Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Friday, December 30, 2011

Small crystals

Writing is a long process of introspection; it is a voyage toward the darkest caverns of consciousness, a long, slow meditation. I write feeling my way in silence, and along the way discover particles of truth, small crystals that fit in the palm of one hand and justify my passage through this world.

Excerpted from Isabel Allende's Paula


At night, when I get home very late from work, I pour wine into a short crystal glass and sit in bed, reading Paula. The house is silent, my feet are tired and my back aches, but the book lifts me up and draws me in for hours. Paula is a memoir, a biography, and it reads alternately like a fable, a love letter and a prayer. It's a beautiful, deeply personal book. Bits of it come into my dreams and my daytime thoughts, and I love the passage I posted above because it makes me feel like, as long as I'm writing, I'm still moving. My book-in-progress is an inner journey, and, like Paula, it takes me away from here. I love being home, and I can't wait to move west in just a few short days; my life is sweet. Still, without my writing, I'd be lost. As Allende puts it, I'd have a hard time justifying my passage through this world.

Dear readers, find Paula if you haven't already.

Missing you all and sending my love!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bless, Daniel

Today, one of my dearest friends read my most recent blog post, then sent me an email with a subject line that read 'Raising Spirits.' He thought I sounded sad, he wrote. He closed the note this way:

Finally, in the words of the great and wise Natasha Bettingfield (sic...I love you Daniel): "Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten... Feel the rain on your skin."

Loves, here's to the cheesy hit songs that goofily enough manage to resonate. Here's to amazing friends who lift us up, and to magical years that change our lives. Every day is a gift. Happy Holidays, dear readers, and my best to you in 2012! See you on the road,

Love, Kate

Monday, December 5, 2011

December 5, 2011

I have my last conversation in Spanish at the Buenos Aires airport. Outside, where I'm standing with my pack, the guy who ushers people towards their rental cars asks my name. He wants to know whether I liked Argentina, and he compliments my Spanish. Will you come back? he asks, and I tell him of course I will, I love it here. Soon, I hope, he says, grinning. Flirting. The sun is beating down; it lights his face. He shakes my hand. I hoist my pack and pass through the automatic doors, where the bright and artificial light of this airport, this one and every one I’ve seen, replaces the sunshine.

The woman at the Mexican Air desk pauses with my passport, pauses and frowns at it and then turns to her colleague, another woman with her hair sprayed into place and a red scarf knotted at her neck. Without stopping her typing, the second woman leans over and the two of them continue to frown at my photo and passport number. All those crooked, fading stamps. Is everything okay? I ask in Spanish, and without looking up the women answer, yes, in English. And that is all it takes; I’m brittle enough. Tears prick my eyes, because it’s over, it’s over, and now there’s a problem. I’m wound tight today—today is the last of it, the end of it—and there will be no more conversations in Spanish; these women are making that clear.

They don’t notice the tears in my eyes, or if they do, they pretend not to. I wipe them away, embarrassed, angry at them for ignoring me, for not saying what the problem is, for hearing my question in Spanish and replying, automatically, in English. I relinquish my pack to the scale. This is the last plane ride, I murmur to it, and I pat it like it’s a treasured pet, spoiled and scared. The women sort out the problem; I take back control of my emotions. They hand me my boarding pass, still warm from the printer, and we complete this transaction in English. I pass through another set of sliding doors, and then another, and then I walk to my departing gate, alone.

We lift up out of Buenos Aires fifteen minutes late; the pilot, his voice raspy and thick over the loudspeaker, promises to make up the time. We’re a packed flight, and I am crying again. Tears always did come easily to me, and now I am leaving, so what better time for them? I am looking out the window at my last glimpse of Buenos Aires, of the city that stretches in the distance and, beyond that, the line of my route, a crooked track all the way from Ecuador. The man beside me is kind; he pretends not to notice my tears, except to hand me tissues when I search through my purse and find none. Eventually, we chat; he’s an events promoter travelling with a thirty-man band. They joke with each other across the aisles in thick Irish accents. Darkness falls, we sleep, we eat. Eight hours later, we watch as Mexico City, enormous and glimmering, stretches beneath us.

I have six hours to kill in that city’s airport. Between nine PM and three AM, I walk up and down the long and empty halls, soaking in the last of it. I’m still not home; this is still the road. I know I should lie down and sleep somewhere, use my pack as a pillow and set my watch’s alarm, but I can’t bring myself to close my eyes, for this, however ridiculous the hour may be, is the precious end. In the bathroom, the cleaning ladies ignore me and gossip with the man who leans against his bucket and mop, right outside the door. Their Spanish sounds clear, impeccable, compared to the Argentine accent I’ve grown used to. I’ll have to drop the sh, I think, and try not to wonder when I’ll be speaking so much Spanish again.


In New York’s JFK airport, I am awed by the price of a cup of coffee. I am awed by the price of an Airtrain ticket; I am awed by the cold. How strange it is, to hear English all around me, to understand every word. To have an accent that matches everyone else’s. The wind whips so hard and the voices all sound so familiar, and I have not slept since Buenos Aires. I am exhausted and freezing; I am weeping again. Don’t cry, a man tells me, a tall black man in a yellow robe and a yellow hat. Life is a river. He smiles kindly and waits beside me for the train that will bring us to Manhattan. When it comes, bringing with it a whole new gust of wind, the man in the yellow robe helps me to haul my pack on board. We peer at the piece of paper I clutch, the one where, two nights and an eternity ago, I scrawled the address of a friend onto the lines. When my stop comes, he helps me off. Life is a river, he tells me again, and then the train whips him and his flapping, sun-colored robe out of sight.


A friend has invited me to stay with her, a college friend I haven’t seen in almost two years. When she opens the door, her hair unruly and her skin creased from sleeping, I forget to feel sad, for the sweetness. She crushes me in a hug; she smells just the same, like flowers and incense and the faint, expensive scent of her perfume. She makes coffee but we barely drink it; there is so much to be said, and we’re talking over each other, starting stories and then cutting each other off to start new ones. Our conversation runs this way and that; it’s as if we’ve spent no time apart. There will be dozens of meetings like this one, but now, with Claire, it’s the first. How long it’s been since I’ve spoken to someone so easily, someone who knows my family, my past, the way I bleached my hair blonde when I was eighteen and starting college.

She buys me breakfast in a café on the corner; a man bumps my shoulder and apologizes. I respond in Spanish, forgetting where I am. Claire and I walk arm in arm around the city and I marvel at the grocery stores, stocked tight with food that seems too rich to be true, too elegant to be so inexpensive. We eat dinner that night in a dive bar with another college friend and there I go, weeping again, too happy to speak, too shaky with gladness to laugh. Life is too rich, I think for the thousandth time. I eat a burger too fast—how juicy it is, how sweet and salty both!—and wake in the night, sick to my stomach. Claire laughs at me; just that morning I’d boasted of how strong my stomach always felt, the way it could digest strange fruits with unpronounceable names and too-large cuts of beef. 

Meanwhile, my skin breaks out after that very first day back home. For so many months it's been clear, and now it's like I can't control it. And I can't help myself; I open and sniff and test every bottle of shampoo, of lotion, every vial of perfume on Claire's bathroom shelves and in her medicine cabinet. I tell her I went months washing only with water and soap, showering every third day because of the cold. She wrinkles her nose. After spraying her perfume, I can't stop sneezing. She has a scale in her bathroom and I weigh myself every time I enter, suddenly conscious of how my body changes in the morning, in the evening, before lunch and after dinner. I report my shifting weights to Claire and laugh aloud at how silly I'm being, but secretly I'm disgusted with myself. 


I ride from New York to Boston by bus. The man next to me works on his laptop the whole time; when I look back, I see that most of the other passengers are doing the same. Everyone’s got their phone out; everyone is connected. The high of my New York visit fades a little bit, dims beneath the sight of all these devices. The bus ride is void of sound, save for fingers typing on keys, and I close my eyes and miss the music that blasts in Latin American buses. I miss the crowded aisles, and when my stomach grumbles, I miss the vendors that streamed on. My seat feels too big, the landscape that runs past us looks too empty. The trees have lost their leaves, the sky has lost its blue. I look down at my hands, which are still brown. The heat on this bus is on, but I’m shivering, and for the whole four-hour ride, I never get warm.


In my first week back, I drive to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, where I sleep on a soft, massive futon in a room all to myself. I sip coffee with my grandmother and admire my uncle’s gun collection. I stay two nights in the apartment of a friend who works non-stop; she’s an attorney, and when the office closes she takes her laptop home and works long into the night. She doesn’t hear me when I tell her things; she barely eats. She has money; she has a beautiful, sleek Beacon Hill apartment; she has a fridge crammed with expensive and delicious food. I have a red pack and a beat-up laptop and a checking account whose balance I’m afraid to look at. Still, when I leave this friend’s elegant one-bedroom, I breathe a sigh of relief. Before I go, I scrawl a thank-you note and place it on her unused kitchen table beneath the key.

I drive to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, through pine forests and frozen swamps to the house of another old friend. Since I’ve been gone, her boyfriend has come home from sailing ships in the Marquesas and now they live together in a big house with floors of polished maple boards. We drink beers and eat goulash late into the night, and I catch a glimpse of their lives together, lives so settled, so different from mine. I leave in the morning, missing them already, but I am not jealous of their happiness. See you soon, my friend calls, waving as I pull my car out of her driveway, and I think that soon is a relative term, and time a fluid and moldable thing. I am still not used to driving, what freedom a car allows, and on the way home, on impulse, I take the coastal route. Along the beaches of northern Massachusetts, I park my car and get out and walk. The stretches of sand are empty of people and strewn with mussel shells, dark and barnacled on the outsides and indigo blue or pearl white on the insides. I collect them in a plastic bag and lick the salty wind from my lips. The beach is a beautiful color, a mix of coral and clay. I’d forgotten.


A week after landing in New York City, I go home to Lake Placid. I arrive after the sun has set, so I do not see the peaks advancing or the snow that crests the sides of the roads. Curving off the Northway, up towards the Adirondacks, I do not see the Cascade Lakes to my left or the steep rock faces that rise beyond them. I don’t see the cliffs reflected in the water, or the bare, white branches of the birches. I drive the twisting, familiar route alongside the dark water, water that I cannot see but know is there, water that lies flat and deep and cold in the starless night.


