When I got married in 1977 I decided that a grand honeymoon was in order. I had always wanted to see the jungle and after much research and study, I chose Guatemala as the place to go. There were fairly recently uncovered Mayan ruins at Tikal and Uaxactun. There were monkeys, crocodiles, poisonous snakes, giant insects, insane missionaries, Cachiquel speaking native peoples, toucan and quetzal birds, bananas, avocados, mangoes, coffee, sugarcane, cinnamon trees, copal trees, lost gold hoards and real silver coins just to mention a few of the attractions.
My eighteen year old wife had grown up in Panama and could hobble along in Spanish fairly well. We booked a flight to Mexico City and took a bus from there to Tapachula which is the last town before crossing the Rio Suchiate into Guatemala. It was a long dusty affair. At a stop not far from the border, we met a young guy who was going the same way and we three decided to team up temporarily as we were hitch-hiking through some rough stuff.
Sergio was a Peruano who was studying at the Universidad de Merida in Yucatan. He had to cross out and re-enter the Mexican border every six months for his visa. He could play keepie-up with a soccer ball for an entire day and was a master of the kena, a cane flute. He gave me a hand-made flute as a gift that I still have today. He was planning to study Eskimos. His dream was to go to the Arctic. We got along well and whenever my wife and I required privacy, like a caballero he would disappear.
The bus squealed to a halt at the river crossing that served as a border and we disembarked. I was filthy with sweat and asked the teenage guard if I could take a quick bath in the Rio to freshen up. He motioned with his Armalite to a path down to the water. The river was about like Lynn Creek in North Vancouver and the water was deliciously cool. I scrubbed what I could with the crowd gawking and just soaked my jeans on my body. The would dry in the heat soon enough.
I came up the rocky path and donned a fresh olive green shirt from my pack. The guard approached and told me in Spanish to take off my shirt and throw it in the garbage barrel while he watched. As he had a gun, I complied without understanding his logic. My wife handed me a white tee-shirt. The guard made me take a solemn oath not to wear anything green during my travels in Guatemala. He then told me that no matter where we found ourselves by sundown to stay put even if it meant sleeping in the bush.
His tone was deadly serious and I took his well-meant advice to heart. It was many years and much reading later when I realized why. Looking back, it is well that none of us knew of the death squads roaming the countryside of Guatemala and the thousands of natives being murdered. I can see it on the faces in my pictures but at the time I was thankfully politically naive. I have never had an interest in politics and still don't but in those days I had no knowledge to compliment my lack of interest.
We walked across the bridge and entered Guatemala. One of our first rides was a pick-up truck with Louisiana plates. A guy from New Orleans was taking his two young sons to do obligatory military service in Nicaragua or Honduras, I forget which. Papa was proud and the boys were excited. I was thinking they looked a bit too young but all the uniformed personnel I had seen all day were boys younger than my twenty years.
First we sought the Pacific coast and then worked our way to the capitol inland over many smoking volcanic mountain ranges. A typical day had us sweltering in a miasma of mosquitos and ticks with monkeys throwing sticks at us from the canopy and then an elevation gain so abrupt as to turn your skin blue. I discovered a wonderful hot drink made of brewed cinnamon bark and sugar called canela.
The towns had wonderful names like Chichicastenango, Retalejue, Momostenango and Huehuetenango. As soon as one was within the borders the language changed from Spanish to Quiche or Cachiquel. The frantic pace of Mexico disappeared and was replaced by a slowness I had never encountered. I kept a book of words as I learned them. My favourite word was the word for delicious. I used it every time I drank the volcanic coffee or ate the salty black beans and tortillas. It was oots pim-pim. We sucked limes and ate rock salt at the urging of Sergio.
“Miguel, the limon and the sal. It’s your blood, it’s your life.”
In one mountain town, I bought a beautiful hand-dyed hand-woven table cloth. It was green, red, white and yellow. It was decorated with quetzal birds. I got a good price because Sergio explained I was Cheróki. My wife had been struck by the poverty of the family of the weaver and lacking anything useful to give, had settled on giving up her make-up to the three little daughters of the woman. The girls twisted the lipsticks fully out and happily ate them down to the nubs. I still use the table cloth.
Once we secured a ride in a Suzuki jeep. It was my first off-road experience and all we saw were camps of soldiers and washed out muddy tracks through dense jungle and steep mountains by turn. My wife threw up from the constant juddering. At one remote stop we went into a jungle camp to eat with the boys in green. I said I'd have whatever our driver was having as long as it was meat. It was called tepesquintla and it retained enough of its gray fur to assure me of its protein content.
Another family we spent the day with took us on a little side tour in return for taking their photographs. The family spent hours getting gussied up in their best clothes for a series of portraits which I sent to them by post when I returned to Vancouver. We were shown to the creek to the clothes washing rocks and then through a jungle path. After a mile or so we entered what looked like a ruined settlement from hundreds of years ago.
The woman explained that four hundred years ago the Spanish had come and built the town. They had been incredibly cruel in their treatment of the Indians. The Indians of her tribe had made a batch of poison from local plants and had poisoned the well in the little plaza. All the Spanish had been killed and their horses as well. She proudly showed us the stone well. What struck me was that her story was told as if she were describing events not yet a year old.
One of our stopping places was a lake called Atitlan. It was a beautiful body of water surrounded by thick jungle. In the sixties, a convoy of hippies had driven there and stopped along the shore. Their camperized school buses were parked along the shore and already overgrown with vegetation. Young children ran semi-naked around chasing chickens and I saw some of their now middle-aged parents watching from the broken windows.
We set up my small pup-tent. Sergio and I left my wife to organize the camp while we procured food. We went to an Indian market and purchased noodles, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions, guavas, fish and some peanuts. We convinced an old woman to sell us an earthenware pot to cook it all in. Armed with the feast we happily marched back to camp. Since we were boiling soup, we decided to use the water straight from the lake without adding iodine. I ignored the fact that the pot wasn't glazed on the inside.
We cooked up a nice pottage and told stories while it simmered on the fragrant copal wood fire. After an hour or so it was ready. I was ravenous and had two or three portions. I had been the cook and had sipped the broth a few times before it was done to test for taste. I needed to know how much limon and salt to add. We feasted and before the nightly mosquito attack we all crammed into the tent.
I felt a slight discomfort and my stomach growled and gurgled. Sergio was snoring and my wife was breathing sweetly in the dark totally spent from the days exertions. I rolled over and tried to sleep by listening to the frogs. I felt a momentous wrenching pain and doubled into a small horseshoe of agony. I just cleared the tent in time.
I crawled in the beautiful moonlight as far away as I could get and emptied my stomach violently. I crawled away from the mess and toward the water. The noise had awakened some of the hippies and they could be seen in the bus windows looking for the cause. There were caymans and predatory cats here and perhaps at first my retching sounded like a hungry jaguar or an evil spirit.
Usually, voiding one’s stomach brings immediate relief of sorts. Mine did not. I doubled up into an impossible fetal position with cramps of epic proportions. I could feel what was coming next. I just struggled out of my shorts and boxers in time. There under the full Guatemalan moon I rolled on the ground like a cannonball from Xibalbá. I spewed with heretofore unknown force from both ends of myself. Between bouts I gibbered, cursed and moaned like a shade from hell.
