Ágætis byrjun

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The ground is warm against my back and I can feel blades of grass tickling my earlobes. The bright, green grass is kissed with water droplets that dampen my white, fuzzy pullover. A bright, Patagonian summer sun is beaming down on my closed eyes and I am determined not to open them even though all I want to do is take in as much of this unfamiliar place as possible. Glacial water is lapping at the shoreline just a few yards away, my ears recognize the familiar shutter of a camera somewhere behind me, the interminable wind has become a familiar song. Tangled up in the noise, a sound begins to stand out more prominently than the rest. It is not a sound or note that nature could make, it’s a chime or maybe a bell. The tone is rich and deep. Listening blindly, my thoughts get lost. Surrendering my mind, the metaphorical gears stop turning and I feel more whole than I have in my entire life.

It did not start that way.

Fumbling with my passport, boarding pass and a six-dollar pack of raw almonds, I rocked on my heels waiting to board a big plane named LATAM. I resisted the urge to pick apart my boarding pass and worried my ring instead, spinning the silver band around my finger. Gripping two important documents and a snack between my fingers, the butterflies in my stomach were overpowering. The airport chatter and the voice over the intercom become background noise. I have this small, negative thought deep down that’s telling me I should not leave. Go back. I glance behind me and a cheerful Bryan Partridge smiles at me. I turn my head back front and center, recognizing that this feeling isn’t mine, it’s an old message that was planted deep down inside a long time ago. The fear to move forward, to exhibit control, independence. I grab this feeling by the roots and pull it up and out by flashing my passport and boarding pass to a tiny woman in blue behind a grey counter. I board the plane at a light jog to catch up with Kourtney and Lauren, excited for whatever is ahead of me, some twenty hours south.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

Thirty-seven thousand feet in the air, Bailey, Lauren and I shrug at each other, succumbing to airline drinks and an airplane dinner of chicken risotto. The man in front of me reclined his seat for the entirety of the flight while my legs jetted awkwardly into the aisle, battered and bruised by the clunky, rolling cart of dinners. I fell in and out of sleep, never for more than a few minutes at a time before pins and needles in my feet or a restless baby woke me up. Through a pair of white ear buds not even the sweet, sleepy vocals of Sigur Rós could sing me to sleep. At five in the morning, a flight attendant shook my shoulder and held up a cup. I groggily agreed to a cup of coffee, packet of sugar and powder creamer. The powder clumped together, and I quickly gulped the gross, thick concoction, desperate for enough caffeine to make it through another flight.

Santiago airport was a blur. Tripping over our feet, we tried to keep up with a fast, tall, Grateful Dead tie-dye. When we’d pause at baggage claim or have a brief lull in pin balling through the airport, Eric Simon would spin on his heel with wide eyes and start counting under his breath. I yawned through the PDI line, sleeping with my eyes open, waiting to be stamped into the country.

I handed over my passport to a stone-faced man behind a glass box. He wordlessly screened my passport with his eyes, then my face, then my passport once more. In a split second, permanently branded it with red ink that read, “CHILE.” I gave him a half smile as he handed my passport back to me, but he did not smile back. For some reason, I had imagined my first passport stamp being more memorable, magical even. It ended up being more like a first kiss, not what I expected at all and leaving me speechless.

I had not gotten in a breath of fresh air since New York, contained in an airplane and then a busy, hot airport, waiting for our next flight. We killed an hour, sitting on top of our bags and relying on caffeine. We took turns watching bags for one another so we could run through the airport in search of coffee. Starbucks’ baristas patiently listened as I pathetically tried to string together enough Spanish to order a black iced coffee. I wiped sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand, sips turning to gulps while preparing to board yet another big plane.

After three and a half hours of fading in and out of sleep, the plane began to descend and hovered closely over the ocean for what seemed like forever. Windows revealed alternating visuals of blue skies with fluffy, white clouds and the blues of the sea. I watched with tired eyes as the wings tipped back and forth in a seesaw motion, the plane jolting forward off and on, desperately trying to cut through the forceful Patagonian winds, as if they were trying to force us back north.

***

My feet were on the ground and I was on the phone excitedly telling my family that I was “Really here!” I went through the motions of baggage claim, having my sloppy ponytail counted again, and then shuffled through mazes of sweaty, tired, airport lollygaggers, all while cradling my cell phone between my ear and shoulder. Stepping outside the airport was breathtaking in the simplest way: confirmation that it was real. Smiling and taking in the unfamiliar brisk air that smelt like mountains and rain, sent goosebumps down my arms. I breathed quick “I love you!’s” into the phone before connecting with the new world around me.

