GASLIGHTING

Sailing Patagonia – Part 3

“You can’t leave with those fishermen.”

“You can’t go back with them.”

My stomach and everything it is attached to just made a break for the nearest emergency exit. Surely this hapless old man isn’t attempting to thwart my bid for freedom, for safety. Surely he doesn’t think that I will continue to pilot his boat after he denies me the opportunity to escape it. But then, his reality is not my reality. I failed to make his reality my reality.

I’ve been standing here with my packed bags, on the deck of this sailboat, for about an hour now. I’ve been holding a vigil of sorts; a lamentation of my failure to communicate and a silent, desperate plea to the Multiverse to give me another chance.

The focus of my attention is two fishing boats anchored less than a hundred feet from where I’m standing. They are here to rescue me. They just haven’t figured that out yet.

The fishermen arrived in our isolated cove as if summoned by my own will. It had been less than an hour after I had tried and failed, to convince John to either return me to Puerto Natales or radio a passing boat to come pick me up. Our conversation had not gone well.

My communication with the fishermen had not gone any better. When I hailed them and waved, they waved back. When I yelled my request, in clumsy Spanish, asking for passage to Puerto Natales, they said they couldn’t. When I asked for help, they said that they were staying for the night.

I hadn’t been ready to sound the alarm yet. I wasn’t prepared to escalate this situation to that of woman-held-hostage-by-lunatic-in-need-of-rescue. I was trying to be casually desperate in a don’t-call-the-Armada-just-please-please-please-get-me-off-this-boat kind of way. The sentiment was lost in translation.

It must have been the yelling that brought John up onto the deck, or maybe it was the silence that followed. The crew of the fishing boats had stopped coming within shouting range, hence my silent vigil.

Now it’s just the two of us, staring each other down from across the length of the clutter-strewn deck. He has declared that I can’t leave. I’m trying to subtly shift my position, without slipping on this fucking oil-lubed deck, to be closer to where the dingy is tied up. That partially submerged rubber vessel with a slow leak may end up being my life raft.

Is this really happening? Do I have to decide, in this moment, to do something as dramatic as trying to escape in the dingy? I’m not physically afraid of John. I know that he means me no harm. What I am afraid of, is John’s incomprehensible obliviousness to the mayhem and calamity that he causes just by existing. I’m terrified of being blown up.

It began as a confluence of little things…

Everything about John and his boat is a challenge. Both set a stage that incites anxiety and cautious paranoia. Both are filthy and both reflect the squalor of a lifetime of hoarding and dumpster diving. Clutter in the extreme, along with all of the regular staples and furnishings of a boat cabin (food, dishes, seats, tables), is coated with a pervasive stickiness of grime collected over forty years and primarily made up of peanut butter and jelly, mayonnaise, a variety of engine, transmission, and cooking lubricants, diesel fuel, antibiotic ointment, and snot. I knew going in that I would have challenges to overcome. The stickiness is distracting.

John is exhausting. Being in the same room as him requires a patient attentiveness normally reserved for grandparents. Important nuggets of information can be gleaned from the constant and pedantic volley of words issuing from John’s reader-board stream of consciousness but the mining is laborious and requires a constant panning of random facts, memories, and free-floating thought-posits. John doesn’t converse, he talks at you and to himself and after a while, if he notices that you’re still there listening, he’ll tell you to do something like ‘eat a cookie’.

I have found it difficult to stop paying attention. He doesn’t need an audience but I’m paranoid about missing important disclosures. John has a knack for casually stringing a confession between two nonsequiturs. It was during a dissertation on why a tiller is better than a wheel that John disclosed that he broke the gear shift lever. The boat can only be put in gear manually, at the transmission, below deck. A piece of information I wish I had had before we began our escapade of crashing into things.

Yesterday was a boat maintenance day. Wind, rain, and fog provided adequate motivation to stay put and fix things. For me, this meant spending the better part of my day cloistered in the cramped stickiness of the cabin. So I cleaned. I scrubbed. I gagged and nearly lost my breakfast. I made progress and then I watched it all be undone. I cleared stacks from the table. John filled the space with a collection of hoses and clamps. I returned all of the lids to their rightful condiment jars and then put my hand in mayonnaise that was dripping from a handrail. I found cooked potatoes in a pan of dark water being stored in a cupboard full of dishes that all had dried food on them. I took John’s shoe off the sink and removed all of the burnt plastic from both the bread loaf and the hot kettle that the bread loaf kept being set on. I soon reached a point where I was merely following John around picking up after him and wiping things off after he touched them.

Just before lunch, John launched himself down the cabin steps and nearly knocked me over. He had just emptied the tortillas bag that he’s been using to catch the oil that leaks from the transmission. He apparently spilled some on the steps. This mess John cleaned up himself using an extremely flammable alcohol-based solvent. He made a point of showing me the bottle and telling me how dangerously flammable it is and that I must keep it away from the stove. Ok, I thought, John’s using a flammable liquid to clean the wooden steps that sit next to the uncovered engine and are only three feet from the propane stovetop which he keeps burning constantly for heat. Well, at least alcohol evaporates quickly.

Moments later the stove ran out of propane. John was trepidatious about switching the tanks and that made me incredibly nervous. John has a very narrow sight where danger is concerned. If he’s nervous, I’m downright scared. Switching the tank should not have been a big deal but John had been unable to get his spare tank re-filled in Puerto Natales. His only option had been to buy a new tank which required a new regulator specific to that tank. John, apparently, does not like change.

