Roger and I felt compelled to fulfill our sightseeing duty by climbing the Mt. Merapi volcano near Bukittinggi, Sumatra, Indonesia. (Not to be confused with the other more famous Mt. Merapi in Java, which is just a few meters higher.) As always, you must go up in the afternoon, arriving at the top to see the magnificent sunrise. We were assured that there was an over-night hut somewhere toward the top. It was not a difficult climb and six other travelers decided to join us. We set out by bus about noon, and dutifully checked in at the village police post at the foot of the mountain, where we were once again assured that there was an enclosed shelter three-quarters of the way to the top.
We began the modest climb, four men and four women, with very little gear and a small amount of food. The trail became steeper and more slippery. Soon we were pulling ourselves up the muddy slope by hanging onto small trees beside the trail. The clouds moved in and the rain began. No hut appeared. We went on. It got colder and it got darker. Being experienced hikers, Roger and I both carried flashlights. We later determined that no one else had brought any more than they would bring on a trip to the store!
The rain poured down and the flashlights grew dim, until we had only one light. Should we go back? We went on. The route got steeper and more slippery, but we could still see the trail. We were beginning to get cold, and scared. The hut must be up here somewhere! One of the men tossed a shoe. In fact, he was wearing only leather sandals and one had broken irreparably. I had an extra pair of camp slippers, but they were too small, and he chose to go on barefooted! I blamed myself for letting him come on the hike at all without proper footgear. I had not even bothered to check out what others had brought.
Well after dark we broke above the tree line. We must have been approaching the summit, but on the rock-strewn mountainside it was impossible to discern any signs of a trail. The clouds closed in until we could see no more that 30 meters in front of us. The rain continued pouring down, and it was cold. This was it. We decided it was too dangerous to descend the slippery mountainside with only one feeble torch. And so we sat there on the rocky slope. We sat there all night in the cold and the rain.
Being experienced hikers, Roger and I had brought a reasonable amount of emergency gear for ourselves. Soon everyone was outfitted with some article from our packs -- a wool cap, a rain jacket, a flannel shirt, a thermal undershirt, extra trousers, spare socks. Roger's sleeping bag was spread across three laps and two others shared my umbrella. We were soaked and we were cold; I shivered uncontrollably throughout the night. People were scared and some cried; we huddled together for warmth and we told stories and sang songs all through the rainy night.
But I was scared, too. The rain never let up, and I had no idea how cold it would get on the mountainside. We had brought precious little among us for protection against the elements. I figured that we would survive, but there was the danger of hypothermia, or at least serious colds. If I had been alone I might have been a lot more scared, but there were other people to worry about; we couldn't let anyone get hysterical. At the equator, darkness lasts twelve hours the year around. We kept singing...
Somewhere beyond the dense clouds, dawn came to Sumatra, and eventually we could see the forest in front of us. As soon as it was light enough, we packed our gear and headed down the mountain. By the time we reached the foothills, the rain had stopped. We wrung ourselves out and even had a few nervous laughs about the fiasco this trip had been.
We made it back to Bukittinggi in one piece and I was surprised to find that everyone survived without even suffering a bad cold. We were lucky; it had not become cold enough to do us serious harm, not on that particular night. That was to be my last volcano climb! (Or was it?) I had climbed enough of the requisite volcanoes in the world to realize that the sunrise looks pretty good no matter where you are, if you manage to get up early enough to see it. But you would be surprised at how common stories like this are. Well, yes, I have climbed a few volcanoes since then. But I have never forgotten the lessons I hope we all learned on that particular hike.
Holbox ("hole-boash") -- It means "the place where the mosquitoes are like rain". Well, it could mean that, for all I know. Every afternoon, Ron and I would wind up at the only cafe on the beach, to see what was for dinner. It was always the same fried fish and fried potatoes, but it was good, cheap, and huge. Over a warm beer, we watched the sun descend until about five o'clock, when we looked at each other with a smile and said, "Well, I guess maybe I'll head on back to the hut."
"Yeah, well, I suppose I will too." This was our little joke. The reason we ate our dinner before five, and the reason we were about to stroll back home was that, just as the sun goes down in Holbox, all of the mosquitoes in the Gulf of Mexico gather there for their nightly feeding frenzy.
And woe to the person who is at large when they arrive. There was that Swedish fellow who got caught in a cloud of mosquitoes so thick that we lost track of him until he ran screaming into the sea, and was never seen again (well, I never saw him again). In fact, many of the few travelers who came to Holbox left the morning after their arrival, driven out by the mosquitoes. Ron and I were not particularly thick-skinned, we just lived in the only hut that could keep the bugs out.
