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Don't Push the Road
Drenched to the Bone
Quest for Sleep
Caught in the Vortex
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Don't Push the Road
The Thrills, Challenges and Solutions of a Modern Nomad
I first started hitchhiking at the curious and intrepid age of eight. I lived with my family in the woods of Northern California, about five miles outside of a small town. Every afternoon, the school bus would drop me off at the bottom of our dirt road. From there, it was another mile-and-a-half to our big cabin in the woods, and it was up to my short little legs to get me there.
One sunny spring day, while walking home along the quiet dirt road, I had something of a revelation. A car rolled by, kicking up a cloud of dust for me to inhale as I trudged along. I thought to myself:
“Why am I walking this long way home every day, when I could just get a ride from someone headed in the same direction?”
I’d seen older kids hitchhiking at the edge of town, and figured it was worth a try. Most of the people going up my dirt road were neighbors. I reasoned that, as long as I recognized the vehicle, I wouldn’t be associating with any strangers. I stopped walking, sat down in the grass on the side of the road and started in on a good book.
“This is great!” I thought to myself. Now I was doing something I loved, rather than hated. “Why didn’t I think of this before?”
My traveling instincts were kicking in. I was seeking out that path of least resistance, the most efficient use of energy—specifically, when available, other people’s energy. Some might call this laziness. Others, genius. The truth was probably somewhere in between. Either way, I was soon immersed in a faraway world, devoid of glaring sun, dust and drudgery. The next time a familiar car came rumbling along, I just looked up, held my thumb up high—and it stopped. Easy as a cool summer breeze. My traveling days had begun.
Twenty-two years later, I’ve hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles, covering every Western state, Alaska, Hawaii, the length of the United Kingdom, and a few other odd corners of the world. I have something of a love/hate relationship with adventure travel. It can be nerve-wracking and disillusioning at times; at others incredibly thrilling, even enlightening. Once you push off that solid shore, you’re at the mercy of the cosmic flow.
There are, of course, a variety of different modes of travel. If one has the monetary resources, they can follow a fixed itinerary, taking deluxe busses from one plush hotel room to another, eating in the fanciest restaurants—seeing the foreign culture through a series of windows, not unlike a succession of TV screens. I don’t mean to knock this form of travel too much. If this is how a person likes to experience the world, then that’s their business.
However, this doesn’t do much for me in my hunger for real learning and experience. There seems to be little potential for true adventure, spontaneity, challenge or intrigue. I guess this is the distinction between “going on vacation” and “hitting the road”. When you hit the road, anything can happen—and the chances are it will. Each day is a blank slate waiting to be streaked with color; a wave ready to be surfed. And if you’re willing to go along for the ride and brave the unknown, you’ll undoubtedly have encounters that will change your mind, like nothing else can.
Call it the Tao of Travel, or the Zen, or the Art, or whatever you like. Getting that perfect ride; meeting that strange, enlightening character who reveals the mysterious world around you; or maneuvering through a challenging situation that seems to have no easy resolution—these can be lessons of both personal power and faith. You can see the daunting crest of the wave coming, yet you know you’re going to ride it and not be taken under by it. You can see the car coming, and you sense that this person is going to pick you up, rearrange your view of reality and then drop you off somewhere you otherwise never would have found yourself. You are in a state of surrender—yet simultaneously in control of your destiny.
I can’t even count the times when I’ve been stuck on the side of the road as the sun is going down, halfway to my destination after a long and tiresome day of hitchhiking. And yet, more often than not—just as I’m beginning to despair, preparing myself psychologically to hike off into the woods and spend a cold night curled up under some bush—someone comes along and delivers me to a warm bed, whether it be mine or theirs (or, more likely, their couch).
In an instant, I go from cursing the universe to a state of reverence and gratitude. Oftentimes, the most profound traveling experiences take place when you’re out on that proverbial limb, and it’s just beginning to crack; you’re at the edge of desperation, and your angels seem to have failed you; you’re faced with the great unknown, no idea how it’s all going to work out, no plan for getting yourself through this one. And yet that simple twist of fate, and of faith, pulls through; and pretty soon you’re riding high again, cruising on down the road.
A few summers ago, I was hitchhiking with a couple of friends from Oregon to New Mexico. In the middle of the Nevada desert, we found ourselves in a bit of a rough spot. Perhaps foolishly, we’d decided to traverse Nevada and Utah via Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway in America”. From Fallon, about an hour east of Reno, we got a ride another twenty miles—to smack in the middle of nowhere. There was only dry, desolate desert as far as we could see. A rusty, bent barbed-wire fence creaked eerily nearby, though there was no wind. Only the most hardened vultures would’ve been happy to be there. We soon realized that we were probably the “Loneliest Hitchhikers in America”.
The unrelenting sun beat down on us. After two hours, hardly a handful of cars had passed. Our desperation was soon mounting, along with the temperature rising on the backs of our sunburned necks. We built a small shade tent to escape the glare, using our backpacks and my friend Bethany’s shawl. Eventually, we started hitchhiking in both directions. Any car that was going away from there was a car that we would crawl into.
Finally, my friend Forest came up with a plan. He said that if we really wanted a ride out of this desert nightmare, we had to envision what we wanted—and then ask for it in clear and plain terms. We huddled under our makeshift structure and figured out what, in our delirious state of despondency, would be the ideal ride: basically, anyone friendly, who was going a hell of a long ways and would be arriving shortly to deliver us from our otherwise certain doom. We then voiced our humble request to the empty desert—and to whatever benevolent forces overhead which may have noticed our pitiable condition—and waited.
Thirty minutes later—beginning to wonder if the traveling gods had forsaken us—an old Subaru station wagon passed our trio of outstretched thumbs. Fifty yards down the road, however, it turned around and came back, did a u-turn, and stopped right in front of us. The driver got out.
“Hey, guys! You look like you could sure use a ride. I was gonna keep going, because I didn’t think there was enough room for the three of you and your bags in my little rig here. But hey, we’ll put stuff on top and see what we can do.”
We were, of course, ecstatic. We showered him with adulation and guilt, to insure that he’d make the room to bring us along.
Drew was a lively young college student, headed from California back to his home state of Colorado. He tied what he could on top of the car, and then we managed to squeeze ourselves in. Three days later, after perpetual driving, wind-blown hair and good music, and contemplative nights spent on the barren floor of the expansive desert, he dropped us off safe and sound in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. We arrived at our final destination later that night, weary but eternally thankful.
During another adventurous summer, while living on the beaches of Kauai, Hawaii, I found myself in a different sort of vexing and unpredictable situation. I was sunbathing in the nude in the warm sand, after doing some bodysurfing in the calm waves. My tent was illegally set up at a campsite nearby, since I didn’t have a valid camping permit. I decided to go for a wander down the wide beach in my birthday suit, leaving my book and thin sarong lying there in the sand.
As I approached the far end of the idyllic, tropical beach, an ominous, black helicopter landed suddenly nearby, and deposited a load of commando park rangers in camouflage gear. I’d heard from fellow travelers that this was how the area was patrolled, as there were no roads accessing this part of the island—and that these guys meant business, since part of their job was also to arrest hippies living and growing pot back in the jungle. I’d just been hoping they wouldn’t show up in the few weeks that I was out there. Talk about feeling unnerved. If I’d been wearing pants right then, I might have shit them.
One of the rangers quickly spotted me as a probably campground trespasser, thanks to my state of undress, and began walking briskly towards me as he bellowed at me to show him my camping permit. Instead, I turned around and walked just as quickly back the other way. Just as I came to my sarong in the sand and was able to wrap it around my waist, the ranger was at my heels, yelling at me to halt and present the appropriate documentation—or else I might just get a free helicopter ride back to civilization.
I managed to diffuse the situation somewhat, by explaining that I wasn’t ignoring his demands, but just wanted to be clothed before talking. I then admitted that I had nothing resembling a camping permit, and no identification, since (I quickly concocted) I was camped at another spot a few miles away, and had only come to this beach for a quick swim.
