The Joys of Time Travel
5.8.11 (Fundo El Encino, Chile)
The power is out. I am writing longhand, on paper, by candlelight, warmed by a wood-burning stove; I have no charged computer or cellphone to play music, no battery-operated camera to scroll through photos as a record of my travels.
This trip shall leave no trace —
Everything was closed today, in Los Sauces, and that was OK. Tomorrow I think I will go to Puren, get a new bag, check my email — participate on some level in the broader world — but tonight, for now, it is candlelight and silence, and though it would frustrate me if this were forever for now — for now there is a beauty in it.
It’s funny, when I was homeless I felt so stripped-down, so unmoored; and I was, in some senses, that struggle was very real. But as divorced from the world as I felt, I rarely was — save perhaps that one striking morning at Crater Lake, a moment of peace and solitude fairly equal to this.
But largely I stayed connected, stayed online, kept pace with the world I was struggling to rejoin. I had my car and I had Caltech, familiar things; I leaned on friends and family, had people to turn to that I knew, form whom I could reasonably expect things.
Maybe that was the problem — expectation. Of strangers, abroad, there is no expectation; and so I have been surprised, constantly, sometimes badly so (as by those who stole my backpack) but more so by generosity, by the sincere kindness of strangers.
I will be paying this trip back for some time, it’s true, but I suspect I will be paying it forward forever, and that… that is a beautiful obligation.
5.10.11 (Fundo El Encino, Chile)
Another chilly morning at Fundo El Encino… the sky is overcast and the day is crisp but seeping through the floorboards is the smell of cooking onions and the muffled sounds of the radio, occasionally spinning a familiar American tune amongst the Latin classics — yesterday at lunch it was “UnBreak My Heart,” followed by “The Final Countdown” — the Gob Bluth theme song made me happy, and homesick, and wondering how I might possibly explain the glory of “Arrested Development” in my rather basic Spanish. But that’s OK. There are other glories here.
The first morning I was here it was sunny, and I stepped outside into a dreamscape — a stand of trees outside the front door, birches and eucalyptus and oak, leaves golden and air rich with the earthy perfume of autumn; I have always claimed October as my favorite smell but here in the southern hemisphere it is April, I suppose. There was a horse amidst the trees, a beautiful dark bay, lying on the slope amid the birches, sun-dappled and still. It was as though I had walked into a scene from a story written when I was twelve years old, when my imagination was still pastoral.
The backyard is as picturesque as the front, trellised and verdant with grapevines, apple trees, persimmons — the persimmons have mostly come and gone but the apples, yellow and green, dot the trees and bees cling to the purple-black grapes.
It is drizzling now, or just an odd wind — the sounds against the tin roof I can’t quite discern yet, close to it as I am. Three beds in a sparse loft room is where the WWOOFers stay, but it is private and spacious and warm; the heat from the fire rises to the pitched roof of the great room and wafts in here, cozy against the oncoming winter. The room is paneled in a rich cherry-dark wood, like the rest of the house save the stucco kitchen, and it feels rustic and simple even as the decor is strikingly international. African masks; Asian straw hats; a bed hand-carved from Thailand and an elaborate studded saddle from the American West — the downstairs is a museum of the life and travels of Ignacio Gallegos, and he is an avid and keen-eyed collector. A wall of antique spurs adjoins a set of old swords in the dining room; hanging from the beams of the great room is a set of old cattle bells. The aesthetic attention paid to every detail is obvious and that, together with the omnipresence of books, makes me feel at home here, even if fox pelts might be a rather alienating choice of cushion.
Across the dirt road there is the barn and the pastures and the polo field, kept shorn by a flock of sheep. There are trees and hills and it is in a beautiful scale, human, elegant, easy. Ignacio has another plot of land farther from town and it is bigger, with taller hills and more striking views, but I prefer this; this is quiet, not ostentatious, a place of contemplation, not imperialism.
There are the odd colonialist undertones, or perhaps to call it “undertones” is to be willfully oblivious — the class division is readily apparent, in the work, in the language, in the dentistry. Ignacio is el patron and as his guest I am addressed formally, which confused me enough that yesterday, when a ranch hand told me I was pretty, I thought he was talking about the countryside and said “yes” rather than anything gracious… it is a strange quirk of the language that the formal usted conjugates as an object; I am an informal creature, and I prefer to be be addressed as a person.
5.11.11 (Fundo El Encino, Chile)
I did not take diligent notes in Valparaiso but in my mind’s eye it is as clear as though I were still there, sitting on a bench at the Concepcion Ascensor, looking out across a wrought-iron fence to the sun striking the blue water. Valpo is San Francisco inverted, a crescent around the bay, its steep hills and narrow houses so reminiscient of the place I left behind — but its hills run even starker inclines, accessible best by funicular rather than foot. The streets are cobbled and narrow, rich with faded glory in the manner of Athens, and with startling frequency one might encounter a building gutted or gone completely, foundation exposed like a carcass — Valpo has faded into irrelevance since the opening of the Panama Canal but more than disuse these are artifacts of disaster, destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. Repair efforts are slow and besides, the rubble adds to the city’s addled, informal charm. As with New Orleans after Katrina the dramatic encounter with nature has become just another layer in a city of legends, a story more than a civic priority.
It is a place which begs comparison, or at least context, because on its own Valpo is like nowhere else: a New World tribute to Old Europe, cosmopolitan and decrepit both at once, the arts and their offspring — theaters, cafes, murals, boutiques — blossoming amidst so much beautiful decay. Along the waterfront the flat plan hums along, with banks and trains, gas stations and boulevards, a still-active port and a Plaza of Heroes; up in the hills the greatest tourist attraction is Pablo Neruda’s house, as light and poetic — and modern — as his verse.
There are suburbs here, and malls, but they are far from the verdant core, distant in both time and place from the narrow stairways which gradually reveal their urban organization. The streets teem with commerce or just the constant shutter-clicks from those passing through — the ground is the figure and the figure is the ground, geography as knotty and indiscriminate as the damage wrought by last year’s tremors, or as the hills themselves.
Like any city fighting against time, battling against the irrelevance of its beauty and its past, it is the most romantic place I have ever been.
Puren, Los Sauces, & Region IX
5.13.11 (Fundo El Encino, Chile)
Getting here was a battle: Chilean buses are well-appointed but their salesmen in Santiago have a proud ignorance of the rest of their country, like New Yorkers who just don’t see the point of the Midwest. A gentleman at the Pullman Sur counter laughed in my face when I asked for Puren and sent me wandering for two hours, looking for someplace that doesn’t exist.
I landed in Temuco at two in the morning, frigid in the mountainous night. On the bus they showed the remake of “The A-Team” and then “The Mask,” a film so innocuous it’s rather amazing it gave Cameron Diaz a career. On the way to Valpo and back I caught “She’s Out Of My League” and then “Twilight” and would later be treated to the pilot episode of a show called “Human Target,” in which a villain with a Geraldo mustache tries to blow up a high- speed train line in the alternate-universe version of California where such things exist. The entertainment which makes its way south can be hard to predict.
In Temuco Pullman redeemed itself, as a kind station agent took pity on my obvious confusion and let me stay in their lounge for the night. The big-screen TV was set to TNT and I saw “Pollock” in Spanish, or parts of it at least, fitfully dozing across three chairs as I pulled item after item from my suitcase, swaddling myself in ridiculous layers to ward off the intractable cold.
It was dark and wet, and I still wore my blue owl pajama pants over my jeans, when the station agent bade me farewell, setting me on my way to the rural buses where I might find my way first to Puren and then to Los Sauces — a roundabout way to get where I was going, I later learned, but I was proud to have made it there at all.
Los Sauces is a small town but still a sprawling one, growing along an indiscernible axis. There is a green park — there are parks everywhere in Chile, beautiful ones, parks to make Leslie Knope cry — and a community center, a government building and dozens, it seems, of convenience stores, mini-mercados disproportionate to the actual population. The Internet
runs a decade slower than it should and the whole affair feels dusty and overbright, fences mottled with time and plants overgrown, blossoming at will. I visited the cemetery with Lalo; it is crammed with white stones and monuments, full of flowers and people, sociable, not solemn. There is poverty but also striving, kids in pressed school uniforms hitching rides home, and I am reminded of California’s Central Valley, equally makeshift and Hispanic.
Puren is more alive, or maybe just better organized; its park is central and grander, its Internet cheaper and faster, its mercados more full of stuff — food, drinks, hardware, housewares, clothing. They are twenty minutes apart by car or bus and similar in economic profile but Puren is more peopled, vibrant, better-served; its trees are bigger, its dust less pervasive, or maybe I’m just biased because they have a restaurant there called “The Matrix,” facade painted like a poster for the film. How could anyone not like such a place?
It is late autumn here and the days vacillate between sunny-warm and foggy-cold, and when the fog sets in it sits low in the valley and enshrouds the towns, black mountains poking out like tombs in the mist. It is quiet here; it is always quiet here; even the patter of the rain is gentle, never violent. It is not quite Patagonia but the people of Santiago do themselves a disservice by not knowing this place.
Thoughts On Departing
5.17.11 (Temuco, Chile)
Sitting in a red-walled, wooden-chaired restaurant which clearly aims to capture a certain cosmopolitan demographic, awaiting departure. It is a bit reminiscient of Santiago, preceding my too-costly momentary lapse; I am on high alert.