To swap out the propane tanks we first had to clear out the swap meet of random things that had been stacked on top of them. This proved to be more difficult than expected because the deck was now as slick as a bowling lane. John’s oil spill had not contained itself to the cabin steps. After much Laurel-and-Hardy-like slipping and sliding around and John dropping his wrench overboard, we managed to excavate the tanks and discovered that the new regulator hose was a different size than the existing one. John needed to re-fit the connectors. Fortunately, there was already a big pile of hoses and clamps spread out on the galley table for John to choose from. The fix went smoothly. We turned the valve until we heard gas and then John told me to go light the stove.

“You go light the stove. I’m staying up here,” I said without a trace of a joke in my voice.

John gave me an exasperated look and went below to light the stove.

A moment later John was yelling, “Turn it off. Turn it off!”

I could see a huge flame from the cabin hatch. I quickly turned off the propane and hurried back to the cabin. The big flame was gone but there were still little fires burning. The new regulator had pushed too much gas to the stove and the gigantic flame had ignited all of the food debris and small bits of garbage that littered the area. The fire was so intense that the burner knob melted off in a river of molten plastic and burned right through the pile of oily rags piled on the floor. The smell was revolting. I grabbed my inhaler and went back up to the deck. It started raining again.

Through trial and error, we managed to find the sweet spot on the regulator dial that allowed us to cook food without setting the boat on fire. The downside was that we could not leave the gas on when it wasn’t in use. Every time we needed to use the one remaining functional burner, one of us has to man the gas valve up on deck while the other lites the burner and yells directions for more or less gas to get the flame where it needs to be. Again we are faced with functionality that requires being in two places at once.

The inclement weather brought with it a big drop in temperature. As evening dug in, the boat cabin became frigid enough for John to decide to light the furnace. The boat’s furnace is a diesel-fueled heater that resembles an old wood burning kitchen stove. It has an oven compartment and a cast iron top surface that gets hot enough to keep your kettle warm but not actually cook. The metal exhaust pipe that runs up through the deck is missing its vent cover and has been wearing an old PVC elbow joint to keep the rain out. Smartly, John removed the plastic hat before commencing in lighting the stove.

From all of John’s rumblings and muttering it was clear to me that John had some cleanup to do before he could light the stove. He hadn’t used it in quite some time and there was a copious amount of crusted over carbon deposits and soot to deal with. This made John grumpy and impatient. He was cold and being whiny about it. Not wanting to deal, I went to bed. I had been freezing most of the day and had spent a better part of the afternoon standing on deck in the rain because the air in the cabin was unbreathable.


I awoke in a panic. I couldn’t breathe. I was choking. Reaching for my inhaler I realized that I also couldn’t see. My eyes were open but everything was black and my eyes burned and watered. It was smoke. Thick, black, acrid smoke. I stepped barefoot into my boots, grabbed my coat and pulled back the curtain that separates my berth from the galley. What I saw on the other side of the curtain was so surreal and disorienting that I faltered for a moment and considered whether or not this was just a vivid nightmare. In the center of the galley, the furnace was glowing red and flames were licking through the gap around the lid and through the top edges where the welds were not holding so well. Thick black smoke billowed from every gap and seam. Next to the furnace sat John, bathed in its eerie soft red glow, looking a little nervous but not doing anything.

“WHAT THE FUCK, JOHN?”

The effort I put into yelling at John cost me my lungs. My coughing intensified and I doubled over with the effort. Not waiting to understand what was going on, I kept low and headed for the closed hatch. As I made my way up the steps I heard John say, “It’s alright, the fire is contained. It’s just burning off the carbon and soot.”

Un-fucking-believable! A tirade of curses issued from me in fits and spurts as I hacked and coughed and tried to catch my breath. I pulled the hatch back and stuck my head out into the freezing night air. Thankfully, the wind had died down and the rain had reduced to a light drizzle. I emerged the rest of the way out of the cabin and immediately slipped and fell on my ass. The rain had conspired with the spilled oil to make the deck even slicker. Giving over to the ridiculousness of my situation, I sat there, on the deck of the boat, and laughed and mused at the wonder of John. How is it that he is so immune to the chaos he causes? My laughing turned to violent coughing and hacking. Black tar was being expelled from my lungs.

When I recovered my voice, I yelled down to John to turn off the stove. I couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t yet. He said that the gunk just needed to burn off and that it would get better soon. That was bullshit. All of the smoke was coming from the hatch. The stove pipe wasn’t smoking at all, it wasn’t even warm. Obviously, John had lit the stove without bothering to clean it or check the exhaust. It was hours before the air was breathable again.

Fresh perspective did not dawn with the new day. Sleep had eventually come but it had not been restful. The boat was cold and reeked of smoke. My nerves were shot. Paranoia had planted its seeds in my brain and I was on high alert. My senses were stretching out to find danger around every corner. We were going to push forward today. My confidence in the boat and its captain have dwindled to their snapping point. Cognizant of my paranoia, I started questioning everything. I really wanted it to be a figment of my imagination when I thought I smelled propane permeating through the stink of stale smoke.

It wasn’t my imagination. The kitchen stove was on fire again.

“TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!” I yelled through the open hatch.

John, not wanting to wait for me to get up to have his morning coffee, tried to light the stove himself. On the one remaining functional burner, he built a small tower of kindling out of paper towels and then lit it on fire. He had just opened the valve on the propane tank when I emerged from my berth. The entire stove was engulfed in flames. Once again, the food debris and bits of garbage from whatever John cooked for himself last night had ignited. Once again, the black plastic knob melted and ran molten down the front of the cupboard scorching everything in its wake.

I was not feeling optimistic about the trip. Putting more distance between us and civilization just seemed like a really stupid thing to do. But, all of my reservations had more to do with John than the boat itself. He was fixing the things that made the boat run (sort of) but he was destroying the things that made the boat livable. I didn’t think I had a good enough argument to press my perspective, especially because my argument would be an attack on John himself, rather than the boat. So, I held my tongue and steeled myself for the adventure. The weather had encouraged me. The sun had come out and had some warmth to it.

