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Connection

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You want to reach out and touch the trees. Puyehue, Chile. February 2022

From a very small age I liked Henry Moore’s sculptures, and even now, I associate them with childhood. My grandparents would take me to the sculpture park to see them: long peaceful walks, with reverent pauses in the presence of these art-forms. Sculptures many times bigger than me stood beside well-worn paths, like fellow walkers, or lay out, beneath the clouds, in fields surrounded by sheep-nibbled grass. Others hid among trees, surprising the passer-by as they shimmered into view and others peered out over the lake, watching the swans paddle along. Sculptures of bronze shells or stone limbs reminding us of our own bodies, positioning us beside them, exuding and sharing strength with their size, a guardianship, a guide. Sculptures with smooth voluptuous surfaces telling us to touch, skin to skin.

Trees can also be like this, with broad roots bulging from the base, their bark peeling like flakes of paper, layer on layer, branches just out of reach, solid and unmoving, reassuringly still. Grown adults in a forest, when they’re not conscious of being watched, run their fingers along the rough bark. A fingertip trace, reading the world to find a connection.

Interestingly, the benefit of therapy stems not from the words spoken, but from the relationship, the carving out of a safe space, a human contact that is non-judgmental, where forgiveness is not required or solicited. If words sufficed, we could heal ourselves through reading a book. And books are wondrous things, but they are a vessel of human connection, a one to many, not a one to one. Sometimes it’s the being with each other that’s necessary. It’s the presence. Like a tree, the psychotherapist does not move, does not rush. Connection takes time, and time is given with patience.

Meditation is the crafting of stillness, a pause where thoughts are encouraged to flow without sticking, without getting caught, where the body is calmed, and balance is restored to the breath. Time passes, but time is allowed to pass. There is a flow, a curve, an evenness, a beauty in being. Within this pause, there is sometimes clarity, insight. Sit calm and you learn to appreciate your own company. Solitude separates ‘now’ from the haste. Why is haste so frequently harnessed to life? With the harness unclipped, our shoulders lift, we consider the spine and rest in the breath. Listening to our breath unites us with the truth of what we are feeling.

 Connection is not complicated, but does have to be given to, it has to be trusted in, it has to be devoted to. But it’s also what makes being worthwhile.

Children are in the dustbins

The dinosaur park: where parents take their children to see the dinosaurs.
Pica, Región de Tarapaca, Chile, January 2022

Children are in the dustbins across the street from the café where I am drinking my coffee. The sun is warm, it’s summer, so the kids presumably don’t have school. I’m conscious of how easy it would be for my skin to burn, but the avenues are shaded by big old trees, trees whose roots have pushed up the pavements, crumpled the paths. I feel someone planned this city, planned streets wide enough for cars to park, planned broad pavements to place café chairs and heavy green dustbins. I like this corner, where I return to drink coffee most mornings and quite frequently indulge in a croissant. Today I planned to come, to sit here at the crossroads, drink my coffee and read. Yet I am distracted from my reading by the children in the dustbins.


I’m supposed to be reading Tim Park’s book The Novel, A Survival Skill. This is part of my chosen reading for my master’s degree. But it’s not my first book by Tim Parks, a long time ago I read Italian Neighbours, an account of his life in Verona. An account which probably mentioned dustbins. I can imagine Parks writing about waste disposal. I’ve never read his novels, but I’ve been delighted by The Novel, which isn’t about how to write a book, but why people write the books they do. And, it explains why I don’t get on with Borges.

Or that’s not fair. It’s not that I don’t get on with Borges, I feel a polite acquaintance with him and a lack of curiosity in his work, yet despite this, a vexation, a sense that I ought to see something which I can’t, that I ought to be impressed when I’m not, and that it ought to generate meaning for me, it doesn’t. I’m bemused as to why his oh-so-clever labyrinths are so adored.