But what if such bad luck should befall me again? The actions of thieves may have marked my experience of this country, but they have not characterized it. If those women had not stolen my bag I would never have known the generosity and kindness of Carlos and Rusell, Jose and Fernando and Jorge and the rest of the gang… taking me in when I had nowhere to go, on no basis more secure than the desperate need of a stranger. What a beautiful thing to have been shown, to have received; I will never forget it, nor the Good Friday spent in their extended company, wine and ceviche and mussels and Jorge, in a blonde wig and white dress, doing his best Evita.
Such tremendous welcome was not rare. In Valparaiso it was Peter, Seba, and Marta, opening their home; Peter’s assuredness, as an American abroad, was so comforting, and Seba had a patient answer for all of my questions about Valpo. In Marta I feel I made a real friend, our bilingual discussion of politics and the world my favorite kind of exchange. In Valpo too there was Phil — Sr. Hollywood — with whom I could talk of comedy and California, things from home; and then Aileen, another San Franciscan, pleasant connections in even the farthest corners of the world. There was Rosa, the gregarious Italian (is there any other kind?), and in my mind’s eye she is at the stove with Peter, stirring vegetables as fast as I can dice them, all of us drunk on sangria and becoming friends there in Vina del Mar. What a night that was; Chileans and Americans and Italians, Seba’s Danish cousins and a German exchange student, feasting on paella and cultural cross-pollination and laughter, laughter in endless supply.
And then onwards — out of the city, to the south, to El Encino. Much of me was terrified, bitten by a particular cynicism — urban, American, contemporary; whatsoever it may have been — that any man making a habit of taking in women free of charge, vulnerable in their role as travelers, must be operating out of some dark psychosexual impulse, that the kindness of old, straight men cannot be so freely given.
And yet —
There may well be some deeper underpinning to Ignacio’s generosity, arriving after a broken marriage and two grown daughters far from home, alongside a much younger girlfriend — but to think Pati a trophy is to do her a disservice and what I experienced there was not only kindness but a utopian dreamscape of unimaginable freedom, freely given. Ignacio showed me, I should think, what a grandfather should be; in his rugged Latin internationalism I saw what Armando Fajardo would have been with more time, what I might have known instead of the Freudian nightmare who took his place. Peter’s generosity I could locate, curious worldly youth and the gift economy an intellectual habitat I occupy all to well, but for Ignacio I had no context, and
I still don’t — he is singular, and hopeful. I would be remiss not to mention the others, Lalo, hands tough and dirty from labor but his observations sharp and his conversations astute; Edita, la senora, creating rich soups from thin air and leaning in during “Amor En Custodia” to urge dashing-but-sensitive bodyguard Aguirre to hurry up and kiss his leading lady Paz — la vieja — already.
These are the people I have known in Chile, a rich cast that yet barely scratches the surface of human kindness; let us not forget the bald-headed guard at the Embassy whom I came to visit so many times in Santiago, or the gentleman behind me in line at the grocery store who explained, in English, that the “numero” I needed to scribble on my credit card receipt below my signature was not a phone number but a passport number. There was the guy at the bus station on my way down here who let me stay in the lounge area even though I was unticketed, sympathetic to my confusion; of all the people I have yet encountered only two sought to take advantage of a traveler’s vulnerability — they succeeded but what they have wrought is something better, more richly textured, recorded in longhand on the blissful tactility of dead trees, unmediated by pulsing electrons. (Well, except to the extent that we’re all just pulsing electrons. Damn, I hate it when science and metaphor conflict.)
The kindnesses of home we come to take for granted but in strangers they shock us anew, into a refreshed awareness that it is upon these gestures of trust and generosity, faith and optimism and charity, that the world has been built; and even in our darkest moments of cynicism — urban/contemporary/American or maybe just human — it is in these gestures that our best selves continue to dwell, bright, unfolding an eager future.
Wonder & Motion
5.18.11 (Neuquen, Argentina)
When my little cousin Andrew was sixteen months old my aunt Therese brought him from California to Cleveland for Thanksgiving. Therese promptly threw out her back and I, taking a semester off from my sophomore year of college, was conscripted to babysit; also it snowed and that is what is most important, Andrew’s first glimpse of the white fuzz falling from the sky. Babysitting was suddenly easy, his hyperactive blonde curls perched at my grandmother’s living room window for twenty minutes straight, reduced to gaping and whispering, over and over, the only word he knew to express his wonder: “Wow. Wow. Wow.”
Sometimes, the vocabulary of a sixteen-month-old is sufficient.
The Chilean Andes were snowy and verdant, both at once, the snow melting into rippling streams that bisected, trisected, quadrisected the green. The clouds were close and the colors were stark, black and white and blue and green, tactile even in passing. After the border the greens grew softer and the peaks less sharp but the geometry of the landscape was no less dramatic, canyons and plateaus and hillsides sheared dangerous by time. We turned a corner onto four horses grazing under a tree at a river, gray and chestnut and Appaloosa, and then around another bend a knot of birds was perched in that same water, spindly-legged and pink. Chile, I loved you thorough and well while we were together, but I have a new boyfriend now, and his name is Argentina.
Four hours overland in Argentine Patagonia and we crossed sweeping dusty plains, marshlands addled with too many trees, red rock; Texas and Arkansas and Arizona, remixed, differently inflected. I have traversed so many striking landscapes but the Andes are memorable yet, in the meandering brooks and lush hillsides of a thousand landscape paintings. Perhaps more picturesque is only that same mountain stream amidst the snow, a blue ribbon cutting across the white expanse, sunny and stark — I knew it in western Colorado, Amtraking, pushing against the sunset on hidden trails. That was in the company of strangers but still solitary, as with this — my seatmate on the bus was a lazy-eyed Argentine with a silver ponytail who tucked his unused lunchtime salt packet into his leather jacket; we got along well. We shouldn’t have — I got on first and stole his seat, at the window, and when he boarded I feigned ignorance of the whole affair, fearing he might be the sort who snags the window just to close the blinds, lean against it, and sleep — but he was a looker too, and my awe at his countryside delighted him.
Wow. Wow. Wow.
This is my first trip in two carless years, time spent with legs planted — to be adrift now I can’t help but think back on that time when impermanence was its own familiar comfort. I saw such things in those years, dusty oil towns in the California interior and pork salsa in Cheyenne, stumbling onto the most incredible views of Mt. Rainier around a bend in an empty road; such are the charms of a pleasant, objectiveless itinerance, the capacity — and the likelihood — to stumble upon the spectacular.
The greatest moment of solitary beauty I ever knew on the road was at Crater Lake, six in the morning as the mists burned off — I was the only person alive and the world was quiet and inverted, that still and perfect mirror reflecting up from the ground a cloudless blue sky. It happens often, it may happen every day; but that day I was awake to it and that day was mine alone, no longer pressed against the glass but breathing in the air, stationary at last. To gaze out at the scenery as the miles slip by has a certain romanticism but sometimes, sometimes stopping holds the greatest reward.
La Ciudad De Evita
5.20.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
On the bus, seventeen hours from Neuquen to Buenos Aires, I tuned into their radio station and was met with if not Girl Talk than the Latin version of; early in the mix there were a few bars of “I Swear” and I hummed along, comforted by All-4-One in this strange place. It is perhaps less than culturally engaging but I think also deeply human, to seek the familiar amidst the new; and yet it is a particular American luxury to be able to indulge in, artifacts of our cultural imperialism scattered across the globe by so much electromagnetic wind. Does an Argentine abroad for ten weeks subsist entirely on occasional references to “Evita”? What the hell does a Chilean cling to?
Once I found the Metro my introduction to the city was brusque and bizarre; after arriving at my address, rented from a woman on AirBNB.com and prepaid months ago, I found the whole place locked up — “live above a San Telmo art gallery,” the ad had said, but here there was only a metal gate. I stepped back into the street to find a place where I might call her, inquire why my lateness — which had arrived with an email notification and a response of “Great, I’ll be waiting” — was being so punished. It was a few steps before a middle-aged man approached, speaking rapid, slushy Argentine Spanish through which I could only decipher the woman’s name: Brenda Avila. Yes, I said; si. He had a note that said where I should wait for her and before I knew what was happening he had hailed a cab and sent me off, a strange man in a strange place and I had only a scrawled note and a Metro map to figure it all out.
The cabbie dropped me off at a locked but well-lit entrance where, exhausted and befuddled, I sat; immediately an electronic voice pulsed behind me and I saw the speaker marked “Reception.” I said I was looking for Brenda, that I had this note from her to wait here; the voice told me that I must be mistaken, that I had misread the note (I hadn’t), that I was
too late and Brenda was on a flight of her own, unreachable for ten days; what else could I have possibly expected by my lateness? My queries as to whether or not some backup arrangements hadn’t been made, if she’d been anticipating both my tardy arrival as well as her own departure, only angered the receptionist further and he berated me in strident American English until my voice broke and I asked if he might not be able to suggest a cheap place to stay for the night. There was silence and then moments later he stepped through the front doors, pale, lanky, all in black with trendy glasses and a disaffected air. He directed me to a street two blocks down where, he said, there were plenty of hotels, as low as $60/night; I followed his directions to an Internet cafe and found a hostel for twelve. Thirty hours on a bus and two sleepless in-transit nights since I left the easy, pastoral idyll of El Encino and I was navigating the busy streets of Argentina’s most populous city, the Paris of South America, trial and error my only strategy until finally, finally I slept.
