The American Experience in One Patriotic Day

TO THE PROMISED LAND

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th of July, 1998, my buddy and I wandered over to the Capitol to survey the area and find the optimal place to view both the fireworks and the show.  Unbelievably, people had already laid down a few dozen quilts to mark off their saved spots.  Who were these people that had nothing better to do with their lives than sit out on a lawn in muggy heat for eight hours?  Surely, whatever they were waiting for was worth it if they were this committed.

We stepped over a knee-high wall and explored the terrain searching for any prime land that remained unsettled.  Though the best spots had been claimed, a few good areas remained.  If we’d waited any longer we might have lost out on a chance for a spot, so we hurried back to our apartment a few blocks east of the Capitol to grab necessary supplies.  Carrying just the essentials—a quilt, camera, tape recorder, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment to help pass the time, and a cooler of beer—we headed west across a sea of grass to join the sweaty, huddled masses.  A furious land grab was inevitable.

The lawn in front of the Capitol was already twice as full as before, and the short wall that we had hopped just an hour before to gain access to the lawn was now reinforced by a five-foot fence.  A guarded narrow staircase leading over the wall provided the only access to the area. The crowds poured into the space and scattered to find spots to set up their temporary homesteads.  Somehow we found a perfect section that offered a clear view of the concert stage and the Washington Monument.

By five o’clock the lawn had become a patchwork quilt of patchwork quilts.  Beside us, only a tiny strip of unconquered grass remained.  I stretched my legs across this area trying hard to protect it.  Then came the family of six.

One of the little daughters complained, “There’s not enough room, Dad.  It won’t work.”

She was absolutely right but the dad insisted, “Oh, we’ll make it work.”  He bullied a group in front of us, who had been there since nine in the morning, into surrendering some additional land for his family.

I wanted to say something to halt their aggression, but I didn’t, and reluctantly watched as they made themselves comfortable at the expense of our own comfort.  An hour later fifteen of their relatives trekked across the dense landscape to join in the land steal.  It was physically impossible to fit any more people on that strip of land without invading our privacy.  The adults gently spread their quilts over ours while maintaining friendly conversation with us, but their children trampled over our quilts with no regard for our claim.  Eventually, we were crammed into four square feet of space.

This was not fair, I thought.  Why should I have to share my little parcel of the Mall?  We had sacrificed our day, battled heat, humidity, thirst, hunger, and dehydration so we could have our own little view of the majestic firework display, and here they came, freeloaders, arriving at the 11th hour to steal our fruits without putting in the labor.  They were probably proud of their opportunism, that they had played their cards perfectly and had nabbed a decent spot to enjoy the show while still being able to enjoy a little AC during the hottest part of the day.

When you think about it, there’s not much difference between an opportunist and a freeloader except that we celebrate one and detest the other, the real difference depending only on perception.  I decided not to make the distinction and allowed myself to feel happy for them.  Complaining would only make two unhappy groups of people.  I would find a way to enjoy the show, and if I could share this moment with a few others, so be it.

BORDER CONTROL

By 6:30 the umbrellas that once shielded the sun were now blocking a light rain that fell.  A lady settled on the narrow strip of grass behind us, careful not to intrude on our limited space.  She was waiting for her husband to join her, but by seven, the patrol on the border was turning back new immigrants to the lawn.  If someone from the lawn wanted to leave and return, they were required to obtain a password.  The password was Cheeto.

Eventually the rain waned and the concert began with a tap dance number starring Tony Danza and a pair of bright-eyed dancers.  Actually, I felt kind of sorry for them.  I’m sure they spent a lot of time preparing and synchronizing their steps, but in the age of Michael Flately and Riverdance, it just wasn’t too impressive.

Then came the longest rendition of the National Anthem that I’ve ever heard.

After Sha-Na-Na revived a couple of their tunes, Suzy Boggus approached the stage to sing Woody Guthrie’s socialist anthem.  About this time I noticed that our quilt had become a home to a couple of unfamiliar kids.  What the hell were they doing on our quilt?

This land is your land

                        This land is my land

                        From California

                        To the New York Islands

 

We sang along with the rest of the crowd as I wished I could sit on the cushy chairs in the roped off section in front of the stage, but this prime real estate was reserved for the politicians and VIPs.

 

                        This land was made for you and me.

 

THE GRAND FINALE

What we were all waiting for was the grand Russian overture, which signaled the climax of the American celebration.  When the cannons fired and the trumpets blared, we would instinctively search the skies.  We were treated to the whole 15-minute rendition filled with the unmistakably Russian folk themes.  (Personally I don’t mind this rendition, because the build to the climax is that much more dramatic, but starting in 1999, the National Symphony Orchestra apparently decided that most people would rather not wait for the payout, and now play the last three minutes and the most exciting bit of Tchaikovsky’s tune.)   Anyway, after the roaring cannons and blasting fireworks, the entire crowd joined in the singing of God Bless America.  After all the fighting and jostling for position, everyone was now cheerfully singing.  It was a chilling moment.  As much as we got on each other’s nerves, we seemed to have found a way to come together.

