It was December 2016. I was in the Ecuadorean Andes staying at a mountain lodge at about 10,500 feet (3200 meters) above sea level, and only a few degrees from 0 latitude (the Equator). The mountain air was clean, lean, and crisp. The world had just witnessed an absolute lunatic win the most powerful seat in the world. I was still reeling from that shock (like millions of people) and desperately wanted to clean out my head in the hope of getting a grip on reality. How was I going to do that? I had no idea!
The plan was to leave behind the world of my daily life and lose myself in the lofty mountains and valleys in the middle of the world. The lodge I was staying at, happened to be just the right place for this. It was surrounded on all sides by mountains and lush valleys. I could wake up and choose one of the many trails that went by the lodge and venture into any valley or mountain I wished for. The possibilities were many, and I was ready to surrender myself to the Andes. I had disconnected myself from the news, social media, emails, and other such usual trappings. Not out of choice, but just because of the non-availability of the ubiquitous wi-fi. It was just what I needed. So the ritual was set – every morning, wake up before sunrise and after breakfast, go about exploring the trails, return by sundown, with a full heart, a brain just slightly emptier than the previous day, and two failing legs. After a shower and a quick nap in the cabin, head to the communal dining area in the main hut of the lodge. Other fellow travelers would join, pleasantries would be exchanged, each of us would tell their tale of the day’s adventures over glasses of wine and the cozy warmth of the wood fired stove. Delicious hot food would arrive and everyone would eat to their heart’s content. After a satisfying meal, all of us would retire to their respective huts. Wake up at the crack of dawn (the rooster at the lodge was punctual to a fault) and repeat it all over again. It was all a little too blissful.
One such evening, after I had come back from a grueling hike I was hanging out in the main hut with two Canadian girls and a French hiker. The main door creaked open and in walked an elderly white couple. The gentleman (lets call him C) was dressed in a white shirt tucked in khakis with a hiking jacket, hiking shoes and a baseball cap. The lady (I am going to address her as B) was dressed in hiking pants and a simple blouse with an elegant string of pearls around her neck. They seemed like they were in their late seventies or early eighties. They had kind faces and a general pleasant air about them. Everyone exchanged smiles and we made room for them at the dinner table. Hearing their accent, it was evident they were Americans (I found out later in the evening they lived in Detroit, Michigan). Edmundo (the manager of the lodge) announced that food would be served in about 10 minutes. All of us settled at the communal dining table. B and C enquired about all of us, the usual, where we were from, what brought us to Ecuador, etc. As it turns out, there were 4 Americans at the table, 2 Canadians, 1 French, 1 Venezuelan, and 2 Swiss nationals. Naturally, the non-Americans unleashed the dreaded questions – “What the hell happened in the United States? How DID he win? (Which should be read as – How could Americans be so stupid?)”
Before any of the Americans at the table could speak, C said in his gentle manner “I have a request, I would greatly appreciate if we do not talk politics at the dinner table. Thank you.” His manner was polite and it was impossible to counter his request. Everyone respected his wish and the conversation drifted to other topics: from the conditions in Venezuela, to the Galapagos, and the activities that each of us had planned for the following day. After dinner and a game of bananagram we retired for the night.
The next morning, I decided to take a tour of a cheese factory established by some Swiss missionaries in the seventies in a nearby village. It was a 30 minutes ride from the lodge. About an hour’s drive away from the factory is a cloud forest and that seemed like just the kind of place I would want to spend an afternoon in. From the cloud forest the plan was to hike back to the lodge before sundown. After breakfast, as I was waiting for my ride, I saw B and C slowly walking towards me. They mentioned that they intend to also join me on the tour of the cheese factory and the cloud forest. I was happy to have company and off we went in the pick up truck, them riding with the driver and me in the open area of the truck in the back. At the factory, B and C relied on me to translate everything the cheese makers were talking about the history of the factory and the process of making the cheese. It was a challenge, but I think I managed to convey the gist of whatever I could understand with my elementary knowledge of Spanish. After tasting some cheeses (in all honesty, I didn’t quite like any), we headed for the nearby cloud forest in the pick up truck. The plan was to take a short walk in the forest while learning about the various plant species. While walking in the forest, I was accosting C since the trail was quite moist and slippery and he seemed to need some support on steep or slippery surfaces. On our walk C narrated to me stories from his past travels. I learned that him and B were well-traveled – Croatia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Burma, Lebanon, etc. I could figure out that he had a genuine appreciation of the cultures and people of various places. Never for once was there even a hint of prejudice or malice in his stories. After walking for a while, B and C said that they would like to go back to the lodge in the truck. I bid them off and promised to see them at the dinner table that night. Off I went into another valley to further empty my brain out.