Our trip got off to a fine start. Casting off had, for the first time in our journey, gone smoothly thanks to the string and pulley system John devised for putting the boat in gear from the helm. I was dubious about the fix at first. It seemed like a crackpot stupid way to fix the problem but it worked. I practiced a few times to get the feel of finding each gear as I pulled on the appropriate string. John got the anchor up and we were on our way. Knowing which direction to go, I was left to piloting the boat and John took up his post at the engine, checking gauges and whatnot.

As soon as I had motored out from the protection of the island the wind hit us and the sea got rough. I looked up the channel at where we were headed and saw nothing but a solid wall of darkness and tall, white-tipped waves. I could no longer continue my left turn into the channel. The wind was pushing me towards the rock cliffs on the opposite side. John was still below, monitoring his engine and not paying any attention to my calls for assistance. I had the tiller as far to port as I could go and I was still headed for the cliffs. I couldn’t get John’s attention without letting go of the tiller. All I could do was yell and hope. Finally, John’s head emerged from the cabin hatch and he yelled, “slow her down and turn around!”

That was exactly what I had wanted to hear. I didn’t care why he made the call, I had just wanted out of there. I reduced our speed and let the wind have its way. Instead of fighting for port I brought the boat around in the other direction. Of course, I got an ear full for getting too close to shore.

“Fuck you, John! I’m doing the best I can driving this shitty boat!” I screamed in my head.

With my outside voice, I shouted a request for instructions and was told to just circle and circle I did. It was 180 degrees of calm Patagonia wilderness and 180 degrees of 6-foot seas, gale force winds, and abject terror. Eventually, John returned to the deck and told me to head back to our anchorage. He was accepting defeat, over what, I did not know.

What I did know was that John was pissed and I was frazzled and this made parking extra fun. John gave the order to put the boat in neutral as we entered the cove. I pulled on the string and nothing happened. John yelled at me. I pulled harder. The boat skipped neutral and shifted directly into reverse and the string snapped. We both started screaming at each other at once. John was at the bow of the boat preparing to drop anchor and I refused to go climb behind the engine to change the gears. The whole thing was a fiasco and I am amazed that we didn’t run aground.

FUCK THIS GUY AND HIS STUPID FUCKING BOAT!

I was pissed. Adrenaline and rage were mixing up something volatile in me. Steam was literally emanating from my head — mostly because the sun was still shining warmly on this side of the island but the wind and the waves I had just sailed through had bested my sailing gear, freezing me and soaking me to the bone. It was a cool effect that really drove home the fact that I was about to go nuclear. I had had enough. My threshold for stupid FUBAR had finally been met. It was time for me to get off this boat.

I decided to wait until we were both a little calmer before making my case. I needed John to cooperate. I couldn’t just leave. I either had to convince John to return to Puerto Natales or radio a passing boat to come pick me up. That was a tall order. John was determined to move forward. I would need to not look hysterical. I would need to present a logical evaluation. Panic induced overreactions from a silly girl would not be taken seriously. This train of thought just made me more pissed. I surrendered to my need to get warm and went below deck. Maybe John would start another fire. At least it would be warm.

“The engine is spraying fuel all over the place,” John said when I entered the cabin.

“Great. That’s really great, John. I was just wondering what we could set fire to next.” I let my sarcasm just hang there between us. My diplomacy had gone AWOL.

Having no patience for John’s rhetorical problem solving, I retired to my berth to change into some dry clothes and comfort myself with snacks. The afternoon passed in relative silence. John had the engine manual out and was working the problem. I retreated into my head for debate camp. I was getting ready.


“John,” I said his name with deliberate directness.

A couple of hours had passed and we were both just sitting in the galley staring off into space, wiped out and defeated. I needed to get his attention which is very difficult to do. When John didn’t respond, I took a deep breath and prepared to speak again but then he stirred and looked at me.

“Did you hear something? Is someone out there?” he asked.

“No John, that was me. I said ‘John’.” I looked at him as I spoke. He made eye contact with me and then half-smiled, there was almost a blush to it.

“That’s me, isn’t?” he whispered in a slightly guilty voice. I think he was embarrassed by how deep he had fallen into the rabbit hole of his own thoughts.

“Yeah, that’s you,” I said, trying to be gentle. “Listen, John, I need to talk to you, I need your attention.”

I had been as direct as I could be. I was afraid of patronizing him but I needed him to hear me. I needed him to see me and I needed him to recognize that his blind determination was putting us both in jeopardy.

John failed to see my point or even understand where I was coming from. He reacted to my statements with confusion and exasperation, making it clear that his reality was not my reality. All of my arguments had failed. I was dealing with a man who can perform complex math equations in his head but doesn’t understand how physics works and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. There is no way to win an argument about danger with someone who doesn’t recognize the existence of cause and effect.

I was still reeling from the defeat when I heard the boat horn and realized that we had visitors arriving. I did not hesitate to act. I had all my shit packed and hefted on deck before the fishermen had finished setting anchor.


So here I am, staring down a boat captain while plotting a daring escape. Can I get myself, my gear, and the oars into the dingy without falling overboard? The dingy has a leak in one side. Every morning it has to be re-inflated and bailed out before it can be used. My success will most certainly hinge on how far along it is in its deflating and sinking process.

“If you leave with them there will be an investigation,” John explains. “You’re part of my crew, you’re listed on the manifest.”

“I’ll go straight to the Armada to notify them that I got off your boat,” I argue.

Trying to keep the panic out of my voice, I explain to John that I am not trying to fuck him over. I just want off the boat.

“No, that’s not good enough. There is no guarantee that the information will make it to Puerto Montt. If I show up without you, they’ll be all over me,” John said in a paranoid voice.