I unpack the clothes and books I left in Boston, and the ones I stored in my parents’ house. Here is my jacket, here are my boots, here is my mail; it’s all been tossed—unfolded, unsorted—into taped-up cardboard boxes. How many things I own that I’ve forgotten; how many shards of my old life are left in these items I abandoned. My ex and I email over things I still haven’t gotten back, possessions I barely remember owning. I hate the clutter of it, the tense exchanges and afterwards, the deep pits that form inside me, remembering how ugly things turned. For so many months I haven't thought of that, and now these possessions bring everything back - the way I went for many weeks unable to eat or sleep, filled with self-doubt and ashamed of my own emotions. How terrible, objects, the way they can break you open, morphing into living things that keep you awake, reducing you to so little just when you think you've come so far. Just when you think you've forgotten, here they are, whispering into your ear. They're reminders you never asked for, and it's no ones fault but your own.

I wish, surrounded by my things, to rise up out of my body and soar away. I wish for the freedom of an unmarked hotel room, paint peeling off the walls and floorboards creaking beneath my feet. Strangers all around me, and every night, a different place. I begin to feel as if I now have two lives, two parts to myself: one half of me still resides in that free and blissfully frightening foreign, while the other lives here now, where my accent matches all the other accents. My mother comes and sits on my bed the night she catches me weeping, and she tells me it’s okay to feel sad. Look at all the places you’ve been, she says. Of course you feel empty now. She reminds me that I should also feel full, feel rich. My father brings the cat upstairs and sets her on the bed and the three of them hover over me, concerned, while I wipe my tears away and blow my nose.


One year ago today, I left the States. I drove in the dark and freezing morning to the airport, arriving before customs even opened. I knew no Spanish, I knew no people. I couldn’t even imagine the countries. Waiting in line that morning at the airport, I watched a little boy standing with his mother. The two of them were weeping without trying to hide it, sniffling and blinking tears out of their eyes, holding hands. They were watching someone go, someone they wouldn’t see for a very long time, and how sad they looked with their dark, wet eyes and tear-stained faces. I sit here, in my hometown in winter, and wonder where they are now, whether they’ve seen the one they said good-bye to a year ago today.

So many lessons I’ve learned since December 5th of last year, and I hope that my heart will manage to make room for them, that my memory will be able to save copies. I guess I’m in denial, for I still haven’t taken everything out of my red backpack, and it sits in the corner of my childhood bedroom, stained and smudged by a hundred bus rides, a thousand dusty roads, and uncountable, unforgettable miles. Once, that pack was all I had - that pack and those buses, those were my tickets. Now I'm here, and I don't quite fit anymore. I feel like less of a citizen now, less of a citizen and more of a stranger, and meanwhile there are worlds within me that only I can remember. Days pass, and I realize no one wants to listen, much, to where I've been. Don't lose yourself, the Irish girl told me in Cordoba. Don't lose the person you've found on this trip. I still dream at nighttime of travel: cruise ships, hiking trails, and rivers that wind along crackling, hooting jungles. Meanwhile, I pile my clothes, clothes I haven't seen in a year, into boxes for goodwill. I shred papers I saved for no reason; I donate books. All of these things are just shadows that don't match my body anymore; they don't quite move in step with my gait. I box things up, I send them away, I count the days til I can leave this place again, and travel south.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Last Day

It’s the fourth night in a row that I’ve woken up and not known where I was. In the darkness, I blink around the room, guessing. I know it can’t be home—that knowledge has become instinctive—so where am I now, exactly? Which city, which country, is this one? And then something gives the room away—the shape of the table, the light through the window—and so I remember. This is Buenos Aires, this is San Telmo, this is the hotel on Chacabuco where I checked in yesterday and the woman sat smoking in the kitchen, not getting up to hand me the keys. I was dreaming of rivers again.

At first, my dreams were of home, of the deep feet of snow in the woods and of the smell of my mother’s kitchen. I saw my father’s hands, heard my brother’s laugh, inhaled the scent of my lover’s skin. I remembered all that I’d left in the night, and in the morning I woke, the memory of home still heavy on my chest. Those dreams left an aching, an empty stillness, and I wept for how far everything felt.

After a few months, though, the dreams shifted and turned foreign. Now I was crossing a turquoise sea over fresh coral with strangers; now I was riding a train down, down towards the snow. Now I was entering an ancient city; now I was climbing a peak, where the air grew thin and my breaths came short and desperate. I stopped thinking, at nighttime, of home, and started dreaming instead of constant motion. Every possibility came in the night; the whole world arrived. I’d been thrown; no one knew me. This was freedom.

In these last dripping days, this room is all of the rooms that I've known. My dreams skitter away and I'm left only with the emotions they held and the vague outlines of places. Sometimes I am screaming, sometimes I am crying, often I laugh so hard I wake myself up. There are strangers in these nights, although I’ve heard that every face you’ve seen in your dreams is a face you’ve seen before—on the street, perhaps, years ago, when you looked and barely saw, never knowing you’d remember. There have been so many nights like this, so many shafts of unfamiliar light through curtain cracks, so many tables shaped the same. So many creaking beds, so many midnight trips for water. My dreams run together like songs, like a woven cloth of different colors, and when morning comes I wake again, unsure.


Buenos Aires is perfect now. Only in the afternoon does the air feel hot, heavy, slowing our footsteps down. The rest of the time, the jacaranas drop their purple blooms onto the street, the sycamores above us shade the sidewalks, and the wind filters into the train, cool and welcome. I sweat on the bus as it crosses the city, and I watch the sun go down from where I sit on the grass in the parks. Beautiful days, these are, each one longer than the next, each one just a tiny bit warmer. I let them run through me then leave me, because you can’t hold on to hours.


