Feasting on the Unknown

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Patagonian Road
By Kate McCahill
Santa Fe Writer’s Project, 2017
350 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Emily Walz

 

Patagonian Road sinks the reader into a detailed depiction of author Kate McCahill’s year in Latin America, a scattering of days and nights tracing from Guatemala to Argentina. McCahill’s mission is to immerse herself, learning Spanish, teaching English, volunteering, and backpacking her way across 10 countries.

McCahill ostensibly follows Paul Theroux’s route from his 1979 book, The Patagonian Express, though she doesn’t visit all of the same countries, use the same transportation methods, or share the same travel philosophy. Where Theroux traveled purposefully via train all the way to Patagonia, McCahill says she can’t imagine traveling like that. Instead she opts for a series of short immersions.

Whether she is renting the spare room of an older sister in Buenos Aires, hiking the backpacker’s trail to Machu Picchu, or installing stoves in the remote hamlets of Guatemala, McCahill chronicles it all. There is the copper-colored setting sun in Granada; the colorful restaurants lining the streets of Quito’s Mariscal district; jackhammers pounding outside a Cuenca hostel; the smell of Antigua–trash and bananas, blooming flowers and water. The paragraphs are packed with sensory information, set in a present tense that lets the reader slip into the travelogue.

While these details speak to a full attention to what’s before her, for much of her book, McCahill represents the divided self: half of her is back home with the woman she refers to as E–, a lover who trails her like a ghost, pulling the narrative out of Latin America and up to Santa Fe for a brief reunion visit. This is repeated when they spend a few days together on Nicaragua’s Corn Islands. Once their relationship dissolves, E– slowly fades from view, leaving McCahill less encumbered. She carries memories of other loved ones: standing in a grocery store with her mother, buying gifts for new teachers and hosts, her father slipping her money just in case.

McCahill writes, “it is in feasting on the unknown that we come to know ourselves.” That seems to be the essence of travel writing projects: a physical journey that parallels a corresponding spiritual one. But when only a relative few can afford this feast, the framing leaves a host of questions open. As writer and activist Bani Amor points out, travel writing is “the story of tourism, and historically, it’s been the story of conquistadors, colonizers, ‘explorers’ coming into these lands.” The book’s back cover notes that McCahill “personifies a growing culture of women for whom travel is not a path to love but a route to meaningful work, rare inspiration, and profound self-discovery,” a description that calls to mind Eat, Pray, Love, and its perspective from a wealthy white woman from the United States traveling breezily across the globe. Going deeper requires grappling with the central question of what it means to be one of a privileged few traveling to poorer countries, for the purpose of self-discovery.

There are moments where McCahill’s recognition of the disparity is powerful and poignant, illuminating what it means to be there as a representative of the nation that has dominated the hemisphere for decades, painting all of Latin America as its “backyard” since the 1800s, and had a hand in orchestrating the chaos that still reverberates there. In those moments, McCahill’s talent for detail and deep reflection shines:

There is a woman sitting on the curb without shoes. Her feet are gnarled, her toenails black, and she has wrapped herself in a tattered blanket. In front of her, she’s laid out a couple of bunches of bananas, a basket of overripe strawberries, and a pail of bruised peaches. She looks up as I pass, an empty look, and gestures, exhausted, toward the fruit. It is impossible to tell her age; she could be fifty, or she could be ninety. She could be my grandmother’s age, I suddenly think, and it is then, imagining for a moment my grandmother crouched there instead of her, that I feel the urgent poverty of the place. It takes the wind out of me, and then I see it in everything: the gray of the sky, the way it chills the bone and hardens the skin, the body resigned to desperation.

Looking inward, she writes, “I came to Riobamba to solve another mystery, to see another place and gain an imprint. I came to take, and I was surprised when the city made me sad. In the end, I’m ashamed for confusing pity with shock, and for believing that my tears at the old woman with no shoes did not mean I was afraid.”

These are among the best moments, but the pivotal revelation is somewhat diminished when she continues, “Again, I think: I am the one percent,” neatly categorizing the revelation. On leaving Riobamba, this one-percenter continues south, alongside a mass of other one-percent tourists doing the same, seeking the same personal revelations through language lessons and moments with beautiful vistas. The book succeeds in transporting the reader into an obsessively detailed account of her surroundings, but it is up to the reader to trust that McCahill has reached some higher level of awareness of privilege without needing to interrogate the whole travel writing project.

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About Author

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Emily Walz is a mild-mannered Midwesterner, ex-China expat, retired college radio DJ, occasional food critic, book reviewer, and policy researcher based in Washington, D.C.

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