East Africa Notebook Scraps

I’m still a sucker for the names of places.

In Addis Ababa, the flight boarding to Asmara

A guy walked past in a white tunic with pink vest and a pillbox hat. There were the veiled ladies cracking themselves up and the guy in a natty blue suit with a Burberry bag and the family where the Dad would have fit in at the Battery in San Francisco, Chelsea boots and a tweed blazer. The mother wore a full black hijab, and the daughter wore a sweatshirt and shiny sandals with her hair in many braids. She giggled with glee as she played on the floor. I watched a group of Italian tourists playing cards and started to remember what it’s like to travel, and why.

Kampala

I was scared to leave Ana’s house to go to my first meeting so I just left without checking my map, walked through the gate with my heart pounding. I got red dirt on my new sneakers, which are technically just recycled waterbottles well-packaged by Silicon Valley. At the supermarket with chickens in front I started breathing again when I asked for directions and remembered I’ve been the one who looks different before.

Being a passenger on the back of a boda boda at rush hour in Kampala may be the best way to reach a state of equanimity and enlightenment. Do you have control of your fate, of your body in space, of how close your driver gets to the car next to you? Nope, so you might as well enjoy the view and hope for the best. I watched the women with bananas on their heads, the barefoot kids, a guy running with weights, the high school students walking home wearing Beats headphones. In my mind, that city is hills, exhilaration and exhaust, clenching the back rail of a boda boda on the way home to Ana’s apartment.

Lake Mburu

It started raining on our way to Lake Mburu, red dirt puddles and kids pulling their cattle. Eyes on the road and things to see, talking about UBI and impact investing, unspooling life, eating snacks. We got pulled over for “speeding”  – the muzungu tax, Eric said, 50,000 shillings. The officer had a smile around his mouth.

Onward. We stopped for food on the side of the road near a sign that said “corruption in procurement worsens poverty.” We watched an egg bubble and expand on a griddle, watched a chappati brown, watched the quick hands of the men who must stand there all day. One guy had small gold glasses and tried to charge us 6000 shillings when it should have been 3000. “No no no, my friend!” Ali exclaimed. He smiled sheepishly, but wouldn’t go lower than 4000. “You requested salt,” he said.

Worth it - a Rolex may be better than a breakfast taco. At the park the next day, I woke up from a bad dream and ran into zebras on a muddy road.

Kisoro

To get to the gorillas in Mgahinga, we took a matatu to a bus to a taxi. On the matatu, a woman suckled her baby with Mountain Dew. On the bus, we watched music videos on loop over a rich soundsystem and it felt like a tropical vacation, steel drums and bananas trees passing by the open windows. We talked about the midterm elections. Ali said the US was tense and violent, which certainly feels true if you compare the view out any Greyhound to the view from this bus. The Earth heaved in amazing ways, making mounds of black dirt dressed in green. There were men selling sheets when the bus stopped, women sitting with their cabbages, babies getting haircuts. Inside the bus, the music videos played over and over, women in love and done wrong with their head wraps and their hips telling the story.

When we arrived in Kisoro, it was dusk and everyone was walking along the road, a few women in jeans, but mostly in dresses, long skirts, and shawls so bright I realized I may have never seen color before them. The little girls had short hair and party dresses. One smiled at me huge and said, “give me money!”

Kisoro to Kigali

Breakfast in Kisoro was $3, plaintain and potato and green bean in a spicy sauce while kids were walking to school in the mist.

We drove to the border crossing listening to Bosco’s radio, airy songs which he told us were mostly Rwandese. “This one, it’s for angels of the genocide,” he said. The volcanos are lavender before the sun has risen. So many people killed so many others here. You can’t help but thinking that as you cross the border into Rwanda.

We took another bus, along roads lined with straight rows of trees like a French estate. The lady next to me sang for most of the two hours and helped her friend swipe through what must have been Rwandese Tinder. Wind through the windows, up and around hills that I imagined chiefs surveying long ago until we arrived in Kigali, where the Radisson conference center marks the skyline like a sentry for a new economy.

Dinner in Kigali was $23, a weird mélange of ginger cocktails and avocado fries in a big lodge room full of expats. The evening streets quiet, no one walking.

Nairobi

On the plane to Nairobi, more men wore suits and read the business section, and a pastor asked me if I were Christian. The city pulsates in my mind still. My five-block radius encompassed three malls, mobile money, a swimming pool, transit strikes, laughing colleagues, local founders, expat founders, carrot cake, Chinese noodles, and ginger juice. At the Indian supermarket in the mall next door to my hotel, Africans, Asians, and blonde girls bought yogurt and peanuts and curry. I learned how to walk on sidewalks that sometimes disintegrated into dust, how to dodge cars when I crossed the road, and how to call my Uber driver with directions. On the drive to Ruiru to see BURN’s factory, there was a woman sleeping by the tomatoes she was selling at midday, reclined like a Manet subject except exhausted.

