We’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 Blanch 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.