Tim Parks talks about how writers, whether they intend it or not, write, and rewrite, what feel to them to be the essential conflicts of their lives, particularly those initial childhood family conflicts, which I think fundamentally comes down to self-identity. The same goes for readers. Readers read, reread and recommend those books which have touched on these inner conflicts. Hence, Tim Parks likes to read books with tense moral dilemmas because of his intensely religious and somewhat whacky family. Similarly, he writes novels where morality is played with, tossed around and torn apart. He’s trying to resolve his own unease about being good and being bad through the words he puts on the page.

As for me, your literary likes and dislikes are part of the wider pattern of your relationships, and not unconnected with the kind of family you have, the kind of life you lead.

The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks

I think a certain intellectual swaggering turns me off. What I want in a book is a glimpse into humanity, I want to see the human condition from a fresh perspective, but I want to see up close. I read from my heart, not my over-trained brain.

While I want to like clever books, at the end of the day, my favourites are those that made me cry, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Carla Guelfenbein’s The Rest is Silence. Books which use language in a clever way, but do not swagger.


But I’m not reading, I’m too busy watching the children in the dustbins. They are scavenging for sheets of cardboard and plastic bottles. I am alarmed by this. One of them wears a baseball cap, the other has had his hair highlighted, maybe imitating some footballer? One wears pumps on his feet, the other plastic flip-flops. I imagine this boy’s feet, there in the bin, coming into contact with… No, I don’t want to think about it. Yet, despite my worries, these teenage boys look healthy. They’re nimble, lithe, coordinated and industrious.

When I later mention this to Latin American friends, they accept my astounded account without alarm. A kind of ‘so what?’. I can see their point. It is a fact that children climb into these dustbins – I later see adults doing the same – and this is part of life. I’m unsettled by the discomfort this brings. Even as a young child, I was aware that I was better off than my peers. Yet I also know that there is nothing I am going to do about it, unless we count my various conversations on the matter or this small piece of writing. To these boys, I too am irrelevant. Just another tourist.

Climate change. Recycling. Children in dustbins.

The boys toss the bottles from the bins, the bottles bounce and scatter across the pavement. Like children in a playground, the boys vault over the lip of the bin, out, back onto the street. One grabs a plastic bag and pops the bottles in, while his friend folds the cardboard flat. Beside them, on the road, beside the bins, is a docile pony and cart. The cardboard is laid in the cart and the bottles are put in a huge green bag tied on the back, the size of a small tent. Maybe there are hundreds of bottles already inside.

The younger generation cleaning up after the old.

My fear for these boys is joined by admiration.


Would Tim Parks be analysing the moral conundrum of this situation? If he were in this coffee shop with me, would he be criticizing this world for having children scavenging in dustbins. Would he be, like me, panicking about the health consequences? Would his thoughts be broken glass and disused needles? Would he notice that these boys are children, barely old enough for a paper-round? Might he shrug it off as just part of how things are here. Would he note that their skin is darker than most of the people who walk past, people who pay no attention to these children, as if children climbing in dustbins were normal? Would he link this to Spanish conquest, ancient caste systems, political dysfunction and the consequent immigration?

And would Parks, like a friend of mine, ask whether the children looked fed? Fundamental survival question. They looked fed, I explained, and showered, and their clothes looked like they’ve been washed. Would the contradiction sit as uneasily with him as it does with me? We might think of such boys as the victims of the system, but they hardly appear like victims. Would it reassure him that this is the school holiday and so maybe they do this for pocket money? Perhaps, when the new semester begins, they’ll be holding pens and writing.

I find myself thinking how if they study with the same attitude as they collect bottles, they’ll deserve to go to good universities.

For the novelist the text is absolutely integrated in his life and circumstances; what he writes comes out and rebounds back on his mental life, his private life, his professional life.

The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks

Am I admiring them for the display of self-sufficiency and independence? Inevitably, since I am reading Parks’ book, I find myself wondering at my own intrigue. Am I drawn to the situation because it reflects an internal conflict of my own? Do I admire them for their independence, self-sufficiency and hard work because these were values drilled into me as a child?

