Where Memory Counts: Bound for the Deserts, Volcanoes, and Mountains of Northern Chile

I’m going to the deserts of Northern Chile.  I’m bringing with me a small backpack with some clothes, shoes, and a few books to read.  I’m going because I want to take a break from this chaotic world where anyone can access me wherever I am at any time of day, where with a click of a mouse or a tap on a touch screen, I can find out the GDP of Turkmenistan or read about the manias of Charlie Sheen.  I’m leaving this world where memory counts for less and connectivity counts for more.  Who cares to know about the ravages of World War II when you can look them up online?  Why carry around encyclopedias of knowledge in your head when you can turn to the all-knowing hive mind for whatever bit of information you may seek?

In the digital age will the younger generations lose touch with the massive effort and commitment that went into unearthing the information they google, writing the stories they read, and filming the movies they watch on their smart phones as they sit silently with their families at the dinner table?  Will the products of human ingenuity (and stupidity) in general become detached from the monumental efforts that went into forging them?

I worry that the young live in a world in which everything is a finished product, tailored to their wants and delivered to them on demand.  I worry that the connection we once had with the earth, our understanding of the relationship between labor and survival, weakens further as our creations become separated from the long and difficult processes that yielded them: the collaborations, the face-to-face conversations, the brainstorming sessions, the trial and error and repeated failures.

If the young live in a world of finished products, how will they learn to labor toward their own goals?  How will they know that the act of creation costs, draws energy, demands toil; and how will they know that such efforts, in order to be undertaken, must be compensated?  Ideas originate in the mind.  They may benefit from access to the hive, but for them to form in the first place the mind must swell with experiences and information and wisdom, and the connections that emerge from this rich inner-world.

I’m going to Northern Chile because I want to be in a place where memory counts.  The high deserts, the snow-dusted volcanoes that ring them, the Pink Flamingos that wade in shallow turquoise lagoons and stir barely a ripple, the Andes that stretch toward infinity to the north and to the south so that one might imagine that they wrap around the entire planet and hold it together like an unbreakable chain with a million colossal links —the whole scene is a window into the earth’s memory.  It contains knowledge dating back millions of years.  Stories flow out this parched landscape as from the mouth of a planetary Shakespeare.

I want to stand atop one of these mountains and listen to the earth as it tells me its story.  Speak to me, earth, of cataclysms, asteroid impacts, floods, and eruptions.  Tell me of braids of water that flowed into this desert long ago and carved out the wrinkles of its dessicated skin, revealed its many red, yellow and white hues.  Speak to me, earth, of dinosaurs, birds, and squirrel-like mammals that frolicked and died in your hands, and of societies that found sustenance in your soil and beauty in your cracked, age-worn face.

*Note: I should say that overall I think our world is better than it was not that long ago.  We’re more tolerant, etc.  I’m not all apocalyptic.  I just think we’ll have to learn to deal with the world we’re creating, and as always, that will be a challenge and we’ll never quite get it JUST right.

The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica

 

In March of 2011 I traveled to Costa Rica to escape the chaos of Dallas and swim in the warm, green waters of the Pacific Ocean, peer into steaming volcanoes and immerse myself in one of the friendliest cultures in all of the Americas.   I planned to travel alone, but what began as a solo trip quickly morphed into a social adventure.   Saturday morning, during a layover at Miami International Airport, I met a Harvard MBA student named Faith who, like me, was traveling alone to Costa Rica.  We agreed to visit a volcano together the next day, and Faith invited me to join her and the rest of her friends when they arrived later in the week. 

Manuel Antonio

Meeting Faith set in motion a chain of events that introduced me to a platoon of boisterous Harvard MBA students, occasioned a whitewater rafting trip on the Chirripó River in the Costa Rican rainforest, and made possible an overnight stay in Manuel Antonio, a small town on the Pacific coast where the rainforest stands tall and Capuchin monkeys leap about high in the canopy before swinging to the ground eager to observe people observing them.  Here, in Manuel Antonio, cliffs loom high over the Pacific, rocks thrust out of the green water like fins of ancient sea monsters frozen in time, and waves crash against the rocks and cliffs in their perennial quest to prove the dictum that nature is both patient and persistent in its pursuits, and that nothing, not even the hardest stone, outlasts eternity. 

Manuel Antonio, Pacific Ocean

 

I enjoyed the three days I spent with the Harvard crew.  Their numbers included six men and three women.  Seven came originally from India; one, Faith, from the Philippines; and one from St. Louis.  I laughed with them.  I joined in conversation about health care, auto insurance, education, love, power, fame, and ambition.  With Gaurav, paddling on the Chirripó River, I felt like I forged the sort of bond that only shared physical exertion affords.  I’ve never been around such raucous laughter and fluid conversation, in which some set of unspoken rules governs the group’s collective behavior.  Everyone gets a hearing.  Everyone understands that most, though not all, of the topics of conversation fall in the category of banter and so merit a degree of lightness and jocularity befitting banter. 

El Volcán Arenal

Yet at times I felt like the outsider I in fact was.  I’m a school teacher, not a Harvard MBA, by which I don’t mean to signal any sort of elitism on the part of my companions.  They were kind people, and they graciously included me in their group.  They simply exist in a different world.  They strive after different goals.  Drive and discipline as much as intelligence explain the trajectory of their lives.  As a group they share circumstances and experiences that only members of their group would understand. 

Manuel Antonio

When the loner in me took over, I left the group and wandered the beach at sunset.  I talked with local restaurant owners and beach bums.  Enrique, an extreme biking aficionado who bore all over his body the scars of his pastime, compared relationships to “la guerra” and marveled at the power women have over men.  Late in the evening, still in Manuel Antonio, I sat alone on the beach and sipped a bottle of Imperial beer.  I breathed in the heavy salt air and stared at the surf rolling in.  The whites of the breaking waves glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight.  Palm trees cast shadows across the white moonlit sand and boats winked their lights at me from the sea. 

The Central Highlands Near San José

In Costa Rica I wove in and out of different worlds: physical worlds, social worlds, internal and external worlds.  In a span of three days I was a loner wandering aimlessly in a foreign country; I was a school teacher laughing and singing American rock classics with Harvard MBA students; I was a foreigner talking in Spanish with a local about the travails of relationships, or with a restaurant owner about his road trip seventeen years ago through the western United States.  I was also a nobody sitting on a moonlit beach with eyes closed, listening to the ocean whose roar cancels out everything else in existence and becomes the one true thing in this world.

The Harvard Crew

In case there was any danger of my remaining in the trance I had fallen into on the Rich Coast, soon after I returned to DFW reality served up a dose of the harsh truths that govern our day-to-day lives, the truths that society determines and perpetuates.  At school on the Monday after my trip, in the course of a conversation about careers and goals, one of my most thoughtful and perceptive students asked, “What profession could be lower than teaching?”  The ocean may roar in Costa Rica, but whatever truth it contains remains hidden from view here in the big city.  It’s around here somewhere, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. 

San José

Central Highlands, near San JoséSerene park inside the ruins of the the cathedralBird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Ruins of a Cathedral in Cartago, near San José

Serene park inside the ruins of the the cathedral

Bird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal