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

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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Church cats

Alex and Vicky went to the Termales in Uruguay for the weekend and left me in charge of the cat. Just make sure he gets fed, Alex said, then she laughed; we all knew that of course the cat would be fed—overfed even, and spoiled rotten. I love Pirucho so much that Alex and Vicky call him my boyfriend. He is in love with me, too; I enter the apartment and he swirls around my legs and in the morning he cries at my bedroom door until I let him inside.

Pirucho worked steadily on his food that first day Alex and Vicky were gone, and by evening the little red dish was empty. Ok, dinner! I told him as he cried and swirled, begging. But the door to the food-closet wouldn’t open; it was jammed and no amount of pushing and pulling and swearing could get it open. Sorry, Pirucho, I told him, and he pressed himself up against my shins and moaned.

Guess how much longer Pirucho cried before I went out to buy him another bag of food?

The next day, when Alex and Vicky came home, they pointed out that the bag I’d purchased at the supermercado on the next block wasn’t suitable. This kind gives cats kidney problems, Alex explained. She told me she had a friend whose cat mysteriously died at a young age, and they later found out it was kidney problems. All her life, that poor cat had eaten the type of food I’d purchased.

Okay, we can just toss it then, I said.

No, no, Alex laughed. She asked me if I knew the church down the block, behind the plaza. I did. Just bring the food there! She suggested. A mountain of cats live there; give it to them.


So today I take the bag of food, which has been sitting, swathed in plastic bags, on top of the fridge, far from greedy Pirucho. I go outside, cross the street, walk through the plaza, and come to the church, which is massive and has been painted a grainy coral. On this afternoon it looks warm and radiant, surrounded by sweeping palms and ankle-length grass.

And cats. The cats, if you look closely, are everywhere. They’re nestled in the grass, in the crooks of trees, in the corners of doorways. They’re perched on steps, they hide behind rocks, I shake the bag of food and they come inching towards me, stretching, pricking their ears, taking their time.  I’m not one of the grandmothers that frequents this place, but they know the sound of food in a bag.

I pour the food out onto the grass through the bars that surround the church; the cats wait until I’ve gone to approach it. I turn back and there they are, eating steadily and flicking their tails. This afternoon, it’s warm enough for a t-shirt and skirt. The air feels slower on this side street, and heavy with late sunshine. The trees shade the cobblestones and the feasting cats. I love it here, I think for the hundredth time. In moments like these, I let myself forget I won’t be here forever.


And then there are the moments like these: I walk to the store, or walk to the school, or walk to the train, and the scent of lilac comes to me in the wind, then disappears. Home, some voice says inside me right then. It's not always lilac; sometimes it's bread, sometimes it's mud. Sometimes it's the profile of a woman's face as she buys flowers. Home. The word comes often and unbidden; it’s always just that one word. I push the reminder away, because I want nothing more than to stay here. These are the days, aren’t they? The church cats, the gold light, the music, the music. The open window in the night. I love the air here. But the word comes and comes, and deep down I know why: it's because I want nothing more than to come home.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day

What a strange holiday it's always been, a day off without any celebration, any tradition, nothing more than that long weekend that comes every year. Fall Break. Here it's the same; Buenos Aires had the day off - most restaurants, clothing shops, flower shops were closed today, and all banks and schools. But, though every other feria here - Mother's Day, the Day of the Student, the Day of the Secretary - is marked by parades through the streets, those big bouncy houses for kids and cotton candy for sale, there was no evidence of a feria today. It was a dead day, a day with dark clouds and quiet streets and parillas shut tight.

Yesterday, Vicky told me, was an indigenous feria. "They celebrate it every year," Vicky said, "especially up north - Salta, Jujuy." Yesterday, the day before Columbus Day, marks the last day of indigenous independence on this continent. "What a sad day," I replied, and Vicky nodded and hurried me across the street.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Forward-thinking, bohemian places

Frank Bruni, in his NYTimes op-ed 'Same-Sex Marriage in Portugal,' does a nice job of exploring the legal status of same-sex marriage around the world, pondering why certain countries (cough cough) choose not to nationally legalize it. It's well worth a read, but if you don't have one of your dwindling twenty to spare, find below an interesting excerpt that mentions Argentina!! (Where gay marriage is nationally legal.)