He’s staring at me beseechingly as if pleading for my understanding and cooperation. I reciprocate his stare, my resolve unwavering.

“Your boat is broken, John. It’s not going to make it to Puerto Montt and you know it!” I shouted at him.

There was a marching band drum line happening in my chest. My internal monologue was playing that whistling gunslinger tune from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. This was a staring contest I had to win. I really didn’t want to enact plan B.

Finally, Lowering his head and speaking to his feet, John says, “I’ll take you back. I’ll take you back to Puerto Natales. We’ll go in the morning.”

There it is, the answer to the riddle of what penetrates John’s bubble of oblivious determination — fear of investigation. I had tried to sway John by running away from the feminine gender role and leveling with him in a pragmatic, unemotional way. I thought he would take me more seriously if I acted less like what I thought his expectations of a woman would be. I was so wrong. The only outside force that penetrates John’s will is that of law enforcement intervention. Being a woman, as it turns out, was my strongest weapon.

John returned below deck. The sun is setting. The fishing boats are dark and quiet. I’m all alone on the deck, just me and the evening bugs. If John is lying to me to get me to stay on the boat, I’m in real trouble. These fishing boats will be gone at dawn. The engine is spitting diesel fuel everywhere. Can this boat even make it back? I guess I’m going to find out.

Looking over the edge of the boat I spot the dingy in the fading light. Half of it is underwater.

THE SEA HOBBITS OF PATAGONIA

Sailing Patagonia – Part 2

Viewing the Andes Mountains from sea level is spectacular. The height and scale of these behemoths dwarf all living things by comparison. Clouds fail in their efforts to conceal. Glacier-covered peaks pierce through the layer of gray to sparkle and glisten from above, mirroring the morning sun and tricking the sailor that glides beneath the cloud cover. East appears to be everywhere.

I’m surrounded by tiny dolphins

There must be at least a dozen hobbit-sized dolphins flanking the boat. They greeted us like a welcoming committee as soon as we entered the channel. I wonder if this narrow gauntlet is their home? I wonder where their parents are? These dolphins all look like kids. They’re so small and they’re having so much fun racing the boat and each other. They leap out of the water, performing flips and somersaults, crashing back into the water in an effort to out-do each other’s splashes. Perhaps this is Neverland and I’ve just found the lost boys.

A quote from Blondie regarding the tide would be appropriate here…

Shore beacons at Kirke Channel ChilePassage through Kirke Channel, an infinitesimally small waterway that connects the Gulf of Montt to the fjords of Patagonia, is not at all harrowing but does require a bit of planning. The channel is so narrow that the large container and ferry ships have to navigate it at high tide or there isn’t enough water to keep them from running aground. Large beacons that look like set-props from Star Wars dot the shore, providing the big ships with coordinates to thread the needle. We are navigating the channel at slack tide — just enough water to float but not so much that the large boulders dotting the edges of the channel submerge and become invisible.

I have wandered into a wildlife wonderland. The water is calm, the sun has finally burned off the morning fog, and everyone has come out to play. The large boulders we need to avoid are easy to spot as they are covered with cormorants and seagulls. My heart skipped a beat when I mistook the cormorants for penguins at first, they look so similar from a distance. I’m keeping my eyes peeled. Penguins are definitely a possibility at this latitude.

A herd of seals is swimming by, heading in the opposite direction. They’re paying no mind to any of us but my dolphin entourage has suddenly subdued their boisterous play and have fallen into flanking positions around the boat. I wonder if dolphins and seals are like the Sharks and the Jets? I can’t help but snap my fingers.

This is what I signed up for

Kirke Channel - Chile

The perils of a poorly managed boat have not abated but if the stretches in between continue to be like this, it just might be enough to offset the stress of pending calamity.

Kirke Channel - Chile

— A note about Chilean dolphins

Chilean Dolphins are small, averaging one to one and a half meters in length, and are only found in the southern Pacific waters of Chile from Valdivia to the eastern entrance of the Magellan Straights. The channels and fjords of Patagonia are full of these half-pint sea mammals.

THE GETAWAY

Sailing Patagonia – Part 1

Sailing the Gulf of Almirante Montt

I have never piloted a boat before. The criterion of experience in this instance is irrelevant. The situation merely dictates a fast getaway. In the division of labor to that end, I am the best suited for this task because I don’t know shit about boat mechanics but I can follow simple instructions:

Push the tiller in the opposite direction that you want the boat to go.

Don’t hit anything.

So, here I am, anxiously putting distance between us and Puerto Natales before anyone notices that we just banged up the boat launch slip in a brazen demonstration of ineptitude.

How did I come to be piloting a forty foot sailboat through the Gulf of Almirante Montt?

I sometimes like to play Chicken with the Multiverse.

Two years ago…

Me: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a sailboat to work on in exchange for passage down the coast of Chile?”

Sasha: “Um, yeah but don’t you have to know how to sail and maybe speak Spanish?”

Last month…

Sasha: “There’s a captain looking for a crew person to sail to Puerto Montt, no experience necessary…”

When the Multiverse serves you up this caliber of ice cream sandwich, you take it. The only thing that could have waved me off of this opportunity was if the captain put off a skeevy rapist alpha-male vibe. He doesn’t. If anything, John gives off an asexual nerdy professor vibe. The man is obsessed with weather charts. He likes to geek out over the physics of highs interacting with lows and he mutters words like sinusoidal and millibar.

What I’m now realizing is that not being a rapist is a somewhat low and completely irrelevant bar to set for evaluating a person’s ability to captain a sailboat.

Sailboat launch from boat slipIn the last ninety minutes, I have been witness to a series of near calamities worthy of Stooge comedy. The boat had been dry-docked for seven months undergoing repairs and an engine replacement. Today was the boats first test of those repairs and the sole focus of John’s attention. I had busied myself with deck clean-up and organization. Running out of productive things to do, I wandered down into the cabin where I found John working a big pump lever in a space under the floor.