I was eventually empty of all fluid and lay like a wounded animal until I had the strength to crawl to the water and wash off. I redressed and crawled into the tent for the last few hours until dawn brought the monkeys awake. When I told Sergio the next morning I was instructed to eat limon and salt. Other than a powerful thirst which I quenched with Gallo beer, I was fine within twenty-four hours.
My wife was a mass of sunburned welts and was physically wrecked by the time we reached the small capitol city. I booked us a proper room and Sergio disappeared into the streets armed with a numismatic book I had brought along. He returned in the morning with a rare gold coin I had pointed out to him the day before. He wanted to give it to me and I told him to keep it as a momento. He wouldn’t say how on earth he had acquired it and I knew he was almost broke.
We were headed for the ruins of Tikal and it required taking a flight to a town called Flores on Lake Petén Itzá. Sergio didn’t have the money and was broken-hearted. He didn’t want to part with the gold coin either. He was keen to tour the ruins as he was studying anthropology. My wife and I decided to buy his ticket and we would all split up from there.
The flight was wonderful. A small low altitude hop just above the canopy. The plane had roll-down windows and you could smoke on board. We landed in a jungle clearing just before dark on a rough runway lined with burning oil drums. A kid with an Armalite told us where to catch a bus for town. We would have to get another bus in the morning to go the few miles up to the ruins.
The lake had an island that was connected by a causeway to the mainland. The town was a beautiful colonial mass of red roof tiles and Spanish architecture. Sergio took the tent and my wife and I checked into a pensión. We met up the next morning to tour the ruins. We stayed until dark and were ushered out at gunpoint to the bus. Sergio left that night for Merída and before he left he told us to check out a place called Cancún.
He said it was near some similar Mayan ruins and that a woman there had told him it would be developed and ruined itself someday soon. It was cheap, unspoiled and worth the mosquito bites. He had done some archeological workshops there for the university. We shook hands. I imagine he retained the coin. I never saw him again.
My wife and I stayed on for a few more days at the ruins. Before we left for the long road up to Mexico City, I figured we had earned a good swim. Petén Itzá was a jade green sweet water jungle lake and very inviting after the journey we had made thus far. I made inquiries as to the local flora and fauna and any possible nasties to beware of.
Armed with this information I easily convinced my wife to go with me. There was a boat dock where tourists were ferried to the island in the lake. On the island they were served lunch, offered trinkets and given a tour of a radio station that had been set up on a hill. Then the dugouts paddled them back to Florés. We put our swim-suits on under our jeans and skipped down to the docks hand in hand.
First I got my wife to dangle her feet in the water. She screamed. There in the clear top inch of water she could see ten thousand small fish attacking her feet. They were silver, about half the size of neon tetras and voracious. They possessed micro-fangs and tickled like hell as they stripped away exactly one cell thickness of dead skin off any carcass placed in the drink. She replaced her feet and giggled with delight. It tickled in the most exquisite way imaginable.
I told her I had been assured that they grew no larger and there were no other critters for us to worry about. Furthermore they only attacked stationary targets. To add a little spice to our coming swim I dared her to skinny dip. She had the gumption and while nobody was looking we doffed our rags and piled them under the crossbeam of the dock. Once we were in no one could see our bodies in the jade water.
The swim went well and we pushed ahead an empty plastic litre pop bottle to use as an emergency flotation device if need be. Something I had pioneered in Hargraves Pond in Beaumont, Texas. About three quarters of the way across to the island dock we were passed by a slow moving motor launch full of tourists. They docked and we struggled up beside them as they were disembarking for lunch.
As luck would have it the boat was full of obese, arthritic Norteños. The Guatemalan guides were helping them out one by one. It was a glacially slow process. As soon as my wife and I came to a stop, clinging on to the dock beside the boat, the fish attacked! We were tired and would have welcomed a short respite under some nearby trees if we could have broken free to cover the thirty yards.
At any rate we had no choice but to rest a bit before swimming back. The tourists engaged us in conversation and started to take our pictures. We thrust ourselves down up to our necks and kicked furiously. The area from our hips up to our armpits, not being in motion, was being scoured by the little piranhas. My wife had one of those laughs that you cannot ignore and she was wailing with breathless hysteria.
This further slowed the disembarkation of the walking wounded from the motor launch. I was convulsing with laughter and near to being asphyxiated from hyperventilation. The cameras clicked and the guides stared. The word intimate took on a new level of meaning to me that afternoon, such was the ingenuity of the fish at finding crevasses on my body that I hadn't yet guessed at the existence of.
Finally the last lard-ass waddled into the cantina and we were able to stroke for home. Praying all the while that some evil sprite hadn't stolen our robes. We were rewarded with our wish and hastily dressed behind some bushes. The next morning we checked out and went onwards to Mexico City. On the way I bought a nice machete. My mom never let me play with guns as a child, so I played with knives of all types. I still have that machete and I use it to cut brush on a lot I own.
When we got to the airport in Mexico City we were told that our seats had been given away. I had to be to work the next day and was angry and perplexed. We were without enough funds to stay even one night in the cheapest accommodations. I inquired as to what was the problem. I had purchased two round-trip tickets and paid in full. I was patronizingly told that I had failed to re-confirm my departure. To my thinking, once I buy something it's mine. It is no longer able to be resold to someone else. Although I had logged many a mile traveling the world, I had never come across this crapulous, anemic, parasitic policy.
I went to tell my waiting wife the good news. Our adventure had only yet begun it appeared. I took a deep breath and studied the line up. One of those business suited bastards was taking my seats and I'd be damned if they were going to get away with it. My wife started to sob quietly, thinking of the night to come wandering the streets outside.
I saw three airline employees checking in the suitcases. I watched for a few minutes. Then it hit me. It was simply a matter of timing, nothing more. I had originally handed the tickets to the girl before hoisting the packs onto the scale. I got back into a different line and dropped the two packs onto the stainless steel scale.
The lady robotically attached two tags and pushed them onto the conveyer without once looking up at my face. Then I handed her the tickets. She punched some numbers into her terminal and I saw her face darken. Her embarrassment prevented her from saying a word. She turned just in time to see the packs slip under the rubber strips and into the bowels of the conveyor.
She looked up at the lengthening line behind me and recovered her composure. She punched a few extra numbers into her data terminal and smiled as she handed our boarding passes to me. I gathered up my wife and went to the gate. I told her she married a genius and she said she'd think about it.
We had Trout Almandine, green beans, caramelized new potatoes and many beers on the flight home. We toasted the poor sucker who was stranded for an extra night in Mexico City. It was oots pim-pim!
Damn, it was cold! It was early summer and I had just spent a soggy night in a leaky tent. I had pitched it on the railroad right of way next to some grazing cows. At about two AM, I was startled out of my skin by the piercing headlight of a freight. It was so intense, I felt it. The whistle blew right as it got level with my tent. That was it for the night. I was soaked anyway, so I packed up and grumbled on down the road to warm up.
