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Photo by Ryan Kost, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

“Hey, Dad, did you eat all the cookie dough?”

“No, there’s still some left.”

“Where? I’ve been looking everywhere in the freezer, and it’s not there.”

My Dad walks through our kitchen to look himself. He opens the freezer door and pulls out a roll of uneaten cookie dough. “Peter, there’s one thing you really could never be”

“What?” I ask as I take the sugary snack.

“Indiana Jones. You’re just not very good at finding things.”

Such an exchange has also been common in the Taylor family household. I’d rummage through my sister’s room to look for the book she borrowed only for her to hand it to me off her desk when she saw me. My mom would ask me to bring her water bottle downstairs from her bedroom only to get it ten minutes later after a ruthlessly thorough investigation that ultimately lead me to her bedside table. My parents made fun of me for losing things constantly and never being able to find them when I needed them, from my nice belt for an Easter Sunday church service to a copy of The Stranger from my high school library that’s still somewhere in my my car. I forgot the corsage for my homecoming date as a nervous sophomore trying to impress his crush, and once I even had trouble digging through my backpack to find a notebook that I had tucked neatly into the front pocket.

As I got older, I felt like I got better. My schoolwork had to be at least semi-organized if I wanted to turn in my assignments, and I needed to keep track of my wallet and car keys if I wanted to go on the date I’d just bitten the bullet to ask for. But whenever I thought I had my locative ineptitude under control, I’d do somethingl like leaving my dress shoes at friend’s house and look around my house for them for weeks after. My senior year I even bought a second homecoming shirt before finding my first one stuffed into my guitar case. At some point down the line I began to accept that while law school, medical school, or Ph.d could all be within my grasp, I would never be my favorite literary hero: the hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe.

Now I stand in the deposito La Escuela Jesus Tercero, looking desperately for a machete. My new colleague Lucia has told me previously that I would begin the day by cutting and chopping somewhere outside the school. What the object of my hacking and slashing will be, I’m not yet sure, but I’m hoping that what I need to cut will be apparent once I step outside. I just started working with Fundacion Abril, an organization that works with water distribution and agricultural education around the city, and have yet to really be involved. If I get started as early as possible, before Lucia even arrives, I could not only make a dent in the work but also give a good impression to my new companeros.

I feel like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill after she’s just escaped the hospital, about to begin her elaborate revenge plot. Sitting in the back of a truck she’s about to steal, she’s still very weak in the aftermath of her comatose state. “First, before you can do anything,” she says to herself after fantasizing about her plans, “you have to wiggle your big toe.” Today is the beginning of a year of work, I tell myself. This is where it starts

But first, you need to find a machete.

But this short blade evades me. I overturn wheelbarrows, move large bags of seeds, and carefully examine every inch of the storeroom in search of the tool I swear I had seen the day before. I go to the school director’s office with the vague hope that someone might have moved it.

“Saben donde esta una machete?”

“Debe ser en el deposito.”

I go back to search again, retracing all of my steps, even asking a woman working in the school’s kitchen next door if she had seen a machete, to which she raises an eyebrow. The entire time I hear my mom’s voice ringing in my ear: “You really just aren’t good at finding things.” In desperation I grab a dull saw off a table, the same serrucho desafilado with which it took me forty-five minutes the day before to cut three two-by-fours. I need to get started.

I call Lucia to figure out what exactly I need to do. Spanish at this point has become manageable in controlled contexts, like daily classes or exchanges with trufi drivers as I navigate the city, but my command of the language can start to break down when situations are more complex.

“Necesitas cortar el pesto seco alrededor de la escuela.” I understood the general idea, but can’t make out the word pesto. And even if I could, I wouldn’t know what it meant: I’m still at a loss as to what I need to cut. All I say is, “Pienso que entiendo,” before hanging up. I clutch my rusty saw, hoping for the best.

It doesn’t seem to be just objects that I can’t find.

I leave the school building to survey the immediate outside in search of my apparent victim. A few of these plants look vaguely weedlike. Should I unearth them? Maybe a few of these trees need some of their branches trimmed. Should I just start chopping? I decide to be as conservative as possible, to go slowly and methodically so my damage will be minimal if I end up choosing the wrong target for my machete-guided excisions. Therefore, the first thing to go into the bag is previously fallen branches scattered across the ground.

Just as I put the first branch into my bag, I see Lucia turning the corner. “How’s it going with the cutting?” she asks enthusiastically.

I hold up my bag to show the single branch, thin green leaves still sticking to the narrow shaft by their stems. “I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be cutting.”

Lucia smiles and takes me behind the school to a small field of high grass. “Cut the dry grass here.” She leans down to grab a handful. “You need to use a machete, too,” she says, pointing at my saw.

“There isn’t one in the deposito.”

She takes off and unzips her backpack to withdraw a two foot long blade that gleams in the glare of the Cochabamban sun. “You can use this one.” She hands it to me, and I get to work.

I cut dry grass for nearly an hour and a half and emerge with two splinters, a welt on my hand where the dull hilt collided, and barely a full bag of grass. The edge of the blade is dull, and the bunches of grass come in frustratingly small amounts. My attempts to sharpen it against a rock fail without water.

Throughout my physical endeavor, I reflect on the parallels between today and the rest of my life. Up until now, whenever I misplaced something, I panicked, afraid of the repercussions of my apparent lack of locative sight. I wondered why I couldn’t find what I needed, not why I needed it in the first place. Now I start to wonder whether I need to find everything in the first place. Is what I think I’m supposed find what I really need to find? As I spend more time in this new country, its mysteries all begin to reveal themselves one by one, whether or not I seek out their answers. Maybe I need to spend less time searching, and instead just let it all come.