Toltec Ruins at Tula
After yesterday’s post on intercity buses in Mexico, I thought I’d present a few anecdotes about my experience riding the roads of la Republica over the years. For the most part, my experiences were good—though not all. But they were always interesting.
The worst was in the 1980s when I decided to take a bus trip to Tula to view the Toltec ruins there. I had no trouble getting there, but the return trip started on a bad note. While still on the streets of Tula, the Second Class Autotransportes Valle de Mezquital bus I was taking rear-ended a truck. Fortunately, no one was injured, and eventually the driver, ayudante, and passengers were all able to exit onto the roadway. The company was informed and sent another bus to complete the journey to the giant North Bus Terminal in Mexico City.
In 1979, my brother and I took a Transportes Lacandonia bus from Palenque, where we were visiting the Mayan ruins, to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Again, it was a Second Class bus, and the road was nowhere as nice as it is now. On the way, we saw another bus from the same company coming from the other direction off the road ensconced in a ditch. The driver and passengers were standing around waiting to be picked up and complete their journey. We stopped for a few minutes while the drivers compared notes.
On the same trip, near Ocosingo, our bus was stopped by a Mexican army checkpoint. We were near the Guatemalan border, and the army were checking for arms smuggling connected with the insurgency across the border, which was to go on until a truce was signed almost twenty years later.
That same trip, Dan and I took an all-night bus from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca on a first class bus. (I think it was the Cristóbal Colon line.) As we tried to drop off to sleep, we noticed a parade of cockroaches traveling along the base of the sliding windows. We shrugged and nodded off.
Life’s a Journey…
I love this picture from the Astronomy Picture of the Day website. The description of the photo from the website is very technical:
What’s that strange light down the road? Dust orbiting the Sun. At certain times of the year, a band of sun-reflecting dust from the inner Solar System appears prominently just after sunset—or just before sunrise—and is called zodiacal light. Although the origin of this dust is still being researched, a leading hypothesis holds that zodiacal dust originates mostly from faint Jupiter-family comets and slowly spirals into the Sun. Recent analysis of dust emitted by Comet 67P, visited by ESA’s robotic Rosetta spacecraft, bolster this hypothesis. Pictured when climbing a road up to Teide National Park in the Canary Islands of Spain, a bright triangle of zodiacal light appeared in the distance soon after sunset. Captured on June 21, the scene includes bright Regulus, alpha star of Leo, standing above center toward the left. The Beehive Star Cluster (M44) can be spotted below center, closer to the horizon and also immersed in the zodiacal glow.
Actually, the picture means more to me than that. Whenever I travel, I like to leave around sunrise. I imagine the road stretching out before me on the way to my destination. The journey itself is meaningful, almost irrespective of the destination. If I am flying, I make a point to get to the airport hours before the flight, and I make the airport into an intermediate destination, with surprises of its own.
If I am driving, I like the idea of getting out of Los Angeles traffic before most people have woken up. When the sun rises, I like to be in open country, which in the context of Southern California, usually means the desert.
To me, life is travel. It is something of a truism that life’s a journey … but it really is. It is a journey on which we have little notion of the destination. So I resolve to enjoy the journey as much as possible. Who knows what wonders may await us?
The Westfield Culver City Mall
Today was a day devoted to books. This morning, I took a box of 20 trade paperbacks to the Los Angeles Public Library in Mar Vista as a donation. They are about to have a large book sale in a couple of weeks, and I thought these books would probably sell. After I dropped them off, I sat in one of their comfy chairs and finished reading The Best American Travel Writing 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert. Travel literature is one of my favorite book categories, accounting for much of my reading during the summer months. (As well as being an actual traveler, I am also an armchair traveler.) On my way out, a picked up a free library discard copy of Fodor’s Brazil (2016).
The reason? I am toying with the idea of flying to the State of Bahia, to Salvador and Ilheus, and reading Jorge Amado’s novels which are set there.
Next, I drove to the Westfield Culver City mall, where I ate a light vegetarian lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant in their top floor food court. Afterwards, I bought some milk chocolate clusters with walnuts, peanuts, pecans, and almonds. I spent a couple of hours looking at the Fodor Brazil guide before heading home.
Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann Arrive on the Island in Hour of the Wolf
By the time I got back, Martine was gone for a doctor’s appointment, so I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), the closest the Swedish director ever came to a gothic horror film, starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann staying on an island of vampires.
After preparing dinner, consisting of Hungarian fasirt with buttered corn on the cob. Afterwords, I started reading Valentin Kataev’s 1927 novel Embezzlers. All in all, not a bad day.
