I was enjoying a late morning glass of tea and the view from my bungalow at Candidasa beach, on Bali, Indonesia. A van-load of tourists were walking around the beach, and one man came up to investigate my personal banana grove and hut.
"G'day. We're just having a look 'round, hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. Where are you staying?"
"We've got this great little place down in Sanur Beach? Real cozy, and the people are so nice. It's a bit rustic, but only $50 a night, with breakfast thrown in! 'Course, it's not right on the beach like this. Boy, you've really got the life here, haven't you? This is terrific!" Spotting my glass of tea, he exclaimed, "Man, I'll bet you've got a 'fridge full of beer in there, too, don't you?"
"Nah", says I, "no electricity."
"Mind if I ask what you pay for this kind of place?"
"It's two and a half dollars a day with breakfast."
"Yeah, that's great, boy, what a deal, huh?"
He really was a nice man, and he and the wife were having a great time for what to them was a very reasonable cost.
The most famous missionary I can think of is not Mother Teresa, but Father Paul, who ran a traveler's hostel in Tien Hsiang, Taiwan, in the middle of the Taroko Gorge. Father Paul was as well know to travelers as the Chung King Mansions, Max Harte (Honk Kong), Nairobi Eddie, or Ali Hippie (Lamu); his reputation preceded your arrival.
Father Paul was a Swiss-French priest who spent over 20 years as a missionary in Tibet, before it was overrun by the Communist Chinese. Then he "retired" to the quiet interior of Taiwan, to run his church and hostel. Father Paul was a character. He looked a bit like Saint Nicholas, with long flowing white hair and beard, and he sold post cards of himself in front of the hostel, which looked like a bogus Swiss Chalet. He had a strong penchant for chess, and would cajole any traveler into playing with him. He also had a liking for the local brandy, and after several games of chess, and a number of sips of brandy, he would crank up his old victrola, play some French children's records -- the only ones he had -- and sing along.
Father Paul would take you around his hostel, showing off the Communist Room (a dormitory with mats on the floor), the Socialist Room (a dormitory with bunk beds), and the Capitalist Rooms (private rooms with attached bath). Father Paul had also created a unique zoo beside the hostel, which was decorated with amazing amorphous stone shapes, and populated by several monkeys and some crocodiles, as I recall.
Father Paul was not your average missionary, but he is a reminder that you cannot judge people by their station in life, any more than by their clothing. Travelers, tourists, missionaries, bankers, old and young, rich and poor -- occasionally even anthropologists and taxi drivers! -- the world is full of wonderful, or at least very interesting people. Go out and meet more of them!
It used to be, (ah, yes) that the money changers in China were extremely honest. They were mostly women, who were hired to stand on the street and do the transactions, because the actual money barons would not risk the penalty of getting caught - possible execution! You would walk by and they would tell you their rate. You would walk by again and haggle a little, but the rates were pretty well fixed. After you had settled the rate and told them how much you wanted to change, you would make another pass when they would surreptitiously slip a fat wad of notes into your hand. China only has small bills!
You would then walk away around the corner or into a shop to count the money. When you were satisfied that the amount was correct (it always was), you would make one last pass when you would actually hand over your money and keep on going. Talk about honest!
The obvious story that should go along with this description actually occurred (at least in the Traveler's Mythology) to a Swedish fellow in Guilin. He was down an alleyway counting his Chinese money when he heard a great commotion. He peeked around the corner to see the Security Police hauling away his money-change lady! He did not step up and offer to give her money back.
One good horror story is of the traveler who was robbed by customs officers at the Nicaraguan border. They confiscated his American Express travelers checks just because they were "American", but they let him into the country. Rest assured, this was an isolated and historical event. When he went to American Express to request a replacement, they required a police report. So he went to the Nicaraguan police and told them exactly what had happened. The police were not pleased with his story. He was either run out of the police station or out of the country, depending on which version you heard, but he did not get his checks back.
