Esteban Writes from Salt Lake City

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Fossil beds and fossil fuel
 
We make a stop in the far northwest corner of Colorado, almost next to Utah, to visit Dinosaur National Monument, near the town of Dinosaur, to see some dinosaurs. The town and the park are there because of this quarry, the paleontology equivalent of Scrooge McDuck’s vault.
The quarry is a large wall, preserved as found, which displays hundreds of fossils from several different species of dinosaurs. Weird to see these bones, all scattered with no order, fossilized millions of years ago after the corpses of its large owners were trapped and deposited into mud by the flow of a river longtime gone. Some of the fossils are almost complete skeletons, but most are just a jumble of ex calcium, a mix of femurs, jaw bones, and ribs from different species. I picture their dead bodies being rocked gently by the flow of a current that used to pass by my feet, all these different, individual beings, predators and preys, slowly becoming just one muddy mess.
We all know about dinosaurs, but can we really picture them? All those living creatures, searching for water and food, their footsteps still resonating, somehow, in this fossilized mud. A part of me feels reverence for them, as they are part of this resilient force we call life. Another part of me thinks they’re idiots. They all got trapped in this waterbed and all died similarly. What a dumb way to die! I feel pity for their stupidity and their inability to get out. And in that stupidity I also feel a sense of belonging, a connection beyond time, for we are as dumb as these dinosaurs, aggressive and ruthless, devouring each other, dumb enough to not see our extinction coming, falling all over again in the same pitfalls, our bones all the same, indistinguishable.
The difference, of course, is that theirs at least had the decency to look cool. They had those hammer-like tails, or razor edge backbones, or super sharp teeth. Spiky things coming out of their heads. Horn-like skulls that probably sounded like the saxophone arrangements in “Who can it be now” by Men at Work. What do we have, opposable thumbs? An acute sense of our own mortality? We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to learn how to make tools to create instruments, and the result is the band Men at Work? Pathetic. Give me some spiky vertebras, I’m trading in my logic and reasoning.
We then drive into Utah and stay in an empty campsite near a water reservoir. There’s no one here. Silence, except for oil-drilling machines. We see their silhouettes in the horizon. They appear as ruthless and aggressive as dinosaurs, perhaps a bit more monotonous in their movements. Each time they dig in their heads the ground rumbles a bit under us. I think about fossil fuel being really old organic material. Dinosaur juice. Those bodies, the brilliant ones that escaped the quarry and died perhaps a more noble death, are today being honored every time a country boy revs the engine of his Dodge Ram 1500. Their roars are back, and they’re destroying the planet that buried them eons ago. It’s a patient revenge, I guess.
 
Salt Lake City and the Smile of Mormons
High Interval Training is an exercise method where you switch between periods of high activity and resting periods to achieve an intense workout. Whoever came up with this method very probably did it while walking through Salt Lake City. Their streets are incredibly wide, so when you reach an intersection you don’t just cross the street, you bolt through it, the crosswalk countdown impossibly low, the other side a finish line. They should add volunteers in the middle section offering cups of water. The city is not only the state capital, but more importantly the religious center of the Church of the Latter Saints. Halfway through our first street crossing, when the red hand is telling us to stop, I suddenly realize how significant its role is in the city planning: believing you’ll be able to cross the street in the allotted time is an act of faith.
 
There is something mystical about this lake and the mountains around it. The clear skies and the water’s reflection cast a mirage at the edge of the mountain, and the cityscape looks like a vibrating illusion. “It’s actually the smog concentration,” Aut tells me.
Salt Lake City’s original planning was that, the illusion of Joseph Smith, who laid down plans for a city whose center would be its church and its long blocks the communal spaces of its congregation (the smog was not part of the original blueprint). Smith’s dream has clashed and merged with another dream, the one of urban capitalism, creating long blocks of clean commercial architecture along the direct and indirect influence of Mormon ideology. As a pedestrian, those two ideals seem to clash. The city is unwalkable.
 