 

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

The airport parking lot overlooked big mountains and wide-open fields. There were few cars parked outside, and a long, tall purple bus stood proudly and out of it came two men: Pato and Francisco. Pato was our driver. He was shorter, tan, and had crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and a mop of disheveled black hair. His eyes were kind and eagerly greeted everyone with “Hola!” Pato grabbed heavy suitcases and stuffed duffels with ease, tucking them away beneath the bus while smiling cheerfully. Francisco was tall and had a little salt and pepper in his hair. He wore blue and white flannel and welcomed us to the country with open arms. If I had a grandfather, I would imagine him to be something like Francisco. His smile was warm, and he had an aura about him that made me feel I was in the right place.

Francisco: Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

On the bus, Francisco grabbed a microphone and softly spoke to us about Patagonia, lightly glazing over the history of the place he called home. My eyelids grew heavy with the weight of travel. Everything began to blur together as if someone had smeared Vaseline over a lens I was looking through. The quiet rumble of the bus, the dreamy long green landscapes soaked with the late afternoon sun and promises of something new upon waking lulled me to sleep.

***

When I woke up, the bus was parked in front of a large, coffee colored hotel. It was covered in windows and I could see past our worn, sleepy reflections. Across from the hotel was a roaring sea and another mountainous backdrop. It was 9pm and light was still pouring out of the sky.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon
Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

We left for dinner, intending to explore the town. While flying down sidewalks, running down docks toward the water, swooning over wandering strays, I realized that Punta Arenas had a misfit charm about it, like a painting that had been pulled apart and taped back together again. Each building looked a little bruised but still had its own intrinsic beauty. No building or home remotely resembled the one next to it, which I found comforting.

Colors were untraditional and loud. Bright pinks, yellows and blues filled rooftops or electrified the walls with an authentic noise. Graffiti showered some pieces. One painted wall read “REBELLION POPULAR,” in red shaky, skinny scrawls. Artwork was never quiet, some pieces resembled a colorless comic book, while others were bleeding with colors. An ice cream truck was parked on the edge of the road, overseeing the water and standing tough and proud against the cold, face-biting winds. The truck had photos of frogs in baker hats holding dishes loaded with frozen desserts and loud pulsing reggae music while a tired looking man handed another an ice cream cone. Weird in all the right ways.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

We wandered unintentionally behind three tall stray dogs. They looked hungry and moved recklessly. The dogs weaved themselves through traffic, dodging cars and loud horns and howling at any vehicle that moved too slow. They would dive at tires, baring their teeth. Kourtney, Molly, Bailey, Lauren and I watched the dogs, stomachs in our throats. Not one was grazed by a car, although the drivers were clearly frustrated and loud about the stray’s interference with traffic. There was a sense of normalcy as drivers wheeled and braked around them with ease. Eventually the dogs broke away from our group.

We started the walk back in a state of burning curiosity, sleep deprivation and a warped since of time. Close to midnight it finally grew dark, but it was never truly dark; the new day was almost eager to come.

***

I woke up and stared at the ceiling above me. Sometimes I wake up and forget where I am, my brain scrambles to figure it out within the first few seconds of me opening my eyes and this was one of those times. I blinked a few times before I remembered I was on the other end of the world, not home or in my room. I kicked off the big, warm white covers, kneeling on the bed and peering out the window to confirm it was real and I hadn’t just dreamed it.

Back on the bus, Pato drove a short way up the road toward the water’s edge, backing the bus out all the way onto the docks. We boarded a big, white boat and with the perfect number of heads getting a cabin at the top of the boat with a perimeter of windows. The boat began to move ever so slowly away from the docks and then outward toward the mountains where Serrano Glacier hid somewhere farther out.

Cutting through dark blue waves and cheek biting winds, the boat swayed dramatically back and forth with a certain swagger I could never pull off. I have never been seasick, and it didn’t seem to change while rocking on the water in another part of the world. I attribute it to gulping down so much saltwater as a kid, maybe it made me immune. The cabin was warm, inviting with cushiony blue chairs and carpet. Watching the new environs pass through a wall of glass lacked connection; I wanted to be fully immersed in every part of it.