Puzzled as to how to ticket me, the ranger then asked for my name and social security number. My mind continued buzzing away, as I tried to see all the available possibilities from here. If I refused his request, I might end up in that helicopter. I had no intentions of leaving this island utopia yet, and felt that I had every right to be there—flimsy piece of paper or not. I was harming no one, just out there to experience the beauty of Mother Nature and soak up some summer rays and warm ocean waves. I knew there had to be a way out of this one. Just relax and ride the wave, like I’d just been doing, and I’d probably find my way through.
I gave him a fake name and number. Grumbling, he wrote me up a ticket and then told me to pack up my camp, wherever the hell it was, and head back to town. After he’d stomped off through the sand, I ran back to my tent and quickly packed up my belongings. Then, I hoisted my pack onto my back, ripped up the ticket, tossed it gleefully in the garbage and hiked out of the campground. Instead of continuing on my way, however, I simply stepped off the trail, and found a secluded spot in the jungle away from all the commotion, where I wouldn’t be bothered. Eventually the rangers flew off in their menacing black helicopter; and I enjoyed another week in paradise.
On December 31st, 1999, the eve of plausible destruction, I was deep in the jungles of western India with two Israeli traveling friends, Yossi and Nadav. How we got there is another story altogether, involving some sketchy directions and a number of death-defying bus rides. We’d decided we wanted to be far from the modern world on this historic occasion, just in case Y2K brought some of the predicted chaotic consequences. Our backpacks were stuffed with food and other supplies.
In this instance, we were prepared for the unknown ahead—or so we thought. The problem with that pesky unknown, however, is that it has a way of sneaking up on you, to remind you that being prepared isn’t a matter of having the right gear—but instead, of having the necessary state of mind.
That evening, after a long hike in the dimming light, we made our camp under a gigantic boulder perched atop two smaller boulders, which created a protected cave-like enclosure in the midst of the encroaching jungle. Things seemed to be going perfectly. We’d made it to our destination, found the perfect campsite, and had everything we needed to survive on our own for up to a week. We got a small campfire going as night fell, started cooking dinner, and pulled up a couple of rocks for chairs. Then we opened up our celebratory bottle of wine and passed it around, swigging straight from the bottle, with exclamations of brotherly companionship. Although the modern civilized world lay at the brink of potential doomsday, we couldn’t have been more blissed out.
However, as our odorous pot of food was almost finished cooking, and the bottle of wine was two-thirds gone, the three of us suddenly hushed. Ghostlike voices were coming from within the darkness. We sat up attentively, wondering what sort of dangerous characters might be wandering through the jungle at this time of night. We all froze as the voices came nearer. A few moments later, two local Indian men stepped into our cave, eerily illuminated by the light of our campfire.
They began speaking rapidly at us in the local tongue, not too concerned by our lack of response. We soon got the impression that they meant us no harm; instead, they simply had something of importance to communicate. Nadav happened to know a few words of the language. Finally, he was able to deduce the apparent meaning behind their urgent message: that there were tigers roaming in this jungle, and it wasn’t safe for us to stay there throughout the night.
Once the two men had left us and disappeared back into the darkness, we sat in silent foreboding around our crackling campfire. Our options were few. We had come in on a bus, which had turned around at the end of the long, dusty road and went back the other way. We’d then hiked several miles, and had passed no one else along the trail. There were no campgrounds out here, no houses within walking distance, certainly no hotels. It was now pitch dark, and we were all famished, as well as slightly drunk.
“Fahking shit,” said Yossi. “Our food is ready to be eaten, and now the tigers are coming to eat us. What can we do?”
At the same time that I was concerned, I also figured we would come up with something. We had little choice. Something was going to happen, one way or another. Being devoured by tigers didn’t seem like the most probable of all the available possibilities.
Finally, Nadav came up with a brilliant plan. He grabbed a flashlight, and bravely ventured out of the cave to investigate the massive boulder levitating over our heads. A few minutes later, he yelled to us exuberantly: "There is a way up! We can bring our things to the top of the boulder, and there enjoy our evening.”
With that, we quickly began dismantling camp; the supposed tigers nipping at the backs of our imaginations. Fifteen minutes later, the three of us, our belongings, our hot meal and the remainder of the wine were seated comfortably atop the huge rock. We had put out our comforting campfire. But we now had starlight shining down upon us. We finished off the wine, and then started in on our pot of steaming stew and pita bread. It was even more delicious than our hungry bellies had anticipated.
Later that night, some time past midnight, I lay there on the top of the rock in my sleeping bag, staring up at the night sky, wondering what might be going on around the world at that moment. Madness, mayhem, abject terror and confusion?
Just then, a satellite arced slowly across the sky. Its little red light blinked on and off, on and off, same as they always do. I surmised that, for better or worse, the world would probably keep on rolling into the new millennium, much as it had finished the old one. And one way or another—by thumb, bus, train or plane—I would undoubtedly manage to roll along with it.
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Drenched to the Bone
Backpacking Northern California’s Lost Coast
The first thing I did after leaving the trailhead parking lot at Black Sands Beach was, ironically, to take off my pack, sit down on it—and then remove my hiking boots. The thought of feeling the sand between my toes was just too exquisite to pass up. I watched the crashing waves for a few moments. Then I tied my boots to the outside of my pack, hoisted it onto my back and started up the beach. I was feeling invigorated and ready for adventure. The warm afternoon sun shone down upon my face, and hiking through the sand was like a free foot massage. My two-week backpacking trip on the King Range of Northern California’s Lost Coast was off to a perfect start.
I planned to hike north the first week about twenty miles, taking plenty of time out to enjoy the beautiful and dramatic scenery along the way. Then I would tramp more than 3,000 feet in elevation up the coastal range rising abruptly out of the ocean, and spend the second week hiking south along the ridge of the mountains back to my starting point.
Problem was, it was February. The Lost Coast can, on a wet year, see more than 200 inches of rainfall. It’s one of the wettest places in the country. So why did I decide to go in the middle of winter, at the peak of the rainy season? Because I like to tempt adversity. Because I had a gut feeling that it would stay warm and sunny. Mostly, I realize in retrospect, because I just wasn’t thinking.
The Lost Coast—including the King Range National Conservation Area and the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park—is the longest stretch of coastline in the continental United States without a road alongside it. Highways 1 and 101 both turn inland to avoid the Lost Coast, since they were unable to construct a highway over the rugged mountain range. This has kept it for the most part cut off from development, other than the small community of Shelter Cove. When I finally arrived at Horse Creek five miles north of the trailhead, my calves were burning. Most of the hiking along the King Range is on the beach, since the steep cliffs near the ocean are too severe for a trail. It is advised to bring a tide-book along, since high tides can sometimes engulf the beach, leaving hikers either stranded on the rocks or else isolated somewhere along the coast.
Still barefoot and enjoying the sand, despite my sore legs, I unbuckled my pack, set it down on the beach and then leaned back against it and watched the waves for a while as the sun slowly sank into the ocean. It was one of those moments to cherish: sitting with my feet buried in the warm sand, watching the glowing sun sink into the ocean, the pristine beach stretching in both directions, jagged mountains rising behind me, and not another soul in sight. After the sun had set and the light began to fade, I set up my tent and got dinner started on my camp stove. Afterwards, I read by candlelight for a while, then fell thankfully into a state of blessed slumber.
The next day was, once again, gloriously sunny. Since I was in no hurry, I decided to spend the day giving my legs a rest, and hang out on the beach and soak up the sun. I read, went for a day hike up the coast, and even braved the frigid waters and did some cautious bodysurfing. Later that evening, however, conditions changed. As I was sitting in the sand, reading my book and enjoying the sunshine, I looked up and noticed that a front of clouds was hovering over the ocean, moving in from the west. I did my best to ignore them. An hour later, however, an ominous fog descended onto the beach and engulfed me. It started to mist slightly.
