Fiction: An exit strategy from the United States

The bus had left from Retiro in Buenos Aires fifteen hours earlier, and now, passing through the night, the moonlit contours of dry pampa and tableland seeming vast and alien, it felt as if I’d crossed some unnamed boundary into Patagonia. Andrea and our daughter Mariposa had stayed back in Buenos Aires, with Andrea’s dad. I was traveling ahead to set up the house we’d rented in Rio Azul, a mostly rural Patagonian town of about 20,000 near Bariloche, and then, after getting everything in somewhat livable shape, the girls would fly in, bringing Diego (our aging, three-legged street dog) that is, if the poor bastard could make it through another flight.

At the time we weren’t thinking of this as “travel” but the realization of our exit strategy from the US. It had been five years since Andrea and I spent our savings on a small plot of land — el terreno, we called it — in Rio Azul. This was money I’d originally scraped together for a down payment on a condo while we were living in Boulder Colorado. The realtor appeared to salivate as I checked the fireplace and glass tile in the kitchen, and at the last minute I balked, feeling something walled and artificial about the whole arrangement and the place itself to be honest, a premonition perhaps of the impending subprime mortgage shitstorm.

I’ve never been one of those doomsday scenario people who think the world is going to end (and cities will go first!) and so you better build a bunker stockpiled with canned food and .30–06 ammo. If you travel deep enough in Latin America (or wherever, really) you realize that the world as you might know it has already “ended” and was likely never there in the first place for thousands or more likely millions whose daily reality was raw boned survival in some forsaken wasteland.

But on our first trip to Patagonia — this small chunk of money now sitting in our account after passing up the condo — I was conscious of something not unlike the doomsday scenario. It wasn’t so much a contingency plan (or if it was, it was less about the world ending than us massively fucking up our lives in the US), but a vague notion of conservation, of potential, of having access to at least one place on Earth where the water was still potable, the land fertile, and there were huge areas of terrain, entire watersheds, still largely unexplored. We weren’t ready to move there then, but just converting a stack of paper bills to this plot of actual earth in a small agricultural town in Patagonia felt like moving in the right direction, setting up a possibility for us downstream.

In the intervening years the terreno stayed in my mind as a kind of back door. We couldn’t have considered it until my career as a travel writer and filmmaker had taken off to some degree, but at the same time the cost of living in the US was so high that I had to work various side jobs — copyediting, supervising after school programs, working carpentry — to stay afloat, which seemed self-defeating insofar as they were all hours spent “not on the writing.” For the first year and a half after Mariposa was born, I woke up every morning at 5, did my writing and editing until 9 or so (I always needed more time), spent maybe an hour hanging with Andrea and Mari, and then a little before lunchtime went off to the second job, not getting home until after 6:30 and always needing to get to bed early. Meanwhile in Argentina it was three pesos to the dollar (and rising) and there was accessible health-insurance / health-care.

But on a deeper level was the conviction that no matter where we tried to raise a family in the US, it would still be underpinned by same the society at large, that superficially-polite, institution-loving, stay-in-the-lines, false-nostalgic, concealed-carry-permit, memoryless topography of suburban middle-class America. When we’d gotten married in Andrea’s native Buenos Aires, there was a tacit understanding that our moving to the US was more or less a physical equivalent of paperwork. Of course I wanted her to meet my friends and family, to see some of the places that I loved, but it was really about fulfilling the obligations of her visa (leading to eventual citizenship) so we could effectively “live wherever” after that. Our relationship, from the time we’d first met in Costa Rica to our marriage — and once Mariposa was in the picture, our family — had all been unmistakably “of” Latin America, its language and texture all Spanish. It was the Madre, extroverted and braless, at turns doting and bitchy, an institution-distrusting (what mattered was the family), stray-from-the-lines (because there were no lines), quick-to-touch (and suffer and cry) world where history was less an abstraction than a living memory, bruised and available, lost on no one.

