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We were headed way south.  Changing altitudes, if you will.  Bumping along the road in the bus, we were mildly dirty, tired, driving towards the south of Chile, visiting the Mapuche.  Person of the Earth.  La tierra. We found ourselves in the middle of a foreign land to look at mountains on every side of where we stood.  To take pictures with our cameras.  To learn a few words in their language, only to perhaps forget them five days later.  We were there, sweaty, with our memory cards empty, so that we could fill them with a new way of thinking about the stark greenness of the earth.  The Mapuche, they are the ones who take care of Chile’s earth the way that a mother loves her child while it is still in her womb.  And we are the people who rub the stomach, almost forgetting to ask if we can as we reach out our hands to feel a preciousness that we want to brush up against our fingers.

Our rafting adventure, our zip-lining morning, learning the different uses of medicinal plants, the smell of fresh manure, our oily hair, the quietness of a pure appreciation, locally grown food, the distinction of identities, fluidity, the different meanings of the word “right,” clouds that are almost touching mountains, cold water that looks so pure that it could trick you into thinking it’s warm, getting talked at for hours in a language we sometimes like to think we know, the heaviness of a darkness that sees not one ray of light:  maybe these are some of the things that sailed along the currents of our consciousness once or twice on our trip, or maybe they are things that only sailed passed mine, making a sort of nest in the periphery of my thoughts, the kind that I see in the corner of my mind while I am looking at something else.  And still, I do not know exactly what we learned about the tribe called Mapuche, other than that they are not Chilean, living in a country that is called Chile.

Maybe some Mapuche do not own the mountains that surround their houses, or the water that is their moat around where their people have lived for centuries, or the beaten down grass that has formed a crooked path in between the trees.  But nobody, not even the people who have the papers that give them the right to claim ownership, owns the water that flows beneath the surface of the rivers.  Nor does anybody own the dips and the cliffs around the mountain bends, or the clouds that are almost touching the summits of the mountains like a blanket almost falling into place on somebody’s bare shoulders.  Nor does anybody own the seeds or the trees that spring to life underneath the green grass, invisible for eternity to our eyes.  And who needs to call themselves Chilean, or American, or Sudanese, if none of those things are ours in the same way that we want them to be?  And if the Mapuche say that they are not Chilean, it is because they really aren’t, and will never need to be when the dirt-formed paths that lead them to their neighbors’ houses, or to where their animals graze lazily in the sun all day, will always guide them home.

And sleeping in a hut native to the Mapuche for one night might make us better people, or it might make us think long and hard about why we as college students really dragged our asses all the way down to Chile for a semester.  Not the reasons that linger on the surface, like the ones that make us say we want to learn Spanish or live by the water.  But the kind of why that makes us face our own whiteness in the mirror until we learn about medicinal plants and wonder how simple life could be if we lived in a ruka and raised our own animals.  The kind of why we would have to dig for with a shovel that dug and dug inside our own selves for an answer to a why that perhaps now, we only answer mechanically.  The kind of answer that doesn’t let us get away with four days in the south of a country, but the kind of answer that is hungry for more, the kind of answer that will never have an end.

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Sometimes we send a prayer to the children dying in some faraway place and we are all infuriated at the injustice done around the world.  And we think about what others should do, what they must do.  And maybe sometimes we try to put in check the kind of privilege that enters the realm of who has access to clean water, or land rights, or who can speak a language that is so old that if souls do in fact exist, it would be born into each person that spoke it.  And other times, we pack a bag and head down to the south of Chile, or the slums of India, or try to learn Xhosa, clicking our tongues like the gringos that we are, imagining what life would be like if we lived our lives speaking a language so foreign and unique.  And those are the times when we turn off our cell phones, tell our families that we will see them later, and sleep in our own sweat on a bed while we borrow the lives of others.   Maybe we think how pure of a life it would be to live more simply, but perhaps never consider our own un-pureness living on the other side of the world.  In four days that could really be counted in hours, we all packed our bags and saw the same things through different eyes, and I will never really know what that trip in the clouds meant to us.

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The bus, clinking down roads and roads of places that we will never know and perhaps never see again except through the lenses of our cameras.  Pictures, that we may or may not have for the rest of our lives.  Memories that surely have already begun to fade just a little bit; I wonder if we really did gain a new perspective on the southern tip of our world.  And if we went any more south, what would we have found, realized, about people whose very name tells the world that there is no separation between human and dirt, and beast, and grass, and that the idea of being from the earth is not a perspective or an idea read out of a book.  It just is.

Maybe our comfort will one day bring us to our knees.   And I would dare to say that I am afraid that I might one day forget how green the Earth is in one of its corners that has not seen gravel, or plaster, or the incessant trampling of car tires.  And I would dare to say that there are very few places where human hands have touched a patch of grass with delicacy, fragility, with a consciousness that has risen from the ground itself. I would dare to say that I looked at the greenness, at its length, at its depth, and I put away my camera, lest I miss the moment and forget it forever.

 

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