Lisa has spent almost a decade juggling her career as a television producer with single motherhood, she is now taking a year out to go backpacking around Latin America with her nine-year-old daughter, Lily. You can read more of her posts here.
“Esta bus estacion Retiro?” I asked a passenger on the night bus in my rather pathetic Spanglish trying to keep the edge of panic out of my voice – it wasn’t exactly a sentence but I hoped she’d get the idea. “You want to go to Retiro train station?” she responded in perfect English. I breathed a sigh of relief, “Yes, is this the right bus?” “Si, si” she reassured me, “This is the bus to the station”.
Lily and I have been in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires for two weeks and having taken several drama free trips to the city from the leafy suburb of La Horqueta where we are living, I’d become somewhat complacent. Irritated by carrying a heavy day pack of stuff around with me, I’d decided to travel as light as possible when I’d left the house that morning which had included the unfathomable decision not to take much money or any credit cards out with me. Now I was on a night bus with Lily in an unfamiliar South American city without a guide book, a map, a single peso in my purse or any battery left on my phone. What a halfwit.
The school of life
Our predicament had been, in part, the result of a really interesting day in the city – we’d been to the MALBA art gallery to see Frida Kahlo’s magical ‘Self-portrait with monkey and parrot’, and a brilliant but alarming exhibition by American photographer, Diane Arbus. I was borderline smug, it is the start of a year travelling and ‘worldschooling’ my daughter and here we were in an art gallery in Buenos Aires – this was the life. My reverie was broken by Lily storming off in tears…apparently the Diane Arbus photograph ‘Corpse with receding hairline and toe tag’ was a little too much reality for a highly strung nine-year-old with a penchant for My Little Ponies.
I salvaged the day by spending the last of my money on ice-cream and with Lily’s mood restored we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the neighbourhoods in central Buenos Aires swapping the art gallery for all the incredible street art the city has to offer.
– Buenos Aires street art –
I lost track of time and when the light began to fade I suddenly felt a lurch of vulnerability as I wasn’t sure where we were or how to get back. I had money on a travel card, but no cash for a cab – the only option was to retrace our steps through the city and find the right bus – train – bus combination to get us home without getting lost, mugged or abducted.
I might have been catastrophising the situation somewhat (those Diane Arbus photos had unnerved me as well) but I suddenly felt the weight of responsibility that comes hand in hand with solo parenting.
Out of the comfort zone
Even though my fellow passenger had assured me I was going in the right direction, I still looked anxiously out of the bus window trying to spot anything familiar to reorient myself in the city. I mentally spooled back through various sketchy situations I’d been in previously whilst travelling. There was the time a (mad) man had told me and my then boyfriend that he could drive us over the Andes in his clapped-out car – unsurprisingly we broke down in the mountains between Chile and Argentina and I had to flag down a passing lorry to rescue us before nightfall. I once survived a hot air balloon crash in Egypt and there was also a terrifying experience in Australia when a friend and I were run off a dirt road by a wild horse – when our car finally came to a halt the front wheels were dangling perilously off a ravine and we had to clamber over the seats to exit via the back doors.
I’ve earned my ‘traveller’ spurs with numerous nerve-wracking incidents over the years, but that also means I have learnt from my mistakes and am very cautious 99% of the time. Being lost and penniless in Buenos Aires was a momentary lapse – thankfully we arrived safely back to our lodgings in the suburbs and the evening’s events served as a little warning shot across my bows.
There are several members of my family who are worried on behalf of my daughter and think that my travel plans are way too risky. One of my most vociferous critics is my sister – never one to keep her opinions to herself! Apart from the perceived dangers of taking a child travelling around Latin America, it is fair to say she thinks my decision to take Lily away is an utterly selfish one. As a mother of three, her main objections are that Lily’s schooling is going to suffer and that it is totally wrong of me to rip her away from both her friendship group and extended family.
When I put my counter-argument to her, she cut me down with an imperious “I don’t care what you say, I will never sanction this trip”. Although my sister is five years my senior, I am over forty myself with a successful career and nearly a decade of parenting under my belt – I wasn’t aware that I needed her permission to do this.
– Lily cycling through the wealthy Buenos Aires suburb of La Horqueta where our host family lived –
She didn’t waiver from her position in the months leading up to my departure, but with only half an hour to go before we left for the airport she turned up unannounced with a leaving present for Lily – a sweatshirt with the words ‘I love you cherry much’ written on the chest. It was an olive branch that meant a huge amount to me, especially as I was in such a state of high anxiety before leaving the country and also questioning my own sanity.
