In the fall of 2006, I loaded a backpack with the things of travel–neutral colored t-shirts, travel sized toothpaste and lotion, a token classic novel, point-and-shoot, a large and awkward power adapter named Samantha–and I took trains, buses, cars, planes and cargo ferries through Chile and Argentina. It was a time when my attraction to the outer limits of land and culture was met. In the dry and windy places, the cold and dreary places, on winding roads and narrow foreign streets, this was where my introversion was finally quelled, and for a while, I became part of the world.
I still hadn’t learned to push myself to be particularly uncomfortable, but it was there that I learned how to start. Often in utter isolation, I sat on ripped bus seats with springs poking through, and I bounced around on a tiny cot in a ferry, rolling through the rough Patagonian sea. I rode on rusty teleféricos and drank coffee with strangers with the passing gleam of interest in their eyes. Through cracked and dirty windows, I snapped photos of poverty, of small cafés, glaciers, strange animals, and places of sublime quiet. I read about the nearly naked natives that generations ago lived on the tops of the rugged mountains in Tierra del Fuego, pelted with wet, cold wind, who built constant bonfires to keep warm. I saw dense sepia photos of a chief wearing a bizarre head-dress with horns, and occasionally, this eerie and fearsome man and the fires of Tierra del Fuego appear and trouble me in dreams.
It was a time when my solitude and loneliness were complemented and offset by foreign scenery, fascinating cultures and histories, and extremities of weather and
locale, and a pervasive sense of being lost. I was again drawn to the sea, because sometimes I am drawn to fear, and I felt the beginnings of the terror and veneration that the ocean so easily instills, especially in the meanness of the southern ocean.
I discovered the cold beauty of Santiago, Chile in the fall, flanked by the Andes mountains and whose streets were filled with the loose Spanish of Chileans. The cops, apparently, were honest and above corruption and bribes, and the ladies were pretty and showed me the pisco sour.
There is a place near the southernmost point where a human can stand, on the edge of South America, where one can see the occasional sail boat slide by and bob in the choppy sea. Even from the vantage point of the land, Cabo de Hornos and its rocky nakedness instilled feelings of insignificance, and brought to my mind sharp-edged icons of exploration, like Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and Edmund Hillary. But I also thought of Don Quixote, in his personal crusade, fighting against imaginary foes in a flurry of insignificance and silliness. Although fundamentally less interesting and daring, I, while traveling, liked to imagine myself imitating something between those two archetypes (laughable, yes). Being at the extremities of land, I seem to want to hurl myself into a ill-advised confrontation with the world, like a child fencing in front of a mirror, wielding a cardboard épée. And there, as I watched a boat sail by on its way to the eastern coast of Argentina, I made the decision to some day cross an ocean by boat. A few years later, I helped sail a Moorings 39 catamaran from Cape Town, South Africa to the Panama Canal, but I still haven’t made my own reconciliation between meaning and folly. Perhaps I never will.