The Ghosts of the Past

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| This is the 416th story of Our Life Logs |


For as far back as I can remember, I have always been drawn to the arts. I remember in the early ‘90s when I was about five or six, I got lost following some street performers who passed by my house in Chiclayo, Peru. Among them were musicians, actors, and storytellers. Their world seemed so fascinating to me that I didn’t think of how my disappearing act had worried my parents. Luckily, one of the performers noticed me trailing behind them and took me to the police station where I was reunited with my parents.

The lady who took me there told my mom I had spent a great time just contemplating them without saying anything. “He’s got a thing for arts”, she told my mom. I felt it. The arts were a fascinating phenomenon that took me out of reality and plucked me into a colorful world that felt like magic.

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It’s no surprise, my love for the arts. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a singer/songwriter who traveled from town to town telling stories with his songs, and I had an uncle on my father’s side who was a writer. I never got to meet these men because they sadly died before I was born, but knowing their history fascinated me. It made me want to follow in their footsteps.

My parents enjoyed an artistic show now and then, but they were more concerned about making money. Peru was going through a very rough economic time when I was a child, so my parents—having grown poor—were more into “useful” occupations. They never really supported my artistic curiosity. My siblings were quite the same; they did good in school and had many friends. I loved English literature and film more than socializing. I always felt like a stranger in my own family.

My nickname in school was “El Loco” (the crazy one), because I used to be on my own dreaming of stories I would write in my notebooks instead of doing my homework. The fathers of my two best friends were a musician and a poet, and I used to spend most of my time at their houses. However, when my friends finished school, they left my hometown, so I didn’t befriend anyone else until I started my preparatory class for college. Preparatory college is where my life changed—where I met Lucía.

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I met Lucía in class when I was 17 and she was 19. I remember she was beautiful, intelligent, and liked literature as much as I did. She was the only person in Chiclayo I could talk to about literature. It wasn’t too long before I fell in love. Lucía preferred poetry but admired my desire to be like Gabriel García Márquez, the author of one of my favorite books, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book follows a family whose patriarch founded a town in Colombia and many characters are haunted by the ghosts of their past. This story always astounded me.

I should have realized at the time, but Lucía was not mentally sane. She used to take drugs (mostly antidepressants) and introduced me to marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs. Her depression (a condition I didn’t understand at the time) led to many nights of me listening to her crying about how meaningless life was. She was my first time, and it happened one night after we got drunk and talked about Colombian literature. It was bliss. But it was fleeting.

After that night, she began to ignore my calls, and I knew it was over. I guess she was not that into me, after all. With a broken heart, I knew I had to forget about her and move on. I didn’t know what happened to her from there, but I had some rough years after that. I didn’t like going to college and would skip classes to smoke weed or go to the movies. I also kept reading poetry, but without Lucía it wasn’t the same. I know skipping classes to read poetry may sound romantic, but that didn’t help me in school. In fact, it got me expelled.

My parents were obviously pretty upset about the news and told me I had to look for a job or leave the house. I reluctantly started working different jobs, but I hated most of them. It was a lonely time since most of my childhood friends had left town and moved to the capital city, Lima. The literary scene in Chiclayo was very small and filled with old people who always rejected my stories. On top of that, my parents split up. I started to blame Chiclayo for everything bad that had happened to me, including Lucía. I really wanted to leave but didn’t have the means to do it.

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Occasionally, my childhood friends would come back to visit and tell me about their experiences abroad. In 2010, my friend José came back from his studies in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to visit his parents during the summer break. He introduced me to his neighbor, whom we used to call “Latino” (a nickname he liked) because he had moved to New York when he was little, so the way he spoke Spanish was a mixture of Puerto Rican accent with Mexican slangs. He had returned to visit his grandma.

During our conversations in English, José and “Latino” used to tell stories about their lives in Buenos Aires and New York, and I remember feeling so jealous. There was so much going on in those cities and nothing really interesting was happening in Chiclayo. At the end of the summer, we had a farewell party and at that party, “Latino” told me he was very impressed by my level of English. “For a guy who has never been to an English-speaking country, it is pretty good. How did you become so good?” he asked me. “It’s amazing what reading and watching films in English can do for you,” I replied.