The song ended, and there was sweaty madness.  Thousands of people pushed towards the streets leaving behind a wasteland littered with beer cans, potato chip bags, and food.

An estimated 450,000 people filled the Mall on this 222nd birthday of our country, and we had been right in the middle of the melting pot of patriotic Americans.

Don’t Search My Bags

Don’t search my bags
I don’t know
I don’t know
what is in there
yes I packed
yes I packed my bags

lemme pass
take a chance
lemme pass
I’m in a hurry
to move on
I’m movin’ on

I’m dyin’
yes I am
but not a drug
for this man
just need a wave and a nod
to get me goin’ on

do you really wanna see
all the baggage in the bag
all the crap
that I have
and listen to my story
of how I got what I packed?

ain’t got the time
or the tissue
or the drops for the eyes
threw away
all the tears
‘cause I knew they had to go

where I go is where I go
do you really wanna know?
if you’d seen where I’d been
you’d zip it up again
and let me through
and let me through

here it is
see it all
do you wanna hold me?
grab my wrist
check your list
did you miss
anything
anything at all?

what I say is who I am and
what I am is what you’d say
is a mess of a man
with a bundle in his bag.
not a threat
just a mess

did we really need to check it?

What Ayahuasca is Like

The ayahuasca root

The ayahuasca looked like sludge.  I was afraid to smell it.  I’d never done any kind of mind-altering drugs, and I knew ayahuasca would be an intense initiation into hallucinogenics.  I felt somewhat comforted by the shaman’s presence.  He was experienced with this and there to guide me.  In Ecuador, despite the government’s harsh stance on drugs (ask any of the foreigners stuck in jail for a few years for possession of pot), ayahuasca is legal when taken with a shaman.

Don Alfonso scooped a larger bowl for himself.  “Be careful that you dream the right dream, or your dream may become a nightmare,” he said.  He studied me then began to laugh.  “Do you know why you’re here?”

I started to suspect that he, like myself, was a little drunk.  “Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.

“You are searching for something.  It was not chance that your aunt brought the picture of the Cayramashi.  Tonight, I’m going to find it.  We’ll find it together,” he said.  “The Cayramashi carries the wisdom of a hundred great shamans’ minds.  I always dreamed a visitor from far away would lead me to it.”  He drank his bowl.

Being alone with the shaman underneath his cabin amidst a chorus of a million singing insects inspired a faith in the mystical journey that’s hard to describe.  Perhaps it’s kind of like how listening to Mozart’s Mass in C minor in a Renaissance cathedral can draw spirituality out of the most hardened atheist.  I closed my eyes and gulped it as fast as I could, spilling some onto my Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville t-shirt.

“Ask the yaje a question.”

The only question I had at the moment was when am I going to vomit.  I knew that ayahuasca could be dangerous and that vomiting was necessary to clear the worst toxins from your system.  Immediately, the drink felt indigestible.  I slumped over.  Across from me, the shaman closed his eyes and leaned back, satisfied as if savoring a fine Cabernet.  I tried to stand and pace the room, but my legs felt wobbly.  I sat back down and waited.  After about fifteen minutes, the shaman strolled over to a bush, and vomited in fiery heaves.  But his bowl had been bigger than mine, so perhaps the sickness had come more quickly for him.  He returned to his seated position across from me and fixed his eyes on mine.

I relaxed and took in the sounds of the jungle and concentrated on controlling my breathing.  I wanted to be calm.  Upon closing my eyes, the blackness in my mind was filled with brilliant colors shooting off like fireworks.  Each sound blossomed into shapes of varying animals.  I saw the vibrant outlines of monkeys, snakes, insects, birds, and jaguars.  They would vanish almost as quickly as they appeared.  At times it was so overwhelming I grew dizzy and opened my eyes.  In the visible world outside my mind, the shadows around me came alive, nothing creepy or psychedelic, just alive.  When I closed my eyes again, the shapes reappeared, but I discovered if I narrowed my focus to just one sound in the jungle, everything would go black.

“Why have I not gotten sick?” I asked.

“Don’t fight it.  Let the ayahuasca escape your body.”

“I’m trying!”

“You can’t make it happen.  Let it happen.”

I returned to my images and let a lazy smile curl onto my face.  Everything was going to be okay if I surrendered myself to the jungle, to the ayahuasca, and to the world.  Soon after, the toxins began their flight from my body; I walked to a bush and vomited.  When I returned, the shaman was aglow, not literally, but aglow is the best way I can describe it.  It was as if I could see his emotions, his kindness, his curiosity.  It was an amazing feeling, being that connected.

