Thoughts Inspired by a Helen Frankenthaler Painting

I saw one of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings a while back,  and while I was captured by the painting itself, it was its history that inspired this contemplation.   There’s a lot of yellow paint draped over a large, untreated canvas, the inconsistency of the texture causing the paint to bleed in volatile ways.  A subtle blue perimeter and a column of orange covered the side and bottom edges.  The painting is dated ’67-’76.  Apparently it hung in her studio, unreleased to the world, for ten years because she never felt like it was complete.  Finally, in 1976 she added an imperfect rectangle of red at the top of the ten-foot canvass.  This, she felt, completed her work.  At first glance, it seems curious that something so small and peripheral could give her such a feeling of fulfillment and completion with regards to the painting, but if you step back ten feet from the artwork, blot out the red portion with your hand, you immediately recognize its significance and see how something so small and seemingly unrelated to the core of the painting can play such a vital role in pulling all the shades together and giving the painting meaning.

It reminds me of the little stories we like to tell over and over as if they’ve gone into syndication.  There’s usually nothing too sexy about these stories, but we love to tell them much more than people like to listen to them.  What makes these stories especially interesting (and sometimes irritating) is the way people try to find any opening to insert them into conversation.  For example, I have a friend who’s a tennis coach who loves to tell the story of the day he accidentally explained something backwards to one of his students and how that student completely bought into it and said it was the best advice they’d ever received.  If that coach and I were talking about education in an America, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about politicians who flip-flopped, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about women, he’d tell the story.  Now that I reflect back, I realize there was a reason he told the story.  Our interactions with others and the way we perceive them are the nuts and bolts of our lives.  Moments that may seem insignificant are often the ones that provide the most clarity and insight into a person’s life.  It’s easy to dismiss these side stories as peripheral and meaningless, but what is in between the lines or what peeks over the top of the canvass are often more significant than what is easier to see.  What is also true is that these stories are often allegorical.  There is a reason we speak in allegory.  It’s the reason we have religion.  It penetrates a person’s essence in a way that mundane facts and details cannot.  It’s the red rectangle that punctuates the story of our life.

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Christmas Eve in Montevideo

Christmas Eve in Montevideo.  Early in the day there was a raucous party downtown different from any Christmas Eve celebration I have ever seen.  University students took to the streets of the historic district.  Nearly every store and restaurant was closed, but a roar of voices floated down the streets like drifting smoke.  As I walked towards the grassy plaza, I passed a couple of staggering women sharing a bottle of liquor.  They were immediately swept up by a group of shirtless, drum-banging men skipping in rhythm to their own beat.  It was hard not to get captured by the energy of the crowd.  I climbed a stone wall and looked down into a complete mix of faces.  My eyes stopped at every blonde head of hair I passed looking for Maria.  Did Maria mention Montevideo?  Maybe not.  But maybe Punta del Este for New Year’s.

A young woman with curly black hair and green eyes looked up at me and smiled.  She swayed with the music, causing her lime green skirt to flutter like a blowing leaf.  She reached up and handed me a bottle of rum.  I took it and swallowed a mouthful that my body was not yet ready for.  I coughed into my shoulder as I handed the bottle back.  Hesitant to join the crowd in Montevideo, I sought refuge in the iglesia matriz, an ornate church with shiny marble floors and an expansive nave, but oddly silent and empty on Christmas Eve.  I was alone with the ornate tomb of Mariano Soler, the first archbishop of Montevideo.  Was he really inside?  I moved closer touching the marble exterior with my fingers.  I sensed someone behind me and spun around.

“You are too early,” said a man wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt and holding a mop.  Of course.  Everyone outside would need time to sober up before they attended Christmas mass.

I walked the twenty kilometers to my aunt’s house along the beaches of the Rio Plata in Montevideo.  The waves lapped at my feet as I walked barefooted carrying my sandals in my hand (by the way, sandals are not meant for walking great distances as my blisters proved).  Along the Ramba, the main pedestrian stretch, men and women jogged or rode bicycles.  On the beaches, fathers playfully chased their children into the harmless waters.  Sailboats drifted across the horizon.

It’s a young city, a romantic city.  The sun was setting and people of all ages sat on benches, sipping mate, which they brought in thermoses, patiently waiting for the sun to dip gently into the river.  A raspy voice sang out from above, I turned around and searched the overlooking hill for the source.  It came from an old man sitting on the grassy hill.  He was sitting alone with a cup of mate in his hand.

