There are certain books — usually library books— with which I make an effort not to dog-ear pages. Instead, I slot my left hand’s fingers into the pages that I’ve read but must refer back to. (I’m not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition but I am going to (twice.)) I held onto pages often with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. My memory was not sharp enough to differentiate the Ramsay children. I had to keep physically returning to the past action — the “biblio-memory,” to contextualize a certain character’s development. My left hand ran out of fingers and I eventually shifted to a post-it note method.
This first blog post serves as a page in my book to personally hold my finger on and remember my place. I think it's important to include you in this memorizing, too. We are page-holders for each other. Where was I leaving for Argentina? Who was I? What space did I hold?
I need pressure to write, which is why I am excited to pick up this blog again, but it is also a risky habit. I start doing what I just did…chopping my lived reality to fit the bounds of constructed narrative. My first words in my WFU admissions info sessions were “My name is Sarah Millsaps and I am fascinated by story-telling.” But I am also contemptuous of story-telling— it tempts me to tell only the parts that “fit” — the moments with which I can annotate a story-arc and produce a palatable denouement by the end of it.
One of the most challenging and helpful pieces of advice I have received is “Sarah, tell the stories that don’t fit.”
I hope to keep things complicated on this blog over the next 9 months. While I find the stories you can wrap up with a bow dubious, I have walked back towards the middle and understand that humans need stories. Fiction is needed as much as truth-telling. I am thankful that my memory doesn’t keep perfect record — it blurs harsh lines—a merciful salve for the gravest missteps.
I know only in part.
I used to hear this and think only of knowing the future "in part." But it is true of the past, too. I only know what I remember. How do I readjust my greed for control and enter the flow of “knowing only in part?”
I go with an intention to practice my memory. I want to keep my finger on my full-tilt reactions to injustice. What makes me beat my fists on the table? And what am I going to do about it? I want to embody the rhythm I practice in bread-baking — when is it time to “rest,” and when is it demanded of me to “rise?”
I am fairly certain that I only ever leave this place to experience the homesickness for it. By doing what I love most, I feel closest to whom I love most. Physical distance doesn’t threaten this. I remember that in Nepali, there is phrase that means “A memory of home came to me.” It is most often used when someone is asked,
“why are you sad?” and he/she responds,
“A memory of home came to me.”
Trust me, there will be moments in the next 9 months when I will break into a wide smile, a throw-my-head-back laugh, or yes, maybe a tear or two, and in Spanish, someone I have come to love will ask,
“Sarah, what’s up?”
And I will think of you, of home, of us, and explain:
“A memory of home came to me.”
When I was younger, my mom used to offer me that Maderma cream which promised to erase my various scars. I always said no and I think it was because I liked the idea of preserving the aesthetic storytelling of where I have been and to whom I belong. While blemishing, if erased, somehow it seems I have dishonored the experience.
My hands are dry. The creases so often overlooked are now emboldened by stubborn steppe dirt. At each bend, I find a new scratch etched in red. I rub my forehead (I am Chuck’s daughter), and suffer the scratchy roughness of “garden hands.” A gratifying emotion burgeons within me. It feels like a pride of sorts. My hands prove my belonging to the land. It is as if every mark is a branding—evidence of my intimacy with the dry Patagonian earth. My hands record the history of my relationship with the Argentine soil and wind.
The new volunteers are from Spain. Their first night at dinner, I explained how I can understand nearly everything that people say, but it is still difficult for me to actually speak Spanish. Carlos, the Spaniard, corrected me. “You do not speak Spanish. You speak Castellano(Argentine Spanish),” he said with a smile. Again, the pride-reminiscent emotion grew within me. Even my language proves my belonging to this place. Better yet, my words disclose the details that I have learned the majority of Castellano from a French girl. There is story hidden even within my diction. Here, a gallena is not a “ga[y]ena it is a “ga[shh]ena.”
I begin to recognize this now familiar sentiment as the sense of belonging. It ties right into Wendell Berry’s notion of membership. When I feel the pride--mixed with contentment--mixed with a strong sense of inclusion, I believe it is because I belong. My hands remind me of my earned place. The dirt gritted within my fingers stands witness for how I cannot separate Sarah from the land on which I live. My tongue testifies to my being a part of this culture and this community.
On cold days, I like to think “I feel belonging” the strongest. There is something about walking out of Sybil’s and my tiny room and into the unrelenting wind. My body desires a sweater, a fire, coffee, and maybe a board game. These desires are incredibly culture-driven, yet I believe the cold—the difficult, catalyzes a closeness. The tug towards those who I belong to takes me to the kitchen; I see the dear smile of Zunilda and Pablo and Fer. I give them all a quick Argentine kiss and it is my equivalent to the comfort found fireside.
