The present time

Traveling towards Brussels shortly before approaching the university town of Leuven, I remembered I met someone a decade ago in the southernmost tip of South America. Drawing on my memories, my vague memories in this case, I recollect pieces of the events that prompted me to think about it precisely here. 

His name, Bert Cabré and his place of residence, Leuven, Belgium. When I met him, on the outskirts of El Calafate, Santa Cruz Province, Argentine, I was the manager of the municipal camping site and Bert had come walking from nowhere out of the blue. As the days passed, he would always come to my office -which was the place where I was living, actually- and we ended up in long talks, drinking, cooking. There was enough time to escape after dinner to the unofficial Backpackers Hostel, a place around the corner always inhabited by people who seemed to have travelled a lot and by default knew each other somehow. I had the feeling that we all had the same mindset which basically was that the system is something useful but not necessarily to be in. 

The somewhat beat-up place was crowded almost every night, sometimes with quiet hours and sometimes with a lot of noise and energy. Although there was someone who seemed to be in charge, there was an atmosphere in that place that indicated that everyone assumed some responsibility in its maintenance. There were mattresses and hammocks almost everywhere, a kind of overcrowding that was not the sign of a proper hostel. 

When Bert and I escaped to La Choza, as I called it that house, I would leave a note on the door of my office, writing a sketch and the instructions to eventually someone who was looking for camp. At that time, 1991, we did not have cell phones. Sketches and signs had to be designed as a guide. Many of those who camped in the Campsite ended up in La Choza which, it must be said, was a kind of addictive place. Some travelers liked the atmosphere so much that they postponed their trips to the road again. It was the case of my Belgium friend. And, like Bert, many lonely, disinherited, existentially broken travelers have come to El Calafate, struck down by comfort. 

Since I arrived in El Calafate, I introduced myself as one of them. Despite receiving a small financial reward for my work, I was actually in that place because I could also feed the feeling of living in a house, with all its comforts. An apparent contradiction that accompanied me almost all my life as a traveler. Since, on the one hand, there was that urge to go out and be independent and, on the other hand, whenever I had the opportunity to settle in a place, I did. The only certainty I had was that time and space did not exist as it was perceived, even in those moments of “rest” from my long expeditions. Bert was no stranger to these existential-emotional swings. Although, as a good European he had a return ticket, there were times when he expressed himself as the only thing he counted on was the present time. The present time, we remembered, was that mental situation that levitated from reality, from normality, from the tangible, from the past and from the future. It was that “letting go, follow the flow”, an indicator so subtle and so powerful at the same time. And, that “follow the flow” was devoid of plans, past and future commitments. It was that “being truly present where one is.” Absolutely difficult thing to incorporate or cope with in a normal life, full of obligations, norms, shortcuts and rules to obey, always based on the past and the future. Where the present tense was an axiom, a wedge between the past and the future. The present time, we both remembered, was, in our case at least, the fundamental part of life, the follow the flow factor.

That present time stops us at a highway intersection about five kilometers from Leuven and leads us to enter a rural neighborhood with certain industrial activity. We decided to try the first address, actually a building materials business apparently.

“We are looking for a person who would be called Bert Cabbré, I have known him for many years in southern Argentina …”, the young woman gestures to me to stop talking and to wait a moment. She gets up and heads inside the office. A couple of minutes later, a man who looks like a recent retiree appears.

“I am Bert Cabbré’s father,” he says, taking off his glasses and looking at me.

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