Lisbon spreads her arms until she is hugging the statue of Cristo Rei on the opposite side of River Tejo. She is a huge hug to herself. I say “her” because she’s more than a city, I do feel it. Lisbon is my partner, my lover on this journey.
Lisbon is located on the river. Actually, this is just the final part, the mouth, the outlet. Exactly here, it is meeting and mixing with the Ocean. That’s why the water becomes salty. So Lisbon owns sea, river, earth, and sky. She is the perfect result, the combination of all the elements that make you feel alive.
Two hundred and fifty sunny days per year, an everlasting summer…The sun is so big and the daylight so strong and powerful that you can even absorb it. Therefore you get tanned so easily, just walking through the streets, and your hair can even become blonder while your eyes must close a little bit. Call it magic.
At the moment that I’m writing it’s the 4th of November 2017, time 17:37, and the sky is still so bright, clear and wide-open, preparing its next breath-taking sunset. Lisbon is the city of sunsets, or better of ‘Pôres-do-sol’. In Italian we used to say: “Rosso di sera, bel tempo si spera”; when the sky turns red at the sunset, you may expect for good weather the next day. This happens here every day, almost. We check the correct time on the forecast online when the sun goes down, when it falls in the river or in the Ocean, depending on your point of view. We all go to one of the hundreds of Miradouros, we seat and we breathe the end of the day. Lisbon is a city to think, to meditate, to first know yourself better, and then to love others more.
Lisbon is so close to paradise, Portugal is Lisbon, white city, pier and ship, Europe and Atlantic. From all this derives its hidden meaning: the Saudade. Saudade is Lisbon’s key word, ranked as the 7th most difficult word to translate. It denotes a melancholic feeling of incompleteness, due to a previous pleasant experience, state, or place, absent and missed at the present moment. Saudade is what you can feel while leaving Lisbon, she is able to give a real and natural sense of place.
In Lisbon I’ve learned to stop and relax, to come back late at night but not so late, and before going to bed -in short pyjamas even if it’s November- I can’t wait to stay staring in front of my window just to watch the city sleeping and the planes landing. In Lisbon you can see airplanes all day long, you hear their noise and notice them so close that it can scare you. It seems that everyone is coming here, everyone wants to reach this peace, and catch a flight.
In Lisbon, I’ve learnt that you can reach anything you want, which I learnt because I always prefer to walk instead of taking the metro. Every street is a climb and when you reach the top the city gives you a panorama most of the time. In Lisbon I’ve learnt to get lost, to be patient, and to wait.
I arrived here two months and two days ago, I’ll be here for three more. After the first phase of “organisation” and adaptation, I’ve started taking the advantage of every moment, that here more than anywhere else, seem to pass so fast. I must be honest: I didn’t want to come to Lisbon. Or better, I didn’t know so much about Portugal and its capital. Portuguese people may be still trying to live in their peaceful paradise, a little bit out of the world, believing in traditions and blessed by their sun. So everything was a surprise, and it was by chance. I am so grateful now- OBRIGADA- to be here, surrounded by all this sunshine, and discovering day by day something that for me was more than unknown.
I’m a happy and satisfied Erasmus student. I made a promise to myself here in Lisbon: I won’t complain anymore as long as I can, because my life is so wonderful and I’ve definitely understood it more now. One more last detail: my flatmate calls me -in Spanish- “terremoto”, that is, “earthquake”. Lisbon is the second city in Europe for highest seismic risk. I’m here. “Onde a terrase acaba e o mar começa” (Luís Vaz de Camões), where the land finishes and the sea begins.
Written by Paola Pedrotti and edited by Bethany Naylor
I am an Italian journalism student now based in Lisbon, enjoying Erasmus+ programme at ISCTE-IUL University. I study in Verona. After one year spent in Madrid, I definitely decided that I could not stop exploring this world. My hometown is Desenzano del Garda, on Lake Garda, such a touristic but inspiring place. I practise sport since I was born and teach artistic gymnastic too. I worked as guide in a private Foundation and I can speak 5 languages. Portuguese is my next challenge! Among my interests, I adore art, poetry, dancing and writing. I feel ready to create my future and just can’t wait to see what is coming next in my life.
