the 78th hour
By Sara Alura
March 3, 2022
From the rented house in Los Angeles, in a rush of stuffed bins, bulging bags, and breathless cleaning sprees, one final strong hug from my brother, to my mother and father’s house, where they feed me; Dad looks at me with love saddened by our impending separation, and says, “I hope you find God out there with all that beauty. I hope you look up at the Milky Way and think about Who created it.”
From L.A. to Long Beach through traffic to Auntie Myrna’s house, Mama dropping into painful silence for most of the ninety-minute drive. She doesn’t understand why I have to go so far again, away from the country that holds jobs, security, and a future for me. Away from her. I don’t know how to explain to her why I am going back to Chile. Later, she gives AJ and me Ziploc bags packed with chapstick, gum, and granola bars. Inside mine, a letter. I open it in the Santiago airport.
It reads, in elegant script masking her pain: You say you make decisions based on what makes you happy. But Dad and I take into consideration all the factors that will impact your development. As you write your own story, I hope you ask yourself if it’s true.
She melts when AJ saunters into the car in Long Beach, where he’s been waiting for us all day.
At Myrna’s we have a long, warm, wine-infused feast of Filipino food. Adobo, sisig, garlic rice, and fried pork. Lumpia served as an appetizer. We are seven leaning in around Ruth’s former dining room table: Mama, Tío Alex, Auntie Myrna, Cameron, Saline, AJ, and me. The decibels rise as the laughter grows louder; Mama, Alex, and Myrna commanding the space. They glow. I eat the last Filipino food I’ll have for months, until I can’t eat anymore.
When we’re done, Tío Alex brings out a bottle he bought ten years ago in Puerto Rico. The bottle’s neck is stuffed with ten types of ramos; the only one I recognize is canelillo. You pour whatever alcohol you want, he says—wine, rum, vodka, cognac even—and let it steep with the branches. Then you empty it into the cups of family and friends (any night of the week, he says) and fill the bottle up again.
I don’t want this warm, red night to end. My mama is so animated and laughing next to me, like a sister of mine, or at least the closest in blood I can claim. Yet we are still mother and daughter, separated and connected by this fact, and the night did have to end, my mama did have to drive another hour north through the night on her own, leaving behind her baby, so when we walked out to her car, moon glowing through the leafless maples, she hugged me and wept.
Like a girl. Like a sister.
Now my same height.
. . .
At 5:50 a.m., Tío Alex drove us to Long Beach Airport. The Delta employee who checked in our luggage was new to the job, so his coworker came over (young with black painted nails) and guided him through how to check in passengers for international travel.
Did we have travel insurance, PCR tests, pasaportes sanitarios, and vax cards?
He checked that we did. But none of us thought to check whether the PCR tests were taken within 72 hours of our last flight out of the U.S…
March 6, 2022
On the tarmac at Tocumen Airport, Panama
They turned us back in the Santiago airport. For having PCR tests taken 78 hours before boarding the final flight out of the U.S.
We waited in the airport from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. until we boarded the same Delta plane we took to Chile, this time back north to Atlanta, where our final layover had occurred.
I didn’t feel temporarily destroyed by this change of fortune, as AJ did. Sometimes it feels like I’m a small piece of wood afloat in some ocean, some mysterious river that carries me where it wills. Sometimes it appears to place a barrier in my way, but it is really moving me gently, me unawares yet trusting, towards my true destination.
We spent the last four days flirting with Atlanta, charmed by vast Piedmont Park, the happening Beltline, the (very warm) early spring weather, and all the gorgeous Black people, Black art, and Black joy taking hold of the city.
Yesterday we walked to get a second back-up PCR test for our second attempt to fly into Chile, then walked to The King Center. We walked in the long shadows of the King and Queen for hours.
“Forget Sedona,” AJ said, “this is an energy vortex.”
(Right) MLK’s home church in Atlanta, where he and his father preached.
Martin has been on my mind ever since. Coretta too. Had Martin sensed his destiny as a younger man? Carrying around such a name—Martin Luther—and King—laden with meaning? And Coretta—refusing to leave Montgomery with their baby so that Martin could go on leading the bus boycott; Coretta leading a march one day before her husband’s funeral.
Her favorite quote had been, “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity.” Coretta’s spirit seemed to whisper, I dare you to live the same.
