But I'm so primed for my next great affair, and as I peruse a thousand profiles (including coming across My Friend online, which was funny) I realize it's just not going to happen this way, because I'm just clicking through them halfheartedly, because none of them are Sebastien. None of these preconceived setups can measure up to the cliched backpacker romance I had on my Spring Break Sobriety Tour 2009. If you're up for a long, self-indulgent story, let's hop to it.
Ever since my romantic intrigue with The Hitchhiker, I have had a fondness for intense, short-term love affairs. Psychoanalyze me if you want to, but I don't care. They are perfect because they can never be flawed; they are always over before their time, and you are always left wanting more: perfect masturbatory material.
It's a little after sunrise and I'm attempting, in my typical, disheveled, insomniatic fashion, to board the wrong bus.
"Cor-di-llera" the bus operator reads off my ticket. He then points at the bus I am attempting to board. "Col-que."
I don't take this too seriously because I know all the buses, regardless of the operator, are going to the same place: Bolivia. Even though I've only been in Chile for a few days, and am ill-prepared to brave the cold heights of Bolivia, I am determined to get there. Last night I stayed up late at the hostel, watching a charming young Swede kill a bottle of cheap rum and break the $700 lens on his SLR after showing me some beautiful pictures from his expedition into Bolivia. I’d spent the day running around town trying to rent a motorcycle to drive to the nearest town, about an hour away, just to pay the $130 fuck-you-because-you’re-an-American-reciprocity-fee needed to cross the border with no luck, but was going to find a way into Bolivia somehow. I wanted to go to Uyuni as well, to shoot the train graveyard.
I have not slept much, and I blame my haplessness on this as I wander down the road to find the Cordillera agency, where there is no bus whatsoever, just the now-familiar sight of pairs of travelers rummaging through each others' backpacks and feeding each other. I’m past the stage where couples make me feel lonely, but have now moved onto the hunger stage where I just long for their increased variety of food. I've spent the first few days in San Pedro de Atacama scraping by on the bodega diet of pitas stuffed with greasy wrapped cheese and salami, an assortment of chocolate cookies, and Nescafe.
At the same time that I am excited to get out of this tiny town for a few days, I am kind of dreading this excursion because I will be with a tour group. I hate tour groups so much that I almost killed myself in the desert yesterday, in an attempt to do something I hate even more--bicycling--just to get away from the tour groups. I kind of hate people lately. I only want food, the desert, cigarettes, and water. But I can't do Bolivia on my own, and so I've signed myself up to be bound to a small group of strangers, most likely these charming backpackers feeding each other around me. I just might kill everyone. Particularly alarming is the fact that I have only two cigarettes on my person, and I don't know when I'll be able to purchase cigarettes in the next four days. I am also the only person here without a sleeping bag, but I am more concerned about the cigarette supply, because while cold weather will only kill me, lack of nicotine will endanger everyone in the group. This was not well planned. This entire trip was not planned at all, actually, but that’s what makes it exciting. And the group, though I hate them without even knowing them, will not let me die.
When the bus boards, the one lone traveler sits down next to me. We are the only non-couple on the bus. I wondered if he will make my life better or worse for the next few days. Men have a way of forcing these kinds of issues. I can’t tell if he is cute. All boys kind of look the same here: bearded, sunburned, and hungry. I wait until he finishes his juice box before asking him, "Como te llamas?"
His name is Sebastien. Did you know that's quite possibly my favorite name in the whole world? No, I did not say that out loud! God, I'm not some 14-year-old girl. But seriously, I had the biggest crush on Adrien Grenier before Entourage when he was in The Adventures of Sebastian Cole. We poke at some awkward Spanish, switch to English for a few minutes, but that just feels disgusting so we move on to French while we wait in line at the Chilean border. The Swiss are smooth like that. The last time I spoke French was in Morocco, the summer I moved to New York. I feel like an idiot, but it’s okay. My Spanish is even worse, but at this point, I just don’t want to speak English, then I have an excuse for sounding like an idiot.
I honestly don't think that anything of the sort is in store for me and this guy, even though I think that about most people I meet. I am in hyper defense mode from traveling alone, and I imagine I am getting solo-vibes from him as well. Before running into the Swede last night, I was stood up by a local guy for vague dinner plans, and so I am a little wary of people at this point. Particularly when it comes to setting up for intense time together in cramped quarters under uncomfortable conditions, I think it’s best to keep things very aloof, formal even, like rooming with strangers instead of friends. We should maintain boundaries and such.