Hell’s Gate

I went to Hell’s Gate Park by myself on Saturday morning after it turned out I would not, in fact, be able both to crash a wedding in northern Kenya and make my flight out from Nairobi on Sunday. In an obstinate quest for an adventure, which turned out to be very hot and a little underwhelming, I spent four quiet hours in a car, which was in fact was the adventure, expanding my understanding of Kenya beyond a sexy Nairobi that’s using technology to change the world. This Kenya was green forests and trash-lined red dirt roads, small mobile money kiosks painted with Safaricom ads, monkeys on the median, butcher-shop-hotel combos (who stays there??), long-strided runners, Masaii kids in t-shirts and flipflops shepherding goats, and a valley whose expansiveness made it feel like the floor of the whole world.

Addis Ababa Again

When we arrived in Addis, a stewardness was sobbing. The first customer service desk was in Chinese. At 11 pm, a motley crowd of safari-shirted Americans, Italian couples with matching backpacks, and Kenyan businessmen drank Ethiopian coffee, which is served with popcorn. We boarded the next flight.

I want to be like the people who still stop on the gangway to take a picture of the plane, approaching the world with wonder, seeing not a plane but a giant metal bird preening its wings before flying around the world. When I woke up, I was in Paris.

From the Archives, More Than Sky

I had heard the story. A woman bought the unfinished framework of a one-story house in a field and started to build it higher and wider. The wind-bleached wood looked like bones against the blue February sky. As she scrambled between the ribs of the top floor she whistled, the neighbors say—continuous whistles, as if she only ever breathed one breath. When the season spread into spring, and then summer, she became quiet. She ran out of songs, one neighbor said, but I bet she just wanted to listen to the heavy hum of cicadas. She bought a harness and belayed herself up and down each of the six outer walls to shingle them with cedar. By the end of the summer she was brown, and her hair had turned blonde. She painted the cedar shingles white. In the autumn, when the frost stiffened the fields, the neighbors didn’t see her anymore. They could hear hammering from inside, and sometimes a drill.

No one else ever touched the house’s bones, they tell me, though when I climb up the stairs years after they say she began it seems incredible. The rooms are complete and smooth. The second floor is made out of windows. There is no furniture. To the right of the staircase, on the third floor, there’s a small hexagonal room. The woman has a low, square table set on top of a Turkish carpet, and stacks of paper, and a jar of yellow pencils. It’s February, and the water in a clear drinking glass is frozen. I look up and notice there’s no ceiling. The woman looks up from a sheaf of lined paper. Such a pleasure, she says, to wake up to that blue sky.

Long Weekend

On Sunday, we found an abandoned pool club on the Rio Grande. Four pools, hot tub, beer (warm) still in the bars. Mexico on the other side of the river and border patrol vans driving by.

In the old Spanish chapel next to it, a woman prayed and gave us dirty looks for our dirty feet. I stayed outside, bare shoulders. 

We kept driving along the military highway that tracks the river and the border - past a burned out monastery that sits on a Catholic schools campus, past old men drinking beers and shooting doves pop-pop  from folding lawn chairs, past the road bridge to Mexico, past a small red bar called El Vaquero, right under that bridge, past about a mile of shipping warehouses with NAFTA flags. 

I bought poblano peppers and bistec suave from the meat market, La Michoacana, got looks because I was the only white girl. A father and son joked while they waited in line with the butcher. I drove home missing the evening light in NJ, joking with my parents in our kitchen. I cooked for my roommates and my hands burned for two hours after from the pepper seeds, reminding me that I did not come here to feel at home. 

Sunbathing

I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in Cancun, on a beach under a sun that laughs at you for previously thinking you could tan. The book made sense there. Junot Diaz calls the places that speckle the Caribbean sea surreal, for their heat and their water and the true myths of their histories, and Cancun definitely fits the bill. It’s Disney surreal, not the dirt-floors-and-guns absurdity of countries under dictatorships, but still - you question the reality of the whole place. The sun that pulls sweat out of your pores and dulls your brain. The water that’s brighter blue than a blue raspberry Slurpee. The sand and the high-rise hotels that are blinding white; the fact that someone thought to line a thin strip of barrier shore with those high-rises in the first place; the fact that in high season every room in every one of them is occupied by people who are escaping their own reality, wherever in the world that may be. 

Maybe most surreal was the documentation of that escape. Everywhere we looked: phones out to capture arms reaching to the sky, hats at a jaunty angle, abs tightened. Props, I guess, to the numerous women I saw attempting the complicated mermaid-selfie maneuver: lounge in foamy surf in small string bikini, take selfie without drowning phone or self. 