Standing out on the decks and getting the full experience was so much colder but so much better. If I leaned forward into superman pose, the wind was strong enough to keep me from falling. I kept thinking back to Francisco, who warned us all that the winds of Patagonia were unlike anything else; he was right. Whirls and whips roared down the mountains, blew through the waves and climbed up the sides of the boat to restyle my hair, burn my cheeks and decorate me with a layer of goosebumps. I felt everything in full force, just as I wanted to. There was a point where the glass shards of wind did not hurt so much, and I started to regain some feeling in my fingers.

Tall walls of towering rocky structures came stretching out into the water, growing shorter in length to the waterline. I am positive this is the moment where I started falling in love with Patagonia, it had only been a little over twenty-four hours. The water is the most intense, beautiful shade of blue that I have ever seen. It would be the color of sky if you melted it down, mixed it with the clouds after the rain, and then added in some turquoise crayon. Even then, I don’t believe that brew would do the water justice. The mountains dissolve down into long, soft patches of dark, forest greens and pale limes.

The boat passed by a massive wall of rock. Scattered on the top ledge were small, black, and white birds. There was an exceedingly small possibility of us being able to spot penguins whilst in Patagonia. Since this place seemed so magical already, I convinced myself that these stalky birds were penguins. I hollered, “Penguins!” I pointed eagerly at them while everyone leaned over the edge of the boat trying to catch a glimpse.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

Eric explained that they were not actually penguins. The penguin imposters could fly, they were Cormorants. At that moment about three leapt of the ledges, spread out their wings and let the wind scoop them up and away. “Fake penguins,” I mumbled. The sight was so stupidly and artistically stunning that I could never be disappointed with any of it, not even the fake penguins. I glanced back toward the bow and watched the boat leave behind a train of white waves like a wedding dress. At this point I kept waiting for someone to grab my shoulders and shake me out of a dream.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

Serrano glacier found us a short time after we made it to shore. Under canopies of green and then a tremendous reveal to the sky brew of glacial water, boards of sandy colored decks led to a long stretch of rocks. I stood and gawked at the massive, melting glacier. It was peppered with splotches of brown, it looked like pieces of glass messily attached to one another. Melting at the pace of molasses. The shutter of a camera went off, capturing us being small and wide-eyed and jumping off rocks and being pelted with burs. When leaving the glacier, we brought the burs which weaved into fleeces and tangled in hair. Throwing burs became a constant throughout the trip, as did being moved to our cores by surreal views.

 

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

***

We left Serrano behind, traveling again. We headed toward Torres Del Paine, leaving Puntas Arenas behind. Paine means blue, which was the most dominant color there. The drive was four hours, the big purple bus fearlessly in pursuit on narrow dirt roads with rocks scattered about. We stopped at our hotel, Lago Grey, which resembled what I would think of a fairy garden summer camp. The grass waved tall and dewy. It was soft under big, bushy trees that resembled fat pieces of broccoli. Dark brown branches swooped down towards the ground as if to greet us, coated with green. We stayed in long cabins with narrow, green front porches. It smelt like rain. My favorite roommates ended up being during this time where the ones I had at Lago Grey, Yesenia and Molly, who never failed to make me laugh. Lago Grey gave us a place to sleep, eat and rest.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

We journeyed toward Milodon Cave (Cueva del Milodón). I had never been in a cave before and felt slightly unnerved. It was not scary or daunting at all; it was beautiful. Milodon cave was compromised of several caves along with a rock formation called Silla Del Diablo. The trip exploring the outer edges of the cave and a walk through was brief, so we went on to a day of hiking.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

I crossed a bridge with Jenna, Arman, Lewis, and Lauren. A maximum of six people could cross at a time. It stretched across a raging, ice cold river and wobbled better than V.I.C. We laughed nervously while speeding across it. Big, gaps between each board of the bridge willed us to trip. We kept on, until we made our way down a dirt path that opened to a sea of gravel and an even bigger sea of water cradling cleaved bright, blue icebergs with jagged mountains drizzled with snow as backdrop. I picked up pieces of ice that managed to break away from the iceberg that floated close to the shore of rocks and pebbles of miscellaneous colors, shapes, and sizes. I snacked on the transparent-champagne bubbled pieces until my hands were numb.

