights over obscure remnants of triviality, waving their dicks about, ready to crush any sign of weakness. I don’t believe in this stereotype. Or at least, I think that such images are a very tiny portion of the bigger picture. Yes, we all have to learn how to play the game to get ahead – its not some utopian community of lofty, idealist thinkers striving for truth and knowledge. But in that respect its just like every other profession or community. And so yes, there are styles of speech one has to adhere to in academia, and these can be limiting if one has no other outlet to speak in. Such was the situation I found myself in when I started the blog: wanting another venue to talk more freely in. The problem is that the blogosphere is also not a utopian space of free expression and shared ideas either. Instead, it can resemble nothing more than the worst of the dick waving cat-fight stereotype of academia, without the minimum requirement of some intelligence or knowledge.

Not always of course. But it happens. (particularly when one dares talk about politics.) And when it does, it sours my lovely naive idea about nice open spaces to talk about ideas without worrying that someone will flame you.

Anyway, the last few years blogging and my time off thinking about blogging have taught me two things.

Firstly, that I have a very thin skin. In fact, this was something that one of my informants told me rather forcefully a few months ago, when I was trying my best to convince him that my thesis wasn’t going to be at all controversial. I am a classic middle-child I guess, desperate at all costs to avoid conflict*. I’ve got to deal with that head on.

Secondly, that its really not possible to keep my academic and my personal life separate any more. My mind has been colonised by anthropology as much as my life style has. In the same way that my day-to-day schedule is dictated by the open-ended nature of research and my ability to have a relationship is undermined by the propensity to spend several months a year doing fieldwork, I now can’t read a magazine, or go to a store, or meet someone at a party without anthropologizing the encounter. Its insidious. So the idea that I would somehow write about my life or my thoughts and have it not be anthropological is wishful thinking.

Which is why I was so uncomfortable with the idea of being an “anthropology blog”. Not because I have something against them: I am an avid reader of several, particularly the excellent group blog Savage Minds. But instead because I wanted that separation, that safe space. I’ve realised, however, that its not going to happen.

So… I’m going to embrace it. Here, you will hopefully see over the next few months, the new and improved Wrong Side of the World. It might not work. Then again it might.

I have a few aims.

I’m going to avoid as much as possible talking about my informants, or explicit aspects of my fieldwork. My reason for this is mostly to protect those relationships and the ethic obligations to privacy that are embedded in fieldwork. Besides, I’m going to be doing so much field note writing already I probably won’t want to be writing additional things about it.

I want to keep this as a space I can write informally in. My biggest challenge in my professional development has been learning how to reign in my over-colloquial writing style in my academic writing. Learning how to cut out the cute phrases, sarcastic asides, over-enthusiastic effervescence and unsubstantiated rants. Gradually I’m getting there, and think my academic writing is improving as a result. But I miss them sometimes. Expect the usual chaotic, incoherent ramblings here instead, plus some.

I probably won’t be able to stop myself from me!me!me! posts, so you’ll have to bear with me on that. Though as Jim put it, when I talked this over with him a little over the Christmas vacation, the personal is still political so there’s no reason to exclude it all. Besides, if I stopped telling long-winded stories about my own stupidity, that would be half my conversation gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about whether its possible to make cultural anthropology accessible and/or relevant to wider audiences. So there may be some experiments in that. Other people have done it better before me, and are doing it better now, but we’ll see what happens. Its a challenge.

I’m about to move to yet another side of the world, Chile, so I’ll be writing a lot about that. However, for the first time I’ve decided to let my parents know about my blog, which will probably add a whole other level to the self-censorship ;)

So. Here goes! Thanks for reading, feel free to hang around leaving comments, and lets see what happens!

The last few week have been spent in the slow lane over here on the wrong side of the world. Most days I am taking Spanish classes, going to the gym (well, almost everyday), watching a lot of Buffy, slowly working my way line by line through Strathern’s The Gender of The Gift, and spending too long on the internet. Having realised that my Spanish was not yet up to the task of doing the research I wanted to, I set aside the last month of this year’s trip to taking classes and actually doing all that verb conjugation and vocab practice I don’t usual have time for. Its been oddly peaceful, which is handy because as soon as I get back to Chicago next week the world will explode again.