So on this beach, drifting in and out of sleep, I was reading Oscar Wao, a story that’s basically about how real life can feel like a fable and dreams can infiltrate reality. The sentences of sneakily poetic slang, Dominican and American, went down like cool water because that’s how my brain feels, right now, a total mezcla. It’s running back towards sure-footed English but feeling like it’s picked up a few words in Spanish it doesn’t want to let go. 

I fell asleep on a page where Junior, our main guide through all this quilombo, is talking about his drives around Paterson and Camden and Perth Amboy. Place names and their peculiar gravity. These are the cities on the highway signs on my way home from the Newark airport. Like Oscar Wao’s Dominican grandmother La Inca is stringing their names together, incanting me home. 

Somewhere else, Yunior talks about “a particularly Jersey malaise - the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres,” but I woke up sunburnt on a surreal beach to the feeling that this time the longing is for places that are real, that are already there. 

Notebook Scraps from Mexico

//Time started here with oranges. On the way from Tuxtla to San Cristobal, when I was giddy with arrival, the bus driver stopped by the side of the road, bought a bag of oranges warm with sun. He passed me one. Its peel was scraped away, leaving a thin white spiral of pith like a planet’s rings. 

 

//I’m enjoying my newfound status as pure tourist. I wore flip flops in town yesterday and running shoes today. 

But I took photos in a place where they said not to take photos and all of a sudden it felt like I was taking it too far. It was in San Juan Chamula, a church near San Cristobal. The building is a Catholic church, built by the Spanish when they invaded, but its shell protects the beliefs and the rituals of the indigenous community. Inside, there are pine needles on the marble floor and a tree in the back corner by the shrine of the Virgin Mary. The entire perimeter of the church is lined with fire - hundreds of tall candles in glass jars, a tribute to the God of the sun. People kneel on the floor and sacrifice chickens to chase away spirits of sickness, swig from a bottle of clear alcohol, light thin colored candles that leave wax puddles on the floor. I’m still trying to figure out why I couldn’t just see it, why I had to try to take a piece of it away with me. 

 

//One day, we left at 5 am to drive in a white van with six other tourists to see waterfalls and Mayan ruins. The van stopped at 8 am at a roadside restaurant where the buffet served beans and rice, plantains, or pancakes to people who had emerged from about twenty other white vans. We rolled in a caravan, with a police escort, to the first waterfalls. We ate lunch facing the waterfall and had the bittersweet pleasure of watching people pose for photos that they'll show their coworkers or grandchildren next Monday. They used selfie sticks, drones, long arms, and/or an iPad on a stand in a bush. 

At the top of a temple in the Palenque, the Mayan ruins, a guy in a straw hat held up a black flag of the Harley Owner’s Group of some small town in France. 

The frogs, or the bugs, sound like the whine of an arriving UFO. Not too far from the realm of possibility, if you believe the Mayans built UFOs. 

 

//They grow coffee here, for Starbucks and Green Mountain coffee. There's no time for much subsistence farming when the coffee day is over, so many of these indigenous communities don't see a lot of vegetables. Beans, onion, tortillas; maybe some tomatoes. The chicken is all free range (on your house floor) and beef is almost non-existent. Kids drink soda, which is cheaper than bottled water and cleaner than well water. Sometimes, Ali said, she stayed with families who could only scrounge together cookies and coffee for dinner, before waking up in the morning to harvest the beans for Starbucks again. 

 

//On the night bus from Tuxtla to D.F., Mexico City, the driver played a movie about a prison uprising and the bus stopped two times so that federal police could check for drugs in the sides of the bus and in everyone’s backpacks. After the second stop, in the final scene of the violent prison movie, a baby in the front of the bus wouldn't stop crying.   

 

//Every street corner we’ve passed in D.F. smells like lime. There is so much food on the street in so many different colors. By the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there was a cart bursting with bouquets of fried snacks. Red, green, orange - the same color as the fruit they sell In cups, watermelon, lime, mango, all with a dusting of chili if you want. A woman fries black tortillas with orange filling, lets you ladle red or green sauce. 

 

//Flying into Mexico City from the flat Yucatan, you understand why Tenochtitlan was the first city of empire.  That Aztec city was made strong by mountains. Today, Mexico’s main city spits houses over hills like its ancestor did. Shafts of light strike the mountains;the clouds are the serpents’ wings.

On Uruguay: Painting with a Broad Brush and a Gourd of Mate in my Other Hand

 

The curtains on every bus I took around Uruguay opened  to green, rolling and rocky views - unexpected mountains, extensive grasslands. A nation of grasslands. To me, agriculture gives the country some coherence. But there’s a lot more to say than that, or that it’s the Switzerland of South America, or the country that elected as president a former guerrilla named Jose Mujica. The Uruguayan puzzle I've started to put together is part traditional mindset, part progressive politics - and part something else I haven't found yet. 

