12 April 2017

An Overdue Conversation

I am sitting on a stool lazily spinning a coaster atop a rounded wooden bar. You cannot see my face and hesitate unsure if I am daydreaming or need to be left alone. The space around us is smudged and dark like a pencil drawing haphazardly erased. There is the outline of man beside me; perhaps we are strangers or perhaps we are friends who have drifted off to private places. He has the same liquidity as the space around us, his shape constantly shifting—imposing, folded-in, kinetic, calm. You take a step forward to join us but stop abruptly when I slam the coaster against the bar with the flat of my hand. “Just fucking stop,” I say. The figure shrinks then swells. “What?” it replies. You sense its cracked bravado and tell yourself that you should walk away, but somehow you know that you can’t, and that anyway there is nowhere to go.

“Stop thinking,” I say. “You’re spinning in circles. And for what?”

“I can’t help it,” my companion replies.

“You can. They are little whimpers that you allow to get loud.”

The figure is withdrawn yet rolling within itself—a bottled storm.  “You talk about me like… Do you really think you could have gotten here without me?”

“Airplanes and buses. It's not that hard.”

“And that’s all you are, right? Walking tall. Cool as… Since you have it all figured out, Mr. Confident, Mr. Wise, answer me this. What happened to the stories?”

I shift in my seat all coiled discomfort.

“I haven’t wanted to,” I say. I’ve been busy living. I can tell it later.”

My companion settles into confident repose. “Lies amigo. The empty space gnaws at you. I can feel it.”

“The words seem predictable,” I reluctantly answer. “Like I’m forcing new places and new experiences into the tired old template of me. I am better than that. Or I want to be.”

“Yeah, well, shuffling through excuses and doing nothing is a super improvement plan.”

“What do you want from me?”

“A story obviously. What happened after Chile?”

I lay my head against the bar and groan, I am in no mood for once upon a time.  

“Nothing happened. I loved Valparaiso,”

“Then why leave?”

“Because it was perfect for right now, but right now doesn’t last. I’m going to be 39 this year. You do realize it has been seven years on the road? I love life abroad and travel but I need a home. I need one predictable thing in my life.”

“So bye, bye Valparaiso.”

"And hello, Mendoza; though not for long. Mendoza is the wine capital of Argentina and unless I missed it, mostly unimpressive. It is a big city about forty minutes outside of a farmland looking wine district. Coming from California it is easy to get judgy about the beauty of las bodegas but honestly it is not even the prettiest place in Argentina to sample wine—that distinction belongs to Cafayete in north. Now that is a beautiful spot! Anyway, here is what I remember. On my way to the vineyards I missed my stop by a good 10km. The bus driver was finishing his shift and offered to drive me back in his car. I hopped in and we chatted. He had lived in Miami for a number of years—in fact his son and Brazilian ex-wife were still there. He wanted to go back someday but visas are not easy to come by. And of course we talked about Trump. Everyone wants to dismay about that. The first winery I visited was nice but the wrong kind of crowded. I had the option to take the tour in English or Spanish. The English group was thirty strong, including a bunch of loud, drunk (no hammered) exchange students from Texas—the bad Americans, so obviously I chose the Spanish group. I missed a few details but I was happier for it. The second winery was empty save one dude struggling to order his tasting. I joined him for a few copas and heard an interesting story. He had given up the American life as well, but with significantly less wandering. He went straight to Antarctica where he has lived, winter and summer, for the last six years. He started off changing light bulbs which in Antarctica is apparently a full-time job and worked his way up the maintenance ladder. It turns out Antarctica is more than an uneasy alliance of scientists and mechanics. He made it sound fun. It seems to be a collection of mavericks clustered at the bottom of the world. There is a thriving gay community, parties big and small, a sharing of intellectual pursuits, live music; bold people celebrating bold choices—fascinating. And while Mendoza wasn’t great, the Malbecs were.”

“Sometimes it is the people you meet, right?”

“Yep. Strangers are often interesting but how often do you take the time to know them when you’re not on the road?”

“It must have felt good to be back, stretching your travel legs, seeing the world.”