A few miles out of Pritchard, B.C. I started to feel better. Eventually the sun came up and burned off the chill. My spirits picked up and so did the traffic. This was day two on my journey to Africa and I was looking for a good one. As if my thoughts had been read, a green Chevy Nova pulled up to a stop just yards ahead. This meant they had intended to stop after seeing me. The ones who weren't sure came to stops much farther ahead.
My best friend in Texas had the same vehicle and we had driven it from Vancouver to Houston only a couple of years before. I had warm memories from that trip and seeing a similar machine brought them back to the surface. Just enough so, that they over-rode the fact that the car had no plates. I had noticed it right away, but instantly put it in the back of my mind as being of no importance. I wanted to ride in that green Chevy Nova.
There were two fellows in the front seat and they were going to Calgary. I said it would get me over the Rockies. I tossed my pack in the back seat and hopped in. There was a beat up alligator suitcase on the floor and two cheap sets of business clothes carefully hung on the hook above the window. The guys were approximately twenty-five years old and spoke with the gentle drawl of Alberta. They were in jeans and western shirts. The driver was a bit older and less talkative. His buddy was obviously not the brains of the pair.
I lit a smoke of some homegrown my brother-in-law had given me as a parting gift. It was sweet, mild and less intoxicating than an American beer. We sped onwards toward the pass over the Rockies. The countryside grew more and more beautiful. I had never been over this ground and was increasingly enchanted with every mile. Gordon Lightfoot came over the radio singing Alberta Bound . It was perfect.
More time passed and the fellows got less chatty. I figured they had been on the road along time. I was tired but enthralled with the scenery. The most magisterial mountains I had ever beheld stood all around. So tall, I had to crane my neck to see the tops out the window. The sun made some of the glaciers look like sherbet. The layers of different minerals formed rock rainbows. It was a special place and I was in awe.
We began the climb. Signs occasionally warned of wolves, bears, moose, cougars and reminded one not to litter. We were remote and I was in heaven. About this time the two fellows started looking at each other back and forth. This went on for a few miles without a word said. Eventually, the driver turned slightly and asked if I had a driver's license. I assured him I did.
The younger fellow turned right around facing me and said with a malignant grin, “Good. If we get stopped today, you're driving. We stole this car, asshole. Killed the owner. Got it?” His Alberta accent was gone and though I couldn't pinpoint it, I put it much further south. For the first time I noticed every crooked tooth in his rat smile. The driver was screening the rear-view to catch my reaction. He got none.
I remembered an old man I had met on a Greyhound bus late one night in Beaumont, Texas. He'd had the same suitcase as these clowns. He had asked me to join up with him. He needed a younger man to help him. His business was armed robbery for small jobs like gas stations, motels and small town banks. He'd been at it for most of his life and promised to teach me everything I needed to know. I told him I wasn't interested.
I remembered my how my father played cribbage with some of his associates from time to time. One old man was my favourite. I would sit in his lap and watch the game. He had white hair and a soft voice. He used to pull a nickle out from behind my ear and give it to me. The guys all had pistols strapped to their shoulders. One day I told my father that I really liked the old guy. My father said, “You do, eh? Guess what he does for a living?” I said I couldn't guess. “He kills people. He's a hit-man,” said my father.
I remembered riding my Stingray bike to the Italian store for comic books and candy bars. I was about nine years old. I had been riding along a concrete-lined bayou next to a big chain-link fence. A large boulevard ran to my left. I saw a two foot long, perfectly intact snake skeleton laced through the fence and I stopped immediately.
I determined that it couldn't be removed without breaking it. I was trying to decide if I could reassemble it with glue. I heard a loud screech on the boulevard just ahead. I whipped my head around to see if I was going to be hit by a car. I saw two cars. One had pulled in front of the other and diagonally cut it off. It was a big black car. The other car was smaller and the colour made no impression on me.
What made an impression on me was the two men in black clothes and white shirts at the driver's side of the smaller car. They jerked the door open, hauled the driver out by his neck-tie and bent over him for about two minutes. They went back to their car carrying something in a handkerchief. They burned rubber out of there. I saw the blood on the pavement when the man in the smaller car righted himself and took off. The whole process had taken under five minutes.
These memories fled and now I became very angry. I had broke camp in a rush and hadn't strapped my knife on. It was in my pack. I sat silent. My eyes pointed directly to the rear-view mirror and I opened two tunnels into my soul. One connected to a battlefield in Tyler, Texas and one to a beach in England where a dragon ship lay at anchor. I softly unzipped my pack and put the blade in easy reach.
I had my life savings around my neck and had vowed it wouldn't be removed if I breathed. The car sped on. I bored holes in the rear-view. The driver said, “We're going to rob your ass up ahead.” The other fellow cackled. Calculations went on rapidly through my mind. Did they have a pistol or two? Did they have a rifle in the trunk? Would they frog-march me out to the trees?
One was going to join me in the hereafter, at least. There was a slim chance of getting control of both of them but it needed me to act first. The vehicle was moving fast on this particular piece of road and I didn't relish the thought of a crash. I hadn't seen a weapon and these guys might have been practical jokers. When you are walking in snake country, the fact you didn't see one yet is no reason to let down your guard.
I wasn't amused. The driver and his side-kick talked about crimes they had or hadn't committed. Every time the eyes of the driver glanced up at the rear-view, they were met by mine, cold as a lobster's. I had spoken no other word since saying I possessed a driver's license.
The minutes wore on like hours my new friends got quiet. Now the driver kept looking every few seconds into my eyes. I sat myself dead centre directly behind the mirror. I felt the atmosphere change. I stared straight ahead and spoke not a word. We happened upon a rest stop way up near the pass. There were a few cars pulled over and a variety of people milling around. There were some vending machines. The perfect place to escape?
Our car stopped. The driver said, “We were just joking, man. You want a Coke?” I said nothing. Sidekick went out to get a few bags of chips and some drinks. I stared at the rear-view. He returned and dropped a few bags of potato chips on the front seat. He got in and offered me one. I stared in the rear-view. We resumed our journey.
Soon we were running downhill. My ears popped with the decrease in altitude. None of us had spoken since the rest stop. Before long, the prairie lay on front of us. The driver went into Calgary. It was getting twilight. Every time he looked in his rear-view our eyes met. Sidekick started to fidget in his seat and appeared to be under some stress. I was offered a drop-off anywhere in town I chose.
For the first time since the drama began, I spoke. “Can't stay in town. Got to be outside of the city limits,” I said. I was driven to a nice little place called Eagle Lake, miles out of their way. The fellows seemed mighty relieved to be rid of me. The car u-turned and I watched the tail lights speed off for Calgary. I made a fire, had some soup and bunked down for the night. I pitied the fools. Some things are not funny. Especially when you don't know a person well.
I woke up early that morning at Eagle Lake, Alberta. It had been a trying day prior and though I had slept and dined well, I was soaked with dew and began to walk fast to warm up and dry out. Not long after warming up, I started thumbing a ride. There was no traffic yet coming out of Calgary on the Trans-Canada. The Rockies lay behind me and the prairies lay in front. You could feel something different with every step.