Over two months, I stayed in the capital, Montevideo; a mid-sized city, Salto; a large coastal town, La Paloma; and a tiny coastal town, Punta del Diablo, that in the summer swells to a resort. I passed through two other mid-sized cities, Tacuarembo and Rocha. In all of these places, I was struck by the general homogeneity of the houses. In Montevideo, of course, there are luxury towers and beautifully preserved (or elegantly crumbling) old palaces; but in general, people live in small, one- or two- story cement houses. Bars on the windows, and gates to a courtyard; maybe a place to park a car. It’s a place where people have enough money to live and maybe go on vacation in January, and maybe buy their kids Samsung cellphones (iPhones are rare here) - but the luxury is not apparent as it is in Buenos Aires. I’m sure that if I spent time in Punta del Este or more time in Montevideo, my view would be complicated. But from what I hear, read, and understand, Uruguay is just chugging along. 

Before I came south, I had subscribed to Google alerts for Uruguay that had made me think that the country would be booming. My inbox was full of links to World Bank press releases and the Uruguayan Investment and Export Promotion Agency’s home page: a solar plant here, a wind power plant there, a proposal for an open pit iron mine that had passed an intensive social and environmental impact assessment.

I see more problems in those stories than I did before. After being to Pilar’s ranch in Salto, the timber forests that push at the edges of pastures seems sinister. After spending time in La Paloma and Punta del Diablo and the wild beaches further north, the thought of a deep water port (since put on hold!) in the middle of that beautiful coastline, one that Brazil and Bolivia would use, too, seems short-sighted. There’s not enough need to justify it; there’s too much wilderness to permit it. 

And what people told me is that there aren’t enough people to do the work projected for those big projects, either. “People don’t have the same values as they used to,” I kept hearing. Because the government gives out social security to people under a certain income level, they don’t bother to work, I was told. Pilar has a real labor shortage on her ranch. “There’s money to be made, but only for who wants it,” the hostel owners in La Paloma said. For anyone else, the government can supply enough to buy mate and cigarettes and beer.

I don’t know the details of any development projects well enough to say for sure - perhaps sustainability is truly taken into account, perhaps they projects will create jobs that will boost people’s livelihoods, maybe the new infrastructure would be a blessing for everyone. The roads are invariably bad, in cities and in country. “We’re really still a developing country,” I kept hearing, “Have you seen our roads?”

***

On my last day in Uruguay, I went to a conference about Benefit Corporations, or companies that are required, by charter, to seek not only economic but social and environmental impact. In the conference room of a sponsoring law firm in Montevideo, we heard about the history of B Corps, the story of the first certified Uruguayan B Corp, and the beginnings of a process to create a legal framework for B Corps in Latin America.

The coordinators of the Uruguayan hub, which currently consists of two companies, said that Uruguay could be a good place for more B corps to grow. It’s small and progressive enough to change legal frameworks and business culture within its borders, they said, and can then influence other countries in the region. At the coffee breaks people drank organic tea produced by an Argentine B Corps and took notes on their iPhones. The organizers were pleased with attendance - not just “save the earth types,” they said at lunch afterwards, but lawyers and businessmen, the people who have the tools to change the legal frameworks and push industry to seek that triple bottom line (financial, social, and environmental). 

In the evening, I met up with one of the organizers and her boyfriend. They were sitting at a corner bar in their neighborhood, wearing yoga pants and jorts, respectively, drinking mate and beer. We ordered sliders. She is Uruguayan but was raised in the US. She told me that coming back to Uruguay has brought her back to the basics, in a good way, but that Montevideo feels sleepy, for 20-somethings who are working in movements to change how the world works. Uruguayans may allow progressive policies to pass in their legislature, but in the end, she said, this is a place where you buy the same type of squash from the same corner grocery for thirty years without wanting to change it up. 

I’m in Rio de Janeiro now. Last night, I went to a party hosted by a group of young Brazilians who work in city government, congress, and a grassroots community organizing association. Before we arrived at their door, they had been hosting a meeting for a campaign to block a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility and send more teenagers to Brazil's dangerous prisons.

For the rest of the night, even as the sangria bowl emptied and the music pulsed louder, people wore bright red and green stickers on their t-shirts: Amanhecer contra a Redução, or "A new day against reducing the age." The whole campaign had been inspired, a friend told me, by how youth had mobilized and prevented a similar law from passing in Uruguay. 

Two Buenos Aires Stories

 

1.

They met in a church. The chapel was freshly painted turquoise for a bride wearing melon and pink. The Uruguayan priest cracked a few jokes and ended the service in fifteen minutes. The church spilled out 120 guests from France and Buenos Aires. The Argentines wore more colors and higher heels. His eyes were blue and her scarf was red.

