Coming back to Chile for the third time was distinctly different than the second–less a breath-quickening miracle of a thing and more a warm, familiar loveliness. Spanish tasted like a favorite childhood food in my mouth, the air seemed to wrap its arms around me. Our first night in Santiago I felt the wild, sprawling love for this country that had been dulled my last departure by the state of my father`s health. I had missed Chile more than I’d been aware of, missed the quick, aspirated S`s, the steady reggaeton baseline pumping out of car stereos, the omnipresence of small, oblong avocados, the certain crisp flavor of the air.
Going back to Coquimbo to visit my host family seven years after living with them felt like a tug as natural as the gravity holding me to the stone patio overlooking the tiny bay. I sat at their kitchen table as I’d done dozens of times before, sipping black tea with sugar and talking about how things were going, and it felt like slipping into another version of myself, one that had been set aside somewhere, but that felt as right and as comfortable as a favorite old fleece jacket. It felt like this self, transmitted through the medium of the unique Chilean strain of the Spanish language, had just been waiting here for me to slide back into it. It felt as organic and as mine as any other part of me.
But it felt strange to line up all the other parts next to this one and create a cohesive, co-existing whole. The me sitting in Coquimbo chatting in Spanish to dozens of members of extended family felt worlds away from the me cross-country skiing through silent snow laden trees in Maine, to the me swaying to live music before the Chicago skyline. They all seemed strikingly disparate and yet equally valuable, equally authentic. Would it ever be possible to unite them and the others in their company to create a complete self, or would some parts always be taking a backseat to others?
At the beginning of my NOLS semester in the fall, our kayaking instructor Sally told us that this was an opportunity to be our best selves–to come in fresh to this experience, leaving behind all the aspects of our personality we wished we didn’t have, and allow the most true and beautiful parts of our nature to take the lead. The air in the small room at base camp was suddenly thick with the acceptance of the challenge. Everyone seemed to be mentally sifting through themselves, choosing what should stay and what should be left behind, just as we had when packing our 90 liter backpacks for the semester. The strategy was similar– take only what you need, only what will be the most beneficial and useful. We are often weighed down by the useless and the unnecessary. And so as we were instructed to lighten our gear loads, we were advised to lighten our identities as well.
As one of the oldest members of my NOLS group, I was approached for advice by one of my younger friends who was struggling with how to choose a college. I told him what I firmly believed to be true– that in life wherever we go is bound to bring out different aspects of our personalities, and to choose somewhere you will be happy you must first decide what aspects you want to be brought out.
Sitting in my host family`s kitchen, I felt pulled in many directions, and was struck with the visceral and looming concern that many shades of myself would prove to be mutually exclusive– that I would be forced to choose. And it was one thing to unpack unnecessary or bulky items and leave them behind, and quite another to realize that you can either bring your socks or your hat or your gloves, but not all three.
It seemed to me as I switched between rattling off Chilean slang to my host sister and translating for Marielle in English, shifting rapidly between selves, that I either hadn’t come to terms with the reality of a difficult choice, or I hadn’t found the right backpack yet– one that would allow space to pack in all the best, necessary things. But luckily, our journey was young and so were we, and as you go you always find better ways to pack everything in.