Losing Oneself in South America

¿Por qué estás tú acá, joven?

These are words you never want to hear when traveling in a foreign country, especially not from a worried, matronly local, nor with such a heavy emphasis on the tú.

”What are you doing here?”

These words startle you. You stop looking for the bearings you lost when you got off the bus whose destination you either didn’t read or understand. You stop climbing further up the hill in search of the restaurant you should have found twenty minutes ago. You realize how wrong you were when you naïvely thought you could just “explore” the town without consulting a map. While unpleasant to hear, these words make the difference between life and losing your belongings. Or, if you’d like to be dramatic, death.

“Four” (cuatro, for my Spanish-speaking readers) is my running total as of writing this blog. One does not get used to hearing it. The speaker (in addition to being “worried, matronly, and local”) is usually around 50 years of age, her distinguishing feature a deep wrinkle in the outline of a doting smile. Gesticulating with bread, flowers, or a cooking utensil, she informs you of the danger inherent of this neighborhood, hill, forest, etc. etc. Eyes widen and sweat beads on your once placid face. Without having to ask her, she either tells you to return from whence you came or takes you there herself.

For the former, what happens next is obvious: you say gracias (thanks), tuck your tail between your legs and walk home. The latter can be much more interesting. The concerned bystander transforms into a warmer, friendlier Vergil. She escorts you through the underworld into which you’ve haplessly stumbled. Residents stare at you, some with malice, others surprise and curiosity, until they notice your temporary mother fiercely staring back with her hand on your shoulder. After you’ve answered all of her questions, she shyly tells you about her life there, as well as the lives of her family and friends. You come to realize that although alien and dangerous (to you), this place is made up of homes, and communities; of life thriving in its most honest form. Real people live, die, love, hate, (etc. etc.) for all of their existence in a place you’d otherwise strive to avoid seeing, yet lies walking distance from your daily life. This extends beyond humanity: after taking the wrong bus up a hill into the squatter neighborhood of Forestal, I saw a horse, a goat, and multiple sheep drinking from a stream less than a quarter mile (400 metros) from the urbanity below. Although journeying through necessitates a guide, these places are no inferno. They’re just less tame, less sterile sections of the world hidden from the one I know. The more you experience, the richer your perspective becomes.

But seriously, ask the bus driver where he’s going before you get on.