The next day on foot a woman asked me for directions; people asked me for directions in Santiago too and often back home, and I fancy to myself the reason is the approachable self- assuredness I project to the world. The woman was an Argentine, discernible in the accent, a double-l so slurred that “ella” sounds more akin to the world’s largest continent than anything I ever heard from my family’s crisp Cuban diction.
I am reminded often of my family; the woman who sought directions, and so many others on these streets, has the same stiff hair and aristocratic sensibility that I recall so well from my grandmother, who even in failing health will never relinquish her makeup or her sense of etiquette. More so than anywhere in Chile Buenos Aires seems bound to these codes;
if Santiago felt like LA and Valpo found a corollary in San Francisco than Buenos Aires is undoubtedly playing the part of New York, teeming, international, certain of its own importance. In Chile, Miley Cyrus’s concert in Santiago made the national news, but my impression here is that they’d be offended if she didn’t make the stop. The Economist tells me that Chile is where it’s happening and based on the relative prices of food and consumer goods between the two countries it may be true; but what Argentina lacks in a strong currency it makes up for with theaters and galleries and music, art and commerce and culture. This is a place that has birthed legends, held international attention, had its first lady portrayed by Madonna — if they are expectant of adulation the world over it is only because they have become accustomed to it. In Santiago the smog was rich with the aspiration to be taken seriously but on the dense streets here the importance of their global participation seeks no validation. Like New York, like Paris or London or any one of the dozen other genuine global trendsetters, Buenos Aires has style, and that is something which the Chilean copper mines — for all the prosperity they might bring their country — can never impart.
Style alone, however, is insufficiently impressive. The people I met in Chile were a remarkable bunch, generous and kind, unflappably so — Argentina has a lot to live up to, and its first impressions were rather inauspicious. Old-fashioned human decency, after all, is always in fashion.
5.22.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
My fourth day in Argentina, it rained… I wore my flip-flops out like a crazy person but I’ve done it in snow in Cleveland, too; it’s an inherent stupidity, not a tourist mistake. The rain was not quite hard but it was unyielding, pouring forth from a darkened sky, staccato and sharp in melody with the bass rumblings of thunder. I walked for hours, the streets emptied of their usual crushing throngs, the city navigable, open, easy — wet, yes, but water is the same all the world ‘round and rain is something I know how to handle.
A million different shades of gray revealed themselves, sky and stone and street refracted
through the aqueous onslaught into a palette of monochrome beauty. The urban hive turned
inwards for the day and the city, the bustling, populous, historical city belonged entirely to
we few, we brave, we pedestrians — Buenos Aires, I have seen you ugly now, or at least in determined resistance to your own sunlit charms; you welcomed me yet and were decipherable, slippery, quiet — unguarded, reflected in a thousand glittering shards. Winter is arriving and for that we have these tears, but don’t cry for me, Argentina; the truth is we’ve barely met yet, and my leaving is, alas, inevitable.
City of Hope
5.24.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Whether from the weather, or the architecture, or the timing of my trip… I find myself in love with Buenos Aires, the way I fell in love with San Francisco, with the Chilean South and the entire country of Spain: the need to return presses against my chest even as I am just here.
But I wonder, too, at the utility of this longing — it is early in my stay but already I suspect that Buenos Aires is like San Francisco in another way too, like New York and Paris as I’ve seen them — a beautiful place to visit and an easy place to be rich, built for wealth to play itself out, but as known by most of us life is a different beast altogether; the best we can do is take an occasional vacation. To imagine myself here again it is successful, never striving, and the simple aspirations of my life in Oakland — a house, a porch, a dog, a lemon tree — are lost in translation, as they are even across the bay. The rain makes the city beautiful for a tourist to walk in but an impossible place for its homeless, a family with four small children staying dry in a doorway not far from this bed. These are not special problems, they are not unique to here, but nobody can save the world so we must choose where our efforts shall lie and that place bears the name, and the burden, of home. Oakland is my home; Cleveland is my home, still, impossible to push away; and all the rest of the world can only ever be a playground, until I would make it an obligation.
It is not an original thought, but a true one: that the farther we should venture, the more we should discover what home really is. A beautiful weight to rest upon a place, and a commitment — this dalliance here in South America has its value and will be remembered in unrealized photographs for years to come but I have already pledged myself some thousands of miles away, ‘till death do us part. Oakland has loved me, and let me go, but only to return with a certainty that grows stronger by the day: that seductive charms may be encountered all the world over, but where I belong is the city where I already am.
The Particular Strangeness of Hostels
Santiago may have been my least favorite place on this trip but its hostel was the best; Hostal Santa Lucia, an independent, WWOOF-endorsed operation, small, clean, with single bathrooms — is there any greater joy during the all-too-public travails of travel than to be able to the close the door for a shit and a shower? The rules were discernible, nothing was hard to find, and the manager let me stay one night for free after I got robbed. They were a kind bunch over at Sta. Lucia.
Here, at Hostel Suites Florida, it is bigger and louder, which holds charms as well as dangers —
I’ve met more than a few friendly folks but I’m also not entirely clear on where the hell breakfast
happens, and without morning caffeine I run weakly. I watched two hours of “Friends” today
in their lounge, reading the Spanish subtitles and savoring the familiar comforts of so many white people on TV. There’s music and Internet in the lounge too, and the whole things has me feeling like I’m not so cut off from the regular, revolving world after all.
In between my differentiated stops at Hostel Suites (nine floors and I’m in the very same room) there were four nights at the Avenue Hostel, not far away, at about $9.50/night American the cheapest of the bunch and by far the strangest. In four night I only showered once and ate rarely too, confused by their kitchen: a full setup downstairs but when I tried to use it they said no, fourth floor, where there existed a sink, a non-functioning stove, and a single bowl. I don’t like to think myself a diva, but: I couldn’t work with this. Also my flea problem, a gift from a stray dog at the Temuco bus station, accelerated at the hostel even as I fumigated strenuously — alone in the six-bed dorm room I unpacked all of my clothing and sprayed it down and still the red welts repopulated at a staggering rate. The building was beautiful but old and it leaked when it rained, and I had no roommates for the duration. I heard voices, American and Argentine Spanish and lots and lots of what I eventually realized was Hebrew; but none of them spoke to me, and I was glad to leave.
(This writing was just interrupted by a lengthy chat with Chilean and Brazilian dorm-mates — the unexpected wonder of this sort of travel.)
The Only Way To Fly
5.29.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
The couch I have landed on is owned by a woman named Vero, a young mother of a darling little boy; she speaks no English but my Spanish does well enough, and her boyfriend and her Colombian boarder fill in the gaps. The toilet operates on its own logic and the bathroom has a thin sheen of water everywhere, seeping and spraying from places I can’t even find — the apartment is small and so run-down that if it were in California I would be giving her names and phone numbers, lawyers to call and kick some landlord ass. I tried to make pasta, the gluten- free stuff I procured a week at the Jumbo Mart (which I would like to call the South American version of Wal-Mart, except they have those here too) — gluten-free is hard to find here but a wise Chilean woman tipped me off at the start of my stay, appalled that I couldn’t eat bread. I found a pot and went to rinse and fill it with water but the cold knob broke off, spray hitting me in the face, the chest, pouring into the kitchen. After a moment of panic I found the knob in the sink, screwed it back in, staunched the bleeding.
I changed into dry clothes and decided against the pasta, because even as I figured out how to use the sink without incident I found no match to light the stove — momentarily I wished Vero were here but I knew it was better that she was out, no witnesses to my aquatic immolation. I ate eggs instead, carted around in my suitcase for a week without breaking (it’s the little victories that count), prepared in the microwave as I learned to do when I was living in a shithole of my very own and eating my meals in the office kitchen as often as possible. Microwave eggs are rubbery but I put in some chopped garlic and topped it all off with ketchup and mustard, packets of which I’d squirrelled away at the hostel, gifts from careless roommates who didn’t appreciate how useful a condiment can be. I love the “Top Chef” episodes wherein they must shop at a vending machine or cook with one hand tied behind their backs, challenges no real chef will ever encounter professionally — but if success is only accomplished with all the resources of the world at hand, then to whom does it really belong?
It’s the little victories that count.
I did the dishes, mine and then some, a small thank-you for a place that might be falling apart but is still a roof and a toilet; I had been contemplating joining the tent city along Avenida 9 de Julio, squatters for social good, camping out to promote a “justicia!” advertised on banners but otherwise ill-defined. A traveler can live comfortably in the artificial hospitality of hotels and hostels but is there anything more generous than opening one’s home to a stranger in need? It is a beauty more concrete than all the motel-room paintings in the world put together…
There is a living room with a small bar, a guitar and a bongo drum and pictures of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon on the wall. In the bookcase I find biochemistry and o-chem and tales of Arabian knights, and one book in English: two decades old but Stephen Jay Gould never goes out of style. The plumbing may be aggressively archaic but wheresoever I might find science texts and John Lennon in happy coexistence is a place I can sleep peacefully.
On Traveling Alone
5.30.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
I shouldn’t like to do this again.
I don’t mean international travel — there is much yet I want to see. I don’t mean travel at length; short stays are invariably too brief, incomplete pictures. I don’t even mean solo travel, for its interiority has beauty and value — but all three together are overwhelming, the constant solitude as I battle to understand what is always new…. lying here Vero has music on in the living room and “Lean On Me” played, the Bill Withers classic, and I may as well have been back at Gesu Church, clapping and swaying and singing off-key alongside the rest of my eighth-grade class at graduation — Gesu, another place where I felt forever an outsider. It’s a great song but it saddened me too, for the pleasures of friendly transience pale in comparison to the solid joy of a known friend right up the road, offering to share any load.
