Chile: Part 2

IMG_3367We’re in flight from Santiago to Atlanta. The air cabin is dark, white rims of devices and overhead lights set the tone for the overnight flight. People are watching movies or flipping through books. A woman wearing a red neck pillow is reading the Delta magazine in front of me while Andrea shares a song with me from A Ghost Story. Every time she turns around to see the changing night’s sky, like sherbet against a black slate, her bud falls out of my ear, and when I put it back in, the matching bud falls out of hers. We laugh. A few days ago, at the end of a tour, the guide said,  “You laugh a lot, you two.” While we waited to check in our flight after our Calama flight, we continued to call each other Blanche and Dorothy from The Golden Girls as we’ve done this whole trip.  He’s right—we do laugh a lot. When Mrs. Larson sat us next to each other in 7th grade, I’m sure we never imagined ourselves in another continent, exploring. Lots has changed since then. And what I can say with certainty that this trip has changed some things for me.

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I didn’t feel guilty on this trip. I thought I may be ridden with mom guilt. Before the trip, I ordered gifts for the kids, got all the groceries and made meals for when I was gone, arranged for my parents to be on grandparents’ duty, cleaned and folded all the laundry, and even made scavenger hunts for the kids so they could follow the clues to get to a prize. I wanted to distract them from missing me. I needed my experience to be easy for them. The night I left for the journey, I cried in the uber on the way to the airport. I had this moment of feeling ridiculous for leaving the comfort of my home and family, this world I spend so much energy to maintain, in order to search and support something without them. For a few hours, I felt ridiculous for spending the money, for not understanding the excitement I had hoped I’d feel when the day came.

But when I got on the plane with Andrea, small pieces started to fall into place just as I had imagined. And each day when I talked with Kal and the kids, when they showed either their support or even their distracted indifference, I felt better. They were fine. Their encouragement made it possible for me to turn off the awful, ancient ghost that stereotypes mothers.   Don’t we all need to go somewhere different, and bring back brown dust and dirt underneath our shoes?

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We sucked the marrow out of each day. Our hotel stay included 2 half-day or 1 full-day excursion each day. We took advantage of this option and tacked on a whole bunch of smaller outings on our own.

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Each time the van took off, we’d bobble back and forth on dirt roads. In the village of only 1,500 people, the municipality lives in the past in order to preserve its future, perhaps a mixture that involves not wanting to affect the tourism industry that the area has seen grow over the last 15 years. I never saw one two-story structure; a home that wasn’t in line with its regional volcanic ash rock or indigenous colors. When I tried to send pictures home, I could see how bland and brown the expanse appeared, but this was far from the truth. As I said in Chile: Part 1, pictures try to do it justice, but I can’t capture how each time I’d look down for minute or look to the side to talk with someone in the van, I’d look up to see something new.

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For some excursions, we travelled anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours outside of the hotel, sometimes elevating over 14,000 feet above sea level or more. The best description I can give the ever changing landscape is what the tour guide called “geological stairs.” These elevations would step up in front of us. I’d see dried desert sand and then as if separated by a line, I’d see patterns of saffron-colored blossoms surviving off hardly any rain or water source. I told Andrea that the San Pedro de Atacama desert and its coveted cousins—the geysers, El Salar de Atacama, the llamas, the flamingos, the cacti families, Machuca, Puntana wetlands, the San Pedro River,  Toconao, the lagoons, the valleys of the moon and mars, and the legendary night sky—have been incredibly evocative, staircasing my own emotions.

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For example,  on the road to the lagoons, we chatted and waited for elevation changes. We battled altitude sickness with our greed for even more beauty.  While we gasped for air up there and tried understand the beauty in front of us, the guide set up a private lunch buffet. Since the other tourists scheduled to come with us had cancelled after a night of partying, we got the feast to ourselves. Between the scene in front of me and the feast behind me, I was overwhelmed with emotion. We cried, and then we laughed again. I wondered why I was able to bear witness to such a miraculous trip. Too many blessings all rolled into one, I felt, as Andrea and I sat baffled at the natural beauty around us.

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The 1,500 inhabitants of San Pedro de Atacama, with their conservatism and pride, their aspiring youth, their tiny literary scene, and their overwhelming nature have made their impression. I don’t know how I will feel to be on highway 285 again, seeing billboards and traffic, people scrolling through their phones as they drive.  

I know beauty is everywhere; but the natural phenomena here is magnificent. It’s no wonder I keep questioning, How is this here? How am I seeing this? Where did that huge volcano come from? How is yellow growing from sun and dry dirt?

As if our cup wasn’t already full, we found out about a cultural center and book store off the beaten path and managed to get the driver to go off script to take us there after an excursion. After the joy of the lagoons earlier that day, I was already sentimental. The grounds of the small bookstore had me in tears again. It was one of the quaintest places I’ve ever seen.

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I felt I wanted to dig my hands into the ground and grow up like the indigenous chanah trees here, oak-colored on the outside and green, almost raw, in the center. We bought too many books and just put them on the our credit cards. Of course I had to get some compilations of famous Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda. I couldn’t bring myself to dust off the desert sand off the cover.