Of course I was mythologizing this, the inevitable byproduct of mythologizing yourself as a traveler. Part of it was the language. Speaking Spanish was like inhabiting another identity, one where I could essentially repackage myself as Martín — accent on the second syllable — playing up the persona of the conflicted, anxiety-prone, half-Jewish-Southerner whose response to life was open-ended travel, only now adding a layer of being slightly smoother, more spontaneous, more aware of himself as a ridiculous figure, a gringo, than regular old Martin Greenstein. There was an element of being like a subversive “ambassador” from the US, only instead of representing the military or government or some kind of org, I was there at street-level to validate or possibly clarify prevailing stereotypes of “America” (which seemed to most Latino youth as a pastiche of Hollywood car chases and military interventionism, 9/11, Alexander Supertramp, the NBA, Sesame Street, hyper-consumerism, school shootings, Disneyland, skateboarding, hip-hop, Indians on reservations, and the Grand Canyon). To pull this off I had to both retain the perspective of being a “product of the US” while simultaneously showing I was, at least in terms of spirit, “one of them.” In my first two years traveling through Latin America — what eventually led me to Andrea — the goal became a kind of seamlessness, operating in Spanish as if it were an extension of the terrain, moving in it the way local people moved, modeling their facial expressions and mannerisms and body at such a level that nobody could actually tell where I was from.

Meanwhile the US and its laws (which were prohibitive after 9/11 in terms of Andrea or her family being able to visit) seemed an almost malevolent force against our marriage. Nowhere was this more palpable than visits to the embassy — portraits of George Bush and Dick Cheney smirking in the thick-glassed, high-security room — the workers shuffling through your files, questioning why you “were doing there,” pausing when you said “travel writer and filmmaker.” In these situations I always “hice el boludo,” an expression which roughly translates as playing dumb, but has an extra “performance” element to it in Argentina, a kind of artfulness. Essentially I’d play up the youngish surfer and snowboarder who’d partied too hard for the last several years but now took his marriage meeting at the embassy somewhat like being called in to principal’s office, still somewhat hungover but now contrite, moronic, wiping the hair out of his eyes, understanding he’s not a kid anymore and is ready to get his shit together, sir. Harmless. Through the glass separating my compatriot and I, I could always detect the slightest condescension (and strangely, approval) as if they saw right through my act but appreciated me trying anyways, making them feel superior. Only by actually exercising my rights not to answer their questions about what I was “doing there” would they have a problem with me and we both knew it. I just had to play the game. The US — even this strange transplanted finger of it here in Buenos Aires — has a way of making you feel that no matter what you were doing, you were guilty of something.

One Spring afternoon not long after Mariposa learned to walk, we took her to Green Lake Park in Seattle. The other parents were heads down in phones, looking up at distracted intervals and giving commands (“Be careful around the baby Sarah!”), and Andrea turned to me suddenly and said it made her depressed to imagine raising a family where the kids “didn’t greet you with a kiss.” It was one of those details which seemed so minor but represented the underworld of cultural differences juxtaposed in our marriage. In Argentina you greeted people, male or female, with a peck on the cheek. There was a corporeality, a way that people showed affection, holding hands, kissing each other which reminded me of the Jewish side of my family, but wasn’t part of the social fabric overall in the US. In some way, our two cultures’ societal norms seemed almost opposite in their trajectories: It would be rude or at the very least out of context to ask what someone “did” right off the bat in Argentina, whereas in the US this was the essential conversation starter. Identity in the US was indexed to one’s place in the economy. We were a nation of job-based archetypes and potential employment connections.

At the same time I found something equally cliche, almost nullifying about those who pretend to “escape,” reinventing themselves as “expats” or “nomads”: college-educated, almost without exception, white 20 to 30 somethings — many of whom were colleagues — on self-imposed, apparently indefinite exile in Bali or Mexico City or wherever it was. They’re people who emailed things like “I just can’t come back to the US,” which is understandable. But in the end you can’t help wondering what their real stories were, what it was they sought escape from, and how this would inevitably be more more interesting than their latest travel vignette or photo essay in Departures.