Part of it is the language, or at least the culture: at the hostel Brazilians who just met became fast friends and there was an entire contingent of Brits in solidarity with one another but Americans were rare. I chatted with a nice German girl, talked with a Chilean and had a Colombian guy propose green card marriage before he knew my name; the German and the Chilean invited me along on adventures but I was departing, too broke to stick around. I presumed traveling alone would force me to interact with the language and culture but it’s only driven me deeper into myself — I’ve written a shitload, much of it good, but it’s all been in English, and only some of the jokes have been about South America.
There have been moments here where I was glad for the solitude but more still where I wished to share it, with friend or family or partner, someone whose separate experience might forge common memory — someone to lean on, as it were, lifeline amidst the unaccountable strangeness of an ongoing world in which one is only ever passing through.
5.31.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Finally ensconced in the room I was supposed to have had all along. The apartment is above a gallery and filled with art — this room alone is home to five works, spotlit. There is a pleasant abstraction of the tango in red, black, and white, lines of legs and accordions intermixing; a cartoonish piece of bodies and street signs which evinces little in the way of originality or skill but lends a charming amateur brightness to its corner; occupying a wall all on its own is a black- and-white ink piece, a geometrically rendered train scene that calls to mind early-twentieth- century propaganda and the labor movement — it is inexpressive and closed but then so is its subject, the solid but alienating clang of urban industry.
On the wall opposite my bed is a large and loosely rendered man in a bowler hat, drink in one
hand and violin in the other. It is done in chalks and pastels, made dramatic by the contrast of
his green clothing and pink skin — perhaps I am biased by my favorite media and my favorite
palette but this one is, yes, my favorite, for in the beseeching caution of the man’s gaze there is
a resonant longing. Next to this there is the final work, a canvas painted in shades of turquoise
and segmented into six parts, each one differently etched. There is a molar tooth in purple
gums, with a face of its own; a bitten apple; the graphically rendered face of an Asian female
picking her nose. On the bottom row there are blue jeans with a tattooed arm hanging beside,
the reflection of the bitten apple, and a not-entirely-legible bit of form and shadow that is
nonetheless yonic; or maybe it just seems like a vagina because the whole thing has Pollockian
daubs of pink over it all and scrawled across the panels and black and blue and capital letter
is “YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT,” and this particular unmet artist seems
just profound enough to consider ladyparts the ultimate in wanting. I’ve spent the most words
on it but in truth it is awful, not just in its inelegant execution but the laughable adolescence
of its preoccupations — it’s a painting from somebody’s diary, and not a thoughtful or original somebody.
Next to this frenetic mess, though, the still man and his instrument hold my gaze. Art from within oneself is often called brave and portraiture thought safe, but to look out on the enduring mystery of another can sometimes reveal so much more than our own stupid, roiling, alluring selves might ever hope for.
Corrections, Retractions, & Distractions
6.2.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Now that I am situated in Argentina I can pause to assess… Brenda Avila, source of my ten- day pilgrimage through the hostels and couches of this fine city, is younger and prettier than her AirBNB photo implied, and less of a villain than I had thought too; she has wealth, an imperious mother and a busy schedule, and my living arrangement was not her top priority. I’d like to craft a narrative of malicious intent and miraculous rescue like I knew in Chile but she really just reminds me of a lot of girls I knew at Georgetown, who came from money, moved in rarefied circles, and couldn’t understand the reality of someone without such resources. She is well- traveled, as they all were too, and it is a perspective often mistaken for worldly but which quickly reveals its own limits — Brenda could not comprehend why I was owed a refund for my ten days adrift, when our initial agreement precluded her renting the room to someone else. Unless
I mistakenly rented a place from Clarence Thomas I think it’s pretty plain where the greater injury — and fault — lies, but her unsympathetic confusion reminded me of the day, my junior year of college, that I came home from class to find one of my roommates sitting in the living room, watching TV and idly wadding a roll of packing tape into a giant ball. I protested her wastefulness and she cut her eyes at me with disdain and said: Isa, it’s like, five dollars.
Ah, to have such money to throw away.
The apartment itself is fine enough, functional, full of books about art — almost all in dense overwritten Spanish (art is pretentious everywhere) except one, a monograph by Soren. Using a single name is an affectation I find tolerable only in pop stars but the photographs of Central Asia were interesting enough. It is a private but frankly boring place, and I find myself nostalgic for the chaotic color of couches or hostels or even Santiago — the apartment where I stayed, adopted by my gay Chilean fairy godmothers, had a computer lab, free to use. I spent a good bit of time there as I was staying in the comfortable digs — until my new debit card arrived there was little else to do — and met a man there whose skull was creviced at the center of his forehead, probably a birth defect but it looked like he’d been split with an axe and I found it impossible to to focus on speaking Spanish while looking at his face. On the plus side the building had no exterior key and lax security, such that when I returned to the city after Valparaiso, needing my new passport stamped from my entry fee but lacking two dimes to rub together, I walked in with confidence and spent an entire night bathed in the Internet’s diffuse electronic glow. There was no public bathroom so I didn’t drink anything for about twelve hours but as far as being too broke for proper lodging abroad goes, whiling away the night in a foreign city by streaming a bootleg copy of “The Social Network” isn’t half bad (certain law enforcement authorities may disagree). I resolved my own financial crisis just as the banks did (although my particular taxpayer offered the bailout) and soon enough was on my way to the paradise known as El Encino — Santiago may not have been my favorite place but we ended well enough, and although Buenos Aires is more interesting as a city its apartment buildings could stand a little free Internet here and there.
If not the endless diversions of cyberspace then television will do in a pinch. Last week I missed my first couchsurfing connection, leaving the hostel in the evening to find the Metro closed at an absurdly early hour on a Friday night (I suspect heavy lobbing on the part of the city’s taxi cartels). It was too far too walk and too pricey for a cab and I was reduced to checking in again at the Avenue Hostel, mournful at the thought — but they gave me a different room this time, with a private bath and a TV, empty but for me and still less than ten US dollars. The TV was small but cable-wired and I flipped channels until I happened upon the video for “Hollywood,” and amidst her gyrations the enfolding arms of Madonna reached out and stilled my soul.
Ah, television; you get a bad rap for it, but absent other company there is nothing to banish loneliness quite so well. I watched a mediocre episode of “Seinfeld,” fell asleep during “Scrubs” and woke up to “The Big Bang Theory,” refreshed, not so lost in this big world after all. If you ever find yourself on the Avenida de Mayo in need of cheap accommodation, just ask for room 203.
Here, though, there is no Internet, or TV, or music; no radio, limited books, and the privacy of complete aloneness. I have always been a bit of a homebody but bereft of all these things home is just four silent walls and a roof, and in such isolation even masturbation gets old fast. Last night I started work on a thousand-piece jigsaw, the single entertainment included in the place, and quickly remembered that I fucking hate puzzles; I did laundry instead. Not at a machine, which is not at my disposal, but by hand, in a stockpot in the shower stall, agitating with an upturned broom, striving to remember what I saw my friend Rachel do when I visited her in Bulgaria during her Peace Corps days. Washing machines exist here but to ask for a self- serve laundromat one might as well be inquiring after the well-being of the Sasquatch — the lavanderia is a full-service affair, not an entirely unaffordable luxury but still more than I’d care to spend and not very forgiving of my established habits, either, which involve waiting until I have absolutely no decent clothes left to wear before deigning to wash. As of yesterday the only remaining article of clean clothing in my possession was a pair of shorts, in much finer shape than the legs they might reveal: at the peak of my flea infestation I counted over sixty red welts on my lower body and I haven’t been able to shave in two weeks for fear of splitting open the network of scabs, receding so much slower than they arrived. Shorts aren’t a very good look for me at the moment, and while I’d chance it back in Oakland I’m not quite comfortable enough here to walk the streets looking so plainly diseased. (Also, to the ex-boss who once reprimanded me for taking a day off to deal with a flea problem as “not a valid excuse”: go fuck yourself.)
So I washed some clothes, enough that I might have something to wear when I bring in the rest of my laundry to be done. Before I left the US a TEDTalk was posted positing that the washing machine has done more to advance gender equality than any other technological advance, liberating women from that most onerous of domestic duties — I started at midnight and finished around two AM, arms exhausted from wringing out my travel-sturdy granny panties; though I have often wished for companionship here there are times too when the solitude is just as well, and before I fell asleep I offered up a quick prayer that Brenda wouldn’t make a surprise morning visit to find my underwear drying on her kitchen table. These are the glamorous truths too often untold in tales of foreign places but the task filled my time nicely and now “washing clothes in a stockpot” can be added to the list of things I can successfully MacGyver, right after “gourmet meals with nothing but a toaster oven” and “bongs.” Truly, I am learning so much more than just a language here…
6.4.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
In the living room of this apartment is a green velvet sofa and above it, nearly to the ceiling, a canvas in white and gray and black, bright blue and batsignal yellow: four batmen in a row, balletically posed. The second from the right is in regular costume with “SHOW” written on his collar but the other three are dressed as harlequins, tutu’ed, and one’s arm is tattooed with the word “CANDY.”
Perhaps I have been too hard on Santiago.