I crawled into my tent and continued reading, hoping it was just some light precipitation that would quickly pass. Little did I know, however, that I’d actually seen the last of the sun for the next week. I ate some cheese and crackers for dinner, rather than try to cook, as the mist developed into a steady sprinkle. I fell asleep to the soft sprinkling and the waves crashing nearby. I awoke the next morning to full-blown rain pelting my tent.
It didn’t occur to me at that point to turn back. I’d known, of course, that rain was a likely possibility. I was prepared for it—or so I thought. I had a waterproof tent and a rain jacket. That was all I’d ever needed while backpacking. But then, I’d never hiked and camped in constant downpour for days on end.
My quandary instead was whether to stay in my tent for the day and see if the storm passed, or else pack up and start hiking. Having taken the previous day off, I was ready to get moving. I packed up and started hiking north through the sand. My legs were back in full working order, and it felt good to put my muscles to the test.
Despite the steady downpour and low-lying clouds, the scenery was still breathtaking. The gray skies even intensified the contrast between the looming mountains and churning ocean. I saw a few seals playing in the waves, watching me curiously as I hiked along. I hiked another five miles north, to the next camping area at Saddle Creek. Hiking was slow due to the sand and the intensifying storm. I had high hopes that things would dry out by the following day, since my tent was wet and my gear was also getting damp, since I didn’t have a waterproof cover for my pack. Also, my one pair of pants was soaked through, since I hadn’t brought rain paints.
But the next morning, eerily, little had changed. The rain seemed neither to have lessened nor increased from its steady downpour. I decided to hang out in my tent and read for the day, hoping the storm might pass that night.
But the rain didn’t let up the next day. Or the next. Or the next. After three days spent huddled inside my small, damp tent at Saddle Creek, reading, contemplating and listening to the ocean waves, I was bordering on stir-crazy. Rain or no rain, I needed to get moving. I packed up my damp belongings, took down my soaked tent, and started hiking through the relentless storm. I slogged along the beach for a good eight hours; then pitched my tent at Big Flat.
The next day I continued through the rain; then camped by the beach where a thin trail seemed to go straight up the side of the steep coastal mountains. This was the point at which I would ascend the coastal mountain range, and turn south along the ridge for the rest of my adventure. The next day was stormier than ever. It was the eighth day of my trip, and it had been raining for six days. I realized that I was in a bit of a predicament. My gear was dangerously wet, posing a serious threat of hypothermia if I didn’t manage to dry things out before the night. And the way things were looking, this day was going to be a real soaker.
I checked my map, and found a jeep road at the top of the ridge that led to a paved road, which I noted as an alternative route. Then I packed up and began hiking the steep grade away from the roar of the ocean, as the rain continued its ceaseless downpour. I continued rising slowly but steadily above the ocean below, for what felt like forever. The rain increased into steady sheets, accompanied by gusts and gales of wind that seemed intent on lifting me right off the trail.
I hiked on and on. I stopped mid-day for a brief lunch. Then I continued up the trail one weary, sodden step at a time, along what was beginning to feel like a never-ending upwards climb. As I reached the top of each ridge, there was always another uphill stretch awaiting me. Finally, after five or six hours, I reached the top of the ridge and the trail junction. This course would commit me to at least another four days of hiking. I was exhausted, soaking wet, my hands and face were chilled, and ironically I was now out of drinking water, despite that falling all around me. The steep angle of the grade had yielded no streams to refill my water bottle. I unbuckled my backpack and threw it on the ground. Then I hiked down the trail to see how things looked over the first hill. As I rounded the hill, I was hit by a sudden blast of wind that almost threw me backwards. I took this as a sign not to attempt another four days of hiking through the downpour. Instead I would risk the jeep trail, that would hopefully lead me back to civilization and a warm, dry bed for the night. I double-checked my map, and guessed it was at least ten miles to the paved road. But I was now at the top of the ridge, and it would be mostly downhill from there.
I hiked on and on through the onslaught of rain. I went into a trance of sorts, in which I lost all measure of time or distance. I no longer felt my wet, tired legs, or the water dripping down my neck, soaking my shirt. I just hiked and hiked and hiked, praying that I was actually headed in the right direction. And finally, as the light of day was beginning to dim, I came to the paved road.
The problem now was that I was still a long ways from anywhere, and I wasn’t sure where the road led in either direction. With no time to think, I simply made a choice, and continued trudging along as evening fell.
Soon it was dark, and I was getting scared. I was on the brink of collapse, I could barely feel my legs, and I was soaked down to the bone. I was cold, although I hadn’t stopped moving in hours, and certain that everything in my pack was also fully soaked. I just kept hiking, having few other options, hoping for a car to come along so I could hitch a ride to the closest town of Garberville and get a hotel room.
Finally, a car came along. I put out my thumb—but it didn’t stop. Not a surprise. Even I would be hesitant to pick up a hitchhiker in the dark, in a driving rainstorm in the middle of nowhere. Ten minutes later, another car came down the road. I waved my arms this time. It stopped, and the driver rolled down his window. I explained my sad state of affairs. But he said he was sorry, he was headed home just a few miles down the road, and couldn’t help me. I said thank you, he rolled up the window and the reassuring lights from the car faded into the distance. I was now desperate. Having no apparent alternatives, I began looking off the road for somewhere to set up my tent. I just hoped that my sleeping bag wouldn’t be completely drenched. I knew that hypothermia was a real possibility at this point—if it wasn’t already setting in. As my last thread of hope vanished, and I was about to stumble off into the dark woods, I saw another light in the distance and heard a vehicle approaching. As it came closer, I noticed it was a big pickup. I waved my arms as its headlights blinded me through the rain—and it stopped. I opened the side door of the rusty, beat-up truck, and sitting in the driver’s seat was a scraggly old man with a beer in his hand.
“Man, fellah, you looks like you must be wet…” he drawled, clearly drunk. He said it purely as an observation, as if he’d pulled over merely to take a look at me, having not yet hypothesized that I might need help.
“Uh, yes,” I said, stuttering through cold lips, trying to speak clearly before he drove off and left me there to my doom. “You see, I’ve been camping on the Lost Coast, but I quit because of the rain. I just hiked all day, and I need to get to Garberville so that I can find a hotel for the night…”
“Garberville?” he said dubiously. “Shit, that’s thirty miles! Who you gonna find a ride with out here at this time of night?” He paused for a minute and took a sip of his beer, thinking, as if he were trying to drum up a ride for me. “Well, heck, if all you need is a place to stay, you can crash at my place…I mean, it’s messy, but at least it’s warm and I got satellite TV and a comfy couch…”
I’d climbed in, my pack on my lap, before he managed to finish his sentence. At that point I was hardly listening. I sensed that he meant to give me a hand—and I took it. That he was apparently drinking and driving wasn’t much of a concern at that point. I was safer with him than trying to spend the night in the woods.
We drove a few miles down the road, where he turned onto a dirt road and we drove for another mile. Finally, we came to a run-down, yet cozy-looking wooden cabin.
“Well, this is my home sweet home,” he said. “Not much to brag about, but it does the job, ya know…”
It was plenty spacious inside, and he suggested that I lay my things out around the fire so they could dry overnight. I was struck with both horror and gratitude as I pulled out my sleeping bag—and it was literally dripping wet, completely soaked all the way through. I realized that I would have been lucky to see morning if I’d tried to sleep through the storm that night.
But as it was, I cooked up some instant soup, we watched satellite TV for a while, and then he loaned me some blankets. I slept warm, dry and content on the couch beside the crackling fire. The next morning, I packed up my dry clothes and sleeping bag, and the old man drove me a little further down the road. I thanked him profusely, then hitched from there to Highway 101—grateful to be alive, and resolving that the next time I ventured into the wilderness, I’d be more prepared for whatever circumstances might come my way.
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An Adventure Traveler Pushes the Limits
The real attraction to the road, for me, is the challenge of tackling its unpredictability. Standing there with my thumb out on the side of some forlorn country highway, or braving the chaotic blur of a cross-country interstate, my fate is at the mercy of some force almost completely out of my hands. Where you find yourself at the end of the day may not be where you’d anticipated or desired—perhaps at the center of a bustling city, in a small cowboy town where they don’t much like the looks of you, or else somewhere in between, far from anything resembling civilization. The real test of a traveler’s nerve and resourcefulness comes when the sun is beginning to set, you’ve got to find somewhere to spend the night, you can’t afford a hotel, and you haven’t got friends or family with a spare couch for hundreds of miles.