“We’re sinking”, John said matter of factly.

Before I could digest this information, John continued speaking but he was no longer addressing me directly. He was leveling a tirade of curses, insults, and excuses at the world at large and maybe himself as well. It seems a valve or plug for a seawater hose was missing. The hose had been pumping seawater into the bilge since we were put in the water. He had pumped out fifty gallons so far.

Up until that point I had not regarded John’s absentmindedness as potentially dangerous. I had concluded that John had a hole in is time bucket and an inability to manage environmental conditions such as clutter and cleanliness. I viewed these things in a bygones/you-be-you sort of way and accepted that I would need to marshal my own prejudices regarding filth because people live how they live. Rejecting the adventure over a fear of discomfort seemed ridiculous to me and I would just need to get over myself.

boat slip launch

But my perception shifted in that moment. I was seeing everything through a new lens and what I saw was unsettling. I had no time left to re-evaluate my situation. I was committed. Everything I own was below in the forward berth of the boat. Sasha was on her way to Argentina and in the cabin was a man who supposedly knows how to sail and just needs a little help because this is a big boat to negotiate alone. I agreed to be that help. But what else did John forget to check before putting his boat in the water? My brain jammed. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t make a decision and I couldn’t stall for more time. So, when I was told to untie us, I did. When the boat started moving backward out of the big metal boat slip and I was yelled at to get on the boat, I did.

The moment my feet hit the deck I both accepted that my decision was made and realized that I made the wrong one.

As soon as the stern peeked out from the end of the slip the current caught it, forcing the boat to pivot. We weren’t clear of the slip yet and were being pushed up against the opposite side where we had no bumpers. The only thing keeping the boat from slamming into the end of the slip was the inflatable dingy that was tied to float alongside us. Instead of addressing the direction and speed of the boat to counter the effects of the current, John hurried to where the dingy was being crushed and tried to push the boat away from it. He seemed terrified that the dingy would pop and was completely indifferent to the fact that we were motoring backward with no control and in proximity of hitting things.

Remarkably, the dingy survived. We had finished our pivot and were continuing backward towards the cement pier when John realized that while the little boat survives the big boat was about to crash. The look of genuine surprise on John’s face was cartoon worthy. I’m pretty sure I saw his eyeballs leave his head. Maybe he forgot that the boat was still in reverse. Either way, he didn’t seem to notice anything outside of whatever he was actively focusing on. I had been yelling for his attention, trying to get him to drive the boat, but he seemed completely oblivious to my presence.

John’s response to being about to crash was to run back down into the cabin. WHAT THE FUCK, MAN?! I was standing near the stern and the pier was getting close in a hurry. I immediately began estimating my probability of success if I jumped for it at the moment of impact and was a little disappointed when the boat stopped short and began moving in the opposite direction. Going forward was good but there was still no one at the helm. The change in direction had been enacted from below.

“John?”

“JOHN!”

We were motoring right at the boat slip. There was no magical direction change this time. John emerged from the cabin just in time to see us ram the side of the slip. In a delayed reaction, John yelled “PORT!” and grabbed the tiller. The motor kept driving us forward, scraping the bow of the boat against the slip. Then a wave lifted the boat and dropped us on top of it. We were stuck. The front end of the boat was out of the water and most of our weight was being supported by the bowsprit from which we were suspended. Shit was getting super real. I just stood there and watched. What could I do? John actually went to the front of the boat and pushed against the cement to see if he could push us off. Again, where are this man’s problem-solving skills? For all of his calculations and formulas, he seems genuinely surprised at how physics works. Also, why can’t he control the boat? Backing out of a boat slip shouldn’t have been this complicated.

After a few minutes of cursing and useless effort from John, another wave came along and dislodged us. No one had thought to take the boat out of gear so when we hit the water we immediately went forward. John hurried back to the helm and pointed us in an outbound direction. We were getting away. As I watched the port get smaller I saw my last opportunities for escape evaporate.

I’m in this now. I’m driving the getaway car. I’m complicit in the wreaking of havoc.

Let the adventure begin.

Song of Valparaiso

Experiences and perspectives converge at this apex of consciousness where unlikely characters agree to neighborly proximity.

Palms and evergreens conspire in corners of tucked away earth situated between precariously stacked buildings

and every expanse of surface jockeys for impact, imprinting esoteric musings with the blunt force of color writhing and contorting into lasciviously hallucinogenic wall-scapes.

Herds of wandering tour zombies, spellbound by the technicolor Oz-quality of their surroundings, spill into oncoming traffic with arms outstretched and cameras pointed while queues stack up for passage through the bottlenecks of wannabe Instagram heroes.

Seagulls, the balcony hecklers of all sea-town dramas, laugh their critiques with the cackles of mad hatters in jarring contrast to the saxy sounds of Coltrane reverberating from the depths of a café canyon.

From his perch, the ghost of the poet keeps watch over all.

Torpor

“Hell is other people” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Depression or introverted cave-dwelling?

Either, both. Distinguishing between the two can be tricky.

The promise of solitude is so inviting. Grand plans are made with giddy anticipation for the productivity that will surely ensue once free of the bothersome distractions of other people. The clutter of thoughts swirling in a snow globe mind will cease in their torrents, see-saw lazily down to rest, and casually await processing. But reality always falls disappointingly short of this expectation, at least at first. Limp thoughts are as appealing as anything else proceeded by the word ‘limp’. Aspirations of creative brilliance get dashed. Ideas become shrouded in a cloak of banality.