Is this why am I compelled to write about them?

The forest in the desert

Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

Cactuses, or cacti, grow in deserts, not trees

Or at least that’s what I thought. And thinking about cactuses, or cacti, I wondered whether even they would survive in the driest desert in the world. And whether, if they did, they would be green. The cactuses I’d seen in La Serena on the side of Cerro Grande facing the sea were green, thanks to the daily wrapping of mist, but the side facing the mountains were brown or grey, not at all like the green cartoon cactuses which decorate my llama mug, or my father’s knitted cactus which sits on the windowsill in the lounge.

Ariel Dorfman, in his book Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North, made the desert sound empty – a landscape of space dotted with abandoned nitrate towns. Sad towns whose existence was the result of fickle economic greed.

The desert is spacious, but it is hardly empty

Early one evening, when the sun had dropped low enough that his rays no longer scorched my skin, in that magic hour, before the chill of the desert night descended, I asked for a mini adventure, got into the car and, with a friend, drove into the desert. Off the main road, we passed paddocks of solar panels and I wondered if they were self-cleaning, or rather, if they were designed so that dirt wouldn’t cling to them. Dust coasts everything in the desert. It sweeps across the road, swirls, thickens and becomes mini sand tornadoes which waltz across the empty land, unaware that they’re the last at the party and everyone else has gone home.

Sometimes man’s power astounds me – fat, blue grapes grow in neat, tended rows at the side of the track, their roots bedded in imported soil, irrigated with water that’s pumped up like oil from the depths.

Grapes growing in the Atacama, Chile. January 2022.

Human magic defies the desert

Driving slowly, with me gripping my seatbelt as the car laboured forward, off the main road, we came to the abandoned village of Cumiñalla, the sort of settlement Dorfman had described – a single street of roofless houses, doorless doorways and crumbling walls which reminded me of those quiet corners of Pompei.

It’s difficult to tell how big this place ever was, as now it has crumbled into ruins akin to some ancient town, you could have told me that these ruins had been here hundreds of years, although I’m told people were still living her forty years ago. Akin to the living town of Pozo Almonte which had reminded me of images of the Wild West, barren Cumiñalla seems to have existed despite the odds, and as its cards changed, had disintegrated into dust.

Built in the desperation to harvest the rich nitrates from the abundant desert, Pozo Almonte had survived, probably because it sits on Ruta Cinco, the same tarmac road that I crossed many times in La Serena, which runs from the Peruvian border, down through the desert, straight through Santiago and continues all the way to Chiloe. Pozo Almonte offers a point of respite. Migrants cluster in the square where I’d drank a mango juice. Juice drunk, I slide back into the car seat and switch up the air conditioning. The migrants get to their feet and walk south.

People are astounding.

Tins, abandoned. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. Jaunary 2022.

The desert is rich in nitrate deposits

In his book, Dorfman describes how once upon a time, in 1910, Chile supplied 65% of the world’s nitrogen-based fertilizers, twenty years later, he states, only 10%. Neither the First World War nor the depression of the 30s helped demand, and competition outpaced production once some scientists in a German laboratory came up with a synthetic alternative. These tiny settlements were built for the nitrate industry, and without it, they all but disappeared.

Camera in hand, I set out to explore. You intuitively know that this is a place where to survive depends on preparation. For me, clambering through the ruins reminded me of exploring empty castles with my grandparents. It was an adventure. But out here, far from the coast and far from the mountains, surrounded by sand, you cannot rely on your phone to have signal. You don’t expect to stumble across water. Here, tinned food had been an essential and my exploration found scatterings of empty tins, to which the desert was entirely apathetic.

A wooden cart, Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And as if in a children’s novel, I stepped through a doorway and stumbled upon a forest

Cactuses, I’ve learnt, survive by piercing the morning fog, making it bleed onto the dry ground, drip into their thirsty, shallow roots. Even so, I hadn’t expected to encounter a forest in the Atacama. I’d felt similarly perplexed when I had been in San Pedro – surprised by the green. Trees, it seems, grow here because of the incredible depth of their roots. I’m told the water lays twenty or thirty metres below us. What I wonder is how the saplings survive. How does a tree grow to have twenty-metre-long roots without water? After all, here it never rains. But there were trees.