I was staying in a large but mostly empty dormitory room in Lhasa, Tibet. There were about four of us there one afternoon, stretched out in our beds with books of one kind or another, and snuggled up against the cold (a brief August snow flurry). There came a knock on the door, and the woman who ran place entered with a strange local man hot on her heels. He rushed over to the Swiss guy and spoke to him excitedly in some unknown language. The Swiss guy looked up from his book and listened, but when it was clear that he didn't understand, the man started shouting at the woman. Then he rushed back to the bed, pulled out a few currency notes, waved them under the nose of the Swiss guy, and began shouting and gesticulating all over again. The Swiss guy just shrugged his shoulders. In a minute, the man was gone, as quickly as he had arrived.
"Who was that guy?" we asked. "What did he want?"
"I don't know," says the Swiss guy, "I never saw him before." Then he went back to his book.
After a brief moment, someone voiced our common concern. "Don't you want to find out what it was all about?"
"It's just one of those many things in China, that you will never, ever understand, no matter what you do," he said, and went back to his book. He had spent over five months in China.
It often happens when I am showing my travel slides, that my friends and family will ask, "What's that guy doing?", "What's that contraption in the background?", "What's the meaning of that symbol?", "Where do they get the material from?", "What does that sign say?", "Are those rubies?", "How deep is that well?", or "Who's the guy in the red uniform?"
After I have replied, "I don't know" to several such questions, people become suspicious. "How can you travel around in these places and not know what's going on?" (which means, "Are you some kind of idiot, or what? I'd certainly want to find out these things!")
As illustrated in the previous story, I have of necessity come to believe that there are many, many things that you witness on the Road that you will never learn the real meaning of. Perhaps this can be seen as laziness, but for all of the thousands of tidbits of cultural and historical information you aquire through travel, are at least as many unanswered questions about what you have seen. Fortunately, many of us have friends who are not shy about asking those questions of us, so that we can display our true ignorance.
But there are people who drive themselves crazy trying to find the answers to every unknown phenomenon they are presented with, many of which actually have no rational explanation at all. In any case, such a pursuit can be quite futile in places where you don't speak the local language. It would not be unusual to find that the local people who live there actually have no idea what that symbol stands for, or where that material comes from -- and, yes, they don't understand why you should expect them to! And so, the moderately sane traveler soon learns to accept life as it is presented, in its myriad shapes and forms, without worrying too much about getting all of the facts and statictics.
I'm taking a (naturally) long, long bus ride across a short distance in Bolivia, complete with regular security checks. As we're waiting in a line of cars at one such check point in the middle of nowhere in the Altiplano, I form up with several other men beside the road to relieve myself.
It's great out there in the fresh cool thin air, looking up at the Andes, having a refreshing slash in the great outdoors as life goes on in the slow lane just a few yards away.
So I turn my head to the guy on my right and casually say in Spanish, "Where I come from, you can be arrested for doing this."
The guy looks over at me with a slightly cautious, slightly disbelieving look on his face.
"Doing what?" he says.
I was stuck at the little bus station in Aqaba, Jordan. It was a Friday, and everyone (else) knew that the buses did not run on Fridays. After a taxi driver gave up trying to interest me in a ride, we sat down together in the heat, although we shared hardly a common word. When he noticed my Tibetan bracelet, he knitted his brows, then pointed to it and shook his head.
"Madame. Madame," he pointed. "Mister, no!"
I had clearly offended his ideas of masculinity by wearing a bracelet. This was a big, burly, ham-handed guy with a thick beard that ran right down into his neck and shoulders.
He looked like a bouncer in a cowboy bar, except that he was wearing a dress and had a scarf on his head. Well, in Jordan, a jellaba and kafeyah are acceptable ways for men to dress, but a bracelet is definitely out. I thought it was pretty funny, but I learned the lesson; I later took off the bracelet.
After over three years in Asia, I landed in Australia, and found it appallingly just like home -- all those modern fair-skinned people living in relative luxury, constantly eating in public, isolated from the rest of the world and devoid of exotic culture. This is a natural reaction after an immersion into Asian cultures, and I got it out of my system before getting home.
In New Zealand I met a fellow American who had flown in via Sydney.
"How long did it take you to get here from Oregon?" she asks.
"A little over three years," says I.