It’s a little known fact that the whole reason I started blogging was a guy I met off Tinder. Although I know many of you will doubt me when I say this, Tinder isn’t always used for hookups. I know, shocking. It can be the greatest tool in your world conquering toolbox, if you use it right. If it can give me a job, it can give you a good night out. If you utilise it correctly.
In August 2015 I arrived in Malaga teary and sleepless, having just days before ending the longest relationship of my life. When it was over, I immediately ran away to work on a beach in Spain for the rest of the summer, because at the time that was exactly how I dealt with my problems. I still do, in a way. I already had tinder installed on my phone, before we had broken up my ex and I had made a bet to see who could get the most matches in a day, which in retrospect was probably a sign that our relationship was drawing to its natural end.
After checking in to my hostel, I immediately fired up Tinder, hoping desperately to find a fellow soul to spend my two days in the beautiful city with. After returning from Guatemala my brother had told me how he had used Tinder to find English speaking tour guides amongst the locals, so I figured I could do the same.
Now, first things first. If I ever use tinder in England, which isn’t often I admit, I tend to get roughly a 50% return on my right swipes. In Spain, I was getting closer to 100%. Secondly, Spanish guys on tinder tend to be a lot more to the point, and half the messages I first got were no more than dirty bootycalls, even though my profile stated quite clearly that I was only looking for a tour. If anything, this openness actually makes it easier to find that one person who you expect might not be an asshole.
Then, something interesting. I met a guy who owned a travel site, and who was looking for exactly the same thing as me. Someone normal to go and get a drink and see the city with. We ended up bonding so much that when weeks later he recommended I start writing down my experiences, I took him up on his word as if he were a closer friend than just a guy I’d seen twice on holiday. We’re even still in contact today.
I still use tinder when I’m travelling, sometimes you just get a free tour of the city, others you walk away with a friend for life. The last tinder date I went on was in Rome this January, and it actually ended up being one of the most enjoyable dates of my life, even if it lacked that special spark which prompts a second date. (Looking back, this may have been because we ended the night in the gay district and my eyes were slightly distracted elsewhere.)
You might hate tinder, you might think it sucks and it’s users are pathetic. Be realistic, the vast majority of young people these days have a tinder account, the chances are that at least one of them is looking for the same thing you are.
So here are my tips for using Tinder as a travel tool:
Know what you want from it. Are you looking for a tour? A local? Other tourists? People to get a drink with? A hook up? Make sure you’re clear in your own mind before you attempt to meet anyone.
Be upfront about what you are looking for. If you’re not looking for a hook up, make that clear. My go-to tinder bio when I’m travelling starts with the sentence. “I HAVE A BOYFRIEND.” That way people know what to expect and can’t get irate when you’re inevitably not interested in taking things further.
Safety first. Most of us know that when we go on a date, especially with a stranger, it’s of utmost importance that someone, somewhere, knows who you’re with and what you’re doing. This isn’t any less relevant just because you’re on holiday. If you can’t tell someone back home, (or if this would be useless), tell your hostel staff. Tell them you expect to back at X o’clock and give them a phone number so they can call you if you’re not. Meet in a safe place. Preferably a place with lots of people about, and a place of your choosing. No, you don’t know the city, but a big square with lots of people in has less danger than the small cafe down a dingy alleyway that no-one has ever heard of has.
Have fun. We live in a world where potential friendships, unlikely hookups or even job offers are only a swipe away. Use this to your advantage and let social media help your travels not hinder them. No, don’t be that guy sitting in the hostel kitchen mindlessly swiping through all the girls on tinder until he finds that one girl on the second floor that he was too scared to talk. But where’s the harm in having a little fun whilst you’re away?
The more that I explore this vast and mighty planet, the deeper I find myself rooted in the common ground of humanity. Each journey down a new path fuels my fourth chakra by time spent with those along the way.
I believe in acceptance. I believe that the things that divide us are issues based in fear and ignorance. As a child I was exposed to diversity with a side of apple pie. Romanticizing the unknown was what freed me from the gravity of suburbia. Compared to most parts of the U.S., New Jersey and New York have always offered a metropolitan mix of cultures, but many people never seized the opportunity to learn about their neighbors. We were all the parts of a well-oiled machine, disassembled and placed side-by-side on the table. Normalcy and comfort glazed over our blissful lack of awareness. Still, this fascination called to me, thirsting for exploration, knowledge, and connection.
