Lucy Wood, consulting engineerSaturday, August 2, 2014
Land of opportunity
For The Herald
Born: Johannesburg, South Africa
Lives: Florida, Greater Buenos Aires
Education: Engineering degree at the University of Cape Town, Sociology degree
Profession: Consulting engineer
Book: Lectures on Jung’s Typology
Last seen: Game of Thrones
A week-long holiday to Buenos Aires captivated South African engineer Lucy Wood, who then sold up her house and car with the idea of spreading her wings in Argentina for a couple of years. That was a decade ago and she admits that her original plan to return to Johannesburg has simply never happened.
Lucy says: “ Argentina isn’t really a destination for South Africans, it’s a bit of a grey area, but I came here in 2003 for a holiday. In 2001 Air Malaysia had put on a direct flight from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, which ended up being very cheap in comparison with other foreign destinations. So everyone took advantage of these package deals. I knew nothing about Argentina – maybe Perón and Maradona were the only things – so I suggested to a friend that we go for a week. It cost the same as a week to Cape Town!
“Everything was cheap – I remember that shoes cost 29 pesos – and as my friend had been an au pair in Spain she spoke some Spanish, we ended up having an amazing time. Argentina stuck in my mind because I’d met some amazing people and in fact someone I met on the plane ended up being my boyfriend, later on.
“At that time I was working for an NGO and that trip sparked something within me that I was getting too serious about my life, that I needed to spread my wings. I didn’t want to go to the UK although I love it but all South Africans go there – I wanted to do something different. It was a choice between Thailand and Argentina. Then I decided I wouldn’t use reason to make the decision and one day I was looking at a book about South America in a store and realized I wanted to go there. And there was a man involved, I do have to say that! We had a wonderful romance over the course of that week, which was a special moment for both of us.”
In her mid-20s at that time, Lucy felt she had already ticked a lot of boxes, as she had a mortgage and owned a car. Looking to make some changes to her life before it was too late, she decided to sell up and leave South Africa for a few years.
She says: “I came here with very little money and it wasn’t the most sensible idea to sell the house and car but I did it. I thought ‘if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it’, it was an impulse that needed to be acted upon, even though I was scared about the language. I was very nervous and came with 300 dollars in my pocket, no friends, no papers. I was 26 then and I thought if worst comes to worst, I’ve got a degree I can go back to South Africa. But I wanted to take advantage of the impulse I had then because if I think about doing that now, it seems totally crazy! I had the energy back then to do it.”
One aspect of moving countries that Lucy found particularly frustrating was the language barrier, as she explains. “The language thing was traumatic for me, even though I come from a country that speaks a lot of languages. I’ve travelled all over the world but as an English speaker, that’s always what you revert to. But you can’t really know a person unless you speak their own language. Then you go somewhere and everyone’s speaking Spanish and you don’t understand a bloody thing; that happened so many times to me. Or people revert to English simply because I was there. I’ve never had friends who spoke English, although I had a few from my days studying Spanish at UBA.
“I fell into Argentine society quite quickly thanks to the guy who I met on the plane. They call him Nokia as he knows everybody. And through him I met all my friends, such as my best friend who is Chilean and I am now godmother to her daughter. Nokia was bilingual and that opened the door. But I was really traumatized by the language thing! You have to learn to be stupid and realize your limitations for expressing yourself. I’ve also met people through my activities as I dance flamenco and am involved with astrology – I always have something on the go.”
While the engineer’s plan was to teach English for a couple of years, earn a bit of money, travel around South America then return to South Africa, Lucy went off course quite quickly. She says: “I just never went back. South Africa is a country in flux in terms of identity and it’s difficult to be white there – I’ve always felt that, in any case. And here I felt really comfortable, which is a subjective thing. I’d had no contact with Latino culture although I later found out that my great-grandparents had lived in Coghlan, which is where I ended up living too. It was very weird, my gran and I lived a few blocks away from each other so there was obviously some kind of other world connection.
“Then I got work as an engineer in Patago-nia. I thought ‘what the hell’ and lived in this small, 7,000-person town between Comodoro Rivadavia and Río Gallegos in the Patagonian desert – not the nice side – where the oil and gas are. It was a good experience, working on a plant for two years and I made lots of wonderful friends because there’s nothing else to do there. There was a coffee shop and lots of brothels, and as you live close to everybody you form relationships quickly.”
That experience made Lucy realize that Argentina offered plenty of opportunities, the opposite to South Africa in her mind. “If you don’t have a good job, there’s no social net to catch you – very few people are brave enough to do what they really want to in South Africa. It’s a big decision to sacrifice economic wealth. But here was the land of opportunities, like it says in the preamble to the Constitution. Although it’s unstable and I’ve had my problems with this country, Argentina has really been a place where I’ve been able to think ‘what do I want to do with my life – I’ll find a way to do it.’ It’s an economic place to live despite inflation, and so people are very entrepreneurial in the sense of being resourceful and that really sparked that side of me. I do feel that if I’ve stayed in South Africa I’d simply have carried along the career path. Then again, I never thought I’d be here either. One never knows!”
Cooking the books
Besides completing a long-distance sociology degree in 2010, Lucy has also studied astrology. “This city is absolutely full of any type of alternative therapy technique you can imagine. As Buenos Aires is quite secular in terms of Latin American cities, it’s a haven for anything – I love it! It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done and I’m finishing off my five-year course. I’ve also thought about studying psychology but anything that involves trámites just puts me off. But I don’t really want to study psychoanalysis, which is what it is mainly about here.”
In terms of her professional life, Lucy now works for herself, using her varied public and private sector experience as a consultant for mining companies. When she isn’t travelling around the continent for work, home is in Florida in the northern suburbs where she lives with her boyfriend. “We were living in the middle of the chaos and wanted a patio and to not hear traffic so we moved to Florida, where there’s quite a lot of hip, happening stuff going on. It’s quite hippy! The other side of Maipú, in Vicente López, is more old money and big houses but Florida is young money. I enjoyed city life but I really enjoy having my two cats now.”@sorrelmw