“Fly with me,” Don Alfonso said when I returned.

Truth be told, I didn’t see the images the shaman saw when he departed on his journey, though I wanted to.  Besides the fireworks display in my mind, there was nothing else.  “Where are we going?” I asked, still playing along.

“Follow me down the river,” he said.  The shaman described the terrain on our travels, but I could only imagine navigating over the brown river and soaring over kapok trees.

I don’t remember when he put out the fire underneath the pot.  I don’t remember when I lay on my back.  The world’s transformation before my eyes was so gradual and seamless that I never suspected the departure from my former universe of precision and reality to the shaman’s world of spiritual fantasy.  Concentrating on his voice made the crude but colorful outlines of animals disappear.  But when he asked, “Do you see the great red tree below?” I opened my eyes and saw it below me.

“Sure,” I answered.  I was soaring high above the trees and darkness had turned to daylight.  I didn’t see my wings; I was more like a particle of air floating through space.  The shaman was a man yet a bird with his colorful feathers.  All of this seemed absolutely normal.  And I did see the red tree.  It seemed as if it had been transported from a New England autumn to the jungle.

He swooped down to the earth and I followed, but when I reached the ground, I had difficulty moving.  I found myself inching towards the red tree.  Now, the shaman was a leaping from tree to tree.  Without speaking, he urged me to follow him.

“Why can’t I move?” I asked.  “Why can’t I fly anymore?”  An incredible weight was stopping me.

“Hey!” a voice called out.

I looked to my side and saw a turtle next to me—not at my feet, but next to me.  His head seemed enormous.

“You can’t go that way,” it said.

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t belong in there.  Our home is outside the jungle.  Besides, the anaconda blocks the only path.”

A giant anaconda was rolled up in a coil, apparently sleeping.  A swarm of vicious flies hovered over its muscular body.  I looked around for the shaman, but he was gone.

“Then I’ll go over it,” I said.

The turtle laughed.  “You can’t get over it.”

I crept up to the snake.  Just as I prepared to crawl over him, he whipped out his tongue and flicked it rapidly.  Then, with amazing quickness, he uncoiled his head and came at me with his fangs.  I pulled back and suddenly found myself in a cave.  I could hear the anaconda’s voice.

“You shouldn’t have gone down this path.  Why are you so foolish?” He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t want to give away my hiding spot by speaking. So I remained silent.  The anaconda laughed.  “You think you can hide safely under that shell?  I can flip you over, pull you out, and devour you.”

I felt his head start to burrow beside me.  I quickly dug myself into a hole making it impossible for him to get under me to flip me over.

“He laughed again.  “What a hole you’re in now!  You can’t stay there forever.  Eventually you’ll have to come out.”

A flash of light swept briefly before my eyes.  And then again.  First it was a flash of red.  Then a flash of green.  The colors were iridescent and beautiful.  Finally darkness was lifted completely and I was again face to face with the anaconda.  His gaze, however, was skyward.  I looked up at the brilliant colors blazing through the sky.  It was the Cayramashi.  My spirits were lifted and I wanted to be with its beauty.  My shell was in its talons.  It flew on into the jungle.  I had a surge of energy.  I rose to my feet and leapt over the anaconda before he could react.  I raced through the forest with amazing speed.  I was a jaguar.  I jumped over fallen trees and burst through dense foliage as easily as a bird flies through a cloud.  The Cayramashi was overhead, appearing and disappearing behind the leaves of the trees.

Finally, the Cayramashi came to a stop and perched itself high on a hill.  I tried to follow but the hill was slippery and steep.  I couldn’t gain enough traction to climb.  High above, the shaman sat next to the Cayramashi, but neither he nor the bird offered any help.  “Patience,” he said.

Then an explosion blasted through the forest.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Hunters.”

I heard another shot.  Closer.  I panicked.  “What are they hunting?”

“Probably jaguars.”

I looked for a place to run.  Another shot rang out, this one closer.  My eyes opened.  “What was that?”

The shaman was sitting across from me.  A candle lay burning between us.  “Hunters.  Don’t worry.  They’re on the other side of the river.”

“What are they hunting?”

“Jaguars, probably.”

“Did I already ask you that?”

“Don’t worry about it.  Sleep.”

I put my hands on my head and felt my hair, and my forehead, and my nose, and my ears.  I lay back down on the ground and closed my eyes.  The jungle noise once again filled my ears and fading glitters of light poked through the blackness in my mind until I fell asleep.

Distracted Writing at a Coffee Shop

I was working on a novel filled with shady characters when a guitar/piano duet entered the coffee shop followed by their adoring fan.

