We first locked eyes in northern Peru. I was a wanderer, a traveler, free to kick my feet on the dusty streets of the market. He was behind bars, desolate and longing for the freedom that I simply took for granted.
And then, just days later, I found myself roaming the majestic hilltop of Kuelap, home to the ancient Chachapoya, or ‘cloud-people’, who resisted the bloodthirsty Inca for centuries. There, at the foot of their crumbling circular dwellings, lay tiny tunnels where the Chachapoya kept his ancestors enslaved below their beds.
Then, at last, we embraced. A friend and I were famished from a hike to a secluded waterfall, and took shelter in plastic chairs on the dirt floor of a small restaurant. It was the grandmotherly owner/chef/waitress who tossed him onto our table. He landed gracefully.
He was more beautiful than I had expected, but also smaller and slimmer, more rat than cat. I gently caressed his back for a few moments — but he, knowing his fate and that of millennia of his ancestors in these mountains, swiftly tap-danced his way to the edge of the table. The señora threw a weathered hand over his loin and returned our friend to the kitchen.
That evening saw the end of our Peruvian affair. I’d like to think I was motivated more by history than hunger. After all, without the Eurasian staples of chicken, cow, and pig, what other domesticated sources of protein did the pre-Colombian Andes have? It fell to this petite creature (with the help of llamas and alpacas) to feed entire civilizations from modern-day Chile to Colombia. So who was I to reject savoring a piece of history, fried with a side of cheesy potatoes?
Maybe I should have. Bland and bony, it’s hard to picture him providing much pleasure or protein to the Incan legions who conquered the Andes and then defended them against the Spanish. I liked him better alive.
Postscript: We met again on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia. I, to my credit, was less cruel this time. I gambled 1,000 pesos that he would enter the purple box. He entered the red one.
Off the Gringo Trail, Chapter 1.
“Hola.” The small boys in school uniforms had finally worked up the courage to approach me, a strange-looking man in a town of indigenous faces and colorfully-adorned women carrying the day’s haul on their arched backs. I was tucked away in a dark corner of the bus station, now surrounded by wide eyes.
“¿Usted es musico? You’re a musician?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I had been playing Sublime songs on my mini-guitar for the past hour, waiting for a delayed bus.
“Ok, great. Do you know Nirvana?”
“Uh, wait, Nirvana? Like the band?”
“Ha!” The shock bolted from my mouth. An hour before, a woman sitting next to me hadn’t understood me in Spanish, so a man had to translate into Quechua. Just hours before that, I was sitting on a lakeside bench surrounded by llamas, talking with a peasant teenager about her parents’ struggling potato farm on the side of a mountain. This mini-guitar tends to put people at ease and give them an excuse to approach foreign-looking me and just talk. She wanted to know what the United States was like — I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
I was overjoyed with my new diminutive audience. “Yeah, of course I know Nirvana. Do YOU guys know Nirvana?
“Yes! We love them. Can you play ‘Come As You Are’?”
“Ha, I’m not sure I remember how. But do you know this one?” I played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. They hadn’t reacted by the first chorus. I stopped.
“Just one second, sir. I will go get the lyrics.” Good lord, what is going on here?
The group leader returned with a printout of the lyrics to ‘Come As You Are’. Apparently, their English teacher had been using the song as an exercise in class. I held myself back from inquiring as to the value of being able to say “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” as a 10-year-old in rural Peru.
My fingers fleshed out one of most popular basslines of the last 20 years, and thus began what I’d like to think is the first and only grunge singalong session with the descendants of the Inca in Abancay, Peru.
We talked and laughed a bit, and the boys finally disappeared back up the stairs to catch their bus. A tiny girl who had been lurking behind them took this as a cue to make her approach. She was maybe seven, in shabby clothes, with a splash of dirt covering her beautiful pink cheeks.
She shuffled her tiny feet towards me, reached out a tiny arm, and tried to give me a coin.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a hat out, and I wasn’t ready for this.
“No, no, gracias! That’s very kind of you, but please, it’s not necessary.” Blushing, I escaped quickly into a rendition of ‘Badfish’.
She crumpled her forehead, stared for a moment, and disappeared.
Ten minutes passed, and she was back. Again she shuffled her tiny feet towards me, leaned on a concrete pillar, and waited for a break between songs. I stopped.
“Do you like this music?” I asked her.
“What kind of music do you listen to?”
“Umm, I don’t know.
“Pero, em… ¿Usted no tiene casa?
But, um, you don’t have a home?”
I wasn’t part of the world she knew. She likely had never seen, and definitely had never interacted with, a person as physically different as me, a person with no local blood or dress, but rather light skin, light hair, a large nose, bizarre clothes, and an accent that doesn’t come from any of the surrounding regions. She may have never seen anybody play music just to play music. And she had certainly never needed to grasp a concept as alien as leaving everything and everyone on one side of the planet to simply explore and see and spend money on another side of the planet.
I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
At a corner store in southern Thailand…
Austrian Dude: Wow, these stores called “7-11” I am all the time seeing in streets of Asia.
Me: Yeah, they’re everywhere in the US too, it’s an American chain.
AD: No, it cannot be so.
Me: Yeah it seriously is, they’ve been around forever, but it looks like some guy had the genius idea of bringing 7-11’s to Asia and is making billions of dollars.
AD: Wow, Scheiße.
Two days later, in a different town in Thailand, passing another 7-11…
Austrian Dude: What is the name of the guy who brought 7-11 to Asia?
Me: I don’t know, why?
AD: I fucking hate him.
No one goes to Wuhan. It’s one of those phenomena the traveler finds in every part of the world, a super mega uber metropolis filled with 10 million people that no one outside the country knows exists.
I went because it looked like a big enough dot on the map to merit a stop at on my way inland from the coast of China. My first two days there were interesting enough: taking a tour of Chinese Muslim noodly delicacies with an Argentinian backpacker; falling into the city’s main river, cutting open my hand (permanent scar!) and subsequently having Chinese men in speedos save the lives of my dripping electronics; and dining with a nerdy Chinese student as he told me I should be killed in an alley for my thoughts on Tibet and Xianjiang.
But it was the third day that I’ll always remember. I was in the hostel’s garden continuing my streak of demonstrating my embarrassingly poor billiards skills in as many countries as possible. My new friend Victor emerged from inside the hostel. I say “Victor” because all Chinese have an alter-ego name left over from junior high English class that they can tell foreigners for whom Zhaoguo Xin is unpronounceable. The best self-chosen name I’ve heard is definitely Butterfly. Anyways, Victor, whom I shall call Xi Guoqiang for the remainder of this blog post because it may for all I know be his real name and at the very least is more fun to write, was a businessman on business travel — apparently they spend the big bucks and stay in hostels in China — and was the one guy around who spoke English. He burst into my pool game with news for me. These two Chinese guys behind him are also going to Yichang! Now I don’t have to go to the train station to find a ticket, because they have a free ride to Yichang! Free ride to Yichang! Leave now!
I rushed upstairs, grabbed my backpack and was off with the two strangers on foot.
The conversation, admittedly, was less than thrilling. We could each say “Hello how are you?” and count to 20 in the other language, but this provided for an unsurprisingly brief and less than profound cultural exchange. So we moved on to hand movements and saying words super slowly in hopes that the other party would spontaneously begin to understand our language. This didn’t work either, but is loads of fun and better than charades.