The last rented room has a door painted with peeling, mint-green paint. Morning glory winds up the banisters and there’s an outdoor pila, like the one Hilary had in Guatemala. (So long ago, that seems.) We can wash our dishes and clothes out here and hang them on the line that stretches over the patio so that our clothes flap against the crumbling cement of the building next door. There are shared bathrooms with drains in the floors and no shower curtains; there is a little kitchen with a two-burner stovetop and no fridge. There is a single bed in my room, a small table and two chairs. There is a cup and a plate and a bowl, a fork and a knife and a spoon. A glass, a bar of soap, a folded towel, an open window. It’s beautiful here, my last rented room. I close my eyes and breathe the wind; I think to myself, no one knows. No one could find me here, even if they tried; no one would know to look for me in room 49. The walls are painted two shades of pink, one old, one new, and I think of how free you are, when no one knows.


Nearly a year it’s been, and today the months are impossible to fathom. The flight tomorrow still doesn’t seem real, and I know it won’t be until I’m inside that metal craft, rising up into the sky and away from this place. How much I will leave behind: an invisible trail I’ve made, a knotted route down. How much I have seen; how many things I have learned. How many people I’ve met, how many words and kisses exchanged, how many good-bye tears. This good-bye, the one that comes tomorrow, I wonder how to bear.

For it isn’t what I leave, is it? It’s what I must take, and then where will everything fit? Will they stay with me, all those faces and conversations? All those touches exchanged? And what about the landscapes—the stretches of field and beach, the passes between mountains, the high-up towns where I knew no one? There is the way time passes, here in Argentina and everywhere else I've been—time can be molded, loosened, until it loses its shapes and curves to fit your life. There is the way people value their families above all else—above work, above money, family comes. There is the slow pace of walking, and there’s the way people talk to each other. Here, we all have stories, and everyone deserves to be heard. In these countries of immense poverty, of corruption and covered-up violence, I’ve never felt safer, I sometimes think. Never have I wanted for a place to sleep, a bite to eat, an ear to listen. 

There is the man on the bus while the rain pelts down; his clothes are patched, and he touches my hand and offers to help. There is the woman who wakes before the sun comes up to mop the floors of the place where I live, and even though she hasn’t slept much and there are bags under her eyes, she smiles at me while I wash my dishes. When I leave that place, she sits with me and my packed bags and talks with me over one last cup of coffee. There are the little kids who, on my last day at their school, bring out presents they made—a hat knit too tight, a purse with a broken strap. I can see them there in the yard as I take the bus home; it’s a schoolyard with broken glass and broken swings, and there they are, laughing. There is the girl I meet on the bus, the girl I meet when I most need a friend, the girl who stays with me two nights even though she’d planned on doing other things. After she’s gone, I found the bottle of wine and the piece of cake she’d left me. There are the two kind Americans who take me in as if their home is my own, who press money into my hand for a taxi when I say I’ll take the bus. They serve me dinner, they stay up late with me, and when I leave them, I’ll weep.

There is the boy who taught me that love can run smooth. He taught me that it doesn’t have to taste sharp on your tongue, and when he told me I didn’t have anything to fear, I knew in my bones it was true. He is the one who softened me, who spoke to me in patient Spanish, who took me on his bike to the orchard, to the water. He’s far from me now, but I still remember exactly the taste of his mouth, and I won’t give up hope that I’ll meet him again. He’s the one who knew all along that this journey was mine, mine alone, and after he showed me something beautiful, he let me go.


On my last day we visit the Chacarita cemetery. We wind through and out of Palermo and into the poorer barrio of Chacarita, whose main streets are lined with automotive shops, car dealerships, gas stations, and the massive, tree-lined central park. This cemetery is not for tourists; we’re the only ones who wander in with cameras to gaze at the streets and streets of tombs, of catacombs, of mausoleums and of graves. Except for the men who lean on brooms, squinting in the sun, and the women who walk, eyes straight ahead and lilies in their arms, we are alone. Alone, besides the ones who lie in darkness around us, uncountable souls in this massive place.

The sun pelts down; deeper into the cemetery we walk, until the pavement turns to cobblestones and pine needles litter the ground. Above us the sky is so blue. It doesn’t feel to me like the last day; it feels like a day, a day and nothing more, a day at the end of a long string of days. A place at the end of a long stretch of places; another graveyard, another blue sky, another old man leaning against his broom. Another old cat, who stretches in the sun and then looks at me once before turning and slinking away. Down she goes, between the rows of the mausoleums, and I follow. She’s gone into one, an old, cobwebbed tomb whose stained-glass windows were long ago smashed.

Do you live here? I ask her, and she blinks her green eyes, her pupils thin as crescent moons. She coils her body back, back into where the caskets lie, crooked and broken, looted many times over. I’m just another pair of feet walking past; I’m just another body. The cat disappears into the darkness; this tomb must be her home.

In the countries I’ve seen, death is not to be feared, not really. Everyone’s seen someone die too young; everyone knows their day will come. Everyone, mostly, especially the older ones, have seen war or known blood-freezing fear, or both things. For this, I think that they’re better at living for what matters most, and this is what I hope to take home. You can decide what the most important things are in your life, and those can come first. Your wife, your child, your bread, your bath; these can be what you prize, not money or phones or a car. As for the wind in the trees and the reflection of the clouds on the water—you can let those things surround you, if you want it badly enough. If you think hard about what you really want, you’ll find that it isn’t so much. You might even find that it’s everywhere, already.