The most vividly unpleasant night of unrest I ever spent on the road was while hitchhiking from Oregon to Texas to visit a girlfriend. Stranded at the edge of Las Vegas, the sun was going down, and I was contemplating whether to hike out into the desert to lay out my sleeping bag, or else try to make some more distance. My decision was made for me when a beat-up pickup truck pulled over. I grabbed my backpack and climbed into the cab.
The driver was an elderly, supposedly reformed alcoholic, of an altogether nasty disposition, who made a point of cursing loudly at anyone who dared obstruct his weaving path. But at least he wasn’t drunk. We crossed the Hoover Dam, and made it to Kingman, Arizona. Thirty miles farther down the freeway, he was headed south to Phoenix, whereas I was continuing along Interstate-40 east. He dropped me off at the junction, and then continued on into the darkness. I found myself stuck in the most unfortunate of possible situations—a long, long ways from anything, and yet with the steady, grating sound of freeway traffic to shred my dreams all night.
I cast about for somewhere to lie down on the hard, thorny ground. The pickings were dismally slim. Finally, I settled on a spot between a barbed-wire fence and a cactus, next to the on-ramp, where semi trucks coming from Phoenix rumbled by relentlessly, beaming their headlights on me as they entered the freeway. After a few hours of surreal, disturbing dreams, I awoke sometime in the early morning light feeling not unlike death, and got back on the road. Fortunately, not all of my many nights on the road have been so disagreeable. In Washington State, I spent a blessed night of slumber at an abandoned lakeside resort. In southern Oregon, while wandering one evening through the small, unhurried town of Ashland, I walked past an elementary school baseball diamond, and decided to spend the night at home plate. Since it was Saturday, I awoke the next morning to silence, and the sun warming me as I lay there peacefully in my sleeping bag.
In Alaska, I was traveling with a friend through the town of Haines, at the top of the panhandle, where we decided to stop for the night. We asked a local if there was a nearby campground, and were given directions to one at the edge of town, down by the beach. As we were headed there, however, we passed a long line of abandoned boats resting in the sand, an apparent ship graveyard. We decided to investigate, and found one with a small sleeping berth, complete with two wooden bunks. We stashed our backpacks inside the boat, and headed back into town to rustle up some dinner and a bottle of wine. We spent that evening huddled inside the bowels of the boat, drinking and playing cards by candlelight, and then fell asleep on our separate bunks to the sounds of the crashing waves.
One night, in the Pyrenees of southern France, I was dropped off in a small mountain town. I soon found that they had neither a youth hostel nor a campground. I wasn’t about to pay for a hotel room, but found myself too tired to hike out of town and set up my tent in the nearby woods. Instead, I simply sat down on my backpack, next to a barn placed at the center of the little village, and surrendered to my exhaustion, leaning against the barn and closing my eyes. I had no idea where I might rest my head for the night. Part of me didn’t really care. If nothing else came up, then right where I sat would probably do.
As I was sitting there against the barn in dejected weariness, three teenagers with rucksacks walked by, along with an older man. The man opened up the nearby barn door, and then they disappeared inside. After a few minutes, they all exited the barn, although the teenagers were now without their rucksacks.
Upon seeing this little parade of events, I put two and two together—and concluded that the young folks must be visiting from out of town, and the older man was a family member who was allowing them to stay in his barn. If I swung things right, then I would have myself a soft bed for the night.
An hour or so later, the teenagers came wandering by once again, although now without the accompaniment of the older man. They seemed a little perplexed by my continuing presence sprawled out next to their barn, as the sun had set and it was getting dark. I gave them a big smile, and said “Bon jour,” as they walked by. They all gave a friendly “Bon jour” back, and then opened the barn door and went inside.
I sat there and waited. After about fifteen minutes, the barn door opened once again, and one of the young women came out and introduced herself to me. Then she asked me, in broken English, where I was from and what I was doing here in this tiny village. I told her my story, that I was a traveler from America just passing through, and had yet to decide where to sleep. She then informed me, as I’d deduced, that the three of them were school kids visiting from Paris, and her uncle owned the barn. She said there was plenty of room atop the bales of hay, and invited me to stay with them. I managed to muster enough energy to get off my lazy ass, and heft my backpack onto my back. Then I joined them for an evening of mostly unintelligible French conversation, and a thankful good night’s rest.
A couple of weeks later, I had made my way back north to Paris, only to find that all affordable accommodations were booked for the night. Once again, my lack of preparation was cause for an adventure of some sort, yet to be determined. No problem, I was up for the challenge.
I ended up hanging out at a Burger King for hours that evening, drinking cheap coffee, reading and mulling over my sleeping options—but not coming up with much. Eventually, I was kicked out of the restaurant when they closed at midnight. As I was standing there on the sidewalk, looking up and down the street, pondering where I could curl up safely for the night, a man walked up to me and said, in a thick Italian accent, “Hello, friend. You need place for sleeping?”
I was in the midst of contemplating an answer to his question, when he continued walking up the sidewalk with a friendly wave of his hand, saying “Come, you stay with me, no problem.” Having little else in mind as a solution to my dilemma, I decided to walk along with him and at least converse a bit. Hopefully, I would get a clue as to his motivation for being helpful. His English was poor, and he kept making wild gestures with his hands as he rambled on at me, half in English and half in Italian. Finally, I figured out that he worked in a nearby restaurant and was on his way home, and that he would put me up at his place in exchange for something—though I wasn’t quite clear as to what this “something” was.
We continued past the Louvre, and then crossed a huge roundabout known as the Place de la Concorde, a few cars careening around it in the early morning hours. It was just after we crossed the roundabout that, in the midst of his flailing arms and mostly incomprehensible speech, he made a gesture which, finally, made it clear to me what it was he wanted in exchange for a place to sleep: sexual favors. The whole choppy, puzzling conversation fell neatly into place. I stopped walking, said “No, thank you,” and then turned around and walked back the other way. He didn’t seem too disappointed by my refusal, and simply continued on his way. Now, back to my little sleeping conundrum. Where could I possibly lay out my sleeping bag in the center of Paris, that I wouldn’t likely get robbed or tossed into the Seine in the middle of the night?
Standing there at the edge of the Place de la Concorde roundabout, it came to me: why, the center of the roundabout, of course, next to the large stone pillar (of some historical significance or other) placed at its center. With the cars whizzing around all night and the street lamps shining down overhead, I would be visible at all times by someone from all angles. Not a particularly recommended spot for spending the night, but much better than sleeping in a dark alley, at least.
I walked across the multiple lanes, dodging a few cars in the process, to the center of the roundabout. I took off my pack with a huge sigh, and set it down next to the stone pillar. Then, I sat down on my pack and leaned back against the monument for a while, watching the cars go around and around the roundabout.
Finally, I pulled out my sleeping bag and thin mattress, lay them down on the concrete, and crawled in. I lay on my back for a good while, looking up at the clear night sky, contemplating my many adventures, listening to the sounds of the city. Eventually, I fell into something reminiscent of unconsciousness.
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It was the beginning of another adventurous summer, and I was at a Rainbow Gathering in Northern California, debating which of many possible places to journey from there. As usual, there were plenty of assorted festivals, gatherings and other peace-loving happenings taking place in various places around the country. One could easily spend half the year simply hopping from one such event to another—and many did. But more importantly, I was on a search for a spiritually-focused community to call home for a while, having spent much of the previous two years living rather sporadically on and off the road. Though I loved the traveling lifestyle, my drifting soul needed something of an anchor for a change.