Photos courtesy of Eric Simon

I climbed up onto and sat on a big, black, jagged, rock. It mimicked rocks I had seen before in Maine along the rocky intertidal. I thought about how far away I was from there and how weird it was that I could still find pieces of it here. The rain started and Francisco urged us all to get going. The hike up the mountainous, rocky structure was full of Calafate berries that resemble blueberries, but they aren’t quite as sweet. Calafates are sour but not so much that you get squinty eyed and pucker lipped, just enough that you want more. Francisco said that if you ate them then you were more likely to come back to Patagonia. Lewis laughed when I made pit stops and took fistfuls at a time and threw them into my mouth.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

We reached an open stretch that had a panoramic view of the water below tumbling green hills, icebergs sprinkled water, mountainous horizon. I loved it with tired eyes. The view was unreal, and I don’t ever feel that a photo could do it justice. The water was a light blue and flaunted to the giant icebergs that we had once been so close too but now appeared as small as ducks. The hike was like walking through New –bursts of sunlight, dashes of rain, cold whirls and whips from the mountains—but the trails were not defined and were extremely narrow. There was enough space to hike in a line and place one foot in front of the other. Parts of the paths were overtaken with small pricker bushes that would catch on my leggings and edges of my raincoat. I peeled layers off and on, tying my jacket around my waist, fumbling with a Marmot raincoat, getting my arms stuck in weird places while recklessly doing wardrobe changes out of or into fuzzy warm pullovers on dirt and pebble coated trails. I was fortunate enough to receive help when getting trapped in my clothing.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

At the end of it, we returned to the initial dirt and sand covered trail, plopping ourselves down and watching enviously the kayaks on the water. “Where are the bars?” asked a hungry Eric. We snickered at the persistent need for granola bars throughout the trip. Fishing around a bag of assorted bars, I found my favorite Fig Bar. I saved the purple wrapper and pressed it in my journal with daisies and dandelions.

***

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

I knew upon getting to this place that it was special. Francisco was speaking softly through his microphone about how on our next hike we would be seeing a waterfall; we were hiking one side of the mountains today and the other side that were home to the three magic peaks tomorrow. I listened while leaning my head against the window, drinking in the passing landscape; I was tired, but I did not want to sleep. I just wanted to keep immersing myself in pieces of Patagonia because I knew time there was a luxury.

I watched out the window, bobbing back and forth as the bus shook in protest to dirt roads, the greens getting greener and I falling harder. Pato slowed the bus and began to pull over off the dirt road into a small, untraditional parking lot that was actually just a large stretch of open space with dusty dirt and grass. A very long red bridge stretched across a large body of the sky melt brew of glacial water. The waterline was outlined with tall grass and big bushy greens with pink blossoms spilling out. Sunshine spilt down, the wind stopped howling and the air felt like a summer morning. The bridge crossed over toward a small hidden shoreline that made a home for black sand, pink blossoms, and rocks perfect for skipping.

Just before the shore was a patch of grass cut short surrounded by a low wall of grey stone. Over the short stone wall was the shimmering glacial water, catching all the sunbeams. A small, red, barn-like local restaurant sat above the green overlooking the glistening water and the pointed gray mountains. After warm, creamy tomato soup and grilled Salmon, we wandered outside. I snagged a glass water bottle that was empty off the table, intending to fill it with black sand to smuggle home. Outside, we split up, scooping up black sand, marveling at the mountains, picking flowers to press, wandering. When I had first walked outside, I watched Molly, followed by Bryan, lie down the green patch of grass. I had not given it much thought since I was on a mission to skip stones and steal away a piece of Patagonia in a bottle.

It was not until after I had filled the bottle to the brim with black sand that I noticed a few others had sprawled out on the dewy warm grass. I abandoned the shore, climbed up and over the short stone wall and found a spot closer to the waterline to lie down. I spread out in line with everyone else Sea Star style and closed my eyes.

This moment, with the glacial water lapping at the shoreline just a few yards away, my ears recognize the familiar shutter of a motorcycle of a camera somewhere behind me, the interminable wind a familiar song singing softly, rustling my hair. I am tangled up in the noise, but a sound begins to stand out more prominently than the rest. I fade back to this place sometimes when the world gets loud or my boots feel heavy.

The bell was not a noise nature could make, because it wasn’t. While we were sprawled out with closed eyes under the embrace of the warm sun, a small woman quietly approached with a Tibetan bowl and sat a few yards away from our feet. She played the bowl until one by one we all started to stir and roll open our eyes and discover the source of the tranquil sounds.