My Spanish teacher is a rather nervous young woman. We are getting to know each other quiet well, though I tend to find that’s often the case with such classes: you spend an inordinate amount of time having to talk about your personal life or express your personal opinions. We have argued over Bolivian politics, discussed our views on globalisation, ranged over my thoughts on my colleagues, my family, my love-life, my research and my recipe for moussakka. It makes me a little uncomfortable. (especially the moussakka part)

It doesn’t help that we’ve been covering the subjectivo, something that doesn’t seem to exist in English but is used to express doubt or opinion in a sentence. So I end up with exercises like the following:

Express whether it is/is not important/just/necessary that:
– we have much work
– parents discipline their children
– we help the poor
– children respect their elders
– there is contamination in the air
– that Man is civilised
– the US helps other countries
– the US makes peace with Russia

(Yeah that last one was a bit of a give away about the age of the textbook.)

The pedantic anthropologist in me can’t help but squirm. Alas I can’t give “well that depends on the context and how you define the concept of justness or civilisation” as an answer every time, even if I do use the subjunctivo to say it. I know, I know – they are just exercises. But until my Spanish is good enough to explain the concept of cultural relativism, these exercises are going to be tricky.

The number of personal questions can tend to make you start feeling like you’re in a therapy session. I remember one doomed introductory German course I took as an undergrad where even the basic statements, coming as they did at a rather complicated time in my love life, reduced me to tears. My poor study partner soon learnt to stop asking the marital status question and to stick to asking how many brothers and sisters I had.

Last week we were using a lot of airport based vocabulary, and I ended up trying to convey my airport rant (see a few posts below) in Spanish to my poor teacher. She got an even more confused and blabbery version than I wrote down there, given that it was in Spanglish. Recently airports and the mystic alchemy that is buying plane tickets has been somewhat on my mind though. Having followed the various rules for finding the cheapest fare (look before a tuesday because that’s when the prices go up, don’t use the same website too often for the same fare because they raise the price depending on how often people search for it, check out the secret student discount fares on the secret student website, pick an odd day to fly, stand on one leg bathed in the light of the full moon singing “she’ll be coming round the mountain” backwards while searching) I finally found a flight. And then of course it went up by $100 in the space of the 5 hours I was waiting to hear back from my relatives in the UK.

(Here’s an interesting maths question while we are on the subject. If a flight on Virgin Airlines between Chicago and London is advertised on the first page after searching as $630, but then when you click on the link to buy it, the cost break down on the next page is $288 fare each way, $462.31 tax and $750.31 in total, how much of the original price was tax, how much fare, and how much bullshit?)

But I brought it anyway. Sadly I was too late to make it back to the UK in time, and given that airlines don’t even like to give refunds when its their fault, I don’t think I will be getting my money back. So all I can hope for now is that the funeral can be arranged to coincide with the flight I brought. Its left me a bit up in the air about where I’ll be once I leave Bolivia – another reason to savour the calm here this last week.

The thing about a language class other than a normal conversation is that you the student tend to do most of the talking, rather than the teacher. So they get to learn a lot about you, but its hard to gauge what their personal reaction to your opinions is as opposed to their professional assessment of your grammar. The last class I had ended with a discussion on Bolivian politics in which I asked my teacher to tell me what she thought instead. She started to tell me how corrupt Evo Morales is, and how he is ruining the country, how the poor people in the countryside need to be taught and led because they can’t make decisions on their own in their best interests. Makes me wonder what she thought about my inarticulate replies to her questions on globalisation, international travel and politics. And makes me a bit more reluctant to try and express myself and my personal opinions in the last few classes.

Facebook is usually my networking and gossiping space, rather than for conversation, so I’m transplanting a mini-discussion that got going there over here.

A elderly relative of mine is ill in hospital, generating a stream of emails and phone conversations from me to various family members back home. Sadly they are the horribly practical kind of conversations that go along the lines of ‘will he make it to Christmas, or should I drop everything and come home now?’. This is the kind of situation I have imagined having to deal with ever since I moved abroad, as I suspect every person who emigrates for some period of time does. One of those horrible cases where your normal sense of helplessness is compounded by being unable to do anything from a distance. There’s not much you can do other than send flowers and wait for someone closer at hand to make a judgement call.

Anyway, its looking like things are getting bad, so I started to browse flights last night with the aim of seeing how feasible it would be to go home for a few days before the quarter starts. And that’s what generated my immense shock at the discovery that taxes on flights have gone up an astronomical amount in the last few months. In some cases, the taxes were triple the cost of the flight! A non-last minute flight, even, is looking at being around $200-300 for the flight and $400-500 in tax on top of that. (And before anyone dares say to me that its not that much in pounds, I get paid in dollars. $800 is nearly two months rent, and over half of my termly wages for a graduate student teaching job.)