Throughout my life, I have relished the moments when I duck inside a tent full of friends and out of the rain. Or, I step into a warmly-lit cabin with my family and out of the dense dark. I do not think I have to convince you that I love being out of doors. I long for an open landscape with only my feet to take me across it. Yet, on the Carolina Coast, there is something comforting about seeing a beach house light glowing gold against the dark abyss of the sea. Reentering a gathering place after time out in the invigorating harshness parallels to the experiences in which I send myself out to risk and dare and be uncomfortable and suffer hardship. Without fail, each time I eventually yearn to turn homewards—to North Caroline, to Winston, to Raleigh, and into the arms of someone who loves me.
I think we can belong to all sorts of things. I find myself saying things that Anne Campbell would say. In these moments, with smile writ large, I believe it proves my belonging to our friendship. Or out of nowhere, my memory overwhelms and I am walking across Davis field at nightfall with no shoes to obstruct my toes from greeting the cold green grass. My memory, my body, my words, all point back to those to which I belong.
I believe I am still in the shallows of belonging. How will my heart feel when I am far away from this simple and significant Patagonian rhythm? What must it be like to belong to a man in marriage for the rest of life? And think of the mystery of all of us belonging together in one body—the body of a King.
That's me, the blond gringa who somehow got the chance to belong to a membership of gauchos for a month.
If you are counting with shower days, I only have fifteen days left here in Bahia Bustamante. In comparison with the lifestyle in which I beg for “more time,” here I find there is just enough time to “waste.” Along with six hours in the garden, the day’s rhythm concedes to reading and writing and sitting in the sun with Sybil until conversation finds us. The night falls and there always seems to be just a bit more reading or talking or thinking that I have failed to squeeze in!
In the garden
I have grown fond of worms. For most of my life, I have enjoyed placing them on my nose or dangling them above my mouth to gross out friends and defy the norm. Here, I can’t help but admire their “underdogness.” I sift through compost to prepare a raised bed of healthy new soil. It’s as if the whole earth wiggles. There is something in how worms are lowly, undecorated, and to some—gross. Yet, they are signs of encouragement. Their presence screams: “this soil is healthy and yummy!” I feel like we are on the same team, me and the simple squirm-ers.
The aphids have invaded. Sybil and I fight the good fight. We enter the garden each morning and tentatively turn over leaves. I cringe and wail as I find a leaf covered in grimy, evil aphid babies. You know they are born pregnant? The scoundrels. What is awesome is that we combat them with cigarette juice. We collect all the cigarette butts around town and soak them for a few days in water before spraying the tobacco sludge on infested plants. As a girl who in 11th grade designed an entire Dante-inspired ring of hell for those who mindlessly toss their cigarette butts, I especially enjoy this repurposing.
There is a raised bed that I favor. The arugula and leeks grow side by side. In sowing, someone must have spilled the arugula seeds. I love the way Astrid looks and talks about these seeds. I think I perceive them the same. They are mistakes. When you look at the bed of soil, this is the first thing you notice—they are not in their prescribed uniform line. But because they are ours, I am fond of them. Each time I look at them, I shake my head in affectionate disbelief. “You weren’t supposed to, and yet you did!” I think it is in familiarity that imperfection becomes most beloved. It reminds me of the kids I looked after at summer camp. I would tell the boys the rules of the farm—“no more catching chickens!” And then, a little daredevil appears behind me with not one but two roosters—one under each arm. All thoughts of rules are gone. I am left reveling in the grit and spunk of this little boy. My spilled arugula seeds are rule-breakers—rebels in the finest sense.
Japanese lettuce seeds
my rebel arugula seeds
Dawes was playing in my head with this view.
In the kitchen
I tug open the heavy blue door and step into the kitchen. I am sent to collect rosemary flowers and dill. Reentering the creative space, I try to conceal my juvenile smile as Juan Pablo remains straight-faced. He lifts his black apron overhead and hands it to me. He is quieter and more serious in the evenings. His head is filled with master plans for dinner.
Earlier in the day, I stepped in for Tomy, the dishwasher who has a day off. All morning, octopus stewed red on the backburner while I scooped hot water off the stove, and washed plate after plate. At one point, I suggested that Juan Pablo and I need a secret handshake. Pablo looked at me, and with his familiar deadpan said, “Sarah, this is not summer camp.”
He’s had it easy. It’s hard for me to develop a comeback quick enough in Spanish. This time, I manage to muster a retort—“For me, my whole life is summer camp.” Fernanda turns from the coffee she is pouring and gives me a wink and a thumbs up—she is always on my team. Juan Pablo nods his head in the slightest acknowledgement of my zing. I interpret it as “not bad.” Getting Juan Pablo to break his cool is almost as hard as getting Blake Habicht to hug you.