They said goodbye in a bus station. She knew what his trip home would be like because he had told her when they met in the church. He loves arriving in Buenos Aires by ferry at sunset. The boat slides in and the city emerges like a Carlos Gardel tango, powerful and melancholy. 

2.

I went for a walk last night, after it got dark but before the heat lifted. There were closed storefronts with sounds behind them and a stream of bicycles on Cordoba. There were birdcages on a roof. There were shadows of trees and the smell of jasmine. There was a dog who looked like a lion, walking without a leash, and the flashing light of a TV behind a window, and a couple kissing in a dark corner with balletic grace. Over the railroad tracks, there was a block where people spilled onto the sidewalk in a bath of fluorescent light. 

This pulled me in like a moth to a lantern and pushed out delusions of poetry. It was a grill house in an old garage. I asked for a table and the man at the grill was kind but brusque because he had a whole lotta mouths to feed. At the tables on the sidewalk, groups of old men poured themselves more Quilmes and yelled about their wives. A mom cut pieces of steak for a two-year-old wearing a NASCAR shirt; a family argued over who got the last chorizo. A few guys in soccer clothes waited for takeout.

From my plastic table in the back room, I ordered a skirt steak and fries and a small bottle of wine and I didn’t end up bothering with the book I had brought  because the TV was playing a telenovela about a bunch of singing nuns with nicely-plucked eyebrows. The boy with the NASCAR shirt toddled into the room every few minutes, shrieked with joy at the screen, and went back to his mom. 

Just as my steak arrived on its metal platter, a group of about twenty guys filed in to the table a foot away from mine. Buen provecho, bon appetit, they said, one by one, smiling. 

I spent twenty minutes keeping my focus intently on the steak and the telenovela and trying to avoid eye contact. Apparently you can only do that for so long when you’re eating by yourself a foot away from a big group. 

“Where are you from?” the guy with the dreadlocks asked, when I accidentally looked up from my food. 

We had a pleasant conversation under that fluorescent lighting. It was his 29th birthday. The guy across from him spent a week in New York last year. They were all friends from high school. We cheersed to his 30th year. When my waiter brought my check, I paid for an extra bottle of Quilmes and asked him to bring it to their table after I left. Que lo pases hermoso, I said on my way out, suerte.

I walked home thinking about how there’s something really nice about stories you don’t make up. 

Will Hamilton

Of all the Hamiltons, Will lived with the least unfettered joy but the most money. While his siblings tied sofas to the back of carts so they could take two girls to the dance (Tom) or told bawdy stories to all the town’s women in the fitting room of a dress shop, so that those women left feeling less weight in their tired feet (Dessie), Will sold a lot of cars and ate expensive steak alone at the bar in Salinas.

But let’s not consign Will to the world of robots - let’s not make him the forebear of today’s office drone, the antecedent of the millions of collared-shirt-wearing humans held aloft in New York City office skyscrapers each day from 9-5. No, I think Will understood joy, too. He just calculated it in a different way. It was an input, not an outcome; it was a means to an end, not the end of his day with a few beers and a bunch of buddies. 

"From instinct and training in business, he was a fine reader of the less profound impulses of men and women." He understood how to take peoples’ quest for joy, or love, or comfort, or status, and turn it into the money old Sam Hamilton never had. I don’t think he minded sitting alone at the bar, absorbing the rest of the world and storing it for a future deal. Will had his feet firmly on the ground, but in his own way he saw wings. 

[[[Because you can think about John Steinbeck's East of Eden always and in every context. Sentence in quotes is from that epic, p. 252 I think based on the preview I can get on Google Books.]]]

Dining with Welders

Other than tonight, I’ve shared all of my dinners at the ranch with two welders, Aldo and Dino, who work for the joint Argentine-Chilean venture building an oil and gas pipeline from Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires. (This is probably the last time you’ll find me linking to OffShore Engineer).

They both drank Diet Coke with gusto and complained about being bored with their lot down here. As far as I can tell, they get paid to check three times a day on a water tank that will take two weeks to fill. For the rest of their waking hours, they watch subtitled American TV on the small screen in the corner of the living room and pass around mate, that tea that I’ve written about in practically every post because it is like people’s second oxygen in this part of the world. Last night, Dino forked out extra tomatoes - grown here, in a greenhouse - from our shared salad dish. He stopped talking for a moment.

Che, que pasa? asked Aldo. What's up, dude? 

-Es que tienen otro sabor de los del super, said Dino, with his eyes closed. They’re just an entirely different species from what you get in the supermarket.

He went home yesterday morning for Easter so last night it was just Aldo and me at dinner eating carrot soup and lamb cutlets. We have an easy, friendly banter, which was facilitated by the fact that he’s Italian and loves America, and also probably because he’s a welder and his job is often to be in places where there is nothing to do but shoot the shit. 

