Travelling near and far
On rainy days at the fire tower, I abandon the present for the past.
The fog rolls low and swallows the cupola whole. A grey mist hangs over the jagged teeth of black spruce. Fog smothers the sky. "Obscured," I say in my 07:45 weather dispatch, describing the visibility just as much as my emotional state. Then I go back to sleep. When the rain falls, everything sleeps. Birds, bees, bears. Even the radio sleeps. I retreat beneath a quilt made by my mother with earth toned triangles, stitched together to form a flock of wild geese. The dog on the floor lays flat on her side. She whimpers in a dream. Her legs tremble. Far away, she's chasing a rabbit in a wide open field.
My eyes shutter close and I go dreaming, chasing memories, far, far away from here.
The rain on the cabin's tin roof reminds me of all of the places I've traveled where rain is both a season of longing and flooding. During the season of the flood, I can see us there, chased by the sudden downpour, huddled beneath a sheet of corrugated metal. This roof belongs to campesinos, farmers, who live beside the creek where our fishing lines were cast, waiting. A husband and wife beckon us into plastic chairs. The mujer stirs a pot of coffee on a wood stove. She adds heaping spoonfuls of sugar into the pot. Coffee so sweet you can taste it in your skull.
You and I became friends out of our love for hiking, fishing, and getting lost in the spaces beyond the city. Our conversations moved at a glacial pace. You were learning English. I was learning Spanish. We traded words and meaning back and forth like trading cards. You were in love with a Canadian woman who I knew could never love you back. I had fallen in love with your country, the rich history of revolution, and the way your paintbrush transformed blank walls down city streets into murals of meaning. I ran my hand along those walls, touching depictions of women with long black braids as they harvested maize, beans, and squash, of children reading and rising from the ashes of war, of another woman whose long hair transformed into the wind. I drank down such art, embodied your culture, felt emboldened by your language's accents and upside down exclamation marks, delighting in how words like Ni-ca-ra-gua danced off my tongue like a spider.
The woman hands me a tin mug of hot coffee. We converse with the farmers about la lluvia, as strangers everywhere talk about the weather. Nothing memorable is said. But I will never forget the sound of the rain, a mad percussion song, on that scrap of tin roof.
"Traveling," wrote Georges Perec, a French essayist.
"The illusion of having overcome distance, of having erased time.
To be far away."
I am so far away, so alone, on these rainy days. My cabin is a raft lost on an ocean of fog. I came to the fire tower to forget, but there is no forgetting during the season of the flood. I report "Romeo Whisky" at the 13:00 weather dispatch, code for rain showers. There's not a drop of whisky in my cabin, but I am intoxicated all the same. I've become unmoored by memories from over fifteen years of what American author and war correspondent, Anna Badkhen describes as "crossing borders and cultures and continents" and "trespassing, eavesdropping" on "other people's routes".
I get lost in the pages of Badkhen's book, Walking with Abel. It's a story about the year she spends in West Africa, following a family of Fulani cattle herders on their seasonal migration across the Sahel desert, in search of rain and greener pastures. She relates her own life as a nomadic writer to the lives of the Fulani herders, reflecting on how painful it was to forever "bid farewell over and over...to anchor your heart to the next campsite and then move on." To travel, she writes, is "to have your heart broken and reset like a bone."
Her words are a fine mist on my drought stricken heart. I know about heart break.
I came to the fire tower to reset my heart, to surrender to the neutrality of the present moment, succumbing to the not-knowing of the future. But I cannot forget all of the people and places and lessons and the many ways my heart has broken open.
I've brought with me relics from the past, material objects collected and carried along my travels. Tapestries woven by Mayan women farmers in Guatemala. A print of a bold Haida swallowtail from Haida Gwaii. Rustic mugs made from red clay banks in Nicaragua.
A white cotton apron with a green and red embroidered hem hangs in the kitchen. The apron belonged to Maria when she was sixteen-year-old and learning her mother's recipes. It came into my possession when I was the same age and I worked in Maria's cafe. She taught me how to pat out tortillas into little golden suns. She whispered the recipe of her richly flavoured sopa de aguacate con camarones y queso into my ear and then threatened me with a wooden spoon. "Mija, if you ever tell anyone, I will haunt you from my grave!" And she told me secrets about men, love, passion, and betrayal. I was a girl learning how to be a woman in Maria's kitchen. Hopeful, but cautious of how the world could hurt me.
