Hail Mary Holy Day

A Sunday score

  strangers rise en masse

  pulled from their seats

  agape in spontaneous inspiration

  connecting hands

  celebrating

  with devoted fervor

  idols of the gridiron

A communal moment

  a moment divine

  a glorious time

  with a singular purpose

  resolute and unquestioned

And God

  the distant spectator

  always on one side

  or the other

  depending on who wins

El Dorado – The Golden Man

On the mountain overlooking Lake Guatavita there are four placards summarizing the words of the elders of the Muisca tribe.

Fire. This is the light which shows the way, dispelling the shadows of fear in our hearts, If we control the fire of our passions, we will find peace in our spirit and will shed light on the path of those who come after us.

Water. Life’s fluid dancing in the universe, present in each one of its manifestations. Along the way, it purifies the soul and fertilizes our earth.

Earth. This is the body on which dreams are woven.

Wind. The breath of life. Everything comes and goes. So the thoughts we project should be full of love. What is the seed you share as you meet other people on your path?

I had packed all my bags and managed to talk my airline into connecting me through Bogota on my way back to the United States so I would have one full day with a missionary I had met and become close to while in Ecuador.  When he picked me up at the airport, he didn’t ask many questions and talked only of his new projects around Bogota.  The next morning he had me out of bed early for a day excursion to a lake about sixty miles outside the city.  During the ride, I tried to figure out a way to tell him my story, but I didn’t know whether to begin with an apology or to plunge right into it.  It was a Saturday afternoon, and the park containing Lake Guatavita was strangely devoid of tourists.  Colin apparently knew the area well and talked the park ranger into allowing us to climb to the top without the aid of a guide.

After a thirty-minute hike we reached the top of the ridge overlooking Lake Guatavita.  Colin leaned against the railing and faced me.  “Do you know the legend of El Dorado?”

“The city of gold, right?”

“That’s right.  But the name refers to ‘the golden man.’  Did you know that legend has its origins in this lake?”

“Really?  I’ve never heard of Guatavita.”

“People have done crazy things in the search for El Dorado.  But it was all a misunderstanding.  The Muisca people who lived here worshiped the earth.  When a new chief came to power after having been prepared for his role since childhood, he would take part in a ceremony to honor the lake.  Dipped in honey and covered in gold dust, El Dorado would go out on a boat to the center of the lake and when the sun emerged in the sky, he would jump in.

“The gold dust represented seeds.  So when he went into the water he symbolically fertilized the womb of mother earth and in return received the power necessary to rule his people.  After he came out of the water the people would throw offerings – many of gold – into the middle of the lake.  Can you imagine what an outsider would have thought when he saw a man of gold rowing out there or when he witnessed the people participating in the ceremony throwing gold and emeralds into the water?”  Colin gave me a moment to let it sink in.  “This is how the legend of El Dorado came to be.  Of course the legend grew to where the Spanish believed there were cities made of gold and went deep into the jungles searching for El Dorado.  And it all started because of outsiders misinterpreting a religious ceremony.  El Dorado was not a city.  El Dorado was a man.  He was a man who worshiped and understood our connection to the earth.  This is the treasure of the Muisca people.  In the good ol’ days people didn’t come to take from the lake.  They made a pilgrimage here to give to the lake.  The crater itself was the womb of mother earth.”

I looked out over the perfectly round lake.  It was completely peaceful.  “Where are the tourists?” I asked.

“People are afraid to come to Colombia.  Even though a tourist hasn’t been kidnapped in nearly ten years, there’s a history of violence that lingers in people’s minds.  We know it’s safe, but people have so many countries to choose to visit so they figure, why risk Colombia.  It’s a shame.  They’ll never know what a great country it really is.”

I looked out over the nearby hills that made the shape of a man lying on his back.  “That’s sad.  It’s sad that this country will forever be viewed through a prism of violence.”

“Not forever.  Forever’s a long time.  Perceptions change over time.”

I was overcome with a feeling of calm.  My heart seemed to slow and my face relaxed into a smile.  “Did the Spanish ever find much gold at this site?” I asked.

“Of course.  But everyone who has come trying to extract the gold from the bottom has been bankrupted in the process.  The Spanish tried.  The Dutch have tried.  Americans have tried.  It’s not meant to be.  Do you see that ‘V’ carved in the mountain?”

“That was a failed attempt to drain the lake.  They extracted a lot but always invested more to find what lies at the bottom.  That’s supposedly where the good stuff is.  The water level has dropped considerably because of the attempts.  Do you see across the lake there about midway above the water?  That’s how high the water used to be before the lake was drained.  If you look across the shore you can see an entrance to the caves where archaeologists have found a bunch of artifacts including a boat made of gold.”

I studied Colin carefully.  I didn’t know if this was the best time to bring it up.  “Did you know there are caves near Misahualli?”

“Sure,” he said.  “But they’re a muddy mess when they’re not full of water.  But they also hold the cleanest water.”

“And the shamans know of them?” I asked.

