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“The ends of the earth are never the points on a map that colonists push against, enlarging their sphere of influence. On one side servants and slaves and tides of power… On the other the first step by a white man across a great river, the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever.”

–  Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Admittedly a few of my “discoveries” in Chile while studying abroad were from this perspective of the colonial veranda. That is, looking at local culture from the comfort of a metaphorical (or literal) air-conditioned bus, without having to step out into the mud. I say “a few” because I consciously pushed myself outside my comfort zone so much that I eventually fell off the bus entirely.

But, still, I find myself reflecting on this idea of discovery, of exploration, of conquest. As much as I eschew jingoism and imperialism, I occasionally “discover” Chilean cultural idiosyncrasies that I immediately analyze from my distinctly gringo worldview. Notions of time and punctuality, for example, are distinct in each culture, with the Chilean view of time being much more flexible.

Over the weekend, a friend and I went to el Cajón de Maipo, a mountain range that’s only an hour outside Santiago. We hiked five or six kilometers, then hitchhiked with a Swiss-Chilean family, got a tour of their Refugio Suizo, then hiked another however many kilometers to one of the mountain peaks. We stopped every once in a while to share the food we had packed: a cucumber, tomato, crackers. I have this theory that a hunk of raw vegetable in the mountains tastes better than any five-star restaurant in Paris. My French roommate disagrees. But she’s never tasted snow from the cumbre at the Cordillera de los Andes at sunrise after walking so far your legs just about fall off. But, then again, I’ve never been to Paris. So my theory’s up in the air.

In any case, seeing the snow-capped peak of the cajón reminded me of this sensation of discovery. I was overcome with the desire to capture the moment, to have it forever. Of course, photographs were taken, including photos of myself in front of the mountain, selfies, and photos of the mountain range itself from countless angles. Again, discovery. Seeing (with my white eye) for the first time a mountain that has existed forever. I wanted viewers of the photo to know I had been there (and there would be an audience, thanks to social media). Moreover, I wanted to remember, to petrify in amber that single moment, to conquer both time and space in one click.


The irony, of course, is that that mountain will be around for a hell of a lot longer than I will. That anything I do, anything I “conquer” is almost inconsequential next to that formidable chunk of earth. It may be that this is what people are referring to when they speak of the tranquility of nature. It’s a humbling experience to realize how small you are. But also a freeing one.

The real discovery was this: There’s nothing to conquer except myself, nothing to “discover” except for myself, and nothing to preserve for all eternity. The “discovery” in question, then, is really about my own personal evolution. The mountain changes you; you don’t change the mountain. So it goes.

Ondaatje writes in The English Patient about the namelessness, the nationlessness of the desert. The shedding of skins, the clothing of countries. How some can die happily, nameless in the desert, and others want every sand dune to bear their names. In particular, there’s one wealthy English adventurer who wants an entire oasis named after him. Naturally, he “discovered” nothing in the true sense of the word – the Bedouin had lived there for centuries.

The audacity to believe your eyes, your name, are the only ones that matter.

Herodotus writes, “For those cities that were great in earlier times must have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.” Shit changes. Empires rise and fall. Your name will be washed away by sand or by sea.

The important thing, I think, is to have seen, done, touched, tasted, smelled. Reflected, analyzed, concluded, learned.

That brings me to the gratitude part of this lengthy internal monologue. The other day I saw a wall of shrines dedicated to deceased family members who granted concedidos or prayers for the living. Most of them said things like, “Gracias por el favor concedido, Aníbal, 5 marzo 1958” or “Muchas gracias por el favor concedido – Gina.”

One plaque in the center read simply, “GRACIAS Y NADA MÁS.”

The more I thought about it, the more profound it became. No name, no date, no reason given. Just, “THANK YOU AND NOTHING MORE.”

That’s all that was necessary. An expression of unindividuated gratitude unbound to time or place.


That night I looked up at the sky in Santiago Centro and cried. Despite the inevitable smog that comes with life in a capital city, I could distinctly make out the Big Dipper and a slew of other constellations. Likely my emotions were at least in part due to my sappy poet’s heart and my natural inclination towards over-romanticizing. But I also felt a tremendous overflowing of gratitude that usually comes with this feeling of being small, humble, nameless and nationless. When being Seer of Stars is more than enough.

Folks taking the time to read this – I hope this week grants you at least one moment of the kind of peace that comes with desert namelessness or star-gazing. I wish you the type of gratitude that surpasses both giver and recipient.

As a final note, I would like to thank my fellow teachers for their kindness and generosity this past week and for going out of their way to make me feel welcome.


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