The incidental and the consequential

The other day, Gideon went off to meet up with an old friend who is from Santiago, Chile. Sarah and I, having been eating rather monotonously a home, went to lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. After a fifteen-minute walk through attractively bustling streets (we very much like the parts of Santiago we have seen), in the pleasantly dry heat, DSC05422_DxODSC05416_DxO we nabbed the restaurant’s one free sidewalk table. It was a two person, small, square, wood-topped pedestal, separated from its neighbor to the side by just enough inches for us to feel we were at a private table, but not too many inches as not to afford natural-feeling, inter-table conversation. DSC05396_DxOA kind of perfect placement, if conversational options are your eating-taste. Friendly, as we are, we struck up a conversation with our neighbor, which he actually initiated more than we did, which lasted an hour-and-a-half or more of our leisurely lunch of one-course plus coffee. Travelers, it should be a truism, are more likely to converse with strangers than non-travelers are. After all, travelers are underway for adventure and newness and discovery, and their world of available family and friends and colleagues and acquaintances has radically shrunk, so what better way to seek out the new and to fill in the social void than by talking with people seated nearby in cafes, particularly when they turn out also to be travelers and therefore of a similar conversational positioning?

Our neighbor Ash is an aerospace engineer from the UK, working to design the interiors of the sky-high airplane cabins of which we have caught only walk-through-glimpses during our current travels. 20171215_155441We learned a bunch about his business and saw cell phone photos of the recently unveiled super-first-class 70th anniversary cabins on Singapore Airlines, the production of which (if I understood correctly) he oversaw. We told him that the Boeing 787, called Dreamliner, has, with its better air, quieter interior, expanded overhead clearance, and improved lighting, made our travels notably more pleasant. Beyond the what-do-you-do conversations, which were more extensive and substantive than is usual in such casual encounters, our good-natured exchanges included Iran, as Ash is of Iranian descent, the UK, Brexit, world order, high-tech education, Israel, Jerusalem, and, all but unavoidably, Trump. He told us that he can’t go to the US as he’s subject to the US travel ban. This is so even though he’s a UK citizen and even though he’s through-and-through British, as he was born there. Because he holds dual nationality with Iran, he’s Verboten-fruit.

The conversation, which was fully two ways (us<->him) was lively and respectful throughout. Ash is intelligent, open, and curious. We parted with good cheer and an exchange of contact information (and he received this blog’s address).

I recount this not because the episode was remarkable (such as coursing the Serengeti or visiting a township in South Africa) or because we developed with him a dense and potentially ongoing relationship (as we did with Zadock and with Kevin) but because it wasn’t. Much of traveling consists of non-remarkable moments, events, encounters, which may be thoroughly enjoyable (this was) but which doesn’t rise to guide-book worthiness.DSC05428_DxO I could have just as easily written about the woman whose Airbnb we were renting, as she, a Chilean architect, spent considerable time speaking with Sarah about Sarah’s recent book (which she had begun to read, loved, and said it has finally given her a way to conceptualize and articulate what she does in her work), and about her own architecture, showing Sarah images. She exuded warmth and passion while we sat speaking at the dining table of her Airbnb which — true to her architectural ethos of creating what Sarah champions, “enriching environments” — she had renovated.

Ash came off as an entirely likeable, indeed a lovely, person. Our time with him and so many other incidental people help structure, populate, and enliven our travels and our memories of specific places and moments, as we spend all this time away from our family and friends.

— Danny

Promise Thwarted

Chile turned out to be a land of great promise and, through no fault of its own, tantalizingly little delivery. We had, after the careful choosing and planning, which has been our practice everywhere, scheduled a foray into, so we expected, the incomparable Atacama Desert, an area of lunar landscapes on a high plateau, as bone-dry as any desert in the world, and, being in the superior star-viewing Southern Hemisphere, therefore perhaps the premier professional and amateur star-gazing and investigation site the terrestrial earth offers. Several of the largest optical reflecting telescopes are there, as well as the Paranal Observatory’s stunning ESO Hotel for its scientists, the site of the climactic battle scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. In addition to three days in the desert, visiting three distinct landscapes, we had arranged to go on a most-of-the-night stargazing expedition with an astronomer who provides the telescopes and the know-how to make intelligible and meaningful what we see. The journey to the Atacama was Gideon’s first among equal-firsts in desire of all that we had planned for the year – though he now maintains it was always his clear number one. So, imagine his bitter disappointment, and Sarah’s and my (considerable without being bitter) disappointment too, as we also held the Atacama in high prospective regard, when we cancelled the journey owing to an unexpected intrusion.

X-ing out the Atacama came after we had already put the kybosh on our planned ascent to Cusco and Machu Picchu, which was meant to be our first South American stop, after our time in Zealandia and Oceana. Curiously, I had never been overly excited about this portion of our year, despite all the historical and sojourner myth, lore, and celebration enveloping Machu Picchu. I’m not all that enamored with ruins, particularly of the excavated varieties. But then, if I found Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England, beautiful, lyrical, and mesmerizing, which I (and Sarah and Gideon) had on a trip several summers ago, then why would I not expect the same in still more heightened form at a site reputed to be among the best if not the best of this kind that our planet’s distant past offers? Well, many things are worthy of public introspection, but I suspect this is not among them. It’s enough to note that my dampered expectations never got put to the test, and we flew from Melbourne directly to Santiago, a delightful city of eight million and, contrary to our original itinerary of using it as a hub to the spokes sequentially of Cusco, the Atacama, Valparaiso, and after ten days all told in Santiago, Patagonia and then…, we touched down in Santiago and never left, until we bade farewell to South America for good, as far as our current journey was concerned. This also means that we never went on our expected star-studded adventure in Patagonia, another great disappointment for all of us, as we had as good a stretch of a trip awaiting us as any planned, including a four-day journey by ship through the southernmost storied waters to glaciers, penguins, hikes, and peaks, and then the, or at least a, capstone of extended hiking in Torres del Paine National Park.

The upshot is that we spent close to three weeks in Santiago in three Airbnbs. I had had few firm notions about the city and its built fabric before arriving – except that it was culturally rich, a major city, and a major Latin city, which given our program of urban exploration meant that it offered considerable promise. We quickly discovered that Santiago is a gem, and a lucky place to be marooned.

— Danny