Standing in the shade of the trees near their tombs, the white marble almost blinding in the sun, I took a measure of my own life.
His words: “When evil men plot, good men plan.”
Her words: “People who think nonviolence is easy don’t realize that it’s a spiritual discipline that requires a great deal of strength, growth, and purging of the self so that one can overcome almost any obstacle for the good of all without being concerned about one’s own welfare.”
His calm fury and graceful patience.
Her face gazing down at his in the coffin.
Move within, But don’t move the way fear makes you move, whispers Rumi.
. . .
The day AJ and I drove around San Diego all day, me feeling glum about all the big-box stores, emissions, and plastic in American cities, AJ gave me A Talk.
He just reminded me of how it went:
“The way that I stay happy and get through the day is to find the thing that gives me agency and makes me feel like I’m doing something for the betterment of humanity. I notice the big-box stores too, Sara. The plastic, the traffic. But there’s nothing I can do about them. So I just try to be kind to strangers. I try to bring them cheer and compassion. That’s my gift. You gotta find yours and then do it every day.
“Because even if you moved back to Valparaíso or somewhere else where you can’t see a single big-box store, they’re still out there. You just can’t see them. And that may be a whole lot better for you but it doesn’t change the fact that this is the world we got. Those stores and all their plastic products are going to be there when we die and when our grandchildren die.
“So you just gotta find your thing that lets you contribute something to bettering humanity, so you can go to sleep at night satisfied with your life.”
Dr. King said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Mother Teresa said the same: “I can only do small things with great love.”
I don’t believe that there is nothing we can do to change our cities and our economy. But AJ is right: it starts small. It is all small. The impact of our singular lives. Yet that is not an entirely true statement either…
A single person can change the world around them. The great moral leaders who have changed the course of history have been simple, humble servants. That is who and how I must aspire to be.
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
14 marzo 2022
Santiago de Chile
On the way back to Santiago from Atlanta, we did not sleep for 27 hours. We woke up at 7:30 am in Atlanta, packed our bags, and watched the news on Ukraine. I tried again to launch Camino Libre, but there was another issue with the email newsletter that I had to spend an hour resolving.
At 1 p.m., we took the metro to the airport. I gave my last U.S. coins to a man carrying a stuffed unicorn (he said if he could travel, he’d go to Cuba). At the Copa Airlines counter, we had a slight hiccup: I didn’t have a return ticket to the U.S. The clerk raised his eyebrows and said, without a hint of a wink, “All I need to see is that you’ve reserved a ticket.”
Atlanta to Tocumen Airport in Panama City, where we waited in a warm terminal swirling with Panamanians and Latinos of all shades of brown. By the time we boarded the flight to Santiago, it was 10 p.m. The airplane kept the lights on all night, so there was no hope of sleep. Instead we talked about Martin and Coretta. Of all the beautiful and inspiring sights we saw during our five-day layover in Atlanta, the King Center had been the most moving.
AJ said he didn’t think everyone could become as great as the Kings, that some people’s destiny is to simply and honorably be anonymous. I didn’t agree entirely. Martin had said, “Anyone can be great…because everyone can serve.”
No historical political or military leader is revered today as much as Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, or the Kings. If in the present we measure progress by profit and innovation, our collective memory upholds our moral teachers, the brave few who expanded our notions of what the human heart can do.
I wondered aloud who the moral leaders of today are who will guide us through the climate crisis. What new moral vision will come out of this time? Will there ever be a movement as large as the Kings’ in which Americans refuse to be complicit in environmental destruction?
Around 11 p.m., the flight attendant set our dinners down on our trays. Utensils, napkin, brownie, pasta, water: everything came wrapped in plastic.
Again the dilemma: accept the convenience of our mass-produced meal, or refuse to eat it on principle but know that the food will be thrown out anyways?
AJ said he used to refuse the airplane food because of the plastic, but now he feels the gesture is futile. I like to think that every little, unwitnessed choice matters, but maybe he is right. We need to reach a critical mass of people making that choice for its impact to really matter. And for that, we need a movement.
This is travel writing like you’ve never read before…
Travel Diaries: Patagonia is a series based on Sara Alura’s diaries written during her two-month journey hitchhiking through Chilean Patagonia.
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