Since I knew my perceptions of Australia had been decidedly slanted, I asked her what she thought of Sydney. (It really is quite a nice place.)
"Oh, God, I don't know," she said. "I was suffering from such culture shock, I didn't know what to think! Everything there is so different, I was just blown away!"
So it all depends on where you come from. I have only arrived in Hong Kong after long stints in Japan or South East Asia, and I always find it a decidedly Western place -- if anything, a refuge from purely Asian cultures. But for people flying in from Europe or North America, it is a mind-boggling Asian collage of culture shocks. Bangkok is even more so.
WARNING: The following anecdote contains material that may not be suitable for the squeamish.
Greg and I had just "checked in" to one of the three "hotels" on Isla de Maiz (Corn Island), Nicaragua. Everything on this island was in quotation marks, including the "toilet". In fact, the old hotel had at one time been a respectable, if small establishment and our room had a private bathroom. Unfortunately the plumbing had been disfunctional for many years (read "decades"), so we had to go out in the back to the "toilet".
Soon after arrival, Greg returned from a trip to the "bog" to report that it was an actual bog and not much more. "Gawd, it's the worst toilet I ever seen in me life," says Greg, a very well traveled Australian (is that redundant?). This piqued my interest. "You must have seen a few very bad dunnies in your day, mate," says I. "Aww, Nothing like this monster!" says Greg.
Soon I wandered out in back for a slash, to confront the monster itself. Back beyond the outbuildings, the grass gave way to a fetid backwater swamp. At the edge of this swamp, two former doors had been propped up with poles to form a privacy screen for the 'toilet'. Behind the doors was a 'floor' made from another former door. Beyond this, there was a construction that looked like nothing so much as a hitching post. Two posts six feet apart held a two-by-four board horizontally at a height of about two and a half feet, just high enough to lift your bum over so you could almost 'sit' on it. Beyond this 'toilet seat' lay the 'bowels' of the very toilet itself, a boiling mass of maggots poised beneath the board at the edge of the swamp. You could almost hear it seething.
Not a pretty picture, I assure you, and not the place you would want to lose your balance. If you did manage to crawl out, they'd have to shoot you to put you out of your misery, and theirs.
Back in the room, Greg waited. "Well, is that the worst toilet you've ever seen in your life?"
"Third," says I, "third worst toilet I've ever seen in my life."
"Don't you ever get homesick?" people often ask.
"I can go home anytime I want", sez I. "In fact, it's my worst nightmare."
After I had described a Montado, which is the Peruvian
version of a Churrasco -- a beef steak topped with a
fried egg, and served with bread and chips -- Lenny asks:
"Is the steak any good?"Eyes roll as I look around the table during a long pause...
"Compared to what?" Is all I can think to ask.
"I mean, like, compared to a real piece of choice beef? a real steak?"
Comparing the food you are served in unbelievably cheap Third World eateries to the food you can get at home is the surest way to frustration and a quick ticket home. Even attempting to order food that sounds like it might have come from home -- pizza, vienner schnitzel, french onion soup, soft boiled eggs (ha!) -- is enviting disappointment and declaring the fact that you've never really left home at all.
"There are many different realities in this world," sez I.
"I suspect that the one you have in mind about steaks is a far cry from the Realities of Peru."
So, what's your reality, Ned?
I take 'em as they come.
"Where would you most like to go back to?" people often ask.
I knit my brow and wonder why I would ever like to go back to someplace that (Hello!) I've already been to.
Well, there are a few comfortable beach hangouts that I have returned to on my way back North, as known good places to relax for another week or two. But I don't kid myself that any of those "unspoiled" little tropical villages will remain unspoiled for more than another year or two after they become known in the travel books.
How many times have you and I heard friends talk glowingly about the paradise they found on their vacation? They only stayed a week but... it was the most perfect place on earth, the people were so genuine, and friendly, and wonderful, and... everything was so wonderful, and it made them feel so free and... well, wonderful! Oh, yes, and "You must go there, too; you'll positively love it." Occassionally it reaches the level of "We're thinking of having a nice house built there."! Hmmmm...