This spot was so magical it seems only appropriate that this is where I had a period of self-reflection or maybe some sort of epiphany. This moment was one of the first times I did not feel doubt, worry or fear for the past, present or future. All the hurt, loss and walls that had been weighing me down before was now filled with an overwhelming presence of love, trust and happiness. A tremendous weight was lifted.

The days felt extraordinarily long but the week itself was going by at lightning speed. I watched the tall grass move in waves with the wind, the movement mocking the ocean which was out of sight.

This hike was when I was sold on living somewhere distant, like New Zealand or at least the possibilities of building roots in another place. It was exciting to hear that others felt the same. Walking down below the three peaks, watching Guanacos sprint across what felt like a never-ending landscape, all in the shadows of three towering peaks makes it hard to not want to unlock the whole world.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

***

Santiago was drastically different than Puntas Arenas and Torres Del Paine, but the heat was familiar. I remembered not even a week before I had been in the same airport, wiping sweat off my forehead while running around with a duffle slung over one shoulder and a backpack strap on the other. I was doing it all again. We plowed through irritable airport lollygaggers who recklessly wacked ankles with luggage carts. I could feel myself getting irritated with the heat and rush of everything. We stood in the crowded airport waiting for a small man named Terry to announce that our bus was ready. I remember initially not liking Terry because he wasn’t Francisco or Pato. He was Terry and I couldn’t help but miss the world we were beginning to leave behind.

On our way to the hotel, we were reminded that Santiago was not always the warmest place to be. It was pure city, tall, glass building shot up high towards the sky. There were protests and a lot of what we saw was how the city had been ravaged by its citizens. The rich were getting richer and the poor were still poor. My heart swelled for the chaos and the things that were unfair. I could fly away and they couldn’t.

                                                              ***

Time continued to move. Suddenly it was time to start are trip home. Santiago airport was where I became unreasonably silly and punch drunk from exhaustion. Waiting in the PDI line to receive a stamp in my passport as goodbye, I laughed uncontrollably at jokes I cannot remember, and raced down the moving walkways with Lauren in the airport killing time before our flight. Killing time and fitting in extra bursts of silliness and coffees we’d have to pour out before we left it all behind.

The plane started flooding with people and I found myself wedged between bodies and faces I did not recognize. I am clutching my ticket and passport in my hand just as I did at the start. I high-five a seated, headphone hatted, tie-dye and pass by a nostalgic Bryan. I moved slowly, listening to the chatter of passengers. Dragging my feet toward the back of the plane, listening to my sneakers brush against the carpeted walkway, I keep glancing at my ticket and scanning the plane for the corresponding letters and numbers, searching for familiar smiling faces. I never want to leave but I do all at once.

I blink back to reality and wave my ticket eagerly, my eyes excited when I see that I am sitting with Nat and Molly who are overtaken with the damn fools and passing them off to me. We are hunched over, a row of three, cackling at an eye roll the flight attendant gave us. Nothing was funny until it was.

Eventually we settle, everyone has the gifted green LATAM blankets on their laps, heads are swaddled in watermelon pillows and tangled headphones. The TV’s are speaking softly in Spanish, telling me how to operate the life vest that lives beneath my seat, where the exits are; a baby cries and a tired mom bounces him in the aisle. I halfheartedly start watching Manchester by the Sea and my heart starts to break. I look to my left, Yesenia is half asleep, Bailey is journaling, Nat is watching out the window. I put in my headphones and look out the window from the aisle.

My favorite part comes, and I try to fight a smile. The plane rolls up ever so slowly to the end of the runway and pauses just for a second. Everything is quiet and nothing moves and in a second the plane morphs into a rocket. Roaring down the runway at lightning speed, everything I fell in love starts to fade away. The once still lights out the window are flying behind us so quickly and it feels how Van Gogh’s Starry Night looks before I am totally captive to the dark sky, weightless.

Photo courtesy of Eric Simon

I breathe in and out, feeling everything. Biting the inside of my cheek, blinking back tears. My heart hurts as I come to the recognition that all the magic that we just experienced will only continue to exist in my heart, play like an old tape in my mind, spill onto paper from my thoughts, or be spoken through my lips. Sigur Rós is singing me to sleep, Ágætis byrjun; a good start, only it has the hardest end.

 

 

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