She comes to support the two guys who are playing background music at a coffee shop at a volume so low you can only hear it if you’re sitting within five feet of them.  The guitar player is lightly finger-strumming on a nylon guitar and bobs his head in syncopation with the beat as if he’s feelin’ it even as the customers are barely hearin’ it.  The piano player tickles the treble, white keys while ignoring the black ones.  His left hand is dead in his lap.  Bashful musicians.  She sits and eats a sandwich.  Taps her feet to the staggered rhythm.  Sways to the beat.  Smiles.  Silently snaps her fingers in approval when a song finishes.  She is the only one listening or paying attention.  But she doesn’t feel awkward about it.  She is completely invested.  The guitar player text messages someone between songs while the piano player plays arpeggios.  When there’s a lull, she texts as well.  The piano player falsettos some Richard Marx and she laughs a cozy laugh, the kind that causes the shoulders to scrunch inward and the eyes to squint.  Next song she sighs, looks down in reflection for just a moment as if to regather her enthusiasm, then resumes her swaying for a little bit.  After this song she snaps with only one finger.  She’s fading, staring off into nothing, but still engages the guys with supportive smiles.  They’re why she’s here.  But she is the brightest star in the coffee shop.

 

Houdini Nation

An acquaintance of mine recently came back from a medical mission in the Dominican Republic.  What caught his eye and what he wished to impress upon me was the abundance of poverty and squalor.  “But how are the people?” I asked.

“Surprisingly, they seem pretty happy,” he said.  “But they wouldn’t be so happy if they knew of all the things they didn’t have.”  Funny that this comment was coming from a man who drinks himself into oblivion at least twice a week to escape his loveless marriage and angry clients.

I’m not going set out to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.  That argument has been made and pounded into our brains through literature, television, movies, and our own anecdotal experiences.  What I am curious about is why, when we live in such an advantaged society, we feel such discontent and a need to escape.  This need and revolt against the self has less to do with class than it has to do with being American.

You could say escape is part of who we are.  Most of us descend from people who fled their homelands for a better life in America.  When confronted with problems, like Huck Finn, our first instinct is to get away.  In fact, much of our culture is about getting away: going away to college, moving out after graduation, taking that transfer for the better job.  But whereas it once was external forces that prompted us into action, now we are escaping from ourselves.

We find escape from the confines of our marriages through affairs, escape from the stress of our jobs or joblessness through drugs and alcohol, escape from mundane drudgery through our virtual lives, escape from obligation through resignation.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that we can tolerate anything because relief has always been so instantly accessible.  Too bad relief is only temporary.

What the enlightenment taught us was an ability to look inward for strength, but this reliance on looking within has made us culturally narcissistic.  Consider some of the clinical characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder:

-The individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance

-The individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success

-The individual believes he or she is special and unique

-The individual requires excessive admiration

-The individual has a sense of entitlement

-The individual is interpersonally exploitive

-The individual lacks empathy

-The individual believes that others are envious of him or her

-The individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Not only does this characterize our brand of patriotism where national interest is front-center, but also our own practice of directing our life’s purpose towards serving the self.  Is that how we define success?  By the fruit of our careers?  By sexual fulfillment?  By attaining enviable status within our communities?  It’s our own version of the Greek areté, or all-around excellence.  Unfortunately, we are poor judges of the things that make us happy.  We become paralyzed by the duality of the mind, and have a tough time reconciling our narcissistic tendencies with our Christian virtues of humility, empathy, and charity.  Steinbeck nailed it on the head through his character Doc in Cannery Row.

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Just as a nation divided against itself cannot stand, an individual divided against himself cannot stand either.  We teeter on the brink of insanity, balancing opposite extremes.  The political polarization in our country actually reflects quite accurately the “schism of the soul” we are experiencing as individuals.

Generally speaking, we are a nation governed by a conservative conscience that is just an annoying voice set against our liberal vices.  We are outraged at the split-second sight of a female nipple on network television, yet we are the world’s biggest consumer of porn.  We condemn affairs and premarital sex but have our own.  We detest drunk drivers yet we frequently drink and drive.  We are walking contradictions.  It’s no wonder we’d want to get away from ourselves.

It’s like we live each day with so much regret for who we are and the things we have failed to do or the things we have done.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that happiness is one wish, one dollar, or one lover away.  What if instead of looking forward to what we hope could be, we looked around and reflected on what we have?  During my travels of through South America, while I did see a lot of poverty, I also found a lot of happy people.  It was refreshing.  The one thing they had in common was a tie to each other.  Family.  Community.  In our Houdini nation of escape artists, we are becoming lonelier.  In the end, isn’t that what we fear most?  In the end, will we realize, as Christian told Jack in the final episode of Lost, that “the most…important part of your life, was the time that you spent with these people…You needed all of them, and they needed you.”

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

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.

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