Well, since I tend to travel for open-ended periods of time, I have the luxury of a little different philosophy. I have a not-so-strict rule that I like to stay in a place until I just can't stand it anymore. In other words, I should never have the feeling that I have left too soon, that I wish I could have stayed longer, that I should come back someday and "really relax" and enjoy it here. Whenever I hear myself thinking such thoughts, I just say to myself:
"Don't just wish you could stay longer, dammit! stay longer! Stay until the very sight of the place makes you want to leave! But don't go away thinking that it is so wonderful that you would like to spend the rest of your life here! Just stay on a few more days, and you will eventually grow tired of it!"
When you do stay long enough, you will eventually get sick of the food, and the bugs, and the roosters at 4am, and the drunks at 2am; and all of those nice people will turn out to be mortal beings with all the usual petty foibles of occassional dishonesty, spite, laziness, and all the rest.
You will also witness a few of those enraptured tourists mentioned above, who have made the "mistake" of staying an extra week in their "paradise". They too will get sick and tired of the place -- as the locals tire of having them poke into their lives. It is not a pretty sight to see the disillusionment of tourists betrayed by their tropical paradise.
The end of the day. But I'm still out there somewhere in the back of an open stake-side cargo truck, bouncing across the bleak countryside on a rutted dirt track. It's cold and getting colder, as dark descends. I'm surrounded by dirty people and noisy, smelly animals. No one speaks my language; they don't even speak Spanish. It's been a long day of sightseeing, and I'm tired. My bones ache from the rattling of the truck and I have to hold on to the overhead bar to keep standing. Progress is painfully slow; we stop regularly to pick up more people, leave others off. I'm only thinking about getting back to town for a hot meal and a bed that isn't nearly warm enough. What day is it anyway?
It's Thursday. Back in Belize, we used to have a special day on Thursday. It was the day we took our malaria pills and made a point to remind ourselves how wondrously unusual and special our lives On the Road really were.
It is all too surprisingly easy to lapse into the rut of seemingly endless day-to-day traveling, jadedly shuffling through scenes and experiences that would raise the hair and eyebrows of your friends Back Home. Hell, it would blow their minds! You actually need to remind yourself from time to time just how extraordinary this traveler's life really is. Yeah, Thursday -- it is a special day.
Now I open new eyes and really look around me. Holy Shit! Here I am -- ordinary me! -- in the back of truck full of Aymara Indians in incredibly colorful costumes! The women wear bowler hats and the men have those little knitted night-caps. They are laughing and joking, jostling and dancing among their goats and guinea pigs. We are bouncing along a dirt road at 17,000 feet across the desolation of the Altiplano of Bolivia.
Goddam Bo-livia! That's outrageous! Out on the plains, herds of llamas and alpacas look up from the sparse grass and, in the near distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Bolivian Cordillera of the Andes rise to 22,000 feet! Spectacular! "Whoah!" what a life. What a Life! All the Indians are laughing at me now and I don't care; I join in their dance, drunk on travel.
"$30 for what?! For a comfortable bed and unlimited hot water. But the window doesn't latch and people are coming and going out of my room all day! Maids mostly -- everybody has a damn key!
It takes five minutes for the hot water to reach the 4th floor. But when it comes, it is very hot. Turn it up! Hot as I can stand it. Oh God yes sweet Jesus, hot water! I (oh!) lean up against the shower door and let it pound my back with hot strokes forever... Jesus, where have I been? I start to cry. Not for the joy of the hot water, but sobbing now for the memories of all the months I went without. It's grieving for the guy who forgot about hot water, and it seems a necessary catharsis.
Visions come to me; visions of hot steamy jungle where I swooned and gasped for breath, of muddy paths and dusty roads in the back of dirtier trucks, steep mountain trails in the rain and long sweaty treks through parched desert bush. The ticks and flies, the cold shivering nights in sagging mildewed beds; salty, sandy evenings around sooty campfires on the beach; sand flies, black flies, and mosquitoes. The smell of Baygon on my skin, the feel of it, DDT caking the walls of palapas, cold showers ankle deep in slimy water, muddy swims in fetid rivers.
