Mediocre Artists

We were in a supermarket comparing prices of pizza sauce when the idea struck me. I suddenly stopped in the middle of the alley and told Eugenio that we should quit our jobs, our flats and our studies and start travelling to the north. He laughed. But soon his laugh turned nervous when he realized that I was being serious. He put the can of pizza sauce he had picked up back on the shelf.

He wanted to become a musician and I wanted to become a writer, and we both knew that if we didn’t fully commit, we would never succeed. For us the whole idea of being artists in Latin America was frightening because of all the economic and social uncertainties this pursuit entails; but even more daunting was the prospect of being mediocre artists in Latin America. If we didn’t do something drastic to change it, and soon, that was going to be our unavoidable future. Or at least that was what we both felt back then.

The point of the trip was to break with the sedative routine of daily life in Buenos Aires and become full-time artists. Eugenio was going to compose music every day and I was going to read and write every day. So, we borrowed a tent from our friend Martín, we sold the few valuable things that we owned, and we bought two train tickets. Eugenio packed his guitar and a sound recorder and I packed my books and notebooks, and we took a train from Retiro Central Station. We didn’t know exactly where we were headed, or for how long, or even if we were coming back.

It was an old, slow, metallic train. It was packed and hot since it was the middle of the summer. Kids crying, people yelling, hippies handcrafting, drunk persons sleeping in the alleys, candy vendors going around. I remember that I wrote a poem about my grandma’s blue nails when she died of asphyxia. Eugenio was listening to Thrice. The girl sitting next to us gave us a handmade merkaba as a gift and explained to us that all humans are born with one above their heads but as we grow older and become more entangled with mundane issues like money and prestige and power, it stops turning and our spiritual lives die out. She also mentioned several times that she hated plastic’s vibes, whatever those are.    

At some point in the journey we arrived in a tiny, mountainous town in northern Argentina called Tafí del Valle. A tall girl in manly boots and with a pineapple in one hand approached us and asked if we knew where to camp out. Her name was Lissette. She was Dutch, from Utrecht, and she had come on the same bus as us. She camped out with us that night and we prepared a horrible pineapple rice for dinner. After some days with her in Tafí del Valle, she informed us that she was going to travel with us two for a while. Somehow it felt natural, as if we knew it already.    

Lissette was also a musician. She sang and played the ukulele. Naturally, Eugenio and she started to make music together, which rapidly led to a romantic relationship. Or at least to a very sexual one. So much so that when, much later in the journey, I proposed in Colombia to go to La Habana, Cuba, they told me that they would rather go on travelling by themselves. Somehow it felt natural, as if I knew it already.

In La Habana I met Darío, a politically engaged student of the Universidad de La Habana who showed me around. One evening, drinking from a bottle of rum at the Malecón, he told me the story of his grandfather, who had been the captain of a military ship in the Angolan war. I asked if there was a chance I could interview him. Darío said he would see what he could do because the man was quite reserved about that episode of his life.

For some unknown reason, Darío’s grandfather accepted to be interviewed under the condition that I would bring a bottle of rum to his stark apartment in the crumbling neighborhood of El Capitolio, where he lived with his wife Alba. We talked until the bottle was empty. Darío, who was eavesdropping on us from time to time, told me later that his grandfather had never revealed some of the things he told me. I still keep the shabby notebook where I wrote the interview. It’s falling apart.

Based on the grandfather’s war story, I wrote a Faulknerian short story and sent it out to a Spanish literary contest organized by Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Some months later I went to Madrid to collect the prize of six thousand Euros. My second stop in Europe was Utrecht, of course, where Eugenio and Lissette were living together in an old, squatted school building next to the canal. They were both street musicians. When he opened the door, we hugged and looked at each other proudly. He already knew my plan. I was going to invest the prize money in a student visa to stay in Europe. We felt strangely safe. I think we both knew that we were going to be mediocre artists after all, but at least not in Latin America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.