I saw a car at last. As it approached at drag-strip speed I made it out to be a Dodge Charger. It was sun-faded gold and so worn was the paint as to be like primer. It skittered to an ugly stop a good hundred yards ahead. I stood wondering if I should waste the energy to run the distance before they changed their mind or just keep walking. Then the car started to back up. It accelerated to a crazy speed and waffled all over the shoulder until the distance was exactly halved.
A guy got out and leaned against the driver's side door. As I approached he looked me up and down. I thought that this was a good sign. After the experience of day before, I vowed to scrutinize the drivers and walk away if I didn't like their look. Here was a driver doing the same before taking a passenger. Ladies, of course, were exempt from this directive. I got close enough to see him.
We wore the same jeans, the same jean shirts, the same style hiking boots, the same style western belt and we each had the same size K-BAR camping knives in the same kind of oak-leaf decorated leather sheaths strapped to our belts on the same side of our bodies. The only difference was our hats. We were approximately the same height and weight. We both had long hair, his black and mine brown.
After we were a few feet apart, he slapped his leg and said his name was Larry. He shook my hand and said that he wouldn't hurt me if I wouldn't hurt him. I concurred and climbed in. He gunned the 4 barrel Holly Carb and spewed gravel in a crescent until the tires grabbed tarmac and pressed us both deep into the leather seats. He handed me a beer after chucking his last empty into the pile in the back seat.
He was intelligent, lively, funny, friendly and hopelessly pissed to the gills. He said he was on the way to Kenora to go fishing on his brother's very own island in the lake. After a few beers, he offered to take me along as a token Cherokee to hang with his Cree people. I need only pay for half the gas. I was heading to Africa, so I decided that this would be a good idea with so much summer still ahead. It was a done deal!
Larry drank and drove and asked a lot from the car, as racy as it was. I was happy to get so far so fast in such good company. The road was empty of cops and other cars and endless miles of pancake-flat prairie gave the illusion that 120 miles per hour was standing still. The tape-deck cranked out song after song and it turned out we shared the same musical taste. It was a good day and we both knew it.
After some time, Larry finally fell asleep and the car simply veered smoothly off the road, across the shoulder and into a recently cropped field. The stubble slowed us down after a few hundred yards and we came to a gentle stop. Larry's foot had fortunately come off the chrome pedal but he maintained a tight grip on the wheel until he woke up.
He giggled, asked me to drive and decided to sleep awhile. He explained that he had come all the way from Vancouver Island. He had only stopped to gas up, eat and to pick up me. As I took the pilot's seat, he warned me to watch the oil pressure gauge closely. He expected some engine trouble at some point and didn't want to ruin the engine. I promised to keep a weather eye. He then told me to step on it as he needed to get home ASAP.
I did as directed. We were getting down the road in style when it happened. On the instrument panel came the red light for the oil pressure. The gauge needle showed a precipitous drop in pressure. I backed off the gas and slowed to a stop to wake Larry. In front I could see the town of Medicine Hat maybe ten minutes away.
“Ye little snakes,” he said as he took the wheel. After determining it would be OK to limp in to town he drove up to a cafe. We got out to eat. We talked of fathers. His had been murdered in Missouri by a new young wife. She had taken the trouble to have the man change his will in her favor before hiring a hit man. Larry and his brother had gone down south to claim the body.
I told how my father had been found shot in the head in the forest south of Pemberton. It was written up as suicide but had many details about it that pointed to another explanation. I went over to the juke box. I have had a game all my life I call “jukomancy.” Whenever I am in the presence of a juke, I play the track L-17. I don't look at the titles. No matter what it turns out to be, it is always instructive. I put in the coins and punched it up.
The Allman Brothers Band song, Whipping Post came on. We looked at each other and ordered more coffee. We both started playing air guitar in the red leather booth. We both laughed and we both knew it was the only alternative left to us. Larry didn't seem overly concerned about the car as he already knew what needed to be fixed. He was, however very adamant to get back to Kenora quick.
I now felt a strong pull back to the road. It was as if our two fates combined weren't going to come to a happy end. He felt it also. I paid him for the gas and he bought my breakfast. I had lots of daylight left and was anxious to clear town. I wished him a good trip and a speedy return home. He said he wanted me to promise him something.
I asked what that might be. He said I must promise not to hitch-hike in Saskatchewan. He said everywhere else was fine, but not there. Not this time. He looked me dead in the eye and his voice was as serious as I had heard all day. I sat back down. I promised him. This done, I felt I was entitled to some kind of explanation. He said he didn't want me to meet Peetie Wheatstraw. I looked for the hint of a joke and realized he was sincere.
I asked who that was. Larry said it wasn't a particular person, but the name of a “meanness.” I had heard my Texas grandmother use the same term when referring to evil people and wicked deeds. It lives in vast open places and is carried on wind. I said to give an example. With no hesitation, as if he was re-telling an event that had already happened, Larry said a guy is hitch-hiking in the prairie. Miles from nowhere. A truck pulls over and invites the hiker into the bed. Peetie Wheatstraw is driving and he may have some friends with him.
The truck has furry dice hanging from the rear-view mirror and a big roll-bar over the cab. A few miles onto the way, Peetie pulls off the highway and heads out across a pancake-flat field. He starts cutting donuts to warm up. The hiker tries to secure his pack and his person. The crew are strapped in with strong belts and cross-harnesses. Peetie now speeds up and purposely rolls the truck. Its a dice throw how it comes out for the hiker. He may be killed, he may be injured. He is miles from nowhere and Peetie is in control.
Larry looked up and to his right as he spoke this and then looked straight at me and said, “Peetie is usually a white guy. An Indian Peetie would just stick a knife in a guy and take his gear.”
I rose to go. I turned and asked him why he had to be back so quick to Kenora. He, for the first time mentioned that he was married and had two sons. I told for the first time that I was newly separated from my wife. He said he had had a big fight with his wife. She had gone to a relatives house. He had driven out to Vancouver Island in a rage. He was heading to his brother's place when he picked me up. Now he was cooled off and he wanted to patch things up. He said the awful rush was on account of a letter he'd left on the kitchen table. “Ye little snakes! If she reads it, I'm single. Mike, you can't run away from anything.”
Listen to the track L-17
On a beach in North Africa I discovered why olives are soaked in brine. The trees grew in profusion here almost right up to the sea. I'd never seen anything like it outside of southern California. They provided much needed shade and were heavy with fruit. I had tasted many a date while gathering my wild suppers in this region. The other plant I saw in abundance was my old friend, the oleander. This was a common plant in Louisiana and every child knew the leaves were toxic. I decided to supplement my sugary dates with some nice green olives.
I picked a bunch into my hat and went back to my tent. I popped one particularly fat one into my mouth and rolled it around. I'm sure they heard my cries of pain all the way to Algeria when I bit into it. The blisters went away after a day or so and it was at this juncture that I had a chance to take stock of my finances. Roughly speaking, I had squandered a thousand dollars since walking across the Port Mann bridge in Vancouver. It was only logical to start the long trek back.
