I was never a huge coffee drinker. I pretended to be. I think I wanted to be cool. But I always knew in my heart I was more of a tea drinker or maybe just a water drinker. A nice Vichy Catalan, perhaps. I drank coffee because Karl Ove Knausgaard drinks coffee, because it seems like every writer drinks coffee. OK, sure, maybe you can be a writer without drinking coffee.
But can you be a good writer?
I hope the answer is yes, because I’m done with coffee. It made me anxious. It made me despair. Why would you willingly ingest something that made you feel that way? Because it also made me feel fleet-footed. It gave me grandiose ideas. It made me feel like I was a good writer.
The thing is, it was always more the experience than anything. Going into a cafe, sitting down with a cup of coffee, thinking or writing. The warm cup touching your hand, the smell impregnating your very clothes. Indeed, the smell of coffee may be the best part.
But you don’t need coffee to have that same experience. You can have it with tea. You can have it with fresh pressed orange juice. You can even have it with orange juice from concentrate. You can have the same experience with going into a cafe and not ordering anything at all. You could go into a cafe, take your shirt off, and just stare at people.
“Hey. What’s up,” you say to the girl working the cash register.
You don’t need coffee. You’re a shirtless revolutionary.
My last cup of coffee before the ban was…I don’t really remember. I think it was at a Peruvian cafe here in Berlin called Inka Cafe or something to that effect. The name was creative, that’s all I remember. It was a subpar cup of coffee, but at least I got to speak Spanish with the lady working there. At least I got to talk to someone. At least it was open till a reasonable hour.
Anyway, no coffee today, and no coffee for the rest of the 100 days. I survived! It was fine. I didn’t even have to take my shirt off.
And now my parachute drops from dream to dream through the spaces of death. – Vicente Huidobro
Yesterday I woke up in the dorm of The Princesa Insolente hostel in Punta de Lobos, Chile. I didn’t know where I was at first, and then the first thing I thought about was whether I had snored. Lately I’ve developed a habit of reading until I’m so tired I can’t do anything else, and instead of brushing my teeth or turning off the light I just put the book off to the side and curl up slightly and go to sleep. This is a preliminary sleep, I’ll usually wake up and then get up and brush my teeth and take my clothes off, put the book on the floor, get under the covers and go to sleep for real. Sometimes this preliminary sleep is more of a half sleep and I can hear myself snoring or breathing loudly and I wake up embarrassed if I’m in a public space.
After waking up I went downstairs where the two Germans were preparing the breakfast. We did not speak Spanish. How are you? I asked one of them. Tired, he said. I looked at the items on the counter and began to name them in German: Obst (fruit), Brot (bread), Butter (butter), etc. I wondered if I looked like that old guy in the hostel who tries to speak everyone’s language, poorly. When did that transition happen? When did I go from being a normal age for a hostel to being the old guy. I told a girl in a hostel recently that I was 33 and she was surprised. I thought maybe you were 30, she said. That’s nice, I said, a lot of times I meet people and they think I’m 35.
After breakfast I took a walk to the end of Punta de Lobos and then packed up my stuff and drove into town. If my board was ready I’d grab it and head south, eager as I was to get where it was unequivocally green. But it wasn’t ready. Come back in the afternoon, Marcelo, the owner of the shop, said. Like at 1pm? I said. No, man, he said, Like at 4pm.
I went to a coffee shop called Cardumen to kill time, and ordered a latte. It was perfectly prepared and I told the guy working there that. Oh my God, I said, A real latte. No worries, he said. We take care of you here. I retreated to a corner where I sat next to an older Chilean couple and tried to write. I stared at the blank page. I didn’t want to write anything, and with every sip of caffeine my brain became more and more of a mess. I exchanged glances and smiles with the couple next to me. I enjoyed the music, which was hipster music. And then eventually I got up to leave, the writing wasn’t going to happen. I could’ve forced it, but it would’ve made my brain hurt even more. The prudent thing was to go to the park, lie down, and then look for lunch.
I slept in the park for probably 30 seconds. There was a kid sitting on the playground smoking weed and that made me uneasy, not because he was smoking weed but because I don’t like to sleep when strange people are lurking about. I actually liked that he was smoking weed, I liked the contrast of drug use with the innocence of a playground. At one point he was actually swinging on the monkey bars and I thought, You’re just a child. You’re just a 20 year old child.
At 4pm the board still wasn’t ready. Mañana first thing in the morning, Marcelo said. I exhaled, annoyed. I was hoping to leave today, I said. Get the board and head south. We agreed that I would come back at 630pm and follow him to where the repair guy was, so to kill time I went to another cafe. I ordered a black tea with coconut and a slice of cheesecake that cost five dollars. This is a terrible use of my money, I thought. But the cheesecake was delicious. It brought instant pleasure. The tea was bitter by comparison and I sat there as a girl in a black dress to my right smoked a cigarette, and a girl to my left stared, brow scrunched, at her laptop screen. Eventually she talked to me.
Do you live here or are you just passing through, she said.
I explained a bit about myself. She worked at a wine shop opposite us and explained to me a bit about the wines of the region. It was nice to talk to someone. We could’ve talked about anything, about breeding show-quality bunny rabbits, and I would’ve been enthralled. After talking to her I got up to leave and heard a whistle from across the street. It was Marcelo and he was waving my board at me. It was a wonderful sight. I crossed the street and cradled my board, checking the quality of the repairs. The repair guy had repaired everything, even things I hadn’t asked him to. The board was perfect. It felt like holding a $60,000 Picasso in my hands. It’s gorgeous, I said to Marcelo.