From the beginning, people here have teased my “cheery, all-in positivity.” They first categorized my nature as the “classic American oh-my-god” tendency to overreact. Sybil once told me that as Americans, we live in the extremes—something is either incredibly awesome or unbelievably awful. I told her life is too short to live in the middle. With time, I think I have entered a category all my own. In learning that I worked at a summer camp, they now have a fitting name for my constant cheers, encouragement, and silly notes left everywhere— “summer camp Sarah.”
Tonight, Pablo plans to incorporate seaweed into every course. Thankfully, I know the word for genius in Spanish and tell him how talented he is. He feigns a coldness towards me as I bested him earlier in the day running our daily loop twice 'round. JP, as I call him, makes it clear that tonight is different. Tonight I am not baking bread or washing dishes. I am his sous-chef. It is the real deal. I love how although he teases me ceaselessly, he also takes me seriously. With thirteen guests, my best is needed tonight.
JP informs me, “This is your cutting board. You are in charge of keeping it clean.” He hands me a hand towel as he holds his own. He instructs me to keep it with me at all times. Demonstrating, he tucks his into the side of his apron. I do the same. I cannot take how gravely we are handling dish rags any longer, and so I tell him we make a great set of twins. I break his serious composure for a moment. His tense posture surrenders into an easy laugh. I celebrate my victory and plan for many more throughout the evening.
I cut circles out of big, stewed pieces of Gracilaria seaweed. 1..2..3….29..30. My left palm is marked with angry red remnants of perfect circuitry.
“Tranqui, Tranqui.” We come to a slow spell as Pablo extracts bones out of the fish. So I make mate. Covering the mouth of the gourd, I tip it over once and then again to rid the herbs of unwanted dust. My eyes level with the mouth of the gourd, I pour water with extreme attention—desperate against “mate lavado” – washed mate. I pass the yerba to JP. He knows how hard I tried and how much I care. He gives me one word, and a face worth a thousand. “Frio.” I throw up my hands and laugh at how ridiculous he can be. I persevere and pass the mate around the kitchen to Analia, to Fer, and eventually to Franco who cheers for his “lavadito.”
I return to my cutting board. I stuff each seaweed circle with a polenta, onion, tomato mix and create what looks like a mini empanada. Each one is delicate. I press the sides together as Pablo watches over me. He hands me a bowl of whipped cream and gives me quick, indiscernible instructions. Something about underneath and past the blue door? There are so many people in the kitchen. I panic. I return apologetically and ask for the directions once more. Heladera is a fridge…got it. JP is exasperated. It is the height of his culinary performance and me asking for language clarification is like asking Coach K for a mint during the final timeout of UNC game.
For a while, he is quiet. He plucks each fine bone as I stand silently—an act of apology. He knows I know and I know he knows. The moment I wait for comes. He looks up at me with a goofy, wide-eyed smirk and all tension evaporates. I am thankful for humor—the harbinger of mercy, and Juan Pablo’s patience with me.
I stand with my hands folded together in front of me. I have no task, and therefore I feel a bit out of place. He looks up again, “Sarah, cooks never cross their arms. There is always something to do.” Reminded of when soccer coaches were always tough on me, I appreciate how JP is never satisfied. With Juan Pablo’s high expectations, comes an assumption of my high potential. A smile will not leave my face. I know my hands are needed in this kitchen.
We are in the middle of nowhere—tacked on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean with electricity only five hours out of the day, and yet Pablo and I are hunched over oven-warmed plates designing the aesthetically pleasing main course. A spoon as paintbrush, he swipes each plate like the professional he is with sauces of dill, garlic, and orange. I delicately rest a twig of dill, a rosemary flower, and a candied orange peel on each corresponding brushstroke.
Tally another Sarah victory. I find Juan Pablo’s hand towel strewn across the counter as the main course leaves the kitchen. Folding it, I motion to him. With all the weight of expectation cooped up in his body, he reacts too quickly. Uncharacteristically, exasperation speaks for him and his shoulders heave. He cannot believe I have forgotten again. In the middle of his reaction, he halts. Recognition washes over his face and his whole body responds. It is not my dish towel, but his! His bright, teasing eyes return for good this time. He snatches the towel from my hand and bows in defeat before tapping my head with it. This is all the apology I need. “ Buenisimo Sara, buenisimo.”
I have been thinking some about a word in Spanish. Dr. Hamilton opened doors in my mind to the wonderings of linguistics; and I cannot turn back. The word is “preocupar.” Most often, the verb is used in saying something like “no te preocupes.” If translated for meaning, it means “do not worry.”