But Since Andrea was Argentine, a native Porteña, the idea of setting up permanently in Patagonia felt permissible. As opposed to some neo-imperialistic move to a country where you knew nobody, would ultimately never fit into the community, and were basically establishing whatever walled-off version of reality you could afford, there was a sense of us simply deciding once and for all that we’d finally have our place in her land.

Under a low moon now, the distant meseta seemed to be gaining mass, becoming more pronounced, suggestive of abandoned or perhaps future worlds. I checked my phone (3:44 am) and then studied the GPS. We weren’t too far outside the city of General Roca, named after the sash-wearing, sword-wielding former president who’d led the “conquest of the desert”to drive indigenous peoples out of the pampa less than 150 years ago. Although his head was on the 100-peso bill, his name was typically scratched out on the signs of city streets of which there was always at least one Calle or Avenida Roca in every town. I’d once sold a photo of his graffitied statue in Centro Cívico in Bariloche, his lapels stenciled over with pot-leaf insignias, his horse’s tescticles and cock painted pink, the pedestal scrawled with words like ASESINO and TERRITORIO MAPUCHE. This was a land where monuments and public spaces were regularly repurposed for a bit of truthing, the equivalent of someone painting “slave-owner” on a statue of George Washington.

According to the map, sometime in the last few hours we’d passed a town called General Acha, which I couldn’t help mentally transposing as General Hatchet, even if this wasn’t correct. Before generals rock and hatchet were on the scene these were indeed lands once inhabited by Mapuche and other tribes collectively known as the Tehuelche people. Who lived here now but the strange animals of the pampa — guanacos, rheas, foxes — and the few scattered populations of gauchos? At some point close to dusk I’d photographed a tiny group of them as best I could through the window. Atop their horses they were long-shadowed, dust-clouded, looking almost tented in their ponchos as they drove a small sheep herd across the open rangeland.

Continuing past for dozens of kilometers I could see no evidence of dwellings, no places of habitation or even roads (besides the ruta) leading anywhere on any point of the horizon. They were going to and from places off the map, which made me strangely hopeful somehow (as did the graffiti on Roca’s statue), although about what it would be hard to say.

As with most major transitions long planned for and dreamed about, actually being on the road felt less momentous than something socketed and unreal. No doubt I’m prone to these feelings already, having experienced chronic anxiety and bouts of depression since childhood (who hasn’t?), which often trail into episodes of dissociation. In these moments, life seems to hollow out, becoming depthless and planar as if watching it on a screen. For the first 30 years of my life this went undiagnosed / untreated, but a few weeks earlier, as part of a muted “send-off” from my parents’ house in Naples Florida, I’d stopped by their family practitioner, a humorless woman in her late sixties who wrote me a prescription for Xanax.

I’d taken one .25mg tablet recreationally — almost ceremoniously — as the bus began backing out of Retiro. It was impossible not to consider the moment as vaguely cinematic, the protagonist in his “fuck everything, I’m heading to Patagonia” departure scene, but with this thought came a simultaneous onrush of self-loathing and doubt. I was 35 with a two year-old daughter and wife I could barely support. Isolating ourselves in Patagonia was an act of vanity, a child’s version of decision-making, an indie-traveler modality that Andrea and I were way too old for now. My father, somewhat bewilderedly, had even offered to “help us with the transition,” giving us a couple thousand dollars, making it feel even more childish and deluded, the product of privilege rather than true independence. And yet as I sat there on the bus, middle-aged husbands and wives waving from the platform, blowing kisses to loved ones through the window (Andrea and Mari had stayed home; no reason to bring a kid to Retiro unless absolutely necessary), it seemed like all of the people in my life were suddenly abstractions, phantoms almost, ideas rather than living beings; I was simply on a bus again, transported into some other temporality formed by all the times I’d been alone on buses in Latin America. And with this I felt a shimmering panic and quickly took another Xanax as the other passengers were crossing themselves and the driver turned and dropped it into forward gear.

