Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. –Marcel Proust
Downtown San Juan Capistrano.
There is no beauty that is impervious to complacency. Seeing something every day, whether it be a loved one’s face or a rocky, foam-studded coastline, often causes us to lose the ability to “see” it in its truest form. We become accustomed to its presence and we begin to take it for granted. It loses all novelty, sometimes all interest. Once in a while, we might be reminded by chance of what we are lucky enough to have, but more often than not, it takes our removal from our normal surroundings to make us appreciate them again. It takes the sudden absence of a familiar face to remind us of our love for them.
I’ve been home for almost six weeks now, and some of the softness my body had lost to the weight of backpacks and wandering has come back to settle at my hips as a sign of the contentment of coming home and being welcome there. Though the crystalline edges of my joy have dulled somewhat, I have so far held on to the ability to see my home with eyes, if not new, than at least the eyes of a long-absent devotee. While descending into L.A. the day I came home, I excitedly pressed my face to the window and surprised my seatmates by yelling “look at it! It’s so organized and beautiful!” After cities like Bogotá and Guayaquil, cities whose infrastructures seem to lag eternally behind their quickly creeping expansion, where neighborhoods and commercial areas seem to metastasize out from the cities’ centers, continually blurring and altering the topographical shape of its borders, the sudden clean lines and grid-like appearance of Los Angeles were a welcome sight, despite the fact that I had never thought of it as beautiful before.
It’s not L.A. alone that has taken on a new sheen of beauty for me. I can see the allure of other places now, other backdrops of my past, without their being dulled by privileged complacency. Downtown San Juan Capistrano, the city I grew up in, with its railroads and jacaranda-lined streets, its anachronistic insinuations of a time when cowboys and Indians and robed padres walked the same streets that house Starbucks and the Swallows Inn today, holds a charm for me now that was previously obscured by the mundane normality of seeing it all the time.
Even San Francisco, which I admittedly loved more consciously than my hometown, is enveloped in the shininess of novelty: its chilly splendor, its districts like an extended family, exceedingly unique, each to the other dissimilar except in their shared connection, its windswept coast and patchwork citizenry — everything is somehow sharper, more vivid, now that I’m seeing them again. Coming back to San Francisco made me feel almost instantaneously as if I had never left, but at the same time I was aware of how what I had experienced abroad had made me infinitely richer (although not in the way that would allow me to live here again). Even the virtually featureless expanses of middle California that I saw through my windshield on the six-hour drive from one end of the state to the other were suddenly beautiful to me, as if having gone away had unlocked my ability to see what had always been there.
It is one of the greatest curiosities of humanity that we are so adept at turning what was once new and exciting into the visual and emotional equivalent of elevator music. Traveling is a foolproof way of bringing the familiar back into focus, to remind us of why we live where we live, do what we do, love whom we love. And although I obviously think travel is one of the most valuable and enriching things one could possibly do, perhaps if we were only aware of our tendency to normalize our daily lives (and thus cause them to lose their brilliance) we could consciously choose to see our own tiny pieces of the world with like-new eyes without ever leaving them behind.
I have accomplished many things in my life, though it is no more nor less than many people I know. I have done many things that I have been told I was “supposed” to do: graduated from college, found “real” jobs, moved out of my parents’ houses. I have also done many things just for me, the most important of which is the impetus and theme for this blog: traveling through South America. But in spite of all the many things I’ve done, I have come to realize that I have never been in love.
Taking a dip in the Cuyabeno River, Ecuador.
Don’t misunderstand me; I have loved and do love many people. I have loved members of my family with the possessive, wonderful, though sometimes internecine kind of love that is so unique to those few whose love you were born into, if you are lucky. I have loved friends who have shared both good and bad times with me, who helped me home when I had made the bad combinatory decision of wearing high heels and drinking whiskey, who were game to spontaneously go out of town when I felt that I would burst from one more day of being in the same place, who held my hand when it was all I could do to hold myself together. I have loved men romantically, too. There is a difference there that is seldom talked about. You can love people without ever “falling in love” with them in that Meg Ryan rom-com kind of way. There’s the love that exists because you care about someone and they care about you, because they see your best and worst parts and love you anyways. There’s a kind of love that springs from the fact that they are the only person who can talk to you for hours on end about things you’re obsessed with (writing, nerdy fandoms, books, Buffy the Vampire Slayer [you people know who you are]). More often, for me at least, there’s the love that means you can not even look at a person without wanting to throw them against something and touch every inch of their body with every inch of yours. I know all these kinds of loves. But actually falling in love with someone? I haven’t done that. Why? Because it scares the ever-loving shit out of me. As Diane Ackerman said,
We think of it as a sort of traffic accident of the heart. It is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close. What could be scarier?
I am not the most humble of people but, ironically, I think one of my greatest strengths is my ability to acknowledge and admit to weakness, and making myself vulnerable is probably my biggest weakness. So it is true that I have never fallen in love with a person, but to say I have never been in love is a gross exaggeration, for I have been and continue to be irrevocably in love with something much less transient and even more physical than that latter love I mentioned above: places on a map.