There are days here when I sit alone at the wooden table. Well, not literally alone. Two or three employees sit around me, yet they talk about personal or business things that either I cannot relate to, or my Spanish is not proficient.
Sybil, my closest friend and roommate here, is serving tables tonight in the restaurant. I pick at the pasta on my plate and begin to imagine what it will be like when she leaves at the end of the month. Will the cohesion of our group dissolve? Will a divide grow in between employees and volunteers? Will every evening turn into this? I sip from my “Home Depot Argentina” mug. I am not thirsty, but I want something to do so I can linger at the table longer. I have descended the staircase that seems to present itself only in the evenings—with each stair I carry myself deeper into the preoccupied state of future thought.
And that is just it. “No te preocupes” translated literally means “do not preoccupy yourself.” I need this reminder. My blues comes when I lose my footing in the present and drift towards future worry. The Spanish-speakers have it right. Worry is what happens when my mind fixates on things prematurely. I stand and walk to the only-cold-water sink. The sky is dark. A last breath of day lingers in the pinkish hue of the clouds.
Without fail, there is redemption for nights like these. It is as though I find an equivalent to my late night laps around the Quad.
Here, I go find Sybil and listen to her explain the comic book story she has been developing in her head for a year now. She intertwines the personalities of her friends in a plot surrounding the last hurrahs of youth when dreams mix with reality. She is so French, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch her work to convey meaning in Spanish. Her brow furrows as the light catches her blue eyes and reveals how personal this narrative is to her.
Or I cross paths with Pablo, and before I can say anything, his face gives way to a goofy expression as though to say “you look at me as if I am up to something, but I’m not!” Standing on the edge of town, our heads tilt. We drink in the stars showing off in the new moon night. I introduce Pablo to a sweet southern phrase, “my word!”
Or maybe, redemption is slow-coming. The following afternoon, I prepare the soil for a new bed of zucchini. Astrid has arrived home from her travels. It is as though Grammy docked at Sun Sands. Bahia Bustamante is finally complete. She brings with her friends from Buenos Aires. Young hip blond Argentine guys with scruffy beards and puffy Patagonia jackets. A wispy Ecuadorian girl follows behind them. I cannot help but think of the 180 Degrees South entourage as I tour these new friends through the garden. The Ecuadorian, Isabella, kneels down to plant basil, eggplant, and leeks with me. Astrid passes us Mate and we revel in the “girl power hour” in the garden. At day’s end, everyone finds their way to the garden. I like to think it is the “life hub” which attracts us. Whether it is the life in each other or the life in the growing red fruits, I am not certain. On the western edge of the garden, the wind dances through oversized bushes speckled with blushed-pink blooms. I pull at the collar of my sweater—the breeze sweeps hair in my face as the light pours in—it is golden hour.
my inaugural alcoholic beverage to celebrate my 21st birthday came two weeks late. From a broken glass mug I sipped Patagonian wine. The wind mixed in Patagonian dust to make things extra special. [Sybil, Rosie, Jacob...R and J are from the UK only here for 2 weeks]
Sybil and I went exploring one morning. We walked 9K to the end of the Peninsula.
Mate Mate Mate! I am learning all the tricks to being a "Sededor" aka the one who passes the mate.
We plant with the new moon as the new moon is when roots grow. The full moon is better for the parts of the plant above ground. at this time, the fruits, leaves, and flowers grow the most. call me a dirty hippie.
Another small story from life here at BB--
One of the ongoing conversations here is about ghosts. Pablo the chef and Franco the guide lived together at first. Each morning, Pablo walks in recounting how sleepless the night had been for him. I look to Franco for confirmation and he shrugs his shoulders affirming how it was all true. Franco has experience with the supernatural. He explains even in his first nights here, the electricity would go out at midnight, and as he walked back with the light of the stars he began to feel the heaviness of spirits around him. While Franco may be hypersensitive to these occurrences, it does not seem to bother him. It is just how it is.
I am up to my elbows in flour as Pablo is talking a mile a minute. I press my knuckles further into the risen dough, and listen. He lists the many spooky events of the night before—“tac tac tacs” at the window, “pah pah pahs on the metal door,” and” thup thup thups” up to his bedroom door…a long pause, and then withdrawing steps. His eyes widen as he warns me it all starts right when the lights go out. The poor guy hasn’t slept in days. If anyone, it is the guy in charge of our food that I want to sleep well.
