Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Earthling

When people ask me where I’m from, I never know what to say. It’s complicated. What exactly do they mean? Where was I born? What nationality am I? Where did I grow up? Where have I lived longest? Where do I feel most at home? Where do I live now? Which country would I support in the World Cup?


I was born in Bogota, the mountainous capital of Colombia. I almost died in Bogota but that’s another story. We lived in Colombia a short time. Was it one year, or two? I’m not sure. After that we moved either to Holland or to Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) in West Africa. My earliest memories are from this time – my father swinging into a shady pool on an orange twine rope, a nest of fluffy white kittens under our kitchen table (my fascination with cats began early), and my brother and I sitting on a bench and drinking Coca Cola from a glass bottle. So maybe that means we lived in Holland first. Appropriately enough, because by nationality I’m three quarters Dutch and one quarter English. I attribute my self-effacing side to the quarter part of me and my know-it-all tendency to the Dutch element of the equation. My accent has made some people wonder whether I’m South African. A good guess, if you think about it.


After West Africa, we moved back to Holland. Here my father embarked on a huge project, in our backyard. He decided to build a boat out of cement. Long story short, when I was six years old we set off on a voyage that would take four years and would see me being home taught while crossing the Atlantic twice, and going to school eight months in Annapolis and another eight months in Fort Augustus, Scotland. The ocean was my home then. My brother and I lived to snorkel, to swim, to play on beaches and in rock pools.

Moving back to Africa, to Tanzania, must have been another major change. But by this time I was used to change and I don’t remember it troubling me. Tanzania got under my skin. There’s something about Africa that is urgent. Sure, the animals and landscapes are spellbinding too. And I believe, even as a teenager, I felt the romance, the drama of the place deep in my being. But I think it’s the quality of light and the colour of the earth that I remember best. The two often combined to create an orgy of the senses, so that my heart expanded to meet the glory, so that it felt like it might burst with the enormity of my delight. At such times, usually at dusk, I would feel almost unable to contain myself, filled with exhilaration, with my own vitality. My first memorable moment of self-awareness was in Tanzania.


Next came England, at the age of 14. That was hard; I missed Africa with a passion. I struggled to fit in. Now I think about it, that was the first of three tough periods in my life. But in the end I lived eight years in England. And I met my future husband, an Anglo-Peruvian, at university in London. Frank knows where he is from. He is Peruvian, from the tips of his toes to the roots of his hair. Our two kids were born in Lima and we now live in Cusco, a city of mountains. I have come full circle. In total, I have lived 12 years in Peru, more than a quarter of my life. I am contented here. I care about the future of this country more than any other. If Peru were to play England or Holland in the World Cup, I know where my loyalty would lie.


But take me to the sea, let me smell the sea air, let my feet feel sand underneath, and I come alive. Drop me in southern Africa, let my eyes fall upon a red road at dusk, and my heart fills again.


I make my home wherever I am. I am truly a citizen of the world. So perhaps, the next time I’m asked where I’m from, I will respond “I’m an earthling.”

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© 2014-2020, Jessica Groenendijk