It was only a little more than a decade ago that a country first legalized same-sex marriage, and that happened in precisely the kind of forward-thinking, bohemian place you’d expect: the Netherlands. About two years later, Belgium followed suit.

Then things got really interesting. The eight countries that later joined the club were a mix of largely foreseeable and less predictable additions. In the first category I’d put Canada, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. In the second: South Africa, Spain, Portugal and Argentina.

Why those four countries? People who have studied the issue note that that they have something interesting and relevant in common: each spent a significant period of the late 20th century governed by a dictatorship or brutally discriminatory government, and each emerged from that determined to exhibit a modernity and concern for human rights that put the past to rest.

Thanks for sending, Sam! Hope you're all having a marvelous Sunday. Love, Kate

Addendum: Sam just told me that if you access a NYTimes article from an outside link, it won't count as one of your twenty!! So read on, my devoted following! Read on. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The beauty we love

"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the earth."


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Balls Out

McSweeney's Internet Tendency is consistently excellent and addicting. Philip Graham had a wonderful column there, 'Philip Graham Spends a Year in Lisbon,' which was eventually expanded into his luminous book, 'Moon Come to Earth.' And right now I'm loving Tim Peters' Notes From the Caddieshack. And I think my mother and brother and all golf-lovers and summer-job lovers out there would love it, too.

In this post, though, I especially wanted to plug Casey Plett's column on transitioning genders. Her 19 entries made me laugh and moved me to tears and I highly recommend them to you all! Her writing exudes a maturity, an honesty, that's ironic and beautiful. Below, a lovely excerpt from her fine column, 'Balls Out: A Column on Being Transgendered.'

Your confusion is not a weakness. Don’t get hung up on the world, it’s changing and accepting more with every day. The closet is worse, and there are all kinds of closets. I can’t pretend I know what you may have to go through or what you will become. But for divining the choice yourself you are beautiful, you are beautiful, you are beautiful, and you always will be. I promise you.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ordinary People

Enrique Krauze, author of 'Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,' wrote for the New York Times last week on Javier Sicilia, Mexican poet and protester. The article, 'Can This Poet Save Mexico?' profiles Sicilia, who has created over the past five months a so-far peaceful movement in protest of the drug-related violence there. The Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity is made up of 'ordinary citizens' affected by the violence and has hosted dozens of peaceful marches and panels throughout the country.  The movement's ideology demands more "thorough investigation into the connections between politicians and criminals" and the creation of a 'truth and reconciliation committee,' among other governmental changes.

After reading about Twitter users in Mexico murdered for posting pictures of the violence, it's humbling to see such this kind of a movement gain momentum and publicly disseminate important information. My thoughts remain with Mexico as this whole situation unfolds.

But, better for you to read the article than for me to summarize. It's finely written and will be well worth one of your twenty! 

I'll leave you with this: I couldn't help but notice the way the article's headline, 'Can This Poet Save Mexico,' piqued my interest not only because Sicilia is reinventing himself as a political revolutionary, but because there's another protest going on in NYC that seems to have gained even greater publicity. The NYTimes described it, in an article entitled 'Protesting Until Whenever,' as a hodgepodge that quickly gained momentum, and now people from all over have Occupied Wall Street. I read that the protestors have a health clinic and sanitation facilities and bottled water, and that people from around the country are calling in food, pizza and wings, to be delivered. And now hundreds have been arrested, but the Coors Light still seems to be flowing...

I've been living under a little Argentine rock for the last few...I don't know. Days? Months? Anyway, I felt like the Occupy movement kind of lost me back there, and I asked Stephanie S for help understanding what exactly these people's goals are. That's how I said it - "What are these people's goals, anyway?" All snobbish like that.
"Redistribution of wealth," she told me simply, then added that she's helping to organize next week's Occupy New Orleans. "Elimination of debt," she said. "Free slaves."

And so, okay, it's bigger than I thought. "It's not an end to anything," Stephanie S said, "but it's a start. Major cities across the US are occupying. Athens has been occupied for months, but you won't see anything about that on the news. It's a media war. And Tunisia? Kicking ass."