On a couple of evenings we ended up running home as the sun got dangerously close to the horizon, and a few scouts began buzzing around our heads. No, not jogging, but bug-eyed running, every man for himself. We dashed inside, lighted several mosquito coils, and watched as the mosquitoes covered the glass windows until they were opaque. Two hours later, the mosquitoes were completely gone -- every night, just like clockwork.
The howlers have been going at it all night long, huffing and puffing like a tree full of tigers in heat. It's the full moon on the Usumacinta River, mate, and the boomerang toads are harmonizing with the Space Invader toads at eight-to-the-bar. I've slept in quieter freight cars with the Mexican hobos trying to get their heads unglued with a fist fight. Still, even in the full moon, a Mexican coal car can't stand up to the Usumacinta on concert nights.
The River itself lacks the majesty of the Mekong, but that's neither here nor there -- as is Yours Truly. I'm no longer here, have departed, was never on the scene, left no tracks upon the muddy waters.
But, were I here, I should describe to you the late afternoon flight across the river of the scarlet Guacamaya (AKA macaw); and the drunken croak of the great schnozzola'ed Toucan (stuffed full of fermenting fruit) before it dives through the trees like a flying squirrel imitating a fat green toucan. The blue sheen of the mot-mot's long pendulum tail feathers. The timeless ritual of the May Fly hatch, when a hundred white-winged utterly senseless insects land in your porridge and stick there, as they cover the ground with their spasmodic pathetic little bodies; the iridescent caterpillars with the side-lights all the way back -- looking for all the world to see like an injured El-train limping across the cloudy London night sky. The twining of the thorny lianas around the huge mossy mystery of the carved stones at Piedras Negras and Altar de Sacrificios (ah, spots to remember). The slow crack-crack, cracking, followed by the sudden and devastating crash of huge deadly ceiba limbs to the forest floor somewhere (somewhere else, you hope) in the still of the dead night. The nightly fellowship of communion with the mosquitoes; the quiet excitement of anticipation before the nightly tick hunt; the awed wonder of a bloated week-old deer carcass floating gently down river towards eternity; the devastating munching and marching of the Leaf Cutter Ant Hordes, leaving in their wake swaths of total vegetable destruction; the prance of the iridescent blue ant; the healthy welt of the enraged Central American Bull Hornet; the flight of the magic spider monkeys through the ramon trees at dusk; the frantic scamperings of the JesusChrist lizard across the swampy backwaters of a marooned oxbow; the sudden crash of a raging rogue iguana through the undergrowth, all six feet of him, swaying out of synch with his tail; the Chinese water torture of the loony Ping-Pong Bird with its incessant "ping-pong, ping-pong, ping-ping-pingggg-pong, ping-ping.... ping......... ping ..................... pong!"
I would have you know the puniness of our little mahogany launch between the cliffs of the San José, twelve hundred feet straight -- mark my words -- straight up; and the splash of the turgid white water in my face, in my mouth, in my bloody gear, filling the bottom of the f**ing boat!
I would drop the names of the Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork, and Moisés the Corn Boat Man, with his knee boots and his rumpled ten-gallon hat, looking for all the world like the probable fate of A.C. Sandino -- had he had the misfortune to live.
But you, Captain Ned, are already intimate with so many of these things. Yet who else could appreciate the throbbing week-long welts of the goggle-eyed Doctor Fly -- the little bastard with the blood-drilling rig on the front of his face -- save one who has nursed them on his own swollen ankles and face?
Who else could appreciate the blood-curdling guttural roar of the magnificent black Howler Monkeys [no, not those puny little red howlers in South America] but one who has awakened suddenly in his lonely hammock in the midst of the jungle, found himself sitting bolt upright in the night with eyes darting and bulging and clammy sweat trickling down his nose as the unholy shrieks come from everywhere, scaring the ticks even deeper into his crotch, raising goose flesh and heart rate even though you know it's only a goddamn monkey. Yeah, only a whole tree-full of goddamn 35-pound monkeys gone berserk with the primordial ritual of male dominance by Banshee scream.
These and many other tastes and wheezes would I send into your living room, were I still here with Moisés and the corn boat on the River U. at the full moon.
But the full moon has reminded me of other worlds and other times, and I have transported my mind ahead and sent for the rest of my form by surface mail. It remains somewhere in that Purgatory between Budzilla Falls and Palenque where you wait for Scotty to fix the beam and unscramble your tangible form into an animal cracker on the steps of the Temple of the Inscriptions.
