A phone call conversation I had with my sister this morning made me recollect a weekend I spent with two extraordinary young gentlemen on Lake Atitlán somewhere back around ’93.
I was on a two week birding holiday looking for a sighting of the rare and elusive Resplendent Quetzal, while Michael – a Brit – was doing a solo mountain biking tour of Central America and Simon – a young Italian lad – was finishing up his 6 month backpacking trip in the same region.
We met independently on the ferry crossing from Panajachel to San Pedro. It’s a big lake and because the ferry stopped at every pueblo in a clockwise direction as it rounded the lake it gave those of us with an opportunity on board to visit if we so chose.
I met Michael first and I believe it was me who struck up the conversation as I was interested in his bike which was all tricked out in the fashion of a serious piece of equipment that was well used and heavily laden.
I later ventured topside and while marveling over the gorgeous views, the surrounding volcanoes, and the intense sapphire blue water; my eyes wandered over to a towering hillside where a man was precipitously attempting to cultivate the land to farm at such an alarming angle.
I couldn’t help but exclaim to my nearest neighbor and point to the man who looked like at any given moment he was going to plunge into the lake.
Simon and I subsequently struck up a conversation that in retrospect was interesting enough to both of us that he proposed that we split the cost of a hotel room once we reached San Pedro.
I said I was cool with that but Michael had made a similar proposition to me earlier so I broached the possibility that the three of us go in on a room together.
I introduced the two of them and so it was that we shared a room for the weekend in the tiny pueblo of San Pedro. The town wasn’t much to look at, dirt streets and hovels made from brick and concrete. The hotel certainly fit right in with bare concrete walls and steel beds. There was no running water in any of the rooms and as such they cost a mere $3.00 per night.
That was a dollar per night each; a sum which fit well into the meager budgets of both Michael and Simon. I personally would have preferred to look for better accommodations but decided to go with the flow because both of those young guys were so amazingly cool. (Note: I was in my late 30’s at the time while they were both in the early to mid-twenties.)
My first lesson by way of shared traveler wisdom was while I was sluicing the road dust off in the fountain – if you call a rough concrete basin with running water in the courtyard such – and heard Simon say to Michael, ‘He doesn’t get it does he?’
I looked at them to see them both shaking their heads in amusement at my attempts to wash up.
‘Get what?,’ I asked. Simon replied, ‘Being dirty is liberating.’ Michael shook his head in agreement. The statement was profoundly provocative and totally counter-intuitive to anything I had ever experienced, or heard for that matter.
Simon went on to explain that dirt, while traveling in places like Guatemala was not just part of the experience – it wasn’t about tolerating being dirty – but more about finding and discovering your dusty/dirty self, equilibrium speaking, within the context of the environment. My words, but they are not totally missing the point as I later experienced on future, longer trips that what they said turned out to be true.
Another very important thing I learned from Simon was when after a few beers and a smoke (yup, of the local delicious herbaceousness) that the only compelling reason he had for talking to me on the boat was the simple fact that my conversation took place in the present. Meaning, I didn’t ask him all the usual traveler’s bullshit questions of where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? How long have you been traveling? And so on. Instead our conversation began concerning a simple man struggling against his world to put food on his family’s table.
I will never forget that. I had long been conscious of the decorum surrounding conversations but I was (and remain) dumbfounded by his astute observation. Be in the present. Leave the ego at the doorstep. Instead share a moment.
So I have since been further reminded that quite possibly the best conversations do not necessarily involve the conversees; that the truly great conversations takes place outside of themselves. (I don’t believe conversee is a proper word but you get what I mean.)
The last thing I learned from Simon was not so much wisdom as just good old practical sense. He had his hair closely cropped, almost shaved. This was at least 10 years before it became somewhat fashionable, or at least began to be practiced by semi-balding men in vast numbers.
The same week I got home I went out and bought my first set of electric hairclippers and I’ve been doing my own hairclipping ever since.
BTW – I never did find the Resplendent Quetzal. They might be the national bird of Guatemala but the few remaining that do exist seem to prefer Costa Rica, or so I have since read. I heartily recommend the book, ‘Bird of Life, Bird of Death’ by Jonathan Maslow. Mr. Maslow is a naturalist who went in search of the bird in the ’80s, back when the civil war was still raging through Guatemala. It is a tremendous read that gives insight both into the bird, the people and their respective histories.
PS – The one major takeaway I received from Michael was that it was his opinion that the stretch of road between Gilgit and Islamabad is the most beautiful piece of highway on the planet. Both of those guys were heavy hitters but Michael was the more well traveled of the two. He actually drove a truck ( a paying job) for a season across that stretch of road. Look at it on the map and it is as about as far away from anything as a person can get. Astounding.