“Let’s meet in Mexico City,” said my friend of 35 years. Like a gin martini, Barbara is an acquired taste, as she is the female Larry David, treading heavily on toes, harumphing, and refusing to admit that the rest of the world may have a point.
I jump at every opportunity to spend time with my pals. I’m newly fearful of the people I love vanishing from this green and pleasant earth, and I do not expect to meet them in a better place, unless the hereafter has comfy stools, handsome bartenders, and magically replenishing glasses of pinot grigio and bowls of dry roasted nuts, in which case it’s a date.
“You bet,” I told Barb, and got busy on my favorite thing in the world: planning a trip.
I grew up during the 1960s in a small Minnesotan town where a journey to the big city of Minneapolis was a special occasion that required white gloves, frilly anklets, and patent leather shoes. My mom supplied my sister Lani and me with books and dolls and games for the three-hour train ride; amusements that provided minutes of fun. Being kids, we had no appreciation for looking out the window; it was all farms and cows and woods anyway, with an occasional water tower zipping by too fast to read the name of the town it marked.
It was always Lani who landed the first blow; I was better at verbal slings and arrows. “Lani is a boy’s name because you’re adopted and mom cut off your wiener” always did the trick, resulting in a punch on my arm or a swift kick to my shin. That was my Franz Ferdinand moment.
I said, “Of course you know, this means war,” and the pummeling and name-calling escalated, until mom grabbed my sister and me by our arms, shook us like rats, and transformed her eyes into death beams. Before I could pronounce “Klaatu barada nikto” mom hissed “If you two don’t stop that I swear I’m gonna…”
The remaining two hours and forty-five minutes of the train ride devolved into Lani and me making faces at each other while my mom hid behind her McCalls magazine and wondered why she had kids.
This was my ur-experience of the difficulty of traveling with other people.
Every year we took a family vacation that ended in tragedy. There was the California dental convention where my father lost all our cash betting on long-shot nags at a Tijuana racetrack. (This was decades before the invention of debit cards and ATMs. How did we get home?)
And the time that dad, a lover of Broadway musicals, was picked up by the cops in a raid on the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Craps Game in Seattle; he ended up with a black eye but without his winnings from a once-in-a-lifetime lucky streak of dice. My dentist grandpa was examining the latest in false teeth when he was summoned from the convention to bail dad out of the hoosegow.
And the convention in Puerto Rico where we were evicted from our lovely American Dental Association-approved hotel after my dad leapt (successfully, thank goodness) from the second floor red tiled roof into the sparkling aquamarine but not all that big pool. We ended up down the street in an un-air-conditioned room with four squeaky beds and a dresser that held a nest of mice. The cold water shower and sluggish toilet were down the hall.
Yeah, it’s hard to travel with other people.
I do have to thank my dad for bequeathing to me his love of travel. He longed to see the world; unplanned babies with first my mom and then sixteen years later with his dental assistant trapped him in Duluth, looking down mouths and yelling at tantruming kids to shut the hell up.
Although getting my father to pony up for my college tuition was as hard as pulling teeth, the arrival of my second stepbrother gave dad a good enough jolt of guilt to book 19-year-old me on a charter flight to London, leaving Minneapolis June 1, returning August 1 (the round trip ticket was $200, exactly the cost of one semester at the University of Minnesota). Dad did this without consulting me, showing up at my apartment early and unexpectedly on the morning of May 21st (I shoved my sleepover hungover boyfriend in the closet) to hand me the plane tickets.
“Um, thanks,” I said, reaching for the ticket folder. I stayed an arm’s length away, I hadn’t been able to find the belt for my robe and I stank of party. “It might be kinda late to get someone to go with me…”
Dad, the underprotective parent, waved this off. “You’ll be fine.”
My father believed I needed nothing more than that plane ticket to spend two months in Europe. I invested in that old friend of the student traveler, the second-class Eurail Pass, and nervously counted up what little I had saved from my $2.90 an hour Sisyphean job folding and stacking eight billion jeans at Lancers Clothing Emporium.
Light in the pocket, alone, young, blonde, and stupid, I was fine.
In Granada, I foiled my first would-be rapist, thanks to my heavy-as-shit-but-fashionable wood-soled platform shoes. I have to take the blame for this one: why did I think it was a smart idea to go up a mountain with some guy to see secret Gypsy caves? He wasn’t even good looking. Nor was he bright; at a particularly lonely stretch of path I turned around to see that my friendly guide had dropped his pants to his knees so I knew exactly where to land my kick.
But number two attempted rape, the slimy Barcelona landlord who, late one night in an insult-to-injury, followed the cockroaches that dropped from the ceiling onto my bed with me in it? That’s all on him. I hollered “Get off of me!” sat up so quickly that we conked heads, and sent him scuttling out of the room. The cockroaches continued to fall like rain.
I was staying in a Spanish fleabag because I was down to my last two $50 traveler’s checks and still had three weeks to go before flying home. France, England, and the Netherlands were too expensive even for the ultra-budget tourist: I would have had to choose whether I wanted to eat or have a place to sleep.
Then a cute Dutch guy I met on the train to Toledo told me that Portugal was even cheaper than Spain. It was, but the Portuguese language was impenetrable; I was not able to get past “Hello” and “Thank you.” Somehow, though I swore I was ordering a different thing at every meal, a piece of fish, mostly bones, was always placed before me. Sometimes it was fried, sometimes it was boiled, sometimes it was covered with a fishy white sauce. It turns out that the Portuguese have 323 words for cod.