I had a couple of different communes in mind to visit during the upcoming summer—one near Sedona, Arizona; and another up in northern Washington. I’d been in correspondence with each of the communities throughout the spring. They’d both said that I was welcome to stop by and visit whenever I passed through their respective area. I was particularly intrigued with the folks in Sedona, who seemed to share some of the same alternative metaphysical beliefs as myself, as well as communal-living ideals. I was also curious to explore the surrounding area, having heard a lot from fellow travelers about Sedona’s mystical red rock canyons and supposed spiritual ‘energy vortexes’. It sounded like a good place for both outer and inner explorations.
The sun was just setting behind the dry California hills. I was sitting in a grassy meadow with some new-found friends, digesting a simple but fulfilling meal, discussing where to go next after the Rainbow Gathering. The week-long festival was about to wind down, and we all had unknown horizons. We each had a few destinations in mind for summer, but no concrete plans—it depended, to a certain extent, on which way the proverbial wind might blow. That was pretty much how I’d ended up there in the first place. Someone had told me about this gathering just a few days earlier. I’d decided on a whim to hitch there and check it out. I thought I might be able to find a ride there from someone headed towards one of the communes I wanted to visit; or else run into some old friends or make some new ones. Anything could happen at one of these events—and usually did.
In the middle of our casual conversation, another recent acquaintance suddenly came running excitedly up to me, from the far side of the meadow where all the cars were parked. “Hey, Gabriel!” he said, panting as he approached our circle. “Guess what—I just overheard these two guys in the parking lot, who are headed to that place in Arizona you were telling me about, Sedona. They said they’ve got room for another person in their van. They’re leaving in, like, twenty minutes if you want to hop a ride…”
After a brief moment of inner searching, and some urging from my friends to take the ride while I had the chance, I concluded ‘what the heck—go for it’. Having just been discussing the very question of where to go from there, I took this as a satisfactory answer—when in doubt, follow the signs.
A half-hour later, me and my backpack were in a Ford Econoline van with two Canadian musicians, named Natty and Apollo, driving through the night to make it to a healing and arts fair two days later. They were hoping to make a little traveling money at the fair, doing their unique style of sound chakra healing. They were both in a free-form band known as Down to Earth, from the Slocan Valley in southern British Columbia. Natty was a stalky, dark-haired, dredlocked didgeridoo-player. Apollo was taller with short blond hair, and a drummer and flutist. We ran out of gas twice along the way, due to the van’s broken gas gauge—once along the Interstate just inside Arizona, which delayed our trip by half a day, and then yet again just a few miles before arriving in Sedona. We coasted the last leg of the journey down the awesome red rock canyons, beneath the orange glow of the setting sun, with just enough momentum to pull into a parking space in front of a church at the edge of town.
Apollo and I piled out of the van to stretch our weary limbs, slightly disoriented by our new surroundings. It was evening, but it was still fairly hot out since we were now firmly in the desert. Sedona didn’t come across at first glance as quite the intimate, spiritual town that I had envisioned. Perhaps it was the unexpected pink tourist jeeps going steadily by. Or maybe I was just still getting used to the relative starkness of the desert. I hoped that things might look a little more inviting after a good night’s rest.
Meanwhile, Natty—apparently still attached to the driver’s seat—had pulled out a flyer for the healing fair, to find out where in town it was happening the following day. We were figuring just to sleep right where we had landed, so to speak, and then get our bearings in the morning. A few minutes later, however, Natty let out a sharp cry of dismay. “Ah, shit!” he shouted, pounding the van’s steering wheel with his palm. “Shit, shit, shit!! Guess what, you guys? This thing tomorrow isn’t in Sedona. It’s in fucking Sonoma, California! We misread the damn flyer, Apollo. We were only two hours away when we left the Rainbow Gathering yesterday!”
“No way, Natty, let me see that thing,” said Apollo, reaching into the van to grab the flyer. Sure enough—they’d just driven all night and all day, to get to the wrong town in the wrong state. But of course, it was a little too late to do anything about it now—and besides, they were too exhausted from twenty-four hours on the road to resist reality for long. They took the news fairly gracefully in stride, after their initial disbelief.
Since I was right where I wanted to be, I found myself torn between happiness at having made it to my destination and guilt that it seemed to have been at their expense (or perhaps due to their abundant marijuana stash)—until Natty announced, as a sort of surrender to the moment, “Well, hell, I always did want to check out Sedona.”
Spirits soon lifted as they accepted their apparent fate, and we all focused instead on where to sleep for the night. For Natty and Apollo it was easy—they just threw out their sleeping bags in the back of the van. I looked around the church, and eventually found a fairly quiet spot just inside the unlocked church gate. I decidedly rolled out my camping mattress and sleeping bag on the concrete landing, crawled in; and slept intermittently with the occasional traffic passing by in the warm summer night.
The next morning, while Natty and Apollo were busy trying to find gas for the Ford Econoline, I made a phone call to the folks out at the community—called Aquarian Concepts—which was a few miles outside of town. They were happy to hear that I was in the area. They said they could set up an initial meeting with a few of their members the next morning, to talk with me about the commune and my potential compatibility there. Then, perhaps later, I could meet the community as a whole.
Natty and Apollo were both intent on making the most of their navigational mishap, and had decided to stay in town for a little while to check out the flourishing spiritual scene. The three of us camped together that night, in the woods by a creek just outside of town. We built a small fire to cook up a simple dinner; then fell asleep in our sleeping bags on the ground beside the glowing coals.
The next morning, we all got up early. After breakfast, we packed our things into the van and then drove across town and out a winding road, to a house where I was to meet with the community members. Natty and Apollo dropped me off, agreeing to meet up with me at a local health food store later that afternoon.
The meeting with the community members was—to be as vague as I felt afterwards—strange. After knocking on the front door of the house, I was escorted into their living room. There was little in the way of furnishings. Apparently they used this house only for formal arrangements. In the middle of the room were four chairs placed in a semi-circle, seated by what struck me as potential characters out of Star Trek—and one vacant chair opposite, obviously for me. They all had rather intense, penetrating personas, and I sat down in my designated seat with a hint of likely noticeable trepidation.
After a formal round of introductions, they proceeded to ask me a series of penetrating questions, designed to discover something along the lines of the inner workings of my soul. They also gave me plenty of authoritative answers, in regards to the world’s general lack of spiritual enlightenment and modern-day apocalyptic predicament. They then continued with a rather lengthy discourse of their version of the true spiritual history of Earth—before, after and including Jesus Christ—with an impressive air of conviction.
They expressed a number of basic spiritual beliefs, many of which I was happened to be in agreement with: that Jesus Christ was a revolutionary and a great spiritual teacher; that our current era of history is a time of tremendous change and evolution; that ultimately love is the answer to all the worlds many problems; and that changing our inner selves is necessary for making any lasting change in the outer world.
I liked some of the things they had to say. What committed spiritual seeker wouldn’t agree with many of these ideals? And yet, for all their lofty talk, something about them definitely felt a little out of whack. Although I’ll consider, and even believe in some of the more strange and bizarre explanations of the world, I also do my best to listen to my bullshit-detector—and in this case mine was clanging insistently at the back of my mind, telling me that these folks seemed somehow off the deep end.
I left the meeting feeling confused and perplexed. They had given me an invitation to come to one of their weekly Sunday services a few days later—a sign that perhaps I had passed one of their tests. I felt torn inside with my conflicting perceptions and emotions. Either these people were eccentric geniuses, beyond my current spiritual grasp—or else they were just your standard cult lunatics on a major ego trip. But for some reason I couldn’t quite tell. I didn’t want to make hasty judgements about them just because they were freaks. I was something of a freak myself, and had always held a soft spot in my heart for the cultural rejects of society. I hitched back into town to meet Natty and Apollo. We camped that night at the same spot by the river just outside town. The next day, we drove a few miles out of town to go skinny-dipping at a good swimming hole we’d heard about. It was another clear, hot day and the river hit the spot like an ice-cold lemonade. We worked on our tans, read a little, and covered some good conversational ground. We built a fire that evening on the sandy beach; and slept in the sand by the river. The next morning we headed back into town, and Natty and Apollo dropped me off at a church-like building, where the commune held their weekly Sunday service.