British Poet and Writer Laurie Lee (1914-1997)
I have just finished reading a wonderful book of Laurie Lee’s travels in Spain during the mid 1930s, when he walked out of his Gloucester village, wound up in Spain, walked for hundreds of miles across Spain to Andalusia—at which point Spain erupted in its Civil War. He was evacuated by a British destroyer in July 1936. His book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is a travel classic and gives a better picture of life in Spain than I have ever read. Doing further research on him, I discovered that Lee also wrote poetry, among which was the following poem about his travels:
Home from Abroad
Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.
But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights.
Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye
And drowns Chianti in a dusky stream;
he flower-flecked grasses swim with simple horses,
The hedges choke with roses fat as cream.
So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.
For all his travels, Lee ended up in the Gloucestershire village from where he started. How curious!
Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich in Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930)
I wonder if I misremember the scene: Marlene Dietrich writes with her lipstick on her vanity mirror, these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Winning”:
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
When I searched for the still of the scene, I only came up with a mirror on which was written, again in lipstick, “I changed my mind.” I would obviously have to see the film again to refresh my memory. I know the words are in the film somewhere, and the quote has stuck with me—though sometimes I remembered it as “He travels the farthest who travels alone.”
I like to travel alone, but I think I would much rather travel with Martine or my brother Dan or one of my friends. Unfortunately, Martine thinks I’m much to adventurous in my trips. She claims that anti-malarial medications like Chloroquine or Aralen do not agree with her. Otherwise, she is an ideal travel partner who is genuinely interested in the places I like to visit. The highlight of our travels together was our trip to Argentina and Uruguay in 2011.
My brother is also an excellent travel partner: We tend to agree in advance on the places he wants to see and the places I want to see. Thus far, we have gone on only two trips together: Mexico in 1979 and Ecuador in 2016.
My friends are more problematical in that none of them would dare to visit a Third World country whose language they don’t speak. I always imagine introducing them to Maya ruins or South American volcanoes or Icelandic fjords. But I imagine them as being versions of myself before I started on my travels—all eager to travel to exotic destinations and devil take the risks! Alas, they are not like me. They are irrepressibly themselves. And that’s why they’re my friends.
So I suspect that most of my future travels will be by myself.
My Mom and Me at Niagara Falls Circa 1950
Some time before my brother was born in April 1951, my Mom, Dad and I went for a couple of days to Niagara Falls, which is just a few hours from Cleveland. This was before the Interstate Highway System made such trips routine. At the time, my Dad had a 1949 Mercury Coupé which had precious little room behind the front seat. I must have sat on my mother’s lap in those pre-seatbelt days.
I remember taking a ride on the Maid of the Mist of that era and getting splashed by the falls as we approached them. As I recall, the above picture was shot at a park opposite the falls on the Canadian side.
Yes, this was my first foreign jaunt, at the tender age of five or six. During all my years in Cleveland, the only trips we ever took were to:
- Niagara Falls
- Detroit to visit one of my mother’s distant relatives (and that included a visit to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village)
- Schoenbrunn, Ohio—the first pioneer settlement in the state
- A flight one summer, at the age of fourteen, to West Palm Beach, Florida where we stayed in nearby Lake Worth
As my horizons broadened from my extensive reading, not only of books but of maps and atlases, I felt increasingly claustrophobic living all year round in my home town. So when it came time to choose a college, my preference was for out of town, even though I did apply to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) if all my preferences rejected me. My preferred choices: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Harvard kept losing my transcript. Yale accepted me without a scholarship; and Dartmouth and Bowdoin both offered full scholarships.
Native Otavaleños Entering Church
There are few places I have visited to which I would not like to return. I am speaking particularly of my travels in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and South America. There are a fairly large number of cities in the United States that, I hope, will never see my shadow again. On the other hand, there are parts of the U.S., particularly in the Southwest, that I love. New Mexico, for instance. My mouth is watering for those red and green chile peppers, the best in the world.
Last year at this time, I was planning for the trip that my brother and I took to Ecuador. I loved the places that we chose to visit, particularly Quito, Otavalo, Mindo, and Cuenca. The only problem was that traveling by automobile through the larger Ecuadoran cities required the tracking skills of a scout: Street signs around the periphery of every city were practically nonexistent. We finally got into the habit of following what looked to us like intercity buses, which were pretty easy to distinguish from the local rat-traps.
Otavalo was perhaps my favorite place. That was mostly because the inhabitants were mostly Otavaleños. Gringos stood out like sore thumbs. That’s okay, because sometimes it’s fun to be lost in a crowd of indigenous people, even if they didn’t speak a word of Spanish. (Their language was mostly Quechua.) Just taking a walk through their marketplace was like being in another world.
My problem is a simple one. If I were to go back to all the places I loved, I would be alive for several more decades—and no man knows how much time is left to him.