Every travel writer asks himself, “Why do I travel?” I first asked myself this question while on the road from Mexico to Guatemala.
I had been pondering the question while riding in a collectivo, which is essentially a mini-bus crammed so full of Mexican’s carrying children and chickens that it seems ready to burst. It had been a long time since my last trip, and I’d only been on the road for a few days, so I was still getting back into the swing of traveling. We were driving from the Mexican city of Tapachula to the Guatemalan border.
“What is it that drives me to explore new places?” I wondered, as the chicken in front of me flapped its wing into my face.
“I love the freedom of the road. I love facing the challenges of the road and meeting them. I love traveling alone. I must travel for the independence.” I concluded.
We arrived. I got out of the collectivo, set my bags on the dusty street and looked around. Where was the border?
“Frontera?” I asked the driver. He pointed down the street, which dead ended two blocks away. I looked at him, confused. He said something in Spanish. I continued to look confused. He went back to his work.
A rickshaw driver pulled up. “Frontera?” I asked him.
“Yes, yes. Lets go.” He said, grabbing my bags.
“No, no. Uno momento.” I said. I wasn’t born yesterday. He was trying to rush me into his rickshaw without setting the price so that he could over charge me when we arrived. I’d seen this hustle before. My old travel instincts were coming back.
“Quanto questa?” I asked him.
“Forty pesos.” He said in English. That was double what I’d just paid for a three-hour collectivo ride.
“No.” I said. “Muy carro.”
“Si, forty.” He said firmly.
I looked at the end of the street where the border was supposed to be, but wasn’t. I looked the other way up the street. Not a person in sight.
I got in the rickshaw and we started off down the street. It was early and the dust rose illuminating the sunbeams.
“I definitely travel for independence.” I thought. “What my friends would say if they could see me now; the lone adventurer. I’m all by myself in the South of Mexico, barely a word of Spanish, and I’m getting by perfectly.”
Halfway down the block the rickshaw stopped and a man stepped out of a shaded doorway.
“Money,” said the rickshaw driver.
I bolted upright. I was being robbed!
Then the man from the shadows pulled his hand out of his pocket. There were thick wads of bills folded between his fingers.
“Quetzals?” He asked. He was a moneychanger.
“Un dollar, quanto quetzals?”
I calculated quickly. I wasn’t sure about the exchange, but I knew that a quetzal was worth about two pesos, and that there were about fourteen pesos to the dollar. So, six sounded low. But I didn’t know if I would need Quetzals to buy a Guatemalan visa. And if I did, would there be a currency exchange at the border? If there were a currency exchange at the border, would they fleece me on the exchange rate like they do in airports? If I waited until I got to the border I would have no choice.
I bought twenty dollars worth of Quetzals and got back in the rickshaw, doubly pleased with myself for having bought black market currency for the first time in my life, and for probably saving myself from being cheated on the exchange at the border. I felt very independent.
The rickshaw driver pulled me a couple of minutes farther to the end of the street and stopped.
“What?” He had only pulled me two blocks. “No.” I exclaimed. “Frontera.”
He gestured to the right.
The dead end wasn’t a dead end. The street turned ninety degrees to the right, and there was a drive lined with tall fences and signs for the Frontera de Guatemala.
“Forty pesos.” He reminded me.
Dammit. He got me. Forty pesos was more than ten times what the ride was worth, but I shrugged it off. These things happen when you’re traveling. I’d still done OK on the currency exchange.
I took my bags, two large backpacks (one on my back and one on my front) and my guitar and trudged down the road in the hot sun. Before long I was dripping with sweat. A rickshaw pulled up.
I shook my head. I wasn’t going to get swindled by another one of those guys. I arrived at the border office soaked in sweat after walking just a couple hundred meters. I got my passport stamped, and then followed the road to the bridge that crossed the river that separated Mexico from Guatemala. I walked slowly in the sun straining under my heavy bags.
“It’s all part of the adventure,” I told myself. “I may have brought a lot of stuff, but I don’t have anything that I can’t carry alone, even under the midday Central American sun. Now that’s independence.”
I got to the other side and walked into the customs office, a small concrete room with a single window. The officer asked for twenty Quetzals for my visa. On the wall beside him was a sign that read, “Todays Exchange Rate: $1USD = 7.5 Quetzals”.
I paid the tariff with my overpriced Quetzals and left, cursing myself for not having known better than to buy money from some shady Mexican at the border. Outside the rickshaw drivers shouted at me as I walked past.
“You go bus? Twenty quetzals. Ok?”
I just shook my head and kept walking till I found a quiet shop. I bought a bottle of water and asked the clerk, “A donde es el estacion de autobus?”
He pointed up the hill, and waved arm to indicate the other side of the hill. It was a very tall hill. A rickshaw came over.
“You go bus? Twenty Quetzals. OK?”
I was drinking my water and wondering if I could make it over the hill on my own when a second rickshaw driver came up to me.
“Where you go man?”
“Bus. How much?”
“Fifteen Quetzals. OK?”
Satisfied that I’d managed to get something resembling a fair deal, I got in the rickshaw. The bus station appeared to be very far away. But the rickshaw took off in the direction opposite of the hill that the storeowner had pointed to. One and a half blocks later the rickshaw stopped at the entrance to a road crowded with brightly colored old American school busses.
“Fifteen quetzales!” I said, and let fly a long string of expletives that the driver no doubt understood. His dark, skinny face broke into a wide grin and he laughed loudly. Unable to deny the humor of my situation I started laughing too.
I paid him and leaned over and asked him closely, “Autobus a Quetzeltenango, cuanto questa?”
“Thirty quetzales.” He said, and pointed at a bus.
I walked over to the bus.
“Quetzaltenango?” I asked.
“Si,” answered the stocky albino driver.
“Thirty quetzals.” I said and held out my money.
“No.” I said. “Thirty.”
He looked at me for a moment and then took the money, muttering what I could only guess were Spanish curses under his breath.
I smiled broadly at him. He looked at me and, after a moment, laughed and shook his head and took my bag for me.
As I boarded the bus I realized why I really travel. That last rickshaw driver had made me realize it with his laughter. His illumination of the ridiculousness of my anger had forced me to see the situation not as an injustice, but for what it really was, just another small time scam out of a million that happen all over the world everyday; business as usual in the global economy.
Then I understood. I don’t travel for independence. I travel for truth. When you travel you rub up unprotected against the hidden truths of the world that we live in. You encounter situations and people that operate outside of your everyday assumptions forcing you to broaden your perspective. These truths are often difficult to accept, but no matter how unprepared you are for them, and how disastrous they may seem, they are nonetheless true and, afterwards, you are better for having encountered them.
“Excellent,” I told myself as the bus bounced across the Guatemalan countryside, “I came up with an editorial and finally managed to get a ride without getting ripped off.”
I reached for my notebook so that I could take note of this revelation.
“Damn! Where did that guy put my bag?”