Benjamin and I arrive at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. We just met and are staying at the same hostel in Barrio Bellavista, a neighborhood where you can visit the house Pablo Neruda built for his lover and later wife Matilde Urrutia.
“If you want to be a writer, you have to listen as much as you talk.”
Ben tells me he is a published author from Berkeley who loves stories within stories. Everyone at the museum looks like they are using the first cell phone with translators pressed up against their ears. A woman’s creamy voice speaks about the country’s 17-year military dictatorship that began in 1973. Thousands of Chilean civilians were killed, tortured or disappeared without a trace.
To honor the absence of their loved ones, wives, mothers and daughters of the disappeared would dance alone the cueca, the Chilean national dance meant for partners. I stare at a black and white photograph long after the bodiless voice in my ear goes quiet. A young woman captured in motion, her hair curled, her eyes closed. She wears a picture of her missing person with a handwritten note pinned to her chest, donde estan.
I step around a corner and press a button with a number next to it. The voice is back. She describes a green hillside pocked with little red flags. Some shapes I can’t make out are rising from the dirt. During the so-called Operation Television Withdrawal, thousands of bodies were disposed of in secret, buried or thrown into the sea.
Ben doesn’t want to see the exhibits on the floor above us.
“I can only be in places like this for so long before I just get too depressed.”
A record is spinning beneath glass. Chilean folksinger Victor Jara’s unfinished poem song saved in memory and on scraps of paper.
How hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror. Horror which I am living, horror which I am dying.
I am listening as hard as I can.
“Have you met the boulevard Oroño?” Muri stomps down the steep wooden stairs of her mother’s house. She lends me a bike so we can weave through traffic to buy film. I am utter shit at biking.
Oroño is a two-way street in Rosario, Argentina that runs from the coastal avenue along the upper delta of the Paraná River to the southern boundary of the city. The median strip is wide and crowded with people. I have walked it many times.
We talk in English mostly. Muri’s accent, low and musical, is a balm for the frayed lining of my thoughts.
Back at her house we make ham and cheese sandwiches. On the outside, the house is concrete, a heavy wooden door next to an intercom. Inside there are crooked stairs, a balcony covered with cacti, laundry hanging under the hot sun.
We get ready too early and have to sit on the sidewalk to wait for Muri’s friends to pick us up and take us to the island to camp. Muri plays an invisible ukulele, her hat on backwards. A guy drives by and yells at us out the window, a blur of Spanish.
“What did he say?”
“How well you play, come play on me,” Muri translates. Her hands drop to her knees.
We are picked up in a red jeep filled with too many people and take a water taxi across the river. I meet Muri’s friends, including Dai and her boyfriend who are pale, freckled and covered in tattoos. Dai is the only girl wearing boy shorts instead of Brazilian bikini bottoms. She has the faces of the band Green Day tattooed on her thigh.
“You’re so white. It’s cool, like a vampire,” Dai says, looking me over and flashing her teeth.
We set up tents. Muri’s friend cuts acid into little flakes and we jump into the water. Everyone shares everything here. I slip the paper under my tongue before I lose track of it completely.
At first I am a wave crashing softly over and over and over. I squint at Muri. Her smile, her large pupils, her skin brown as the river.
Overwhelmed, I go back to the tents. Dai rolls me a cigarette and sits with me on a sleeping bag. We lie on our backs and listen to the jungle sounds, my insides an empty nest.
I do not understand more than a few words but feel their tactile energy. They are speaking so fast with such elation, like any group of friends who has known each other forever. I catch the subjects but not the sentences. The corners of my mouth ache from twitching into a half smile to seem in on the joke.
Soon the ability to comprehend anything is lost and all the sounds become harsh gibberish, rolling Rs. I’m struck with the fear that I’ll never be able to speak again in any language. I start to cry but no one notices.
We watch the sunset over the city, listening to the boliches pound in the distance. Someone makes a fire and lightning bugs turn to sparks rising out of the flames. When the acid starts wearing off I scarf down three sandwiches.
My friend Juan sits beside me and I tell him I’m not sure what I’m doing here. I came to South America to separate myself from needing anybody but it feels the same as running away.
I don’t say anything about the person I left behind, all blue eyes and asthma and ape hands.
“So you are here to make yourself stronger. I figured it out,” Juan says. “Do not make yourself suffer because you do not know.”
A man is playing in the waves. He is drunk and does a backflip off his boat and comes back up shouting about finding his missing glasses. I talk to Dai about how the constellations are different here; I try and fail to explain the Big Dipper.
People are singing. Mosquitos fight each other over our skin. There is a little pink pig running around and playing with the dogs.