I liked Russel before I knew him; on my first full day in the city I traipsed around for hours, getting lost in the steel-and-stone urban core and then finding my way back again — there’s no better way to get to know a place, I’ve discovered, than to get lost in it. Dusk approached and two blocks from my hostel on Calle Sta. Lucia I stopped into Ros’s Gelateria for a cup of tres leches; I was still figuring out the money, and the language, and the whole business of being alone in a foreign country, but at the cash register there was a man with a fauxhawk and a wide smile. He was gay and he spoke English, both of which inclined me to like him, and he helped me to figure out the currency with a pleasant shared laugh in a moment that made this alien world bearable. The gelato was good too and as I departed I thought to myself, I should come back here…
I did, three days later. I was late getting back to the hostel to pick up my suitcase and the hop the bus to Valparaiso but it had been a long hot day of wandering, and I craved the coolness of ice cream and the friendliness of the proprietor. I got another tres leches and a water and sat outside, in a small fenced-in area along the street, backpack at my feet; nobody else was there and the street was quiet and I let myself drift back to North America, to things I’d left unresolved there. Two middle-aged women, well-dressed, sat at a table near me, considered a menu, and then walked off. I lingered for a few more minutes with my water and my thoughts before deciding that it was past time to go.
The sudden absence of a thing can feel unreal, as though if one could only open one’s eyes a little bit wider it might come back into focus. My backpack was black and heavy and unlikely to hide in strange places, a companion for eighteen years — my grandmother bought it for me when my mother was sick, when we were poor and the backpacks she brought home from the discount store kept breaking under the weight of my unfortunate library habit. It cost fifty bucks and my mother was outraged at the expense: “That thing better last you until college,” she said. On the zipper of the outer pocket dangled a frayed red yarn, artifact of some high school spirit event, and in the various compartments I’d crafted a kit of all of life’s necessities, gleaned via trial and error during my occasional bouts of homelessness. There was a pocket reading lamp and an umbrella, alcohol swabs and deodorant and a toothbrush, a scarf and a yo-yo and a dozen packets of ketchup and hot sauce — I may never have been a Boy Scout, but I was prepared. More pointedly the bag also contained my money (cash and card), my passport, my glasses, my camera, my cell phone, my comedy notebooks, and (it still hurts to think about) my Mac laptop, a PowerBook that I’d inherited from my upgrade-addicted brother at Christmas, a beautiful, bitchin’ machine. Password-protected, American-cabled, with an English keyboard — I’m sure whoever acquired it on the Chilean black market has cursed these deficiencies well but to have it back now I would trade all the ketchup packets in the world.
I went into the cafe in a daze, asking if anyone had seen anything — they grasped the gravity of the situation before I did and called the Carabineros, the Chilean police, omnipresent swathes of olive green on the streets of Santiago. Shock made my Spanish worse than usual and Russel helped to translate my police report even if a few things fell through the cracks, but then, “my laptop has a sticker of a Pop-Tart dressed like an astronaut trying to go into space with a toaster” doesn’t make much sense in any language. Russel hooked up his iPhone to his netbook and I Skyped my bank to cancel my debit card, and then it became clear to me: I was alone, in a foreign country where I knew nobody, with no money, no way to get money, and no passport or ID of any kind — I have been in the shit before but this, this was a level of desperation I could not resolve by painting my uncle’s garage or pawning some jewelry or sleeping in a Caltech basement for four months. This was disproportionate to all prior experience and any solution could only come from the rarest combination of both fortune and mercy —
But even if Fate pulled a fast one on me that day it smiled on me too, for it was then that, to borrow from what I’ve learned is a gay anthem all across the Americas, it began to rain men.
Russel and his partner Carlos — older, more serious, quieter — paid for my hostel and gave me money to live on and offered me a room at their inn; a spare bedroom in an apartment where they used to live but Carlos hated the city noise and they moved farther out but kept the place, renting it to a friend of theirs. Jose — at dinner that night, over ham and cheese and tea in the Gelateria, as their (many) friends filtered in an out for a nosh and some gossip, I learned that Jose worked for the judicial system, was studying to be a lawyer. They mocked him but it was in the spirit of good-natured brotherhood, just as they mocked the smooth good looks of the Argentine (who spoke fluent Spanish and was really hot, and whose name I should remember), just as they mocked the silence of shaggy-haired Jorge — they had the closeness and improbable comic rhythms of sitcom characters and were delighted when I told them I was going to write a comedy sketch about them, even more so when I added that it would be performed by an all-female company. My fairy gaymothers whisked me away then, not far, to the comforts of their apartment, a well-appointed spare room in a modern building with plenty of Internet. The large flat-screen TV in the living room was not hooked up to cable but on network TV I watched the film adaptation of “La Casa De Los Espiritus,” with Antonio Banderas as the cast’s lone Hispanic (I know I don’t look particularly Latin, but — Glenn Close? Girl, please) as well as a truly phenomenal bit of televisual storytelling called “The Rose of Guadalupe,” in which the Virgin of Guadalupe intervenes with positive effect in the lives of deserving teens — in this particular episode she helped an unpopular girl to date the hottest guy in school. Two millennia of church-imposed celibacy might have left other divine beings embittered but if you’re a teen with a prayer, the Virgin Mother will still help you get laid.
Chileans celebrate Easter on Good Friday, or at least that’s when they socialize — Russel and Carlos picked up Jorge and me early in the morning with their friend Fernando, whose head was shaved and who was so solicitous towards me that I would have been creeped out if he were straight. We drove half an hour in the rain to Russel and Carlos’s country house, or country compound — four terra cotta buildings in a U-shape but we only used half of it, the casual living room and the kitchen, ignoring the dining hall and the public bathrooms. In the middle of the U there was a pool, surface speckling in the downpour, and beyond that a small soccer field. The walkways and corners were lined with every conceivable type of fruit tree and I saw kiwi growing on the vine and tried to teach two dozen Spanish speakers to wrap their fluid tongues around the Germanic harshness of the word “pomegranate.” People streamed in for hours, an endless supply of friends, all male except one middle-aged woman and her daughter, a college student who spoke good English and was jealous of my brother for studying astronomy, too expensive and impractical even as she longed to decipher the heavens. I went to the kitchen to try to help cook but the routine was impermeable, and instead I sat in a corner as Fernando plied me with wine and samples of his ceviche; I accompanied him back to the living room to help set the table but he shooed me off again and I sat on the sofa as “Jesus Christ, Superstar” blared through speakers and stacks of cups and plates and bowls appeared from hidden places. The meal was tremendous, ceviche and mussels and seafood stew, and over the langourous and chatty hours at the table the sky cleared, just for a moment, and through the sliding glass doors I could see the peaks of the Andes, distant, grey, snow-capped.
After dinner there was more wine and more talking and more music, warmth in the wet cold night. I took a nap, cocooned in the gentle chaos of so much talk and laughter, the best security blanket in the world and one that can be found anywhere. When I awoke wigs came out from somewhere, a longish reddish one that had Jose calling himself Juana Montana, and quiet Jorge donned a blonde and then was spirited away, returning in a white dress and gloves to a makeshift spotlit stage and an in-character, impromptu performance of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” Dishes got done and people slowly filtered out and around midnight we closed up the place, twelve solid hours of revelry in direct contravention to the somber Good Fridays I’d always known.
On Monday my new debit card arrived; Chase would only send it to an American address so my roommates overnighted it, with a pleasant note wishing me luck, as if I hadn’t already found enough. There are times when I wish I’d made different choices in my life, better or at least more economically viable ones — but then I think on all the remarkable people in my orbit, from the center to the most elliptical periphery, and the idea that by other paths any of them might be made a stranger mocks the very principle of an equal trade-off. My bank statements may be laughable things but I am endowed with other kinds of riches, a wealth of condiments and words and especially friends.
With my meager finances again at my disposal I could afford my emergency passport and be off, one week late to Valparaiso but the adventure finding its momentum at last. In Buenos Aires now I think it generally a more habitable place than Santiago, its urbanism in better scale and organization, and it flatters my American self-importance to see billboards for “Gossip Girl” or to know that artists and curators find Batman enthralling enough to quadruple — but my superheroes are somewhere else, or at least someone else: Megamente, the translated titular character from the film “Megamind.” I haven’t seen it but I have its merchandise, a notebook bearing a movie still and logo — after the Carabineros left and I stood bereft next to the ice cream Russel pulled it from his backpack and tore out a few used pages, handing the rest to me with a pen as I mourned my writerly lack. It was immediate and wordless and wonderful, and although I’m halfway through my second notebook now — properly purchased in Los Sauces — the flimsy pages of Megamente are the greatest souvenir I could ever know.
Sounds of Silence
I think my favorite moment here in Buenos Aires happened when I was wandering through another rainy day and happened upon an art museum — admission was free and I can never resist a museum. It was small and the works not entirely impressive but on the second floor I turned around to see a scarf lying in the middle of the hallway; I didn’t see who dropped it but I picked it up up to give to a guard or at least move it out of the way. A middle-aged man noticed my hesitation and saw what I was holding and approached with an outstretched hand — “It’s my daughter’s,” he said with an American accent, and then added quickly, “mi nina.” His daughter was about my age and the word he meant to use was “hija” but the strange quiet look I gave him, as he trotted off with scarf in hand thanking me in two awkward languages, had nothing to do with his flawed Spanish and everything to do with the fact that my own gringo father would have done exactly the same thing, and in the sudden moment of longing I thought too: the best things in life are universal.