In my bedroom, a grey gull feather, tied to a strand of leather, hangs on the wall. I found the feather beside the lakeside where my Nana's ashes were scattered, ten years ago. When she died, I was in my early twenties, living out of a backpack in Central America.
"Don't come back," my parents said. "She'd want you to stay."
I walked the city streets, weaving my body around food vendors, horse carts, motorcycles, and stray dogs until the rains came, and I sought refuge in a humid cafe. An older man sat down next to me. He introduced himself and asked for my name. I said my full name Trina Rianne Moyles, emphasizing my last name in honour of my Nana who only ever wanted to have grandsons because they would "carry on the family name." She didn't realize that her only granddaughter would never give up her name for anyone. The man reached for the pen in his coat pocket and started scribbling on a napkin.
"Your name means to sing like a bird," he said.
Trinar, he'd written on the napkin, a Spanish verb. "To trill," it translates into English.
"I like your name very much." He smiled.
I started to cry because I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to my Nana. I felt so far away from my family, who were gathered together on the Canadian prairies. Yet, I was so grateful for this stranger with whom I sat and shared my name, waiting out the rain.
At the fire tower, there's evidence of how hard I've loved, how sweetly I've been loved by others, and how my heart has been broken into a thousand pieces. There's hand written post-cards and letters from friends on their travels in Spain, Portugal, and the Sunshine Coast. A rustic boutique of pussy willows from a boy who thought he loved me. There's sticky notes left behind from friends who've caught glimpse of my life in this solitude, hidden in strange places (like under a rubber boot, or on the pot that collects dust on the top shelf, or on my cross-shot map). They read like fortunes baked into cookies.
YOU WILL ALWAYS HAVE A FRIEND NEARBY
THE JOURNEY OF 1000 MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP
And my favourite.
YOU WILL TRAVEL FAR IN THE NEAR FUTURE
There's a carving of a wooden turtle on my dresser. I brought her because I am loyal to the memory of you, even though I wasn't loyal to you that one summer, even though I am 14,000 kilometres away from you now. I came so far to forget you here, but forgetting is impossible. I remember you and our life together. I remember the rain and the drought, which never lasted so long. We hauled buckets of water to the garden where we fell in love. We moistened the soil around the seeds I smuggled across borders to reach Uganda. Some of these seeds were from my travels. Ruby red and indigo maize from Guatemala, hibiscus from Cuba. Everything grew in our garden, even the avocado pits and passionfruit seeds hidden in compost heaps. "Because of love," we joked. But it was because we defied the dry season. Our bodies broke sweat. We hauled water when others would not.
Isn't that love?
Last week, I pushed a wheelbarrow to the swamp. I sunk pails into the black muskeg water. Swaths of mosquitos drew blood from my sweaty brow. I pushed with my whole body behind the wheelbarrow, back to my garden, water sloshing. I palmed the swamp water onto the not yet risen seeds, feeling more hope than futility. You taught me about holding onto hope. Patience. "Go slow," you said. And you placed the wooden turtle in my palm.
No one knows, but me. My garden here is another country.
"We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere.
As if traveling is the way of the clouds. We have buried our loves ones
in the darkness of the clouds,
between the roots of trees.
- Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet
In Badkhen's journey with the Fulani cattle herders across the Sahel desert, she questions the aimlessness of her travels. "It's so easy to feel disoriented, disconnected, off course," she writes. One of the herders tells her gently, "In your heart is a map. But it's a one-way map. It only knows how to get there, it doesn't know how to come back."
She wonders to herself.
"Back where? I was walking around the Sahel, following someone else's cattle. And my lover - where in the world was he? I didn't know. I had been cast off, cast adrift."
The days of rain and fog carry me back to the same kind of uncertainty.
Like Badkhen, I've followed the Fulani herders - in the form of farmers, muralists, painters, activists, and lovers - across metaphorical deserts. I've hungered for meaning beyond borders, for secrets in foreign languages, for belonging in cultures that are not my own. It is easy to lose yourself, to suddenly feel "disoriented" and "off course". I've lost too many maps to remember. Some maps fell out of my bags. Some, I burned because I wanted to forget the way back. And others, I longed to recover because I had to leave.