And so I will go home richer than I’d ever imagined possible, for I have seen so much beauty, and I’ve known so much love. These places have filled my mind and spilled into my heart, and I pray they’ll continue to fall onto the page. I've learned so much about what makes life sweet and what makes it sacred, and so although I'm afraid, terrified even, to go back, I am mostly just awed, for how lucky I’ve been to have known all this.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wander Argentina

Just a quick plug for Ande, my new friend and an awesome woman who manages Wander Argentina, a comprehensive and informed site on Buenos Aires and environs. The site covers vacation destinations, restaurants and hotels; it also provides a ton on moving to and living in Argentina. Ande is a writer, editor and publisher; she speaks impeccable Spanish, resides in San Telmo, and has returned to her home country (our bountiful nation!!) just once in the eight years she's been here! Sweet!

Her site is for sure worth checking out, whether you're visiting BA for the first time, you live in this fine city, or you dream of coming down here someday! It's a reliable and frequently updated source that I wish I'd known about sooner. Ande, a former journalist, has a deep knowledge of Argentinan culture, and I'm psyched that we met in my final, blissful days.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Beautiful, gay BA

Yay for photitos of Pride! (Just a week late...things have been hectic). My dear friend Sam visited last week, and we literally stumbled upon this parade, which we hadn't expected, since Pride normally happens in Spring....but this is the southern hemisphere! It's spring! It's Pride!

Anyway, it was a beautiful day, a beautiful parade, all set against the backdrop of BA's stately Avenida de Mayo. The march began at the Casa Rosa - the pink government house - and ended at Congreso. In typical BA fashion, the parade was scheduled to begin at 6 PM, actually began at 7.30, and ended in the wee hours, in beautiful darkness. It was truly an awesome thing to behold, in the truest sense of that word. I'm still high from the day. 

One week left in Argentina, my loves, and I'm drinking it all in...more to come, at least before the fateful day I'm set to leave....sadness.

A quick note about this one below-- this is the Avenida 9 de Julio, supposedly the widest avenue in the world...and at Pride it was empty of cars and filled with revelers. An incredible thing.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Brilliant, he.

My brother!

He's funnier than me but maybe not as artful. In any case, read his clever little blog on living in a small Austrian town....located here!

And, here's an excerpt I just adore, on telling people where he's from (New York, the state, not the city...). I can totally relate! New York: an easy thing to say, an easier thing to misinterpret.

"From here, it’s an all out crapshoot. Duck and cover, I’m just hoping to make it out alive and with my dignity intact. I would say 1 in 6 people have heard of the Olympic Village. If they haven’t, I can usually buy a few precious seconds with some mumbo-jumbo about the stupid movie series that stars a 40 meter bulletproof alligator. If they’re still trying to rub it in that I couldn’t tell the Upper East Side from the Staten Island Ferry, I throw out my Hail Mary:
“You know, I’m not from The City, friend. I’m from a little town up North, sandwiched between the Canadian border and the Akwesanse Mohawk Casino, you know, the North Country’s favorite playground? It’s a sacred spot, where Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley wed, and where the Sioux Indians’ spirit was finally broken. We’re a proud folk up there, that’s for sure, say– have you heard of Sarah Palin? I’m such a fan…”
By this point, they’ve started to admit their own fault. They’re backing away slowly, apologizing for having gone on and on in heavy dialect about their great seats at Cats."

The Buenos Aires Subterranean

You will see all slivers of life from down here. Here, when you descend twenty steps, thirty steps, an escalator wide enough for one, the sun disappears, the wind does. You are enveloped in artificial light. In tiled walls: royal blue and sun yellow, and always these dirty floors. Last night it was the blind man who came on, eyes squeezed shut, baby strapped to his chest. He was young, younger than I am, and he sat on the portable speaker he carried and sang into the microphone. His girlfriend took the mike, she asked for coins. He’s blind, she said, and then he took the mike back and went on singing. She was so pretty, her hair so long and fine, her eyes so wide while she went around with the plastic cup in hand. While he bounced the baby on his knee and crooned.
            There is the man who squeezed into the car last week, just before the bell rang and the doors shut. A drum, he had, just one big drum, a tribal one stretched over with skin where his hands slapped and pounded, scratched. Meanwhile, he whistled, he clicked his toungue; meanwhile, he hummed, so that it was as if a dozen people were making music and not just one. Meanwhile, we stared—the woman across from me with the wide-eyed baby on her lap, the man who sat with tapping toes and folded hands, the group of teenagers who were, for a few moments, silenced. When he leaned his drum against the train’s doors and went around with a felt hat turned upside down, everyone dug in their pockets for coins.
            There are the boys with high, sweet voices, who sing, unashamed, without accompaniment. There are the Europeans who come on with guitars and clarinets, flutes, an accordian once. There are the old men who play tango from ancient stereo systems, singing along, and there was the little girl, that spring afternoon, who sang in such a clear and unfiltered voice that she brought tears. These are the people who bring the music onboard, hauling their instruments and coin-cups on and then heaving them off again, filling their pockets with two-peso notes and fifty-cent pieces, other people’s bus fares, other people’s useless change.
            There isn’t just money to be made in music, though, and there will always be something to sell. These men, the ones with dark skin and clean clothes and swift hands, swift feet, drop pens into our laps, or packets of bobby pins, or plastic cases that hold needles and scissors and thread. They lay pairs of socks down, or paperback guides for all the city’s buses, or leather passport holders. Once bicycle pumps. Some try: You'll never find a price like this, they'll shout, and hold the pen-highlighter combo high. But most don't speak, just take the things from boxes and lay them down. It isn't an easy job; you've got to hustle, because the stations come up fast. We pick the objects up and turn them over in our hands, but mostly we give them back when he comes around again. Of course, there are the guys who offer us something we need, something we’ve been meaning to buy, and on those rides we pull out our wallets and pay.
            Then there are the ones without the music or the black-market pens. They haven’t got instruments, they’ve barely got voices: they’ve got wilted hair and sallow skin from all those hours underground. There is the homeless person with the long, matted dreads, whose gender you cannot decipher. This person has bare feet that move silently up and down the cars, and loose, dirty clothes that fall from thin shoulders and slap against the jutting bone of hip. This one moves past the seated rows of us, dropping a scrap of old newspaper into each of our laps. This person mumbles, head down, placing the papers down with care so no one will be missed. When they come back for the scraps, we hand them over as if they are pens, or socks, or leather passport holders. Poor little one, the woman beside me says, and then the doors open; this is the end of the line.
            You could ride the Subte all your life and never see it all. There are the ones who know these lines better than the trains themselves, and there are the ones who look beneath their mattresses one morning and find that they have nothing left. They’ll sling their guitars over their shoulders, or else they’ll only bring their voices or their clean and open hands. They’ll squeeze onto the train with all the rest of us, and somehow they’ll make their voices heard. It’s sad, a friend tells me, but I shake my head. It’s life, I say, and here there is no shame in living yours. Ten pesos gets you lunch, gets you wine; twenty gets you a bed for a night. In summer, the windows to the trains are open wide so that the black air rushes in. The cars in the heat of the day are filled with music.

