I hope all roads lead to Bariloche

I’m leaving Argentina tomorrow, and I wanted to get down a quick post before life rushes in and I’m already home and on to the next thing. I plan to share more from the past few week’s adventures, but here’s what’s on my mind tonight, unfiltered, with some not-quite-related but still beautiful photos:

When I arrived here in January, my foot was swollen and causing serious concern. I’d been on an overnight flight, during which I wore compression socks and stood up and hobbled every 45 minutes because I was terrified of the increased possibility for blood clots. When we landed in Buenos Aires, my foot was so swollen and red and painful that the sight of it nearly made me cry. At the bus station, we bought bottled water and I poured it over my bare foot by the curb, just for the three seconds of cold. We arranged my luggage so I could keep my foot elevated while we awaited our bus, and most people probably thought we were weird and uncouth. A kind stranger offered advice and ibuprofen. I’d already used up all my ice packs at the airport, also probably looking odd or inconsiderate, my foot bare in public. During the twenty-four hour bus ride, I routinely stuck my leg straight up in the air to try and get the swelling down. I was nervous and sad and beyond caring what the other passengers thought. I worried the 50+ hour trip had worsened the fracture. When we finally arrived in Bariloche, it took two full days for my foot to go back to normal.

Once we settled it, the reality also appeared: I was in the mountains, in a trail runner’s paradise, and unable to run or hike or hardly walk in them. I wasn’t seeing a doctor and I got nervous about so many things maybe making my foot worse – from the temp of my baths to the tightness of my ace bandage. But over the course of the past 3 months, I’ve spent part of every day getting better. I started using one crutch, then none. I started using resistance bands, and then working out – at first just dancing-while-sitting. Then dancing while standing. Then real squats and abs and a new boxing routine I’m kind of obsessed with. What was, for a long time, a genuine struggle, has become this wondrous thing – every day I am a little stronger than yesterday. And I’m still not even running yet, which is crazy. I wonder at what force I’ll feel when that happens.

In all this, I’ve grown absurdly sentimental of all the rehab routines unique to this house, this neighborhood, this city. The crickety, camp-style stairs here remind me of the first time I got up them without crutches. My first bus ride, my first outing into town by myself. The first morning Will didn’t have to carry my coffee for me. My weekly trips to physical therapy – which by the way, without insurance, cost a whopping $15 here for an hour of therapy. The week I stopped needing ibuprofen and ice all the time. Last week when I accidentally forgot my crutches at school and I got super psyched because it showed how I hardly need them.

Today I packed up and returned the furniture to how it was when we got here. Will and I had made a writing desk for me by using two side tables and a moveable glass tabletop. I walked, as is the routine, for a half hour inside the house – a routine because none of the ground here is level. And every single corner of the house reminded me of all the ways I’ve grown stronger since I got here. I also finished my last semester of grad school while here, and, aside from a few tweaks, just finished a full draft of my thesis. I got to teach creative writing to high school students learning English, think about inventions and green energies with them, and listen to their imaginations shape their stories. I finished my Rotary volunteering. I shared so much peaceful time and space with my sweetheart. I met some very kind people. I ate good food and learned a lot and grew a little less afraid of roaming dogs.

It is a wistful and happy place to be, to have found such meaning here but to have to leave. In all the running and studying abroad and the luck of traveling, I don’t know if I’ve ever been as sad to leave a place as I am here and now. I guess the good news is that I can keep getting stronger back home, and that maybe as I do each routine back in Maine, I’ll feel some connection to here.

But here, this magic mountain house in Villa Los Coihues, and the city of Bariloche, will always be the place I got better. It will be a place I arrived to in a state of anxiety and helplessness, and, now, a place I’ll leave on both feet, with strong legs and a lot of happiness. Hopefully, no matter which way I go, I’ll end up back here in Bariloche.