After many adventures recrossing Spain and France and exploring the Pyrenees, I found myself in Dover. The fabled white cliffs were just like I had read about. The nearest other town was Folkestone. I really liked the name. In Dover I set about to find a safe free place to sleep. It was urban ground, which always kept me on edge compared to bedding down in the bosom of earth's wilderness. I walked along looking for a good home-cooked meal.
I eventually found a building that had been set up before my grandparents were born to house sailors between voyages. They served a proper plate of plaice and chips with mushy peas and I heard many a good tale round the landlady's table that afternoon. I walked away down the neat sidewalks and had to remind myself constantly that I hadn't magically been transported to Victoria, British Columbia. It began to grow dusk and the inevitable mist started to roll in from the sea.
I was too far inside the town to walk out to the skirts and find a bed in the bush, so I cast about with a practiced eye for cover. Aha! There was the spot. I was in front of a large stone building with several other smaller buildings scattered about. All were in a massive stone-walled yard and there was a tall hedge round the whole affair. On the grounds were some prodigious oaks. I love oaks and these were the prettiest I had seen since leaving Louisiana as a boy.
I walked around town until it was inky dark and returned. I jumped the fence lightly and crept along the side wall to an old oak I had selected earlier. I spread my groundsheet and sleeping bag in the impenetrable dark. It was a memorized routine and within minutes I had a nice nest. There was no need for the tent and my bag could ward off the dew and mist for the balance of the night. One must be up before daylight when urban camping.
I tied my bootlaces together and strung them through my hand. I clasped my knife in the other hand and used this as my pillow. I pondered the road ahead and sent my spirit on ahead to clear the obstacles. My breathing began to dissipate into the long droughts that herald sleep. An ear-shattering sneeze worthy of Sir Walter Raleigh himself had me up and in combat stance in the time it takes a snowflake to melt on a dog's nose.
I could barely discern a man in a white sweater also in a combat stance a foot away. “Steady, boyo. Sweet and holy fuck, you scared the bejeezus out of me! I'm trying to get some sleep.” I lowered my knife and lit my cigarette lighter. There in the glow I saw the Irishman's bag spread out head to head with mine about six inches away. We had chosen the same spot for the same reasons and after telling each other our stories we both enjoyed a deep worry free slumber. It was a miracle I hadn't stepped on the fellow while preparing myself for the night.
We took our leave of the Dover College grounds long before sunrise. Him bound for Ireland and me for Folkestone. I had reached England too soon for my liking and didn't want the trip to end yet. I have always believed in facing one's fears. It builds character. I had always had a fear of dancing. It was something that my sisters could do effortlessly and therefore wasn't to be trusted.
At best, I considered it unmanly and at worst, a possible contributing factor to chromosomal damage. It was the gateway drug to shiny shoes and uncomfortable clothes. None of the men I had seen who were good at it were married. I had done square dancing in elementary school in Louisiana and with the safety of numbers in a scenario of no choice, it was tolerable. I had polka danced with my mother at a Swedish Hall once and gotten so drunk, I fell into an empty swimming pool on the winding walk home that night.
At every high school I had attended from Texas to Squamish, I went to the dances and stood by the wall like a man awaiting execution. I had only once performed the eagle dance properly and this was a result of a fortuitous mix of just the right amount of liquor, a hearty meal and the particular placement of the planet Jupiter on that evening. I had been taken to house parties by a new friend when I came first to Canada. I wasn't on my game and the peer pressure cornered me like a bobcat into a slow dance.
I had never had a girl count my teeth with her tongue before and it was there and then I decided that slow dancing was OK. It was not only manly, it was altogether pleasurable and the footwork was dead easy. By the time I graduated everyone was dancing five feet apart like spastic mannikins. I gave up. These thoughts came to mind as I headed for Folkestone. I was going to, by God do something to improve myself.
Got to town and went scouting for a dance hall. It didn't take long. The whole place was chock full of pubs, nightclubs and tattoo parlors. Every moving creature had tattoos. Children and old women included. I had never seen so many. My father and grandfather were both covered in tattoos as were most of their friends, but this was on a whole new scale.
These were big, bold colourful illustrations designed for maximum effect. I inquired at a pub as to where these works of art were being done. I was told, “By the Dutchman, of course.” After a few beers, I strolled out of the pub and went down the evening streets to the establishment I had selected earlier.
There was a lady at the entrance who politely told me that it was a members only club. She hurried away as I stood basting in the bad news. Another fellow took her place at the reception desk and called me over. He grinned and said he would sign me in as a guest. I shook his hand and proudly strolled downstairs to find a place to dump my rucksack.
This accomplished, I ordered a pint of black beer and started to scan the crowd. The evening was new and people were trickling in. There were pretty girls everywhere I looked, once my eyes adjusted to the tattoos. After the third pint I plucked up my courage and walked over to a beautiful lady and asked her if she'd like to dance. She looked at me like I had farted in church and simply said no. I had another pint while contemplating this turn of events.
No problem, there were tons of girls. The place was full now. Girls were dancing all over the place. They were even dancing with each other. That's what girl's have to do while they are waiting for the men to get up the steam to ask them to dance. I was facing my fear big time now. I wiped off my mustache and walked over to a table with two pretty girls and asked them both to dance! Hell, judging by the music there wasn't any footwork to bother with and not much touching either. That would come later when they played the slow dances.
The ladies looked at each other and then at me. Their expression was the kind a person has when they are walking on pavement and their foot sinks into something too soft to be good. The visual expressive precursor to the audible, “Ewwww.” I found my lucky spot back at the bar and ordered another pint. Well, fishing takes patience and I decided to see how all the other fellows were doing.
Maybe I could learn something useful from the local blokes. I started scanning the now jammed room. The lights were spinning around in many colours and the music was loud and kind of rough. Ha! There wasn't a guy who had gotten a dance on that floor anywhere yet. This boosted my confidence immensely. I sipped my beer, slowly now, so as to stay alert for the coming evening.
I returned to scanning the little tables. This time looking for the unlucky local males. Maybe we could swap methods and improve our luck. I couldn't believe the ratio of women to men. It was good fishing spot. How to find the ones that want to dance? It was probably something very simple. Usually is.
My bladder, in any other age, would have been kept after my death in a carved box and revered as a treasure, such was its prodigious strength and fidelity. But now, it called for release. I strode through the throng of whirling females, intoxicated by their sweet smells. I went to a set of swinging doors I had observed people going to all evening. I pushed them open.
I saw the lady's room directly in front of me. I looked left and right for the men's room. All I saw was broom closets. A lady came stumbling out of the loo. She had a large parrot tattooed on her upper chest. She stood wobbling on her high-heels and grasped my beard for support with two dainty fingers. She looked at me like a mother cat watching its kitten climb a tree for the first time. I stared deeply into her blue eyes. “It's a lesbian club, you daft boy,” she said.
España. Hitch-hiking was so difficult here, I nearly abandoned the practice. From now on, it was a combination of perambulation and ferrocarriles that would get me to the Tangiers ferry. The trains were old and the cheap tickets had me standing the entire way. The approaches into large cities were always heralded by drab concrete apartment complexes, a few stray goats and dirty children playing on any vacant space. Overhead, from the balconies of the projects waved the colourful laundry of many an unhappy family.
