Have fun, will travel

Martha wrote about travel today, wishing for a transporter like on Star Trek so she wouldn’t have to travel, just be somewhere. It got me thinking.

“Have Gun, Will Travel” was a favorite childhood TV show. Paladin was a good guy who dressed in black – “A knight without armor in a savage land.” He traveled all over the west, outsmarting bad guys, shooting them if he had to; a mercenary, and I mean that in the best way. He had a wry sense of humor. The word paladin comes from the knights of Charlemagne and one definition is “defender of a noble cause”. He had a brass knight (chess piece) on his holster. His calling card had a knight, his name, and his slogan.

Paladin’s calling card

When I used to travel more, I made a distinction between “travelers” and “tourists.” Tourists were those who got off a plane, went to a resort for a few days, and got back on the plane. Or they disembarked from the cruise ship for a few hours of shopping. Travelers went overland and stayed places.

When I was in Cartagena, Colombia, cruise ships came to call. Kids would swim out to the ships and the tourists tossed coins into the water. The kids scrambled to retrieve coins, stuffing them into their mouths to keep their hands free to gather more coins. All prices in town went up when the ships arrived.

I took a bus to Cancún, switched to a cab, rode to the ferry departure point for Isla Mujeres. I chatted with the driver on the way. The cabbie was shocked that I was from the US, saying that US tourists didn’t speak Spanish so I must be European. Plus, US tourists didn’t take cabs from the bus depot and leave town. For that matter, they didn’t leave the resorts except to take a cab to the airport.

In Mérida I noticed that the hotel rooms had hammock hooks as well as beds. Figuring there might be a good reason for that, I found a hammock-maker at the edge of town. That woven cotton string hammock still comes on all camping trips more than 40 years later.

Also in Mérida, I fell in love with a shirt. I was headed to Chichen Itzá for the equinox. It was the weekend so I had no way to get cash. If I bought the shirt I would have no money left after buying my bus ticket. At least I had a hotel room waiting. I did it anyway. On the bus I met a traveler on the way with no place to stay. We agreed to share my room and he agreed to pay me cash for his half. I was suddenly fixed for the weekend. I could eat.

A professor from a nearby university set up a portable PA at the ruins to explain the history and what would happen on the equinox. I knew what; I just didn’t know when. I spent all day exploring and awaiting that brief, late afternoon moment when the sun hit the spot. At that moment, the shadows cast by the corner of the pyramid form a series of equilateral triangles that end at a carved serpent head at the foot of the stairs. This forms the body of a serpent slithering down the stairs. Online photos don’t seem to do it justice. Rumor has it you are no longer allowed to climb those stairs.

In Colombia I met a couple who had been traveling the world for years. Each traveled alone until they met each other. They financed their travels by buying local and selling foreign. In Colombia they were buying old stone beads and artifacts – going easy on the stone since they had to carry it. They were selling silk and glass beads from Venice. They gave me a primer on “pre-Colombian” beads – how to tell truly ancient beads from new beads and artificially-aged beads. Glad they knew, but I didn’t want beads. In one town I discovered that a neighbor was the younger brother of a dear friend of mine. It’s a small world, after all.

I bought textiles all through Ecuador; not to sell, but for gifts and things for myself. This was a bad choice from a travel viewpoint, as it made for a bulky load. I bought a burlap sack and some twine in a market and carried all of my purchases in that. When it came time for US customs declaration, I had a written list and it was all in that one bag. I had bought yarn and carefully washed it, removing all twigs and other plant matter, thinking it would be confiscated if not clean. They didn’t care and waved me through. Carrying that big burlap bag for weeks made the travel memorable.

I arrived in Otavalo in advance of their big weekly market, and watched the town slowly fill up in the days ahead. On market day I couldn’t sleep. I was up at 3 AM and wandered through town, watching a steady stream of buses making their way down from tiny mountain villages with folks arriving to sell their goods. The market opened at dawn.

I dreamed one night that I was back home; that I had flown home for some event and was flying back the next day. It seemed very real. When I awoke I realized that was absurd, as the airfare cost more than living for a month in Ecuador. There was no way I was flying home until I had to. The dream became a recurring one and it bothered/intrigued me until I decided I had to do something about it. I was at a party in the dream. I told the person I was talking with that this wasn’t real – that they weren’t real – that I was actually in Ecuador and only dreaming this conversation and therefore dreaming them into existence. I immediately woke up. I never had the dream again. I wanted to, as I wanted to find out what happened in that room when I suddenly disappeared, transported in an instant back to my bed in Ecuador.

