400,000 years ago Homo erectus learned to control fire. An incredible feat if you are able to consider the place fire held in the lives of these early hominids. Danger, destruction, decimation of their food and resources. Somehow our early human ancestors were able to set their fear aside in order to get close enough to examine its behavior, its potential. Soon they learned that by using the light fire provided they were able to free themselves from a schedule dictated by sunlight. They were able to protect themselves from various biting insects and dangerous mammals more effectively and they were able to utilize the culinary landscape to a greater degree, rendering many toxic plants edible and benefiting from more of the nutritious value available in the meats they consumed. It is through thousands of years of relating to and negotiating with fire that we have forged a dualistic understanding; fire as protector and provider on one side and fire as weapon and destroyer on the other. Throughout the world fire is featured prominently in ritualistic ceremony and celebration while simultaneously used to obliterate entire cities and torture non-believers. Although one of our very first tools it still ignites our divine imagination as well as our instinctual fears.
I watched apprehensively as the machine gobbled up my last five Euros and I boarded the shuttle bus back to Porto. The last three hours had been spent with the DHL staff attempting to locate my package until finally driving me out to an enormous warehouse to retrieve it personally. The small box now safely on my lap, I gripped it tightly and tried to breathe normally; I had nothing left except for a three night hotel bill and a growling stomach. I was so far inside my mind that the scenery outside the window seemed like an Impressionist painting, colors softly blurring together as I battled “worst case scenarios”.
Finally standing in front of the ATM downtown Porto I slid the card through the reader and entered my PIN number. A few electronic clicks and a whirr had never caused such a sense of profound relief in all my life, the gun-metal grey door slid open and there before me was cash, was freedom and security, was the rest of my journey beginning. Immediately I returned to the hotel. It was already evening and the landlady was in her dingy nightgown doing laundry, the filtered sunlight creeping back up the walls of the inner courtyard. I paid her, packed my bags and went directly to the train station and boarded the next train to Lisbon, hoping never to see Porto again.
Arriving in Lisbon late that evening, I discovered that the overnight train to Madrid was leaving in a couple of hours and there were only “hard seats” available. Without much thought I purchased a ticket and sat down in the lobby to wait for the boarding announcement. It had been a long day and the adrenaline was starting to give way to the fatigue when I was finally able to jostle my way to the last train car and find a seat. It was instantly clear what the teller was trying to explain when I inquired about the term, the seats were nothing but “hard”- moulded plastic with low metal dividers used as armrests. My next half delirious realization was that I had found myself in a smoking car and it was quickly apparent that my fellow travelers were well stocked and planning to keep a night-long vigil of tobacco and lighters in the small cabin. Before I could fling myself from the train, give in to exhaustion and splurge on a hotel room for the night, the train started to pull out of the station and into the darkness.I comforted myself with the thoughts that I could sleep through the fluorescent lights and heavy pale blue air and in doing so wrapped a scarf around my face and burrowed into the sharp corner of my seat. It was only 11 hours after all.
Several hours later, my eyes a striking crimson color I decided to seek refuge in the dining car. A few minutes later returning after the sad realization that in order to stay in the dining car, you had to actually purchase one of their criminally overpriced snack items…only doubling the regret that I didn’t choose a hotel room that night instead of this hellish Las Vegas vending machine of which I was now a prisoner. Another few hours of acrobatic positioning and the train seemed to be slowing down for something. According to my time estimates we should be nearly 5 hours away from Madrid, looking for confirmation would give me a convenient reason to escape to the dining car for at least a few minutes. Sliding the glass door behind me, I stepped into the cool, fresh air envying the passengers seated comfortably snacking on 10 euro peanuts and 12 euro colas. Slowly I approached the bar, savoring every moment away from the company of my “hard seat” companions. Carefully I asked about the estimate time of our arrival in Madrid, and that’s when I saw it. The waiter turned to look at me with deep pity, not only the kind of “you-are-swimming-in-a-cloud-of-cigarette-smoke-in-the-worst-cabin-in-the-worst-seat-at-the-end-of-the-packed-train-where-the-overhead-lights-never-shut-off-and-you-cannot-afford-the-peanuts” pity, now it was compounded with “AND your intercom system is broken” kind of pity.
There was a serious wildfire which had consumed the tracks ahead of us and the train had been forced to re-route in order to connect with Madrid. Our arrival would be delayed at least 8 additional hours. EIGHT HOURS… the words rang in my head like my skull was a Tibetan singing bowl and I couldn’t stop the reverberation from circling around and around … EIGHT MORE HOURS. When I finally recovered from the deep stupor the news had plunged me into I returned, defeated, back to my assigned cabin. Scanning the train car, I realized there was a door at the end. As if the universe conspired to give me at least a little glimmer of hope, the door opened slightly and I if I sat in the right position on the floor against the back wall I could get a small breeze and was able to see out the back of the train. The moon was out and the tracks behind us seemed eerily quiet and peaceful as the stretched further and further away. A passenger nearby light another cigarette and the control with which he maneuvered the glowing red ember seemed a stark contrast to the raging fire out there somewhere in the night from which we now fled.