In the stations, children sold snacks through the open windows of the rail cars. To leave the train was not an option for the long hauler. I stood packed tight between two big Swedish girls and their massive rucksacks. They had been in Morocco and had scary stories of narrowly escaping being sold as slaves by a Bedouin farmer and his sons. They had been camping outdoors in the Atlas Mountains and were warned by the one of the man's wives only hours before their impending capture.
We leaned out the windows and smoked and talked as the dry landscape slid by like a western movie set. I was headed to the east coast and then south to Algeciras for a boat to Morocco. The landscape began to green up as we approached the sea. We stopped in Barcelona and the två skön Svensk flikarna bid me farewell and good luck. I had picked a smaller town as my destination. Tarragona. I'd try hitch-hiking again once on the coast. I didn't have much use for big cities anywhere in the world.
It was still day when I disembarked the train. I had been standing for many an hour and my legs wanted some action. I walked far away to a beautiful beach. There were many people swimming in the surf of the Mediterranean. After a moment, I realized that something was different about the scene I was enjoying. All the women and girls were topless! Even the grandma's. It was a blessed relief from the usual fat men in fluorescent orange thongs.
I saw some small mountains above the shelf of the beach and began to climb up. As I hiked along in the heat, watching for snakes, I paused from time to time to check my back-trail, so I could find the beach again. I reached the first plateau and was treated to a sight that I celebrated with an extra long pull on the wine-skin. It was a genuine Roman aqueduct. It was a series of beautiful arches done in red uniform brick. It appeared that it had carried water to the town over the valley I saw in front of me.
Not anticipating it was half the enjoyment of finding it. I knew nothing of Tarragona or its history, but this told me much. I surveyed the harbor and also noticed a large amphitheater. This was going to be an interesting place. I hiked along to the north of town until I reached some cliffs overlooking a windy sea. I scouted around and found a unique camping spot.
I was on top of a rock cliff. The wind had worn it smooth and clean. A few small sticks and bunches of grass were the only growth. As I walked to the edge of the cliff I felt increasing vibrations from the waves pounding the cliff face. About fifty feet away from the precipice, there was a lozenge-shaped hole in the rock. The hole was about ten feet by five feet. Every seventh wave or so, the spume would rise up to the top of the hole. Beyond was another twelve feet or so of cliff. This part was worn down to two or three inches thickness by the eons of wave action.
This roof vibrated like a war drum with every wave when the water met the main cliff many feet behind where a cave had formed. I sat on this wafer of stone as the waves rushed at me from the endless blue, disappeared under my feet and crashed behind me with the sound of God's cymbals. I set up my small tent on this feature and anchored it with stones against the wind. When I lay in my bed I could see only the sea and I could feel every swell of the restless deep. I gathered some dry twigs from the hills behind and made a small cheerful fire. That night I was witness to a sunset that I described thus:
The water went
turquoise to gold
and then to ink
for my thoughts
a beautiful rose
just visible over
I lit a fire as
this magic orb
before tired eyes
I wanted only
for those I love
to share and know
these unique moments
The night was black but the sky was punctuated by brilliant silver stars and a moon of many colours. Out at sea I could hear boat motors and occasionally see their pilot lights.
The sun woke me just before I heard voices. I had been invaded by German tourists! As I tugged on my jeans and wiped the sand from my eyes I saw a big, red smiling face in my window. Another Teutonic voice said, “ Können wir ein Bild Ihres Lagers nehmen?” I staggered out to face my foe men.
It was a group of two ladies and two men. As soon as I cleared the door of the pup tent, three of them rushed in to pose for the fourth. This was repeated to exclamations of,” Was eine glänzende Lage! “
I was clapped on the back by all hands and they merrily went on their way.
I stayed three days and three nights. I had a long trek to get my supplies, but my possessions were safe in the tent. I played on the cliffs watching the octopus hunters snorkel in front of the cave with their tridents. I tried some of this local specialty fried in olive oil and it was addictive. I found an ancient old woman far up in the hills behind, who laundered all my jeans and tee shirts for a reasonable fee. She used cakes of blue soap that was locally hand-made and smelled like limes.
I noticed a strange lone figure who showed up on the second day and took up a position on a rock about 60 yards away and sat til I ate supper at night. He would then wander off in the direction of the town. Next day he would reappear and patiently sit and watch every move I made until sundown. If I went away to the beach, he would be there when I returned.
One day at the beach, I saw a man cooking paella. I was fairly starved and figured I could polish off a whole batch. I had conserved so much money by sleeping out and walking, I reckoned I could splurge. I approached him and ordered some. The man looked at me with great irritation and told me no. He continued in Spanish to inform me that paella was for a couple of people at the minimum. I assured him that I was as hungry as at least three Spaniards and would not waste a speck. He adamantly reiterated his negative response. I stood watching the fresh prawns, scallops, and octopus chunks browning in his great pan of steaming tomato, rice, garlic, olives and spices known only to the Phoenicians who first made the harbor here. All round me laughing ladies with bronzed breasts filled their red lips with spoon after spoon of this delicacy.
I walked several miles to a beach restaurant and after telling my story to an old Dutch man, he bought me a big fish dinner and a schooner of ale. We visited for hours and I walked the long way back. This way led through the town and took one along a street called the Rambla. After the steps at the end of this ancient road, it was a bushwhack back up the cliff and along to the tent. I arrived in good spirits.
When I got in the tent, I checked my possessions as I always did. My precious Scarpa boots were fine as was the balance of my meager gear. Only one thing was missing. My Hawkeye Instamatic camera!
Inside it had held a single cartridge of 36 exposures. This was only half used and had documented my trip from North Vancouver to where I stood. I was consumed with anger. I stood outside the tent with the waves spuming behind and looked for the mystery man. He was nowhere in sight.
I began a string of curses that encompassed every malediction I had ever heard or read in many languages. I directed my voice toward the land behind. I yelled until I was spent. I made the evening fire and settled for still being alive and having my fifty dollar boots. The next morning I was up early. I waited for the lone man to take up his position on his rock. I lit a smoke and walked briskly over to him.
I asked him in Spanish if I could be of any assistance to him. I pointed out that he had been staring at me for three days. I asked him if he had taken my camera or had seen anyone else lurking near the tent. He was very polite and polished in his speech and assured me that he was not the culprit, nor had he witnessed any thief. His explanation for watching me was a thin gruel of how amazed he was, being a Spaniard, to see a man happy to travel alone.
He said it boggled his mind and he kept returning to see when my wife or my girlfriend or family might appear to join me. I assured him that I liked my own company most of the time, though I also suffered loneliness, the same as any Spaniard. We talked philosophy awhile and I decided to leave that afternoon. The magic was gone from the place. Before returning to town, the man gave me the address of a bar I could visit on the Rambla before leaving.
I loaded my gear in minutes and headed on in to town. I had saved some crispy clean lime smelling jeans and a snow white tee shirt for my departure clothes. I found the Whiskey Bar Angel. It was near to a guitar shop, so I took about an hour in the latter before taking a seat in the former. Once inside, I found a nice stool with a view of the palms on the golden beach.