He’s a big guy to begin with, and only once in 72 hours of living in the same house have I seen him without a heavy blue parka that magnifies this bulky presence. He wears a Dolce and Gabbana chain necklace and he has two tattoos on his arm. For some reason, I have the impression that he has braces, but I never confirmed. 

Because we had also had lunch together for the past three days, I had already heard about his job with the water tank and he had already heard everything about TFA, including the controversy it sparks in various regions of the US. Over our soup last night, we talked about romance. Do you have a boyfriend, there in the US? he asked. I made something up for the sake of conversation, which is an game of theatrics I feel iffy about but keep playing anyway, with cab drivers and welders, for example. 

My story’s funny, he said. I met my wife in Argentina, we were boyfriend and girlfriend for two months, and then we got married, and then two weeks later we moved to Italy together and had a son. It happened so fast but you know, you just know, when someone’s the one for you. 

Aldo will be 50 when he finishes his Level 3 Welders' Certificate, but it’s worth it, he says, you can get paid 3000 pesos just for signing a piece of paper, then, and you can work from home. He imagines a whole home entertainment room; he’s already bought the pool table and he wants to add a bar. 

He’s all about the career change-up. How can you know what you want your life to be like when you’re 18, he asked. [It should be noted that as a dual Argentine-Italian citizen, he's required by law to speak expressively with his hands]. He can’t believe how expensive school is in the US, and neither can I, when I mention it. He studied HR, advertising, and being an airline steward. He recognized how improbable that last one seemed, and laughed at my reaction. When a friend got him a job as a welder at a Fiat factory near Salerno, he knew that was it. 

We also talked about how it was easier, and better to live in Italy than in Argentina; how there are tons of immigrants in Italy, grandsons of Italians who immigrated elsewhere; what sort of work he’d most like to do; whether I’ll go to business school; how the economy of Argentina is shit; building wind turbines and solar panels; the blue dollar rate (if you’re in Buenos Aires, he’ll buy your dollars!); how his apartment in Buenos Aires got robbed; and how he’d like to move back to a small town like where he was living in Italy.

When he had finished his fruit salad, he looked at his Samsung and saw he had to go check the tank one last time before getting on a plane to Buenos Aires, to surprise his wife and kid for Easter. 

Night Flight

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who is best known for writing the children's book The Little Prince, might have preferred the title aeronaut to author. In the 1930s, he spent a lot of time in - or over - Patagonia, flying mail for the Correo Sur. He drew Patagonia into The Little Prince, and Argentina drew his name onto its maps, naming one of the peaks in the Fitz Roy Range after him:

(The image on the left is from http://ibarrafernandez.blogspot.com.ar/2010/04/antoine-de-saint-exupery-en-la.html; the other is from Le Petit Prince)

This is a beautiful essay from Robert McFarlane on Saint-Exupery as humanist, environmentalist, aeronaut. 

Alejo, the new manager of the guest house at Monte Dinero, is also a pilot. When he moved down here two weeks ago from Buenos Aires, he brought a stack of books by Saint-Exupery, and he was nice enough to lend me one, Vuelo Nocturno/Vol de Nuit/Night Flight

In Daily Themes, we did a week on translation. The syllabus included this quote: Translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing…. It is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift. (Harry Mathews)

To make my brain move, I did a rough translation of a passage I liked from Vuelo Nocturno. I italicized where I added something. I'm including the Spanish at the bottom, which itself is a 1960 translation from the French by J. Benavent:

***

Descending over San Julian, with the plane’s engine running slower, Fabien felt tired. Everything that brightens the life of man was running towards him, getting bigger: the houses, the little cafes, the trees along the avenue. He was like a conqueror who, at the end of his days, starts paying attention to the places he’s collected and discovers the humble happiness of mankind. 

Fabien was feeling it would be nice to let down his guard, to allow himself to feel the clumsiness and exhaustion that were seizing him, and to live here like a simple man, who looks out at the same view every day. He would have accepted this little town: after choosing, he thought, you can take in stride the randomness of fate - love it, even. Choosing limits you in the same way love does – it digs you in deeper. Fabien would have liked to live here for a while, to gather here his share of eternity. He’d only be living for a relative hour, but the gardens of these little cities and their old walls, over which he flew, seemed outside of himself, timeless. …And he thought about friendships, girls, a simple white tablecloth - everything that can become timeless, too, when you know it. The little town was slipping as he skimmed over it with his wings, unfurling the mystery of its enclosed gardens, whose walls no longer protected them. But Fabien, after landing, knew that he had only seen the slow movement of a few men among stones. That town, by not moving, kept locked up tight its secrets; that little town rejected his gentleness: to enter it at all would mean renouncing action, standing still.  