Torpor sets in like quick-drying cement. Wits dull and absurd distractions take hold. Is absurd too strong a word? Is eight hours to many to give up to a Jedi marathon that only reconfirms the obvious and exhaustively discussed point that even men in galaxies far, far away are embedded in the patriarchy, justifying their villainy with complaints that the universe isn’t fair while the women step up to do the badass shit and sacrifice themselves for humanity? Beware of getting your feelings hurt as this clearly leads to the dark side.

What was that bit about absurd distractions?

It’s amazing how quickly the routines of daily norms and the expectations of basic human behavior break down when there are no witnesses to judge that behavior. Suddenly normal is spending the whole day in pajamas and eating cereal over the sink. Boredom compounds, folding in on itself like a collapsing star, sucking up time and distorting reality. The idle mind takes on the characteristics of a library abandoned. The noises of life happening just outside its walls is muted and distant capitulating to the rule of quiet. The card catalogs have been ransacked. Its index cards have been pulled haphazardly and discarded. Their clutter covers the floor.

Shuffling through the debris, slipper-clad feet kick up random notions of half-made plans, dates to remember, old lists of things needed, song lyrics, a sketch of a man on a motorcycle staring at an event poster sponsored by Taco Del Mar. So the clutter is attacked with a sense of purpose. The sketch gets tacked to the bulletin board. Song lyrics are filed according to their genre and era and annotated with specific associations of strong feelings, angst being the most popular. Grocery lists are consolidated and added to a calendar reminder. The mundane act of bringing order is empowering. The shroud that colors every thought useless and unworthy is lifting. A new light shines on raw ideas. Potential is discovered and imagination begins to rekindle.

A new energy fills the air. It’s electric. An idea stirs in the current, finds lift and rises into the air then blossoms like a paper flower, each pedal an elaboration. Another thought arises from the clutter strewn floor. This one doesn’t bloom. Instead, it draws other thoughts to it, capturing them in its gravitational orbit creating a model solar system. Soon the place is alive with swirling, dancing bits of paper, index cards, Post-It notes of every color, sketches and doodles. This is no torrent of haphazard chaos. There is no tempest to take cover from. This is a ballet viewed from the cheap seats where the trappings of executing stage direction in a physical world fall away leaving only the magic of the characters floating and flitting through the air with the music. It is beautiful.

This is not depression.

This is a process. Torpor and lethargy can certainly be symptoms of depression but characterizing these behaviors as solely negative and indicative of an emotional state that requires fixing is misguided. An obsessive need to associate looking busy with productivity attaches unnecessary judgment to behaviors that can otherwise be restorative. Little value is given to mindful contemplation, quietness, isolation, decluttering of the mind, in short, the pursuit of peace.

I need to remember this for next time and learn a little patience in the meantime.

Float

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I’m having a Kurt Vonnegut moment. Actually, I’m having two. The quote from Slaughterhouse-Five is quite apropos just now but my quest to describe why leaves me thinking of a different Vonnegut story, the one where people realize that having a body is a person’s biggest liability and so shed their meat sacks to live as enlightened, unfettered intelligence. *Unready To Wear

Floating here in the low surf with my eyes closed is the closest I have ever come to transcend the burden of my physical form. Buoyant on the salty water, no effort on my part is required. I am free to be limp with no care. Through my eyelids is a nebula of soft red that doesn’t hold its shape. Ill-formed ribbons of lighter hues ripple through it, displacing the spectrum of light as the occasional dark floater wanders and morphs like a lost blob from a lava lamp. I don’t see the red as much as I perceive it. All of my senses are working in concert, lending their voices to a common cord, one that reverberates through me, shaking loose my molecules until raw, unimpeded energy flows freely and the lines that hold my shape become blurred and indistinguishable from the water that surrounds me. I am the red. I am the warm. I am the sea, gently rising and falling with the lingering tide. I carry no weight of existence.

Adulting is for suckers.

I prefer to float.

Catharsis

November 3, 2017

My soulmate is the city, she gets me like no other. Chaos on a grid, beauty in lines, hard surfaces with chipped edges, she never divulges too much of herself to me but she will gladly reveal to me all of my own bullshit.

Walking on the edge of invisibility, anonymous, alone, and disconnected from people going about their business with no notice of me, is where I feel most at home. The city is my safe place. This is where I feel most alive and connected to myself. I feed off of her energy like a vampire filling up on new life, catching glimpses of her history with every draw. Watching the people, exploring where the streets lead, keeping pace with the rhythm of her soundtrack, I absorb her, and in doing so, see my own humanity reflected back at me. I am both apart from her and a part of her.

FullSizeRender 39It’s two o’clock on Friday afternoon and I’m sitting on a bench in the middle of Simon Bolívar park. I have two hours all to myself and a single mission: pull my shit together. How did I come to be here, with this extra time on my hands? I’m ditching Spanish class. I walked down here with the intention of going but in the end, I just couldn’t. I’m having an anxiety attack. I can’t talk or make eye contact with anyone without sobbing and my muscles are contracting in an aggressive attempt to pull me into the fetal position. Being fully aware that having an episode of this magnitude in my current location will likely invite questions from concerned onlookers, which would then force me to try to respond in a language that I just can’t seem to learn, I manage to stand up.

‘Now walk!’, demands a drill sergeant-like voice in my head. That is definitely not my voice giving the commands. I don’t listen to me when I’m lost in this state of mind. Why should I? I’m weak, ineffectual, and useless, after all. Being pathetic is a full-time job with no room for multitasking.

My survival instinct is taking matters into its own hands by conjuring up an alpha-goddess to take charge of the situation. I have relinquished control of my being to Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role as Ripley, who is now operating my body like a dock loader. Feeling my feet plant on the sidewalk with heavy thuds, one in front of the other, I can almost hear the hydraulics behind the movement. I’m now a passenger in my own body. My emotions have been powered down to a dull hum as if hit with a tranquilizer dart. I am free to look out the portals of my eyes with impunity as I am piloted down a street.