Currently, I’m working onboard a cruise ship, sailing the seas for a second six month period of time. I first embarked early March 2016 as an American and left that fall a Global Citizen. Through those first six and a half months my family grew in size and diversity and offered me deeper connections to a world outside my own. There are roughly 1500 employees on this vessel and with only 58 of us being American, it was the first time I had ever truly been a minority. Suddenly I was living with people from almost every continent, social, economic, and religious background making our bubble like a floating UN. I have never seen a place where everything just worked.
Down time onboard is often spent communally in designated crew areas. Crew members shoot the breeze with others, rapidly evolving relationships from strangers to friends/lovers/family. These seemingly small experiences blessed me with a refreshed love for humanity all over again.
During my time here I have strengthened my ability to listen, which I believe is one of the most important qualities to possess. Fundamentally, we all want to be heard. When you give your undivided attention to another person you are not only fulfilling their social and emotional needs, you’re also gaining a broader perspective without even trying. By being a silent listener. I have strengthened my inner empath, stepping outside of myself and into the experience of the sharing soul. This ability is a completely golden opportunity in itself. Carrying that out into the world continues to help me meet people where they are, in the timeline of their own life experience. These magical abilities don’t even stop with the human race. Strong listeners and empaths are able to extend their influence out to all other aspects of the conscious world.
When you are not exposed to the world outside your front door, it isn’t always easy to figure out who you are. Through this experience and my travels since, I have become more deeply connected to my core identity. There is a certain confidence and fearlessness acquired by diversifying your circle. By challenging the limits of my comfort zone I have been able to really cultivate these qualities, trusting in my own ability to understand what I need to thrive, based on who I am. I was stifled by my safety net for so long that I seemingly changed completely to those who knew me before. In reality, all I had done was uncover layers of disguise and years of expectation from my true self. Shedding the extra skin was just as liberating as it was to travel across the world and back.
So here I am on my fourth month of contract number two, an evolving human who can confidently say that I am constantly falling in love with the human race. I continue to bond with as many people as possible, both onboard and on land, to expand my heart’s pallet. We bond over passions and art forms and we push past the small talk early on. We embrace similarities, respect differences, and let the armor fall to the ground. When I return home again I try to bring these moments with me allowing them to free me time and again from the gravity that once felt crushing. We all keep searching for our little piece of freedom but what we can easily forget is that freedom grows from an accepting heart. Open your arms to the world and the world opens its arms to you. We are points in the universe connected by invisible thread, a mighty collection of stellar lines creating the most beautiful constellations.
Every three months, the seasons change. The weather begins to shift, and a new kind of energy moves into the world. Society, at large, has lost a lot of touch with these transitions simply because of how we tend to interact with nature. That is, we don’t tend to interact very much. Many pagan religions mark the coming of a new season with rituals, and indigenous tribes do the same. However, for the ‘modern’ world, many of the changes go unnoticed, as central air and electricity mean that we can get the ideal heat whenever we want, and the setting sun becomes secondary when it comes to illuminating our pastimes.
This strikes me as unfortunate, and possibly unhealthy. One of the ways that we, as humans, keep in touch with the reality that everything is a cycle, and everything changes, is by observing that very dynamic in the way nature moves. Without this, I think there is a tendency to lose sight of the death—and rebirth—inherent in every single moment. Life is death is life.
For the Spring Equinox, I decided to partake in a ritual practiced by thousands of yoga practitioners all over the world: 108 sun salutations.
The number is significant on multiple levels, across several cultures.
In Hindu mythology, it is said that Lord Shiva—the creator of Yoga—lived 108 lives before being reincarnated as a god. The number 1 represents the Divinity that is in all of us, 0 represents nothingness and also the eternal cycle of life, while 8 represents eternity. There are 108 beads on a male, 108 Upanishads (ancient sacred Hindu texts), 108 sacred sites in India, and 108 sacred points on the human body. Buddhist texts enumerate 108 temptations one must overcome in order to reach enlightenment. The number 108 is reached by multiplying the six senses (taste, touch, smell, feeling, sight, and consciousness) by the three types (painful, pleasant, or neutral) by their origin (internal or external) by time (past, present, or future). Thus, 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108. There are references in literature, in Japanese mythology, even in sports and card games. (Uno has 108 cards.)