I don’t know much about Mormonism, and whatever I try to learn ends confusing me more. The city seems to reflect that a bit. It’s confusing to me. It also seems to reflect a bit my personal interactions with Mormons. Like the ones I’ve met, the city looks as impeccable as a white shirt and a tie. Open, inviting spaces, but its structures and contents difficult to navigate and understand. Something hides behind Mormons’ smiles that makes me a bit wary. I don’t have anything against any religion, but I can’t disconnect their clean presence and their flawless smiles with their inclination to proselytism. And I don’t particularly like proselytism.
 
I’ve had my encounter with the Iglesia de los Santos de los Últimos Días, as it´s called in Spanish. I became aware of its existence because the first drummer of Oblivion, the heavy metal band, was a Mormon. If you don’t know Oblivion first of all, I feel sorry for you, and second of all, it means you are not one of the 15 people that were aware of its existence. It was my band. I played rhythm guitar, and in the earlier stages of the band, which a hardcore fan would say was the best stage of the band, I also sang lead vocals. That hardcore fan was me. My friend Chespi, the drummer, was a normal kid, except he refused to drink alcohol with us, or Coca Cola for that matter. He was very direct about his faith but didn´t judge us or tried to change our behavior. He also got us a gig in a talent show in his church. As long as we were respectful, we could play any song we wanted. We were excited and ready to release heck.
 
None of the people in this church seemed to mind when four teenagers walked into their place of worship wearing rock t-shirts and carrying flying V electric guitars. Growing up Catholic I thought it was kind of cool of them. They were inviting and approached us to say hi with their big opened eyes and permanent smiles, and growing up Catholic I thought it would be exciting to see those smiles turn into suffering. It was our time to hit the stage and Chespi marked down the beat. I hit the opening chords of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Metallica, expecting the congregation to be shocked. But no one was shocked. Not even when I sang the line “take a look to the sky / just before you die / it’s the last time you will!” People kept smiling throughout the song. I think they were smiling, it was hard to tell because the band agreed to wear sunglasses on stage. After the concert several of them approached us and told us “good job,” including Chespi’s parents. We left, feeling like rock stars.
 
A couple of weeks later Chespi informed us he was getting rid of his CD collection and quitting the band. He had a talk with his parents and some elders, and they all decided it was better if he was not exposed to that music. There was something hiding behind those smiles after all, I thought.
 
Salt Lake City reminded me, perhaps unfairly, to that episode. The city looks inviting and welcoming as a warm smile, but behind these white and impeccable buildings someone might be judging people’s decisions in silence. I don’t know, I may be wrong. After all, I walked through the city wearing sunglasses.
 
Distance from the equator
 
I’m so far from what I call home. The distance seemed so big when, during the beginning of this month, Ecuador saw social instability and violence, as never seen before. It’s so hard to be away from that, but it’s also easy to ignore it, as if the crisis was nothing but a button in my phone. I could tune in and out of it.
There’s not much I want to say about it, except that the problem is not new and that, despite the fact that the country is back to normal, the problem has not disappeared. Beyond the economic issues and the political turmoil, what hurts me the most is the distance that exists between the ruling urban middle class and the indigenous population. Their voices are seldom heard and their intentions are never understood. Even when they act and speak loudly, like they did earlier this month, people wonder who has manipulated them? Who’s behind their rebellious acts? In the eyes of so many people they have no agency. We’re very unaware of how racist we are, and how much we push them away from the national dialogue. It’s painful also to see how much race and social status are connected. It’s hard to see how so many people use the word “indio” as an insult. The division in my country goes beyond political boundaries: it’s inside us, in our impossibility to recognize and understand our own cultural and genealogical history. We try to escape from our own identity. I read the news and I think about these things, but then we’re driving through southern Utah, and we’re reaching Bryce Canyon National Park, and I press the button in my phone, and I escape from it all, like I’ve been doing for the past nine years.

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