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In love with Villa Los Coihues and the neighbors who share it

Will is leaving next week, and although I’ll be staying on three more weeks, I’ve already started to think about the things I’m going to miss. Out of all of them, I’m going to miss our neighborhood the most. Our hood, Los Coihues, is a neighborhood of dirt roads, wandering dogs, and a neighborly code that exceeds many similar kindnesses I’ve experienced in running across the US and France. It sits on a small plateau at the base of Cerro Catedral, which is a mountain of about 7900 feet and is considered something of a community mountain, sitting as it does, in the collective “backyard.” All of the pictures here are of our end of the neighborhood. As I’ve coalesced and gone out and about more often, I’ve never left the house on foot, with crutches, and not been offered a ride. Sometimes those rides are 30 minutes long, from my street directly to the physical therapist’s office.

And those rides have turned out to be something really special, because they are, primarily, how I’ve met my neighbors. I’ve met a mountain guide who worked for Outward Bound and knew Maine, an aspiring dramatist, the carpenter who built the home we’re renting, the head of neighborhood water utilities (independently organized in Coihues), a woman who runs a rental company with her daughters, a trio of retired portenos on road holiday from Buenos Aires, and more. One day I got a ride with a mom and daughter on their way to her school – we were all three kind of tired and so in lieu of the usual introductory conversation, we rode in pleasant silence while the radio station played Melissa Etheridge and the weather turned cloudy and cozy.

Each person I’ve met this way has told me where they live and to make sure and come by if I needed anything. They’ve asked after the woman we’re renting from, and told us how they know her and her daughter. In our first week, the family who owns the corner store across the street helped us out of a power outage emergency. We have a cat who comes sees to us every day, and dogs barking out a pleasant neighborhood song. Most people dress themselves in clothing meant for enjoying the outdoors and are casually comfortable with one another – for example, there is a charge-card system here for using the bus (much like a subway system) and if a person is out of $ on their card, it’s routine to politely ask the bus if anyone can swipe them in exchange for cash, and it’s normal to give this swipe.

Today I walked early in the morning to the neighborhood school, and it felt so much like a fall day – a cool breeze, shifting clouds, yellow leaves and the smell of them mixed with pine – and I started thinking about how special this place is. I met with the director of the school (who also founded it) and she’s an amazing person. Under her founding vision, the school has regular trips to the mountains and is trying to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them in an effort to change the way education is done. When I told her that Will works in solar energy (shout out Revision Energy) she mentioned a new class they’re doing just on energies. After meeting, I walked back home, and had a feeling like one of the most special and subtle parts of being here – in Coihues especially – is that I’ve found my people. I feel that way in other places too, in Maine and of course with my family, but here it has almost snuck up on me. And so much of the connection I feel to this place and people has come, unexpectedly, from accepting rides from neighbors.

It’s a place where you feel like if you need it – when you need it – help is there. I’m immensely happy to have found it.

The Woods in Fall

The days have been inching by here in Bariloche, with the weather turning rainy and cold and fierce for a few weeks, and now, it seems, a little bit of second summer. Just this week I completed my first full week back in my sneakers! The walking boot is pushed to the back of the closet and I’m hoping I won’t have to take it out ever never ever again. I’m doing half hour walks each day, rotating using a crutch or both and not using any. Every small thing feels, somehow, like both a win and a signifier of the distance still to go. One of my favorite big steps forward is ditching the crutches and being able to use both my hands again! Below is the chalkboard I’ve been using to track my progress – I’m treating it with the same focus as training for a race.

Last week, I had an orientation at Casa Abierta, the volunteer site where I’ll be helping out this month. It’s a house-space funded by the city government where kids do homework, play, and work on specific projects. Kind of like a community-built boys and girls club. While I was there I met other volunteers and Ileana, the person who coordinates the program, we cleaned up (the space isn’t open in the summer), and afterwards they all taught me the proper etiquette for taking mate tea with a group of friends, which might just need to be its own post in the future. In any case we sat and shared a thermos of hot water poured over the tea and I tried to follow their Spanish conversation.