If you’re familiar with yoga asana practice, you know that 108 sun salutations are no laughing matter. What better way, then, to ring in the new season than with a physical, mental, and spiritual challenge. Because a sun salutation is not just an exercise, it is a prayer.
To keep track of my salutations, I turned to my daily practice of reciting the 12 names of Surya Bhagavan, the Sun God. I repeated the cycle 9 times, keeping track with my chakra stones, as well as a lovely wire flower a street jeweller made me in Cusco and a stone heart given to me by someone near and dear to my own heart.
12 Names Of Surya Bhagavan (Om…namah essentially means ‘I bow to you’)
Om Mitraya namah (The friend of all)
Om Ravaye namah (Praised by all)
Om Suryaya namah (The guide of all)
Om Bhanave namah (The bestower of beauty)
Om Khagaya namah (Stimulator of the senses)
Om Pushne namah (The nourisher of all)
Om Hiranyagarbhaya namah (The creator)
Om Marichaye namah (Destroyer of disease)
Om Adityaya namah (The inspirer)
Om Savitre namah (The purifier)
Om Arkaya namah (The radiant)
Om Bhaskaraya namah (The illuminator)
I set up my mat, Nestled My Lord Shiva murti next to my Lord Ganesha murti, said a prayer asking for guidance and illumination in the coming season, and got to work. The whole process took about two hours, including a couple short breaks and a nice, yummy savasana. In the beginning, I told myself that if I needed to stop, or needed to modify at any point I would. This wasn’t a means of torturing myself, but a way to push me beyond what my preconceived notions of my own limitations.
It worked. I surprised myself. I didn’t give up. I didn’t modify. I grew tired, but at the same time, I felt myself move into a space of body prayer, where every movement was a humbling of myself to something far greater than I could ever imagine. My bedroom became a temple, my music became songs of worship, and my body became a voice lifted to God.
It’s so clear to me when I look at the pictures I took of myself before and after, that a true change occurred. There’s a softness and a light there, that don’t appear in the before picture. To me, it seems like a little bit more of that Divinity that lives in me—that lives in all of us—is able to shine through.
When I woke up two days later, I couldn’t touch my toes. As close as I get to God, I am still living this human experience. Which means my hamstrings still get sore! Still, a small price to pay. I’ll be going back to this practice for the Summer solstice. I hope you feel inspired to try it out, too, or to mark the change with some ritual of your own.
Written by Sarah Hirsch, edited by Bethany Naylor. If you’re interested in reading about Sarah’s time in India you can check out her time in Arambol here, or read her comparisons of Christmas in India alone, and Peru with a boyfriend here!
SAUDADE (saʊˈdɑːdə/) noun. A feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.
In an ever-globalized world, often it is oceans and seas (and perhaps now Brexit and the arrival of Donald Trump to the world political stage) that separate us from our loved ones. Having a French mother and an Algerian father, family gatherings were never a spontaneous affair: our school holidays were always spent in France, whilst a legal blip (I have my mother’s and not my father’s last name) and the continuing civil war in the country meant that I was only able to meet my Algerian family for the first time at the age of 22. This included my grandmother.
For me, like many young people huddled under the banner of ‘Third Culture Kids’, my Algerian family had been the pixelated faces that I saw over Skype calls. As a teenager I was reticent to speak to these fast-moving images, mainly because I had nothing to say. What relationship can you have with strangers that so happen to be your relatives?
In November 2016, I was finally able to go to Algerian capital Algiers and see where my father had grown up. I was welcomed into the happy cacophony of a family house where my 9 aunts and uncles and 40 cousins would pass through every week. But more importantly, I was able to experience for myself the family roots whose strength and vitality I hadn’t felt up until this journey. It was as if upon meeting my family that I did not have around me when growing up, that I had discovered a part of myself. I had become aware of a part of me that in fact had always been there.