Indeed. And may both protests remain peaceful. Missing you all, and sending my love,

Color in Space and Time

To my dear readership:

A few words on Carlos Cruz-Diez's exhibit, 'El color en el espacio y en el tiempo,' shown at the MALBA, Buenos Aires, 2011

Carlos Cruz-Diez makes art you have to enter. He makes sculpture-paintings you must move around to see fully; with the slightest shift, the barest breath, the surface changes, and  sometimes it even slides right into the opposite of itself. 

I discovered Cruz Diez last weekend at the MALBA Museum’s tenth anniversary celebration. The MALBA, one of BA’s largest and most-respected museums, mirrors both the architecture and content of the Whitney in New York: high ceilings and a blocky, triangular exterior, and highly experimental exhibitions of modern art inside. Buenos Aires and New York remind me of each other as well, so that similarity could be reinforcing my comparison. In any case, how good it felt to be in that fine museum, which felt to me so reminiscent of those contemporary galleries in New York and Boston that I’ve been missing.

The MALBA presented an excellent series entitled ‘Art in Latin America: 1990-2010,’ which I admired for the incredible, exhaustive portrait created by this curator—but there were crowds, how could there not have been, on a glorious BA weekend….and I couldn’t really breathe in there, let alone stand and look. So I’m taking Sam there when she comes—on a weekday, and meanwhile, I let Cruz-Diez’s quieter show upstairs pull me under.

Cruz-Diez’s exhibit presented some of his earliest drawings and watercolors, which echo the tiny points and blocky, emotive patches of color employed by the later European Impressionists. Yet the ‘painting-sculptures’ that quickly followed those drawings are made of slats of painted wood glued to canvases. They show how fast this artist shifted from both literal expression and the limits of a two-dimensional surface. The sculptures, at first reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s paintings of white lines and squares of color, morph within two years into luminous, shapeshifting surfaces that engage without employing anything literal.

From a few slats of wood on a canvas, Cruz-Diez moved into a process which involved laying, centimeters apart, dozens or hundreds of paper-thin slats horizontally. By varying the colors of the geometrical shapes on the canvas, as well as the colors on the slats themselves, Cruz-Diez made the works—the ‘sculpture-paintings’—different depending on where the viewer is positioned. He made it necessary that the viewer move in and out of the canvas to see the 'whole'. The effect is a work that shifts and shimmers as you pass it, drawing you in to inspect and then asking that you step back and take in the whole. These pieces are made to take time.

Self-defined as a ‘kinetic’ artist, Cruz-Diez finally moves beyond the canvas altogether; at the end of his MALBA exhibition, viewers are invited to slip gauzy hair-nets over their shoes and enter an all-white room: white floors, white ceilings, and white walls. Except that nothing is really white; the gallery is cordoned off by half-walls, and each ‘half-room’ exudes a color. Light is the medium here, light and white walls. An all-pink room envelops you, the pink, boxed bulb in the center of the room radiating more the heat of the pink than the light of it. A similar blue room induces melancholy, and a green room invigorates. At least, these were my impressions; each colored room absorbed me, completely shifting, albeit momentarily, how I felt. It was an amazing end to a truly powerful exhibit, one where I entered so many rooms, shifted between so many dimensions and so many times of day. It was a Rothko-like immersion, that all-absorbing color, except in this case the light was literal.

Cruz-Diez was born in Caracas in 1923. He’s divided his time between Mexico and France since 1960, and has exhibited extensively on both those continents.  I encourage you to see his works up close if you’re ever given the chance, and I’ll leave you, my dear readership, with this excerpt from Mari Carmen Ramirez’s essay, “The Issue At Stake is Color,” as printed in MALBA’s write-up, ‘Carlos Cruz-Diez: El color en el espacio y en el tiempo.’

Cruz-Diez immerses us in unprecedented situations—what he calls ‘événements,’ or events—in which color happens, becoming several things at once; an unsuspected dimension of space; an unrestrained, real-time experience; and an essential means for reconditioning and stimulating our senses.

Portrait of the artist (daylife.com)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Reaching Esquel

for Paul

There's been an absence of actual writing on my blog, and that's because I've been struggling with what to say about Patagonia. It’s not that I don’t want to share things with my beloved readership, for Patagonia was incredible; it’s that I've been afraid, because I know that a post about reaching Patagonia won't be like any other post.