While I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to do a LOT of thinking. This isn’t exactly unusual for me, but the fact that it’s stationary thinking is. I wake up and write for three hours, then take a break for lunch and maybe a walk, and then I write again all afternoon, which is sometimes not actually writing but just thinking. Getting into town has turned out to be harder than I’d anticipated because it requires a walk to the bus stop, so I’ve experienced this weird thing where I’m reeling in my instincts and wants so that I don’t go crazy sitting in the yard, looking at the mountains, and not being able to run them or easily get to them. Often, I go there in my head, but it is really less often than one might imagine, because it’s almost as if I’m practicing some active repressing of what I actually want so that I don’t lose myself in all this temporary lack. I think that even as I write this I’m trying to distance myself from the full measure of what I feel to be a runner who’s not running.

A week or two ago, we woke up to a sunny, windy Saturday, and organized a cab to the park on the Llao Llao Peninsula. It felt weird to get a cab out to such a rugged landscape, but I thought I was going to go crazy if I didn’t somehow hike. We walked for an hour and a half, me with the crutches etc, and it was amazing. This particular spot, Llao Llao, is the place I’ve been dreaming about since we were last here. It is a magical, mythical place that smells like sweet wet earth and the light is always otherworldly and everywhere you can hear the trees knocking and brushing each other. It’s always a little damper than everywhere else and the trees are enormous. Some of them are 600+ years old. When I told my Dad that, he said: what a beautiful stopping place this planet is for all of us. I really like that idea.

While we were out there under the trees, soft soil at our feet, I started to realize that the true loss that accompanies a broken foot is not necessarily the inability to run but the disconnect from nature. At Llao Llao I wanted to put my fingers in the dirt and touch the bark of every tree and pick at leaves and listen to the breeze and not ever leave. The outing made me remember how important it is to go to the woods. When in doubt, go to the forest. A lot of the times, running is just a socially acceptable way of going off to play in the woods. I think it’s that freedom and feeling of home that I miss the most, and that I look forward to with the most persistent hope. I cannot wait to be alone in the woods again. And for now, here, Will and I and this foot of mine do what we can – this weekend we’re taking a boat to an island of even older trees. Pictured in the 2nd photo below, the Arrayanes Trees are truly golden.

Also, we have a new friend:

Happy Easter to everyone!

Observe Everything

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use art to create the world we want to live in. For instance, I would love to see a movie where, instead of a man teaching a woman how to ice skate / shoot hoops / drive / swing a golf club (just the worst) / anything physical, and the woman being charmingly clumsy and the man chuckling, kind of amusingly tolerating her ineptitude, instead of all that, a woman teaches a man to do something. Just teaches him something physical and concrete. Doesn’t solve his emotional problems for him or complicate his morality with her body or sacrifice her loudness for his, just, teaches him how to play tennis, maybe. Because women do that in real life.

Anyway, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be a writer that calls attention to, for example, the frustrating aspects of being a female, without perpetuating the idea that that’s all we are, or that things completely are and always will be the way they sometimes seem or feel. The simple answer is to avoid certain tropes or female characters who exist only as a function of the male’s identity or journey. But it’s a tricky balance – writing the things we want to happen while holding a mirror up to the things that do happen, that we wish didn’t. Portrayal of females is important to me personally, but the same holds true in many realms; there will probably always be some dissonance between the reality we want to convey and the ideal we want to imagine, and I guess if we can write or create from that place, we can create from a position of hope.

On a related note and in a belated celebration of Women’s Day I thought I’d share a favorite poem: The Mushroom Hunters, by musician Amanda Palmer’s husband, the writer Neil Gaiman:

THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS

Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

Dreamy Los Coihues

I thought that after the last post I would fill in some information. My sweetheart Will and I are currently staying in a neighborhood called Los Coihues, outside of Bariloche, Argentina. Bariloche is a large city and a big outdoor tourism destination, nationally and internationally. When I was in Buenos Aires last year, we visited Bariloche and stayed in Los Coihues, and really kinda fell in love. As soon as I got home, I started looking for teaching+volunteer options here, and soon found one through an English School aptly named La Montaña, or The Mountain school. I’ll start soon!