And amid the trees was a gate, which was unlocked especially for me. And, invited in, I wandered into the terrain of an abandoned house, skipping though swirls of dust, leaving my footprints in the sand. The breeze pulled on my skirt and tangled it between my legs. There had been a great fire, and the house here, built of parched wood, lit up in flames and was gone. The kitchen garden had been reclaimed by the desert, but the rabbit hutches and chicken coops remained, as did a wooden cart, which had once been used to deliver fruit and vegetables. It stood padlocked to a tree.

The blue teapot. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And lodged on a sideboard, an unwanted blue teapot

Abandoning a town when there is no work left is understandable as is abandoning a house when it burns down, or a city when it is no longer safe, but to abandon a teapot? This I could not understand.

And it was easier to ponder the existence of this teapot than imagine the horror faced by all those migrants walking through the world’s driest desert, unwilling to abandon the hope of a better life.

numbers jumbled

My beach, La Serena, Chile, December 2022

I found myself the most beautiful of places to be, tucked in the corner of an architect-less city, staring out at the sun as it fills the horizon with its yellow. Hidden amid this ordinary, in a block of flats identical to its neighbours, is the little nest I’ve made myself, for a season of a few weeks, a home which belongs to a stranger, a bed which I will soon forget, a view which I will not.

The year swings from one to two. When I write dates, they come out wrong, the wrong months, the wrong years, the numbers jumbled. Often I pick summer months, July, August, to describe this bright December. My body choosing on instinct a reality to fit my circumstances. My body is perpetually upside down and inside out. I fill my rooms with music I don’t recognize and play, on repeat, lists which I will feel fondly for this week and then let fall into the abyss of my memory as I move to explore some other genre. And inside the unknown I find myself and I stop having to be anyone because I already am.

I am living in a dream, but it was a dream I believed into being. I decided I would touch my toes to this sandy beach, and I did just that, as if defying the gods and perhaps in an act of prayer to them, I did just what I wanted to do and delighted myself by the power this act portrayed. Call it being alive. I decided I would write, and here I am writing. I decided I would do work which challenged me and compelled me to care, and that’s what I do.

Twisting my head to the side, I see the waves. Against the sound of Juliet’s death, in the music of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, I hear children playing, chasing each other around the climbing frame. I am the invisible observer, conspicuously foreign. By not belonging, I get to choose how I move. Belonging might be an essential human trait, but not belonging is freedom. I can stand out by accidentally being the only woman in the city wearing a skirt on this hot summer’s day and rather than worry about my lack of fashion sense, know I am merely alien, and hence, my attire does not answer to societal rules to which I do not belong.

If I am a little weird, it’s not easy to explain. I have found no analysis which can dissect a veritable reason for my being this way. I’ve given up trying to hypothesize why. Let’s just accept that following my wild wants makes me happier than denying their existence. And that the sun, setting across the Pacific blue is beautiful.   

On the inconvenience of listening

Lost in the foliage. The Railway Children Walk, West Yorkshire, November 2021

It’s hard to listen. You risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Your view of things might get a little crumpled. Someone might say something that doesn’t align with what you wanted or expected them to say or think. People, it seems, have different opinions. Not everyone sees the world quite like me. Maybe nobody. It’s terribly frustrating.

Listening inevitably reminds us of the gap between us. Listen closely, and you’ll hear how clunky our words actually are. We try to express ourselves but our ten of thousands of words create an insufficient digital approximation of our analogue experience. Body language steps in to compensate. Facial expressions give texture to our meanings. But our noisy biases result in erroneous conclusions.

“Slower,” I say. “Please speak slower.”

