t r a v e l  

k a t e  s c h a p i r a

The singing stops at the border, forcing you to wrap your feet in torn sweaters: all this after fording the Rio Negro, the Rio Mayo, the Santa Cruz and Gallegos and Coig. Clouds are prayer during the day, even in an access of vomiting. Hot air from the straining engine farts and gusts the length of the seats, length of the Argentine, the silver country. Not mountains, but rocks. Not spouting, but marooned: the very last map before the index.

The camera by your side takes pictures accidentally: the past, a clear green snapshot, bristles with air traffic control towers like the Sagrada Familia (on another trip, with its own curses). Your seatmate tells you how he woke up twenty years ago and couldnít move the pinky of his left hand; flamenco possibilities clicked and flounced away from him, reduced him to gutted chords in one-stool bars. You canít see out the window. Exhaustion collapses the unavoidable eyelid, a sty on the corner from systemic toxins, expiration dates.

A drop of infected sweat; a day; a sulfur bubble popping in the brain. Thereís no way out of these wrappings and the smell of a municipal kitchen. A mark itches like an inoculation on your ankle, but you havenít been in the jungle, nothing is eating your heart out. Not the difference between knowing and not knowing; not the difference between someone you know instantly and someone youíve known for years. Your blood is warm if thin. Your fellow passengers have such reasons; you dare not say you were sent. Youíve put on a little weight around the hips.

Sound of a rifle cocked in your skeleton: another border? You thought it was over. You will melt and rearrange, youíll do anything. Sweat collects in the fingers of your gloves, the wool, the leather. A shudder and reshuffle of papers, of government photographs, of power. The driverís hands dig grimly in his pockets, a lesser uniform. Everyone changes, oldest to youngest at metamorphic attention; itís the only way to survive the malicious blast of their regard. It doesnít matter that youíre from the North. If you wet yourselfÖ They hand your papers back. You will bark from your throat, from your chest. You will flip through hoops.

At Cerro Sombrero, San Sebastian, and Ushuaia you stopped to take on gas and water. Thereís been more backseat pissing in cans than you like to think about. In each village, two tides: the urgent, running for cantina toilets or latrines behind rusty fences and sideways roof steel, squatting in the shallowest alleys. Ad the curious; the adults know better, but children surge, and dogs. People on buses have coins sometimes and morsels, wedges of toilet paper, loose pockets. In this way you experience the sea before you reach it.

Youíre on the bus because you are in exile. Or because youíve heard tales of the Underwater Mother and the cracked conch shell, of fingers into flippers. Or because your heart is broken. Or because you are in exile. Or because you wanted to see the island chains, so much less land than water, like uninhabited canoes. Or because you needed a change. Or because you didnít believe in the rifles, the pistol barrels. Or because you wanted to take pictures, but the pictures wouldnít come. Or because youíre special; chosen. Or because you are in exile.

Fire: you expected plate tectonics, volcanic action, even adventure. Across from you an old man scratches himself through his pocket. And are those boys in love? People on the bus are the same, not explosive, no one has died or been born; only their smells are concentrated. The driversí eyes are red as if from smoke, but thereís nothing to burn here, not a stick, alive or dead. The occasional shell, cracked under the pressure of legend. The occasional diaper, balled up and taped like a time bomb. You expected land.

The Estrecho de Le Maire is anticipated. The Estrecho de Magallanes was a hundred years ago. You still donít understand the way things, specifically places, are named here. Someone has a secret hoard of chocolate and peanuts at the last minute; thereís almost a revolution. No rocks, at least from the window, are taller than an eleven-year-old left behind. You look for the Sea People, or whatís left of them, but nothing moves except the bus itself, not even shadows. The cold sinks fangs. Once, nothing could have induced you to huddle with these people.

The drivers take it in shifts. You would welcome incineration. Flies alight in their dirty way until you notice them, but there are no more borders, no woven shawls and spices, no wide hats. Whenever you ask Who owns this land, you must also ask Who covets it; and the same with water, although the idea of owning an ocean, or part of an ocean, is new. You are out of film and buying power, fresh out of record-keeping.

Itís an impossibility; the green and yellow of the bus in all this gray, which is also purple. There are no lights, no sleep. This is the end of the trip, the horn you winded, the choice you made: beyond is only Antarctica and the undersea kingdoms of the credulous, the patient, and the hopeful. If you knew how cold-blooded they were, you would fall off the edge of the earth; itís not always the guilty who hit the volcano running.

 

©2003 Kate Shapira

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