The ride through El Gran Buenos Aires out to the humid pampa (which was mostly a flat green mono-terrain of Monsanto soy-fields) fragmented into intervals of semi-sleep, less actual rest than being sealed off from the world, enveloped by Xanax and my position in the bus. Argentina is one of the few countries in the world that allows double-decker coaches (for obvious instability / flipping danger) and my seat was in the upper level, near the front and thus distanced from the engine noise. Increasing throughout the night with each cycle of awakening, looking out the window (and taking more Xanax), was the feeling that I was no longer crossing the country in a vehicle, but being softly propelled above the earth’s surface, searching as if from a low-orbiting satellite for campfires, houses, lights, towers, any kind of reachable coordinates or reference points on a blank and otherwise irreducible screen.

Of course if this were a movie, those looking-out-the-window moments would’ve segued into predictable cutaways to show me “missing” the girls: oversaturated scenes of Mariposa petting a cat in the sunny garden on Calle Rivadavia (Andrea’s childhood home), or a parallel montage of sleep and bedding, mine a sweat-soaked North Face jacket, theirs a quilt covering mama and daughter, everything half-lit and blanketed, conveying inwardness, a sense of family as dispersed and vulnerable.

But the truth is I wasn’t thinking about them. If anything I was thinking about the actual house where they were staying, part of a floaty, polyphonic inventorying of things like where I was when I first heard each song playing on my iPod and what the view was like out the front door of every place I’d ever lived. We’d been married in Andrea’s childhood home, which I’d romanticized for its gardens, Araucaria tree, and the villa miseria where the poor lived, which was literally a couple blocks away from the “normal” city and yet was like an alternative universe where donkeys were hitched to palm trees and kids played soccer on trash-strewn canchas, the women pinning up laundry outside doorless shacks, all under this constant, indestructible soundtrack of cumbia.

After a long interval I awoke to a stirring in the seats and the light changing, the motor audible now as the bus climbed the Limay river canyon in low gear. It was just before dawn. The other passengers were rubbing their eyes, all of us squinting into the middle distance. There was a sense of some minor solidarity, the group of us having passed the night and now awakening together, stiff and jostled, relocating ourselves within a new geography. The river far below: steel-blue, the current braiding around willow-covered islands. A Via Bariloche steward passed out breakfast trays of medialunas and cups of coffee. I texted Andrea (Buen día!) but it was too early in the morning for her to be up and the words seemed slightly unreal.

Using a small ledge by the window I set up my grippable tripod and took long time-lapses of the passing terrain and reddening sky. You never know how and when you might use this footage or just sell it to stock agencies, so you just get in the habit of constantly shooting. In some way simply filming a place (like surfing or paddling or snowboarding it) also creates its own justification for being there, which for me has always tightened and directionalized something that might otherwise effervesce into anxiety. At the same time there’s something blunt-edged and wearisome about constantly seeing the world as potential “footage,” although this is certainly how a lot of pros get it done. I did have a couple interesting documentary projects (and a couple, much less interesting guidebook assignments) lined up for the months ahead. But while the temptation and potential for funding were there, I’d chosen not to turn the overall move itself into a some kind of sponsor-seeking mission or film, to brand it with its own its own hashtag (#PatagoniaMove!). This kind of thinking has become the curse of the digital age, every action mentally auditioned against the backdrop of online sharing. And on some level this is how most of us travel, and why most of us are shitty travelers: We circumscribe what we see as if it were some build up to a final destination. We become advertisers.

At sunrise the light seemed to almost transect the bus, analog and golden, conveying a kind of emergence. We were at the top of the of the canyon where Lago Nahuel Huapi emptied into the Limay River, a place impossible not to think of us as a brink or portal. As a filmmaker you both experience these places and simultaneously consider how to convey them in scenes. Establishing shot: the bus out-scaled by the vast horizon line, the windblown lake surface of Nahuel Huapi and Andes mountains tilting into the clouds. Cut to an aerial view to further reveal the scale, the ecotone of pampas meeting the Cordillera. Audio: wind noise and the bus motoring far below. The bus should traverse the frame as something small and hopeful, self-contained like a porch light. Continue rising in a way that suggests Google maps, satellite views, the way we’ve reconfigured place in quadrants. Now cut to ground level, the bus approaching, a doppler effect on the pitch and velocity of the engine, the sound rising, becoming oceanic. Cue opening theme. The music meshes with the light somehow, a soundscape of unresolved, contemplative chords. Run title and opening credits, the typography handwritten, personal. A note scrawled in a travel journal.