I don’t answer. It is as though I didn’t hear him or have forgotten he is there. My companion tries to meet my silence with his own but he can’t hold on.

“It must be difficult though,” he says. “All that stopping and starting. You wander and wander; learning and experiencing, but accomplishing what? The experience alone should be enough, more than enough, but you feel rudderless sometimes. You feel like you are missing something obvious, an overlooked purpose or opportunity to take something that others have done and make it entirely your own. And then you flare because you should be past that kind of thinking. That is your American upbringing telling you to take it all. But you don’t want it all. You want a simple life that moves and adapts to meet your desire for new things. You want to always appreciate the simple, repeatable joys; the sway of a hammock, new music and a cool drink, food you’ve never tried, being centered and calm and knowing that there is nothing healthier than that. It is easier when you’re settled abroad. But on a trip this long nothing is settled. And so you have days full of joy punctuated by moments of discontent and like a criticism thrown into a volley of compliments you let that moment fester. So yeah, it must be difficult, sometimes.”

I don’t respond. As before I am a man alone.

“And then you went south, right? Patagonia?”

I inhale sharply, a daydream snapped. I seem surprised by his presence.

“What?”

“After Mendoza. South?”

“Yes. Patagonia. I need a redo on that part of the world. I despise when people visit the two or three tourist trap places in a country and then declare the entire country a waste, “Maybe 20 years ago, but now…” Fuck you. Pick a direction, move an inch on the map away from that hole you’re in and you’ll see the real country unspoiled by people like you. And yet in Patagonia that is pretty much what I did. I thought Bariloche was beautiful. I thought El Chalten had amazing hiking and a great vibe. I thought the Perito Moreno glacier was one of the coolest things I have seen anywhere. And I thought the entire area was WAY too expensive—overrun by rich people wrapped in the REI catalog with their double walking sticks and their foot massages by the fire. But, I was doing it all wrong, skimming through touristy towns, staying in hostels, eating in restaurants and I had neither the time nor the resources to do it right. So I scraped plans to visit Southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego and booked a ticket north.  In order to truly experience Patagonia you have to go full Kerouac. Here is what my redo would look like. Fast-forward ten years. I fly my niece and nephews down to the bottom of the world and we set off on an epic camping adventure. We cruise around in an old VW van; set-up in a different spot every night, cook our meals around a campfire and fill our water bottles straight from the stream. We hike mountains no one ever traverses. I teach them the fascinating and tragic history of the Mapuche people and through friendliness and fortune we meet a few of their ancestors and teach them the art of making Smores. We do it the right way and Patagonia becomes everything I didn’t allow it to be.”

“If it hadn’t been so expensive would you have stayed longer?”

“No, I had already accepted a job teaching English on the Galapagos Islands, I had a timeline for the first time in a year.”

“I still don’t understand why you backed out of that. It’s the Galapagos!”

“Of course you don’t understand.”

“If it was about the…”

I raise my hand in a gesture for silence and my companion quiets down, his outline shifting into a position of obedience.

“Here is the thing about stories,” I say. “If you follow them through they tend to answer the big questions. So which do you want an answer or a story?”

“Apologies, Maestro. Please continue.”

“I found myself on a side street in Buenos Aires where dusty streetlamps draped the sky in tarnished gold. The street had been blocked off and was brimming with la gente de la ciudad, young and old. They sat around wooden tables, sipping wine and waiting for an invitation to dance. Tango is fading in Argentina. The younger generation (for now) seems mostly disinterested. But in a city of millions there are still many who cherish the artistry and drama of the iconic dance. The dance floor in the center of the street cleared out, making room for two professional dancers. My friend Caro, whom I met traveling Europe nearly a decade ago, pushed me forward, closer to the edge of the square. I hastily shoveled down the last bite of an empanada and nudged toward the spot she wanted to claim. Her boyfriend Emilo refilled our beers and her friend whose name I cannot remember explained the dramatic courting rituals happening all around us. And the dancers danced.

 “Every city is better with a local to show you the way, right?”