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William O’Daly’s introduction to Book of Questions says “Neruda is interested in inquiring about the nature of things, a process initiated by asking questions rooted in experience, offering us what he intuits are true and does not understand. Rather than remain in control, he submerges himself in not-knowing, in the unknowable questions that enter the imagination… ” Also, Neruda’s brief poems are composed “entirely of questions,” and “integrate the wonder of a child with the experience of an adult. An adult usually grapples with a child’s ‘irrational’ questions solely with the resources of the natural mind. While Neruda craves the clarity rendered from an examined life, he refuses to be corralled by his rational mind.”

O’Daly says that Neruda’s last group of poems before his passing allowed readers to use a mind “engaged in intuitive and emotional responses.” For me, this version of his book is fanciful and connected to the earth I wondered so much about in San Pedro de Atacama.

VI

Why does the night fly

with so many holes in his hat?

What does the ancient ash say

when it walks next to the fire?

Why do clouds weep so often

and yet they seem happier?

For whom do the sun’s pistols burn

under the shadow of the eclipse?

How many bees does a day have?

My brief visit to Neruda’s homeland makes me no expert on the layers of his poetry, but I notice how much of these poems unfold in the very nature that baffles me. Some of these stanzas of questions are part of the many senses I’ll remember—like the smell of the hotel lotion, which after walking in the desert, we learned was the natural scent of the healing rica rica cactus; like the sound of Los Jaivas, a famous band we heard live because we were at the right place at the right time; like the taste of coca leaves; like the appearance of people cleaning the channels as a community to ensure water; like the shrubs that blow in the wind like wheat grass but are coarse enough to roof a house.

Like the silver dots painted across the black sky, an expanse, an ancient canvas that’s both forward in time and backwards. Like the image I have of the prideful atacameño people who roamed over Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, and of the families who mine for 7-10 days and move back to their homes in other places, families dedicated to the rugged copper mines intrinsic to this land.

Four days passed, and we were in the same shuttle on the way back to the airport. This time, we expected the scenes unfolding around us and the jagged car ride. For the longest time, no one took pictures. In previous drives, guests pressed their Nikon or Sony gadgets against the glass. Shudders would take 12 pictures a second. But yesterday, we drove and looked outside quietly, satiated, eyes hot under their lids, languid legs tired from climbing. Our mind was half numbed by the bumpy ride and light brown fields on all sides, and half aware of the real life to which we return. No one asked questions. We had all the answers we needed, and we drove on to the airport with some desert yielding under the wheels of our suitcases.

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Tonight, 32,008 feet above ground, I feel like a great act of generosity has happened to me. No photo does it justice. You have to see it and feel it for yourself. It’s like motherhood, or pain, or desire, hunger, or love. Observation is removed from experience. What has changed for me is concrete knowledge that experience is worth more than anything else. That guilt is a double negative. That natural imagery is more powerful than anything I’ve ever experienced in a city. That finding Neruda’s poetry in the small book store was once again perfectly timed. That a supportive family is the best kind of family. And that doing something totally different is the most invigorating.

The last of Chilean pesos in my wallet will go up on my kids walls as reminders that your life doesn’t need to have one currency.  If a cactus in burning heat can bloom the brightest yellow flowers, then a sheltered dreamer can be impractical and track across a new continent in recognition of a true adventure, and maybe she’ll return with a yellow flower of her own.

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Chile: Part 1

The trip has only just begun, but I’ve already been overwhelmed with so much emotion both in preparation for it and in the journey to our final location that I am afraid I won’t be able to catch up to how fresh it is by the time I am back home and sit down to write at my desk. Doing that would surely offer a wider reflection that includes all parts not only behind the scenes but also ahead of them. Using the terms of the many photographers who have tried to capture the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, it would give me a better panoramic view of my experience. I’d even be able to upload larger picture files. Instead, though, I’m going to work with what I have and write what I know now.

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At some point in the early summer, Andrea and I were talking on the phone. The house was asleep. I had my laptop open while we talked, and I was looking up words like Santiago, Calama, Chile, San Pedro de Atacama, the Atacama Desert, and listening to her tell me again about how she wants to travel there to see all of its wonders and to help write her finish her novel. The primary backdrop to her novel is this astronomical and geological mystery that she knew so well intellectually but wanted to see for herself. I squeaked out that maybe I can come, too. I had some story interest in this region as well, and this was a chance to see my friend’s dream actualized. This became our little writer’s retreat. Andrea, who calls me her practical Capricorn and who has always wanted us to travel somewhere together, might have fallen out of her chair in shock when I said I may come. Getting the family approval was the first struggle, but I was going to try to make it happen. Going with her could only have been written in the stars because there were so many odds against my going to this completely random and faraway place in another continent.