Before leaving, “Latino” told me about a job offered to him during his stay that would pay really well but he had rejected because it was “kind of dangerous.” The job was as a translator for a South African military man who was sent to Chiclayo to train the Peruvian army and police in the use of mine detection dogs. After a one-year training program, they would be deployed to the Peruvian jungle and use the dogs in an actual minefield. Of course, the translator would need to be there too. I was definitely intrigued. In a month, I could make up to ten times what I was making at my current job. Plus, it was the perfect opportunity for me to get out of Chiclayo. It wasn’t in the arts, but I dreamed that once I had the money, I could finally pursue my dream of becoming someone like all the great writers I idolized.

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Before he left, “Latino” introduced me to Jacob, the South African trainer. Jacob told me he had had other translators in the past but they were quickly fired because their English level was not good enough. He warned me that if I got the job, I would be surrounded by military guys at all times in the camps. I told him I had no problems. We agreed on starting a trial period to get to know each other and see if I really wanted to be in the jungle operations. I decided to stop taking drugs because I realized they only robbed my ability to focus on what was important in my life.

Jacob was a little crazy and had PTSD from working so long in the field, but we found ways to get along. As you can imagine, it was a very stressful job. Apart from dealing with Jacob on a daily basis, adapting to the military lifestyle was quite a shock. I had to wake up every day at 4:00 a.m. and give the military guys the impression I was as tough as them so they respected me. My job became my life and I worked like a dog with the dogs. I successfully completed the training with the dogs within a year, then arranged plans to go with Jacob to the jungle.

Alex Cubas Castillo-with army and police
Me (third from left at the back row) surrounded by the Peruvian army and police.

I was excited at first for my new adventure, but then I got cold feet. I wasn’t sure if I could handle life in the jungle with Jacob for so long. And while I wanted to leave my town, I’ll admit I was a little scared. After a very stressful day with Jacob, I considered quitting. I had planned to do it the next working day. But then I received devastating news that changed everything.

On my way home from work, I ran into an old friend from the days I used to hang out with Lucía. I asked how Lucía was doing, and with a solemn look, her friend told me that about a week ago, Lucía had taken many pills and the next morning she didn’t wake up. She had committed suicide.

When I got home, I couldn’t take it anymore, I started crying in my bedroom. The situation with my job and my loneliness in Chiclayo only got worse with the news of Lucía committing suicide. I had been in love other times after her, but never felt the connection I once had with Lucía. I began to doubt my own sanity too: the job I was in wasn’t a normal job and the career I was dreaming about wasn’t any guarantee of a sane future either. But something inside of me clicked that day and made me change my mind: I knew I had to go to the jungle. With the money from this job, I could finally leave my hometown. I decided that day that I was going to do whatever it took to move to Colombia to become a writer. It was time to give myself a better life.

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In April 2011, we got deployed to the jungle with the dogs. It was a very troubled journey, but I had learned by then that nothing is easy. If you really want to pursue your dreams, you most likely will have to suffer a little to get to the place you want to be. The dogs performed very well and found many mines that were taken out by the Peruvian army and police. And after the mission was over, I got a letter of recommendation from the American organization sponsoring the project.

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Me (on the far right) training the dogs.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Peru was so happy with my work that they offered me a job right away. I worked there for a few years and thus, my career in translation was launched. Now not only did I have a purpose and a handful of letters of recommendation from very important Peruvian and international entities, I finally had the money to leave my hometown and chase my dreams.

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I got to Colombia in 2013 and have been living here for the last six years. Apart from my career in translation, I have made many friends that are into literature and other arts. I have almost finished my first novel that, of course, is in Spanish and is partially inspired by Lucía and the time I spent with her. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs (as it’s only natural), but I’m very comfortable here and most of all, I am happy. I have fulfilled my dream of leaving my hometown and embarking on a journey in the world of arts, and it’s a remarkable accomplishment. Since I got to Colombia, I started to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in English and it still fascinates me like the very first time. But now I’m no longer afraid of the ghosts of my past, and I’m ready to move forward.

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This is the story of Alex Cubas Castillo

Alex was born in Chiclayo, Peru, in 1986 but now lives in Bogotá, Colombia where he writes in Spanish for local publications and translates from English and French into Spanish. Growing up, Alex had a deep love for the arts and a desire to leave his hometown and be around others who love and appreciate the arts. He studied Law, but due to hardships in his life, he didn’t complete his studies. Thanks to a fortunate encounter he discovered he could work as a translator while writing on the side. This helped him get out of his hometown and fulfill his artistic dreams. In addition to studying English as a second language, he completed his studies of French in a French institute. Alex has also started to write web content in English as a freelancer. He is now working on his first novel that is expected to be published in 2020.

Alex Cubas Castillo
Alex reading the English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on September 6, 2019.

| Writer: Alex Cubas Castillo | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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