We fell in love with Los Coihues for so many reasons, and some are easier to name than others: it’s nestled into the slope of the mountains, and around a sparkling lake; the entrance to a national park is at the far end of the neighborhood, the people are friendly, the bus stops here, we can access trails from our road. But there are a lot of less explicit reasons to feel drawn to this place. The people all seem friendly – everyone hitchhikes and gives rides – when I practice walking with my crutches on the road, someone always asks me if I need a ride to the lake or bus stop or wherever. There is a sense that everyone who is here has come here deliberately, or stayed deliberately, and not as an indication of status, or isolation.

Will remarked this week that Los Coihues is singular in its clustered community: it is by most measurements a rural spot, isolated from the frenzy of the city + brick-and-mortar-based tourism, but it is not rural in the sense that we understand rural towns – the houses are all lined up next to one another, the roads are narrow, dirt, people walk everywhere, and there are enough little shops in the neighborhood to get the basics and then some. There are, it sometimes seems, more dogs than people. They cause mischief all through the night. From our yard we hear kids playing and hollering through the streets, streets which they seem to own. If I could pick a place to grow up in, from all the places I’ve ever been, I think Coihues would be it. From the span of house size and appearance and cars and the way people dress, most seem on an equal economic level.

Once, when our power went out, we went to the shop across the street and asked if they had any ideas; the owner just happened to have the property managers phone number in his phone. It’s a small place, or at least a knowable one. I guess more what I’m saying is that it’s a place that seems like, objectively, it might be populated by people seeking isolation and privacy, but once inside it seems the opposite, that most came here to be closer to people and nature, and further from the incidental things that are by-product of civilization and which sometimes strip the human from the encounter – mostly, big sports stores, bars and restaurants, tourism businesses, the whole economic hustle. I know the economic hustle is for most of us a necessity, but it’s nice to have our home in a place where we aren’t overwhelmed by it. And I’m sure I’m probably generalizing but the comparison I draw is living in Maine and feeling like we must choose between Portland or the woods, and while we love the woods we also love people, and walking to places where people might be; and it seems like we get only either the calm but not the people, or the people but not the calm. In Los Coihues I feel we are getting both. It’s pretty lovely.

Adventure in Bariloche

For the past four months, I have been more or less housebound because of a broken foot I got while running on Mackworth Island. Four months is an eternity to be without a thing that makes you you – it is, in this case, difficult to not be able to run, but I find that what I miss most excruciatingly is the actual simple autonomy that mobility provides. However, I’m going to delve into the caged feelings of the last four months another time, or as I go. On this blog, I’m going to start where I am: 4 months in a walking boot and some form of crutches, on my second volunteer semester in Argentina, this time in a small neighborhood outside of a city in Patagonia, and in my final year of grad school.

Today marked the beginning of the school year for the kids here, and I decided to leap into my own “restart” too. I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy and gradually working up strength on walks etc, so I got it in my mind that today I’d go into town, alone, on the bus. I could feel the exhilaration of being alone and unknown among a group of strangers in a new place. To get to the bus stop required a walk that would take me about 45 minutes, which is about as far as I can manage at once. Two minutes into that walk, however, a woman asked what I was up to and where I was going. Maria. A minute later Maria offered me a ride to the bus stop and then she ended up taking me all the way in town – a 20 minute drive. We chatted about her family and she told me how one of the main tourist attractions here donates all of its income to the city’s public hospital. As we drove the land rose up in tall pine trees and layers of mountains and lakes. When she dropped me off she told me I had better get an ice cream while on my grand adventure.