The same blind woman sits at the base of the same flight of stairs all the time. As commuters and tourists rush from 9 de Julio to Diagonal Norte, she calls out the same refrain with a plastic plate in her hand. I am blind, she tells us, eyes shut tight like the man with the baby and the microphone. Please, a coin, for I am blind. She listens for the sound of metal clinking on the plate; she listens to the footsteps that hurry past. She sits without seeing, her voice mechanical by now for all of the times she’s sang this tune. Please, a coin, for I am blind. Thank you, a coin. Her voice never wavers, her eyes never open. Her hand holds the plastic plate out, and you never see her pocket the coins. Please, she says, as the crowds crush past. I am blind.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sibling Rivalry!

Just kidding...we're not rivals. Not anymore....(we'll choose to ignore those squabbles in Patagonia over things as stupid as missing umbrella handles and excessive media luna purchases....)

Introducing...my brother Dave's blog! Cloudy Arlberg, direct from Austria.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Wind in the blood

I write this from Colonia, Uruguay’s most picturesque and touristed town. From most points here you can see or smell the river, which is really more like an ocean, salty and massive, cargo ships visible on the horizon. I have seen Montevideo, this nation’s capital, whose elegant buildings and canopies of leaves over roads remind me of Buenos Aires. But Montevideo is smaller, walkable, and the river holds more of a presence; it flanks the historic center, which juts out, a peninsula, into this river-sea. The water is slate gray, dirty when you peer into it, but from a distance it is lovely. Close to the river's cemented banks, the buildings in Montevideo get low and old, painted bright colors, windows open. It’s a beautiful city, and Uruguay a beautiful country, with rolling farmland and evenly-spaced plots of eucalyptus. It’s springtime now, and the air smells so sweet—it’s the fragrance of the flowering trees, whose blooms resemble lilacs and whose trunks are fat like sycamores.

Uruguay is the tenth country I’ve seen this year. It is impossible, in this rented room by the water, to fathom how far I have come, how many miles I have travelled, how many beds I have slept in, as Jhumpa Lahiri put it. Over time the borders in my mind have blended, the landscapes too, and so now when I dream of the flat expanses of the Andean sierra, I do not know whether I’m seeing Bolivia, or Peru, or the southern part of Ecuador. Does it matter, anyway? The hippy girl I met in Cordoba, the Irish one with the dreadlocks and the vials of oils, told me she thought borders were pointless, and ever since then, I've pondered. Uruguay feels richer, though the slums still crumble away at the edges of the cities, and bent-over women still crouch, working, in the fields. Here, everyone walks around, or drives or sits on the curb, with mate in their hands, sipping the hot tea slowly and smoking. Why here and not there? Why bright colors, woven patterns, there and not here? Borders—those slippery, shifting crossings.

How far I feel from the Cordoba province, where I spent the last two weeks, where even the nights were warm and in the daytime the sun blazed, beating down on the city's even sidewalks and the leafy, tree-lined avenues, beating down on the scorched parks and the stately museums. How far I feel from the little towns that surround that gleaming place—Capilla del Monte, where I travelled with the Irish girl and her two Belgian friends, mother and daughter who now live in Tahiti. That little town, where we slept in a big old house with a whitewashed roof and a view of the hills all around, not yet green. In the night, the wind there smelled like perfume, rustling the dark and invisible trees and making all the street dogs bark.