“Absolutely. It was nice of her to take the time. Travel friendships are like that; they start with a flash then burn long and slow. Anyway, there is more to say about Buenos Aires and Argentina in general, but let’s keep moving—across Rio de la Plata into Uruguay. I knew it would be a short trip, a week or so while my visa for Brazil was processing. My timing was perfect. The Uruguayan beaches are a hotspot during the summer especially for travelers from Brazil and Argentina AND it was Carnival. I had heard that La Pedrera (a beach town a few hours north of Montevideo) was the place to be. As usual I hadn’t booked anything in advance and that turned out to be a problem. I found a hostel for a couple of nights, but those were the lead up nights. The entire town was booked for the parade and the big party and so with more than a few wistful looks back at a swimming pool full of pretty things, I tagged-along out of there. A girl whom I’d met at the hostel arranged a ride in the back of van with a couple of Argentinean musicians to a nearby beach town called Cabo Palonio. I knew nothing about it going in but fell instantly in love. It is an Uruguayan hippie village painted with colorful shacks that dot reed covered hills and sandy dunes. Electricity is limited and internet non-existent. On the night La Pedrera raged I sat on the porch of my bungalow listening to the waves crash and the breeze blow and beneath their song, nearly hidden, a saxophone sang a lonely tune. I knew the musician and was happy to hear him play. Earlier that night we had sipped cool beer and talked about New Orleans and Jazz and the history of. My Carnival wasn’t wild or Samba rhythmic but it was certainly a memory worth keeping.”

“Are you still mad?” my companion asks.

“Yes, I’m still mad. I liked her.”

“I know you blame me for spinning like I do. I know you think I’m scared. But it isn’t that. And I don’t agree with you that knowing is always better. Isn’t wondering better when you are so sure it isn’t going to go your way?”

“That is such make yourself feel better bullshit. A perfect little beach in South America, romantic. You held me back. I don’t like feeling afraid. I don’t like not making the brave choice.”

“Yeah, well, blame me if you want, but you’re stronger than me, you always have been.”

I am petulant and he is defiant. He raps his knuckles against the bar.

“And then Brazil,” I say. “The last country on a year long trip and the place where clarity, or if you prefer reality, shifted my focus forward.”

“You mean that is when you decided to abandon the turtles, and the iguanas, and the finally learning how to surf like Slater….on the GALAPAGOS!”

He huffs and he puffs and I cannot help but laugh.

“Yes, that. I crossed into Brazil excited about the Galapagos. I knew there was no future in it. I knew that to stay beyond six months would be a panic move. But I figured it would buy me time to settle down and think. And what a place to think.”

“Exactly!” my companion erupts. “You love facts and logic. How about this: life expectancy for U.S. born males is 76.5 years. And you can’t spend .5 living in one of the most unique places in the world? How is that, this, whatever, not a panic move?”

I am smirking, amused by his fidget and roil.

“We';re getting there," I say. "Now anyone who has traveled South America will tell you that Brazil and Colombia have a unique and irresistible energy; a mixture of joy, sensuality and I guess, danger. I felt the energy in my early stops, Florianopolis and Foz do Iguacu, but it didn’t take shape as something uniquely Brazilian until I got to Rio de Janerio. That city is a playground of culture and nature; Ipanema Beach at sunset, the views from Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain, Lapa on a Friday night, listening to Bossa Nova and sipping whiskey in an old school lounge, stumbling across Vermelha Beach hidden in plain sight. Most cities are 2-3 day destinations but I could have stayed in Rio for a month and still felt rushed.  It is where I started to realize that Brazil couldn’t be tucked away in the past as a one-time destination. And then amidst all that wonder reality switched on.”


“The FBI switched it on,” my companion chimes in.

“Yes, in a manner of speaking. The school on the Galapagos informed me that due to new visa regulations I would have to obtain an FBI background check. This is not uncommon in the English Teaching world, but it is a gigantic pain in the ass, especially while traveling. I sent the school administrator a light hearted email about how they were asking me to purposely walk into a Rio de Janerio police station and ask to be finger-printed. It was a minor hiccup, but one that got me thinking.”

“Spinning. It got you spinning. I tried to bring you back to the present but you just kept pulling. It is always about the future with you. You tell stories about the present. You brag about the present. But, if I wasn’t holding you here, you would disappear into Tomorrowland.”

