Why do we travel? It’s an oft asked question, particularly by travel magazines and the reasons given are myriad –
“To get away from my routine and clear my head.”
“To test myself by doing something rugged and tough.”
“To be exposed to other cultures, languages and people.”
“To meet new people and to see new sights.”
Every reason is valid and every place one goes offers some portion of the core of these desires. Well, except perhaps for cruises because there isn’t much ruggedness on a modern liner although there is ample opportunity for meeting new people and getting away from the routine.
When I was spending all my time the road, I first fell in love with seeing new sights. Asia was so strange and so old, that every day and every place exposed me to something that shocked my conventional western perspective. The wealth, the poverty, the lack of privacy and places 5000 years old – all were far different than what I’d been exposed to in my sheltered life. Next it became about testing, visiting far flung places alone and on local transportation, an incredible stretch for someone who had spent his life avoiding travel as much as possible. Little by little though, my wonder changed and it did so as I began to meet people in their everyday situations. First there was the bird man in Century Park, Shanghai with whom I shared my very first tentative words of Chinese. Next, the driver who ferried us around Chongming Island in search of birds. And from then on more and more people, each one met and conversed with in all kinds of situations, all over the world. As the number of miles and locations grew, so did my list of wonderful encounters.
These days, with much less travel and far more time spent living a regular life, these opportunities have become scarcer. Dealing with the clock repairman in Albuquerque is not the same as the old woman spinning Yak wool at the top of Kharola Pass in Tibet. It makes me wonder whether special interactions require that both parties bring something truly unique to the exchange. Or perhaps a combination of shared experiences and something unusual. Like the Flamenco bar owner in Madrid showing us the pictures of his Arab on his cell phone. Or the waiter in Barcelona who used to work at the Filipino branch of my company. Something about the circumstances that cause your paths to cross and then something common that enriches your exchange. I suppose if you have nothing in common with the shop owner in Dublin, your meeting is no different than with a shop owner in Santa Fe.
A few days ago we entered Mexico at Nogales and made our regular stop at the immigration center south of town. The process here has changed so many times in the last twenty years that you’re never really sure what you’re going to get when you open the door and begin the process to obtain a visa. For a time you had to place a bond on your car, regardless of the length of your stay. Then the bond was waived as long as you didn’t leave the state of Sonora. For the past five years or so, it has been no bond necessary unless you’re heading south of Empalme which is just beyond where we stop. Lately, the only confusion has been around the length of stay, and once we discovered that seven days is the magic number to avoid having to bond the car, every trip became seven days. With that in mind, getting a visa becomes nothing more than an opportunity to practice your Spanish with the immigration agents who in general have some modest English that they want to practice. It’s rarely tough and both parties generally excel in an admixture of their native tongues.
This time though, I was in the mood to butcher the language so I struck up a conversation with an older agent who waved us over to his station. Problem was, he didn’t want speak Spanish, he wanted to speak English. Which was perfect. It turned out that like me, he was from New York although born in the Big City. We chatted about that as he gave us our forms and as we shifted our focus to filling them out, he started to do a worthy rendition of “New York, New York.” I joined in on the “waking up in a city that never sleeps” verse, which he found pretty funny. On completing the song we talked a bit about where he lives now and what he likes to do and it turned out that he was a musician who specializes in the accordion and that he just happened to have a video on his phone which he pulled up and played for us. Here was our agent, playing a corrida in front of his Christmas tree. My Lovely Wife grabbed my hands and we proceeded to do a one-step around the immigration office which elicited a thumbs-up from our friend. Following our dance, we had a quick look at photos of his son and wife and house, all of which he was justifiably proud. With a hearty handshake and “mucho gusto” we on our way, laughing about it for hours down the road.
A few nights later we parked our car in front of one of our favorite restaurants. There was a moment of consideration as the spot we chose was “dedicated” to one of a handful of local businesses (all closed) that formed the first floor of the building; probably low risk, so we locked up and headed to the stairs. A curio shop was open though and the owner was standing in the doorway. He smiled and said, “Enjoy your dinner” which we replied to. Being the ever paranoid person that I am about parking in foreign countries, I considered moving it but decided he didn’t have any ulterior plans. We went upstairs and had a nice meal.
As we left, we stopped to see the things hanging on the wall outside his shop. There was a nice metal Burro that we decided would look great on our barn so I suggested we go inside. I asked how much and he wasn’t sure, even after rifling a binder full of shipping invoices from his suppliers. He said “probably 600” based on its similarity to a big Kokopelli on the wall inside. I hemmed and hawed for a second and the price went down to 500, take it right now. Now I’m never good with something I don’t really want so I told him we’d think about it and that we’d come back. The standard tourist line which he met with the standard “yea right.” We left the shop, but before getting in the car I had a change of heart (it takes me a few minutes to calculate the cambio when I’ve had a margarita) and we decided to go back and buy it. From there we had a great discussion in Spanish about how pesos $40 was worth (I only had USD) and eventually we reached an agreed to price of $42. From there our conversation ebbed and flowed from my iPhone (do you want to sell it?) to our jackets (do you want to sell those?) to the proper word for the construction of down coats and their contents (canales de plumas de patos) to our new friend’s history. His name was Timoteo and he’d lived in Albuquerque as a mojado (that terrible word for illegals) along with Rochester, Minnesota and Iowa. In our town he’d worked at the auto repair shop up the road but had returned to Mexico because the US was just too cold. He was from Acapulco originally and even this part of central Sonora was testing his tolerance for chilly weather. We bid our adieus and took our burro home.
These are the kinds of moments that make for a rich life – things that would never happen if you stayed home or traveled in a way that kept you inside a little bubble of security, limiting your engagement in the interaction to the bare minimum to complete the transaction. I often think about Americans abroad, and how they view every transaction with the skeptical eye of trying to detect the rip off. It’s unfortunate, but I think something to be accepted from a society that by and large really doesn’t like being put at any risk abroad. Many of my friends have called me crazy for things I’ve done in foreign lands and yet I consider all of them pretty low risk. I’m not a conflict photographer and I haven’t walked across Afghanistan. All I’ve done is grabbed my companions arm and dragged them down a dark alley in old town Shanghai. And I’ll do it again if it means meeting someone with openness for conversation and a story to tell.