A Letter from South America: Beautiful Moments, Part I

This is the first in the series of four articles about a trip to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil made by Lisa (2019) in November 2013.

After a month of trying to tell my story of South America as a cohesive narrative containing scrupulously planned reflections, carefully chosen exclamations, and a generally pleasing structure with manicured paragraphs, beautiful terminology, and elaborate comparisons, I came to understand that the impressions I was trying to describe were too colorful to be allowed to waste away in a bureaucratic essay setting.

I can’t say I entirely abstained from complex words or overpowered the urge to find an echo of my ideas in masterpieces of the past, but I did keep one resolution. Instead of trying to impose a purely logical order on these reflections, which would have inevitably led to attempting to retrieve smaller impressions, already mixed together and half-forgotten, I wrote according to Kandinsky’s principle, expressing only the strongest of sentiments. Thus, to put it dramatically, I discarded the average for the sake of extraordinary, focusing on Moments in the most Impressionist sense of this word. Rarely captured on photo, but always vividly remembered, they seem to make up the heart of any voyage; and if there is one reason why writing about traveling is pleasant, it is being able to relive these.

We spent a total of 22 days on the other side of the equator. Though certainly (and pleasantly) not flawless, this experience did change the way in which I was accustomed to seeing the world, to the extent of making me unable to appreciate the terribly clichéd nature of this phrase. It was beautiful. It was inspiring. There were emotions. Admiration, despair, fear, and immense pleasure were all present, sometimes simultaneously, as raw and unsettling as Mark Rothko’s imperfect colorful rectangles.

After an eleven-hour flight from the very edge of Europe, Santiago, the capital of Chile, seemed strangely welcoming. There was pale sunlight, traffic, people, buildings – all too real, too colorful after the Transatlantic. From a historical or cultural standpoint, there isn’t much of note in Santiago. Yet it was certainly pleasant. Protected from any wind of change or worry by the mountains surrounding it in a tight circle, the city was sunny, sleepy, and optimistic.

The unreal idyllic atmosphere governed the dusty white day that we spent there. It was apparent in a miniscule public park, where pink flamingos strutted endlessly and harmoniously around a little pond. Stopping for a moment, conversing with one another, standing on one leg, posing as sculptures, and later, never tiring, repeating the same routine, they resembled illustrations from a children’s book rather than real creatures.

In fact, the noon in itself was warm and slightly lazy, enveloping the streets, the buildings, and the houses in a soft haze of happiness. Even the cold and painfully regular structure of Palacio de la Moneda was forced to abide by the same unwritten rule, carefully masking its harshness. We walked down a shady street filled with smiling people talking away to each other in a soft and pleasantly incomprehensible dialect. There, at a lively lunch spot hidden in a basement, I tried the first coffee and milk in my life. It was delicious. Rendered almost imperceptible by a big spoon of sugar, its taste seemed to echo Santiago’s spirit. It was optimistic, laconic, and slightly bitter, but safely far from being too strong or too pronounced.

The next day brought a change of landscape. It was the first breath of Patagonia. Amid lakes, mountains, and perfect blue skies lay the paradise, the official name of which is quite simply Bariloche.

I grew up spending winter weeks and occasional summer days in Megève, France. The inexplicable ambience of mountains that I since came to call the ésprit montagnard stood in my imagination for all the simple alpine joys, the freshly-cut grass in July, the philosophical mountain peaks dominating a Romantic September landscape, the irrationally delicious fromage blanc in a local laiterie. It was something that would be apparent in the summer in the form of the smell of the herbs or an old airplane circling around the patient backs of the mountains. In winter it would be better hidden, but the walls of the old chalets, the little streets of the city center, lit but completely empty well into the evening, and the thrilling steep ski runs in the sunlight would still hold a vivid trace of it. Unpredictably, opening the window of a hotel room in Bariloche brought about that familiar bittersweet pleasure. Mountains, lakes, and the deeply foreign joy of spring – in great contrast with the solemn late autumn left behind a few days ago – reminded me of Europe in the most unlikely (and, possibly, the most pleasant) of ways.

Much like Santiago, Bariloche was sunny and calm. Yet, if an abstract composition of the former could be painted with three or four colors and a few simple shapes, the number of forms and hues that would have to be used to express the idea of Bariloche would have to be much bigger.

Allow me to sketch a landscape. Imagine mountains touched by a rosy hue of dawn reflected in the perfect mirror of a lake. Nothing moves, except for the golden disk of the sun. Rising, it dramatically overpowers the darkness and insecurity of a velvety night. Carefully, it puts together the blanket of the early morning. The houses, the lakes, the mountains, the meadows, the skies – everything is covered in a misty hue of pink. Yet, in a few moments, the impressionism of the morning gives way to the pleasantly radical realism of the day, rosy is replaced with a warm shade of white. The first boats disturb the lakes, and the perfect tranquility is lost.

The days following such mornings are also filled with a primitive grace of freedom. There is human-made art, and there is the unexplainable and mesmerizing form of artistic expression that is sometimes adopted by nature. Judging by the minimalist rocks painted in cheerful shades of yellow, the romantically verdant slopes of the mountains, the humorously petrified orange araucaria groves, and the fundamentally calm and philosophical coihue reaching all the way up to the skies, the curators of this collection knew how to make a pleasant impression.

After two days filled with stunning landscapes, we were yet to encounter the final chord of this concerto of mountains accompanied by an orchestra of the lakes. In a large room of a local parilla – El Bolliche de Alberto, at a minimalist square table in the very corner, I tried grilled beef that was dangerously close to perfect. With a side of potatoes and a glass of water, it was delicious, mesmerizing, and poetic in quite an unlikely way. This was a Moment, as it seemed simply impossible for anything to be quite as sensational.

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