As a non-native speaker, you work with a smaller vocabulary and all the noise of your own language and culture. Listening in a foreign language takes a lot of effort. Sometimes you might sit and nod, putting all your effort into understanding, following the speaker’s fragmented, straying lines of thought, trying to congeal some sort of understanding from the words you catch. At the end of the conversation, you realise you haven’t said anything at all. There was no time to compose a thought.

“Give me a moment.”

Normally, in our own language, we can compose our thoughts as the other person speaks. It takes a conscious effort to calm our tongue – the words want to escape. We butt in with our opinions. We thrust ourselves into the conversation, spurred on by the essential nature of our thoughts, our words, our opinions, us. In a foreign language, deciphering the sounds into words and words into phrases and phrases into meanings is an all-encompassing task. The cogs whirr. The opinion doesn’t have time to form.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?”

People might mistakenly believe that it’s good listening not to jump in and interrupt the conversation. My Spanish listening is like this: mostly silent. I don’t think anyone would describe my Spanish listening as good. Or, at least, if they did, we can safely assume that they mean ‘for a non-native speaker with only a few years practise’ or they’re trying to be kind. We should be sceptical of such compliments. How many people want to feel they’re speaking to a bad listener?

Occasionally though I do interrupt and ask for clarification of the meaning of a word. A single word. The more confident I feel, the better I listen and the more I interrupt. Lost in a conversation about Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor, I picked up on the word knee, I got stuck on the word knee. Why was the word knee in the conversation, why was it so emphasised? Why knee?

Rodilla como knee?” I ask, pointing aggressively at my own right knee. Of course, knee. To go down on one’s knees, the emperor subservient to the empress. It makes sense when you know.

The speaker might feel frustrated at my ignorance, but this interruption is actually better listening than my silence. If I don’t interrupt, I won’t understand. To listen, to understand anything I hear, I need to pause and ask for clarification. Otherwise, I’m just sitting and nodding.

Sí, sí, sí…”

The best conversationalists, for me, in Spanish, are the ones who think about what they are saying and consider how I listen. One of my dear friends actually stops and asks me to wait while he chooses the best to explain his thoughts. He’s one of the few people I feel comfortable having a conversation with, in Spanish, on the phone. He’s not just speaking: he’s gaging whether or not I am understanding and then he’s adapting his language to compensate for my poor vocabulary and need for simple sentences. He allows me to parrot back his meaning in my own words so that we both can be sure that I really do understand what I’m being told. Often though, if I’m being totally honest, I’m tired and lazy and I don’t listen well.

 I say, “.”

I’ve written here a lot about listening in a foreign language but listening in a foreign language is not so dissimilar to listening when you’re distracted, when you’re preoccupied with your own concerns or where the content of the conversation is beyond your ability to comprehend.

We’re all lazy. If the content is technically too difficult, say requiring prior knowledge, we zone out. And if we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or distracted by something, for example messages popping up on a screen, the conversation often falls into silences. Divided attention leads us to nod, , but unlike the struggling non-native speaker, we often mistakenly believe we were following and did understand. Maybe you got enough to keep the conversation flowing, but how deep did those words go? Did they just scatter into the wind? Have we missed the clues? Were the words what was being said, or was there a secondary message we were supposed to hear? Are we just guessing?

When the non-native speaker is asked, they can usually admit that they only understood maybe 80% of what was said.

And sometimes we listen blindfolded because we’re on the defence before we’ve had the chance to begin. We assume we know what other people want, what they think and what they believe. We listen to the words, but we don’t wonder what’s not being said. We don’t take time to understand the motivation behind the words. Why does the conversation matter to the other person? Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of an idea, convince themselves? Do they believe what they’re saying, or are they wishing they believed it? Can we tell when someone is lying to themselves?

How are these words serving?

I think often we rush through conversations. It’s hard to listen. We all so busy: thoughts crashing through our minds, places we ought to be, things we should have read, emails that need attending to. The bathroom needs cleaning. We don’t really want to deal with the inconvenience of our routine being crumpled by something we weren’t ready to hear.