A will and a way
Although my sister had done nothing but pour cold water on my plans, a few of the things she has said to me whilst I was organising the trip struck a nerve. Lily would no more want to be trapped in my company 24/7 than I would in hers – I would need to make sure that she had company her own age on our travels otherwise it could be an utterly miserable experience for the both of us. I had a small pot of redundancy money which I was planning to use to fund the journey but I soon realised it wasn’t going to be enough to bankroll two people swanning about the globe for the best part of a year.
I felt a bit long in the tooth to rough it as I’d done in my 20s and 30s, but luckily stumbled across a website where you could offer up your skills in return for free board and lodging in locations all over the world. It seemed to be set up mainly for younger people who could volunteer on farms or eco-projects but I was excited to find a handful of families asking for help homeschooling their children or teaching them English. I posted a profile and wrote to several families asking if they would consider hosting a mother/daughter combo.
The first person to respond was Natalia from Buenos Aires – she would be happy to have us stay at her home in La Horqueta in exchange for helping her kids with their English. She had two children, similar in age to Lily, a gorgeous house and the holy trinity of childhood accoutrements – a swimming pool, a trampoline and a Labrador – this could be the perfect solution!
– Lily enjoying time in the pool and Lily with Juliana –
My friends in the north of Argentina also said they’d be delighted to have us for an extended visit – this was brilliant news and with these two invitations in place I was able to unlock the whole adventure.
It was a fourteen hour flight to Argentina followed by a crazy taxi journey through Buenos Aires with a driver that was falling asleep at the wheel – but when Ricky, Natalia’s husband, opened the door to their house beaming and hugged both me and Lily, I knew everything was going to be alright. My ‘work’ for the next five weeks was to help the two children, Marcos and Juliana with their English, lend a hand around the house and walk the dog. Compared to the high stress of a filming schedule and the six day weeks I’d just been doing in television production, this should be a doddle.
The oldest au pair in the world
I am still having to pinch myself, as I can’t quite believe I’m in Argentina. Natalia and Ricky are lovely and have been very welcoming hosts however navigating life in the box room of another family’s home has, for me, been the real challenge of this experience. I’ve always been completely independent, I have my own house in London and with no partner to consider, have set everything up just the way I want it. Now I have to share a bedroom with Lily, fit around another family, live by their rules, eat the food they have bought and shower in lukewarm water.
I have, in effect, set myself up as the oldest au pair in the world – and, for someone who has enjoyed a successful career in London, it is proving something of a humbling experience. I am not the only one having to learn how to adapt, Natalia doesn’t allow TV or other screens in the house preferring the kids to play board games or enjoy the sunshine – as Lily has developed quite a Minecraft habit over the summer she’s having to go cold turkey and has definitely suffered some withdrawal symptoms.
I have also been hyper sensitive about Lily’s behaviour in front of the family, she has dealt with the upheaval admirably but inevitably there have been a few major meltdowns that we haven’t been able to act out in private. Both families are exposed – we are living in close proximity – seeing each other warts and all and I think that Natalia has been very brave to open up her family life to such scrutiny. Not that she has anything to worry about – Natalia is an impressive woman with a big career as a lawyer, a husband who loves her and two smart kids.
The thing I find most admirable about her is that despite being on a very demanding and high-profile case currently, she seems not to bring her stress home and still manages to find time for her children.
Lily and Julianna spend a lot of time together, they are like chalk and cheese and love to torment each other. Juli is incredibly competitive and loves to thrash us both at board games whilst Lily, being the polar opposite, gives all of her Monopoly money away and rolls on the floor saying “I just want to be a bird”. Needless to say, it is virtually impossible to get to the end of a game with the two of them! Marcos is on the brink of his teenage years and has less interest in us – he’ll do pretty much anything to avoid practising English but I think I’ve finally cracked him as he’ll happily speak English with me as long as we play ping pong at the same.
As a control freak, I am learning to let go – it is not my house and I’m not in charge but the whole point of this journey is to experience something completely new. The benefits are far outweighing the difficulties, Lily has been given a place at Juliana’s school in Buenos Aires so she has kids her own age to hang out with and the chance to pick up the language.
– Lily at the Buenos Aires Steiner School, and learning to horse ride –
We are both learning to horse ride in the local stables and are enjoying the privilege of exploring a new culture. It isn’t exactly a holiday but after all the upset of the last year it is exactly the break I need.
I just have to make sure I don’t put Lily in any peril otherwise I know my sister will be waiting to tear me limb from limb and that is a far more terrifying prospect than getting lost in Latin America.