All of it slowly crawling, creeping, slithering up out of my pores under the torrent of clean, hot water -- the first I have felt for four months -- and washing down in sheets off of my body, dissolving in the steamy heat and swirling neatly down the drain on the 4th floor. Purged, gone!
Only the traces of pain remain as memories -- laughing memories and beery stories of nightly tick hunts, of muddy socks on swollen ankles, of festering fly bites and of rotten shirts and matted hair and stiff bandanas; of cold damp cramps and cigarette burns on leach marks, razor slashes on scorpion stings, pustules of doctor-fly bites and tick heads.
And sweat -- Memories of the sting of sweat blindness, the taste of sweat inhaled with each breath; the squalor of slippery sweaty steps, the rub of sweaty denim on hot thighs, the splash of sweat tears on paper, the smudge of dirty sweat on notebook pages. It rolls down in rivulets that merge into streams in the crotch and cascade down in rivers to leak out through the laces at each step. This sweat I remember and smell and taste as it washes away in the clean steam of the hot water soothing my body now.
I feel weak, my life, my strength slipping away as the sweat washes off my body, as the heat penetrates my flesh to relieve my mind of aches and pains etched in sweat. To relieve me of fears so real, so necessary in the jungle world of the Low Road travelled. To take away my edge of fear, to blunt my only weapon of alert, paranoid vigilance, of lean and hungry fear. My protection and my solace.
Jeez, that hot water feels way too good!" -Ned
I have come to recognize this cathartic experience as grieving. It is grieving for myself. And I understand that many other people -- in far worse circumstances than myself -- must have experienced the same self-grief.
When you are in a situation of suffering or deprivation -- be it emotional, physical, or otherwise -- and when it is clear that the situation is going to go on (and on) indefinitely, you realize that you cannot feel sorry for yourself while the situation continues. You cannot lash out at your circumstance and rant and rave and make war against forces that conspire to frustrate and madden you. You must only persevere; you must only carry on; you must only push on and survive, driving your frustrations and your anger and your self-pity far within yourself.
It is only when your torment -- your frustration or your depravation -- is relieved that you can allow yourself to finally feel and express your frustration and your anger. But then it is too late, the demon is vanished, the pain is suddenly relieved. And so, all that is left for you to do is to grieve for yourself, for all the depravation and pain that you have suffered in the past.
It is certainly ironic -- but altogether too common -- that only when your anguish is relieved do you allow yourself to truly feel the pain, and to grieve for yourself the pain you have gone through. It is in this most jubilant of times that you find yourself weeping tears of sadness for all that you have endured.
When I think of going home, I think of James Earle Fraser's wonderful and famous 1896 bronze sculpture "The End of the Trail", the one with that very weary American Indian astride his tired horse, leaning heavily on his down-turned spear to keep from collapse. (Why else would you go home?)
To a real traveler, Going Home is something like Death. It is something dark, ominous and dreaded that lurks out there somewhere, beyond the horizon, but sooner or later catches up to all of us, even the most determined wanderers. Yet we can never envision it really happening to us. Not me, Lord! No, my life on this Road will surely go on forever.
That is, until the dreaded Thing itself is dragged, kicking and bleeding, right up to your doorstep some ugly gray morning.
Lima: 5am. An alarm clock rings somewhere in your communal hotel room, and one of those poor bastards actually gets up out of bed and braces up to that final dash to the Airport. Going Home! Flying to Miami, Frankfurt, Berlin via Havana, or London via Barbados. Dead. Finished. Gone -- solid Gone!
"I'll be home tonight," she says, and suddenly it hits you like the hot kiss at the end of a cold fist. Jeezus, this woman is actually doing it, taking that final step into the Great Beyond, the Big Sleep of the civilized world. "Home tonight." Hell, she's bought the Big One, wiped off the face of the Gringo Trail, never again to return in the form we know and love, neither in waking nor in dreaming. It is a swift and a heavy blow that falls sickeningly into the pit of your forgotten mortality.