I was soon initiated into one of the richest parts of Algerian culture, the food. Mhadjeb, a rolled pancake with a spicy tomato filling, is a staple of Algerian cuisine and one that my aunts continue to make by hand. Its preparation and the family’s recipe have been passed down the generations, though Fatiha, pictured below, repeatedly reminds me that each sister has their own way of making them. As a quick snack or part of a wedding banquet, Mhadjeb always feature on the Algerian dinner table.
However meeting your family for the first time is no walk in the park: I had for a long time carried around the heavy burden of expectation that I thought my family would have of me. Whilst I was welcomed with open arms, feeling the warmth of an unconditional love that only now could be physically expressed, it soon became apparent that I had grown up in a culture very different from that of Algeria. I was asked all the time ‘What are your job prospects?’ and anxiously by my grandmother ‘Have you found a kind Muslim boy to be your husband?’. My cousins mirrored my own unease when I asked them ‘What are you passionate about?’ or ‘Why did you choose to study medicine?’.
But I come away from this trip understanding that such differences are not barriers to shun or to be fearful of, they are to be celebrated for adding richness to my complex family tapestry. On our penultimate day, we had a picnic on the Promenade des Sablettes esplanade in downtown Algiers to celebrate my grandmother’s 88th birthday. Passersby stopped, as we sang Happy Birthday in Arabic, French, and English.
My first couple weeks in India, I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed, door locked. Sometimes I had power, sometimes the fan would slowly revolve to a stop and the heat of the day would wrap itself around me like a thick, stifling blanket. I slept a lot. Went out only long enough to get food. Ignored well-meaning people knocking on my door.
When I got to Peru, a similar thing happened.
The same thing happened when I lived in Washington.
It wasn’t the travel that assaulted me, though being in a new place, with strange customs and a painful distance from friends and family, did contribute to my feelings. What is unchanged in all of these scenarios is me. Sometimes, the only viable option is to stay in bed, shades drawn, quietly pretending like I don’t exist. Not even to myself. Because the reality of existence weighs too much, and I’m not always strong.
It reminds me of physical exercise, in a way. Some days I work out hard, really pushing myself, for a few days stretch. By day four or five my arms are shaking, my legs feel like bruised rubber, and the thought of a push-up is enough to start the waterworks. Emotions are like that, too. Carry around that heavy stuff for too long, and fatigue sets in.
Except, it’s harder to put down emotions than a free weight, and, when travelling, taking that day (or three) to sit in the dark and recharge doesn’t seem like an option. There are places to go! Food to eat! Adventures to be had!
All of which can be loosely translated as: If I’m not out there DOING, I’m wasting my time, wasting my opportunities.
It’s a hard balance to strike. I knew I didn’t want to go home and say, yeah, I spent all my time looking at the ceiling. However, I knew that pushing myself too hard would just whip around and smack me in the face. So I figured out some things that helped, even a little, and started from there. Maybe they can help you, too. Whether you’re darting around SE Asia, or studying at university, or moving through daily life in your hometown, taking care of yourself is always a priority.
The single most important factor in feeling okay with the world has been music. When I was in Rishikesh, I could not stand walking through the bustling streets with all the people and the noise and the vendors shouting at me. I told myself I had to do it that way, or else I wasn’t really experiencing the city. Which, I had a point, but it was making it so I didn’t go out at all. Then, I plugged in my headphones. Instantly, the world became a whole lot easier to tackle. Find something that feeds your positive emotions. As tempting as a good Bright Eyes marathon might be, see if you can resonate with an artist who sings about beauty, truth, and love. Not just heartache.
Yoga has served as a major sustaining practice in my life. Through a divorce, being fired for the first time, losing one of my cats, and on and on, yoga has been a place I can turn to when the noise of the world gets too loud. It is a home that I can take everywhere with me. Developing some kind of mindful movement practice can help you settle more deeply into your body, and in this present moment. I’ve found that when I am truly focused on right now, the fact that I am alive and breathing and in no imminent danger, helps to make those clamouring sirens of oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-this fade away a bit.