Among those are music, particularly American pop music. I found an old radio with an analog tuner in the apartment and with a bit of fiddling and a few frustrated smacks managed to get it working, filling this quiet space. I spun the tuner to discover “I Had The Time Of My Life” and danced through the kitchen with lunatic enthusiasm, skidding around in my socks like a “Risky Business”-era Tom Cruise; I offered up a more somber, balletic (well, as balletic as I ever get) interpretation of “Runaway Train”; and I swayed and sang to Puffy’s brilliant remix of of the creepiest pop song in modern memory into something heartfelt and genuine — I have been missing so many people here. Buenos Aires has two modern/alternative rock stations and by happy coincidence their frequencies match those of The Buzzard and The End, two towering icons of my Cleveland youth which poured Nirvana forth from my clock radio as I dressed each day in combat boots and my dad’s flannel shirts and a necklace made of paperclips. As it was back then I prefer the music living at the far end of the dial, where the deejays used to talk about “The X-Files” every Monday morning and which, the day before its conversion (in a ClearChannel buyout) to an adult contemporary R&B/jazz station, played “It’s The End of the World (As We Know It)” on commercial-free, 24-hour loop — the 107.9 I find here is owned by ESPN, but if hourly updates about international volleyball rankings are the price of a little Radiohead up in this joint, I can deal. Rather improbably for a station run by purveyors of such strict masculinity the music runs towards the feyer end of the indie rock spectrum and I’ve heard only one song from my most favoritest group of all, the Foo Fighters, but it was the most unlikely: “Walking After You,” the version from the “X-Files” soundtrack, the song Dave Grohl has called his Mulder and Scully love ballad. I’ve been rereading “Harry Potter” in Spanish while here but I think the common muggle magic of music is greater than anything at Hogwarts and the song apparated me through time and space; to the acoustic Foos show I saw in Berkeley, to the solitude of my car at dusk as I drove through rural Washington State, to the raucous freeways around Cleveland as a packed Chevy Malibu headed to one more graduation party and we all shouted along; to my friend Rachel’s basement, watching the credits of The Movie for the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth time, secure in our subterranean universe where grownups feared to tread. Yes, music is nostalgia, that beautiful cascade of sound and memory, and to be wrapped in such reminiscence I fear I have become one of those grown-ups myself, so many years already spent and so many obligations, wonderful and boring both, awaiting my return —
For now, though, the prolonged adolescence of my escape can continue, if only for two weeks more. In my daily solitary wanderings through the city and furtive nighttime scribbling I feel as I did the summer before I started high school, unencumbered by friends or responsibilities, when I’d take our three-legged beagle for walks that lasted for hours and hours, getting lost on the serpentine sidewalks of Shaker Heights and staring at so many mansions, relics of Cleveland’s early-twentieth-century steeltown glory; only a few blocks away on foot but I imagined them worlds apart from cancer and unemployment and family therapy, elegant casings for elegant lives. At night I would hole up in my room with the radio on and write, longhand on paper, mostly fanfic (Mulder/Scully love ballads of my very own) but sometimes original stories too, always seeking escape — the desperation I knew at thirteen is a sweet cliche now but at the time was hell, as it is for most teenagers. My curiosity is more clinical these days, my writing has found its own rhythm and my worldview is more expansive but to hear the Foo Fighters at three AM my dependence on the determined optimism of late-night radio is the same as it ever was: spinning these rare vibrations into the quiet world, certain or maybe just hopeful that amidst so much pervasive darkness there is still someone out there, awake, listening.
6.18.11 (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Today I visited Evita in the city of the dead.
The Recoleta Cemetery is unlike any other graveyard I’ve ever known, and my genealogy- obsessed father has insisted I visit many. He worked at one for a year, in DC’s northeast quarter — I was in second grade, my brother in third, and once he let us take the wheel of his pickup truck and my brother and I veered off the paved roadways and bumped over headstones and greenery until my dad wrestled us away. Such childish assholery is impossible at the Recoleta: the mausoleum is not a rare feature but the central architecture, most at least a full story tall, crammed in Tokyo-dense. It sits in the middle of Buenos Aires and has its own walled-off urbanity, main streets and alleys, tombs in aged disrepair held up by scaffolding. Eva Peron might be its most famous resident but she is hardly its grandest — make a left and then a right and then another left and four tombs down is Duarte, easy to identify only by the omnipresent tourist photographers. Any cemetery can be picturesque with a little grass and some hills but the Recoleta is cinematic, unfolding in space and time as one ventures through.
It’s also social, as any good urbanism should be. I chatted in Spanish with guards and visitors and felt a greater sense of friendly welcome than I have anywhere else here — those who visit graves and those who maintain them are not generally thought a cheerful bunch but the mood was festive, celebratory, proud of so much dense marble history. One guard asked what I was doing in Argentina and I said I was a writer, working on a book with an Argentine protagonist; he said he hoped it was a bestseller. It’s not the entire truth of my stay but then “I’m on a pilgrimage to overcome my paralyzing fear of speaking Spanish thanks to a hypercritical grandmother and also doing research for a novel which aims to poke at and rip open a bunch of your still-raw national scars” isn’t likely to earn me such well-wishes. He also told me that my Spanish was good, which is a lie but one I like to hear — every time I speak I want to preface it with a plea not to laugh at my efforts; my great preoccupation in life is the precise deployment of language and for someone who has spent hours obsessing over comma placement the mangling of entire sentences is just unseemly. I leave most conversations feeling as though I have (verbally) wet my pants but I’ve found most people here tolerant of my toilet training and the accidents are less severe than they used to be, at least.
To Evita I had no words to offer (“Feminist North American sketch comedy thanks you,” I thought in front of her tomb, which didn’t seem quite complete) — but for those that I met at the Recoleta Cemetery there were many, pleasant, smiling, and alive.
6.23.11 (MEX, Mexico City)
From the air Mexico City is a vast smoggy sprawl; of course I thought of LA. The first time I ever flew into the Southland I was a senior in high school, there to visit Caltech, and the whole way from Ohio I read the latest issue of the Harvard Design Magazine, a critical analysis of exurbia and decentralized development which reserved special disdain for the trendsetting City of Angels. My uncle — my godfather, who had paid for my trip with his frequent flier miles but who I didn’t know very well then, whose politics and personality were still enigmatic — picked me up from the airport and, intoxicated by my own intellectual self-importance, I lectured him on what I’d just read the entire way to his house, detailing how cookie-cutter housing tracts were destroying American communities, holding forth until the moment we pulled into the driveway of his own cookie-cutter, tract home.
Oh, shit, I thought then.
I did not get to see Buenos Aires from above, too cloudy as we departed, and that disappointed me: I spent the entirety of my trip in the historic core but BA is a modern metropolis and I wanted to learn the shape of its excess skin. The air is the only place to take in BA all at once anyway; unlike Valparaiso, or San Francisco or Athens or even Santiago — which sat in a valley but had a high point in the center, a scenic lookout from which one could observe the entire urban form — unlike all these places BA is a studiously flat city, bereft of charming vistas and impervious to an all-encompassing gaze. BA is unraveled at ground level, encountered best on foot, and if it is indifferent to its lack of a sunny postcard portrait then it may be because its best mysteries are dependent upon the dark: shadowy alleys and dimly lit cafes, tango clubs and unbridled nightlife. BA will not be summarized by the picturesque but demands engagement to know — it is not a passive place.
Nor are its people, not politically — I had the good fortune to travel in an election year and two days ago the current president, Cristina Fernandes Kirchner, announced that she is running again. If she doesn’t win it will be a shocking upset; the billboards and walls of BA are swathed in campaign posters, at least seventy percent of which proudly proclaim that the candidate is “with Cristina” (often her photograph appears on the poster too) or at the very least that they are a believer in “Kirchnerismo” (contemporary Peronism; Evita gets her share of shout-outs as well). Cristina’s husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, died suddenly and recently of a heart attack and everywhere in the city you can find graffiti: “Nestor vive!” I watched the May 25 celebration on public television — the Argentine independence day — and thousands jammed the Plaza de Mayo and they too held signs aloft. Nestor lives, because his people will not let him die. Not everyone is an adoring fan (the Socialist Party’s posters show a giant open fist and instruct voters to “hit the capitalists!”; they’d probably be considered a tad aggressive even in the People’s Republic of Berkeley but they are a mainstream political party here) — but a major football tournament has been named in Nestor’s honor and to an outsider, the sentiment feels pervasive.
Alas, I could not decipher all the intricacies of Argentine politics in five weeks, but having been to Europe and to Chile I had an unanticipated context for Buenos Aires as a city, for its fluid, Eurolatin fusion. It has a reputation as something of an expat city and I can understand why, the charms and culture of the old world and the depressed currency of the global south plus just enough modern infrastructure built during the boom years of the 90s — Buenos Aires is staunchly Argentine and a foreign playground too, a defiant hybrid even in its language.
“Think of it as Spantalian,” my mother advised in an email when I arrived, and however much I increased my ease in castellano while there is directly linked to the fact that I finally gave in to my own learning curve and stopped getting tongue-tied every time I couldn’t understand the words being directed my way — these people barely spoke real Spanish anyway, so what was the shame of a little incomprehension?
At the Hostel Suites Florida — stay two out of three — I had a brief roommate, a friendly Chilean girl who asked me what I was doing in South America; was I studying Spanish? Not exactly, I said, and we chatted about my trip, about getting robbed in her home city (“it’s a hostile place,” she said of Santiago) and getting stranded by my overprivileged Argentine landlord. She laughed at my storytelling and put on a sympathetic face. “Well,” she said. “You know what you are doing here? You are getting your master’s degree in South America.”