Yet I don’t know there’s much anything more valuable than an honest, open, slow and interested conversation with someone who’s attentively listening. A good conversation creates a space in which we grow, it connects us to the world, and to other people’s words. What’s more human than attending to each other’s choice of words?

The loss of everything

This is from a sculpture I think in Ñuñoa celebrating the efforts of the Bomberos, the fire department. The fire service in Chile is made up of volunteers. Santiago, January 2020.

Three buildings had been burnt to the ground, and the putrid smoke of burnt plastic and paint hung into the air late into the afternoon, even though the fire had been put out the night before. The fire service was not fast enough to save the wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, which had now smouldered into nothing. The bakery next door was also gone. People’s incomes turned to ash.

A young woman stood in front of the corpse of her house whilst around her men dragged the debris from her square of land into a truck. They carted away her walls and the carcass of her kitchen, wearing thick gloves and paper masks. The woman’s eyes were stained red. Smoke most likely, it clung to our clothes. I don’t imagine she’d found the freedom to cry. Her limbs hung limp beside her body. I’d accompanied a friend to bring food, plates, bowels, blankets and clothes, things she would need, but all she could do was stare at the space where her home had been. A weak ‘gracias’ was the most she could articulate. In shock, she could not think. She could not plan ahead and consider where she would sleep or what she would do. She was alone.

The friend I’d accompanied couldn’t understand why someone, faced with the destruction of their home, would stand and stare, so inert, watching the breeze playing with the charred remains.

I could understand.

Because the destruction of a home must be like the destruction of the self, it must be a crumbling of your identity. All those belongings which surround you daily, suddenly gone, must feel like you yourself are being erased from your own plot of land. Power is stolen: the power to tuck yourself into your bed, the power to make yourself a cup of tea, the power to turn the tap and see water flow into a glass. Gone. And I do not know how it is to lose your home, but I do know how important it is to feel grounded as a person, to trust that when you shut the door at night that you are safe, and I know the fear that takes grip when you do not know who you are. When it feels like who you were has crumbled into dust. If you don’t know who you are, how do you know what to do?

Slowing the pace

Humedal, La Serena, December 2021

For once, I don’t feel overstretched. By which I mean, I actually made the bed, I have food in the fridge, I’ve swept the kitchen floor, I’ve no deadlines haunting me, and I am reading almost every day. It’s like I’ve put down a huge rucksack which I’ve been carrying for months. I’m living in front of the Pacific Ocean; I can watch the sunset each evening from my balcony.

There’s a man, a small man with slim limbs, shorter in stature than me, with a dark wrinkled face which makes him look quite old, but perhaps it’s only the sun and he’s not as old as I imagine. He spends many hours each day working outdoors, his horse is never far away, and he sits on the sand dunes and watches over the river basin where his animals graze. I see him with a piece of straw in his mouth and if I’m alone he’ll look away from his animals for a moment and he’ll speak to me, comment on the weather or the beauty of the beach. He has few teeth and a strong accent. One day when I had to apologise that I didn’t understand he replied with genuine surprise, “How?”

It took him some time considering me before he asked if perhaps, I was not Chilean. I switched the sounds around in my mind and concluded that the animal he’d lost sight of was a goat. Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that his dialect has a word half-like the Spanish for ‘goat’ but which means some other animal entirely. I assured him that I hadn’t seen any animals the size of a goat, I’d come straight from the main road, and he looked disappointed.

When more people are around, walking along the path, heading to the beach, he doesn’t turn and pay them any attention and they seem not to see him either. He sits and he watches the animals, and he must do this for hours each day. It’s a wild space, areas of which are roped off to protect the nesting birds. He appears incredibly peaceful.

My peaceful contentment won’t last. Inevitably the world around me will spin back out of my control, it’s so full of exciting opportunities, things to develop, projects to undertake and obligations to attend to, it can hardly do anything else. I’m habitually addicted to our societies call for more.

But right now, there is peace.