He gave me a wry smile.  “The Spanish left many written accounts of shamans who spent extended periods of time in caves with no exposure to sunlight.  It was a place to think.  It was a rite of passage.  Here in Colombia, not far from Bogota, they’ve found human bones that are oddly curved.  The lack of exposure to the sun creates a deficiency of vitamin D causing the bones to warp, so scientists believe these bones belonged to shamans who confined themselves to the caves.”

We climbed to a higher vantage point and looked out over the lake.  Apparently there is debate over how a crater lake came to be in a non-volcanic region.  Some say a meteor crashed into the mountain.  Another theory is that the lake is the result of a caved in salt dome.  Nevertheless, the water is said to be over 250 meters deep and so murky near the bottom, scuba teams were unable to see enough to find anything.  A few years ago, the government put an end to the searches and created a national park to protect the lake.

Colin turned his back to the water.  “Today people don’t throw things into the lagoon.  What they do—many people from many religions from all over the world—is come here and put their backs to the lagoon, to keep the old traditions, and make a meditation for about a minute.  And you ask for something.  Then you take your thoughts…”  He made a fist, then turned around, opened his hand, and blew his thoughts into the lake.  “…and you give it.  It’s the gift.”

I stood there at the highest point of the mountain overlooking the crater-lake.  I turned my back to it and closed my eyes.  Prayers filled my mind and I was overcome by hope.  I knew what I had to offer and took it from my pocket.  I thought of her as she drifted into my consciousness.  I turned and faced the lake and took a deep breath.  I opened my hand and released it.  I think I saw the glint of gold as it fluttered toward the deep waters.

Along the pathway home

The End of the World

El fin del mundo

On the road—in the buses, in the hostels, on the trails—we all have our Lonely Planets as our guide.  Most of us have backpacks that have been repaired multiple times.  We carry some of our indulgences whether they’re our music on our ipods, a box of our favorite chocolates, or a paperback book.  Some of us pack our memories and our dreams like bundles of laundry, only removing them every week or two until they get tossed back and buried under the heap.

I awoke early this morning, anxious to get a jump on hiking opportunities.  When I opened the door, the wind bit into my skin and a light snow fell, so I hurried across the courtyard toward the communal showers desperately hoping there would be hot water today.  I was in luck.  The warm water felt great, and I grimaced at the thought of going outside again.  Today was my last full day in Tierra del Fuego and I wanted to make the most of it.  I found a cheap flight that leaves tomorrow and makes a stopover in El Calafate before continuing on to Buenos Aires.

The manager of the hostel, who has grown to like me despite an angry outburst from my compatriot and former roommate, suggested I go to the national park, and she arranged for a shuttle to take me and a few other guests first thing in the morning.  There were no other guests in the cab.  When I arrived at the park, there were no guests at the park besides the campers who huddled together in their tents.  I was alone.  Most people did what you should do on a day with forty-mile-an-hour winds and subfreezing temperatures.  A few curious rabbits seemed amused by my presence.

There wasn’t enough snow to stick to the ground, but there was enough moisture on the lush, bent grass to soak through my tennis shoes.  But my luck had not faded.  The snow had kept away the crowds, and less than an hour into my hike, the clouds drifted away and the sun appeared.  It was perfect weather, and I was alone to enjoy its beauty.  Beautiful channels and lakes scattered over the landscape like footprints.  The scenery was dreamy with soft, pressed grass, snow-blanketed mountain tops, dwarflike trees, and countless patches of white orchids.  There is no better meditation than to be alone in nature’s glory, and I soaked it in for all it was worth.  By the time I reached the lookout point at Lapataia Bay, I was joined by a few dozen Japanese tourists in bright orange jackets who had been bused to this point at the end of Route 3.  They were all eventual passengers of the cruise ship docked at the port.  The jackets had been an added extra with the purchase of their fare.

I found a secluded spot to eat the lunch I had packed, a ham and cheese sandwich, my specialty according to my cousin Ana.  Even the most basic foods taste better in a perfect setting, and I savored each bite with unrestrained delight before moving on my way.  Beyond a grove of trees in another secluded area I discovered a familiar family—my Argentinean roommates.  They each greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and wide smiles, even the daughter.

“Would you like to hike with us?” asked the mother.  “We keep getting lost.”

We had rarely crossed paths in the room.  They were asleep when I returned to the room with Kate last night and I was up before them this morning, but out in the wilderness, it was as if we were lifelong friends.  I got them back on track and we walked and talked, climbing hills and tracing lakes.  Besides introductions, I had hardly used my Spanish since leaving Montevideo and talking to the mother and son gave me a great chance to practice.  The daughter, however, either raced far ahead or lingered way behind but wouldn’t join in the conversation.  Her reticence concerned me and I strode ahead to catch her.  “How are you enjoying the hike?”

She barely acknowledged me and gave me only a fleeting glimpse of her eyes.  Then I understood why she had shied away in previous encounters.  “I can’t hear,” she said pointing to her ears.  Her speech was rough but I understood well enough.