Pablo speaks with Matias, and decides he will move. He now resides in the room next to Sybil and me. I hope the ghosts won’t follow him. Franco and Adrian catch us up on the history of this place. When it served as home to a seaweed-harvesting community, the population was 75% men and nearly all were recently released convicts. Adrian raises his eyebrows—our imaginations figure out the rest. Franco adds, “yeah there were fights and killings all time and it wasn’t like they buried people.” Franco is matter of fact with his accounts. He describes what he hears and tells us he believes it is ghosts. Sybil eggs Franco on--she assumes her natural position…the opposite. Franco remains unphased. “Okay then, come stay a night, you will see who is laughing the next morning.”
I jump at the invitation. This is a new thing for me, but I love the adventure and adrenaline ghost-seeking offers. Thanks Jack, Connor, and Poulin for going with me on our quest for Lydia. “Of course, Franco, we will come tonight!” Sybil gives me the “you are silly…but let’s do it” look and Franco’s grin widens.
For the rest of the day, everyone is talking about how “the girls are staying in Pablo’s room with the ghosts.” Pablo shakes his head—incredulous at how we would choose to sleep in his old haunted room.
After dinner, we sit watching River (Adrian and Franco’s team) play Libertad. With each half hour, people begin to call it a night and head to sleep. Franco begins to discuss the agenda for the evening. He takes this seriously. “Do you want me to walk you to the house? Do you know which house is mine?” Strong, independent Sybil denies all attempts at chivalry. Of course we can find the house. Internally, my heart is already pumping with the adrenaline rush of “what ifs.”
I tuck my trusty, ancient, ¾ size, blue Thermarest under my arm and my sleeping bag under the other. Thankfully, Franco is both stubborn and thoughtful. He has finished his after-dinner smoke and is waiting to accompany us on the 200 meter (meters…I am in Argentina ya know!?) walk to his house. We walk in and check absolutely everything out—every window, door, and light fixture. Sybil wants to be able to pinpoint the origin of every sound. All I am thinking is “oh please, my imagination does not need any more help.”
I unroll my thermarest and situate my bedding. Sybil won’t have it. “You ahr going to zleep on zhat tiny fhing?” Franco stands in the doorway laughing at our antics. I explain how if we hear things I do not want to go outside and back to our room. Sybil interrupts—but the noises come from inside! Franco assures me that if we wake up in the middle of the night he will walk us home. He heads back to watch the game, and promises to announce himself upon reentry.
Sybil launches into every ghost story she knows. A half hour passes, and Franco with his hood up ducks his head in—“soy yo” he declares. He swears off any jokes from now onward. One hand on the bathroom door, he asks if we think we will use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Sybil can’t help herself. With her sarcastic smile she says “yes, I think it is a possibility.” I turn the pages of Wake Forest Magazine (the very best! Homegrown Harmonies was a homerun, no?). All I can think about is the moment when the electricity shuts off—the moment Pablo has explained to me again and again—the moment of the first bang.
From the other room we hear: “If you hear loud snoring, it is not ghosts, it is me.”
Sybil ropes me into another lofty before bed conversation. I reach for the odds and ends of my Spanish vocabulary trying to explain something of the academic structure of Wake and then….all of the sudden...the light sputters and coughs off. I stop midsentence. Even unbelieving Sybil takes in a breath. Conversation is out of the question now. I am caught in between two motives. Do I rush myself to sleep and avoid the terror or do I submit to the tantalizing possibility of a visit from the supernatural? If you have ever tried to rush to sleep, you know how few my options truly were. A loud clang echoes through the house right after the lights went. I write it off as coincidence…could have been a stray dog. I cannot tell if it’s been minutes or more, but Sybil’s breath lengthens and grows heavy. I strain my ears…shoot, Franco snores sound from the room next door. I am the only one awake. The wind storms off the steppe and careens its way around this tiny house. We are enveloped in its wild howling and shrieking. The door to Pablo’s room does not fully shut. There is this tiny crack of possibility that is left open. I imagine a nearly headless man peeking through, still searching this earth for revenge.
I lift my head off my warm sweatshirt and the room is light. Finally. I check my watch…last time it was 4:37am…the time before that it was 3:13am…the time before that… It is now 8:15am. I rouse Sybil and we walk back to grab a few crackers and swig down our coffee. I look over at her to check if our nights match. “Nada.” She says simply.
I walk into the kitchen with an apologetic smile. I didn’t hear anything. Pablo does not care. He slept great for the first time in weeks. Franco walks in and bids me good morning. I look at him hoping to garner a hint to what he is thinking—how he diagnoses the evening. Without missing a beat he answers, “the ghosts were calm last night.”