Partly the reason it seems so bizarre is the intensely annoying policy of not listing the tax as part of the cost. Something that, incidentally, makes budget shopping for anything in the US difficult if you are not particularly maths savy. On all purchases the price on the ticket is without tax, so its always more when you get to the till. Three years later and I still can’t make accurate guesses about how much the tax will be and so still get surprised at the till each time. Very annoying, especially if you are trying to stick to a budget. The only advantage I can see is that at least it makes it more obvious how much of the cost is, actually, tax.

Jim’s joke about my comment on the rise in tax on facebook was that it was socialism. Sadly I think that it probably is not. Tax is a sore point for me. On top of the normally high taxes here in the US, I get the ‘you’re a dirty foreigner tax’, which means that all my stipend and wage cheques in the US are taxed by a third. A third of my already below the poverty line income goes on taxes. And for that I get no health care, no decent public transport, if I had kids they would be in disgracefully bad schools and still have to pay for university, no free public cultural institutions… and so on. I do get a to help pay for a war though. And as a dirty foreigner, of course, I have taxation without representation because I can’t vote. Unlike in the UK, where you don’t pay tax until you reach a (admittedly very low) level of income, and students don’t pay tax at all other than NI, here its the rich who get out of paying taxes.

So yeah. While I’m in favour of taxes, I’m also in favour of them being fairly applied and spent on something other than a war. Each time I look at my pay cheque and my health insurance bill I get quiet bitter about the fact that this is not the case. Taxes alone do not make socialism.

But then back to airfares, because I’ve often heard the argument that I ought to be boycotting air travel because its damaging to the environment and a luxury. No doubt many argue that higher prices will serve as a deterrent and stop people flying so much. Well I disagree. Higher prices when there is no viable alternative will not make people stop travelling, it will just make it harder for poorer people to travel, and generate bigger profits for those in the loop. Travel should not be a luxury, in the same way that communication with the rest of the world (internet, telephones, mail services that work and so on) should not be a luxury. Luddite laments that life was grand when we all lived in our place and thought people from the next town were foreigners are something I will never have much sympathy with. Then again, the howls of derisive laughter over statistics that show Americans hardly ever travel outside their country are rarely balanced by approval that they are saving the environment either.

Air travel should be regulated, because its a disastrous and wasteful mess. But the answer is neither to make it more expensive nor to call for it to be boycotted altogether. I would rather see the moral outrage channelled into generating alternatives that don’t mean we all have to sit in our own backyard the rest of our lives, trapped in the jobs, lives and socio-cultural circumstances that fate happens to have thrown our way.

So lets think of alternatives instead. For a start, everyone who has ever had to do it knows that short distance air travel is ridiculous. It takes hours longer than advertised (a half hour flight involves at least 3 hours in waiting, delays and ‘security’), is – like all air travel – hideously uncomfortable and intrusive, and could easily be replaced by a more convenient, cost effective and environmentally sound alternative. If some of those taxes were being spend on developing train systems that made it actually possible to travel across the US by any other means than plane or car, then that would be a viable alternative.

Air travel is hopelessly inconvenient, stressful, and disorganised. It needs to be better organised and run for the purposes of allowing people to move around rather than for making profits. But there we run into that same old problem again, the one that begins with a big ol’ capital C. And we won’t get any closed to S for socialism through boycotts and taxes.

When I started my field work a few months ago, a good friend of mine told me that during her year of field work she had read more novels than in any other point in her life. Hardly what they tell you in Ethnographic Methods 101, but several other veteran ethnographers I know agreed: when you do field work you have a lot of time on your hands. Unlike the rest of their graduate school experience, where most of them don’t do anything other than study for 10 years straight, the one or two years in the field stand out in the stories I was told as extravaganzas of fiction consumption and loafing about.

Well they all did it a few years ago without the joys of laptop computers and a thriving black market in DVDs. I’ve read a hell of a lot of novels in the last few months, but I’ve also watched an almost astonishing amount of DVDs. (And perhaps only people who know how many movies I watch back home in Chicago already can appreciate what that means.) Although I usually pride myself on keeping up with my movie and novel consumption back in the US, the last few months I have indeed found myself on several occasions with more time on my hands than I know what to do with. A few days ago I even starting doing some sketching again – something I used to do regularly and haven’t had time/energy to do even once in the last three years.