All I can see is my feet. My head is pointed at the ground. Ripley pilots me left to get off the main drag. We cross an intersection and head up a street that is clearly not a popular thoroughfare. Both the noise and the volume of people decrease. Determined in the study of my own shoes, I continue up the street not taking it in. A sob convulsion hits me hard and I nearly wretch trying to hold it in. I feel my knees get wobbly and Ripley stamps my foot against the ground hard. It feels like she kicked me in the shin with her dock loader. I’m acutely aware of how much my body hurts. My muscles are still contracting in direct opposition to being upright and walking. My heart is thumping in my ears and I can hear the squeak of my teeth grinding against each other. ‘MOTHER FUCKER!’, I scream from the confines of my cerebral prison cell but my screams go unnoticed because my jaw is clamped shut and Ripley has my volume on mute. I wish Ripley would punch me in the face. If I could just get her to kick the shit out of me, then maybe my pain would make more sense to me. But Ripley isn’t here to kick my ass. She’s here to protect me from myself. I don’t know if rendering me completely ineffectual is going help me feel better about myself but I guess not hurting myself is ok.

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Eyes still fixed on the sidewalk, I realize the gate I’m standing next to opens on a ramp that leads down to a sunken courtyard that is completely incongruent with the neighborhood. It’s deserted. My body wanders in, taking me along for the ride. I’m struck by the solitude of this place. I feel like I accidentally walked into someone’s backyard, you know, the kind with a pub in it. It occurs to me that a shot of tequila with a beer chaser would be delightfully dangerous in a manic, ‘sure, I’d love another’ kind of way. I wonder if I can order a drink without talking? I have my Spanish notes in my backpack, surely I could craft a note to the bartender.

As I’m standing there mute, starring at the bar and pondering my ability to silently order multiple drinks, a person walks out of the bar and looks right at me. Shit. The person is now talking to me. She’s smiling. My hand twitches spastically into the air in a sad attempt at a casual wave as I mouth the words ‘Buenas tardes’ and make a quiet frog-like croaking sound. Clearly, the note thing isn’t going to work. Ripley turns me around and points me towards the opposite end of the courtyard. I’m motivated to help with the movement of my legs this time.

I reemerge onto a street I know. I’ve just come through a gate that I have looked through from the other side more than once, always wondering what was down there and then forgetting how to find it again. I examine every detail of the street in an attempt to commit its location to memory but my thoughts are falling out of my head like water through a sieve.

I keep walking.

The street art in this town is amazing. Urban architecture in Ecuador is incomplete without tall walls and ornate gates. There is no shortage of canvas for taggers and muralist alike.

What I am now starring at is unlike anything I have experienced before. I’m impressed by the art but what’s more, I’m struck by the uncanniness of me finding this now, at this moment. I am mesmerized. If the turmoil of my inner being drew a self-portrait, I’m sure it would look like this. I want to find the artist and buy them ice cream.

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Tearing my gaze from the manifestation of my dark side, I begin taking in the rest of the art along the block. I’m walking what appears to be a graffiti gauntlet and Ripley’s letting me drive a little. I’m noticing more of my surroundings. It’s raining. I don’t think I care.

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I keep walking.

Paying no attention to where I’m going, other than to stay off the beaten path, I surprise myself by wondering into Plaza de Ponchos from a side street that I had never noticed before. I don’t have to worry about people noticing me because everyone is busy getting out of the rain which is now falling in earnest. I have my Gortex rain jacket in my backpack but I’m not interested in getting it out. Instead, I sit on a bench at a covered bus stop. Folding my legs and tucking my feet under me on the bench, I feel like a kindergartner settling in for story time.

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The story of a world-famous artisan market on an off day in a light rainstorm begins to unfold in front of me. I am struck by the mundanity of it all. Some people are hurrying out of the rain while others dump the collecting water off of their canopies and drape plastic over their hand-crafted treasures. People wait for the bus and stranded shoppers hail cabs. It’s all just so ordinary. I’m watching regular people do regular things and I’m reminded that if all we have in common is that we are human beings, that’s still a lot of common ground. There is room for a connection here. I like that. It makes me feel a glimmer of hope for humans.

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I have an hour before Sasha is done with class. I wonder what lies on the west side of town? Standing up I feel my knees pop. My legs are stiff and ache a little. My adrenaline is spent and it’s making me feel kind of shitty. Walking helps. I’m delighted to discover that my body is back in my control. My raw panic has dissipated leaving me with a mixed bag of emotions to unpack. Something to occupy my brain as I wander into the residential side of town.

I have a lot to examine. I know that the frustration I’m experiencing with my learning disabilities thwarting my effort to learn Spanish was the trigger today but there is more to it than that. I’m scratching at the surface of old wounds long buried in the bento boxes of my brain and it’s triggering emotional responses that I intellectually know to be irrelevant in my present life. My hope is that exhuming these old but not forgotten behaviors will allow me to purge them once and for all. I would love to repurpose the bento boxes in a more functional way. Pencil lead and eraser storage perhaps. I love bento boxes.

In the meantime, an observation has floated to the front of my brain which, in hindsight, seems incredibly obvious. The metaphors I use to consciously depict my inner struggles and anxiety are the literal, physical actions of my catharsis.

Walking that edge of invisibility, I begin to fade from view, feeling small, disconnected, and replaceable. I’m just another wounded soul screaming silently into the void while street hustlers, preachers, and politicians pimp a limited variety of happy masks for prices that seem reasonable, just my self-worth, paid in increments over time, forever, like student loans.

This is definitely going to bake my noodle for a bit.