Despite Juan’s words part of me still screams THIS WAS A MISTAKE. Another part of me knows I should be patient. Inhale, exhale. The last thing I hear before I fall asleep is the river, like the earth is breathing too.
In the morning the tent is so hot we crawl out panting. The campsite is dismantled just as a furious rain pours down with thunder crashing overhead.
The bright mood does not dampen. A guitar plays. Fernet and coke is passed around in a silver mug. Hand rolled cigarette stubs are placed in green glass bottles hanging from the rafters of the shack where we’ve sought shelter.
Soon the rain becomes light and warm, the sky clear. Muri and I walk to the edge of the water.
Muri’s friend brings over a large bottle of cold beer with three plastic cups on top. We drink it in the warm rain and I feel my life untangling. Friends, whose inner countries and histories are so different from mine are tapping the edge of my cup in health and good fortune.
We take the first water taxi back to shore, then Muri and I ride the bus back to her house where we shower away kilos of sand and dirt and sweat. We nap under the fan in her sister’s room. She takes me to the pharmacy to get cream for my bug bites and walks me back to my hostel.
We drink water on the balcony in silence. Muri rolls us a cigarette. Maybe it is not the love I imagined myself falling into, maybe it is fleeting and convenient. But there it is floating above me, smoke from my lips.
And the sky was made of amethyst /
And all the stars were just like little fish /
You should learn when to go /
You should learn how to say no
Grace is doing her best Courtney Love. We have just started traveling together on our way from Peru to Ecuador. Now we are wrapped in clean, white hotel towels. A bus mix up landed us in the wrong town and it was late so we said fuck it and found a room. After months of hostels and living out of our backpacks, we feel like queens when we take long showers and use all of the tiny shampoo.
We keep talking about finding dinner but it never happens. I take my first pregnancy test and pace naked around the room.
“Stupid pregnant Molly.” We say this over and over laughing and throwing up our hands.
The test is negative but after months of travel and intense socialization my body still feels taken over and heavy with something unnamed. My skin is darker, ass and belly rounder. I parrot the slang of my companions. My mind oscillates between here and home, wheels spinning in the mud.
Grace and I push our beds together and I crash into sleep listening to her best Nancy Sinatra.
The sun sits on the face of Parque de Espana ; the river runs along it. Juan and I smoke a porro, and I get so stoned I can only smile. The grass makes maps on my skin. Juan is talking about America, how it has every food you could ever want and the best Sci-Fi films.
“...because you guys love dehumanization.”
“I’m nervous about going home,” I say. “I don’t know if I feel different enough.”
Juan leans back, his blue sweater draped around his shoulders. His mouth looks bored, the corners turned down.
“I’m so different now I am almost afraid of it,” he says. “I feel like I’m forgetting something.”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel so relaxed and much less insecure. It feels strange but is there. I can see you are ready to go back.”
I kick my legs behind me.
“Should I get a tattoo?”
“Are you going to get that tattoo you told me about?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to get a constellation but is that too lame?”
“I have something special with Aries,” Juan says. “As a Capricorn...”
“I know three Aries—my friend, my cousin and you. All have something in common.”
“What is it?”
“Unpredictable,” he says. “Yes, I chose the right word.”
A man selling churros on his bike rides by. His horn whines across the whole park.
Juan and I imitate the sound.
“That is the life. You have many faces.”
So says Mila, our tubing guide. She is twenty four and is a DJ and a biologist. We trek through the jungle with our inflatable tubes slung over our shoulders to avoid puncturing them on spiny plants. There’s four of us walking in a line. It’s a thirty minute uphill climb on a narrow trail to the starting point of the river that bleeds into the Caribbean coast.
“Are you enjoying Palomino?” Mila asks.
“Yes it’s so nice,” I am trying to catch my breath. “I love being close to the ocean.” “Yes it’s beautiful here,” Mila says. “Seven colors, the sea.”
We stop to rest at a place where you can see all the way out to the azure of the shoreline. Mila is the only one breathing normally. A pair of Wayuu, an indigenous group who inhabit the Venezuela-Colombia border, are sitting nearby. They wear white robes and listen to a portable radio. The boy has rubber boots but the girl is barefoot. They look like children; the girl carries a baby.
We descend the other side of the hill and see a bend in the river. A wisp of smoke rises from the chimney of a thatched roof. Mila bends and drinks the river water cupped in her hands.
Before we put our tubes in the water, we sit and smoke. The birds are loud. I take off my t-shirt and sandals. Mila steps into the river. We begin the float and she swims the entire way beside us like a mermaid. She knows exactly how to let the current carry her along.
Molly GUNTHER is an artist and writer from the Pacific Northwest.
She tweets @molly_gunther.
She tweets @molly_gunther.