Nowhere, 2020-2021

I have not traveled internationally since 2019 and it has been hard on me. I have loved to travel since I began in 1962, heading on my own to Ecuador and Peru as a 20-year-old. I have returned multiple times to both countries since. I’ve traveled around the world 360 degrees east-west and nearly half-way around the world north-south. Mostly I’ve visited so-called Third World countries, primarily in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  I return again and again to countries that fascinate me… or more precisely, to countries that I struggle to understand.

I find it exhilarating, energizing to plop myself down in a culture, environment or setting in which I have no idea what’s happening around me. Sometimes I think I understand my own culture too well —even when society seems to go off the rails— and therefore I crave the incomprehension that people in foreign lands offer.

Sometimes it’s the words that are incomprehensible. Fondly now, I recall landing in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on my first foreign trip. Frugal by necessity, I had asked the cab driver at the airport to take me to a cheap hotel —”algo muy barato, un pensión, tal vez”— so he delivered the turista americano to a boarding house a block away from the bustling but dingy port docks.

The pensión owners or managers gracously accommodated the unexpected boarder. They sat me down with my corralled luggage at the kitchen table and said something from which I could extract absolutely no meaning. The sound coming repeatedly from the owners and other boarders was “yacomiste.” I thought I detected an inflection at the end of the word that implied a question, but without knowing the question, how could I answer except to say again and again “No comprendo.” This went on for what seemed a long time. I searched my brain but could find nothing like “yacomiste.” Finally my hosts and fellow boarders gave up in frustration and led me to a room where I went to bed hungry.

The next day I decyphered what had been spoken. It was probably the most common question asked of a just-arriving passenger after a long flight: “Have you eaten?” “Ya comiste?” The verb “comer,” which I certainly knew, had been used in the familiar form (“comiste”) which we high school Spanish students rarely, if ever, used in class, and definitely was not used when speaking to a total stranger.

So there I was ignorant and hungry on my first  night in a foreign country. But the people were so friendly! The next morning, one of the boarders who had taken an interest in me approached over breakfast to ask another question I found perplexing even though I understood each word.  The young man a little older than I asked in Spanish what I easily translated as “Do you like great emotions?”

I hesitantly replied “I guess so, but what do you mean?” He wouldn’t explain, saying it would be a pleasant surprise. He said he would pick me up in his truck around mid-afternoon. At the appointed time, more or less, off we went in his well-maintained pick-up truck. I grew a little uneasy when we passed the outskirts of the city and kept heading farther and farther into the boonies. What “great emotions” could I possibly expect in that desolate site? No homes, vehicles or other people could be seen. We were miles from the paved road from which we had turned onto a gravel road. He stopped in the middle of the extremely wash-boarded road, and turned to me with a big grin. “Estas listo? Are you ready?” he asked.

I gave some indication I was ready… but for what?

He floored the gas pedal, and we shot off top-speed down the terribly rutted, bumpy road. I went flying all over the truck cabin. About 50 yards later, we stopped. He turned to me again and grinned.  And I understood. “Great emotions” meant “thrills.” Admittedly, the afternoon joy ride was more “emocionante” than touring a Guayaquil museum which another tourist might have experienced. From those days to these, I’m always ready for a new adventure in a foreign land. But I  have  little interest in European destinations; I travel there to research subjects of interest, such as the background of the man for whom both continents of the Western Hemisphere were named, Amerigo Vespucci.

Planning a trip is deeply enjoyable, but the plan nearly always must include big unknowns. I enjoy arriving in a city where I have no hotel reservation (unless my arrival is late at night) and no defined itinerary. On that first trip to Ecuador and Peru in 1962, I  traveled by train to Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It was near midnight when we rolled in. I had no hotel reservation, nor any idea what hotels, if any, were in Puno. At the end of that long ride, I wanted to find a place to lie down and recover. Among the passengers was a group of soldiers  headed to their base in Puno.

I asked them to recommend a hotel, but they had no suggestion. Realizing my dilemma and discussing the option among themselves, one of them told me it would be okay to follow them to the cuartel where I could spend the night. Gratefully, I accepted the offer and was led to a bed —in the jail. I was given a sheet, but no blanket. It was winter and Puno is very high, 12,550 feet.  One of the soldiers had ordered a small boy, an orphan whose job it was to look after incarcerated drunks, to see to my needs as well. To keep me from freezing in the cold, dark cell, the boy piled several criss-crossed layers of mattresses on top of me.

I survived, and was grateful. I was 20.

—Jeff Radford

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