In meeting these people and working my hands through the wind-beaten earth of this place it is as if I’ve forgotten myself-- In only the best way possible. I am a different person within the confines of the language. Maybe it is because it is not easy to describe my involvements back in the states or even more so, they do not matter here. It is interesting to be fully Sarah, but not the Sarah that is known at Wake Forest or in Raleigh. I hope I am not scaring any of you. No new piercings, I promise. While these people do not know about my love for Mat Kearney or even the shores of Lake Huron, I gain the chance to know them. I hope to introduce you to the people and the place and with this, I hope you come to know some of my favorite stories this far.
The morning starts leisurely as Sybil and I roll out of our beds and cross the path to the old schoolhouse. We use this space as our common room, dining room, laundry, and kitchen. Striking a match, I light the gas stove and fix ourselves a cup of cafe. Here, we use the pour-over method and I am thankful. Conversation is scarce. We have grown close enough—if only in days, to sip our cafe in silence.
Sybil heads with Adrian, one of the two guides here, to the Petrified Forest with one of the guests. It is still early in the tourism season and if there is extra space on these trips, Sybil and I get to tag along. [[I struggle to write all this. I sound pretentious or even ridiculous, but it is difficult for me to find my normal writing rhythm as I have been consumed by Spanish. Hang with me.]]
After breakfast, I cross over and open the heavy blue door to the main kitchen. Pablo looks over; his eyes widen if only for a moment of question, and quickly crinkle into a knowing smile. Pablo is the chef. He is young and likeable. I am always asking him to describe his favorite dishes and he is always returning to the meat portion of each dish which is “rey-bellisimo.” He brings a lot of youth to our group. If there is ever an opportunity for humor in conversation, I always look over at Pablo so we can laugh together.
After collecting the compost for the chickens, I head for the garden. The chickens wait for me. I have a suspicion that with the sun they know how to tell time, or at least meal time. On cloudy days I always seem to surprise them. I have to say it is more fun to speak to clucking chicken in Spanish.
The wind is relentless. It’s been so for two days. I will be short with things in the garden. Although my journal is filled with realizations and ponderings about what I am learning as I work with the Earth, I believe what is life-giving and meant to be shared is the community of this place—the people. So, the garden. Concisely, I encourage anyone who searches for purpose to enter garden gates. There comes an addiction to removing weeds and “watering like a light rain.”
We water the soil that is “resting” too--where no seeds are planted and apparently, it is lifeless. Yet each afternoon, Sybil and I water this Earth generously. We know the promised abundance of the future and prepare readily. I pass along a raised bed that for days has disappointed us. Sybil planted Remolacha days earlier, but still no growth. Maybe it is bad soil? Maybe it was a group of bad seeds? With a final hope, I crouch low and find green beacons of promise sprouting out towards me—beautiful, glory-filled defiance.
I return to the school to find the rest of the group beginning to pass plates for lunch. I cannot help but use Wendell Berry’s word—a membership, as I describe the way we all pitch in gathering utensils, cups, and water. We joke about how luxurious butter is to us now. Sybil and I remain with Franco and Adrian the two guides at the end of lunch. Somehow, we launch into a grand discussion of religion and the plausibility of a universal moral code…all in Spanish. Franco, a blond, sea-loving guide from 3 hours south of BB, fights passionately for the case of a clear good and evil. He worked as a missionary in his teens and while he has written off the religiosity of Catholicism, he believes strongly in people who live for the example of sacrifice. Sybil, a fellow anthropologist from France instigates flaws in Franco’s case. Sybil loves to disagree in the best way possible. She provides us avenues to think and entertain ourselves with ideas. She and Franco are constantly seeing things differently and it provides Adrian and me moments to situate a compromise. Adrian is engaged to Paula (who helps in the kitchen and the office.) It is their second season here.
Finally, we break the debate to wash dishes and head for the siesta hour.
Around 3, I wander down to the coast and catch up with Franco at the “Cruiseta” aka the old beat-up Land Crusier of my dreams. There is extra space in the “Penguin Expedition.” We hop in and pick up Matt, a guest from the UK. Matt enters the car and suddenly, out of nowhere, Franco speaks clear perfect English. I am sure he could see my jaw drop, even from the driver seat. It is as if we are different people in English. I become “myself” and am freed to joke and explain my personality in ways I have almost forgotten. When Matt tells us he is from England, without missing a beat, Franco asks “do you live near Hogwarts?” Franco won all the points then and there. I explain to them both how I taught Sybil my favorite trail game, where you “hide” somewhere in Harry Potter world and we ask yes or no questions to find you. This idea of hiding within Hogwarts leaves Franco grinning. His left hand on the wheel, all I can see are his big blue eyes filled with wonder.
We visit the penguins nesting and fight to walk against the wind. Nearing the evening, we stop at a secluded cove and Franco passes Matt and me mate. I love the sharing involved with this ritual. As we drove homewards, a dusty golden veil drops across the horizon line.
