A look back at where this journey began.
FARMINGTON, New York- August 15th passed yet again — the anniversary of the day that I went abroad for the first time; the real beginning of this vagabond journey.
It is also the anniversary of Victory over Japan Day, when Imperial Japan surrendered, ending WWII. V-J Day.
V-J Day: Vagabond Journey.
While I bounced around the east of the USA for a year before I went abroad, it was that first trip to Ecuador that really put me on the tracks that I’ve been rolling down for the past 20 years.
I can remember my first day of international travel clearly. I was 19 years old and had just moved out of my student apartment at Florida Atlantic University and attempted to walk to the bus stop carrying way too much stuff. I had a huge Army bag that stood up to my shoulders that was completely full. I was a bit on the scrawny side back then, and I seriously couldn’t carry the fucking thing. I had to rest every few steps as fatigue set in, and I began worrying that I was going to miss my bus … which would have meant that I would miss my train … which would have meant …
It was my first problem of international travel. And, as it would turn out, it was the first time that I was serendipitous saved by a random stranger — a couple of young dudes that I never met before drove up, laughed at me, and offered me a lift. I was just in time for the bus.
At the train station I walked out to the end of the platform, dumped out my bag, and proceeded to throw my possessions off the ledge. I parted ways with sleeping bags, clothes, and just about everything else that I could conceivably part with.
I was about to learn my first lesson in packing light: there is no reason to leave you country with anything as you can pretty much buy everything wherever you go. If you are short a shirt, just buy a shirt. Paying a little more money here and there beats missing a flight because you can’t move fast enough under the burden of your own gear.
I rode the train down to the airport in Ft. Lauderdale and endeavored to do something for the first time that I would make a regular habit of throughout my travel career: sleep in the airport. I wasn’t being cheap then; I seriously had no money. I went over to the gate where my flight would be boarding in eight or so hours, laid down across a few chairs, and reveled in thoughts of the day.
Objectively speaking, my day had sucked: I packed up and moved out of an apartment, I had to be given a lift by random dudes because I couldn’t really carry my bag, I threw half my possessions off the side of a train station platform, and now I was sprawled out across three chairs in an airport, uncomfortable as fuck, because I couldn’t afford a room in a hotel.
But I loved every minute of it. I didn’t know what was going on, I courted chance and folly, and up for simply finding out what was going to happen next. I believe it was in that moment that I really became a traveler.
But my gleeful meditation was about to be broken by a shortish, plumpish, 30-something year old bearded dude wearing a casual brown button down shirt and military fatigues. He asked if I was going to the archaeology field school in Ecuador. I said I was. He said he was one of the instructors. He then asked what I was doing. I explained. He took me back to his room with him at the airport hotel and gave me the extra bed.
The following day I met the other students at the airport. I became friendly with this rich girl who proudly told me that she attended the same high school as Hillary Clinton. We sat together on the plane, talked about dinosaurs or something. She said she really wanted to be a paleontologist but felt archaeology was close enough. It was my impression that it didn’t matter what she did in life; her dreams were playthings. There is often little passion where there is little struggle.
A few hours later we were descending into Bogota. I looked out the window of the plane and saw mountains for the first time. It was one of the few times in my life that I couldn’t really compute what I was observing. It was nothing like I’d imagined — the bright green valleys chopped up into neat agricultural squares, the jagged peaks. I was merely going to another country but for me it was like descending down upon another planet. I’m from the farm country of Western New York. It was the year 2000, the internet was an infant. I truly didn’t know what I was getting into. And I liked it.
We merely changed flights in Colombia, which at that time was in the middle of a war against drug trafficking insurgents and had become the place in South America where only the badasses went. I wasn’t yet that badass. I was heading to Guayaquil. But after landing it was difficult for me to imagine how Colombia could look any worse. The place wasn’t at war but looked like a war zone anyway. “Welcome to Guaya-hell,” someone joked.
There was a throng of beggar kids out in front of the hotel we were going to. I stupidly gave one a dollar and was scolded by my Ecuadorian professor. “If you do that then more will come.” She explained later that the kids actually work for the gangs … Information that I would often repeat over the next decade to similarly stupid newbie travelers.