At the window snapping stills (the other camera continued tracking, capturing video) I could feel myself grinning, almost grimacing. It wasn’t like some weary traveler’s payoff, the cliched rapture of arrival, but another kind of validation, as if the size of place wasn’t just as I remembered it but as I’d wanted it. It befit my expectations as some kind of isolated training ground, intimidating, almost menacing in scale. In a state of near-euphoria I envisioned a solitary helmeted figure carving some snowfield or bombing a steep box canyon in a kayak, and then slashing into those thoughts was the sudden horrid image of the figure or “myself” on a sunny day on the river, as seen from above, my kayak pinned in a rapid, my head underwater. Drowning.

There’s a rule in paddling and surfing and everything really that wherever you look, that’s where you’re going. Your eyes lead. I’ve been guilty of mythologizing this for sure, amplifying it into a primitive philosophy, although describing it this way makes it sound like a conscious decision when in reality it’s more like reflexes. Most of us observe our surroundings in a peripheral, disconnected way, as backdrop or scenery, which makes for those weirdly atemporal passages where a place — be it a conference room, a street you’re crossing, a steeply exposed ridgeline, wherever you happen to be — resolves suddenly into humming, glittering focus, as if you’ve just woken up there in that moment of your life. This has always argued to me the possibility of further awakening, of better “locating” yourself at any time, and from there you can extract a kind of goal, the idea of unbroken attention, indivisibility, flow, the way our ancestors might’ve found caves and water-sources. It felt like that walking the terreno for the first time, the bull thistles and rosa moving in a fall wind.

But this belief in imagination and flow had the flipside of transforming potentially meaningless thoughts into weird superstitions and illusions. And as I saw the river, turbid and violent, strangely juxtaposed with a windless and otherwise calm-seeming day, my boat trapped deeper and deeper in the sieve, I felt a bloom of guilt as if I’d already left the girls fatherless, husbandless, “seeing” them then almost like flickers, spasmodic images on a screen. I quickly started fidgeting with my cameras and phone in a way that felt like acting, conscious of this as a mechanism for deflecting the onrush of anxiety. And as the other passengers were finishing breakfast, a shared anticipation of arrival and reunion with loved ones beginning to animate people’s conversations, the morning took on a sudden feeling of acceleration, as if I were moving more rapidly to this next phase of my life, whatever it was to be.

The station was fairly calm at 7:30 am. Two other cross-country buses were parked diagonally across the platform and a number of taxis, remises, and local shuttle-buses sat idling at the curb. It was stunningly cold, the wind gusting off the lake, and the other passengers quickly entered the terminal or piled into remises. I negotiated the transfer of my gear to the local shuttle, always a vaguely theatrical moment and oftentimes a kind of power-struggle, tipping a jumpsuit-wearing kid 30 pesos — surely the tip of the day — and then somewhat improvisationally asked him for a cigarette so I could have one dangling out of my mouth too as I passed him my ridiculous equipage: surfboard / snowboard bag, two large duffels, two soft-sided suitcases (full of the girls’ clothes), two 65-liter packs, and the grand-finale, an eight-foot long kayak, a creek boat that weighed 50 lbs dry, but was loaded with at least another 50 lbs of gear. This attracted the attention of the driver, who began saying something but whom I backed down with a spontaneously-invented, almost insane-sounding (especially that early in the morning) monologue about already paying an official sobrepeso in the Via Bariloche offices and I was ready to call them right fucking now (setting down my VIP daypack and Pelican case down overly hard, pointing off in arbitrary direction as if to indicate the office).