There was Mina Clavera, that small city known best for its deep, clear pools that the boulders in the winding river form. There was the Scottish man with the impeccable Spanish who came to Argentina six years ago with a backpack and never left. He found a wife and now, he told me in a whisper, they are expecting. He smiled modestly as I cried out and hugged him. There were the two sleek cats, the fat frogs that hopped out at dusk, and always the river, the color of amber, that divided the town. There was Nono, the tiny puebla with the strange and massive museum, which held everything from human skulls to dolls, from crucifixes to old record players, from dishes and teacups and dozens and dozens of spoons, to seashells mounted on the walls. There were the buses in the evening filled with children; there was the old man who sold sausages and who picked me up when I stuck out my thumb and drove me home. Seventy-five! He’d said of his age, smacking his head with his hand. Seventy-five! But he didn’t look it.

Aofie, the Irish girl was called. She rolled her own cigarettes and smelled like lavender and something else, something earthy and smoky. She looked so much like a friend I had in college, a friend who twisted her hair into dreadlocks our first year and walked around in baggy pants, that I felt like I knew her, this Aofie, after just a few hours. Don’t count the days you have left, she’d said. Don’t count. Just feel. She warned me not to let the kernel of wild freedom I’ve found get lost in the shuffle, after I fly away. That night, a group of travelers came in from Buenos Aires; they sat in a circle, singing, their voices round and strong, their eyes wide open.  

You look different, Gaby said. Gaby, the one I met in Cusco, the one whose email address I lost. The one I bumped into the other day in the Cordoba market. After a few beers, a few laughs, a few exclamations of disbelief - one turn and we would have missed each other! - she told me that my face looked different, my hair. You're darker and lighter both, she said. And the way you walk - it's different. You seem like you belong.


To the west, the wind sings through Capilla del Monte, through Mina Clavera, through all the little towns I’ve seen and all the others I have not. It rolls up and down this continent, through all these wild and spectacular countries, and it seeps inside me, warming my blood. I want it to stay right there forever, this wind, this place, these cities and towns and hills that are blending together now. They come in the night, sneaking into my dreams, and when I'm awake I can feel them, tattoos on my skin that might fade as the years go by, but will never fully leave me.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I just finished Benjamin Kunkel’s smart and irreverent novel, ‘Indecision.’ My father brought the book all the way from Lake Placid, New York, still taped up in its Amazon.com cardboard box. Yes, I ordered it online, because some website told me it was one of the top reads on Latin America rightthisminute.

Oh, well. The book wasn’t really about Latin America, unless you count a white, 20-something dude’s stumblings through the Ecuadorian jungle, but the book drew me in nevertheless and surprised me at the end. I have to say I recommend it, even though this guy, this protagonist I suspect is modeled on Kunkel himself, is everything I roll my eyes at. The narrator, named Dwight of all things, is this kind of lazy IT rep who rolls into work each morning at 10 AM, golfs and drinks with his father on weekends, hits on his sister, and bats girlfriends around like they’re whiffleballs. I shook my head all the way to the end, when Dwight whips out a memoir in about two weeks and now it’s in my hands and the NYTimes loved it.

Still, for how obnoxious the guy sometimes was, he was freaking clever, too. The way he describes his trip to Ecuador is pretty hilarious, and he invents some darn funny words.

Anyway, decide for yourselves, dear readers! Meanwhile, an excerpt that spoke to me:

Meanwhile I let myself hope that to publish this memoir on the growth of my mind may bring these issues more notice than our press releases attract. But I don´t mean to bring you down as a reader, and one main effort of my life is to try not to spoil my own mood. Currently the party line I give myself, and do in part believe, is that what´s happiest is just to be alive and sensitive when it comes to feeling the world, and if what your senses, honed beyond usefulness, end up registering is so much suffering out there that you become light-headed with it at times - well, those senses can be used for words on a page, a loved mammal in your arms, music (including sad kinds, and anyway this is only the tip of a list anyone could assemble. I know my list is basic but maybe to utter banalities is a type of solidarity in these lonelifying times?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Big cats

While I type away at my desk in my room, Pirucho sleeps on the floor. He's there so long I forget he's in the room, until I stand up and trip over him. He is a cat who constantly purrs and who loves to be held. When you pick him up, his front legs stick straight out like arms that don't bend. I love him so much. I can't even hold him today, because I'll hear him purr and it will make me cry. I leave this evening, and I hate goodbyes. It's not just him; it's this house, it's this life. I feel so sad today, so send some nice thoughts, okay?

Love, Kate

(he's mad at me here because he hates having his picture taken)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Take the city home

These days, I walk the streets in a nostalgic haze. Sometimes I am laughing, sometimes I am smiling, sometimes I am crying. Tomorrow I leave this apartment, this massive city, to take a bus through the night until I reach Cordoba, one of Argentina’s cultural gems. Part of me knows that I’ll get on that bus and it will make me feel alive, the wheels on the pavement in the night and the stars all around us as we cross the Pampas. Now, I love the rhythm of buses. I can ride them for hours or even days. I can sleep on them; I can read on them. No one bothers you here if you’re weeping, or eating, or drinking wine alone. They just let you be, stare out their window until the bus rolls into the city you’re trying to reach. The ayudantes help me with my backpack and call me mi amor. The country slides past.

Still, by now I should be used to saying goodbye, but it hasn’t gotten easier. I reached this place and I didn’t know if I would love it, but here I am, sunk. It’s just like the guidebooks say—Buenos Aires will seduce you. The city makes my dreams run rich and my blood warmer. It has made me quick on my feet and quick with the language, fearless on city buses that tear around corners and into neighborhoods I don’t yet know. The drivers cry out my street when we reach it, making eye contact with me in the rearview. Gracias! I shout, and leap out. I can jump off a bus now when it’s still moving.