But I sort of smile about this now. My first financial exchange of international was giving money to a child beggar.
After that the rich girl came to my room.
So that’s travel …
I never got bored of it. Not once. I don’t know of anything that anyone could do for 20 years and not get tired of it. I’m sitting here now at my parent’s house in Rochester after five months of very little travel. Sure, I took two trips to Mexico since the pandemic began, I went to Florida, I went to Rochester twice, but it’s not even close to my usual pace of movement. Traveling now just seems so stupid. What are the rules? Nobody knows. Do you need a test before you go there? Is it a red country or a green one? Are the airlines selling tickets for flights they know won’t really leave just to pocket the money? The flight isn’t canceled, it’s permanently delayed. What the fuck. That doesn’t sound like an adventure; it sounds like an annoyance.
So I’ve just been waiting it out. I no longer really travel for kicks, so I’d have to arrange projects and interviews. Doing this seems like a nightmare when it’s so unclear where I can actually go and where … and if everything will change by the time my flight touches down.
I have a stack of old notebooks in my closet at my parents’ house. I wrote with pen and paper for the first five years of my travels. Inside those notebooks is a person that seems very different than the one holding them in his hands. I have to wonder what the Wade in the notebooks would have with the pandemic shutting down travel. Would he just sit around working on big projects waiting for the bullshit to pass? Probably not. He would probably be lost in Patagonia, oblivious.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
August 27, 2020, 8:08 pm
Lovely. Keep writing Wade.
August 28, 2020, 6:05 am
Very good writing there. And I really had to smile when you tell us you had to toss a bunch of belongings off that platform to lighten the load. A rookie mistake, as they say now, of packing too much. Travel forces everyone to trim down what you have to carry. Nothing is worse than lugging around stuff you can get elsewhere.
I used to travel with a small, very cheap imitation leather suitcase, moving from one country to the next, and I could never tell if I was traveling with the suitcase or the suitcase was traveling with me.
Ah, and the people who come to your aid both in the home country and in the faraway corners of the earth. So true. It’s very easy for me to picture those guys who gave you that first ride.
August 30, 2020, 9:04 pm
Greetings from a quiet sandy beach in Shandong.
Anyway, a this is a great reflective post. My heavy backpack blues was my first major backpacking trip around the Middle East in 1989; having – foolishly – bought a heavy Persian rug on impulse in Turkey, and then lugging it around for the next 5 months in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, etc.
But that same trip also showed me the kindness of strangers. In the desert of north-west Syria, being late in the middle of nowhere, a Kurdish family put me up and feed me in their small home, isolated on the banks of the wide blue Euphrates.
These and other vital early experiences propelled me forward and left me addicted to travel … 😀
September 2, 2020, 8:09 pm
What a long strange trip its been Wade. I hope you keep walking slow. p.s. sorry about the grateful dead reference, just couldn’t resist.
September 3, 2020, 4:16 pm
I love the stories and the memories. Keep them coming.
While our younger selves were more brash and spontaneous, we have wisdom with our age….maybe.
I have two things in the last several years.
I used to get so angry at any delays. If things came up to slow me up, I’d get angry. Yes I do still get angry with delays but I try to stop myself. I changed after spending time in Baja. No, it wasn’t the Mexican culture of taking it slow that changed me, it was the driving. I’d have to make frequent trips between where I was living and San Diego…usually every two weeks but sometimes more often. I had to drive about 3 1/2 hours to get to the border…and then wait to cross sometimes a few hours or longer. I’d hate getting delayed for whatever reasons…..but I started to noticed bad accidents. If I hadn’t been delayed those 10 minutes, that might have been is something I said too many times. I decided that I would just accept delays as something that protected me from harm or allowed me to do something else.
The second thing I’ve learned came from someone who shared the same last name(and was related to) an infamous crime family in Mexico. He told it came from his father and that was: If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. The idea is it’s better to do nothing than to do something that could be wrong. And it could be wrong because you don’t know what the right thing to do is. At my age, I try to live by this. I’ve stopped myself from doing things several times because I didn’t know what to do but felt I had to do something……
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