Later that night I sat outside in the dark along the sidewalk of a neighborhood listening to a cascade of whistles overhead.  The Christmas Eve skies in Montevideo are illuminated with  fireworks filling the sky in a dazzling display of colors.  It’s different from the well-synchronized shows I’ve seen in the United States.  In Montevideo, color touched every piece of space in all directions.  There is something about light poking through darkness that beckons you to come closer.

Contrast that with complete darkness.  There is something perfectly laconic about blackness, but this is deceiving because even absent the myriad of tones, it arrives in subtle gestures and forms.  There is the blackness of mystery, and within this is the bleakness of fear intertwined with aspirations of hope.  There is the blackness of storms before they’re ripped apart by lightning.  There is the blackness of an abandoned basement defined only by the drips of a persistent leak.  There is the blackness in the emptiness between planets and stars, and there is the blackness of the density beneath the jungle canopy.  The blackness of a cave.  It is permanent.  Persistent.

A Poem About Tango

Tango Dancers
Tango Dancers in Buenos Aires


It begins with a gaze

then a clasp

a lean forward

a frame nearly collapsed

in one sweeping step

freedom and surrender

at once

violence

passion

grace

precision

greed

a buried face

legs intertwined until two

become one

ending with

love in déjà vu

Iguazu

The popular tale at Iguazú is a history lesson about the guides who used to paddle their tour groups to the top edge of the falls, and then paddle against the current while their clients peered over the edge.  This was a common practice until the day one guide couldn’t handle the current and the entire group of European tourists plummeted over the edge.  After the deaths of those tourists, the government banned such trips.

We hear so many stories like these that we sometimes forget their sources.  They’ve gotten so repetitive that if you start one of them, many people will stop you mid-sentence and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that in Lonely Planet too.”

The waterfalls at Iguazú were spectacular.  If it wasn’t for the paved paths and the slow Disney-styled train-ride with Ennio Morricone’s Mission music in the background, I think I would have enjoyed the experience even more.  Nevertheless, no photograph or video can capture the feeling of being there—hearing the thunderous roar, following the countless streaks of white through plumes of mist, or feeling the refreshing droplets accumulate on your forehead.  I followed the hoards of tourists across the bridges that led to a point at the top of the Devil’s Throat.  From there it looked as if the world simply dropped off into an unknown abyss.

For a hundred pesos I took a boat ride to the base of the falls.  Of course we didn’t go directly underneath the falls, but we were close enough to be blanketed by a solid white wall of mist.  I had never been surrounded by pure whiteness before.  It is difficult to measure the canvassing power of water.

As I sat by the pool at the hostel, I met myself in other travelers who are in South America without much real purpose at all.  Some are on a rambling journey around the globe.  Few have a set itinerary.  We find ourselves standing on deserted roads waiting for the next bus or pickup truck to roll by and take us to God knows where.  Where our lives intersect we swap stories.

Midnight Flight

I’m at the airport in Lima, Peru waiting for my midnight flight.  My itinerary from Ecuador to Argentina is not a typical one.  I saved a couple hundred dollars by catching a flight from Lima instead of Quito.  Twenty dollars was all it cost for a bus ride from Ecuador’s capital to the southern border and ten was spent on a hostel in San Ignacio.  Though my ticket says Buenos Aires, the ultimate destination seems as clearly mapped out as the nauseating floor pattern on the thin carpet beneath my feet.

I bought a journal at the gift shop to help me overcome the stretches of boredom that accompany every long voyage.  The cashier gladly accepted my US dollars but gave me Peruvian soles in change.  I didn’t calculate the exchange rate to see if the amount she returned was correct.  Perhaps the game is played here as it is in Ecuador where shortchanging someone is a way of life.   It doesn’t bother me anymore.  I wouldn’t even classify it as dishonesty.  It’s just the way business is done.  There are no apologies when the mistake is pointed out.  The money is quickly recounted, and few customers count their change twice.

I originally came to South America—Ecuador, specifically—to see the jungle, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what I experienced.  Words alone don’t seem to suffice.  For example, there’s the humidity.  Living a good chunk of my life in south Texas, I know a little about humidity, but the word ‘humid’ comes nowhere close to describing the jungle humidity that will turn a package of Tic-Tacs into mushy goo in just a few hours.  And then there’s the mental effect.  The jungle can be suffocating to the point where sense of direction, time, place, and purpose are distorted in so many ways.