And so now that I’m in love, it’s time to go. I didn’t think it would come this soon, the final day, but it’s always like this—the time you have left creeps up on you until, all of a sudden, you find you can count the hours. Only now it’s worse, because after I leave this country, I’ll go home, home to a place I’m afraid will make me numb. Little offices, little desks. Commutes, money, money, things. Will it fall from me—the ability to live with so little? The ability to walk slowly, to taste fully, to listen with both ears? The ability to see beauty in a crumbling wall? In broken glass? We want so much in that nation of ours; we need so much, and because we’ll never get all we need, we don’t stop wanting. We’ve got these awful gadgets, and we tell ourselves they bring us closer to other people, but they really just force us farther apart. We legitimize interruptions, hasty choices, jam-packed days and too-short nights. Take me with you, this city says, and I begin touching things—the trunks of trees, the curved wrought-iron bar over a window, the rusted metal on a dented car. The warm wood of tall, glossy shutters. It’s as if touching this place will imprint it onto my skin, so that when I leave, the city comes too.

Do you think about what you’ll do when you go home? A friend asked. Do you have dreams about it?  And I had to admit that while of course I think about the months ahead, I dream only about the past. Behind closed lids, my dreams come to me like paintings: the crest of a rounded hill in the Peruvian sierra, or an endless stretch of Bolivian salt. Thick jungle in Ecuador, cobblestones in Nicaragua, the smell of coffee on Antigua’s streets. A border crossing, dense with night, and an endless red dirt road.

Or they arrive in scenes, snippets from a film. I dream about birds flying in through an open window and pecking at crumbs on the floor. I dream about schools on hills, markets where water flows in the street, bakeries crammed with people. There are men who wear kids backpacks and kids who can count money better than I can. There’s Guatemala on Christmas, Ecuador on Easter, Nicaragua on Valentines Day, when the sun rose early and hot. I dream about my teachers and my students, and about men who sell orange juice on the corner. Carlos’ dark eyes, Katie’s easy laugh, and the way Raphael pulled me to him. I dream of Buenos Aires: the concerts in the streets, the crowded parks on weekends, the brown and silty river. The dreams come every night, five or six of them, and when I wake I can remember each one.

So the places are with me in my dreams, for now, and in the meantime, this is how I will say goodbye: I will walk up and down the streets, beneath the summer leaves, and I will smell and hear and feel everything. I will teach my last Spanish class, I will mail my last postcard, I will drink my final glass of wine and eat my final supper. I will kiss my friends good-bye—artisan Felipe and Leo the electrician, Donigan the writer and the beautiful diplomat Holly. I will give Alex and Vicky both hugs, and I will try to hide my tears from Pirucho. I will leave, just like always, and my heart will feel full and empty both.


I bring my laundry to the Laundromat today. It’s the place around the corner, the one that’s shaded by leafy trees and always locked, so you have to push the bell to be let in. It’s the one where the nice man works, the handsome man with kind eyes and worn hands. He has a young son who comes in the afternoons to help fold.

Today, the man fills out the receipt without asking my name. You remembered? I ask him, though I’ve told him only once. How could I forget, he replies, and hands me my receipt. Katy, it says. My Spanish name. He’s a beautiful man, a man who smells of detergent, and today he remembered my name. Don’t let this go, a voice tells me as I step outside, into the sun and the wind that smells so sweet. Nothing matters more than this moment, it says, and right now you have everything you want.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Argentines don't use the word ahorita, as the Peruvians do, and the Ecuadorians, and the Central Americans, whose meals are churned out like clockwork at the same time each day. Ahora means now; ahorita means right now, this very second, let's go, vamos entonces. It's a word you've heard a million times, a word you still can't pronounce quite right, not with the way the ah becomes or becomes eat. But you figure you should have known that it wouldn't work here anyway, since every other word seems to have shifted its meaning or changed altogether, since you got here. The word for sweater, the word for umbrella, the word for stove. The words for Okay, I'll take it, and the way to say Shut up.

The absence of ahorita suits Argentina. Nothing ever happens right now anyway, and if you even suggest it you'll be met with surprised looks and a possible snort of laughter. 'Now?' the person will say, and blink at you. 'Right now?' And then everyone will order another drink and the minutes will slip into hours, and when you look at your watch again you won't believe the time it reads. Here, nine o'clock means ten-thirty, breakfast means brunch, coffee means an early dinner and meanwhile, your bedtime creeps into the madrugada. You cannot help but get swept up in the way time advances here; six in the evening ceases to be a viable dinner hour, and you drink coffee at nine without ever worrying about whether you'll sleep that night.

Argentina uses 24-hour time, military time, and it takes a while to get used to people saying your clothes will be washed by sixteen, and that they hope you can make the party by twenty. You've always struggled with numbers, in English and Spanish both, and so the 24-hour clock confounds you and you show up for things at the wrong times. No one minds though, of course they don't, they just open the door for you and kiss your cheek, helping you with your coat and profusely thanking you for the three-dollar bottle of Merlot you've brought to share.

So the clock ticks round and round, twenty-four hours a day, and anything becomes possible at four AM. At seven AM. At midnight, eating supper. You wonder whether you'll bring this clock with you when you go, a clock that's warped and slippery like the ones in Dali's paintings. How long will it take, you wonder, for them to fall from you - these languishing hours of which any interpretation is acceptable? And how long will right now stay off limits? The weeks you have left here stretch before you, but because you are now on this country's time, you know not to count them.