Toto – This Is Definitely Not Kansas

14 October 2017

My heart is broken. I’m feeling pretty good about it.

FullSizeRender 8 I think the best lessons in life are those accompanied by some level of suffering. I’m not a psychological masochist, though I pretend to be from time to time, I just recognize the need within myself to be hit over the head with new information when that information challenges my current life perspective. The older I get, the harder I need to be hit. I think this is because as we mature, and level-up our life experience, we grow new layers of protective exo-skin made out of bubble wrap. A little extra padding to slow us down, keep us mentally comfortable, and provide us with protective vision distortion. The bigger lessons not only penetrate my outer defenses, they obliterate them, leaving me feeling raw and vulnerable but also with eyes, mind, and heart wide open to the world around me.

This is my 11th day in Ecuador. Every day I go out to experience the world. This world is not mine. It feels like the universe next door. There is a familiarity here that is disorienting because hardly anything here is what I expect it to be. It is this difference that has captured my curiosity. There has been something nipping at the back of brain since I arrived and today, unable to chew through my layers of bubble wrap, the nipping manifest itself as a real-life dog.

Image of Cascada Taxopamba

Cascada Taxopamba

 

Today I hiked up to a magnificent waterfall with Sasha. It’s a beautiful spot tucked away between some cow pastures where you wouldn’t think to look. I’m impressed that Sasha found this remote and obscure location with so little to go on. On the way here, a small, very cute dog started following us. Dogs are everywhere here. Some belong to people, some belong to the streets. We passed several of both during this trek including a particularly beautiful pit bull lounging in the yard of a house perched high on a hill. The pit regarded us with little interest until the dog that had been following us came into view. Upon spotting our companion, the pit descended on him. Soon other large dogs came running down the hill to join the attack against this dog, whose only transgression was to be there with us. There was nothing we could do but watch in horror as this little dog got its ass kicked. Fortunately, the dog got away from his attackers but as he ran back down the hill, every other lazy dog we had just passed decided to take a poke. Dogs came out from every direction to nip, bite and harass this poor little dog as he tried to make his way home. From off in the distance we heard one more high pitched yip and then nothing.

 

We were both stunned, standing immobile in the middle of the road. As the adrenaline faded and the grief set in, Sasha took my hand in hers and we continued up the road. Eventually, our silence turned to quiet conversation. We talked about the dog culture that exists here and what it implies about the wider human culture. What our conversation can be boiled down to is this: the world I now live in is more raw, naked and authentic than anything I have ever experienced. What happened to that little dog is just what happens among dogs sometimes. It’s the harsh reality of nature and the code of the street. Life can be brutal, but that is nature, and the experience isn’t sanitized for my living pleasure.

That’s the difference. There is no impetus here to make things seem better than they are. Life is messy and there is beauty and love in the mess.

U.S. culture dictates that we make everything look better than it is. We strive for the illusion of perfection upon first glance and put all our effort into giving the right first impression. The fabric of our so-called dream is so fragile that we don’t dare deviate from it. We put exhaustive effort towards cultivating the perceptions of others and this leaves so little left of us to pursue the life that lies beneath.

In the states, we round up all the stray dogs, hold them in prison, and then kill them. It’s nice and discreet so we don’t have to see it or be bothered by it. Seeing the contrast from this new perspective, I’m inclined to want authenticity over blind comfort. At least here, the dogs have a fighting chance.

My heart hurts for that little dog to whom I am grateful. He has helped me see a little more of this big beautiful world the way it really is. This waterfall is fucking amazing. I wonder if I will see that dog again? He would like this spot.

He Sings the Songs

I’m never going to get this damn song out of my head. This happens every time I see this sign. I read the word, giggle like a kid reading the word ‘fart’, and immediately start humming and mumbling the half-remembered words to that iconic but oh so cheesy disco classic.

Photo of tourist sign in Otavalo, EcuadorWe’re standing on the corner of Simon Bolívar park. It’s our third day in Otavalo and we still haven’t found the farmers market. This shouldn’t be a difficult task. Otavalo has two outdoor markets; one for artisan trade crafts and one for fruits and vegetables. Both are world famous. Finding the artisan market was easy. It’s at the end of the main drag right in the thick of things. We’ve discounted the Mercado Copacabana because of its location and because Google has it listed as a shopping mall. We thought Mercado 24 de Mayo would be the place. There are signs pointing to it and Google shows it as a large open plaza similar to Plaza de Ponchos but what we found was a large plaza, fenced in and full of tilled earth. Maybe they’re  going to plant a market?

Sasha is clearly frustrated. Her Force isn’t working properly and we’re both feeling like we’re walking in circles and missing what’s right in front of us. Of course this isn’t bothering me as much as it’s bothering Sasha because I have cheesy disco playing in my head. 

Grooving to my internal soundtrack, inspiration hits me like a gold record. Tugging at Sasha’s sleeve, I lead us to the left, in the direction the sign is pointing. “Come on”, I say, “I have a hunch”. 

Walking away from the center of town I confess to Sasha, “I don’t know why but I always associate the song Copacabana with the Chiquita Banana lady”. I’m met with a blank stare that clearly says ‘Is that supposed to mean something to me?’. “Yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down there”, I sing, delighting at my own dorkiness. 

Photo of Mercado Copacabana, Otavalo, Ecuador

Mercado Copacabana

As I’m making a fool of myself, the street opens up into a wide plaza that is over saturated with a rainbow of colors from every type of produce you can imagine and many that I can’t. We have found the market. Thank you, Barry Manilow!

Photo of Murray looking out the window at the clouds
I love this image. After our trip to the equator, Sasha’s friend Cristina brought us to this restaraunt that sits on the edge of an old volcanic crater. The crater continuously fills with clouds that roll up the hillside and engulf the restaraunt. It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

Coffee In the Clouds