silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: June 2011

what it looks like when

From the window of the bus I watch the hills slowly separate themselves from the night sky. The morning is cold and the lack of heating on the bus lets us know for certain that we are on our way out; the relative luxury of Chile is already well behind us by the time the shadows lie long across the desert sand behind the small shrubs that dot this barren landscape.

This, I think, is what life looks like when we just keep on making decisions.

And so, as to distract myself from the cold, I review gently the decisions of the past week that have brought me to this point, this washboard road across the desert between Chile and Bolivia.

 

For a whole day last week I repeated the advice a good friend had given me: you’re allowed to change your mind.

From inside of any moment, though, it is extremely hard to picture what that might actually look like. In the dark places in our minds, it looks a lot like giving up, giving in, checking out.

A couple of things occurred to me as I clutched a cup of hot coffee and contemplated a change of mind upon my arrival to Antofagasta last week.

First: no one is watching. Those dark places that feel like failure are ours and ours alone. We only fail in relation to the things we tell ourselves about what it takes to be worthy of our own admiration.

Second: the decision to turn left is equal in every respect to the decision to turn right. The process of changing one’s mind – something that might look and feel a lot like failure – in reality usually involves a series of legitimately challenging decisions and situations that are equally worthy of kudos as carrying on might have been.

 

Anyway, so I sold the motorcycle.**

By way of explanation (not justification): it was too cold, I was pretty lonely and I didn’t overly enjoy my days on the road.

However, after a thorough review, I realised that all of the days in between being on the road had been a total thrill and that I could picture easily enough a month or two more of those kinds of days.

 

And so, with one phase behind me, I napped on the bus in a puddle of sun all the way from Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama. Other than a couple of really brief stops in hostels during the bike trip last year, I realised as soon as I stepped into the hostel in San Pedro that there was a reason I had been seeking alternatives to (if not avoiding altogether) the backpacker lifestyle. However, because San Pedro is a) super touristy and b) super small, the couchsurfing prospects were supremely limited.

I dropped my bags on a bunk bed and made my way to the patio outside where three Irish boys were well on their way to being drunk and a couple of Chilean girls rolled a joint. This scene would prove to be a constant over the next four days, with an every revolving cast of characters. After a couple of nights in the dorm, I opted to pitch my tent outside in search of a (tiny) bit more peace and quiet.

 

San Pedro is tucked up into the north east corner of Chile and is touristy for a reason. To the east the Andes rise in all their desert volcano snow capped glory and in every other direction stretches some of the driest desert in the world. My plan had been to carry on over into Argentina by way of Argentina’s two most north western provinces, Juyuy and Salta, however after a few days in San Pedro it became clear that this was a pipe dream. This has been an unusually cold winter here in Chile, and the pass had been closed for more than a week due to snow. Needless to say I was not alone in my predicament; some people had been waiting for more than ten days just to leave this tiny adobe town. After a couple of hopeful false starts, we started to seriously look around for another way out. My Chilean tourist visa had officially run out and the backyard drunken Irish hostel scene was starting to get old. The other option was the Bolivian border, which, while actually fairly close to San Pedro, stretches across miles and miles of absolutely nothing. The quite popular three day salt flat tour (option number two) which leaves from San Pedro and ends in Uyuni, Bolivia was also no-go situation due to the closure of the Bolivian border pass nearest to San Pedro.

In the end, it was a fun adventure that included a night in Calama, Chile, which is worthy of note purely because the Lonely Planet actually comes right out and calls it the shithole that it is. It even uses the word shithole. From there, we piled on to the bus that carried us to the border – a dusty desolate affair guarded by the carcasses of broken down railway cars. Four washboard dust breathing hours later we climbed off in Uyuni, Bolivia.

I hadn’t planned at all to come to Bolivia, but now that I’m here I think I’ll spend a few weeks toodling around. It’s super cheap and has a lot to offer (that said, if anyone reading this has been to Bolivia and has some advice of places to go/things to do, please let me know!!). I started reading a biography of Che Guevara when I left Valdivia by motorcycle, and so it feels fitting that I might visit the place where he died here in Bolivia. This is to say nothing of the fact that I’m surrounded by beautiful things made out of alpaca wool.

 

 

** A technical note about the whole motorcycle for those who might be interested: I bought the Honda 125cgl brand new in Valdivia from a dealer. The bike itself cost about 1400 dollars, plus an additional 100 ish dollars in registration/insurance fees. The fuel economy was about 40 ish kilometres per litre and gas in Chile costs about one dollar a litre. In six weeks I travelled just over 4500km. You do the math (I haven’t).

