By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez y cortesía ProChile
o, why do I like to travel? Because of places like Polk County, in Central Florida, which is filled with swamps covered in water lilies. Because of the rose and marigold-lined trails of Bok Tower Gardens, where carillon music flooded my senses. Because of the black swans in Lakeland, where I feasted on giant pork chops at a wood-scented restaurant. Because of the oyster bar crowded with men wearing plaid shirts, hats, and boots with spurs. Because of the chance to be a girl again at Legoland, where I took shelter in the shade of its hundred-year-old fig tree. Because of the Space Coast beaches, open to all, and the day I spent at the Kennedy Space Center, learning more about the universe than I had in all my years at school.
I visited Belize and discovered the enigma of its existence, by which I mean that I finally had a chance to discover this Central American country, which goes almost unnoticed, but is, like most countries, filled with music, life, history, and beauty. I found this essence at an inn near Belize’s border with Guatemala, where music blasted; in the friendly faces of Abraham and Deborah, the Mennonite couple who welcomed me at the front door of their house in Barton Creek; at Seine Bight, with its clotheslines on the seashore; in the Garifuna drums; and at Placencia, with its incredible turquoise sea.
Placencia was quite an experience. It was there that I encountered the colors of underwater life, the vertigo of the ocean floor, and a fearful stormy night that seemed like a prelude to a hurricane. But it’s another memory, tiny and warm, that continues, several years later, to make me smile: the balcony of the cabin where I stayed in Cayo. I confess that I have a weakness for hotel rooms. There isn’t a trip I’ve taken that doesn’t include a meticulous mental record of where I slept. The cabin in Cayo was made of dark wood and stood on a hillside, and the balcony offered a view of the whole town and a hammock that became a portal to my dreams.
So, why do I like to travel? Because of the cold in Bogotá, which penetrated my bones since I’d brought only a light jacket, leaving me shivering nearly to death. Because of the Monserrate funicular. Because of my youngest son’s huge, transparent eyes when he saw a real-life llama. Because of visits to the Luvina, Valija de Fuego, San Librario, Casa Tomada, and Lerner bookstores. The city as so many bookstores, each one better than the last! Especially the amazing Fondo de Cultura Económica bookstore in the historic Candelaria neighborhood!
I visited Cuba…I landed in Havana and saw Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Remedios, Trinidad. Cuba was a gray and sunny boardwalk and a hotel room where I could hear ocean waves lapping below the window. It was a night of live music in Trinidad, a delightful hike through the mountains of Topes de Collantes, and a visit to the iconic Plaza de la Revolución. It was Che Guevara’s mausoleum…the history. But Cuba was, above all, music: son, guaracha, boleros, trova. (Sylvio Rodríguez´s song): Oleo de una mujer con sombrero in the middle of a botanical garden. Cuba was road trips that lasted for hours, with the lives of Cubans–waiting in line with notebooks in their hands or using horse-drawn wagons and army transports as public transport– flashing by outside the windows and one driver’s classic interjection: “Cuban mechanics aren’t just mechanics, kid, they’re artists!”
So, why do I like to travel? Because of places like Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of Chile. And the Strait of Magellan in the morning, all fog. The fjords of Puerto Natales and the endless highway to the End of the World, in the middle of the Patagonian pampas. The Torres del Paine peaks, illuminated by the orange light of dawn. And the lunch of roasted potatoes and corn, lamb, and salad offered by Luis Ovando’s family at the San Gregorio commune.
In the Atacama Desert, the wind howls like a passing caravan of trucks, but once the eddy dies down it becomes a siren’s song. Gardens filled with cacti. The houses of San Pedro, the color of the earth. The Valley of Death. The sky as big as it should be everywhere.
I like to travel because of that time on the Mapocho River, or that other time, standing before the Casa de la Moneda in Chile. Because of the markets full of dried fruit, strawberries, avocados, mangoes, apricots, grapes, plums…Because of that night in Atacama, when I looked at the sky and saw it as star-filled as it was created. And because of that other night in Jurutungo, in the mountains of Panama, where I had a splendid view of the Milky Way.
So, again, why do I like to travel? Because, when traveling, even the airports smell good to me; I love the accents of a thousand different people blending into a melody. Because, when traveling, you realize that the planet is beautiful, that we are flesh and blood wherever we go, and that most everyone’s dreams are rather simple: a good meal, shelter from the cold, a house warmed by the sun.
Because traveling is, simply put, a way of getting to know others.