Asking For Help
I’ve never been great at making friends, and keeping them has been challenging, too. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself. My first night in Delhi, I had a meltdown. When I took to Facebook and posted a plea for help, I was surprised at the response I got. Not my boyfriend, not my family, not the friends I thought I’d grown close to before I left. Almost immediately I received a message from a guy I’d met at a festival, weeks earlier. He became my lifeline that night, and many more times in the following months. Reach out. Keep reaching out, especially when it hurts. Love comes from directions you may never expect.
Take excellent care of yourselves. Be kind. Be soft. Be love.
“In Ecuador, poor spelling is fought with red spray sword”
Quitos’s nights can be really cold, at almost 3000 metres above sea level… but not cold enough to stop Agents X and Punto Final on their special crusade: correcting the graffiti misspellings that decorate Ecuador’s capital.
‘¿Para que, por qué, mi amor?
Por ti. Por mí. lo siento.’
‘For what and why my love?
For you. For me. I’m sorry.’
“I used to pass in front of that graffiti phrase quite often… It looked like a love declaration, but I couldn’t stand that there were so many misspellings in it, 10-12, maybe! I just felt I had to highlight that, it was so hilarious.” Punto Final remembers laughing. That famous graffiti used to stand on a virginal white wall in Lugo’s alley, a narrow street in the bohemian neighbourhood of La Floresta.
It was his first correction. With a friend, they grabbed some red spray, an old pizza box, a cutter, and they corrected the theatrical mix of grammatical horrors, adding commas, accents, question marks, as a teacher would do with his students’ essay. The anonymous zorros signed themselves as “Acción Ortografíca Quito” (Orthographic Action Quito).
The group started the “correctional operation” in late 2014, searching for the misspelt graffiti around Quito, Ecuador’s capital. By night, away from police eyes and always protecting their identity, (“We want to share the cause, not be the protagonists”), they started to fight the bad grammar armed with the dreaded red spray.
Graffiti is by its definition a vandalistic and anarchic act – it’s a resistance, a fight against the rules and order of our society, the correcting agent explains.
“You have to be completely crazy, in some way fascist, and obsessive, to decide to go and correct a misspelt graffiti: it’s like wanting to put order into the mess, into the anarchy, into the vandalism. For me that makes it just so funny and ironic”, Final says.
But then, something none of them expected happened. Someone who was walking down that little one-way road, amused by the misspellings’ corrections, decided to take a picture of the graffiti, to tweet it and to share it with a friend living abroad. So, a funny but educational activity turned into a veritable movement going viral on the Internet.
“Brazilian BBC wrote an article about us, then it was BBC Mundo: I was stupefied, I just love the BBC so much!”, tells Punto Final. Local and international journalists started to seek them between the Andean capital roads, while homologues groups spread out in different countries. “They wrote us from Brazil, Argentina, Spain; people from Colombia want us to go correct their graffiti misspellings. If they pay us a ticket we go!”
But fixing all Quito’s misspelt graffiti is not a simple labour. Even if the “situation” is under control in the far north of the city, in barrios such as la Guangüiltagua, Floresta, Avenida America, much more contaminated public space needs to be tidied up. Acción Ortográfica hasn’t considered giving up because people thank them, considering what they do as a campaign, an act that can help people think more about how to communicate. Especially in graffiti.
“We happily realised that the messages are now better written, even if we know that some grafiteros hate us for what we do; but this makes it even funnier because making them angry wasn’t our purpose at all”, accepts Punto Final.
Now that the group is well known in the city, a lot of people ask Acción Ortográfica to help them with the Misspelling Purge. “We just got two beautiful new interns in our ranks; they want to be called Ninjas”, jokes Punto Final.
Even if in some unintentional way, Acción Ortografíca Quito reminds people how important a good grammar and syntaxes are. Their message inspired a graffiti artist to paint its tags (the graffiti writing sometimes used as a signature) on white walls using Times New Romans fonts.
The antiheroes, the anarchists that put order on the mess, won the respect and sympathy of more than one. For example, Susana Puente, the 75 years old owner of the wall that was first graffiti modified by the agents, decided to keep the correction because she found it funny and she is now famous among her friends for that. Acción Ortografica also brought glory to a small village in California, where lives the grandmother of Final’s roommate. She just got crazy when asking his grandchild if he had an idea about whom “these people who correct graffitis in Quito” were, she got a “he’s my roommate” as an answer. Local newspaper probably had content for weeks to write about.
