Friday, December 7, 2007

A Land Apart

After eight solid months without leaving Patagonia, I feel as if I’ve crawled through a black hole and landed on another planet here in Santiago. The concrete jungle sprawls before me, seeming more foreign and impenetrable than the overgrown forests near Puyhuapi, more thundering than the Rio Baker, and more solitary than the winding road to Caleta Tortel. I sit on a terrace high above the city, listening to the drone of accelerating busses and honking horns, and watching the sun turn the mountains pink through the smog. The city has its own beauty, in the rambling streets and Spanish architecture, in the close movement of the people, and in the pulsing rhythm of constant activity. But I find emptiness in my stomach that longs for the quiet persistence of the tea kettle on the woodstove, the howling wind that rattles the steel roof, and the stoic, weatherworn faces of gauchos selling truckloads of firewood. I am just a few days out of Patagonia, and I already feel like I am trying to grab on to something that is so far away it doesn’t exist.

I am afraid of forgetting.

I never thought I’d miss getting up early. I’m not a fan of early mornings, and the pitch black, cold mornings of Patagonian winter elevated the morning routine to a new level of torture. No amount of Nescafe or maté could ever make up for arriving at school in the dark. I hated those mornings. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, those ugly mornings take on a new light. I picture my kids, all lined up in morning formation, each class separated into boys and girls and ordered from shortest to tallest. The woodstoves were rarely lit; and if they were, they did little to heat the huge, drafty hallway. I remember those countless days, shuffling past them all, and seeing their sleepy faces peer out from hats and scarves as I passed. In eight months and with various colds, dog bites, and other maladies, I missed only one day of school because I knew they would be disappointed if I wasn’t there. In Patagonia, I was a hero.

Here, on this other planet of commerce and movement, I look across the rooftops and imagine a suitable path through which to navigate. I can imagine myself, swallowed up in the whole mess, feeding emptiness with cappuccinos and dreaming of lost horizons. I wonder for how long I will remember my students’ names; or more importantly, their faces. I want this epic adventure at the bottom of the world to stick to my ribs and stay there forever, but I know it is impossible to freeze a feeling and save it from the mind’s tendency to forget.

And so my Patagonia heroism fades into the past as all things must do, but I find surprising comfort in the words of a Santiago bank teller. She asks me where I will be spending Christmas, and I reply that I am heading back down to Coyhaique. “The spirit of the south has stuck to you,” she says, “You have the face. The faces in the south are different.” I smile to myself and walk home through the crowded streets, where I stare into the bathroom mirror and wonder what she saw. Maybe, just maybe, I will not be swallowed up after all.