In short, I am in a Dream, and I am running far ahead of where my body can go.
Having a great time. Wish I were here.
And so on...- Ray
Chichicastenango, Guatemala hosts one of the most colorful, and well-known indigenous markets in Latin America. If you go on market day, you will be caught up in the hubbub of thousands of people, many of whom are tourists, bussed in for a few hours in the morning. Not everyone knows that the market actually sets up on the afternoon before market day. This is a great time not only to find bargains in the relative tranquillity, but also to watch the vendors arrive and set up their stalls in the plaza. The day after market day is another surprise, because Chichicastenango reverts to a sleepy little village again, the marketplace deserted save for a few vegetable stands. I enjoy not only the market, but the transitions, and especially the sleepy little village itself.
One of the best bargains I ever made was for something that I did not want to buy. I did want to buy a hammock -- in fact I needed a hammock to sleep in that night -- but I did not like anything the Palenque street vendor offered me. The only high-quality hammock he had that was really large enough was a very ugly orange and purple. I hated it, and I told him so. I wouldn't even bid on it. This was a waste of my time and I tried to walk away, but he kept following me up the street, and bringing the price down. In the end, he made me an offer so amazingly low that I just couldn't refuse. I've spent many months sleeping in that hammock, and I still have it today. I love it.
After traveling around with an unused Turkish syringe for over eight months, I stupidly arrived with it in Japan. In fact, I stupidly arrived in Japan with my entire pharmacopoeia of traveler's medicines, potions, and balms. All of the border crossings for many months had been a breeze, and I forgot how careful the Japanese are. First they pulled out my little bag of ground papaya seeds, then a couple of crumbling caffeine tablets wrapped in some old note paper. But when the syringe came out of my bag, the customs officer leaned over, popped a switch and a little flashing red light -- like on a police car -- started whirling round and round over my head. Within seconds, two officers rushed up and escorted me off to my own private room for some really serious searching.
They were very polite, and very thorough. They found things in my rucksack that I had been trying to find for weeks! And they wanted to know the purpose of absolutely everything I carry. I couldn't believe all the medicines I'd walked in with, most of which I certainly would no longer need. But, since I have lived in Japan and speak Japanese, we got along pretty well.
Also, I knew I had nothing to hide (or did I?), and certainly they could see that I was not worried (or was I?). The caffeine tablets colored the drug test, but most of the other powders, dust, and crumbs they tested were benign. After a brief strip search, we talked about the interesting places I had been to. Finally, after about 50 minutes, I only had to sign a release for the one item they were confiscating. No, I got to keep the syringe, but Lomotil is an illegal drug in Japan! I threw out most of the rest of the "junk" as soon as I got into Tokyo.
In case you're wondering, travelers carry their own syringes to avoid contracting deadly diseases from "communal" syringes used in innoculations and blood transfusions in much of the Third World. You can buy cheap plastic one-shot syringes in most pharmacies out there somewhere.
One of the few times I was detained by police was in Tokyo, for not carrying my passport. You are not really in any danger in Japan unless you are caught with drugs, but still you must remain calm and follow protocols. I ended up speaking by phone with someone who spoke English, who admonished me and let me off.
Another fellow in a similar situation had been a bit indignant with the police, and was detained and questioned for over an hour. He felt, perhaps "rightly", that it was completely unfair and prejudicial to be questioned and held just because he was a foreigner; his mistake was in showing his contempt. During a lull in the proceedings, he felt the need to use the toilet, and said in Japanese, "Excuse me...." The policeman behind the desk looked up with a smile and, taking his words as an apology, handed back his papers and let him go, saying "That's alright, just be more careful next time."
Accepting responsibility and apologizing for a misdeed is central to the Japanese -- and Chinese -- judicial systems, but very important in many other societies. Chinese dissidents can be left to rot in prison until they write a "self-criticism", denouncing their own actions. In several countries I have been required to write letters of apology and culpability for minor document problems, and left to go on my way.
Ron approached a Moroccan pedicab driver for a ride back to his hotel.
"Only 2 dirhams, and we see three carpet shops on the way," says the driver.
"No, no, I just want to go to my hotel."
"Okay, 4 dirhams and we stop at two carpet shops."
"No, just the hotel."
"Alright, 6 dirhams and we stop at only one carpet shop."
"No, no carpet shops! Just take me directly to my hotel!"
"Forget it," says the driver, and he walks away.
...and so on. Soon I am really shouting at this guy to get away from me. Then he quietly says, "Why are you so angry? I am only talking with you?"
