There are perfect travelers.
People who cross borders and languages in a way that makes you angry. Alex taught in Sardinia for a month on what I think was two semesters of Italian and used the thousand Euros to travel the Continent and the UK for four months. She was a family cook in Germany and a goatherd in Switzerland. She missed crew and snuck into the employees-only bit of the boathouse in Florence, and when they found her she ended up with an appointment to scull under the Ponte Vecchio. Which cut short her impromptu rendezvous with a beautiful Australian who had to catch a train for the Himalayas in the morning.
Then there are graceful travelers. Here am I.
Airport waits don’t bother us and we’d let the TSA stare at our tackle for free if it gave the sweaty masses an excuse to stumble through the security line faster. Strange food and strange people and strange languages don’t put us off; we feel more or less at home wherever. Which might be, in my case, because I’ve got no real home.
In my Peace Corps group, we’re all pretty fair travelers. Some of us are way worse, here, but you can chalk that up to the language advantage that half brought in. But everybody, from the best to the worst, has something they will not let go. Some part of the culture shock that mostly never touched them will linger for their whole stay here, and, I think, for any stay, wherever. There isn’t anything about Mexico that really bothers me. I’m not above shitty commentary—’why would the buses run on time?’ ‘Why would a bank website, you know, work?’ ‘Why would you have two types of beer when you can just throw some salt in the one you’ve got?’—but really, the intermittent bouts of diarrhea from the street food, the total lack of punctuality, the incredible heat (and interminable cold), and everything else that makes staying in Mexico what it is, it does not bug me much.
There are bright sides to all of it. For one, street food exists in the first place, and once you’ve ridden the dragon enough it gives up. Not to mention that you don’t have to cough up fifteen dollars because some asshole in a truck figures he’s added ‘art’ to tacos. About time, when nobody puts much importance on it, your schedule frees itself up. And if you can get acclimatized to the extremes, you’re more comfortable all the time. And browner.
The things my fellow volunteers can’t give up are pretty typical. And reasonable. A couple of us bailed on the Peace Corps lunch place during training because they were vegetarian or because they couldn’t take the grease or because they had gotten sick one too many times. I know folks who couldn’t take the time thing or the poor local buses or the constant ambient noise. There were a couple times I’d have killed some roosters if I could’ve.
The thing that gets me, and that always has, and that always will, is music. I dig banda and cumbia when I’m dancing, and I’ll go to as many huapango concerts as they throw, but if I’m listening to something on my own, or if I go to a bar, all I want to hear is something American. I don’t know if it’s just that I want something familiar or that I should have gone to Asiafest my freshman year or that I would have been better served listening to the international music program on NPR in high school. The cause is beyond me, but this is my one thing.
My second week in Spain, the Irish bar near the university held its first of many international nights to welcome students from abroad. America was up first. Free facepaint, flags everywhere, some Spring Break contest like wet t-shirts or booty-shaking, because that’s what we’re about. All that in good fun. But they played our music. Not the top forty, because that was making the rounds every night (and it does, everywhere with internet), but the stuff that turns the Tombs into a singalong bar for all of second semester. Shout and John Cougar Mellencamp and Kansas and Lenny Bruce and America and Neil Young. And it was, bad as this is, one of my best nights over there.
When we were in Prague during the same study abroad, a couple of friends had been taking us around to recommended spots. On the third night, after a conveyer-belt sushi bar, a steak place, and a club where all mixed drinks came in buckets, I was pretty sure I was ready for something a little more Czech, or at least a little less pandering.
So I psyched up when we stumbled in a dingy multilayered cave of bricklined arches full of cheap beer and empty of Germans. Each little chamber full of smoking berreted artists and literal Bohemians and the generally young and poor and cool of Europe. When we’d made it through six rooms and as many steins, we ended up in a gloomy, cramped little cubby, and some low-rent speakers were pounding out the Boss. Sitting there, with a couple of Portuguese, our buddies in from Egypt, and a few other bilinguals, I could not have thought, in the coolest of cities, of a better place to be.
Play me out, us