Rose and I in front of Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, Paris, in 2007.
The first time happened more quickly than I could have imagined. When I was 18, my mom traded houses in the south of France and in the process of taking two friends to the airport and picking one up, I spent a little less than a day in Paris. I spent that day eating macarons and drinking café au laits in restaurants some of my most idolized writers frequented. I climbed the towers of Notre Dame and, like a gargoyle, hung over the edge to look as far as I could see in every direction as I considered the mastery of the cathedral itself, which I was then reading about in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wandered, and was momentarily stalked, through Père Lachaise cemetery, and I left the trace of my lips, on top of those of so many others, on Oscar Wilde’s grave. Everyone does these things, it seems, when they go to Paris. But for me, I left something there which I have never gotten back. Whether it got caught in the cobblestones of the streets, in the scent of roasting meat, in the lilt and arabesques of the language, some part of me became a part of Paris. I went back a summer later for a month and the feeling only became stronger, the hunger for the city and all it held only more voracious. Years and years have passed since I’ve been back, but when I think of that city my hearts seems to pull in that direction, like a compass towards the Pole. At those moments I feel a longing which so many poems and stories describe as the way one feels for a beloved that is out of the reach of one’s arms. Paris holds for me the memories of minds I admire, of written words that have helped form me, of stories that sparked in me my own desire to write. My love for Paris is one of the mind.
Teotihuacán, the “Place Where Men Become Gods”.
The next time I fell in love was even stranger than the first. Strange because although I barely knew Mexico (I grew up practically within sight of it), I had a deep-rooted craving to know more. Like an attractive person glimpsed in a crowd, I thought of Mexico and was caught up in what it would feel like to be there, to feel that language on my tongue, to run into its vastness and feel engulfed. In college, I went abroad for a year to Querétaro, the city that was Mexico’s capital in colonial times. Technically I went there to study, but I can think of little that I gained academically from my time there. In truth, I went there to continue my lips’ love affair with the language, my belly’s obsession with the food, my eyes’ infatuation with the bright colors of the culture and architecture, and my heart’s sight unseen yearning for all of Mexico’s accoutrements, both the bright and exciting as well as the dark and dirty undersides.
On the river in Xochimilco.
Sometimes in life we meet people and we feel as if we had always known them, that somehow this is not a chance encounter but a predetermined reunion. That is how I felt with Mexico. I was meant to be there. It was far from perfect and I missed some luxuries that I had taken for granted back at home but at some primitive, savage level, Mexico and I were meant for one another. In the four years between coming home from Mexico and leaving for Colombia, I would sometimes be walking down the street in San Francisco and my ears would perk up and hone in on any utterance of that language that has become an amalgam of European Spanish, indigenous Mexican languages, and even smatterings of English, and again my heart would beat a little faster. Like hearing the voice of a love that has been lost, the Spanish language calls forth yearnings that feel strong enough to break me in half. Even here in South America, when I hear the Mexican dialect I feel a completely unexpected pang in my heart, a mixture of nostalgia and sadness and irrefutably and undeniably, a sense of being called back to something that I had fallen in love with long before I was conscious of it. I think of Mexico as my spirit country. My love for Mexico is one of the soul.
Fishermen bringing in the day’s catch in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.
Now here I am in Lima, Peru on my last day in South America. I fly home tonight at midnight. I won’t go into my feelings for Ecuador again (check out this entry for more), and perhaps I am not worried about feeling lovesick for Cuenca because for once I know I will be back soon, but in all this I have discovered something truly important. There is somewhere else I am in love with, and not just for the people in it. This time it is not love at first sight (Paris) or a fierce kind of love that was waiting for me to find it (Mexico). This time it is the kind of love that can suddenly blossom out of nowhere. The kind of latent love that you may have for a best friend, whom you’ve known for years, until suddenly one day you realize you want to do more than hold their hand in friendship.
Sunset in the Sunset District, San Francisco
With no warning at all, the love I feel for this place has gone from platonic to… something else. The last few mornings I have woken up (in Cuenca, in Máncora, in Lima) and all I have wanted was to be waking up in my bed (or any bed as I don’t currently have one) at home in California. California with its gorgeous coastline, with its metastasized suburbs, with its mountains like broken teeth and its lakes like bottomless pools of pellucid tears, its cities as different as anything could be, its hyperinflated housing and its beautiful, invaluable diversity. It is with my home that I have finally fallen in love. I know that I will continue to leave it, again and again, but I will never again forget my devotion to it.
Morro Bay, California
It is easy to fall in love with places. They ask nothing of you except an open mind. By loving them, you do not also give them the power to destroy you. By loving them, you are only finding pieces of your own heart that you never knew were missing. And though one day I hope to find the courage to fall in love with a person, for now my love for places, for Paris and Mexico, for Ecuador and California, is enough.