Esquel, a small city four hours south (by bus) of Bariloche, was the last city Paul reached. The Old Patagonian Express, literally, brought him there on rickety tracks. I, on the other hand, flew into the tiny Esquel airport from Buenos Aires with my father and brother. And although we took a twenty-two hour bus ride back to Buenos Aires, and although there have been times when Paul has flown and I have ridden many hours over dirt roads, I still feel a twinge, knowing I wasn't on that last train. 

It’s how I began eleven months ago; flying into Guatemala City, though Paul had taken the train. Esquel happened so fast; the wheels touched down and then the desert was everywhere. There was the rush of pictures we snapped, standing in the wild airport wind, and the air traffic controller who ushered us on. The purple gray of ash, the ribbons of loose, brick-red stone, and the blotted blue of the enormous sky. The same snowy strip of peaks Paul gazed at. That was all, and then we were hustled away.

Paul described it like this: “Ahead,” he wrote, “there was a succession of hills, whittled and fissured by the wind, which now sang in the bushes. The bushes shook with this song. They stiffened again and were silent.”


Although his book was, in part, the inspiration for my year in Latin America, Paul and I are not connected in the way I’d imagined we would be, having followed his route for so long. I now realize we’ve had different goals and different means, and in forty years so much can change. I think I just kept waiting, as I made my way down and compared my experiences to Paul's, for some epiphany, some moment when he felt and saw exactly what I felt and saw, but that never came and I know now that I shouldn't be surprised. A man’s experience traveling solo will always differ drastically from a woman's, but beyond that, Paul and I consistently made different choices about places, and took away such different impressions. We are different people, and that helps me to feel less sorry for missing the particular Patagonian silence he described.

Anyway, haven't I known other silence? Haven't I listened alone to the wind, the way it shifts and pauses, so many times? And didn't I always know that I could never travel the way he did, fast through every town and forest, and over, without stopping, every peak? His relationships were fleeting ones (well, with a few admittedly notable exceptions, and a nod to Borges). Paul never entered a rural school on his way to Patagonia; he never walked a dirt road to a mountain town. 

So hadn't I better ask myself, instead, what Mary Elvira Stevens would have wanted? What would have mattered most to her? The fellowship's parameters state that "preference shall be given to persons with good temper and a natural generosity of view when confronted with alien conditions, common sense in observing and comprehending social, economic, and political situations, a strong desire to travel, and a deep love of beauty."

Have you done your best to keep your cool? Mary might have asked me. I imagine she was a woman with a little glimmer in her eye, a little streak of wildness behind the put-together, old-school Wellesley exterior. Have you shown common sense? And I would admit to her that I have, almost always. I think she'd understand that. Have you wondered, have you explored? She’d ask, a smile playing at the edge of her mouth. Have you read, have you learned?

And I would tell her in reply that this year, I’ve opened so many doors. I have laughed and wept to extremes. So many things have caught my breath; so many nights I’ve spent alone. But above all that, I’ve been so lucky, I would tell her, to have fallen in love so many times, with so many streets and forests and markets, and with so many people. I've seen so much beauty, I can promise Mary that, and I can only hope, now, that some of that graces the page.

As I’ve written before, the year’s not over. My life, for now, is in Buenos Aires, where rain beats on the roof in the night, turning the grass in the morning green. It’s a city of trees on the sidewalks: weeping willows in Palermo and the ten-story-high jacarandas that line my Barracas street. The light, now that it's springtime, seems always to be luminous, ethereal and muted through the leaves. In the evening the cobblestones look golden. I try not to count the days I have left, but instead to wrap the city around me. Walking the streets, I'm a breath and nothing more. I feel almost wild with freedom, and my sleep runs thick with dreams.


So thank you, Paul, for your map and your book. Thanks for reminding me there are trails across continents, and that sooner or later, you can get almost anywhere. I hope our routes cross again someday, and I wish you the best, wherever on this planet you are.

I’ll end these musings, for now, with a quote I am shamelessly stealing from Christine’s blog. The following comes from Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 short-story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies.

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”