This meeting had a somewhat similar vibe as the previous—though on a much larger scale. Present inside the church were all of the 100 or so members, seated patiently in neat rows, expectantly awaiting the arrival of the community leader and his wife. Eventually the illustrious couple entered through a side door, and took their seats on a slightly raised platform at the head of the room; as the entire audience of devotees stood up, bowed and chimed in synchronicity, “Good morning, prince and princess!”
I could have easily puked. A select chorus then started off the service with an uplifting spiritual song, written by the leader—who gave me a brotherly wink from his place on the stage, as he recognized me as a newcomer. The rest of the community soon chimed in to the song and, not knowing the words, I contented myself with looking around the room, in somewhat puzzled fascination at their intense devotion. I found it impressive, as well as rather disgusting. They seemed like a group keen on proving something to someone—either to themselves, the rest of the world, God or likely all of the above.
The leader then followed the song with an enthusiastic, lengthy and self-congratulating spiritual discourse. The followers listened with rapt attention to his exhortations against the various wrongs of society—the evil media, crooked governments corrupted by money and power, manipulative religious leaders and the blinded masses who followed their lead, and musical artists who got fame and fortune by promoting bigotry, hatred and violence. (On most of this I couldn’t agree more—especially when it came to the religious leaders.) With equal confidence and enthusiasm, he then praised the righteousness of their own community’s actions and spiritual purity in the eyes of God, as if they were completely innocent and uninvolved in any potential wrongdoing.
He had a colorful and personable style, and a charismatic presence that reeked of the message, ‘I’m a likeable guy who you can be assured knows what he’s doing’. He came across as a fiercely moral man—though not one constrained to the usual fundamentalist ideals that make most Christians look like such bland robots. His vision was one of a world of great creativity, music, harmony with nature and abundant living—yet all with a humility of spirit and appreciation for the gifts of life.
It was, on the surface at least, a vision which in many ways I shared. And yet there was definitely something about his message and his presence—like the way he had winked at me—that felt a little too much like a presentation, like a con man selling a miracle cure to feed both his ego and his wallet. The vision was an enticing one. But as I looked around the room, and then spoke with some of the members during the break, I couldn’t deny that something about the people there just plain creeped me out. Though I couldn’t quite put a finger on what seemed out of sync, it was a clear case of ‘looks good—feels wrong’. For all the projections of purity and righteousness, what was really going on behind the curtains in this private little Oz? I left the meeting in a similar state of confusion as before—and with yet another invitation, to come and see the early stages of their community land and gardens a little ways outside of town. Although I was fairly certain by then that this wasn’t the place for me to call home, I still couldn’t say for sure if these people were as loony as my gut was telling me they were. Somehow, I found it hard to accept that an entire group of people could be on a collective course of self-delusion—despite the obvious lessons of history.
That night, back at the campsite by the river with Natty and Apollo, I made a simple, silent prayer before going to sleep—to God or whoever might be listening—to give me a little hand in making sense of this bizarre dilemma before me. I fell asleep with the prayer in my mind, leaving myself open to whatever possible signs might give me a hint as to what was really going on around here.
The next morning, on the short drive from our campsite into Sedona, we picked up a hitchhiker at the edge of town. We were on our way to the local health food store for breakfast; planning afterwards to stop by some of the local spiritual bookstores, as well as see what local happenings might jump out at us. We pulled over, opened the side door of the van and the hitchhiker climbed in to sit in the back seat beside me. As we continued down the road, I decided on an impulse to ask him if he might know anything about the people out at Aquarian Concepts, and thus give me some much-desired insight into their true inner workings.
“You mean those people out on Red Rock Road?” he said with some apparent disgust. “Shit, man—that place is a total cult. They’re major control freaks, believe me.”
He then proceeded to share a rather twisted tale, regarding his mother, who had been involved with the community a few years earlier. She had been a devoted follower, along with her boyfriend at the time, when she had unexpectedly become pregnant. But because the leaders had never really approved of their relationship, and due to some other interpersonal differences, it was decided rather abruptly that she was no longer fit to be a part of their community. However for some reason they did still approve of her boyfriend. So they had convinced him to disassociate from her, despite the pregnancy, and continue following them. She was then banned from attending their religious services and from the community altogether, and left to deliver and care for the child alone.
This story sent shivers down my spine—as well as resolved with certainty my earlier gut feelings that something there had felt out of place. But it also left me with lingering feelings of distrust, disillusionment and sadness, that such unfeeling manipulation could disguise itself, to those not looking beneath the surface, as spiritual truth.
Later, I happened to talk to some other folks who had previously been involved with the community. I discovered that some of the leader’s many outrageous claims about himself were: that he considered his community to be the highest spiritual truth on the planet (hey, that’s a new one); himself to be a reincarnation of the apostle Paul (perhaps so—but I’m not washing that one down with Kool-Aid); as well as the doorway to the fourth dimension (come on, everyone knows it was Jimi Hendrix); that the energy vortexes around Sedona were of his own making (how old is this guy—4.6 billion years?); and that crop-circles are his own creations from past life-times (let me guess—and he also built the Sphinx single-handedly?). As my old college astronomy teacher would have put it, this guy had an ego roughly the size of the observable universe. I had a brief desire to let the other people involved in the community know that they were being led down the wrong path. But I quickly decided just to let it all go. Was there really a ‘wrong’ path, anyway? If there was any one belief that I wholeheartedly held dear, it was that of individual free will. It wasn’t for me to decide another’s journey. They were free to learn their lessons—and meanwhile, I was extremely grateful to still have my freedom, to make my own decisions and choose my own destiny.
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About a week after spending New Year’s, 2000 on India’s Arabian Sea, I was in the medium-sized city of Mysore (known for its exotic incense and perfumes) in the southeastern part of Karnataka State. I was journeying south, intending to go to the very tip of India and then come back up through the eastern part of the country, heading north again back to my starting point of New Delhi as winter turned to spring.
It was a warm evening, the day after I’d rolled into town by bus from the coast. The sun was down, and it was just beginning to get dark as I wandered casually through the city. The streets were filled with the usual bustle of Indians going about their routine business, the numerous restaurants preparing for dinner customers, filling the air with the tantalizing scents of spiced vegetables, dahl, meat and curry dishes.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing with the rest of the evening, having just woken up from a late-afternoon nap back in my hotel room. I figured I would probably just meander through the aromatic maze of the city for a while, enjoying the sights and sounds of so many people going about their mundane, yet strange foreign lives. Then I’d find a small restaurant to hang out in, have a cheap thali and perhaps a chai.
I crossed a busy roundabout on my way to one of the main shopping streets, brushed off a few rickshaw taxi drivers looking for riders, and continued walking towards another busy intersection. As I was passing the local movie theater, plastered with brightly-colored posters portraying superficial romance, drama and action in unintelligible local script, an Indian tout came up alongside me, as they so often do, like a shadow hanging over your shoulder acting like your best buddy.
“Hello, friend, you like to see good Indian music?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” I said firmly, giving him little of my attention. The problem is, if you say anything at all they take it as a good sign.
“Very nice, free music,” he continued, urged on by my lack of complete disregard towards him. The Indian touts are quick to figure out which tourists can be pried into a conversation. “I’m going there right now myself, I like to show tourists my city—no business. Very good, Indian sitar and tabla music, you will like.”