The next day, as you sit wearily over yet another greasy pile of rice and noodles, wondering perhaps where it is all leading -- you remember that lost soul. She's now well on the Other Side, in a distant time zone beyond your own comprehension, in Dusseldorf, hunkering down to something she would call Real Food, knocking back some Real Beers, chasing it down with Gooood Bread, and topping it off with a Decent Cup of Coffee -- a concept which you can't even remember, let alone relate to, (but you can bet your butt it's imported from Guatemala or Colombia!)
And you start to wonder what it's like in that distant Heaven/Hell on the Other Side. And then it sinks in that someday, some tomorrow -- hell, some today! -- you (You!) will find out for yourself what your own personal purgatory will be like, face to face, mano a mano with the Ugly Void from which no traveler returns without the pain and anguish of rebirth: Home.
And it makes you want to puke! If you're a hardened Roadie, it makes you want to curse God, kick dogs, insult old Indian women, and then stand out behind the marketplace and puke your guts out and piss in it. Why me, Lord? Why can't I just stay out here forever?
Some of these turkeys, the 60-day wonders -- the ones who never really left home anyway -- talk of Going Home like converted heathens certain of reaching the Promised Land to sit on the Right Hand of God by sun up in Zurich. You can see them visibly sigh as they scan this last sleazy dump of a hotel room on the way out. "Free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!" Free? Maybe, but most will find the Promised Land not quite as wonderful as they remember.
But hell, that's not my problem. I'm looking at the end of a Way of Life that after two or three years has become as Real, Important, Sweet, Comfortable, and hell, Indispensable as life on this Earth to most mortals. This is serious gut-level creeping Mortality, and when it happens to someone close to you -- even if it's just some babbling Frog in the next bunk -- it strikes home and makes you stand back and reevaluate your own existence. Aren't there a few more mountains you should climb, a few more bottles and skirts to lift before the Great Equalizer lifts off with you in its fat metal belly some morning? Or do you find yourself so tired of it all that you're ready to cash in your pesos; field-ripened and ready to fall under the scythe of the Grim Reaper's next harvest at the stainless-steel check-in counter nearest you?
Last time in Lima there were three mornings in a row when the alarm clocks ominously tolled the morning watch in my room. In the ensuing silence you could almost hear the cold brick and steel echoes of the footsteps in the hall, as the Warden's Screw came to collect the condemned. Vultures circled the quiet balcony outside, and before sunshine or car horns could penetrate the Keep we had shared, another Road Soul or two was hustled quietly away to that place from which only muffled screams and postcards return. Back Home.
Brrringggg! Miami: a young couple taken away after only two months among us in South America -- New Zealanders yet! (they should be ashamed -- two months!). Beep, beep, beep! Luxembourg: a nice German woman with three months alone in Peru and Bolivia. Bzzzzz! Some Swiss airhead to Frankfurt, followed in half an hour by the babbling 7-week Frog to Paris.
Well, hell, good riddance to most of them. (Although I wish that German lady would have stayed awhile.) These Twinkies are better off on the Other Side and we're all better off without them. But, still, it is a reminder.
And once in a while a real Trouper passes on, doggedly, stoically, tired, and visibly shuffling -- The End of The Trail for a genuine Road Warrior. One and a half years in the saddle. Mercifully, these road souls will not be whisked away suddenly by taxis to 'huddle in the belly of that silver hearse till their wet fur freezes, six miles from Earth, loosed from its dream of Reality', dropped out of the night sky to splatter into unfamiliar Home. (Apologies to Randall Jarrell)
No, like me, they just pass on, on their slow overland journey Back to the Source of their Freedom, the Home of their Escape. They disappear slowly into the distance, as they appeared, casting long shadows by the roadside, riding in the backs of dusty trucks, smoking into another sunset, another horizon nearer Home.
"Yep," he says, "three more weeks. I've had it. I'll be home by Easter. But I hope to rise again by the Dry Season next year. Maybe."
Old Road Warriors never really die, they are just stupified every time they go Back Home to lie in suspended animation -- appearing to function like any other Establishment Zombie, hidden in the quagmire of another, more civilized society, undercover and underground, looking more or less like every other citizen, and scraping together some more coinage -- dollars or deutchmarks.
But periodically, hopefully, they will resurrect themselves to walk among us, On The Road, Again.