An attractive woman sat nearby and I lit her cigarette when the time came. We were the only two at the bar and so we began to chat in Spanish. She had an ethereal beauty draped over a permanent sadness. She was like a statue of a woman carved out of the wrong kind of stone. Rather than spoil her looks, her dolor was an accessory to her charm. I suggested we take a small table by a window.
She was elegantly dressed as most of the ladies I had seen were. She didn't seem to mind my large rucksack and dusty Guatemalan cowboy hat. I asked her if she would eat some tapas with me and have a drink. She said yes and I asked her what was a good cocktail as she didn't look like a beer drinker. She replied that the house had a specialty that was delicious. I ordered two. Two Angel's Tits. I giggled over the name and she caught herself just before she would have smiled. A man approached the small stage and tapped the microphone. He introduced himself as José Canada.
I bought him a drink and told him I was from Canada. He played beautifully that night. The lady and I talked of many things. It was wonderful to have conversation with such a refined young woman. As I took the little umbrella out of my third Angel's Tit, she mentioned her unhappy marriage to her insanely jealous alcoholic psychopathic Catalonian rugby playing bull running sword fighting black belted cocaine addicted wife beating stevedore husband who should be just about finished his shift at the docks and wanting his supper.
I listened with alacrity while signaling for la cuenta. I could tell she was sincere. As I paid the waiter, the lady summed up our predicament thus, “Estoy como un pájaro sin alas. Yo no puedo volar. Usted está como un pájaro sin pies. Usted no puede permanecer. She slipped on a tarnished ring from her pocket and I kissed her hand.
(I am like a bird with no wings. I cannot move. You are like a bird with no feet. You cannot stay.)
It was summer in Paris. I arrived at the Gare du Nord and immediately sought cheap accommodations for the night. It had been a long haul. This was my second European capitol and the first on the continent proper. I had been averaging about 35 kilometers of walking per day. In my style of hitch-hiking, the hiking took precedence over the hitching.
I had walked from the beaches of Calais along back roads that stretched out over undulating green pastures and graveyards that superseded in scale, anything I had ever seen. I was subsisting on wine, baguettes, soft white cheese and excellent paté. The hitch-hiking was easy but unproductive and after two days, very predictable. So much so, that by the third day, I didn't bother.
A typical scenario would have me traipsing along playing my harmonica and sipping wine from my Portuguese wine skin. A harvest gold coloured Citroen would rattle to a stop ahead of me. I would run the twenty yards to check out the driver. A smiling man with a nice mustache would ask if I wanted a lift. My command of French was pretty good in those days and all my conversations were conducted in that language.
I'd usually roll a smoke and get ready for a stimulating chat. A few miles down the track and I would be treated to a statement such as, “ Les cheveux sur votre bras sont très beaux. “ I would thank the man and change the subject. Usually, this would elicit another compliment, such as, “Jim, Vos yeux sont comme un cerf. Est-ce que vous avez aussi tels cheveux sur votre poitrine?”
By now I'd be looking askance at my driver. I would correct him since my name wasn't Jim. Then I would add the indispensable phrase, “Je suis désolé, je suis un hétérosexuel.” This always worked magic. The Citroen would come to an abrupt halt, spraying gravel and clouds of dust on the cattle quietly grazing beyond the fences along the chemin. As if I had announced I was a carrier of wet leprosy, the gentleman would fling my rucksack into the ditch. “Zut alors!”, was the typical leave taking.
Usually I'd make a paté sandwich and play harmonica for the cows and take up walking again. The French people love dogs and every farm had at least one vicious German Shepherd. Protéger les poulets et les canards des renards. I encountered them when walking at night. Talk was, that the countryside was overrun with foxes. I never saw any, the grass was tall. I did see dogs in the restaurants in the city.
I found myself in a hostel, sharing a room with a young Japanese engineer. He had just come in from Germany and proudly displayed to me the largest private collection of fine salamis and sausages I had ever seen. From talking to him, I figured that Germany would be prohibitively expensive and so I decided to continue south to Spain. There was one sight I had to see first.
I have never been a fan of tourists traps, so the Louvre was definitely out as was the Palace of Versailles. I'd had a place in mind long before I crossed the ocean. I would go to the Bastille! I had read The Tale of Two Cities as a child and the smoke and excitement of the glorious revolution hadn't yet cleared from my imagination.
I left my rucksack on my bunk and headed out into the foggy night. I planned to walk and asked directions as I went along. Everyone was more than helpful. Three or four hours later, I was deep into the gloomy rues of some corner of the second arrondisement. It began to drizzle. I ducked into an alley to get out of the glare of the city of lights.
I saw a small figure in the murk. I watched as the image came near and resolved into a small girl with a little rat-like dog on a string. The girl looked very much like Cossette, pictured above from Les Misérables. This urchin's hair was black though, and she was a couple of years older. She came up to my elbow. In a very hushed and serious voice she informed me that I had gotten myself into a real bad situation. According to her, I had blundered right smack into the darkest, most vile, godforsaken back eddy of the whole damned city.
It wasn't safe, she said, to tarry a moment. The little girl asked me where it was I needed to be. I told her I sought the Bastille. She said that I would never make it alive on my own, but that her and her dog could guide me through the proper alleys, known only to her. Her tone was so sincere and concerned, the only decent thing to do was to allow her to lead the way.
Off we went, turning corners and slinking like ferrets into nameless alleyways through an ever-thickening fog. The little rat dog seemed to be quite concerned until we were some distance from where I had first encountered them. About three smokes later, Cossette led me down a flight of steps. They were semi-lit but once we were deep under the cobbles, the light improved. I found myself on a rail platform. I figured we were going to take the subway because Cossette was tired.
Cossette, took my hand in her tiny hand and pulled me over the pavement a few yards from the stairwell. “Venir! Là-bas. La Bastille,” she said pointing to a plaque. The inscription read that the Bastille had once stood there. I gave her a few francs and she was gone. I simply took the metro back to the Gare du Nord and was in my bunk pronto. As I drifted off to sleep, I recalled being in San Antonio seeking the original walls of the Alamo. I was directed into a grocery store across the street from the chapel. There, by the meat section on the linoleum, was a thin brass inlay marking the very outline of the walls.
I had been on the road for a long time. England , France, Spain and Morocco lay behind me. The town of Algeciras spread out in a crescent to the north as the ferry tossed over the Straight of Gibraltar. I had spent most of the voyage across watching and old Arab man entertain. He could mimic a person of any nationality, particularly in how they held their cigarettes. From time to time he would say, “Americans GIVE a shit, but they TAKE a pee.” He did requests from the audience and was never at a loss.
I went on deck to watch Africa fade away. Once out of sight of land, I saw a massive red glow. It was the dust of North Africa and one didn't notice it when on the continent. It foretold the endless deserts to be crossed in order to reach the lush interior. A child threw a shoe into the chop and I watched it fill and sink into the Mediterranean. I had the feeling that I wouldn't be back this way again.