When we cross into Bolivia, I spy a burned-out bus and confess to him that I have soft spot for rusty photography, which is why I’m looking forward to Uyuni. I’m not exactly in conversation mode, but I think I say it because I know how to say it. To my surprise, he says he wants to shoot the bus as well, and he makes a plan for us to grab a quick bite at the chow line before sneaking off to shoot the bus and making our way through the pandemonium at Bolivian immigration. It's nice when someone makes it clear where you stand with them, that you're in this together. I'm so used to people being vague: you can do this, if you want to...I'm going to do this. You know. With Sebastien, from this moment on, we are in it together.
This, however, is threatened when the Cordillera agency attempts to split the bus into groups of five for the next few days. You know that panicky feeling you get when, say, you get to a movie with a group of people, or to a long dinner table at Thanksgiving, and you realize that whatever seating position happens in the next four seconds will determine the outcome for the next four hours? That's what is happening at the Bolivian border, only it is happening in Spanish, with an angry man holding my backpack hostage, and trying to stuff me into one beat-up Land Cruiser. He is telling Sebastien to go to another. I don’t look at Sebastien, because it is pointless. I look at the man holding my backpack and prepare to accept my destiny.
"Es mi amiga," Sebastian tells the man, pointing to me. The man looks furious. At the agency, we'd been two solo travelers. "Juntos," he insists. He looks at me and smiles hopefully. My little heart melts. The man hands Sebastien my backpack and directs us to the same car.
After being packed into the Cruiser with a Brazilian-Spanish couple and a Chilean-German couple, we make many pit stops at some amazing locations in Bolivia. We sit in the back together, struggling to keep up with the rapid Spanish going on in the front of the car. Each time we make a stop, Sebastien holds the door for me, waits on me, and we scout the location together, pointing things out, in perfect step with one another. I am shooting wide-angle landscapes; he is shooting mostly telephoto wildlife photography. It is a great pairing. Later in the day, after they deposit us at a remote outpost with no heat for the evening, Sebastien asks if I want to go for a walk. Most of the group, myself included, is suffering from some degree of altitude sickness, but of course I say yes.
The fondest moments of my life always involve desert photography with a cute boy. I can't help but remember the amazing trip I took with The Ex to Baja. It was a beautiful adventure that involved camping, puking tequila in the desert, and fjording a stream in a borrowed Mercedes, and we never spoke about the infidelities that had made the trip feel like such a necessity. This trip is cleaner, with no tinge of anything like that. We clamber over rocks exploring the desert, taking turns deciding which way to go in the wide open. He helps me scale walls and navigate the rocky canyon we discover, and I point out good lighting angles, offer him water. I think, “This is what a partnership feels like.”
As the sun sets, we return to the chilly camp and meet some of the other people from the other three cars, who turn out to be mostly French speakers. Sebastien pours me tea and when dinner arrives, serves me. I am exhausted. I try to hold my own with the French speakers, but am content to just try and understand.
That night the six of us sleep in an unheated, cement room, but I don't sleep at all for the second night in a row. I know I’m not going to freeze to death, but I feel like I’m going to come close. I think about three things in a continuous loop for seven hours: (1) my stubbornness about not taking drugs, not even the sleeping pills I have in my backpack, partially because then I’d have to take my hands out from under my layers of clothes, (2) Sebastien, sleeping not two meters away from me, (3) life amazing life.
I wait until dawn and wander out into the desert to shoot the sunrise. We are truly in the middle of nowhere. Off in the distance, I see a figure emerge from the hillside and I see that he has come out to check on me. Inexplicably, I hide. Sometime during the night, I have already started to feel separation anxiety. I don't like it when people leave. Yet, you say, you like short-term love affairs? How does that make any sense? Shut the fuck up.
In late afternoon, we come to another remote location, a building constructed completely out of salt in the middle of what appears to be an exploded minefield. Sebastien and I get a room to ourselves. Everyone is in good spirits that night because there is one working shower in the salt hotel, and it is a good ten degrees warmer and 1,000 meters lower. There is even wine at dinner, which makes me extremely uncomfortable, but it doesn't matter, because I was able to buy cigarettes during the day. We are fifteen people in the middle of nowhere I am the happiest I think I ever been in my entire life. I can only communicate good things, so it's like I can only think good things. I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to have sex in a building made completely out of salt, completely sober, with a Swiss boy named Sebastien, in the middle of fucking Bolivia.
All of this is very charming and swell, but what really gets to me is when I am sitting next to Sebastien at dinner and I overhear him telling a French woman the story of how we'd met crossing the border and how he'd insisted we stay together. She thought we were a couple. She asks him what language we speak in, and he says, without hesitation, first in Spanish, then in English, then in French, and now, in all three: "Mira, une llama! It's cool, n'est-ce pas?"
I almost die. Or, rather, I immediately set to killing myself in the typical manner, by excusing myself to go outside to smoke a cigarette.
