Walking trough the Merto at Bellas Artes, when suddenly some asks me “are you lost?” It takes my mind a minute to adjust—did someone just speak to me in English?
I turn around to find a middle-aged blonde man, with a scruffy beard and a plain white shirt, who says to me in perfect English “you look like you might be lost.” I explain to him that I was just switching platforms and he tells me he could tell I was “an American” by the way I was walking.
We wait together for the train and he continues talking to me. It turns out were both from Colorado, which seems a pleasant coincidence. I ask him what he’s doing down here in Chile and he tells me with a straight face, “I came here to get away from Fukushima.”
The Fukushima nuclear power plants, constructed in Japan in the 70s, were two of 15 of the world’s most power nuclear reactor stations. In 2011, March 11th, the massive 9.0 earthquake, and the tsunami that followed, disabled the reactor cooling systems, triggering massive explosions and resulting in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Rated Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the highest rating, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimated that the amount of radioactive caesium, sent into the atmosphere by the resulting explosions, was equivalent to 168 Hiroshima bombs.
“I have a PHD in nuclear science,” he explains. “In five years everyone in the northern hemisphere will be dead, everyone—thyroid cancer, ovarian cysts, heart attacks, it’s all caused by radiation from Fukushima, so I came down here to get away.”
As he’s explaining this to me, my head is aching, I’ve just spent the past four hours in the hot sun. I can hardly think straight and my patience is short.
“So while you’re not dying, what else are you doing here?” I ask.
He explains to me that he teaches English, that he’s been down here for six months and he started a business here and he’s even bought land in Patagonia. After sensing that I’m unimpressed he jokes, “we’ll see how it goes but it’s better than dying from cancer.”
As I rub my temples and squint my eyes from the florescent lighting, the only thing that occurs to me to say is, “there are worse things than death.” To which he replies, “what for YOU, is the worst thing?”
“Being alone” I say.
And he gives me a look, like he knows that I know that the past six months of his life here have been incredibly lonely.
The train arrives and I board and he stays behind on the platform to answer a phone call.
I think it’s true that all travelers, in some sense, are escaping from something, and though we hate to admit it we are lonely, perhaps more lonely than if we had just stayed home, Fukushima or no.