Again, my favorite time of day comes—when we are all together. We tuck in to the big wooden table as Adrian and Franco tell stories of driving the Crusitas. Their eyes widen and hands flail about as they supply an abundance of sound effects and demonstrations.
After dinner, one of us fixes the rest tea and we cross our fingers the wind will die down long enough to watch a bit of futbol. As Franco says “futbol es la religion de Argentina.” Paula walks in and curls up against Adrian. They are both petite, but feisty. Adrian is constantly sneaking food off Paula’s plate and she is constantly giving her fair share of wet willies. They explained to me they work here to get away from the city. I can only imagine how content they must be—to sit together, Paula reading but still keeping up with the score of the game.
Mate and Life Jackets make for a great combination
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite"
I began this trip concerned about my homesickness tendency. Last summer, I struggled to remain in the present and instead I longed for home. I fled the present moment and escaped into memories. My intention for this trip was not to cure myself of homesickness. I hope to always know home, to long for it, and return to it. I think it is a beautiful feeling. Nepali people express it by saying "a memory of home came to me."
making chicken momos all togther
our red maya nails
last morning in Besi
After a day in Maigum, I walked into town to grab my gear and then Jean and I headed straight to our homestay. I was still a bit disappointed that the plans did not work out to stay in Maigum village (more remote and among the "farmers"), but I took some deep breaths and got over my diva moment. We are now staying in the middle of the Bazaar with Gopal and Kobita one of the few Christian families in Besishar. They have two kids, Christina who is 10 and Bisaal who is 15 and studying in Kathmandu. Gopal is a tailor and his shop is right below their flat.
Debee, in her tomato field.
Michael and Sitaraam.
Kobita (my host mother) on left and Jean on the right after she did our hair.
This morning I woke up early. Dr. Folmar, Kesh, Ashley, and I sweated up the hill and the amazing stone steps to Sita's house (Ashley and Ansley's homestay). As we crested the hill, I turned to hear Ashley call out to Sita. I can't wait to see their relationship grow. Even in this short time, it was clear how taken Sita is with Ashley. She crouched next to her and played with her hair--peering at her adoringly. As they talked, Kesh and I played "guess the herb." He would hand me a leaf to smell and I would say the English name and he would say the Nepali name--mint, menthol-like, and an herb they use in daal.
[right now as I write, I sit in Gopal's living room, the pungent chaarpee (toilet) smell, the sun streaming in the back door, and our little neighbor friend giggling in Jean's arms.]
I loved the way Dr. Folmar described Sita, "Sita does not think highly of herself, nor does she think lowly of herself."
I hope to spend more time in Sita's hospitality--her thin, gritty frame and warm, home-filled eyes. She taught us about "pow-bowroti" or foot bread. She explained that they didn't have the strength to knead the dough with their arms so they knead with their feet.
I sipped her delicious tea and marveled at the language exchange on this early morning front porch. Dr. Hamilton warned that as the world goes to hell, we will lose the need for language departments in universities. "Everyone will just talk through their damn phones with robot voices." But here, in the sweltering Himalayan heat, that future seems relieving-ly unreachable. I listened as Ashley spoke in English and both Kesh and Dr. Folmar spoke in Nepali while Sita responded. What a privilege to sit with 4 such different people and for it to take all of us to create simple conversation. My favorite part is the middle, when Sita strains to understand English before it is translated, and Ashley musters to master her Nepali brilliance. They both seek to draw close, to meet each other directly--in the middle.
Michael and I headed up the walk for our Maigum afternoon. We mostly met the older people of the village as the younger men and women head into the bazaar either to work or to cool off. We met Debee who owns and works her own land. Michael approached an older man, who drunk on Rokchee, reached out and grabbed Michael's hands saying "muuk" -- mouth. I didn't need much more to know that we needed to get out of there fast.
We sat with Michael's grandmother on her porch. She began to speak and Michael whispered he didn't understand much of what she said. She spoke fast in a soft slur. I sat still and listened--captivated. Without knowing the words, I began to gather she was telling us her story-- the story of her life. I followed only the stages, not the details. She spoke of how she went to Kathmandu with an infected arm and her hand was amputated. Her motions widened, her neck bulged, and her chest heaved as her heart rate quickened. Her puny ponytail, and delicate gold hoop earrings seemed even smaller as her story grew. This frail grandmother poured out her life to me and Michael. Her mangled arm wiped away leaking tears as she spoke of her sons leaving and dying and the bitterness towards village men who have now found wealth. She held back deep sounds of aching misery--wiping her nose to contain herself. Desperation held me. All I could do was listen, I could not even understand. Was listening enough? Somehow, through the power of sharing and human connection, our presence was comforting to her--maybe even what she needed. I felt ill--equipped and maybe even irresponsible to sit with such raw emotions. But the ability to be present--to provide her a moment to speak, to tell, was therapeutic. Her sister welcomed us onto her porch and we had tea. Michael and I were running late and so we went through the hysterics of holding our hot tin mugs and gulping down scalding chia (tea). We looked so silly--taking huge swigs of tea and sputtering out how tasty it was with our singed tongues.
