Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Surprise for My Sister

I got through the metal detector without problems in the airport, so I figured the nail I'd swallowed had found its way out. Then I was in the air, passing over the lane of lights marking the Panama Canal, moving in darkness over the tropical mass of the South American continent, awake in my seat listening to the hum of the engine, the ding of the seat-belt sign, the rustles and coughs of dozens of displaced people.   We were up so high and moving at such a constant speed that it felt like we were going nowhere at all, rather floating in a suspended state.  But in one long night I hurtled over a distance almost as great as that I had covered in the past six months.  The long continuity was broken.  What was passing below me was now only shapes on maps rather one land of slow transformations where the borders blur and the concerns of all the peoples echo up and down the road.

 The jet touched down on the El Alto runway in La Paz, and with a feeling of homecoming I stepped down onto the tarmac and remembered the first time I had come here, a year before, stressed and timid with my lack of Spanish, feeling like a child under the care of my capable and confident older sister.  The first thing I saw was the summit of Ilumani.  Its pure glaciers blazed over a layer of clouds and below me tumbled the city of La Paz, with its houses clinging to steep sides.  I went down into the city and spent the day drifting in the streets, seeking out old book stores and salteƱas, talking to an Aymara woman, waiting for the night bus that would let me off in Cochabamba at dawn.

In that city where I didn't know a soul, my body vibrated in tense joy beneath the hovel-covered hillsides, in the crowded streets.  My trip began to pass through my mind.  I thought back to the second hour of the first day, when the bus had pulled off in gas station in Telluride, Colorado.  Night was coming on.   The driver cut the rumbling engine and there was silence.   I stepped off the bus with the other two passengers, the Mexican who asked me for a cigarette, the homeless guy from Oklahoma who began telling me of his heartbreak.  I went alone to the meadow below the service station and and the musk of yellow aspen leaves gave me pangs of longing, and I felt new things coming and stood electrified beneath the precipices of the Lizard Range.

I went and sat in the central plaza of La Paz and thought of the moment, while running across an endless field of lava in Mexico, when I forgot who I was. In this place a volcano had burst with no warning from a cornfield a few decades before and reforged the landscape in a fiery torrent, the old order overturned in an instant, the brushed clean stoops of houses twisted and wracked, the pig pen consumed in flames, the ancient stone basilisks of the conquistadors swallowed whole in the burning vitals surging to the surface of the New World.   When I was there all was stone and silence.  I came across a buried church.  Only the clock-tower stuck up above the stone.  It no longer kept time.  I wondered if the wind and water would one day sculpt down the stone and uncover the church, if they would vanish together, or if they would become indistinguishable as slow transformations molded them into some unknown shape.

And then I thought of fishing with Itzvan, the bearded bum in San Blas.  Every line we cast came back with a fat catfish or pargo.  We strung them all together in the water, imagining a feast of luscious fruits and juicy fish wrapped in leaves and cooked in embers.  But somehow the fish got free of their line and went one by one into the deep, leaving us with only fantasies.  When I left San Blas I never heard from Itzvan again. 

 Night was coming on and I wandered back to the terminal and got on the Cochabamba bus.  Once again there was the humming motor, the suspended state, the small snores and noises of uneasy sleep.  I arrived in Cochabamba at four in the morning.  When dawn began to break I shouldered my backpack and headed toward my sister's neighborhood.  She had moved since I had been there last, and I realized that I actually had only a vague idea of where she lived.  After thousands of miles it seemed like an insignificant detail, but now I was wandering along the streets, feet heavy, asking everyone I saw if they knew gringa named Katie lived.  I got a lot of funny looks.

I finally ended up at her old house and remembered a friend of hers who lived nearby.  He was still in bed when I arrived but jumped up right away and threw on his clothes and took me down the hill to her house.  He called her phone she came down from  her third story apartment and out of the gate looking a little bleary eyed.  She began talking to her friend and hadn't seen me leaning against the wall behind her.  He said that he had found someone that maybe she could help and she turned around.  A look of complete nonrecognition, almost of fright crossed her face, as if she'd seen an apparition.  But in an instant the fright passed and and I found myself in the arms of my sister.


  1. Evocative eloquence my friend!

  2. As ever, your words are passionate and inspiring. Well done Collin.