Wendy was of course waiting for me and we hit the road south. It was getting on towards evening. I hoped to surf but didn’t know if there was anything in the region. There were practically no cars on the road, and we raced around curves and up hills, the Pacific always glistening in the distance. We crossed rivers and wound our way down a dirt road along a lake. Finally we came back to the coast, and now the sun had almost set. I got a completo, a hotdog with tomato and guacamole, and kept driving. Cars had their lights on now and turned their brights off when they got too close. On the horizon stood the last ribbons of daylight, quickly disappearing, and Wendy and I continued south into the darkness.
I’ve made it to Chile. I took a six hour flight on Copa Airlines on which I checked three bags, the most bags I’ve ever checked in my life, and then a taxi to downtown Santiago last night at approximately 10pm.
When I got to my hostel, where I had reserved a private room for USD 25.00, the daughter of the owner really wanted to talk. She didn’t stop. It was one of those conversations that has no pauses, where the whole time you’re just waiting for a pause long enough to say, “Well… I think I’m going to shower.” or “OK, time for me to get settled in a bit.” The silence has to be long enough. This is key. If you say it right after the person finishes talking it could make them feel like you don’t want to talk to them. But with this girl the silences were never long enough. Finally I must’ve had a desperate look on my face because she said, “If you’re tired and want to go to bed just let me know.”
This morning I hailed a taxi in the street to get to the main bus station. I wanted the driver to recline the passenger’s seat so I could put my surf board in but it didn’t recline. He wanted to just let the board hang out the window. He was getting exasperated with me until finally he suggested I just hold the board against the side of the car with my arms out the window. “It weighs like a kilo,” he said. “What more do you want?” It was a fairly genius, albeit sketchy solution, and it worked perfectly. Only an Albanian could’ve thought of it, which is where it turned out he was from. He’d been living in Chile six years though and spoke perfect Chilean Spanish. Why Chile, I asked him. El amor, he said, el amor.
Before leaving Santiago I took a stroll to the Santa Lucia area where I got tea at Colmado and tried unsuccessfully to write. Then I went to a wonderful bookstore called La Feria Chilena del Libro where I bought Book 2 of My Struggle in Spanish. It cost over 30 dollars but I consider it a wonderful investment. I see no way in which it won’t improve my life, possibly drastically. The idea of not reading because you don’t want it to pollute your prose is erroneous. Read all you can. Only by reading will you discover your voice.
And then finally I got a bus to Cartagena, where I’m currently lying in bed typing this post on a phone with a cracked screen that I got at a gas station in Mexico. My friend Gilbert told me that when you feel stuck do something small and reward yourself. Hence this post. And hence the glass of wine I will now go drink.
First of all, Ushuaia is not the furthest south city in the world. It claims to be, and it could be depending on your definition. Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel, is further south. It has about 3,000 people. It’s much less touristy than Ushuaia because it’s (a) smaller and (b) harder to get to. Puerto Williams also claims to be the furthest south city in the world. Punta Arenas (strangely) does too.
Side note: If you want to really get far south, go to Puerto Toro, Chile. Like Puerto Williams, it’s on the Isla de Navarino. Puerto Toro has about 30 permanent residents. It’s known for king crab fishing (though “known” might be a bit of a stretch). Apparently, there’s a ferry there once a month. You can get off and walk around while they collect garbage and drop off supplies. Just don’t miss the ferry back.
The overall ambiance of Ushuaia is kind of like a crappy ski town. The main street, San Martin, is super touristy. Everywhere else is patently un-touristy. Tourists are strange in this way. They go to the same places. They do the same things. They are very predictable.
One of the main hostels in Ushuaia is called Yakush. It has several dorm rooms, several private rooms, and several common areas. Mercedes, the main morning employee, stokes a warm atmosphere that’s ultra-conducive to meeting people. Go into the kitchen at any time and you’re likely to strike up a conversation and make a friend. There’s something about Ushuaia that lends itself to a kind of solidarity that exists being together in a relatively small town in a foreign country at the end of the world. It’s not hard to get to Ushuaia, but at the same time it’s not firmly on the backpacker trail in the way a place like Lima or Buenos Aires might be. This is also reflected in the “locals.” In most places where tourism is rife, the locals get jaded towards tourists. In Ushuaia this happens less, since most “locals” are transplants themselves. It’s hard to meet someone who was born, raised, and still lives in Ushuaia.
For dining options, try Bar de Pizzas half price night on Wednesdays. For lunch, try El Bambu, a vegetarian place just up the street from Hostel Yakush on Calle Piedrabuena. For coffee, there’s only one viable option: Xpresso. Xpresso serves above average coffee, which is a feat for Ushuaia. Some might even describe Xpresso’s coffee as “good.”
As far as things to do, most tourists do the following: the national park, the Beagle Channel, Laguna Esmeralda and the glacier. This is it. Everyone does the same thing, give or take a few items. Based on reviews, the Beagle Channel is not worth the 50 or so American dollars it costs for the boat ride. Seeing seals is not that cool. Seeing a lighthouse is not that cool. The national park is OK. It’s gorgeous. But it’s also infested with tons of shuttles full of tourists. Get off the main road and paths to discover the real magic of the park. The glacier, it seems, is cool. Laguna Esmeralda is definitely cool. Touristy, but cool. Not as many people as the national park. Striking in its beauty.
The best touristy activity you can do in Ushuaia, however, is go for a simple hike. The trail to Cerro del Medio leaves right from the edge of town and winds through forest alongside a stream and up above the treeline and into the mountains. Above the treeline, things get magical. One feels like one could be on Everest. If it’s not snowing down below, there’s a better chance it will be snowing up here. And the best part about the hike is that it’s free and you don’t need to take a taxi or bus to get there. You feel like you’re cheating.
If you get a chance, go to Ushuaia. It’s magical. It’s like a crappy Aspen full of cooler people. In other words: ideal.