I sit on the second floor balcony of the Gangapurna hotel on my first full day in Besisahar. Nepali music, with its chiming rhythm, plays across the street. An afternoon pre-monsoon rainstorm has blown in and it sticks around. The wind blows through my hair. I’ve always liked the word tempestuous for these kinds of gusts. Tempting air hints at the greater power behind it. There is so much sound here. It is different than Kathmandu. There are the chirping birds, the calling kids, and the rolling wheels on wet pavement. The foot traffic is endless. I watch two teenage boys pass by in gym shorts—one’s arms on the other’s shoulders. I have friends on other balconies. All are peering down at the entertaining life of the afternoon. It seems everyone has a companion. You work with your family and travel with friends. Independence, or our version of it, does not exist. Plastic, worn prayer flags stretch across the rooftops—dancing against the pinkening sky. The last light has left thin, bright gaps that line the distant ridges against the grey-ed sky. Kids dash between storefronts—skipping over puddles and stray bricks. Potted plants border opened windows and colorful, patterned walls make up multi-storied homes. I think of the mountains, the Himalayas. I longed for them on the trek. They were ultimate. But here, on this thin, dry ledge, I am captivated by the Himalayas of people--each person full of a “mountain-worthy” life force. I hear bright giggles of children below me, just out of sight.
Today I slurped up my first Besisahar mango. I cut into it with my Opinel knife (thanks Ficklen!) and bit into the juicy sweetness. It was energizing to amble through town for lunch. I am quickly learning that the key to unlocking Besisahar magic is acting, and exploring, and engaging. It is humid here. We melted back towards the hotel.
I have discovered that I love learning language. I expected to be frustrated with Nepali as I am comfortable with Spanish. In the beginning, I somehow was thinking in Spanish as I attempted to translate meanings. Now, I enjoy our language lessons and crave more practice and vocabulary. As my homestay begins tonight, my acquistion is a matter of survival.
In the afternoon, Michael took me up to Maigum. It was a gift to be with him in his return after a year of distance. I love these moments—when sustaining memories return to life. We are fed by the visions and sounds of a place once loved, until again, we can return. We walked the path and he shared how many times he has dreamed of this path—of returning along the winding road. As we turned the first s-curve, we were greeted with excited shouts “Mike-uhl!” Two young boys, Sitaraam and Sunnil waved at their “dai” [older brother]. I looked at Michael, wide-eyed and wordless, as I marveled at how the little boys remembered this white man’s face for an entire year after only two weeks of knowing him.
It was wild walking up with this group. I walked alongside Michael, my skirt bunched in my hands. The little ones moved around us. I felt like an anthropologist! The boys spoke with Michael excitedly as I picked out familiar Nepali words and then Michael turned to catch me up in English. I think a lot of the conversation I was able to intuit even without understanding the verbal language. Just by the rhythm and expressions, I could follow the movement of the interaction.
We walked the path and found Michael’s aamaa [mother] carrying fodder back down to Besi. We crossed the swollen creek as two water buffalo poked their heads out from a deepened puddle. We climbed up impressive stone staircases and through terraced cornfields. I looked across the valley at the opposing ridge. A goat parade of whites, browns, and spotteds tramped along the thin trail. I followed behind Michael’s gingerly placed flip-flopped steps.
I couldn't get over how special it was to be with Michael as he encountered these familiar faces. So many excited “Namaste”’s. Just as we entered into the village, it began to pour. We were soaked. At one point, Michael turned and asked if I wanted to put on my jacket. We laughed as we both knew it was too late for this. And what a place, to know that here, it really does not matter.
The village is set in the hill and as we climbed through the many “front porches” of Pariaar families. We looked back down on Besi as the sky cleared. It was breath-taking. Not so much natural beauty but more so the vision of these people set in a wild place—together. As we made our way back down the hill, my eye caught a huge grasshopper right under my skirt. We paused to admire, before continuing our walk. Before long, I spotted a thick black linear movement along our path. I looked down to see thousands of ants following this obscure, winding line across the path. Hundreds of them, one after another, none breaking ranks as they made their way across to the other side. We made it back to Besisahar, still soggy, but drying and full of hopes for our next two weeks.
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."