Aboard the local shuttle I watched a crew of six Israeli kids and one American or possibly Canadian girl quietly find their seats and then collapse, emanating a murky storyline, the final arc of last night’s party in Bariloche. They had no luggage and I guessed they were heading back to the Israeli hostel in Lago Puelo, a place I’d totally forgotten about until then. As they’d boarded I’d looked at them openly, inviting eye-contact, a kind of fellowship, but they kept to themselves, making me feel slighted and invisible. I tried to calculate their ages; they seemed maybe 7 or 8 years younger. Not so young to be dismissed as kids, nor old enough to have kids of their own, but in that final stage of youth, that time when self-absorption was no longer theatrical but an almost businesslike exclusion.

A few minutes later a young couple boarded the bus, two American backpackers also in their mid-twenties. They seemed well-rested, caffeinated, talking loudly, their gear spotless and new. As they took their seats toward the back of the bus, I couldn’t help but picture all the travelers on the bus as part of a commercial shoot for a client: a montage of hiking boots, skateboard shoes, brand labels on jackets, hats, packs, and other product placements.

Just as the shuttle started backing from the station, a woman got on, slump-shouldered, her face with Mapuche features. For some reason I could intuit that she’d be sitting down next to me and I made a show of shifting packs to free up the space. We exchanged insulative nods. It was impossible to tell if she was older or younger. She seemed dark and unreachable within her story, like a woman you’d see on the news wailing into the camera that police had shot her son, the visceral style of live reporting they’d never broadcast in the US.

The route from Bariloche circulated through early morning traffic: buses, motorcycles, Ford Falcons, late model SUVs, pickup trucks, Mercedes Sprinters, and shuttle vans intersecting on narrow, broken-pavemented streets and steep hills with low buildings and margins of cypress forest. The driver played bass-heavy cumbia as if transporting some late night hands-in-the-air boliche moment into the morning. From the city center past the government housing monobloques, something about the lighting opened and democratized. For everyone but the other foreigners and I, this had become just another everyday commute.

From the seat behind me I noted a choppy and tired-sounding Hebrew conversation between two of the Israelis. From the tone it sounded like dull, practical conversation, distances to Lago Puelo, the travel plans they should make next time they’re in Bariloche. But I couldn’t help imagining this as a parallel montage, intercutting this moment — the soundtrack of cumbia, their uncombed hair, their jeans and American brand skate shoes — with scenes of their characters six months earlier: footage of them soldiering, manning IDF checkpoints, forcing passengers out of their car at gunpoint and shooting at various inanimate / possibly animate targets. If narrative potential derives from the impossibility of characters knowing how events will play out in the future, would superimposing this mundane conversation over an imagined past create anything instructive?

We passed a municipal landfill with windblown trash enlacing fence wires and a vortex of dark birds. Maybe I only believed in juxtapositions, the primacy of people grouped at any given time and place. The landfill seemed to dematerialize into a rolling desert terrain where the Israeli soldiers crawled towards an unseen enemy. I imagined a tank, its turret slowly rotating and then shortening into the stout arm of one of my old Hebrew School teachers in Suburban Atlanta who pointed at the chalkboard. We were sitting in our desks in a classroom but the light was still desertic and vast. “I vuss vonce a tank driver,” she said. Her name came to me then even though I hadn’t thought about her in maybe 20 years. Ms. Torado.

While in college we’d taken a family trip to Israel. The guide had stood off to the side smoking cigarettes at each site. That was his style, leading you to each place and then giving it over to you as if it were yours. Yakov. One night at the hotel he showed me how to pack a suitcase so nothing got wrinkled. Towards the end he’d said, matter of factly: You should stay here and become a soldier.

The rain began at Lago Gutiérrez. I surveyed the backside of Cerro Catedral where some of the ski lifts were visible just below the cloudline. From the rear of the bus the American began talking in a loud voice about “the local indigenous Mapuche,” and how they were “the most successful tribe in South America.” There was an impulse to record this, to juxtapose it with stiff visage of the woman sitting next to me. What would she say if she could understand those words?

Rain streaked laterally across the window now. It made me imagine anxiety as a kind of entity which sought a certain shape or plane. The kid said something about “their remaining in the woods and resisting assimilation.” We were entering Canyon de la Mosca and it kept raining harder. I remembered the terrain perfectly.