Of course, “no business” means no business with them, but rather with a friend of theirs who pays them commission. The Indian businessmen are masters of the guilt trip. They can hook you if you’re a remotely friendly person, simply because they’re so friendly themselves. One of the first tests of traveling in India is to get it through your head that you have no obligations to help the many strangers who will try and convince you otherwise. Learning to say no, and mean it, is essential if you don’t want to be taken for rides (and rupees) against your will. I had gotten better at handling these daily encounters over the past few months in India; though I was less gifted at the art of ignoring than some, who could carry on a conversation with a friend while a tout hounded them, not giving the slightest hint of acknowledgement. I would simply say “no thanks” with a quick wave of the hand, and keep walking, looking straight ahead. After a few more attempts to get my attention, they would usually get the hint that I wasn’t interested in whatever they were offering—and buzz off to prey on someone else. But for a change, I decided this time to go along with him—just for the hell of it, to see what this guy was really about, and perhaps even see some authentic Indian music. I didn’t have anything in particular to do right then, and was in the mood for a little adventure. He seemed genuinely friendly enough (there is, in fact, a distinction to be made between real and fake Indian friendliness), and I would just keep track of my whereabouts, taking off on my own whenever I got tired of his gig, whatever it might be. Maybe I would see some local sights I otherwise wouldn’t come across.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure, take me to this music. What is your name?” “Oh, very good sir, I am Patrul. Come with me, I show you very nice sights along the way. Mysore is very nice city, you will see…”
I walked alongside him as we left the busy main street and headed down a smaller side street, still active with the usual Indian bustle, though beginning to mellow with dusk. “Beautiful city, Mysore, yes? This is my neighborhood,” he said, gesturing forward. “This is Muslim district, you see, this way. I am Hindu, but I have many Muslim friends.” “Oh, really,” I said. “That’s great, you get along fairly well here, do you?” “Yes, in this city are all religions, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist. Many Buddhists from Tibet are living near Mysore.”
“Yes, that’s right. I saw some of the Tibetan refugee camps on the way in on the bus.”
“That’s right, very friendly city, all people welcome—especially tourists! Many things to do here, very nice to visit.” Just then he stopped abruptly, at a tiny temple sandwiched between the shops along the street. An altar was visible just inside, decorated with flower petals and half-burnt incense. “So, do you like to make puja now, sir?” (Puja is a spiritual prayer and offering that generally involves giving money.)
“Well, not really,” I said.
“Here—no charge—we make prayer, come inside with me.”
He stepped inside, and I followed behind, now that I had his word to hold him to. He stood at the altar in prayer for a few moments, as I stood there in respectful silence. He took a few rupees out of his pocket and put them in a small bowl on the altar. Then we left the small temple, and continued on our way down the street. (Later, I realized that this subtle gesture was probably intended to create trust towards him in his business dealings—that I would think of him as a religious, and therefore honest man, and be more encouraged to buy something.) The sun had disappeared by now, and the evening light was fading into darkness. The street was lit now and again by low street-lamps and shopkeepers lights. I felt safe enough with this character—that he wasn’t at all dangerous, even if he did try to make a buck off me somehow. And besides, I intended to stay on the main streets, where I would have been walking on my own anyhow. It was nice to talk with a local who knew a little more English than just “which country?” and “give me coin”. He shared some of Mysore’s history as we walked along, as well as told me about the local surroundings.
“This is my neighborhood now,” he said proudly. “Many Muslim, you see.”
I agreed, noticing both the change in dress, as well as energy. Though not always readily apparent, there was definitely a subtle energy shift between the two religions, even if they were all Indians and had many cultural similarities—from the Western perspective at least. Of course, the little white hats the Muslims often wore was a distinctive clue; and the difference in women’s dress was especially pronounced. Whereas the Hindu women wore bright saris, sometimes with bared stomach and arms, the Muslim women usually wore black dress covering every inch of their body, including the head. But there was also a cultural difference between Hindu and Muslim that was beyond appearances, not always distinguishable in an individual (sometimes it was a little surprise when a taxi driver would mention he was Muslim, when you assumed he was Hindu, simply because he appeared the same as the Hindu men). But in a whole neighborhood, the subtle differences became much more prominent. Muslim culture was somehow less accessible than the more gregarious and outspoken Hindus, a little more distant and foreign.
“You like to see nice covered market?” Patrul asked, as we crossed another street and then neared a main thoroughfare. “Very nice market, you will like. Then I show you my brother’s perfume shop.” (Ah-ha—so that was his gig.)
“Well, okay,” I said. I was basically just going with the flow here, getting a little tour of the city beyond the thin tourist veil—and perfume was an integral part of this city’s heritage. We turned a corner, and he ducked into a small archway that led to an enclosed marketplace. It took up the entire center square of a city block, and was mostly hidden by the shops and other buildings lining the street. It had a low hanging shade-cloth overhead, to keep out the sun during the clear, warm winter days. The floor was covered with scattered blankets piled with all sorts of produce. The sellers squatted before them patiently, or else were going over their merchandise with customers. Because it was now late evening, things were clearly winding down, though not entirely. It was nice to see a marketplace in India that wasn’t overcrowded and chaotic, as well as one that seemed so localized to the neighborhood. We wandered through, and Patrul nodded hello to a few folks.
“You need anything, sir? Vegetables or rice for dinner?” Patrul asked. “No, thanks, I usually eat out. Very nice market though, quiet and friendly, not at all like most markets I’ve seen in India.”
“Yes, mostly people from this community only shopping here, few tourists coming here, unless I bring them…Okay, now I show you my brother’s perfume shop. You just take a look, no buy.”
We left the market through a large stone arch that looked similar to a temple entrance. We turned another corner, and after a half-block came to a handful of men standing in front of a shop, bullshitting. One of them looked up as we approached, and smiled.
“Ah, hello!” he said, addressing me in clear English. “You have come to look at my shop?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I’m just looking around town, you know.”
“Okay, looking is fine, no pressure here, come inside please, sir.”
He ushered me into his shop, along with Patrul and another man. The small room was filled with enticing, unnamable odors. He pulled up a couple of chairs, asked me to sit, and then proceeded to open up various small vials for me to smell. He was a savvy businessman, despite his projection of modesty, and I could tell that he was hoping I was looking for perfume to buy and then take back to America to sell. One big purchase could be a couple of months wages for him. He told me that whatever I bought was guaranteed, and that he would refund my money if I wasn’t fully satisfied. (Yeah, right—like anyone ever got their money back in India.)
One of the perfumes was a so-called natural mosquito repellent; which also happened to smell quite pleasant. I decided to buy a small bottle—partly because I could use it, and partly just to make a smooth exit, sans the guilt trip he seemed likely to give me otherwise, for the trouble of displaying his wares.
After paying, I said thanks and goodbye, and then Patrul and I left the shop. I was curious to see if he still planned to show me this Indian music, now that we’d done the business he would get commission for.
“So, where is this music, Patrul?” I asked, ready to venture back to the more familiar part of town if he tried to pull my leg any more.
“This way, down this street, not far. It is festival tonight. Very good sitar music tonight, you will like very much.”
I continued following him down the street. After several blocks, the street started to fill with people. Sure enough, there seemed to be something festive going on. It continued to get more and more crowded and noisy as we continued walking down the street. Whatever the event was seemed to still be a ways ahead of us somewhere. Pretty soon, the entire street was packed tight with smiling, boisterous Indians, most of them staring inquisitively at me as they passed; the younger men making comments out loud, or else nodding hello at me. I was following just behind Patrul, doing my best to ignore the attention without being entirely unfriendly. The street was quickly turning into a dense sea of bodies. I was starting to think that I’d rather be eating a meal alone in a quiet restaurant about now, than maneuvering through this congealing crowd. “Hey, Patrul,” I yelled to him. “How much further to this music festival?” “Oh, not far, not far, soon we are there. No problem, you like, good Indian music, very nice.” He seemed genuinely interested in showing me this musical event, so I felt a little obligated to accept his heartfelt courtesy.
“Okay…” I said reluctantly. But the street was packed with bodies as far as I could see, and it was only getting more dense as we moved along. I was starting to get a little tired of the constant stares, giggles, and comments in both Kannada (the local language) and occasionally English (such as the ever-witty “Hello, English!”).
As we continued moving slowly along, I was in the midst of pondering whether seeing this music was really worth all the trouble—when I felt a hand momentarily on my back pocket, from someone going by. I looked back, but of course couldn’t tell who had done it amidst the thick crowd. Fortunately, I didn’t carry anything in my pockets. But that pretty assuredly made up my mind. “Hey, Patrul,” I yelled. “I’m going. Too many people.”
“You leave? No see music?”