I thought about travel vs being somewhere. I wanted to tell Martha that the journey was more than half the fun; but the memories weren’t supporting that. I recalled dusty bus lots in Ecuador with dozens of colorfully-decorated school buses, each with a shrine by the driver, each with its sign saying “En caso de mareo, solicite una funda.” I didn’t know a couple of those words and imagined them saying something about asking for a blessing, since they were right next to the shrine. Finally I was able to look it up and found that it meant “In case of motion sickness, ask for a bag.” I realized that even the locals could throw up on those twisty mountain roads. Sometimes the sounds from the back of the bus almost made me join them. I kept the window open.

I learned that the buses didn’t have set schedules. If you got on an empty bus, you’d have a long wait. If you got on a full bus, you’d leave soon, but you’d sit in the back, where that bag might be needed. I learned to check out the buses and find one with decent tires. I chatted up the drivers and conductors and picked ones I liked. I chose buses that were more than half but less than ¾ full, so they’d hit the road relatively soon but I wouldn’t be bouncing and swaying in the back.

I never suffered a breakdown or a crash. The worst was a bus through the mountains to the edge of the rainforest. The rain was constant and the road washed out regularly. A Caterpillar was parked in the middle of the road where a landslide obliterated the way. When enough traffic backed up, the driver would push the debris up against the cliff face and hold it while we passed. Then he’d back up and the road would disappear again. Sisyphus in real life.

I learned that borders, while imaginary lines, are real. Colombia seemed tense all the time. The tension on the bus from Colombia to Ecuador was thick. When we crossed the border, the relief was palpable. I later realized part of that was the hidden contraband (ketchup, as I recall). But also, everything felt different across that imaginary line.

I learned some things aren’t funny. Our bus in Northern Mexico was boarded by federal agents. As they made their way through the bus, one poked my duffle bag in the overhead bin (with the barrel of his carbine) and asked, in Spanish, if it were mine. When I confirmed this, he asked, in English and with a grin, “Got any machine guns in there?” I knew it was not a joke and solemnly said, “No sir.” He moved on. (Okay, now it’s funny.)

In Mexico, I traveled slowly from the DF (Mexico City) to Guatemala. I stayed as long as I could everywhere I went. I made notes of things I wanted to buy instead of carrying them. On the return trip to the DF, I took night buses. I would ride all night, sleeping on the bus, then spend the day in a town before jumping on a bus again that night. Huehuetenango to Tuxtla Gutiérrez to San Cristóbal de las Casas to the DF. Three nights sleeping on buses. Trips that took longer than the miles would hint at due to the mountainous terrain. I always sat near the front on the right side of the bus so I could see the road. These were first class buses with advance tickets and assigned seats.

In Oaxaca, I stopped at the hotel I had stayed at during a previous week or weeks in town. I asked the owner if I could drop my bags for the day and he happily obliged. When I returned in the evening he invited me into his apartment at the back to watch TV for a while, then offered me use of a room for a shower and a nap before I got on my last bus. It was great to lie flat for a while.

So was the journey better than the destination? No way. The hours on buses and the waits in dusty fields to catch the next bus made for stories but not for the sort of thing I would recommend to the average person.

In Santa Marta, Colombia, I met a guy who bragged about how cheap his accommodations were. I found that was a point of pride for “professional” travelers. He crowed that he was only paying 50 cents/night (granted, this was about 40 years ago). He took me to see his place. It was a dirt-floored concrete room with a high ceiling and windows near the ceiling to allow the entry of a bit of dim light. During the day it was just enough to not trip over sleeping bags, if you let your eyes get used to the darkness before you walked in. There was no electricity. I didn’t ask about the bathroom. Each traveler had enough space to roll out a sleeping bag and pile a bit of stuff next to it. There was no ventilation. In contrast, I was paying a whopping $2/night for a private room with bath and ceiling fan (essential to keep mosquitos at bay). At 7 AM there was a discreet knock at my door and a demitasse cup of fresh coffee (with saucer) was handed to me. I think I had the better deal despite paying four times as much.

Travel in Nicaragua was via pick-up truck. There was a superstructure in the bed for lashing on lumber. When we traveled we stood in the back of the truck holding onto the superstructure. We didn’t travel much – we were there to work. We lived in tents until I realized that partially-constructed houses made great places to hang hammocks, so I slept in a hammock and used the tent to store my clothes.

We did travel in that truck out to the woods every morning to work. In the morning, when Segundo had been on guard duty all night, he got into the truck bed, removed the magazine from his AK-47, ejected the shell from the chamber, checked the chamber, placed the cartridge in the magazine, applied the safety, and re-inserted the magazine. I knew I was safe – both because I had an armed escort and because I knew the rifle would not discharge on the primitive road we had just cut the day before. No word was ever spoken, but we both understood the depth of the communication which had just occurred.

I won’t talk about travel by bike today, you’ve had enough of that from me.

So, if I had the choice, would I travel by teleportation, or is the journey the destination in itself? Damned if I know.