At dinner that night, C was sitting right next to me. He inquired about my hike. B was sitting across from me and casually asked me where I lived in the United States. I said, DC. To which C asked “Where in DC?”.
I said, “In a neighborhood called Capitol Hill.”
He said, “Oh really! Where on Capitol Hill?”
By now, I wasn’t sure where this was going, but proceeded anyway to describe the geography of the neighborhood in the context of some major landmarks of the city, like the US Capitol. After a bit of that, I narrowed in on the few blocks of Capitol Hill where I reside.
“By the Northeast side of Lincoln Park on Constitution Ave”. I said.
B said with a hint of excitement “Oh, we used to live right there on 11th and East Capitol Streets”.
I was surprised and blurted out “Really? For how long?”
C replied “Almost 40 years.”
That hit me like an Alpaca had kicked me in my chest. I felt like a complete idiot for explaining them the geography of Capitol Hill, about 90 seconds ago. I wanted to be invisible. By now, the rest of our fellow travelers had stopped talking among themselves and were listening on to our conversation.
After swallowing my shame with a swig of some delicious Argentinian Malbec, I said “Wow, 40 years! You have lived in DC for 40 years, that’s my entire life span. What were you doing there?”
Both of them fell silent for a few seconds. I immediately realized I had asked a question that wasn’t something they were willing to answer. But now it was out there, and the rest of the diners were also looking at them in anticipation of an answer. This is now the second time in a matter of seconds that I felt like a complete moron. More Malbec to dull the shame.
B broke the awkward silence and said, “C dear, I don’t think you can hide it anymore.”
To that C, smiled and looked up at all of us and said, “I am a recently retired Senator of the United States. A lifelong Democrat, and yes this the reason I wanted to stay away from all the talk about politics. But looks like the cat is out of the bag. So bring it on.”
With that he asked Edmundo (the inn keeper) to replenish the wine on the table, as if anticipating that I may ask for more such questions which will require me to gulp down my over-eagerness in knowing other’s people’s business. It was going to be a long night. Everyone’s faces had lit up. A thousand questions were churning through our collective brains, 950 of which were in my brain alone. I did not know where to begin.
Very naively (in hindsight now), I felt like I could get all the answers to all that had happened in the last few weeks from C. Before I could begin my line of questioning, C started to talk (thankfully, since I would have most certainly made a fool of myself, thus scoring a hat-trick, which, isn’t unusual for me). C talked about the months leading up to the elections, about his role in her campaign in Michigan (his home state). He talked about the Democratic primaries, the general mood during the primaries and then after her nomination was sealed. Of course, he divulged as much as he could without being unnecessarily salacious. There was a great amount of dignity in his speech, he never bad-mouthed anyone. We were all listening intently while sipping on the wine (Argentina had made way to Chile by now).
After about 30 minutes C stopped, and there was an eerie silence in the dining room, save for the crackling sound of the burning wood from the fireplace. Needless to say, C didn’t have answers to any of my questions, but only his perspective on things. It was not enough for my greedy heart, not that night.
So I asked C, “Mr. Senator, what do you tell fools like me? What should we do now?”.
C looked at me and in his calm and assured voice said, “Know how the Government works, know what it does, know all that is good that is at risk and then fight for it. Dig deep, find what you believe in, and stand up for those things, talk to your representatives in the Government about them. Make them accountable. Find out what’s happening in your community. You don’t always have to fight the President for every issue, look out for the vulnerable in your neighborhood, the elderly, the homeless, the refugees. Be useful to them. You should do this regardless of who is in the office, there is no time like now for fighting for the good and right. And most importantly, do not let the outcomes define your actions. “
There, that was enough, enough for my heart that night and every night since that night. My brain had emptied out of the chaos and was a lot more clearer. What C said wasn’t new. I knew it all along, but just needed to be reminded. And that night, there in the middle (mitad) of (del) the world (mundo), with the two hemispheres on either side of me, I felt like my brain had emptied out of the hopelessness and filled with a new vigor.