Somehow, the map led me to the strangest geography I have ever known. The fire tower is a country known by few. I'm reminded by the duality of saber and conocer, two Spanish verbs that both mean, literally, "to know". While you can sabe, know how to play the guitar, or how to bake a cake, you must conoce, know a place like you know your own mother. It implies a much deeper knowing. To know the fire tower, you must traverse the desert of loneliness. Conozco este lugar como conozco mi cuerpo, I know this place like I know my own body.
Here, I feel the intense sensation of being, all at once, very near and far away from the places I've been, the languages I've adopted, the people I've loved, and the seasons that have brought meaning into my life in deeper ways that I know. A place where the weather is always gathering, collapsing, advancing, receding. When the fog lifts and dissipates, so too, does all of the mad remembering that has made me older beyond my years.
I return to the geography of the moment, a borderless country, to once again speak the language of solitude, a wordless language that fails to translate into English. We could say it is silence but that suggests a vapid nothingness, when really, here is everything.
It's wind rustling through the aspen leaves. Birdsong that wakes before the sun. An orchestra of bees in the blueberry patch. A familiar voice, your neighbour, over the radio. Rain on a tin roof. A full moon rising, soundless...speechless.
It is here that I place myself on the map, and I can say, "I have returned."
Here I rest. I welcome the rare and few travellers who drop out of the sky in their helicopters. They are firefighters, rangers, pilots. Many of them are seasonal migrants: here for the summer to chase lighting and smoke and wildfires. In the winter, they fly away to far flung geographies, New Zealand, India, South America, Sudan.
Their comings-and-goings shatter my solitude, but I welcome these visitors with the same hospitality I learned from my friends in Latin America and East Africa, where sharing your home, food, and stories is holy sacrosanct. I share with them coffee, tea, brownies, cookies, and scones made with the wild blueberries and raspberries that saturate my yard.
"You are welcome," I say, resurrecting the ghost of the woman I was in Uganda.
One summer, I met an Australian pilot who had worked all over the world, flying. He had flown in the Middle East. His children lived in Australia. His Kenyan girlfriend lived in Dubai. His borderless way in the world mirrored my own. He and I drank copious cups of coffee on my front porch. He told me about the day he nearly died. A failed engine. A downward spiral. PTSD.
"Since then, I've never stopped living. I travel because it makes me feel alive."
I nodded because I understood. His story resonated into the very marrow of my bones. It was my story, only the near miss was a kidnapping, an assault. The helicopter was a taxi. The faulty engine, a knife at my pelvis and a man holding his sweaty palm over my eyes. The moment you think you are going to die, everything changes. Everything.
The pilot came back the following day. We sat and drank more coffee and he told me a story about one of most memorable places he'd ever visited. He had been on a flying contract on the northwest coast of British Columbia. He landed on a remote island. He walked the beach and stumbled upon a cabin where an elderly husband and wife lived, completely off-grid. They invited him inside. They shared their tea and food with him. The hospitality had completely caught him off guard, he told me.
As he left, the old man placed a gift into his hand. A blue glass ball, what the Japanese called ukidama, or 浮き玉. It was a fishing float, used by the Japanese to keep their nets afloat. The handblown glass bouys were no longer manufactured, or used. The relics were caught in a circular pattern of ocean currents, travelling from Taiwan to Japan to the Arctic, then east to the North Pacific. It was a gift he'd forever carry with him.
"But Trina," the pilot said earnestly, studying me, as though he could see right through me, as though he could see right into the lonely and broken parts of my heart. "The reason I'm telling you this is because I get the same feeling here that I did there."
The sun bleached hairs rose up on my forearms. His words rang in my ears.
"We walk into one another's lives, we change them and are changed, deeply and forever, we part ways," Badkhen writes, after crossing the Sahel desert, before saying goodbye to the Fulani herders, her family of the desert. "Each time a part of our heart seems to shrivel and die, it doesn't. Simply, our hearts learn to beat a different way."
The pilot left as quickly as he came but his words, the memory of him, stayed for a long while. He fired up the machine. The rotor blades spun and thrummed madly, stirring air. My laundry went flying, an empty pail went somersaulting through the air. The blade slap thundered like gun fire. Above the commotion, I could hear it, louder than I recalled.
singing like a bird
after it rains, remembering
of my name