Admittedly, it doesn't take much for me to fall in love. I fall in love at least once a week. But at the same time that I use the word, I use it haphazardly, fleetingly, convinced that love is something that can't really be had, just glimpsed. I'm like that. I suffer from an affliction where I believe that anything truly worth having can't really be had, and so I think that the best kind of love is ephemeral. But at moments like those where things seem so fucking precious, where you can't help but think to yourself, "I want to hear that story told on my fucking wedding day," my first reponse is to get up, go outside, and yep, that's right, smoke a goddamn cigarette. I don't know why that's my response. It's like I can't believe it's happening, or I don't think I should be there, or my personal being can't handle that kind of perfect moment, so I have to fucking leave. I wish I was the kind of person that could like squeeze your hand under the table and gaze at you sweetly back, but instead my response is to try and light a stick of cancerous toxins on fire and inhale the poisons as rapidly as possible in seclusion in the freezing cold. My body can handle pain all right, but it repels perfect moments with absolute disgust.
Luckily, the night wears on, and my sober ass is forced to bask in the glow of this ridiculously wonderful evening in the middle of nowhere, largely because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. I forgot about my clunky French and miserable Spanish with this charming Swiss boy and this international crew of travelers, and just remembered that like them, I had wanted to be there so badly that I had forgone my comforts, almost frozen to death the night before, gnawed my way through some pitiful means, battled altitude sickness, incomprehension, and indigestion, and am still ecstatic as all hell to be there, and savoring the last hour of the power generator like it is our last night on earth. Indeed, although we feel like we are in the lap of luxury compared with where we stayed last night, it also feels like a movie set for some apocalyptic fantasy. It is, in a way. The next day we will all go our separate ways—some, like Sebastien, will venture further east into Bolivia, many are going into Argentina, and I am going back to Chile. But during these few evenings we’ve shared in the heights of the Bolivian desert, I really feel like I’ve come to understand and appreciate myself in the context of the world—or, at least, in the context of these people. “Sometimes,” one of the men says, “we have to go so far away to meet our true neighbors, those who are really like us…at home, everyone thought we were crazy to leave for so long. But out here, to meet so many people traveling…so many people who will take care of each other without question...who do the same as you...it feels right.”
Part of me wants to have a long, meaningful conversation as I snuggle up with him that night, but it is going to be sad, so I just tell him I will miss him and I kiss him. I've done this so many times now I know how to do it. After we have sex, he holds me tight and simply says, "Vas dormir." Go to sleep. And you know what, I finally do.
The next day, we part after shooting the train graveyard in Uyuni. I am so distraught about leaving him that I also leave behind my most critical piece of clothing after my favorite pair of jeans: my crucial hoodie that I've had for almost a decade. Talk about major losses.
And I'm not kidding at all when I say that as we leave town, the next song I hear is Roxette's "It must have been love," but en espanol.
I saw Ex when I returned to New York, and I told him that I’d met the guy I want to spend the rest of my life with. Let me clarify: maybe it’s not literally Sebastien, the same exact Sebastien I met two weeks ago on a bus in San Pedro de Atacama, but the guy I spend the rest of my life with will be Sebastien, because I will look for him in whomever I seek to date. When Ex asked me to describe him, I couldn’t do it. I missed a lot of nuances of his personality due to him being Swiss and all. All I knew about him was that I trusted him from the moment we crossed the border into Bolivia, that he took care of me, and that when I was with him, I felt like we could do anything together, like we were unstoppable.
When Ex and I were together, I also felt like we could do anything together. It’s such a high, this feeling. But he was never good at taking care of me. I never knew I wanted someone to take care of me, that this was a priority. I try to take care of myself. But it’s nice to have someone else looking out for you as well, without you asking them to. Because I look out for other people without them asking me to, so I guess I want them to do the same for me. And the trust got eroded between me and Ex as well, which is an entirely different story. He didn’t really value me after a while. I don’t think I ever heard him tell a cute story about us.
A character from college, Fentry, once said, “the key to a successful relationship is to marry a foreigner.” He went on to elaborate that cross-cultural relationships breed tolerance, which is largely lost in today’s customizable society, where we demand everything to be just so, down to matching lifestyles, compatible music tastes and so on. When you marry a foreigner, you chalk up all the differences to irreconcilable cultures, and are more forgiving from the get-go, he explained. You can then focus on what’s really important, like respect, family, taking care of one another.
But these things, I realized tonight, are hard to look for when perusing ads on OkCupid and craigslist.
I know I'm a dreamer. I know that vacation affairs are different than real-life relationships, but I want to hold onto this one. I don't know how, and that's why I've held off on writing about it and have just been thinking about it a lot, and what it means to want to hold onto something without holding onto it at all. I want my dream-life and my real-life to be one and the same. I think things will be less schizophrenic that way.