In Quito, sunsets arrive early, and the shadows allow Acción Ortográfica agents leave for their job. When I ask Punto Final which is the most difficult graffiti he found on his paths, he smiles before answering.
“It said: << god is movement… >>. And we decided not to correct it. In our society, God with a capital letter refers to the Catholic god. We think instead, the author wanted all the people reading his phrase to identify, no matters their beliefs. And we decided not to correct it” Final remembers, laughing with a red spray can in his hand.
Written by Sara Andreini, edited by Bethany Naylor
I’m leaning out of the window of a bus which is hurtling much too fast down a very narrow, very bumpy mountain road. Directly below me, the land drops abruptly away, the bottom of the mountain swallowed by a darkness so heavy I can feel it. The wind whips at my hair, and the silhouetted mountains loom down at me. I feel that I have never seen anything so big in all my life as this landscape which stretches into the night in every direction. I tilt my head upwards. The stars have exploded across the sky. Have there always been this many? I cannot even see the moon. Nothing but stars and shadows and my hair leaping in the wind. I was not consciously searching for it, but my eyes latch onto a familiar constellation. Orion, upside down, blinks back at me.
I would become accustomed to his presence. To combing the sky until I spotted him, touching base. Orion watched me zig zag my way through northern Chile, ricocheting from mountain-valley landscapes to the coast and back again. When I think of Chile, I think of beach days, mountain hikes, and impossibly vast starscapes.
I never planned to go to Chile, but the decision to take a quick detour on the way from Bolivia to Peru somehow turned into a month. A month soaked in red wine and pink sunsets; a month of cold beaches and scorching deserts; a month which drained my bank account and stole my heart. I cannot find the words to write about Chile. How can an entire country and four weeks of my life be adequately pinned into words on a page? So I’m not going to tell you about Chile. I’m going to tell you about Orion.
Orion was there the night we wrapped ourselves in blankets stolen from our hostel and felt our way up a mountain path in the dark to stargaze. The tiny town was called Pisco Elqui and it was nestled at the very bottom of the Elqui valley. The mountains which towered over it from every direction beckoned hikers and horse lovers. The main tourist attraction was a tour of a Pisco distillery. The nearest city a three hour drive away. The four of us had decided to forgo the expensive observatory tours in favour of star gazing the old fashioned way – by going outside and looking up. By midnight we had found our way to a plateau on a mountain high above the city. The only light which reached us came from our own headlamps and the stars. As we lay there, the cold seeping into our bones – “I’m not leaving until I’ve seen at least ten shooting stars!” – we could see the rotation of the earth by the visible shifting of the stars position in the sky. We talked about how even the night sky looked different here than at home. The only constellation we could identify, despite our stargazing apps (yes, really), was Orion. We watched as he slowly slipped into view from behind a distant mountain, surrounded by stars which swooped and dived on our peripheral vision.
Days or weeks later, I found myself cycling through the Atacama desert at five in the morning. I was with the same girls, having decided we would stick together until the border. Orion watched us, nestled in yet another unbelievably vibrant night sky hanging above a pitch black earth. Navigating our way through said blackness resulted in several wrong turns and we were soon racing against the clock to make it to the heart of Valle de la Luna before the sunrise.
This morning, which ended with the three of us cycling the entire length of the valley in the ever more oppressive heat, remains one of my favourite memories of my entire trip. I felt like I was flying as we sped down the winding roads, like we were the only humans in the world and Orion our only witness.
The night before I was due to leave Chile, I found myself on a balcony, overlooking the ocean. I had never felt more torn in two the entire trip. One part of me was yearning to keep moving, as ever, while the other part was desperate to stay and learn to paraglide with the friends I’d made there (after months of travelling, this did not strike me as the outlandish dilemma which it now seems, writing of it from a kitchen table in southern England). I stood there while the hostel continued to party below me, staring at the stars. And I realised that, while it was easy to be seduced by the idea of staying with new friends and learning an insane new skill, my own personal form of flight was different. I would not stay. I would cross the border into Peru and lean forward into the next adventure.