Part of this is the light. The room where I work is painted a yellow shade of white and the almost-summer sunshine fills the room. It’s lit up like the inside of the fridge, but with such a clear, fresh light I am awakened in my core. Even mornings are no longer so difficult. The light fills my bedroom well before my alarm sounds and it’s such a warm, friendly, natural light that I can’t despise it.

My father has always said that I have a tendency to commit to too much, burn the candle at both ends and eventually burn out. This is my natural pull, the way I grew up working. It’s learnt from my father who does many, many things, burns the candle at both ends and then fizzles wildly. Luckily my mother’s around to balance things out, but in doing so, she too runs around wildly and exhausts herself. We’re a family of too much at once living in a society of more, more, more.

When I’ve got too much on, I think my brain works against me to slow me down. Like trying to drive with the handbrake on. The more I worry about all the things I should have done, the more my own body resists me. It hides that feeling of calm, cool-headed thought and instead swings between panicked adrenaline and dispiriting lethargy.

When I’ve got less on, when I’ve chosen to have less on, I’m calmer, my thoughts form with less agitation and getting stuff done doesn’t seem like such an ordeal. This is a preferable way to be. But it’s the result of many choices, it does not come effortlessly. To find it, I think you have to learn to value the man’s time, simply sitting there, watching his animals with the sun on his back. You have to learn to value the patience it takes to wait without wishing the time to pass faster. You have to be really clear about what it is you want.

The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo

Sugar

When I visited my sister in the summer, I paid a quick visit to the book barn. By a quick visit, I mean I was only lost in the labyrinth of books for a few hours and came out clutching only a dozen or so titles. One of these books was a slim Penguin paperback, published in English in 1970, entitled ‘The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave’. It was one of those books I picked up because I felt it would be good for me to read, but I was a little apprehensive about what reading such a life would entail.

Esteban Montejo was born a slave and grew up working on a Cuban sugar plantation. He escaped, probably as a teenager, and lived wild in the forest, avoiding contact with society from fear of being caught, punished and returned to slavery. He left the forest when, in 1886, Cuba abolished slavery, although on some plantations, as Montejo mentions, the freeing of the slaves took more time than others. He seems to have been an introvert, a quiet rebel, occasionally incredibly stubborn and clearly, he valued his independence and was willing to act to protect it. He talks about listening to his elders, particularly those who had come from Africa who still remembered their homes and who sometimes engaged in cultural practises (particularly magical ones) which hadn’t been incorporated into the Cuban cultures. He’s critical of the Christian god, who he treats with more suspicion than the ‘witchcraft’ of various African gods.  His understanding of some bible stories is mixed up, but some of his observations about religion and humanity are stunningly astute.

There are some things about life I don’t understand. Everything about Nature is obscure to me, and about the gods more so still. The gods are capricious and wilful, and they are the cause of many strange things that happen here and which I have seen for myself. I can remember as a slave I spent half my time gazing up at the sky because it looked so painted.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Montejo returned to plantation work, this time as an employee. He describes his tasks and the options for labourers depending on their ethnicity. He mentions too, women’s work, and how hard the women had to work to maintain their families while the men were cutting cane. He talks a lot about dancing and gambling habits of his companions, but he seems to have not been particularly interested in either. His main interest, and he has no hesitancy in stating this, was women. He has a lot to say about women, courting practises and even fashion.

During the 1898 Cuban war of Independence, Montejo became a soldier. He writes about subjecting himself to the orders of his commanders, but he seems to find this difficult. He is a soldier who signs up because he shares the ideals of the cause, he believes strongly in freedom and independence for Cuba, yet, more than once he disobeys a command and finds himself punished as a result.

In the 1960s, he met the anthropologist, Miguel Barnet, who had heard mention of Montejo in a Cuban newspaper and who became fascinated by the centenarian’s story. This book consists of Montejo’s recollections of his first forty years, recorded and reconstructed by Barnet.

It was not at all what I had expected.

