Tethers and Change

Each and every city has a color palette. Sometimes that palette is meaningful, and sometimes it just is, but I’m willing to bet Santiago’s has some deeper meaning. The prominence of reds and earthy yellows and sooty blues are too consistently thrown over an idealized white that I imagine must have once represented something clean and modern and Westernized, but now leaves most buildings with a not-unattractive rusty undertone that I find quite pleasant, to be totally random.

There are still big pretentious metal-and-steel buildings, reflecting the sun as if trying to out-shine their neighbors, shouting at the surrounding area “Here we do business! Bring forth your complex coffee orders and thousand-dollar shoes, because we’re ready to hold court with the world!” I haven’t been here long enough to ascertain whether or not the aesthetic enthusiasm is working, and I won’t be here long enough to do so.

I walk by the República train stop. My train stop. One of the first things I do when I arrive in a new city is look for landmarks, and the number two line is my arterial connection to the rest of the city. It’s Sunday, so the surrounding area is nearly vacant, a stark contrast to the usual hubbub of wildly meandering pedestrians, drunkenly weaving their way between each other though as far as I’m able to tell not a drop of alcohol has been imbibed. It’s their way, this weaving, and even today, with only a smattering of amblers visible as they make their way from here to there, collisions occur, and I wonder if, perhaps, there’s some kind of social incentive to these arm-and-elbow bruising, car-less fender-benders. Any connection being a good one in an unanchored reality.

I arrived exactly one week before, on a Sunday much like this one, and was struck by the relative order maintained by the people in the streets, despite the intense layers of graffiti shouting at me from every wall. Bubbly calligraphy outlined in red ran up against the stylized faces of governments agents all in black and white which seemed to call out to the wheat-pasted, human-sized meerkat standing tall, silently judging all passersby above an arched doorway across the street. These are the other colors of the city. Colors that are all but hidden from the men and women in suits who never make it this far down the subway’s tracks, away from the shiny heart of the city’s monetary gravity.

A rumbling in my pocket reminds me that there is a world outside of this one; my tether. That the moment I’m inhabiting, this moment of silently walking, alone except for my thoughts and the subway entrances and the meerkats, is not the only moment. It reminds me that this walk can’t go on forever, and that at some point I’ll have to stop, turn on my heel, and head back to my flat. To my room. To my bags and my plane tickets and my life.

But except for those moments, where my phone comes to life, a dead machine jolted into action by the life-giving electricity of open WiFi signals that dot my path, I can forget. I can forget that I’m leaving this city without exploring it fully. Without understanding the colors and the songs I hear pulsing from the windows of passing cars and the people who listen to it. The frustration I feel when I lack the opportunity to understand what’s going on around me as completely as possible pushes me forward. I can keep walking. I can see more and understand more and be fulfilled.

I pass more stairways lining the sidewalk, their signs declaring them to be entrances to different subway terminals. I pass Unión Latino Americana, Estación Central, Universidad Santiago, and San Alberto Hertado in what seems like quick succession, but I know is probably a greater span of time than I consciously register.

The rule of thumb online is that if there’s no photo, it didn’t happen. I think about this as I pass another beautiful piece of street art encasing another beautiful architectural facade. I want to collect it all, save it for later consumption, but I know I have a choice between being fully here, getting caught up in the poetry of this walk, and recording it for a later version of myself to peruse in two-dimensions; sharing the experience with others rather than building a memory around it. I leave my phone in my pocket. I keep walking.

More stations fly by. Ecuador, Las Rejas, Pajaritos. I pull a bag of nuts and raisins from my jeans and toss a small handful in my mouth, enjoying the contrast of salty and sweet, crunchy and soft. I have a few thousand pesos worth of change I can feel jangling around in my pocket now that the bag isn’t keeping it still, and I wonder what I should spend it on before I leave; there’s little chance I’ll be able to exchange it once I exit the country.

On some level I know that I can’t keep walking. I tell my feet to stop. To turn. To go back to my flat so I can rejoin my bags in waiting for the appropriate time to find a cab to take me to the airport. To take me away to another adventure and leave this one behind, incomplete. But my feet don’t respond. I experience a feeling not unlike waking up fully alert and ready for the day, only to find that opening my eyes, throwing back the sheets, pulling on clothing, and heading out the door is beyond my capacity for the moment. Finding that the feeling of what I’m doing right now is too good to give up without bringing some kind of mental crowbar to bear. That on many levels I don’t want to wake up, to stop my feet, to leave the pleasant dream that I know can’t continue forever, but that in the moment seems like it can.

I don’t want to break the spell.

But as suddenly as I have the thought, that this is the dream I’ll live forever, my phone buzzes once more, and I’m reminded of the other dreams I’d be denying myself if I chose only one. I could keep walking, or I could turn, rejoin the world, and continue exposing myself to other realities. Other fantasy lands. Places with different color palettes and animals wheat-pasted on the walls and music blaring from cars or carts or from the buzzy speaker on a mobile phone, held in the hand of a dancing child.

From there it takes less effort than I would have guessed. Without changing my rhythm or even slowing my momentum, I take a step and pivot on the ball of my foot, turning back the way I came and tossing a handful of nuts and raisins into my mouth in the same motion.

Life’s poetry isn’t lost by changing direction any more than it’s lost by staying on a course that sings to you. It only disappears if you cease to pay attention and never question who you are, where you are, and where you’re going next.

Update: April 12, 2017

I remember this day, this moment, actually, very clearly.

Part of that is the result of a kind of narrative mindstate I sometimes drift into when I’m exploring a new city. It’s a state of mind that collects all the details, and all those smells and colors and textures and sounds blend together really well, and tend to stick in one’s memory without much effort.

I also remember it for a somewhat silly reason: up until that trip, I didn’t really care for raisins. But because little bags of nuts and raisins were available everywhere in Santiago, I decided that this was the day I would start to like them. So I bought a bag, and wonder of wonders, I learned to appreciate them. I was probably three little bags in when I was on this walk, and it stands out with even more saturation than usual because of that novelty.