That is how I have come to think of this trip, and I can’t quite believe it’s over — perhaps because I’m heading to Miami, out of South America but only on a technicality. Miami is where my final exam awaits, a two-part test to see if I can speak Spanish well enough to please my Cuban grandmother, whose vigilant criticism of my skills is what made me so hesitating and afraid in the first place; also I’ll be staying at her condo for the first time in eight years and her husband will be there too, and we shall discover if this trip has leant me the fortitude to Face My Attacker and do all that psychological healing bullshit that may or may not be in direct contradiction to the fact that I’ve spent most of the last decade hoping the old skeezebag would hurry up and die already. I know he’s ninety years old but if he tries to touch me, I’ll punch him in the face; sure, I’ll hit a guy with Alzheimer’s if he’s creepy enough.
But enough of my pre-breakfast, I-slept-overnight-in-an-airport rage. At the outset of this trip Miami was my goal, all I could see; to talk to my grandmother was all that mattered. It matters still, but less — I crossed the equator looking backwards in time, trying to locate myself amongst my Hispanic family, but what was revealed to me in halting Spanish in Chile and Argentina was so much more; another world, histories made secret by hiding in plain sight, encoded in the preterite and the subjunctive, rolled r’s and a plural “you”. The past ten weeks have been expansive in two languages, as I wrote more than I ever imagined — some of it is crap, of course, but an unusually high percentage passes muster. Language has always been a vital presence for me but here it was visceral, as the English flowed unbounded and the prospect of similar insight and clarity in Spanish peeked through my sluggish, brain-bending efforts. Spanish is important not just to know my grandmother or my family but to know the world, to encounter it more fully, to hear new stories and new jokes and order the universe by a different rhythm.
When I was seventeen years old I wanted a master’s in architecture, to write fancy critical monographs and interrogate the world thusly — instead I have my master’s in South America and sketches with names like “Ass-Flavored Potato Chips,” less fancy but no less critical. It is a cliche of the post-travel high to pledge imminent return — I have promised it faithlessly before, to South Africa and Greece and France, but as it was when I came back from Spain I look on revisiting South America with certainty; the need for accreditation has faded alongside so many other youthful pretensions, but the truth is that I have always wanted a doctorate.
The Gift of Getting Over It
7.9.11 (Cleveland Heights, OH)
My grandmother’s husband, Juan, last year self-published his lifelong effort: a trivia book,
mostly quirks of language (how did the city of Buffalo get its name when that animal never
lived east of the Mississippi?) but some of his theories too, one of which is that the purpose
of offering a toast with a meal is to fulfill all five senses. With a toast one can see and smell, taste and hear and touch, all at once, the clinking of the glasses the otherwise-absent auditory ingredient.
If I ever ate paint it hasn’t been for a very long while but recoloring walls sates the other four senses well enough. The unexpected events in South America have led to a certain indebtedness to my parents, and I’ve extended my stay in Cleveland to pay it off — I thought at first I would be building a fence but it turns out they just want to paint the whole place; a welcome development, given the difficulties of setting fenceposts and my father’s insistent perfectionism. I’ve painted houses everywhere I’ve lived, scattered colorful monuments left in my transient wake, and although motorcycle maintenance is an art I’ve never learned to rag texture in my parents’ bathroom while jamming out to “OK Computer” from the top of a ladder feels enough like zen to me. I gave my father Radiohead two years ago for Christmas but they’ve got plenty of other good music to fill the void left by my own lack of playlist — my dad painted a mural of Ravi Shankar on his ceiling when he was a teenager and they are good little children of the sixties, CD shelves stacked with Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. I used to listen to “Magical Mystery Tour” on vinyl for hours on end and when I was in junior high we got a CD player, which made it so much easier to hide in my room with “Strawberry Fields Forever” on endless loop while my mother and brother raged outside.
I dressed as John Lennon for Halloween in eighth grade and found my escape in sound until I started high school and made actual friends, discovered the pleasant distraction of laughter and connection — I made a best friend, even, our lives unspooling on divergent paths but still we stayed close. I visited her in DC two summers ago and helped slap a cheerful turquoise blue on her living room in spite of my jet lag; twelve years since we’d first met our friendship was not unproblematic but I thought it durable and strong. Six months after my visit she sent me an email expressing a rather opposite opinion.
One year later I was painting another friends’ house, but curiosity had gotten the better of me before I began and I googled my friend from DC. The top link led me to a comment she’d left on an article about ending female friendships, written in the immediate aftermath of our friend breakup, and she said that when I visited her she knew it was over. I rolled a pleasant wheat- gold onto a San Francisco hallway and in the steady, sticky melody of color and adhesion all I could think was: who doesn’t like the friend who helps you paint?
Days before I departed for Chile my friend reappeared from the digital ether. I couldn’t formulate a response — today long-term solo travel in South America is just something I kinda know how to do, like ice skating or rough-framing a house in earthquake territory, but three months ago it was looming and terrifying — and I remained preoccupied by my uncertainty over three flights, burning in the back of my brain as I discovered Santiago. Finally I sat down to think it over, once and for all, to figure this thing out; I bought myself a water and an ice cream and commandeered a table at Ros’s Gelateria, and by the time I stood up I still didn’t know what to do about it but in the sudden moment of “holy shit, my passport and money are gone” it mattered a little bit less. Later that night I came down from my panic and considered my distraction, my desperate mourning over an expensive but eminently replaceable laptop even as I waffled on the matter of reconciling with an actual human being, and it occurred to me that maybe I was overthinking the matter. Forgiveness, it turns out, is not so different from international travel; impossible until you just go ahead and do it.
Which brings us back to the Toastmaster.
Juan married my grandmother when I was eight years old. He was easy to talk to and gave me books about medicine and medical history to support my interest in the field; he also let his hands linger for just a bit too long when we’d hug or touch my thigh more than I ever appreciated but my brother and I had grown up far apart from our Cuban heritage and my mother insisted that physical affection was just a bigger part of her culture, and I kept my discomfort quiet. I was nineteen, visiting my grandmother alone on my Easter break, when he committed what the state of Florida politely termed “misdemeanor domestic assault,” perhaps better known by its street name of “Get Away From Me, You Creepy Fuck” (a variant strain
has been lately diagnosed as “Anthony Weiner Disease”). It wasn’t violent but the summer of 2003 was still the worst of my life, weekly letters arriving from his overpaid lawyer threatening to expose my darkest secrets — presumably he was referring to the “X-Files” porn parody fanfic I wrote at age thirteen, but I had never wanted to take the thing to trial in the first place so I can’t be sure.
On one of my final days in Buenos Aires I got involved in a lengthy discussion with another friend from home about the meaning of rape culture (as one does). He was resistant to the concept and I suspect it’s because it sounds puritanical, an accusatory framing of sexuality, although that’s not the point — if not for poor sexual decision-making I would probably never get laid, but I like to be active in my misadventures and complicit in my own mistakes. To forgive an unapologetic old man for presuming that his nineteen-year-old step-granddaughter was available for a grope is to give cover to a social structure that abides such presumption, and that is not something I can do. It took me eight years to visit Miami again and I did not forgive Juan, nor did I punch him — we kept a polite distance, a handshake hello and a handshake goodbye and just conversation besides, and as I sat in the living room decorated with his medical awards and thank-you-for-your-donation form letters from George W. Bush, as Juan flipped through channels until he found some music he liked, a Tori Amos concert — I started to laugh at the irony, and then I realized: I don’t have to forgive the guy, but I also don’t have to give a crap anymore. General civility has never been hard for me to muster and so long as he takes good care of my grandmother (which, to his credit, he does, and that is most of the reason why I didn’t punch him after all — I can handle my own fortunes but fuck with my grandmas and there will be brass knuckles) then that self-righteous old jackwad can send me all the threatening letters he wants; the world offers us thousands of burdens but we can choose which to make our own and, to paraphrase from the Buddhist Middle Way, that shit is your problem, bro.
What hurt most about the entire situation so long ago was not the legal repercussions or Juan’s insistence that I was a liar but the voicemail my grandmother left me, sobbing on the phone, repeating over and over again that she was sorry, the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard and ever hope to hear. She split the difference and believed us both, that Juan acted in a moment of dementia, a compromise I could accept from her and, hell, now I can’t even be too upset at the guy for making her cry. She sobbed while I was in Miami, and it was my fault and I’m not at all ashamed — they were tears of pride, overjoyed that I could finally, finally, twenty- seven years later, speak her language, the first of the American-born family whose Spanish meets her standards. I’ve never been thin or pretty or mannerly enough for her to quite approve but I’ve always kept words close at hand, and it wasn’t without effort but ultimately, my words and the new sounds they made were gift enough for both of us.
Let It Be
7.10.11 (Cleveland Heights, OH)
The moment I knew I had really, truly, unequivocally made my grandmother happy was not when she cried at my Spanish in her condo but at dinner later that first night in Miami; we went to a Peruvian restaurant and I ate a plate of fish. I managed a moderate pace in spite of being travel-starved and when I was finished my grandmother spooned some of Juan’s ceviche onto my dish. “Have some more,” she said en espanol, and then she ordered me dessert.
Food is the great battleground of femininity and my grandmother has waged war with me over it for years. I like food too much and it shows; the company of my abuela has always made eating anything unpalatable, each bite accompanied by a disapproving stare, dessert or carbs or more met with open denigration. That she cried at our communication was not entirely unexpected but a second helping was a reward I could never have anticipated.
