In early summer an old friend texted to ask if I’d accompany her on a week-long trip to Colombia. She is an actor and would be filming in Guatapé, a village outside of Medellín. We could spend time together when she wasn’t needed on set and otherwise, I’d be free to explore on my own. This is something we have done in the past, in our twenties, but I hadn’t joined her on a trip like this for some time— motherhood had intervened for both of us—and my first inclination was to decline her offer. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because I’m tethered to my children in summer when my husband travels for fieldwork. Also, I was working on a contract for a local arts organization and had started a new writing project. Despite these constraints a window of time appeared on my calendar like a mirage—the August week I would travel, my husband was home, and I had no other commitments. I thought, why not?
The trip wasn’t a sure thing, however. It hinged on a waiver from the SAG-AFTRA union which had recently called a strike. Still, my interest was piqued, and, feeling that it was better to be prepared, I picked up two guidebooks to Colombia from my local library and embarked on some intensive internet research. I learned that you could tour Pablo Escobar’s Medellín mansion (nope, thanks), and climb a 200-meter-high rock that looks like a meteor in Guatapé. From a mash up of photographs on travel blogs, I memorized the colours of the Medellín bus terminal booth where I would catch the coach to the smaller village where we would stay. I discovered that there are nearly 2000 species of birds in Colombia, almost more than anywhere else on earth, and that one should not ride below deck on river cruises due to possible drowning should the boat capsize. I also read articles about contemporary Colombian authors and unearthed my copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A friend with lived knowledge of South America briefed me on Spanish pronunciations and told me not to take that public bus to Guatapé and instead opt for a taxi.
As I write this the trip remains in the balance, slipping farther away as each day passes and the waiver does not materialize. However, the past few weeks of reading has satisfied the wanderlust that drove my twenties, when I could zip off to accompany my friend to her various set locations without considering my responsibilities. I’ve been to Colombia now, at least in my imagination. In a way, it doesn’t matter if the trip never happens.
Monica Kidd’s first-prize-winning story “Not nothing, but everything” offered a similar immersive reading voyage, rich in detail both interior and exterior. Kidd has left her children and home to lecture about seabirds on an Antarctic cruise ship. The journey there is gruelling, with bright spots: “In the morning I am served cake before descending through a plush carpet of clouds.” The swell and rhythm of the sea voyage are captivating, as are the night stars ablaze, the waxing moon, and, of course, the array of ornithological wonders that drew Kidd there, and that she will expound on for the benefit of the tourists on the ship. There are also the psychological struggles of motherhood, being separated from her children for an extended period, but the real crux of her mental tussle is travel in the age of Anthropocene, particularly to a place that is, seemingly, so wild.
Why expend so much fossil fuel for this experience, particularly for a naturalist who cares deeply about the natural world? Kidd’s answer is that she wants to witness this place, to see it, but also, to share what she has witnessed.
“In the evening, after the work is done, I head out on deck to watch the sunset. S. is there. We puzzle over the paradox of bringing people to places we wish to keep wild. I say I console myself by believing I am doing environmental education. I have seen the light go on in people’s faces. That light is everything: hope, wonder, love.”
Reading this exquisite paragraph, I thought, Oh! I understand. The urge, yes, but something deeper in the witnessing; the treasures a witness can return with, having seen but also understood the natural world, coupled with the ability to express that knowledge in such crystalline, poetic prose. The writer may go so that we can follow and see the albatross, the penguins, the shearwaters, and storm petrels but not tread on grass or glacier, board a plane or boat. After reading this piece, I felt sated, as if I had journeyed into Antarctica and back again, a testament to Kidd’s voice, her writing and her naturalist’s eye.
The reader follows Judith MacKay on a journey, too, in her runner-up story “The Words of Strangers.” It is a pilgrimage of seeking and hope, images and idols, a probing of her past and present as she searches for love and acceptance from a parent who provided neither, at least not in abundance, and for whom she is grieving. We are in Switzerland, or at a Basilica on the outskirts of Mexico City, large enough to host a 10,000-person congregation for mass. Then, in the final scene, spontaneously attending New Year’s Eve mass at a small church in the Mexican Quarter of Santa Barbara, where “flickering candles threw dancing shadows on the walls, and the scent of wax and sweet incense floated in the air.” It is here that the pilgrimage reaches its pinnacle. What MacKay seeks is not tangible but spiritual and emotional, and the journey is not a straight line. It is instead a beautiful, meandering, and emotional wander.
The poet Christopher Banks enters the essay form with elegance and heart in his honourable mention essay, “Black Hammers Falling,” an honest and harrowing illustration of addiction. In one scene, he is at Disneyland with his family and is caught in a sudden tropical storm where “lightning zigzags the park.” It is an apt metaphor for the brutality of his lived experience, a constant struggle to quell the urge that will destroy him. Banks writes, “Sometimes life is an amusement park. Sometimes, a torrential storm. I find myself in both places at once.”
In the honourable mention essay, “Cantonese Lessons for a Foreign Daughter in Law,” Danica Longair tries to learn about and better understand her husband’s family, culture, and language, all filtered through her evolving relationship with the family matriarch.
“I come into your life as it is ending, although we do not know it then. We keep our inner worlds secret from each other. We connect through our shared loneliness despite being surrounded by family love.”
The relationship between the two women is difficult, occasionally fraught, and, yet the piece hums with love, empathy, and respect. It is a character study and an elegy, both beautifully wrought.
There was some form of transformation in each of the stories in our top four choices, which, ultimately is what happens in the journey of an essay. The writer sets off, goes forth, forays into the unknown, and returns changed, sometimes greatly so, brimming with wisdom, and then they share what they’ve learned along the way. We readers are the fortunate passengers, along for the ride.