Sydney schoolteacher Susi Prescott had it all. But with the sudden demise of her thirty-year marriage, her world crumbles. Faced with a fork in the road, Susi makes a momentous decision. She packs up her former life and moves to the city of Arequipa in Peru, where she stars working at Colegio Elohim, an impoverished school at the foot of the Andes. She plans to reinvent herself, to do some good, to heal.
Susi has captured her journey in her latest book, Where Hummingbirds Dance. She shares the prologue exclusively with MiNDFOOD:
“I sit beneath green shadecloth at a table festooned with crêpe paper. Behind me, a painted sheet has been fastened to the wall, adorned with red, blue, green and yellow letters. On the cement patio, two hundred and fifty raven-haired children gather in their class groups: from tiny three year olds in pigtails and pocketed aprons to senior primary students, some in school uniforms, worn but neat, others in old tracksuits. I grin and wave as ebony eyes wide with excitement catch mine, and smiles light up radiant faces burned dark by harsh desert wind and sun.
Beyond the open school gate, a drab wasteland sprawls over arid hills dotted with half-built shacks and stones piled into makeshift walls. Between them, parched valleys sag under heaps of refuse; plastic bags spilling their rotting contents beneath the relentless sun. I look away from the dust and desolation to mighty El Misti, the still-active volcano with a personality of his own. His perfect cone rises to almost 6000 metres as he sits, marooned among his wasted foothills, watching the voracious illegal settlements clawing their way ever higher into his ravines.
The microphone crackles into life and a female voice instructs the children to take their places and prepare for my sixtieth birthday celebration. Over the following hour I watch, a queen upon my throne, as the children give short speeches and present me with their handmade cards. They recite poems, sing songs and perform folkloric dances in costume, until finally, they bring out a huge cake. In the local tradition I plunge my face into it, hands behind my back, and resurface, doing my best to lick off the sweet cocoa while continuing to breathe. Luckily, a serviette appears as the torta is carried off to be cut into hundreds of pieces.
Children and teachers alike line up to give me a kiss and a wish. Starting with kindergarten, I kneel as tiny warm arms encircle my neck with shy murmurs, ‘I loveyou, Mees Soosi’. I stand as I progress to the primary children and crouch down so little cheeks touch mine, ‘Thank you for such fun English classes’. I straighten for hugs from the tallest and the teachers, ‘I have learned so much from your training sessions. May God bless you for all you have done for us’. Any age-induced twinges fade as I bask in over two hundred and fifty cuddles.
Standing by the new classrooms built with funds raised from a network of generous supporters, I deliver a speech of thanks in careful Spanish. The audience listens attentively; children, teachers and mothers, many with babies in colourful blankets slung over their backs.
When I finish, they applaud, and as I smile at them, my thoughts drift off to when I turned fifty, in another existence as a settled, married French teacher living on Sydney’s North Shore. Today, I’ve just given an address in a newly-learned language at Colegio Elohim, a school on the dusty outskirts of a remote Andean town where I’ve lived for the past six years. How on earth did this happen?”
“Where Hummingbirds Dance” is available through Xoum Publishing, f0r $24.99. All proceeds from sales of this book go to Colegio Elohim www.elohimarequipa.org