And if you want my opinion, it’s best not to die, because a few days later no one remembers you, not even your closest friends. It’s silly to make such a fuss o the dead, like people do nowadays, but it’s nothing but hypocrisy really. It always has been. For my part, I want my fiestas while I am alive.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Do you need a mechanic?

El Faro, La Serena, December 2021

Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.

  There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.

When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.

Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.

And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.

At the end of the world

The biggest market I’ve ever seen.
Santiago, November 2021.

Chile, my dear Chile. Fancy seeing you again. I’d forgotten, for a moment, how arid your hills are.

It took me a little while to get over here. In Madrid, in that never-ending hall, the one that rolls out to infinity with gates enough for the entire world to visit, I helped a guy who was trying to go to Mexico find his flight. He was confused because the letters and numbers were repeating themselves, the terminal, the subterminal, the gate, the same icons on a loop, like knowing a place by its GPS coordinates but not its name. I was confused because my gate number changed as I was leaping between moving walkways. I was confused because I was tired, and I had a headache and I was clutching a thousand forms: vaccine passes, pcr test results, declarations of the absence of symptoms, the location in which I would stay, all those numbers and words used to identify which country, gender and age group I belong, boarding passes, taxi reservations, evidence that someone will pay if I get sick. But I heard someone say, “Cachai” as we waited at the gate, and suddenly the number of documents seemed irrelevant. Do you get what I’m saying? A blink and I was in Madrid, another blink, gone again. But the Chilean words stuck around, with a reassuring presence.

We came backwards through Santiago airport, coming in through what must be newly built gates, walking through doors designed for the flow to be in the other direction, passing ‘no entry’ signs. I wandered through this labyrinth, following the guy in front. Chileans can queue. Without thinking (and therefore without worrying), I allowed myself to be herded through. I wondered how the Chileans were going to test us all and process all our documents and I imagined that I might be awhile in the airport, but they attacked the problem with many hands, applying parallel processing: countless people siting at countless desks collecting the countless documents in a building constructed like a maze. Fodder for Borges, I thought.

I was given a sticker to identify me as in isolation and sent down the escalator for my pcr test. I keyed my passport number into the machine and then moved into the next queue for testing. My first test, in Berlin, had been a gentle affair and I had wondered afterwards why people made such fuss about it. In England, my pcr test had been less comfortable but in hindsight not so bad. In Chile, I was reminded of those hooks which the ancient Egyptians used to remove a dead person’s brain through their nostrils.

I went up another escalator and followed people through another corridor. We’d made it to arrivals, and I recognized the room where we waited in our lines to pass through immigration. Slow lines, because the open desks could be counted on one hand, discarding the thumb and most of the fingers, and the staff kept wandering off to do other things. I didn’t feel rushed. I’d seen the sunshine through the floor to ceiling airport windows. Peace had settled upon me. In line, I helped a Spaniard connect to the free airport wifi so that he could call his children and tell them he’d arrived. He offered me chewing gum. The lady at the immigration counter stamped my passport with the pretty multicoloured Chilean stamp, and I was in.

Wheeling my jenga tower of suitcases out through the building, I found a bottled water dispenser, inserted my pesos and the machine refused to dispense the water. I tried another machine: it didn’t work either. I wasn’t the only one wanting water, and I shared consolations with a stranger – at least the machine refunded our pesos. We met up again a few minutes later, buying water from a little shop. A woman served me, handing me a bottle of water which was cheaper than those sold in the machine. Perhaps the gods were helping out.

Thankfully, I knew what I was doing because I had clear instructions from Chilean friends. I found my driver, a professional chap who squirted my hands with sanitizer and did all that moving my luggage around, and he drove me to a friend’s flat. The receptionist appeared and these two men transferred my three suitcases into a shopping trolley. I just stood there, while all this happened, with an expression halfway between a sunshine smile and goldfish thinking. I was led into a lift, and left there with the trolley, the receptionist pressed the button, sent me up and phoned my friend to notify her of the guest on her doorstep.

I had arrived.