The jungle I saw didn’t seem to fit with the glamorous tales of adventure in the Amazon my uncle Enrique used to tell me when I was younger and my mother, a native Ecuadorian, would bring me to Quito to visit her family.  I remember a time when I was eight and I sat on my uncle Enrique’s lap as he pulled out a leather-covered scrapbook and told me of a life completely foreign from my own.  I remember that moment so vividly, staring up at his whiskered face, into his wide eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of his crooked, black-rimmed glasses.  Inside the scrapbook was an assortment of pictures from the jungles of the Amazon basin.  Some were clipped from magazines while others were sepia originals.  My uncle explained that the jungle is like a high-rise apartment building.  In the basement, the river, live the caimans, piranhas, and anacondas.  On the ground are millions of insects in lines of traffic marching and burrowing their way through life.  Midway up the trees are the tarantulas, boas, termites, and monkeys, and at the top are the birds with their enormous nests and panoramic views.

It’s amazing that the world of the birds is a mystery; we’ve studied the ocean floors more than we’ve studied the jungle canopy.

I remember seeing a photo of a jungle shaman.  He wore a crown of colorful feathers on his head and a necklace of jaguar teeth around his neck.  A macaw feather pierced his wide nose.  Then my uncle turned to a loose page consisting of an odd pencil sketch.  The drawing was of a broad-chested bird with a rainbow of feathers, furry legs of a jaguar, the neck of a serpent, and the leathery face of a monkey.  The image was so entrancing it would be permanently imprinted in my mind.  He said the shamans called it, Cayramashi.  I grew up dreaming that somewhere in the jungle, perched high upon a kapok tree out of reach, was a bird as mysterious and enticing as the Cayramashi.

A Word About Loja

I’m just another backpacker—or mochilero as we’re called in South America—on my way down the continent.  My route is not the conventional backpacker route.  Most stick to the more heavily traveled Pan American Highway at least through Lima, but I had read about the supposed magical waters that flowed through the valley of the Gods and had to experience it for myself.  More importantly, I had a cousin working as a chef in a new five star hotel in Loja so I decided to make a stop in the little city near the southern border of Ecuador.  After two months of living in hostels, where having untorn mosquito nets around the bed is the most important factor in choosing a room, a nice few nights in a classy hotel didn’t sound too bad.

Before I checked in, I spotted a tourist office nearby where I found an agent. I was looking to book a day tour to Podocarpus National Park a few miles to the east.

“Of course we do tours to Podocarpus.”  He showed me a picture of the jeep I would take to go from Loja to the park entrance.

“Great!” I said.  “What time to we leave?”

“Can you come back later this afternoon?  I have to check with our other offices to see how many people we have going.”

“How much is it going to be?”

“One hundred fifty.”

“Do I pay now?”

“No.  You can do that later when you come back.”

I did the walking tour of historic Loja, which was easy enough.  A bright red line had been painted on the sidewalk to guide the tour.  Great care had been taken to accommodate tourists—it’s just that…there weren’t any tourists.

I returned to the tourist office where the agent’s face was planted on his desk and his fingers entrenched in his hair.  I startled him awake when I walked through the door.

“Do we know what time we leave?” I asked.

His eyes were bloodshot and his fingers crawled over his hair to the back of his neck, tugging forcibly at the skin along the way.  “I am sorry,” he said.  “We don’t have the minimum number of passengers to have a tour.”

“How many more do we need?”

“One.”

That was encouraging.  “Oh, good!  So we only need one more.  How many do we have right now?”

“Just one.”  His fingers were now pulling his cheeks, stretching his eyelids to where he looked like a tortured character in a Goya painting.

“Me?”

He nodded.  “Come back in two hours.  Maybe we’ll have some luck.”

At the hotel, the doorman excitedly opened the door for me.  The maître d’ of the restaurant greeted me.  The receptionist smiled warmly.  With her fair skin and green eyes, she didn’t look Ecuadorian, but when I pressed her about her heritage, she insisted that every ancestor as far back as her family remembered was from Ecuador.

I unloaded my bags in the room and asked the bellhop how to operate the safe.  He demonstrated the procedure to operate the safe.  “The combination is 3-6-1,” he said proudly.

So much for security.  Well, I decided, if someone really wanted my stuff they could just as easily walk out with the entire safe, which wasn’t bolted into anything.  I tried the computer and the free wireless, but the signal faded in and out, and I couldn’t really do anything.  The signal was stronger down the hall, so I went back down to the lobby and asked the green-eyed receptionist if I could get another room.

“Sure.  Which one would you like?”

“What’s available?” I asked.

“All of them.”

I was stunned.  “I’m the only guest?”

“Yes.”

My VIP treatment made sense.  Not wanting to put the staff through so much trouble on account of one needy guest, I decided to keep my original room.