In the middle of such moments, soon to be relegated to the vaults of memory, I would find myself glancing up at the sky, touching base with my sole constant. And, no matter how many miles I launched myself away from my own peculiar normalcy, the consistency of the night sky reminded me that the world would keep turning, Orion would keep appearing, and my own untrodden path would continue to beckon me onwards.
I often forget I ever went to Alabama. I fell asleep in Chatanooga, Tennessee, and woke up to palm trees and high-rise apartment blocks half a day later. Themed bars with broken neon lights and cheap wire fences called out to Florida, ten minutes down the highway, and the whole placed seethed with a white-trash nostalgia that up until that point I had believed only existed on TV.
Welcome, my host chuckled, to the Redneck Riviera.
Redneck, sure. I couldn’t even call the place a town; it felt like several highway rest stops had been folded in on one another, littered with a couple of souvenir mega-stores and dropped on the unsuspecting coastline tucked away at the very bottom of Alabama. But Riviera? It transpired that behind some of the biggest buildings I have ever seen – tall, wide, and adorned with thousands of identical balconies – was an enormous golden beach and an endless horizon. The buildings acted as a frontline, the only thing stopping fast-food chains and strip malls absorbing the tranquil beauty of the shoreline and the infinite ocean.
It was in this strange nowhere-place, so quintessentially American and yet bafflingly foreign to me, that I spent my first thanksgiving, on the 27th floor of one of the enormous, identical buildings. I was amazed to see how much food could be crammed into one apartment – and in one person’s mouth for that matter (mine). I learned that there are people in America who consider a bowl of candy corn an appropriate starter, that it is mandatory to make three times as much food as necessary and attempt to eat it all anyway, and that pumpkin pie is cold. This last realisation both disturbed and disappointed me and I chose to stick with chocolate chip cookies and the remains of my multi-coloured entrée.
I stuffed myself on thanksgiving but ate very little the rest of the time. I felt too awkward to ask my hosts for food or to help myself to their snacks, so I subsided on copious amounts of coffee and avoided leaving my bed as much as possible. I was staying with the family of a friend, family which she herself barely knew and who expected very little of our company. So in our beds, we remained. They believed we were doing work, as we had stressed just how rapidly finals were approaching and just how many essays we had to complete for the following week. To no one’s surprise, least of all our own, our work remained untouched for the majority of the trip. We found the place unsettling and fidgeted restlessly in our yellow-wallpapered rooms wondering if we were going crazy. ‘It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper,’ we decided. ‘Something about this room is driving us nuts.’ It occurs to me now that any room would probably drive you nuts if you didn’t leave it for three days expect to walk the ten feet to the coffee machine, but when you are 27 floors from the nearest exit, leaving does not necessarily feel like an appealing option.
One night, overcome with cabin fever and probably overdosing on caffeine, I had finally had enough of the yellow room to motivate myself to leave it. I announced that I was taking my work to the balcony, and disappeared behind the huge living room curtains into the night. The essay lay forgotten, as ever, on the table behind me as I breathed in huge gulps of fresh air and leant forward into the empty sky.
My mind had gone stagnant in the yellow room, but as I stared out to sea, my thoughts began to shake free, tumbling out one after the other after the other. I wanted to go home, home-home, England-home, Queen’s English and hot tea and rude strangers home. I wanted to float out across the horizon, to tread the invisible line between surging coal-dark sea and soaring coal-dark sky. I wanted to throw my laptop over the balcony and forget about such thing as finals and classes and the futility of writing an essay on a topic I didn’t believe in or even understand. I tried to imagine America. I tried to grasp the idea that I was in America, tried to picture the 4,000 miles which stretched between me and almost everyone I had ever known until four months ago. I pictured my mind drifting outside of me and floating up into the sky, watching me recede to a dot on the balcony, watching the building recede to a dot, watching the whole of Alabama, America, Earth, recede to nothing but a dot in the impossible vastness of the universe and time. With a sudden slip, I fell. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, back into myself. Standing on the Balcony. Staring out to sea. In America and unsure what that meant, if it meant anything at all.
Written by Isabella Millington
On the highest of mountains and the lowest of places