Justin and I spent our first Christmas in South America in Peru. The trip included a boat ride across Lake Titicaca and an overnight stay on an island. Our group was hosted by locals whose way of life felt a little staged as they shepherded us through coca tea and dancing. The town was losing its indigenous population as youth left the island for education and jobs. I have mixed feelings about discovering these rarer, simply sustained places and introducing TV and potato chips, but when the daughter of the house led Justin and I up a ladder to our tiny room, I thought I could be happy here.
There was a short bed piled with heavy blankets, a red plastic bucket under the bed for a night toilet, a sturdy table and chair and a small shelf. I woke in the middle of the night with a blinding altitude headache and drank a Coke, took a couple Tylenol. It was silent and dark. I lay under the weight of blankets, next to my husband and in the morning, climbed down the ladder, ate a bland breakfast prepared by the mother of the house. I stood in their kitchen the size of a closet, spooning porridge and thinking I might like shearing sheep. I could stay and make my own cooking fire. I would drink the cleanest air and swallow the brightest stars and write poetry that said just that.
Then I shouldered my pack and climbed back in the boat, leaving that small room with its table and chair.
I play this game when I travel: If I lived here. It’s usually a quick game. Playing Vienna: If I lived here, I would shop at Billa or Denn’s or Spar. If I lived here I would take a weekend trip to a lake. Claire and I would go to Cafe Sperl for the apple strudel. I would eat Zotter chocolate. I would bike to work and walk everywhere and buy only the groceries I could carry home.
But I don’t live here, the game ends.
Even so, when I travel, I absorb the everyday. I enjoy the regular. I wear long sleeves when I run in the morning chill. I walk the same quiet street to the same park where Claire and Grant swing and climb and slide. I order a beer at lunch, if I like. Justin buys the same bread because it is too good to bother trying another bakery. I make ham and cheese crepes for dinner. I sit at a white kitchen table, my bare feet on the parquet floor. When I glance up from my notebook, I see rooftops and a spire with a gold point.
I leave some places thinking I am not done with them, not yet. I may not return, but I am not done there either. That small room in Peru. The spire I see from this kitchen window.