My father likes to sometimes characterize my mom as a radical feminist but she shows the scars of being her mother’s daughter. My weight, my clothes, my posture, my skin or haircut or makeup — everything is subject to evaluation and nothing cannot be poked at. Yesterday we were preparing for my cousin’s bridal shower, a mixed-gender Mexican-themed party with my dad’s informal family. I wore a dress to placate my mother’s propriety and we stood together at the bathroom mirror putting on makeup when she asked me what shampoo I was using. I answered but wondered after the question.
Your hair used to be so shiny, she told me, but it hasn’t been shiny lately; you’re too young to have such dull hair.
“Will you ever be satisfied with my physical appearance?” I asked her, and she did not look at me.
“Probably not,” she said, applying mascara.
Like every other post-modern human being I am stricken by so many perceived failures but her honesty was a long-suspected permission: that certain kinds of success are a rigged and impossible game, and whatever we might achieve in life can only be claimed by our own measure.
Full Circle (To Find The Truth) / Via Chicago
8.2.11 (Chicago Midway & points above)
Once more, with air travel.
In Mexico City the security at the gate was extreme; MEX to MIA is the world’s greatest drug route and I received a pat-down so vigorous that I think I finally understand what high school dances were like for girls who knew straight boys. The Chicago airport is frenetic but Midwestern, seats occupied by smiling, pasty people so doughy they almost appear to have Down syndrome.
Ah, the Midwest.
I haven’t known a Cleveland summer in years and years but it is its own sweltering universe, nostalgia made of endless daylight and neighbors, friends, and family around every turn — even fictional characters had to settle for a bar but the entire east side of Cleveland knows my name; to be Hopkins, to be Bill and Conchy’s daughter and Lois’s grandchild, is a currency that never runs dry. There’s new faces and development in the city too, as it finally embraces its particular Rust Belt gifts, and I sat on the sidelines as tattooed twenty- and thirty-somethings drank beer and played volleyball in sand courts next to the train tracks, lakefront obstructed by trees and cargo. Oakland and Cleveland have much in common, their regular denegration and the gleeful middle finger they offer to the idea that steady urban glamour is any more fun than decay and remaking, the anarchic energy of having been left behind. Cleveland is sprouting excitement anew but some things never change, the simple pleasure of an afternoon perusing pope paper dolls at Big Fun or gossiping about my father’s adulterous multimillionaire cousins, still whoring around reliably as they move into their sixties.
My parents have finally achieved their dream house as empty nesters, elegance so precisely denominated it feels alien from the peripatetic and struggling childhood in which I came to know them — financial security is still delicately balanced but on the back of antique furniture and museum memberships, not used-car payments; it’s taken longer than they wanted but I think the proper term is “arriving.” Messy tradition is threaded among the artfulness and my father and I zoned out to records, a dusky legacy of making fun of Paul Simon and choreographing
a psychedelic cartoon retelling of the Nativity story to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita,” camels plodding along to the thumping bassline and choirs of rainbow-hued angels keeping the beat (“Don’t you know that I love you?” Stoner Baby Jesus asks the world). It’s been too long and the second side of “Abbey Road” proved treacherous — “Carry That Weight” was Rebecca Hyland’s favorite Beatles song, at least in the eighth grade, and in its lush chorus I am hostage to memory and absence.
Rebecca came to Gesu a year after I did, in the fourth grade, curly-haired and outspoken and even shorter than me. My brother and I should have been popular — if the name of Hopkins is currency than its higher-value kin is Hummer, surname of my father’s rich, scandalous extended family. I had three second cousins in my elementary school class, all good-looking and athletic and socially sanctified, but my dad used to punish my insolent skepticism with readings from the French Jesuit intellectual Teilhard de Chardin and my brother and I were far too inward and odd for such a hotbed of suburban conventionality. Rebecca didn’t seem to give much of a shit, at least at first, defending me on the playground and trusting me with secrets — friendship was a commodity traded by obscure rules but to me she offered it freely. We went separate ways and hadn’t spoken since high school and in 2007 she was hit by a speeding car in a rainy night, killed just weeks before she was to start medical school. I was on a friends’ couch in LA and although we may never have reconnected the foreclosure of such possibility, its swiftness and finality, left me stunned.
My father and his eleven siblings may not have been so monied or licentious as the Hummers but in their breadth and ambition they were like a British boarding school, rife with hierarchy and mocking ritual, gregarious and yet insular both at once. When I was little my uncles used to throw us across the living room like the footballs that brought them girls and glory in high school; my older cousins and I are a high-achieving bunch but who knows what we crop of Georgetown and Harvard graduates might have done if not for all the soft-tissue injures suffered in baby- tossing.
My cousin David was too old for chucking when he joined the family, when his mother married my dad’s brother. David’s biological father had abandoned them and he was hyperactive, aggressive, built of bottomless need — we’d go down to my grandmother’s basement, covered in old mattresses, and as low man on the family totem pole David became everybody’s favorite wrestling opponent, bristling for a fight even as his new family were all too eager to wail on him. I was the youngest and smallest of the older cousins; victory on the mats was a Sisyphysean endeavor and I preferred putting on plays to wrestling anyway. David and I got along well — some people thought I was the cousin whisperer for it but mostly I was just nice, except once at the holidays, the cruelest thing I’ve ever said. I want to believe it was prompted by something serious, or at all, but the truth is it had to do with candy canes decorated to look like reindeer, googly-eyed and antlered. David hadn’t gotten one, or hadn’t wanted one — I don’t remember exactly what I was explaining with such childish viciousness but the words are still stuck in my throat, twenty years later: “That’s because you’re not a real Hopkins,” I told my towheaded little cousin.
We were sitting at the kitchen table and his eyes filled with tears, pulling away from me as though I’d hit him; but even then David would never back away from a fistfight and instead he only bleated for help. He had trusted me more than anyone in our genetic circle and my casual verbal slice hurt more than any punch I could ever deliver.
My aunt Mary K made me apologize and I did, guilt-ridden already. I think David accepted my apology but as I got older, recognized the scope of his anger and need, I always wanted to bring it up again, to let him know just how sorry I was; but it would have been an awkward conversation, or at least a difficult one to initiate, and to ask forgiveness now I can only beseech the silent earth.
I spoke at David’s funeral and spent my twenty-seventh birthday having his initials tattooed on my heart but I didn’t cry for almost a year, tears finally overwhelming me in the bathroom at a friend’s beer-tasting party in San Francisco. There was no prompt or provocation but when I sat on the toilet I found myself wracked with sobs, suddenly, inexplicably, red-faced and choking for breath in the torrent. The festivities outside obscured my keening and it felt like forever but by my watch I got control in two or three minutes, washing my hands and splashing water in my eyes, gripping both sides of the sink and looking at myself in the mirror. “You are going to go back out there,” I said out loud, “and you are going to smile and damnit, you are going to make people laugh.” I did, too, even if it meant getting so drunk that I ended up passed out on the floor, curled around a bowl in case I got sick, phone confiscated after I got too violent with it while reading Dave Eggers’s Wikipedia page. Like my cousin David I am a Hopkins, after all, and we are repressed and competitive and alcoholic as any Eton man.
David struggled with drugs for years but I always imagined he’d come out the other side, that I might somehow help him along — that when the time came for professional comedy headshots he, a talented photographer, could snap them, or that when I directed my first comedy screenplay he, a beast of a physical laborer, could work on the crew; or that when I brought a house he could come to California, help me renovate it and stay as long as he needed — but just like my parents making it has taken so much longer than I hoped it would, and it seems the Prophets Jagger and Richards spake the truth after all: you really can’t always get what you want. David lives now in Section 22B of Lake View Cemetery, an easy stroll from the monument marking President Garfield’s tomb (less popular a tourist attraction than Evita’s), a leafy resolution to his quarrelous relationship to life; or an end to it, at least. He often suffered in proximity to prestige, taking his time in community college while the rest of us older cousins racked up well-branded degrees — his trials were an open secret and sometimes, in ungenerous moments, I look out at my extended family and I think: you were not nearly surprised enough.
To confess this now, in the air above Iowa or Nebraska or who-knows-where, I’ve sought solitude amidst the crowd — traveling without a language barrier is easier but among familiar things details evaporate into expectation and oblivion. I got a new phone in Cleveland and copied CDs from the library to it, escaping now with Chumbawumba at 38,000 feet; to demarcate my interior space by playlist I miss the quietude of my uncrowded thoughts abroad, but to subsist back in Oakland I am glad for the music and connection the new phone brings. Not everything merits preservation or replacement but some things are worth holding on to, even if the most precious have a rather unfortunate knack for transience — sound, time, the beautiful stories unfolding alongside each. David’s grave is stone and solid, enduring as he could never be, but for me now it is fading memory, flinty etchings in impossible sunlight. “And Death will be no more,” said the small marble square, a lie set boldly against the permanence of my cousin’s absence. We might venture the whole world ‘round, pursuing paradise or the past, finding friends and adventure and maybe even our own selves laid bare, maps trod into legend and memory scrambled like so much concurrent conversation at a party, overlapping and distant and only rarely coherent, words emerging orchestrated and hopeful from the melee; and in these tantalizing hints, these fragments of clarity amidst the din, the same inescapable truths resonate in even the most hidden corners of the globe: that we are mortal at every latitude and longitude, and the deepest mysteries are always close at hand.