There are red leaves on the grass in Washington Square Park now. Squirrels run across the path, and climb the trees. Asian women – from the Philippines, I suspect – walk children that aren’t their own, in buggies; some kids are wheeled by their own parents. I don’t know if it was last night that I first smelled something like wood smoke in the air, and maybe it was only a wood-fired pizza oven, but it brought me back to Segovia, in 2001, when I went up to that retreat with Abel and Carmen (just some of the many people I’ve lost touch with) in a Carmelite Monastery in the mountains in the outskirts of town, sunlight flickering through the yellow sycamores along the river in the Castilian autumn, and I had the irrational urge to disappear into that sunlight, or that autumn, and stay there forever. (If to disappear means to live a “provincial” life).
Sometimes you have to leave the city, if only in your mind. I haven’t left the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in six weeks (“will I ever?” It’s already sucked me in). But I find my mind turning south across the latitudes, as I receive blog posts from Carsten, the New Zealander biker – ex air-force, who did a tour of duty in “the ‘ghan” as a liaison officer, and left it to travel, and potentially go into further studies in psychology – who I met in a hostel in Salta in the north-western Argentinian autumn (spring, in the northern hemisphere) as red leaves were falling, with a faint smell of wood smoke from all the Sunday afternoon barbecues…
I’ve been following his progress through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, up as far as Colombia, through Venezuela, the Guianas – described by one of their tourist boards as “Conradian”. Sounds amazing, and tropically dodgy. That was the time I’d come to the end of that particular road, dead-ending up against the Bolivian border at 15,000 feet, where cocoa leaves are chewed with bicarbonate of soda, bulging in men’s cheeks, and there are singing clubs where they sing ultra-romantic and macho lyrics like: “amor, I spread my poncho on your bed while you’re sleeping so that you’ll remember me.” Salta is a proud region where people have smooth, strong raven-black hair, and beautiful Andean features, twinned with Argentinian confidence. (Salta and Jujuy contribute disproportionately to the national police force, too, for whatever reason. Brings back “the king’s shilling”…)
Oh, I could have continued, but would have needed another kind of provisioning – to have rested, or been outwardly stronger, ready for more privations and altitude. Bolivia, with its salt flats, ochre and pink mountain colours was hard to resist, but I had to go home a month early to prepare for New York: there was a visa to get, an interview in the embassy fortress; there were family and friends to spend time with. It was the right decision. So, I stayed put in the hostel near the park by the bus station, and didn’t do much: slept a lot, walked a lot and read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish, ate well with my new friend, the wonderful Lola from Paris, who works between Buenos Aires and France producing films and fashion shoots. We went out for local beef and too much local red every night, then she left for BA again. I followed a week later, on one of those twenty-hour bus journeys that grant you the space and the time to think, and to settle again. The space of Argentina can itself feel like an inner territory.
After another week in Buenos Aires with Lola and other friends, I was on my own way home, too. Our mutual Uruguayan friend, Martín, from Montevideo, in scarf, corduroy blazer, runners, shaved head and huge sunglasses, smoking an inevitable Marlboro red, saw me to my taxi while a waiter in a white jacket crossed traffic carrying a tray of café con leche to a favoured customer in a Hairdressers across the street. Martín kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me: “adios, Nene.” (“See you, kid.”) We’d known each other a week, and were already friends.
By the end, after three months, after conversations in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay with taxi drivers, artists, poets, journalists, house wives, back packers, bar men, prostitutes, beggars, old lefties who’d been exiled to Spain, Brazil, France, during the bad ’70s and ’80s, conversations with indigenous people on rickety buses, friends of friends who then became my friends, I felt I had a home at the end of the world. And, now, South America looms large: real, but still romantic in its gutsy reality. And, two seasons later, Carsten is still circling the continent on his motor bike: through Lima, Bogotá and, more dangerously, now, the lunacy of Caracas. I think of him when I’m in the crush of days that don’t always give much time for lateral thought, and of Lola, now on her way back to Buenos Aires. New York, they say, doesn’t lend itself to nostalgia. I don’t think that’s always true.
God speed, man. The mattress in the spare room (spare room in New York? Amazing, but true) is ready for you, when you’re passing through on your way to the next leg of your journey.
(* Title: quotation from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.)