***

Al descender sobre San Julian, con el motor en retardo, Fabien se sintió cansado. Todo lo que alegra la vida de los hombres corría, agrandándose, hacia el: las casa, los cafetuchos, los arboles de la avenida. El, parecía un conquistador que, en el crepúsculo de sus empresas, se inclina sobre las tierras del imperio y descubre la humilde felicidad de los hombres.

 Fabien experimentaba la necesidad de deponer las armas, de sentir la torpeza y el cansancio que le embargaban – ye también se es rico de las propias miserias  - y de vivir aquí cual hombre simple, que contempla a través de la ventana una visión ya inmutable. Hubiera aceptado esa aldea minúscula: luego de escoger, so conforma uno con el azar de la propia existencia y incluso puede amarla. Os limita como el amor. Fabien hubiera deseado vivir aquí largo tiempo, recoger aquí su porción de eternidad, pues las pequeñas ciudades, donde vivis una hora y los jardines rodeados de viejos muros, sobre los cuales volaba, le parecían, fuera de el, eternos en duración. La aldea subia hacia la tripulación, abriéndose. Y Fabien pensaba en las amistades, en las jovencitas, en la intimidad de los blancos manteles, en todo lo que, lentamente, se familiariza con la eternidad. La aldea se deslizaba ya rozando las alas, desplegando el misterio de sus jardines cercados, a los que sus muros ya no protegían. Pero Fabien, después de aterrizar, supo que solo había visto el lento movimiento de algunos hombres entre las piedras. Aquella aldea, con su sola inmovilidad, guardaba el secreto de sus pasiones; aquella aldea, denegaba su suavidad: para conquistarla hubiera sido preciso renunciar a la acción. 

 

Maps

Geography is tangible here. When Ricardo picked me up on Thursday and drove me the 200 kilometers from Rio Gallegos to his family’s sheep ranch, Monte Dinero, he interrupted our conversation to narrate our coordinates. Now we’re going west, towards the border with Chile; now we’re going south; and now east, tracking the border again, which cuts across this land like a crack in a piece of terracotta. 

te ubicas?

Understanding your cardinal position in the world must be important when you are reaching the extremes of a continent, or a planet. You feel a curve in the earth when you look at a map and see that here, we are at Mile 0 of Ruta 40, the road that runs all the way up Argentina’s long spine. We are at the end of continental America. (Ushuaia, the main city of Argentine Tierra del Fuego, the island that sits right below us, ups the ante: it’s “the end of the world”). These superlatives can be used to sell things. Monte Dinero plays its touristic cards well by calling its tea house “Al Fin y al Cabo” - “In the End,” a nice word play that also refers to the Cabo, the point that juts out into the Straits of Magellan. Ricardo and his wife Marcela have tried for years to start a public school on the ranch and finally succeeded this year, an election year, because regional politicians saw the benefit in funding “The Southernmost school in Argentina.”

Here more than anywhere I’ve been, I want to see where I am on a map. The land itself orients you but it’s almost like you need to remind yourself that the extremity is real. Yes, here I am, a dot on the edge. [Humans have impacted this area a lot more than this wild feeling would give away, but that’s another topic].

We drove far out into the ranch today to look for the dogs who guard Monte’s sheep. They are Maremma sheep dogs; maybe it was just our relative proximity to Antarctica, but seen through binoculars from the truck they looked like polar bears. They’re ferocious with most creatures other than the sheep they’re born with and the humans who train them. Ricardo, Joel, Jeremy and I stayed in the truck while Marcela said hello to them. When she had had her time, we turned the truck around and started the drive back to the house. We had to stop for a moment. Marcela went silent and the boys looked up from their cellphone video game because at the end of the sea of grass was the Atlantic Ocean bright blue and holding down the horizon. 

sea and polar bears

The Circus

You forgot that in Argentina, you probably didn't need to book a taxi online and ahead of to take you to the airport for a 5:25 am flight. At 4 am, taxis crawl the streets, a nocturnal rush hour. The drivers are wide awake - no hushed radio stations here. Your cab driver gestured so big with both hands when he spoke that he almost hit a bus. 

You forgot that in Argentina, life continues at 4 am as if it were lunch time. You drove by street corners where people sat at plastic tables and ate hamburgers under fluorescent lights. Groups spilled out of bars onto fractured sidewalks, clutching liter bottles of beer. There was a free concert in the Plaza Serrano and more people out than had been at 4 pm. Street lights and shadows are a reverse alarm clock. 

At 4 am, the airport, too, was busy. People seemed to ignore the time of day. A woman wore bright green eyeliner and leather pants; a family with a small child ate croissant and drank coffee

Today is the Memorial Day for the Malvinas/Falklands War, and Friday is Good Friday, and Sunday is Easter, so people are getting out of Buenos Aires to the mountains in the south and the vineyards in the north and they made the airport bustle with good-natured energy. 