In Antofagasta, with epic amounts of help from my incredible couchsurfing host family, I sold the motorcycle in six days for about 1100 dollars. In Chile, all pizza deliveries happen on the back of 125cc motorcycles, and so Andrea and I did the rounds of pizza places one Saturday morning until we found someone interested. The actual transfer process was easy once the notary remembered that they had once processed the sale of a sailboat owned by a foreigner. At first they told me it was impossible. You should have seen my face.

Anyway, in the end, I’m glad I tried it. It was hard, fun, exciting, new and boring all at the same time.

Ernesta la poderasita now delivers pizza and Caribbean food to the good people of Antofagasta.

 

saturn through a telescope

A week ago I had a virtual coffee date with a friend from home.

“So, how’s it going?” She asks me, “What’s the plan?”

I surprise myself with my own honesty.

“It’s fine,” I say, “Actually, scrap that. A few days ago I looked up and thought: how the fuck did I end up here again? The dusty desert road, the stretching empty miles, the passing towns, afternoons in park squares watching toddlers chase their shadows. I just can’t seem to shake the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing, that it’s all pretty arbitrary.”

I go on for a bit about how if I hear the phrase “isn’t travelling absolutely the best thing ever” I’m going to vomit and about how much I worry about being bored because it basically seems illegal to be bored AND epic at the same time.

“You’re allowed to change your mind,” she tells me.

“I know,” I say, “I know”. But we both know that I actually have no idea what that might look like.

 

“I get it”, she tells me, “travel stories are more edited than world news on CNN. Few people want to admit that travelling alone means moments of glory sprinkled over a solid base of boredom, insecurity and obsessive facebook status checking.”

“It’s just, I don’t know…What am I supposed to be doing?” I wonder as I refresh my facebook newsfeed for the fortieth time in as many minutes.

“Well, if you figure that one out, don’t keep it a secret,” she responds, “I think we’d all love to know what we’re supposed to be doing”.

 

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

 

I know as soon as it comes into view around the last bend that I had been depending way too much on this town and that it is going to let me down spectacularly. This morning, it had been the small prize I promised myself that made the day seem more doable.

“When I get to the town”, I told myself as I packed my gear in the middle of the desert under a low overcast sky, “there will be lunch and there will be sun and there will be people and things won’t seem quite so bleak”.

Two hundred cold kilometres later I search madly for a new small promise. I sit in the town square, empty but for two skateboarders. The desert dust blows cold around us and I gather together my goals and give them a good look-over. There’s no sun, the skateboarders look at me like I’m an alien and I’m not hungry. So much for that.

At the town gas station, the cashier tells me they have lost/forgotten/never had the password to the internet. She shrugs. I order a coffee and stand at the window and watch people put gas in their cars.

I use my kindle to send my parents the kind of message only possible from a child to a parent. “I’m lonely,” it says, “and I need to be told I am special, that I am capable and that someone out there never stops thinking about me”.

 

Xxxxxxx

 

My first thought as I climbed out of the tent this morning and saw the moon still hanging full in the blue early morning sky over red desert mountains was as follows:

“That is one moon, but this right here is another”.

 

Last week at an observatory, our astronomer guide told us about the things people look for through telescopes the size of tennis courts. Some look only for objects on collision courses with earth. The farther we can see, he tells us, the earlier we know and the longer we have to do precisely nothing.

 

As far as the eye can see stretches nothing. Mountain after mountain of sandy undulation broken only by the twisting grey road and the wind with its blowing.

I time my departure to the exact moment when the sun rises over the eastern mountains and strikes the highway. In second gear I inch my way up one side and in fifth I race down the other side. I am alone.

 

Some people only count stars. With his green laser he points at a faint light to the left of a couple of brighter stars. This is what we call a closed cluster, he tells us. Through the telescope the faint glow explodes into an unthinkable spray of light. Too far away and too close together to count, I am happy to round up my own count to hundreds of billions.

 

As the light mellows and loses it’s low angle intensity I let an episode of This American Life have the kind of profound affect on me that can only be had after days devoid of conversation. In an episode about locating oneself in the world, a traveller talks about the desire to step off the map, to go beyond the edges of everything sketched. He explains it as a challenge thrown at the world: show me what makes it worth it, or let me out.

There is a small click in the universe, he says, in the moment when you realise that we have no right to demand these kinds of demonstrations. We are small, and we get exactly what we ask for.

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