Travel beckons with the tantalizing allure of freedom. The enticement to break free from the societal bonds trapping us in the mundane patterns of our lives, and a chance to just go and do whatever takes our fancy.
I met Jessie in our first year of college in archaeology class. During dry lab sessions, identifying bones and memorizing epochs in the geological scale, we bonded over our shared dreams of travel. I was going to Africa to be a world-renown anthropologist. She was going to travel the world and learn fourteen languages. But somewhere in the dusty staleness of the study library, Jessie lost her interest in academic achievement and quit school to spend her tuition on a wanderlust journey heading south. I didn’t worry about it too much at the time, assuming, incorrectly it turns out, that she would return to college after some self-discovery time on the road. I was determined enough to stay in school myself, but when spring break arrived, and she called from the road saying she would meet me in Cancun, I was thrilled with the idea of a little beach getaway. So, I packed a duffel bag with a bikini and sun-block, threw in some hiking boots for good measure, and boarded a plane bound for the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
The non-stop flight from Seattle to Cancun is about seven hours in duration and arrives late in the afternoon. The customs control officer stamps my passport and waves me through, and I follow the other passengers out of the international terminal into the main arrivals hall. There is a large group of people milling about, clutching flowers, holding up welcome signs, faces full of anticipation as they peer through the sliding doors. I look around and spot Jessie standing against the wall, set apart from the crowd, a large mischievous grin spread across her lean, tanned face. I lug my bag over to her and she greets me with a quick hug before herding me towards the exit. As we leave the airport, Jessie tells me she has a rental in a small town in the outskirts of Mérida. She suggests we take a night bus to save the money of getting a hotel in Cancun. As a penny-pinching student, I frugally agree. Little did I know that the ensuing 300 km bus ride would spark my keen interest in geography and a fastidious attention to logistics in my own future travel planning.
The bus station is crowded with locals carrying all manner of luggage, including chickens in cardboard boxes with little air holes poked into the sides. The coach is a repurposed school bus sporting the ubiquitous bright yellow coloring and hard plastic benches. Jessie and I take a bench and place our bags under our feet. Once the bus is full, the aisles packed with extra luggage, the diesel engine roars to life and we lurch off.
The route takes us through the many small towns of the Yucatan interior, stopping at each central square to load and unload passengers. Throughout the night all the hard little seats are filled to capacity, with as many as three or four people squeezing onto benches built for two. Extra passengers perch on the bags in the aisles, swaying to the weaving progress of the bus. In the darkness, all I can see outside are the shadowy shapes of small housing lining the road, the yellow sodium-lamp glow illuminating stone fountains and wrought-iron benches in each town square, and the pure white stucco of Spanish churches gleaming against the night sky under the bright beams of flood lights aimed towards the heavens. In the distance between each town, the countryside stretches out into inky blackness under a blanket of sparkling stars littering a moonless sky. The road is pitch black, unlit, except for the feeble beams of the bus headlamps. The approach into each town is marked by a series of enormous speed bumps, so high and so wide, that the bus has to come to a complete standstill and maneuver over sideways, one wheel at a time, in order to avoid scraping the bottom with a screech of metal and a shower of sparks. I am so tired from my long journey, I manage to doze off in the stretches between towns, only to be jostled awake with the lurching motion of the bus angling over the next series of mountainous speed bumps.
As the dawn streaks red and yellow across the starry sky, brightening the blackness into ever lighter blues, we finally arrive. Bleary eyed and stiff, I stumble off the bus. Jessie tells me her rental house is just a little walk outside of town. Hefting my duffel bag onto my shoulders, I stagger after her down a dirt track. I just want to lay down and take a nap. It’s almost three miles out of town before we finally arrive at a small stone dwelling slouching alongside the road. The track dead-ends just beyond at a small farm where the owners live. “This is it!” she announces, pushing open the heavy wooden door to reveal a one-roomed, windowless interior. Two hammocks are strung from hooks in the ceiling. A small cook stove sits in the far corner of the room. Two wooden stools stand against a wall. There is no bathroom. No running water. No electricity. “How long have you been living here?” I ask incredulously, my voice barely a whisper. “About four weeks,” Jessie replies proudly. I drop my duffel bag and rummage around to find my travel sleep sack. I kick off my shoes, and gingerly lower myself into a hammock. I pull the sheet up around me and turn my face toward the wall. Within minutes, I am sound asleep.