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It’s usually the Geminis in my life, like Andrea, who inspire (or badger) or motivate (or ask relentlessly) me to say yes to something outlandish. Wherever that guidance has taken me is usually something difficult for me at the time, but ends up being something I never regret because it stamps something else to my character and forges something in my relationships. This capricorn who dreams while sitting steadfast in a chair gets catapulted into the adventure she seeks because of these passionate Geminis. So, I worked all day, took the kids to lessons and ice cream, sent them off to soccer practice, got in an Uber with a stranger named Andrew, sat in a flight from Atlanta to Santiago for over 9 hours, in an airport for 4 hours after that, in another plane to Calama for 2 hours, and then an 1 hour and thirty minute drive to the hotel to what has seemed to me now as this: to sit on the edge of something beautiful.

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In the plane, I got to see the path of The Andes and the lines of the desert that Andrea called sand rivers. They looked to me like an open palm, flat to be read. Like anything we see in nature, the awe we have to living art is akin to the awe we reflect in ourselves.

Boarding our flight to Calama, I noticed the plane was filled mostly with men, and the airport was the same way after we got back. It turns out that they are here for the Chuquicamata copper mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. That rugged industry and local information felt incongruous to the music in the restrooms; at one point Elton John was singing “Your Song” to the backdrop of the airport, and Pretty Woman’s theme song played at the previous airport, the comical side of globalization.

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The car ride to the hotel was wondrous. The  land here is incomprehensibly fantastical. Mostly, this area is unpopulated. In the car, I learned there are about 16 million people in Chile, 8 of them in Santiago, and about 1500 of them in this small area we’re in now.

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Roads are clear, the land is an expanse of myriad things. In my mind I see a time of tribes or a time of dinosaurs.  Where there seems to be very little human life on the setting around us here, there are surprising images everywhere. I wrote on my phone on the way here that my brain doesn’t understand how snowcapped mountains are the backdrop of a dry desert. I understand roughly that it’s all a result of science from years ago, glaciers, rain, The Pacific Ocean, the Andes of the East, the Humbolt current of the west. But like I told Andrea after seeing the most magnificent, pure night sky last night, this place for me is like tasting different palette-inspiring dishes that leave you wondering about their ingredients, about the Chef’s magic.

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I saw Saturn’s rings, or moons, last night. I saw the haze of the milky way galaxy. I learned about star cemeteries and black holes. After climbing 60 stone stairs to the observatory, I reclined on a lawn chair, like the ones you’d lean on and view the ocean waves, and instead looked up at drops of blinking stars. Our ancestors saw the sky without cities, overpopulation, and pollution, and I felt that I went back in time to join them for thirty minutes when our star guide, Pablo, told us his narrative of the stars. He used words that messed with any concrete resolution I’ve had of time, of humans, of organic matter, and of history.

After eating a delicious meal—while desperately trying to stay steadfast to a diet that may prevent the heavy altitude sickness that prevails among newcomers to this part—and star gazing, we called it an early night to get ready for a day of quiet acclamation.

I’m sitting on the patio of our room with my feet burning in the sun and my hands gently cracking from the crisp, cool air. I see a person or two walking quietly among the grounds of the hotel, which looks more like a sanctuary. Every time I look up from this computer, which is stringing together dusty connection, and see it, I can’t believe it. And I know for certain, just like the pictures I saw of this country before I got here, that pictures cannot do this place justice. And by “it” I mean both the grand gasp this region gives you on the inside and the ancient beauty it displays on the outside. It’s a place of incongruity yet a place of symmetry. I hope I can search these early ideas more as I move on through the days here.

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I wrote this really gentle paragraph about a spider a few weekends ago. With my legs resting on the chaise in a quiet hotel room, I unfolded my laptop. I figured out that the window cranks open, so the cool morning air kept me company as I listened to Amber Run Radio.

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Kal was sitting outside enjoying the last hour before checkout. He sat in a little nook where the day before I had propped my feet on a wicker table while reading The AJC.  I’d snuggled under the spa robe guests were encouraged to wear everywhere throughout our stay, and I’d read a grainy newspaper–from its obituaries to the Dear Abbey column. I even read the comics since I didn’t have anywhere else I had to be.

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In the small weekend of luxuries, we celebrated his birthday and remembered what adult quiet feels like.

So my paragraph was all about this spider I encountered on the other side of the restaurant’s glass during our first breakfast.  A dried leaf had fallen onto the invisible web, and the spider wrestled with the trapped leaf for a little while. Spiders creep me out, so I didn’t stare for long. By the time I finished eating, I looked up to see the spider release the leaf. She was indifferent about it. The leaf fell gracefully down to earth, and the spider went quietly about the business of living.

I’ve tried to figure out why this image stood out to me.  We were at a vineyard, an old, hidden treasure; I had a few moments to write about gratitude, about the tipsy dinner the night before, about how it takes a full day to get the kinks out, and about how commitment can take you somewhere new.

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Maybe to look up and see something release a burden so swiftly is what intrigued me the most. Sometimes it can take us giants years to release just fragments of the matter that doesn’t serve us.

Reading back on the writing now, spider and all, I recognize how much I want to hold on to that temporary calm; a weekend of both shared and independent experience that count in our business of chasing after life.

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