I passed that corner at least twice a day while in Delhi, and always, always, one or more of these men would approach me in the same way. That is why I learned to ignore them. When I ignore them, they eventually stop talking to me, and I go on my way in relative peace of mind.
Searching for ourselves,
We find each other.
And what we find in each other,
For better or for worse,
Is the reflection of ourselves.
When I first met Ron on the little launch over to Holbox Island, off of the Yucatan coast of Mexico, I didn't much like the looks of him. He was skinny and scruffy, he had a wispy goatee and an earring, and he traveled with a beat-up guitar. He looked like some dead-beat European hippie.
But Ron and I were the only Gringos on the launch that day and it seemed reasonable to team up, since accommodation was going to be hard to find. Ron, it turned out, was an American from Chicago.
We found a house together and enjoyed ourselves for several days. Ron thought he would leave pretty soon, and I thought I would stay around for a while. We ended up leaving together and headed for Isla Mujeres; our route was similar, but our "schedules" a bit different. I was headed down to Playa del Carmen, where I knew there was a good campground on the beach. Well, Ron reckoned he might come by sometime and check it out. Eventually, we went together.
At Playa del Carmen, we enjoyed over three blissful weeks together. Ron and I shared a hut, but we never acknowledged that we were actually "traveling together". Being solo travelers, we liked our independence. One or the other of us was always going to leave "next week", but it really was a hard place to leave. I had earlier discovered a couple of isolated beaches along the coast, and Ron thought it might be just fine to go along 'for a few days' and check them out. Whatever you like, Ron.
Well, the story just goes on and on. Through beaches in Quintana Roo and islands off of Belize, Ron and I just always happened to be heading the same way about the same time. Finally, after more than two months of 'not really traveling together', we split up as Ron headed for Guatemala, and I for Honduras. We did manage to meet up again for a week in Costa Rica.
Today, 12 years later, I am proud to say that Ron is one of the best friends I've got in the world. We don't see each other very often, but we keep in regular contact by phone and mail. I have flown to Chicago just to see him, and he has done the same for me. We catch up on years of travel photos and stories. I get letters from his frequent travels, and when I'm on the Road, I share my best stories, tirades, and confessions in long letters to my buddy Ron.
One of these days, Ron, we just have to hit the Road again, together.
By now you know that, out on the Road, it is the Westerners who are alien, and when I speak of "foreigners", that means you! Travelers often come to refer to their own kind as "foreigners", "farang", "ferringhi", "guai-lo's", "long-noses", "mzungu", "gaijin", "pakkeha", "lo-fan-gui", "haoli", and yes, even "gringos", although you may not always like being addressed in these ways. "Sir" and "Miss" usually sound much better.
"Gawd! There's a whole busload of Long-noses up there!", would be a traveler's common reaction to a foreign tour bus in China, even though those tourists might well be from his own country. Some travelers in Latin America are offended by the word "gringo" because they feel that it lumps them together unfairly with ugly Americans. "I am not a Gringo, I am from France." While you may appreciate the nuances, most locals do not; "gringo" is just a conveniently colloquial word for "foreigner" (the proper word is "extranjero"). In Mexico, you may feel better being called a "guero" -- blonde, or fair-skinned -- until you learn that it is considered just as insulting by many Mexicans.
Not long after I first arrived in Japan (many years ago now), I casully met another resident foreigner at a job interview, and he took me under his wing. He could immediately see that I was clueless, near pennyless, totally at sea in Japan, and not even sure I would stay more than another month or two. For some reason I could not fathom, this man helped me find a place to live, showed me how to navigate the trains, taught me about Japanese eating and drinking places, and imparted many other bits of wisdom that you would never find in any book. And we became fast friends. However, had this person not run into me that day, I'm sure that some other foreign resident would have done something similar in the next few days or weeks!
A month or two later, as we were sitting in a Japanese cafe, where my friend had bought me a couple of beers and some food, I finally had the presence of mind to express my surprise to him:
"You know that I will never be able to pay you back. Why have you been so helpful to me!"
He looked away for a minute and then he told me this story:
"Many years ago, when I first arrived in Kobe, I didn't know anything about Japan and I was completely lost. But I met this English guy, and he took me in. He let me stay in a spare room at his place until I could get my own. He lent me money, and he taught me all kinds of things about Japanese people, girls, food, everything. And one day, I said to him:
'You know I can never pay you back. Why are you helping me out so much?'
And he looked at me and he said:'You know, several years ago, when I first arrived in Japan...' "