I wake hours later to the smell of refried beans. Jessie is heating a can of beans over the stove, and toasting a couple tortillas. Starving, I accept a piping hot tortilla with a big smear of refried beans rolled up inside. As my first meal in 12 hours, it tastes great. I am yet to realize this inexpensive and filling food stuff is key to stretching Jessie’s tuition/travel money, and it will be the foundation of our diet for the remainder of the trip. To this day, I will often leave the refried beans of my Mexican dinner untouched.
“So, um… where do you, uh… go to the bathroom?” I inquire, already anticipating the inevitable answer. Jessie hands me a roll of toilet paper and a small shovel, and points towards the back of the building. “There is a small ravine behind the house. You’ll see,” she says. I nod, conceding that no further explanation is really required. I pick my way through the low-lying grasses, around the back of the rustic hovel, until I come across a deep ditch sloping sharply away from the view of the road. The earth is carved away on three sides, providing some illusion of privacy. I glance furtively in the direction of the farm, then climb down into the ravine and pick out an undisturbed spot to dig.
On my return, I notice a water well in the front yard. A bucket connected to a rope is resting on the circular stone wall. I lower the bucket to scoop up water to wash my hands and face, scrubbing away the dirt and grime of the long journey. We walk back into town that afternoon to buy some supplies and check on the bus schedule to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. As a cultural anthropology major, this is my one sightseeing request of the trip. In an effort to delay our return to the stone shanty, I buy us dinner at one of the handful of restaurants located around the town square. I make full use of the bathroom before we leave. We watch the townspeople promenade around the center fountain, enjoying the warm spring evening. I notice how the young women stroll slowly around the fountain in a clockwise course, while the young men saunter along in the opposite direction. All the better to check each other out, it seems.
We return to the primitive stone shack after the sun has set, stumbling our way along the dark, dusty road in the tiny beam of a penlight. Upon reaching the little stone hut, I prepare for bed and a night balancing in the sway of a hammock. I shove my bare feet into flip-flops and head towards the well, fumbling my way through the darkness, to get some water to brush my teeth. Suddenly I am pierced with fierce jolts of pain, my feet and legs swarming with writhing, crawling creatures, biting and burning my exposed skin. I hop around frantically, shouting and stomping, slapping at my legs. Beneath my feet, in the pale beam of the penlight, I see a mass of glossy black ants streaming, scurrying, heaving along, a four-foot wide torrent of churning bodies in an unstoppable migrating march, passing through and over and under anything in its path. Instead of going around the well, they rush up the walls, fall headlong into the water, swim desperately to the other side and push each other back up the stone sides. I take a running leap over the swelling river of ants surging past the front step, hop into the relative safety of the house, and jump headlong into my hammock. I’ve never been so grateful for a bed hanging up off the ground.
Looking back, with the softened perspective that comes with enough distance and time, I can recall with fondness some of the remarkable memories from that trip. I witnessed the celestial knowledge and architectural skill of the ancient Mayans at Chichen Itza, when, on the vernal equinox, the seasonal angle of the sun cast a serpent shadow along the Kukulkan Pyramid, slithering down the side, to join up with the serpent head carved into stone at the foot of the steps. I experienced the pristine beauty and exquisite sense of vastness from being the only person walking along a deserted beach. I luxuriated in the buoyancy of the salty Caribbean sea while swimming in the waves below the cliffs of Tulum. I will never forget the welcoming kindness of the Mexican people, who were often willing to share their food or offer shelter for the night.
But the most lasting impact from my trip to Mexico was that it helped shape my views on the manner in which I wanted to travel to see the world. Camping on the beach is a great adventure, until everything you own is covered in salt spray and you have sand in your pants. Turns out, not even Mexicans want to eat refried beans with every meal. And, for me, relying on the kindness of strangers for my next meal or a roof over my head felt less like being foot-loose and fancy-free, and more like being homeless. While my Yucatan adventure confirmed my desire to be a traveler, to see the world, even live abroad, it made me absolutely certain that I didn’t want to be a vagabond.
Upon returning home, I reveled in a steaming hot shower, a comfortable bed, meals resolutely free of refried beans, and happily strapped myself back into the welcoming bonds of school and work, family and friends.
The last time I heard from Jessie, she was trekking in the last remaining jungles of Indonesia. Over the crackling line of a collect call, she described sleeping on bandana leaves in the thick of a tropical rain forest, eating the fruits and berries picked from the foliage around her. I was happy to hear she was living out her travel dreams, but I was even happier that I had a well-paying job, so I could save up for a decent hotel room on my next trip.