After a weeklong diet of cod, I went to the Lisbon telephone exchange and took my life in my hands by calling my mother collect. When I went away to college, my mother created an elaborate code so I could let her know I was still alive while avoiding the dreaded long-distance charges: once a week I called person-to-person, asking to speak to Shay-Shay, my mom’s dog. Since Shay-Shay was never available to talk on the phone, my mother then called me back, and if I was okay and didn’t need anything, I just let it ring.
Mom did not hesitate when told she had a collect call from Lisbon, having had no communication from me other than a postcard of Big Ben with an “I’m here!” scrawled on the back.
I was sick to death of fish, I was down to 500 escudos, whatever the hell that was, and I had to be in London in six days to catch my charter flight home. I sobbed “Send money please!”
Somehow, through my tears and the crackling phone line, we came up with a plan. There would be $100 waiting for me at the American Express office in Paris. I would do a marathon trip from Lisbon to Paris, sleeping on the train or in station waiting rooms.
It worked, although the last piece of cod I ate in Portugal may have been off; my sense of smell was long gone. I spent the first six hours on the train puking, straddling the shaky metal platform between cars while kind second-class passengers took turns clutching my jacket and arms to keep me from plunging onto the tracks.
After changing escudos into francs at the Gare Saint Lazare I had enough for a single Metro ticket to the American Express office. I’m sure there was still vomit somewhere on me, as I had spent the past few days washing up in train station ladies’ rooms, under faucets that dribbled rusty water with soap that resembled a mah-jongg tile.
Staying downwind of me, an unsmiling American Express American guy led me to his desk, where he eyeballed me and my passport, certain that I had stolen it from the apple-cheeked, shiny-haired coed in the photo.
I steeled myself for a WWII-style interrogation: “What’s the name of President Roosevelt’s dog?” but Mr. American Express could only come up with a squint and a suspicious “When is your birthday?”
I think he finally decided to just get rid of me; he sighed, pushed himself off from his desk, and right as I was starting to add a layer of flop sweat — what if he went to get les flics? — to the aromas emanating from me, he came back with a wad of francs and a receipt for me to sign in triplicate.
I walked out of the American Express office and into the McDonald’s next door. I spent part of my new fortune on a Cheeseburger Royale and it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.
Years later, I expected my sons to be my little travel clones, eagerly rising at dawn to get in as many historical sites, museums, churches, parades, street fairs, exhibitions, changings of the guard, folk dances, and botanical gardens as possible.
They, like their father, regarded vacations as a chance to sleep till noon.
“Get up! We need to be at the Vatican in 30 minutes if we want to take the seven-hour tour!” My family was as unrouseable as hibernating bears, the three of them snoring and scratching. I turned into my mother, hair on end, eye-rolling, trying to think of something terrifying to threaten them with.
“I’ll…I’ll…I’ll take away your Gameboy!”
We exited the Vatican 45 minutes into the tour, when one grumpy kid whacked the other over the head with the Gameboy, which they had been playing non-stop, ignoring the wonders of a thousand years of Catholic art and architecture that surrounded us.
In Mexico City, my pal Barbara was equally uninterested in the dozens of hot-house hued paintings of the Virgin of Guadeloupe and delightfully grisly depictions of Catholic martyrs hanging on the walls of the Convento del Carmen. I would never have suggested a visit to a religious site to Barbara; we both worked at Avon until Barb was fired for refusing to join in the office Christmas caroling (she’s Jewish).
But she had mentioned earlier, “I’d like to see some mummies.” I adore mummies of all sorts and knew where we could find some: in the cellar of an 18th century convent.
“These aren’t Aztec mummies,” Barb complained, staring down at the desiccated, gap-mouthed parishioners in their glass-top coffins. “I wanted to see Aztec mummies.”
“I didn’t know you were so picky,” I grumbled, and we left before I had the chance to admire even a single arrow-studded St. Sebastian.
Barb was also leery of Mexican street food, shaking her head as I gnawed my way through an immense blue corn tortilla covered with cheese, beans, nopal cactus, and two kinds of hot sauce.
“Hot sauce and lime kills the germs,” I said, and burped. Barbara turned bilious.
Barb’s flight left twelve hours before mine. We did our usual unsentimental quick hug, said “See you in New York,” and I was on my own in one of my favorite cities in the world.
I wandered through neighborhoods, stopping in at churches and eating every hour on the hour, mostly at street carts: tacos, fish and shrimp and tongue, corn on the cob, slathered with spicy mayo and cheese, a torta, a fresh toasty roll split in half and piled so high with beans and avocado and meat that it barely fit in my mouth; half a dozen oysters washed down with a crisp Mexican chardonnay that made another half dozen a necessity; two paletas, one strawberry one lime; an espresso and a chocolate croissant in a café cause I was badly in need of a restroom, posole, a stew of mostly puffy hominy corn, served in a tin bowl by an abuelita at a stall in one of those immense, aromatic Mexican markets, where I stocked up on dried chiles, a big bottle of vanilla, wedges of cinnamon-y chocolate, and garish devotional candles that airport security confiscated.
So I have to light the flame to St. Christopher in my heart, thanking him for keeping me safe through all my journeys. I should light a candle for friends and family who put up with my travel idiosyncrasies: my preference for cheap lodging and public transportation, my obsessions with mummies, Mystery Spots, mariachi bands, ruins, obscure museums, and The World’s Largest (or Smallest) anything, my insistence at pulling over to read aloud every historical marker, and my unquenchable appetite for the marmoreal majesty of Catholic churches. (“Seen one, seen ‘em all,” say Barb and my kids.)
It’s been a long, strange trip, with too many boon companions dropping off along the way, a trip that these days I can almost see the end of, hazy and still a bit down the road, I hope. I ramble on to that change of planes, with nothing to declare, baggage-free, losing everything, losing nothing, hoping someone has saved a barstool for me.
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