“No, thank you, but it’s too crowded. How do I get back from here?”
“Okay, no problem, I get you taxi.”
At the next intersection, he walked up to an auto-rickshaw (imagine a three-wheeled, covered motorcycle), spoke to him briefly in Kannada, ushered me into the seat behind the driver, and waved goodbye. Finally I was on my way, glad to be leaving behind the intense crowd. I had no idea where in the city I was at that point. But fortunately there’s never a shortage of rickshaw drivers in India, who can always take you back to the main tourist center, no matter where you might end up in your wanderings.
After winding for fifteen or twenty minutes through unfamiliar territory, I started to recognize the neighborhood as we neared the area of my hotel. The taxi driver then dropped me off a few blocks away, at the same large roundabout where I’d originally met Patrul. After paying him ten rupees (about twenty-five cents) and saying thanks, I continued walking, down the same street where I had just been an hour or so earlier. I came to another busy intersection after a few blocks. My stomach was noticeably rumbling. I stood at the intersection momentarily, considering which of two good restaurants to head to for a cheap dinner—when a short, wrinkled old Indian woman walked up to me and said, in a splitting English accent,
“Why, how can I help you, young man? You look a bit perplexed.”
I was altogether taken aback at first, by her clear speech and English accent. Though many Indians spoke varying degrees of English, they were most often businessman, and always had thick Indian accents. It was as if there were a proper English lady standing before me now, somehow speaking out of this short little old Indian woman.
“Oh, well, thanks,” I said. “I’m not lost, actually. I’m just trying to make up my mind where to go for dinner.”
“Well, there’s a great little restaurant right across the street here. Would you care to join me? I haven’t eaten myself, and I’d love to have the chance to converse with you. It’s not that often that I get to speak at length in English.”
I had actually been looking forward to a quiet meal alone, after the previous unsettling events. But of course it was hard to turn her down. And besides, the theme of the evening seemed to be to just go with the flow, and see what strangeness might transpire next.
“Sure,” I said. “What sort of restaurant is it? I’m sort of in the mood for a masala dosa.” (A thin pancake filled with spicy potatoes, and a coconut sauce on the side.)
“Oh, I’m sure they have that,” she said. “It’s your standard Indian fare.”
We walked across the street, entered the restaurant and sat down at a small table. We both ordered; and then she asked me the usual inquisitive questions, such as where I was from, what I was doing in India, whether I was married, etc.. She also shared a bit of her own story. It turned out that she had a Master’s degree from Cambridge (thus the impeccable English accent), and she was a collector of foreign oddities—and wondered if I might have something from my country to donate to her collection. Apparently there were contests among local collectors to see who could acquire the most unique items from different countries. She had—so she stated proudly—won first prize three years in a row. She was a little disappointed to hear that I had nothing at all to give her. But I had nothing with me I didn’t need, and besides most of my traveling possessions were from India by now. (So this was her gig—befriend foreigners and then ask them for trinkets.)
Somewhere in the course of our conversation, I happened to mention the mosquito repellent perfume I’d just bought.
“Where did you buy it?” she asked.
“Just one of these touts on the street. He took me to his brother’s shop up a side street.”
“Was it a Hindu perfume shop in the Muslim district, near a produce market?”
“Well, yeah, actually.”
“Oh dear, I know those men—and they are complete frauds. What sort of perfume did you buy?” I took the little bottle out of my pocket, unscrewed the top and handed it to her. She smelled it. “Hmmm, Tiger Lily. How much did you pay for it?”
“A hundred rupees. He said it keeps away mosquitoes. It seems like he called it something else, though.”
“Well, he ripped you off, young man,” she said resolutely. “This doesn’t repel mosquitoes at all—in fact, it attracts them. I know what perfume he was talking about, and that would have been a fair price for the real thing—but it’s much more expensive to make, so he gave you this cheap generic stuff. That man always takes advantage of the tourists. There is another shop two doors down from that one, which is reputable. I want you to go back to him, and get very irate, and tell him you want your money back and that you’re going to tell all the foreigners he’s a crook and not to buy from him. He needs to learn his lesson.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. Though I was a little irked at this news, I wasn’t quite that irate over paying two dollars for some perfume. It still smelled nice. “Well, maybe I’ll go talk to him tomorrow. He did say he would give my money back if I wanted.”
“Yes, you must go back to him and get very angry, speak very loud and firm, and tell him that you’re going to spread the word about him and ruin his business if he doesn’t shape up. They are not bad men, but they are bad businessmen…”
After dinner, and a mostly pleasant rest of the conversation (except for the part where she assumed I was paying the bill, even though she had invited me), I said goodbye and thanks for the information, and started walking back towards my hotel. On the way there, I passed by another marketplace, that I’d wandered through a few days earlier. I remembered that there was another perfume seller there. I decided to stop in and see if he could confirm what sort of perfume I had actually bought. Though many of the shops were closing up for the night, and there were few customers around, I was able to find the perfume shop. The old man who owned it was still there, just starting to close things up.
“Namaste,” I said, holding up the small bottle of perfume. “Can you tell me what kind is this?”
He didn’t speak much English. “What kind? Oh, okay—I see?” I handed him the bottle, he unscrewed the cap, and sniffed. “This Tiger Lily,” he said assuredly.
“You have the kind for mosquitoes?” I asked.
“Mosquitoes? Ah, yes…”
He grabbed a bottle from the counter in front of him, unscrewed it, and handed it to me. I sniffed. It definitely smelled more like something to keep away mosquitoes—still an agreeable odor, but much more pungent and distinct than the Tiger Lily perfume I had unknowingly bought.
“Okay, I’ll take this bottle.”
“One-hundred rupees,” he said with a smile, clearly pleased to have made an unexpected sale just before closing.
I made my way back towards my hotel; figuring to get my money back for the fake stuff the next day. I was starting to get a little more irked about the bad deal, the more I thought about it. As I was about to walk up the steps to the hotel, I decided that I wanted to get it over with right then, while the deal was still fresh in the perfume-seller’s memory. I had a rental bike locked in front of the hotel. I felt that I could find the perfume shop okay on my own, since it was pretty much straight up from the big roundabout where I’d met the tout, and there was that distinctive temple-like entrance into the nearby market.
I unlocked the bike, and rode quickly in the direction of the shop, working up my courage to confront the owner. He seemed the type that made a strong show of himself as being reasonable and reputable, and I suspected that his pride wouldn’t allow him to go back on his word face-to-face.
I came across the distinctive arched market entrance, hung a right turn, and soon came to the perfume shop. The same group of men were still standing there, laughing and bullshitting. The shop owner gave a fake half-smile as I pulled up abruptly on my bike. I didn’t plan to make a scene—I just wanted my money back.
“This isn’t the kind of perfume you said it was,” I said right away. “I took it to another shop. I want my money back.”
“Oh, no, that is real perfume. Which shop? He was probably lying,” he said. He clearly didn’t want to be embarrassed by a foreigner in front of his buddies.
“Look, you said you would give me my money back—I want my money back.”
He muttered to himself, reached into his pocket with a bit of a grimace, pulled out a large roll of money, found a 100 rupee note and handed it to me. I handed him back the bottle.
“Thanks,” I said, for some reason.
With that I biked off and headed back towards my hotel room—glad I’d stood up to him, even if I didn’t make a big scene like the old Indian woman had said. The 100 rupees wasn’t enough to get that excited about—though in India I could buy four meals, or a new cotton shirt with it. But it seemed more important just to make something of an impression on yet another petty Indian crook, who wasn’t desperate for the money (considering the large wad of bills he had pulled out of his pocket). Not that it would make much difference—he would doubtless continue to rip off tourists as long as it put more cash in his pocket. But fortunately, in this case, it was just a bottle of perfume—not such a big deal. I had been in the mood for adventure, and I’d found it. Next time I’d just say “no, thanks”, as usual and keep walking, knowing full well what these men were really about now. But at least I did get my money back—and yes, the other stuff did, in fact, help keep away the mosquitoes, somewhat.
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