As lovely as it is to catch up on all these lost past times, I quiet like being as busy as I usually am. Reading a hundred novels because you have nothing else to do is fine if you never usually do, but not if you’re lying there thinking of all the other things you’d like to be doing instead. The problem is, that reading novels about the exciting lives of other people is all there is to do, because there really isn’t that much else to occupy you at the end of the day when you’ve already pestered your ‘informants’ as much as you can, and you’re living in a little town in the middle of the nowhere. When I go home to the US in a few weeks and reflect on my time in the field, one of the things I will take with me is a profound reassurance of my long held suspicion that living in the countryside sucks. Its hell!

While holding a good relativist position that my opinion is only that, my opinion, and not something that I would expect other people to share – I still think that I would rather like in a mental intuition than have to live in the country side longer than a few months. That great expanse of nothingness… What else is there to do of a night, other than curl up in bed with a novel/movie and be fast asleep by 9? (Well, those are the healthy options… The high rates of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drug taking in rural places only supports my argument here I would guess.)

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reduced to a state of paralysing ennui. I know there are things I could be doing with my time and work I should be getting on with, but something about the quiet and the dullness of a small town just takes all the life out of me. I end up counting the hours till I can go to bed, weighing up the time I can kill be walking to the plaza and buying something – even just a bag of bread – from one of the tiny shops there. At home when I feel restless of an evening I go for long walks through the city, not really caring what direction I’m going but just walking up and down endless streets trying to become lost. I watch the people hurrying past, look in brightly lit windows and imagine the lives inside, hunt out odd architecture or compare how two once identical houses have changed, discover new corners of the neighbourhood I never knew existed – hidden graffiti, gradual changes, strange buildings. I find I can sometimes just walk for hours as it soothes my mood – I always feel reluctant to return home no matter how exhausted I’ve made myself. Feeling all that life around me makes me feel better somehow.

In the small town I can walk as far as the plaza, or maybe down one of the country roads, and all I see are fields. Its so hideously depressing to me that I have begun to invent elaborate timetables and excuses in order to take the 2 hour bus journey back to the city at night. And I don’t think there is anything different between this small town in Bolivia and any other small town or village anywhere else in any part of the world. I’ve got the same chilly feeling of fear on road trips in the US, or during my childhood summers in rural France. My long held aversion to “market towns” in the UK springs from the same sense of doom and foreboding of being trapped in one of these places. I particularly think of a road trip I took with two good friends from Chicago to Virginia last summer, where we drove through an endless landscape where only a single house would stand out against the great expanse of fields. At one point we got utterly lost in a tiny suburban hole, going endlessly round and round the same narrow streets, past the same isolated houses, giggling uncontrollably in our fear of never being able to find the highway that would take us out of that dump again.

I’m sure there are people who love the countryside, and I’m glad they exist because it means I don’t have to. But I wonder how all the romantic glorification of the countryside may make it harder for people born there who like me can’t wait to leave. I remember reading back in school a piece about the industrial revolution that, while acknowledging all the evils it brought, pointed out that it allowed a lot of young people (and particularly young women) from rural backgrounds to leave their families and the rural towns they would otherwise have had no choice but to live in all their lives. While agreeing that conditions were usually very hard, it suggested that some people may have been drawn to urban life and the possibility of not only having a small disposable income of their own (rather than their families) but things other than the local Sunday market and the occasional visiting circus to spend it on. Now I realise there are a whole gamut of problems with this argument, but whenever I hear people lamenting the flight from traditional rural villages to cities – no matter how grim and slum-like they are – a little bit of me can understand the attraction that pulls young people away.

I’m prepared to be slaughtered for suggesting this – as I have in arguments with others before hand on the same topic. But why is it that the countryside is always presented as this idyllic paradise?

And in case you didn’t get the reference in the title: one of my favourite novels that I should really have brought with me this summer is, of course, Cold Comfort Farm.

I´m in Moquegua for a few days for a conference and a party. Its all very quiet and peaceful here – the sun shining, the streets decorated for the big fiesta on the 28th. Hard to imagine that just over a month ago thousands of people nearly lynched a priest and a general in the town square less than 2 minutes walk from where I´m sitting now.

Despite the fact I still haven´t resolved what to do about my collapsed PhD, I´m feeling a lot better now than I was a few days ago. Three days holiday in Arequipa did the trick after all. I even did a bit of tourism one afternoon, and took some pictures in the ridiculously beautiful convent of Santa Catalina. Get thee to a nunnery wouldn´t be such a threat if they all looked like this one. Anyway, so I still don´t know what to do to salvage my research, but after contemplating the damage for a few days in the peace and quiet of a sunny, warm city (rather than while living with 15 other people in the freezing cold Altiplano) at least I´m feeling more relaxed about it! That´s progress, surely…