“You are right,” I say. “I get caught up too. But just hear me out. For months or maybe since the very beginning, Mexico has made the most sense as the next place to call home. I can’t shake those Oaxaca beaches. They seem to fit the dream perfectly; communities built around tourism but still deeply connected to the local culture, a high season for success and a low season for travel, the chance to mold a life centered on lifestyle. It sounds cold bullet-pointed like that, but…”

“Remember Amy from that hostel in San Augustinillo?” my companion asks. “She took the same trip years ago and ended up back in Mexico. Said she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. You laughed at that. Latin America seemed too big and too grand for her little beach town to be the best of. But that isn’t what she meant. You are talking about long-term choices. And feeling is a part of that. It isn’t about finding the prettiest beach, the sexiest people, the deepest history or the highest mountain. It is about finding a home. Justify it with logic all you want, but you can’t shake Mexico because it feels right.”

“Bullshit,” I say. “I just like tacos and Mezcal.”

“And the Pacific Ocean because it reminds you of California. And the fact that California is only a cheap flight away. And because you grew up with Mexican culture ignoring it like a good little Estadounidense, but influenced by it nonetheless, and now that you are all grown up you want to take your little plastic shovel and dig it all up.”

“Yeah, plus tacos. So I was in Rio feeling weird; enjoying the place but dragging the weight of unmade decisions too. I don’t believe in signs anymore than I believe in luck but sometimes the Universe does seem to nudge. Amidst the background checks, maybe nots and really wants, a University in Mexico (located basically exactly where I want to be) contacted me about a teaching gig. My first instinct of course was to take it—take that safety net and go. But I decided to be patient, let it settle. I can be overly confident and quick about even the big decisions and I knew that this was a crux moment so I didn’t want to rush it.

“Came up with that all on your own, did ya? You just logically decided to feel it out?”

“Anyway," I say feigning annoyance. "After Rio I traveled to Salvador, the Afro-Brazilian heart of the country; a place where the humidity clings and the salty air blows warm, where hips sway to the boom bap rhythm of Samba and kaleidoscope colors swirl beneath the sweet buzz of street stall Caiparinhas. Salvador pulls you in. It unclasps your little hesitations and lets them fall way; turning back with a sultry smile as you step in time with its rhythmic abandon. The traditions and culture of stolen Africa are more alive in Salvador than anywhere else in the “New World” and nothing encapsulates this more than Candombie. Enslaved African priests seeking to preserve the mythology, culture and language of their people created a religion in their new home, one that intermingled the past with certain elements of their Roman Catholic present. They called it Candombie and made Tuesday their holy day. I was there to witness it. At 6pm the streets were quiet and the churches full. And then the drumming started. Beneath the pounding beat the colonial doors swung open and people poured out already dancing, their bright faces free of penance or austerity. Drumming and dancing; the circles swelled and then the whole mob moved following the musicians over cobblestone streets, past alleyways strung in white light and buildings painted in a thousand colors. A wiry dude with salt and pepper dreads led the dance and hundreds followed his improvisations. For hours the mad party moved from place to place until finally the drumming slowed and the sweat dried sticky—until finally sleep brought an end to the dream-state clamor of Salvador on a Tuesday.  

“All of that beautiful distraction and yet in the quiet moments you went right back to planning, solving your hypothetical problems, following what-if tangents and for what? Why worry about the unwritten pages? That Tuesday in Salvador was an impossible day. Why not string together as many of those as you possibly can? Why not refocus on the beautiful distractions and just float?”

“Because there is not enough free will in floating and you know it. It starts to feel like drifting away. You ping from place to place with nothing to cling to; new friends slide by, the home you started to build comes untied. The beautiful days used to be enough, but not anymore, it is time for roots or at the very least nails to the floor."

"I feel this big hole just sitting out there," my companion says. "Your plans, if they don't work... There are easier ways."

"I'm done with easier ways. That University gig would have been easy. The comfort of having a job, a visa sponsor, but it also would have meant having a life abroad that was in some ways puppet-stringed to someone else. Seven years is too long to walk back into those limitations. At least not without reaching for something more."