No problema,” I said.  “No hablo bien.”

This time she read my lips and laughed.  From then on she was more at ease.  After the park, we shared a taxi back to town and the mother invited me to join them on a catamaran in the Beagle Channel.  The boat had three levels and we chose a booth on the middle.  While we were still moored to the dock, the two teenagers explored the upper and lower levels.  My mind filled with expansive empty space.  I leaned my head against the window and gazed out at the shore as we finally drifted away.

End of the world, beginning of everything

A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.

Rainbow over the Beagle Channel

In Ushuaia

Midnight in Ushuaia

WE ARRIVED in Ushuaia last night at 10:30 pm, but the sun remained hovering midway up the sky.  The bus came to its final stop by the pier near several medium-sized vessels that were dwarfed by an Antarctica-bound cruise ship.  As we got off the bus a crowd of salesmen swarmed us with offers to stay at one of their hotels or hostels, but I had already made a reservation the day I left Montevideo.  An Israeli girl I had been talking to since the ferry across the Strait of Magellan jumped at one of those offers and before I knew it, she and her uncle and brother were in a van, out of my life and into my memories.  The other passengers dispersed leaving me alone with my overstuffed pack and a crude map of Ushuaia.  In Ushuaia the wind blows only from the south and the diminutive trees bow in penitence.  And if light could blow in the wind, here it does.  It blows into you.  It blows through you.  It fills you.

I followed the road listed on the map and climbed a steep hill, but the road ended at a cliff before I reached my hostel.  Playing in the streets were a couple of kids (What is bedtime in a land that never darkens?) whom I could have asked for directions, but I felt confident in my ability to find my destination.  I turned on a street then onto another paved road whose incline was so severe I thought any wind from the opposite direction would send me tumbling down several blocks before depositing me in the water.  But the wind was at my back pushing me onward, and eventually I discovered the road restarted atop the cliff.  My back ached by the time I reached the hostel, but my body and mind were confused as if I had jumped time zones.   All I wanted to do was sleep in a bed.

I was assigned a room with a mother traveling with her fifteen year-old daughter and seventeen year-old son.  Two other pairs of unmade bunk beds appeared occupied with clothing strewn over the sheets, so I threw my bag onto the top bunk above the teenage boy.  I introduced myself in Spanish, and as it turned out, the family in my room was from Argentina—Mar de Plata—and Spanish was the only language they knew.  Oddly, they seemed to be the foreigners.  I spoke with the mother and son, but the daughter shied away and hid herself under her covers.  Had I interrupted an important conversation or was my presence making her uncomfortable?  She didn’t even introduce herself but instead allowed her mother to do it for her.  Ultimately, I retreated into my thin, stiff pillow and fell asleep before the midnight sun’s final light receded.

I slept until eleven o’clock this morning and the Argentinean family had already left for their day’s excursion, but two young women were sleeping on the bunks on the opposite wall near the door.  A wild night possibly?  Their faces had that contorted look that showed how they fell into their bed last night is where they remained until the morning.  By the time I returned from taking a shower in the communal bathroom across the courtyard, the two were stirring.  We performed our Spanish introductions before settling into English.  Lauren was a British university girl on holiday and Julie was a young professional from New York.  They had a reasonable explanation for their wild night: they were celebrating Lauren’s birthday.

“It’s my birthday today,” I told them.

“Happy birthday,” said Lauren, “but I don’t think we can do another night like last night.  We’ll go to lunch with you though.”

We walked into town for lunch, but it was a hurried affair as Julie had an early afternoon plane to catch back to Buenos Aires and then on to New York City.    She was also insistent on visiting a shop to buy a “fin del mundo” t-shirt, so we went shopping afterward.  How it could be so hard to buy a t-shirt, I don’t know, but nothing satisfied Julie.  She was so tightly wound that any minute it seemed as if she’d spin out of control.  Her excuse was a guy.  She was not the first of many solo female travelers I’d encountered whose response to a bad breakup with a boyfriend was a trip to a place as far away as possible.

“So if a guy tells you he doesn’t love you anymore and moves out and never returns your phone calls, do you think it’s over?” Julie asked.  “We were so good together.  Four years!  That’s what I gave him before he pulled this on me.”  She stuffed her new t-shirts into her luggage.  “I just hate putting all those years to waste.  For nothing!”

“You enjoyed your relationship then?” I asked her.

“Yeah.”

“You have good memories?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, keep those good memories and move on before they turn bad.”

She scowled at me.  “I took this trip to put him out of my head.  But I can’t.”

“How long have you been away?”

“Ten days.”

“You should stay.”  I told her.  “Give yourself at least a month.  You’ve already made it this far.”

“I can’t.  I have to work.”

“Quit.  Relax.  Believe me.  You need to.”

She dropped her eyes as if in prayer.  “I know.  I should.  I should stay.”

It is here in Ushuaia, the precipice of our hemisphere, where the road ends, you pause, then turn around and start again.