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.
2012: Six months in Colombia and five months backpacking through South America.
How does one sum a year abroad?
I threw it all into one big list when I got back from Asia. Here it goes with South America.
PLACES VISITED: 67
Los Angeles -> Bogotá -> Cali -> Tumaco -> Medellin -> Rionegro -> Florencia -> Caquetá countryside -> Tuluá -> Buenaventura -> Golfo Tortugas -> Cartagena -> Villa de Leyva -> Santa Marta -> Tayrona -> San Gil -> Bogotá -> Quito -> Canoa -> Montañita -> Guayaquil -> Máncora -> Zorritos -> Chiclayo -> Chachapoyas -> Kuelap -> Gocta/San Pablo -> Trujillo -> Huanchaco -> Lima -> Ica -> Huacachina -> Nazca -> Andahuaylas -> Pacucha -> Pampachiri -> Bosque de Piedras -> Abancay -> Cuzco -> Aguas Calientes -> Machu Picchu -> Puno -> Lake Titicaca -> Arequipa -> Arica -> Iquique -> San Pedro de Atacama -> La Serena -> Santiago -> Valparaiso -> Viña del Mar -> El Yeco -> Buenos Aires -> Bariloche -> El Bolsón -> Lago Puelo -> Mendoza -> Maipu -> Mina Clavere -> Nono -> Córdoba -> Puerto Iguazu -> Iguazu Falls -> Rosario -> Colonia -> Montevideo -> Punta del Este -> La Barra -> Piriapolis -> Montevideo -> Los Angeles.
NATIONALITIES MET: 39
Colombian Venezuelan Filipino German Austrian French Australian American Canadian Peruvian Ecuadorian Chilean Belgian Danish Dutch English Scottish Finnish Italian Spanish Croatian Bosnian Irish Icelandic Mexican Japanese Argentinian Brazilian [Basque] [Quebecois] Uruguayan Paraguayan Portuguese Swiss Ukrainian Israeli Malaysian Costa Rican Chinese
Mountains: 13 different parts of the Andes.
Beaches: 19 (20 if you include an Argentinian river beach)
Things lost/stolen/magically vanished:
Frisbee. Camera. Swim trunks. Towel.
Weight lost/stolen/magically vanished: 10 lbs.
Stomach issues: Lots.
Mosquitos killed with hotel bibles: 137.
Mumford and Sons – “Babel”
Noah and the Whale – “Last Night on Earth”
Jorge Drexler – Various
Kele Goodwin – “Hymns”
Passion Pit – “Gossamer”
Radical Face – “Family Tree”
Gustavo Santaolla – “Diarios de Motocicleta”
BEST JAM SESSIONS:
Irish singalongs with Irishmen in Huacachina
Teaching Peruvian kids in Chachapoyas
Playing with indigenous instruments in Argentina
Oktoberfest in a beer-hall in Lima
Halloween in hostels and streets and bars in Cuzco
Thanksgiving with a real turkey in Santiago
Christmas with vegetarian food and gifts and la novia in the cold Andes of Argentina
New Years with local wine and besos from the novia in Mendoza
WEIRDEST FOOD EATEN:
Fried large-butted ants (Colombia)
Fried guinea pig (Peru)
Fresh fish with coconut sauce (Pacific coast Colombia)
Fru-fru Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurants (Lima)
Fruit I’ve never heard of (Colombia)
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.
Three months in Asia flew by, and I’ll never forget its sights, tastes, adventures and people. But how do you sum up an entire experience? What words do you choose? What stories do you tell?
Here’s a shot at trying to digest a whole trip through pages of scribbled notes and tally marks at the back of a travel journal.
(I copied this journal idea from traveler extraordinaire Cressida Stolp. Gracias, tia.)
CITIES VISITED: 38
Lake Forest -> Los Angeles -> (Tokyo) -> Seoul -> Phnom Penh -> Siem Reap -> Angkor Wat -> Phnom Krom -> Phnom Penh -> Saigon -> Cu Chi -> Nha Trang -> Hanoi -> Halong Bay -> Hanoi -> Guangzhou -> Hong Kong -> Shenzhen -> Shanghai -> Suzhou -> Hangzhou -> Tunxi ->Huang Shan -> Tangkou -> Wuhan -> Yichang -> Xi’an -> Beijing -> Kuala Lumpur -> Mersing -> Tioman -> Melaka -> Penang -> Hat Yai -> Krabi -> Railay -> Ton Sai -> Ao Nang -> Suruthani -> Had Rin -> Had Yuan -> Had Thien -> Had Yuan -> Had Rin -> Suruthani -> Bangkok -> (KL)-> (Taipei) -> Los Angeles -> Lake Forest.
NATIONALITIES MET: 43
South Korean • Serbian • Japanese • American • Cambodian • English • Swiss • Swedish • French • German • Canadian • Scottish • Welsh • Dutch • Vietnamese • Kiwi • Australian • Indonesian • Irish • Danish • Czech • Norwegian • Mexican • Israeli • Iranian • Spanish • Trinidadian • Indian • Singaporean • Argentinian • Russian • Senegalese • Algerian • Yemeni • Sri Lankan • Polish • North Irish • Maltese • Austrian • Thai • Chilean • Paraguayan • and Filipino!
Rivers (swim or boat): 3
Indian sweet milk tea
Te Tarik (Malaysian sweet milk tea tossed in the air)
Banh Xeo (Vietnamese burrito)
Sweet and sour pork (It’s better than in the states! I swear!)
Bamboo stirfry with pork
Kung Pao chicken (Better than Panda Express!)
Uighur lamb dishes (Muslims make the best food in China)
Thai curries (All)
Fruit shakes (Any)
Malay spicy chicken (Delish!)
Malay 3-taste fish (I think the three tastes are sweet, spicy, and sour?)
Nasi lemak (Malaysian rice, peppers, anchovies wrapped in banana leaf for like 30 cents. Obsessed.)