In the Centro I sat on a bench and watched people. It was my first time out alone since I’ve been here, and, really, for the past couple months. Never in my life have I been a person who survives easily without alone time, and the sense of being monitored of chaperoned has wore on me. An older couple sat on the bench next to me and we chatted about our lives. They were from Buenos Aires and lived a few blocks away from where I stayed last year. Regarding my foot, they told me that time is the best healer and that I would be lucky here in bariloche, resting up and writing. As they left they told me not to laugh but could I believe that they were celebrating their 58th year together?! Then they winked and walked off holding hands. It was a short blip in the afternoon, but it stuck with me. I don’t know why I chose to tell them it was my first real adventure on my own in months or how long I’d been in a boot and not running or any of that stuff I would’ve normally kept to myself, but I was glad I did.

Later, I got the bus back to our neighborhood outside the city. I put my headphones in and watched the mountains and felt the thrill of being anonymous in a group of people moving purposefully from the rush of the city to the ease of home. From the bus stop, I had about a forty minute walk back home, and I was exhausted. A couple blocks in I stuck my thumb out and the next driver that passed gave me a lift right to my house. After all of it, my body felt the deep worn-out satisfaction it normally feels after a hard run, and my mind felt the sense of movement and newness; of having gone to a new place, spoken to some strangers, and found my way home, thanks to another stranger. And if I hadn’t taken the lift with Maria in the morning, I probably wouldn’t have made it to town to begin with, and then the whole day rode on that momentum.

Thinking about that, and the ‘coincidence’ of running into Maria just as she was leaving for the centro, reminded me of being on the road running across the US and France, and most specifically, the one thing I learned anew every day on those endeavors: ask for help, and accept it when it’s offered. People are nice.

First Weeks in Buenos Aires

My first few weeks in Buenos Aires have been amazing! The most shocking thing, right away was the heat and humidity. When I left Maine it was in the teens, and here it reaches ninety most every day. I’m staying in a neighborhood called Palermo and am very near to a ton of connected parks where I can go running. They call the parks Los Bosque de Palermo- the woods of Palermo. And they are full of beautiful old generation Tipa trees, which have such lush emerald leaves. In the spring, they blossom in brilliant purple flowers. On my daily run I also pass by the former zoo, which is transitioning to an eco park. Most of the animals have been transferred to another zoo or returned home, but I can peek thru a spot in the fence and see a family of giraffes, and it’s a favorite part of my days.

The school where I’ve been teaching this month is located in the microcenter of town, which is where most of the businesses are located. It’s a very old and historic part of town. The students are adults from their mid-twenties up, and right now it’s just me and them, without any co-teachers, so that has been both fun and a challenging learning experience for me. The students come to class in the evenings after work, and are all pretty motivated to learn and to improve their English. It’s also fun getting to know them personally and to learn about their way of life! A few things I’ve learned from them are that it’s common to live with your parents well into your twenties, family is very important here and central to most people’s lives and social circles, and that their previous political election had a lot of similarities to ours. I’ve also discovered that the city is very active and many people like to do outdoor sports. Also, strangers seem very polite here, and more outwardly friendly than in New England.

There are a bunch more things and small observations accumulated already in a few weeks, so I’ll try to round up the most memorable ones here, and share more in the next post.

Yesterday and last week we had a blackout in our neighborhood block, which the students told me is quite normal here. It gets so hot and all the air conditioners are running high, and I guess it overloads the system. This weekend is a holiday weekend for Carnaval, and we are going to watch some parades in our neighborhood and enjoy the festivities! Yesterday I was behind a woman at the grocer who bought $350 worth of groceries and I imagine she must be throwing a huge party this weekend. There is also a surprising fascination with platform sandals here, and many other aspects from the nineties – belly shirts, rainbows, velcro, chokers. Honestly every other woman seems to be wearing platform sandals or sneakers. Last week we saw our first tango in a public square in San Telmo, and had a long conversation with a drunk man in the park about politics of Argentina and the US. We’ve been mostly cooking at home but we went out for asado, the very typical and very delicious grilled meat dish here, and it was wonderful.That’s all for now, hopefully the pictures help fill it all in!