I saw a beautiful girl on board chatting with a young black US marine. She had a backpack and he hefted a massive duffel bag. Hours later, in Algeciras I saw this couple again. I was in front of the train station in town and was heading for the beach. The fellow asked about the train for Madrid. I told him that the train wouldn't leave until nine PM the following night.
We began to chat and I learned that he was a fellow Texan. He was on R&R from his base in Germany and had been to the beaches of Morocco to sample the hash. He had met the lady in Morocco and was going to spend his remaining holiday with her. The lady was an Italian and spoke very little as the marine and I got acquainted. I told them I was going to the beach to pitch my sleeping bag til next morning. They decided to come along for the time being.
Just across the main street that ran along the waterfront was an enormous traffic island. It was only yards away from the surf and was covered with thousands of people. Small groups sat around tiny fires chatting, drinking and smoking various mixtures. Black clothed police cruised up and down as if bored of it all, but even so, they exuded a menacing, rather than a protective feeling to the traveler. Many languages drifted across on the chilled foggy sea air. Night was coming. I selected a palm and spread my bag, took off my boots and stretched out.
The couple came along and the girl sat on her pack on one side of me and the guy sat on his duffel bag on the other side. He rummaged in his bag and produced a bar of soap. He asked to borrow my knife and cut the bar in two. Inside was a few grams of hashish and I prepared a few smokes for us. A Moroccan guy who had been watching approached us from his small fire nearby. He tried to sell more to the marine and went away angry when he was soundly rebuffed.
The group of Moroccans all took turns staring our way and muttering in Arabic. Their guttural utterances and flinty gazes began to unsettle my new friends and soon, the marine took his lady's arm and bid me goodnight. He said they would sleep across the street in the hotel and probably see me next evening if I was on the train. I watched them in the foggy light of the streetlamps and settled back, bootlaces in my fist. The Moroccans quieted a bit and I realized that they were quite melodious when not trying to terrify an infidel.
I felt like a mammal among reptiles and decided to be a mongoose until the sun came up. The local police had a custom of allowing the throng to sleep out where I was, but at sunrise, anyone remaining was treated to a combination of water cannons, beatings or just being physically carried in their bag to the surf and tossed into the waves. I had just hit the zone where I was resting deeply and on full alert simultaneously. Opening my eyes to the fog-shrouded firelight, I saw the Italian girl striding across the main street. Some distance behind her was the Texan, hampered by his bag.
Like Anna Magnani she threw down her backpack, unrolled her sleeping bag tight alongside mine and like Sofia Loren, she lay down. Not a word was said, nor was one necessary. The soldier sat on his duffel bag for a few moments. The girl turned her face to mine and her nose was less than an inch away. Her eyes were closed and her expression, serene and determined. I turned to look at the man and he shrugged his shoulders in an Italian sort of way. He reached inside the duffel and produced a bottle of Spanish red. He handed it to me, shook my hand and vanished.
The girl animated herself to open the wine and we drank. I spoke no Italian and she spoke very little English, so we hobbled along in Spanish. She spoke of her home and tossed her head like a pony trying to shoo a fly if I mentioned the marine. Soon we both gave in to fatigue. I had felt a pang running through my every mile of this trip, due to being in love and not having the object of that love at hand to share all the wonder with.
Sometime that night I had traded dusty bootlaces for a handful of soft obsidian coloured hair. That was what woke me. The girl murmured something in her language. I watched her face inches away and stroked her hair. She had a gypsy air about her and my feeling was akin to a man who is visited by a wild creature against all logic. The total serenity on her dusky face and the trust underpinning it, extended to me in that place, at that time; was beyond my ken. It was to me more precious than anything I had encountered up to that point in my life. It has remained as a nameless comfort since.
I woke a bit late, as the police were already hauling some to the waves and kicking others. I saw the water cannon taking up its position on the main street. The Italian was gone! My boots were placed neatly by my head. Two cops approached rapidly from the beach. I shouldered my rucksack, grabbed my bag and boots and barefooted it across to town. I have seen the girl many times since those days. She is the feminine nature and is not to be possessed. She appears whenever she ought to and departs with bewildering perfection.
It was the early eighties. Peace and love had been shelved for maximum profit. Many people went to work for banks. I was in my early twenties and though I had done many things I hadn't traveled nearly enough for my own satisfaction. I had a friend, a Dane who was always coming or going from one epic trip after another. Once, while sipping beers in his parents basement, I made the comment that I sure wished I could take one of those treks. My friend, Sten looked at me me and with just the right expression and inflection told me all I had to do was get up and go.
The magic worked, and all my responsibilities real and imagined took a back seat to my life. I am forever in deep gratitude for that one simple statement. Sten talked of his last trip to Africa. He had penetrated as far as Cameroon. The best part was that he had crossed Canada for about $37.00. That was it! The Swede in me knew I could outdo a mere Dane. Without much property and of no fixed address, I was staying with my mother and sister at their apartment.
I had about $2000.00 saved up from working as a bank manager trainee. The training year was over and I was to be given a small branch somewhere up north. I was in love with a lady I had met at the bank, who later became my second wife and the mother of my eldest son. She was away traveling, so I quit the suit and tie job and got ready to hit the road.
I converted my money into English pounds, Canadian and American dollars, French francs and the balance into US Travelers Cheques. I made a money holder out of a metal film canister with a guitar string fixed to it so it couldn't be cut from my neck as I slept. I got a six pound two man pup-tent and polished up my old Boy Scout camping cookware and dusted off my rucksack. I bought a pair of Scarpa boots.
I practiced sleeping lightly for a week before my departure. My baby sister eagerly helped with this. I would sleep on the floor with my boot-laces tied together and safe in my closed fist. The other hand was under my head with my camping knife sheath standing in for a knife. April would sneak up on me from many different angles and try to take the shoes or the money after I was asleep. The rest was a gumbo of Pa Kua, Karate, Shing-i and Savate. It resembled Peter Sellers and Cato somewhat, but it honed my reactions. April, I miss those days. (smile)
While hitch-hiking and walking across Canada, I ate whatever I could gather and I slept outdoors. The Okanagan was good to me. I made mats of cat-tails to sleep on and built Dakota-hole fires. The object was to stay safe by staying undetected, even when near the highway or to people. A Dakota-hole fire is a circular pit, dug small and deep. Some distance away another smaller hole is dug. A tunnel is then bored at an angle connecting the two. A small fire of dry smokeless wood is kindled and a pot is placed over the opening of the larger hole. The fire draws air from the tunnel and the flames are completely hidden. I remember cooking a nice soup forty yards away from two drunk cowboys who were waiting for a bus in Alberta.
I veered south at Sarnia and descended over the Blue Water Bridge to Detroit. As I walked across the span, I came upon a young man, a monk from a monastery in Canada. He was walking around the Great Lakes. He carried a carved stick that had been given to him by his brother monks. It was inscribed, “Michael – We go with you.” I took that as a good sign. After a three day wait, I was on a cheap flight across the Atlantic to England. My expenses for crossing Canada totaled $43.00.
Tio-tusend små svart lång kukkura djävulen! Six dollars over. Thus began my trip from North Vancouver to Tangiers and back on two thousand dollars.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.