Still, you can't get out of your head what you saw at an intersection near the airport in a sort of highway no-man's land: three scrawny guys wearing sweatshirts and faux Adidas shorts, taking turns juggling at red lights for the hope of a coin from these people on their way to vacation.

On Sidewalks and Walls, at Least 13 of Them

 

Gracias, che, Wallace Stevens (13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird)

1.

I went for a walk this evening when I was sleepy. I wanted the reality of my feet on pavement and tangible proof that this is a melancholy city like everyone says.

I walked past parents waiting to pick up their kids at school. I walked through a 6-block area of clothing outlets. I sat at a cafe and bought a coffee. On my way home, it was dusk, and through an open window I heard four friends cooking dinner in their first floor apartment.

2.

On a wall near this apartment, in simple black lines, five mothers of disappeared children hold a car over their heads. The iron goods store is missing a letter on its sign. Plmberia. Light shines through. A window’s open playing the radio, tango. 

3.

There are 500,000 registered dogs in this city. Some starving artists and/or talented dog whisperers walk 20 dogs at a time for extra money. That’s 20 dogs walking on a sidewalk at once, and one person who is probably not paying attention to the pooper scooping laws. Just saying. 

4.

That was the prettiest one we’ve seen yet today, the construction worker said, when the girl with the long ponytail was just a step past him. Te cojo todo, said the old man, when the girl in the short uniform skirt of the middle school walked by. Ay mamiii, the dude on motorcycle whistled, then slurped. And so 89% of women in Buenos Aires say they often change the route they take to get to work, or school. 

5.

I crossed the street to buy a lighter. A man walked home singing a song I didn’t know, skipping the sidewalks altogether.

6.

You can take a graffiti tour of Buenos Aires, I’m told. For $25 USD, you can tour four neighborhoods by foot and by van, learning about how the urban art scene was born in the fire of the military dictatorship. 

7.

The poor man’s graffiti tour: count how many times you see a wall scrawled with nunca mas, nunca mas. Never again, never again. 

8.

I was going to say these sidewalks are shadowy, but that implies they’re creepy. Around here, the shadows cradle the night. In the shadow of a fig leaf, you can see it’s green, growing, covering the sidewalk with photosynthesized light. 

9.

What are Buenos Aires sidewalks like in the morning? Does Buenos Aires have a morning? The night ends at 5 a.m., and you sleep until noon. Do you dream of sidewalks? 

10.

There’s a sidewalk, he told me, his voice slow and deliberate, savoring each word. It’s in Abasto, where he lives, a neighborhood that's still a neighborhood. In the day, old men with big bellies sit on benches and yell. Che, che, tomamos unos matés?  He puffs out his belly in imitation and turns his voice to an aged squawk. You guys, wanna drink some maté!? Then his voice sinks deep again and he smiles at me. I love that sidewalk. 

11.

Look down, cause you’ll trip if you don’t. Hexagonal tiles ripple in mounds over tree roots. Look down. Someone pulled the Tetris blocks off the screen and made them a sidewalk. Look down. Across the street from where the murals are brightest, most beautiful, the ground opens up into dust and an open manhole. 

12.

Look up. There’s crumbled sidewalk dust and an open manhole and a manhole construction crew, but across the street a mural covers a white house with bright green leaves and technicolor flowers.

13.

I tried to get that mural on my camera. It was washed out. I tried to get two houses on my camera. They were washed out, nowhere near pink and orange, nowhere near the warmth of the light that hit them. 

I’m not sure you can photograph any of these walls. You can only see them walking slowly, moving past them, letting them go. 

From the Archives

I bet there is a Borges quote or a Carlos Gardel tango line about how Buenos Aires is a city of nostalgia.

This piece has nothing to do with Buenos Aires, but my posting it here is an act of nostalgia. Right now, my working definition of nostalgia is "the feeling you get after you read 45 short pieces you wrote in your senior spring of college."

I just went through all the prompts from Daily Themes, a writing class I took two years ago, in order to find a few to play with here. Of course, this led me to what I wrote in response to them. 

***

8. Tuesday at the Lodges

 “Harry and Elenita got a new puppy,” she had said a few months ago. “Cache-cache. It means hide-and-seek in French, you know. The most delicious dog!”

At dinner at the Lodges Cache-cache sat under the white-clothed table and there were buttery baked tomatoes on our plates and the rain dripped under eave lights on the slate outside and Uncle Harry spoke in time with wine about Japanese art and the art of being a good doctor and over dessert they laughed about Nonna’s sweet tooth and the way she would regally demand to check her email on vacation and the rain kept dripping under eave lights on the slate outside the most horrendous weather and so and so and Cache-Cache under the table eating crumbs and so wine lights drip would, Laura would, remember? transform from a missing presence to a person who has died some time ago, now.