"Alright, so lay it on me. What's the plan?"

"Tranquilo. Don't you want to hear the end of the story?"

My companion vibrates with annoyance. "Not clever. Not nearly as clever as you think."

I shrug my shoulders like me is me.

"Like all little boys who play in the dirt and catch salamanders to scare their mom, I dreamed of navigating the Amazon; hacking through vines, wrestling anacondas. I saved Amazonia because I wanted one last bite of sweetness at the end of my journey. Earlier in the trip I probably would have shunned the organized tours preferring the challenge of an unconventional route but at this point I just wanted it to be easy. I signed up for a three day tour that included hammock camping, Piranha fishing, the works. It began with a long bus ride deeper into the interior and a forty minute boat ride deeper still. The first night we slept in hammocks hung beneath a flimsy tarp. We used a machete to fashion wooden spoons and banana leaves to fashion plates. We grilled chicken and sausage on bamboo skewers. I slept better than I had in weeks. It was rainy season and the river had swelled covering the edges of the jungle to the tops of the trees. The following afternoon we paddled through the flood plain searching for Piranha. Using bamboo rods strung with fishing line and baited with chicken we slapped the surface of the water (apparently this gets their attention) and waited for a nibble. At the slightest tug we would yank our poles upward and hope to see a silvery carnivore dangling from the end. I caught one. Everyone else caught more. Over the three days I saw tarantulas, bird spiders, toucans, parrots, a weird looking blind snake, and in the distance I heard howler monkeys howling. The highlight though was the medicine tour. Our guide showed us the plant used to make vaporizer ointment (the natural version smells amazing!) tree bark used for malaria treatments, a milky sap used to treat tuberculosis, an oily fungus used to make incense and sap that works as a natural glue. The meals were good. Everything was easy. I'm sure it's possible to go deeper and more dangerous but here at the end that was all the adventure I needed."

"And...," my companion says with a roll of his shadowy hand.  

"And the plan. Home to California--for a little while. I need to put some space between this trip and what comes next. I need to apply for a Temporary Resident Visa which has to be done stateside anyway. And I need to work. I started dipping into the business investment money somewhere in Uruguay and I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable about the cushion. I'll take whatever I can get but I want to concentrate on freelance work; digital-nomad type gigs that I can take with me. If I can break even in the early months, I can reduce stress and the chances of rushing into a mistake. Nothing is set in stone but I figure I'll be home until the beginning of August and then off to Mexico and the unknown. I have ideas of course but I won't know what's right until I'm there." 

"The same old dream," my companion says. "The dream that never fades."

We sit in silence. I seem unable to find the words, my body and face speaking of frustration.

“A year is a long time to travel," I finally say. "Maybe too long. I can still feel everything; the beautiful and the bruising, the stretches of peace and the moments of discontent. That won't last of course. Retrospect will dull the memories as it always does and I will tell my stories and remember the little epochs with fondness. But why did I travel for so long? I knew what I wanted all along. So why did I keep pushing it forward just out of reach?

My companion's outline grows dark and smooth, nearly reflective. 

“Because it is what you needed. Finding harmony in life is the same as finding harmony in a moment; you inhale and exhale. This past year was your whole life story taking a big, sweet, harmonizing breath. You exhaled, pushed it forward, until you were ready to breathe again."

I nod and then tilt my head back, admitting to the ether.

“I’m scared. So much is unknown and I so badly want this to work. I can't untie the knot. ”

“I'm scared too," my companion replies. "But what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Failure. We try our best and find that we don’t have the stuff. Or worse that the dream wasn’t what we’d imagined. How do you replace a 20 year old dream?”

“By loving our unpredictable life. I spin and you rush, but somehow it always works out. Succeed or fail, we’ll find a good story to tell, we always do.

My companion moves closer putting his arm around my shoulder. We are shadow and form.

“I’ll be stronger,” he says. “If you keep us moving forward.”

“I’ll slow down,” I say. “If you keep us in the moment.”

You feel yourself being pulled away without reaction or need for words. The edges of the scene become etched in obsidian black and in the shrinking distance we are indistinguishable; we are graphite, obsidian, gone.