“The old lady wanted to read my palm and wouldn’t leave me alone until I let her,” Amir exclaims.
We arrive in the small village of El Bolson, Argentina in the late, sleepy part of the afternoon. My Syrian friend, Amir, picks up the dented navy car from the airport, and we find our way down the mountainous roads from the lake district of Bariloche. With each turn, he talks about his family, his demanding and exciting career as a pilot, and the day he met a fortune teller in Bulgaria.
As a man who plays by the rules and doesn’t believe in mysticism, Amir was taken aback when the elder woman approached him and insisted on reading his palm. He was sitting in a courtyard in the sparkling capital city of Sofia, just returning from the house he built for his family. Returning from the people who rely on him. All he wanted was a moment alone with his thoughts and a strong coffee. The elder woman, slouched over and shrouded in her worn shawl, kept reaching for his hand.
Pulling his hand back abruptly, he declared, “Look, lady, I’ll buy you a coffee, but I’m not just going to give you money.”
A moment later he returned with a coffee and handed it to her across the table. Clasping the paper cup, she blew steam off the top, lips crinkled into an “O” but did not leave the tableside. Instead, she sat down on the bistro chair across from Amir and stared fixedly.
“I don’t want your money. Your palm,” she said slowly pointing to his left hand. “Give me your palm.” Amir recoiled with the thought. This stuff, he thought to himself. Today of all days, can’t I just get a break? Realizing the old woman was intent on her request and in no hurry to leave Amir or the sunny courtyard, he acquiesced.
“Fine, take it. Good luck with that,” he sighed.
Her paper-thin skin, covered in root-size wrinkles, cold, but soft, took Amir’s hand and turned it over. She pulled her lined face closer to his palm, furrowing her brow and whispering in a foreign tongue.
“All right, all, right. That’s enough now. Are we done here?” Amir asked, pulling back his hand and impatiently tapping his foot.
“Ahhh, yes, I see,” she exhaled in a low, powerful voice, answering in Bulgarian.
“You take care of everyone. Your parents, your children, even your wife – no,” she pauses, “your ex-wife. You work hard, and you are there – for all of them. I see you, this great man, they look up to,” she stated.
“But, in the end, you will find no one. No, you are their savior, their protector. But, there is no woman in your life. No great love.” She paused, and concluded with, “I am sorry.”
Then as quickly as she came, she disappeared in the shadows of the courtyard.
“Yeah, so, she says all of this, and I realize, wow, this old lady, she gets it. I’m alone,” he says huskily, pulling into a farm at the edge of the village and turning off the ignition.
“The thing is, Julia. I’m okay with it. I knew it all along. She just said what everyone was too afraid to say.”
The conversation has come to a close, and I feel there is no space or time for me to say or do anything that may comfort my new friend. He has accepted his life, and now is off on a solo journey in Argentina for the first time.
A journey that lead him to me in the southern most town of Ushuaia, Argentina weeks ago. On an early, crisp morning, I walk toward the bus station, focused on making the trip to Tierra del Fuego. Alone. Just me and the mountain trail and the silence I’d been craving. Suddenly, a man in a bright chartreuse jacket and sporty sunglasses steps in stride with me on the street.
“Excuse me, hey, you speak English? Great! Do you know where the bus station is?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m going that way,” I reply tersely. A tendency I have when determined not to let a stranger send me off my course.
“Great! I don’t know where I’m going, but I just got here, and it’s unbelievable! I am going to hike on a glacier. A fucking glacier, can you imagine? Anyways, where are you off to?” he inquires.
“Guanaco Trail.” I point to the highest mountain top just coming through the clouds in the distance over the town. “See, there, that’s the top.”
“Oh, God, that’s far. I’ve never hiked before. I live in Qatar. It’s a flat desert, what can I say. Take me with you! Come on now, I’ll just lie down and take a little nap when you head up to the top. Nap, forget that, I’ll be in a coma by then.”
Amir is wearing old sneakers and loose jeans. His brand new ski jacket is looking more out of place at each glance. He has a small bottle of water and no pack. He doesn’t look the least in shape, but his smile is promising, and I could use a little lightness for the day ahead.
“Okay, fine, but just the hike, nothing else, got it?” I concede.
After a week of traveling together, our friendship falls in stride as we walk along the path to the farm. To the left of the entrance gate is a table full of homemade fruit preserves and honey. As we wind through the garden to the main house, we come upon a group of young, lanky men and women, some with outgrown dreadlocks, others with buzz cuts. There’s an assured warmth that emanates from the group.
Most of the volunteers stay on for a few months trading work on the farm for a warm shower, tent or teepee to sleep in, and home-cooked meals they take turns making. Then, they carry on, in that youthful nomadic way one dreams of. Some hitchhike north to Buenos Aires, others bicycle through Northern Argentina onward to the Bolivian salt flats, while others declare they’ve decided to discover a life where they can dance, and will head to Morocco come autumn. They speak Italian, Spanish, French, and, of course, English with ease.
Amir is in front, unapologetically himself, while I hold back, feeling displaced at first in my new surroundings, as I often do during my travels. We’ve arrived a little early during the volunteer’s lunch.
“Welcome to the Earthship. I’m Sam.” A tall Dutch man, young with kind chestnut eyes, wearing oversized tortoise-shell glasses and a worn, untucked shirt, introduces himself then leads us to our home for the next few nights. We wind through the sunflower lined pathway as Sam points out the Earthship.
“An Earthship is a passive solar house that is made of both natural and upcycled materials,” Sam states.
He explains why the bathrooms are open at the top so the shower steam can help the tomato plants grow inside - which, in turn, brings moisture and fresh air into the living space. He talks about why all the windows face south to foster more radiant heat come winter-time. And how the bedrooms are built into the clay Earth, so they stay cool even on the hottest summer days. Every piece of this hand built home has a purpose. It’s wonderful, living with such intention, I marvel.
Amir is impressed in this escape from his life. Used to five star hotels coming off long flights as an accomplished Captain, the idea of sleeping in a dome is foreign, simple, and interesting all at once. He hungrily asks questions as he follows the French girl, Morgan, around the farm. She is harvesting apples and dries them on cloth underneath a hand-made screen. Her long, nut-brown hair falls in her face, covering her beauty as she tightens the knot around her apron and plucks more apples from the branch above.
“We are seeing if we can dry them using the sun’s heat. It’s just for fun, you see,” she says in her soft accent. Morgan returns to the large pot on the open fire. She is stirring apples, breaking them down into a soft, sweet sauce. More preserves to sell at the farm stand.
I leave Amir fascinated by the daily tasks at the farm and wander down the dirt path framed by evergreen poplars. That evening, the volunteers make pizza in the outdoor clay oven – left over from when they built the Earthship. They cut up small pieces of pie, passing them around, ensuring everyone gets her fair share. We must be patient as we eye the next pizza, steaming with foraged mushrooms and nettles on a melted bed of gruyere cooling from the oven.
Once the sun sinks behind the mountain, the air temperature plummets, and we wrap ourselves in sweaters and scarves, moving closer to the bonfire. We spend our time eating homemade brownies, passing a joint, and singing songs.
Alex, a young, bright, easy going Englishman picks at the guitar and makes out the song "Wagon Wheel." A favorite of mine, I break through the crackling of the fire and surrounding chatter to sing the folklore. My voice, trembling at first, finds its tone, and the notes dance above the star-studded sky. As the evening lingers, I sneak away to bed, crawling, tiredly under wool blankets with a shudder, and drift into sleep with the murmur of song and laughter outside my window.