When I returned to the travel agency, the agent was already locking up the shop.  It was only 4 o’clock.  “Did you find anyone?” I asked.

He shook his head.

I had thought about inviting the cute receptionist to come with me, but when I mentioned I was planning a trip to Podocarpus, she’d responded by saying, “I hate the outdoors.”

“So what do I do?” I asked the agent.

He came closer to me and said, “Look, you can take a bus to Zamora.  From there you can follow the road to the park on foot.  It’s only five kilometers.  Or you can take a taxi.  The trails in the park are clearly marked.  You really don’t need a tour.”

“Really?”

“Really.”  He shook my hand.  “Have a good time.”

So I took the bus to Zamora.

From Zamora to Vilcabamba

I stood atop a boulder at the edge of the emerald tinted Bombuscara River.  Petite, violet flowers sprouted from the veil of moss covering the massive stone, and I undressed, carefully laying out my clothes to avoid smothering any of the blooms.  The translucent waters rushed by with the soothing roar of a continuous wave, so I stretched my arms over my head, expanded my rib cage and bellowed back.  Once completely naked I jumped in, and the cool water sent a burst of energy through my body.  My splash must have caused a brief shower for the column of leaf-cutter ants marching along the shore conveniently carrying bits of leaf over their heads like tiny parasols.

I escaped the river shivering with laughter.  I put on my underwear, socks and hiking boots and stuffed my shirt and pants into my bloated backpack.  I looked ridiculous, but that didn’t really matter to me.  I’d been hiking for five hours without encountering another person.  Fortunately I wasn’t lost.  Not this time.  A distinct path led me up a muddy ridge past a railing of slender trees that tilted over the edge as if contemplating a final leap while others wrapped their tendrils around larger and more grounded trees.  I’m sure I still had a euphoric grin when I rounded a corner and came face to face with a man wielding a shiny machete.  `

He looked me over.  “Are you alone?”

I nodded, uncertain as whether I had trampled onto private land or possibly violated an Ecuadorian public indecency law.  My appearance was more perplexing than comical to the man, and while still trying to figure me out he asked, “Did you register in the office when you arrived?”

“Nobody was there.”

He conceded this was probably true.  “Stop by before you leave so you can pay.  I’ll be there.”  I read his badge and saw that he was Manuel, the park ranger.  As promised, he was there when I stopped by on my way out, but unable to break my twenty, he let me leave without paying.  My stroll through the park had surprised him, as evidently I was the only person to have visited Podocarpus since a couple of Israeli tourists thirty days before.  This rarely visited area of South America is famous for having more varieties of birds and trees than anywhere in the world, but I wasn’t there to look for birds.  Those days were behind me.  I had come to dip myself in the healing waters of the Bombuscara.  “It is not safe to walk in the rainforest alone,” he added before going on his way clearing paths for the eventual hiker.

I couldn’t help but laugh.  If only he had any idea of what I had been through in the previous weeks.  I imagine he turned to give me another look—a crazy American man walking in his underwear and hiking boots—but I kept my eyes forward on the path ahead.

After the encounter with the park ranger at Podocarpus, I caught a bus to the village of Vilcabamba.  My cousin Ana had told me that once you set foot in Vilcabamba you will feel immediate peace.  I didn’t believe her.  My mistake.  The moment you step off the bus in that town, it hits you.  The calm.  Your heart will slow to a languid beat, an unconscious smile will drift onto your face, and you will have the curious sensation you are home.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why.  It could be the perfectly moderate climate with a perpetual breeze sweeping down the mountains into the valley.  The landscape is idyllic as if you were thrust onto the set of a fantasy world that exists only in movies.  There is little traffic unless you count residents taking their livestock on a stroll through the town.  Few cars line the dirt roads as most people walk or ride bicycles.  There is never a need to hurry.  As I sat cross-legged on the speckled shore of the Vilcabamba River, several locals ambled by, stripped off their clothes and dipped themselves in the sparkling water, known throughout the region to have its own mystical properties.  It was absolute serenity.

The name Vilcabamba translates to “valley of the gods,” and surely this would be their majestic retreat.  The region is also known as the “valley of longevity” as the people here are world famous for living well past a hundred years, and many work in the fields into their nineties.  Doctors, scientists, and hippies have descended into the valley to discover the secret of Vilcabamba’s eternal youth.  Some say it’s the special herbal tea they drink, although this is now available in supermarkets in Quito.  Others say it’s their avoidance of Western medicine.  A stress-free lifestyle is another explanation.  Anybody who has been there knows it’s the whole package.  I should have stayed, but I have a plane to catch.