In my zeal to discover myself as I move from place to place around the globe, I often find myself cringing at my own behavior. Yes folks, this roving lover of all things cultural has been known to behave badly at times when faced with challenging situations in distant lands.
Oh, how I wish I was one of those travelers who could eat anything without upsetting my stomach and fall asleep on a rock. Unfortunately, I’m extremely sensitive to many of the external forces that I encounter as I drag my bags from one country to another. I also started my life of international travel late—in my early 40s—at a time when many people want a bit more predictability and comfort in their lives. As I age and health problems begin to creep in, the challenges of constantly being on the road grow for me as well as those dear souls unlucky enough to meet me in one of my worst moments.
While living in Thailand in 2005, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. At the time, I thought I would have to end my days of living abroad and return to the USA (where there’s no stress, right 😊?!) However, I managed through dietary changes and exercise to nurse myself back to health and find ways to ‘manage’ the effects of the disease. Not only is my vegetarian diet more limited than the norm, but I must eat small amounts more often in order for my gut to properly digest food. My body tends to go berserk when it’s run completely out of fuel and my mind (and tongue) become almost uncontrollable. In short order, the effects of Crohn’s in combination with a lack of proper nutrition cause a sort of short-circuit for both my body and brain. I simply can’t handle stress under such circumstances. As one of many such examples, let me relay a recent series of events that I now find completely embarrassing for a variety of reasons.
Now in my eighth month of discovering Latin America, I recently found myself in a small city in northern Ecuador which shall remain nameless because I do not want to malign its reputation or negatively influence other travelers simply because I was having a bad day. I’d just spent four nights in a guesthouse that was located in a light industrial area of the capital, Quito, filled with auto workshops and car dealerships. The constant sound of car alarms being set off throughout each night had left me in a state of sleep deprivation. Add to that four days of poor nutrition—being a vegetarian in a land of carnivores—and the negative effects lack of sleep and poor nutrition had on my personal battle with Crohn’s, and you have a travel stage set for high drama.
Following a three-hour journey on a jam-packed local bus, built for people who are very short in stature and in which I held my backpack filled with thirty pounds of electronics on my lap, we finally arrived at my destination…well, sort of. As is the case in many developing countries, even long distance buses tend to stop whenever someone wants to get on or off, and so after a few of these seemingly random stops within the town, I began to worry and asked the middle-aged local lady sitting beside me –using my less than perfect Spanish—if the bus would be stopping at the terminal which is the norm in larger cities and towns. I also indicated that I wanted to get off close to the city center where I thought my guesthouse was located. Her response was that there wouldn’t be a stop at the terminal (or that the terminal didn’t exist as I understood her words) and that the stop we just made was the closest one to the city center. Considering this intel, along with the fact that a lot of people were indeed getting off at this stop, I managed to hurriedly wriggle out of my window seat with the heavy backpack, past the informant without causing her any bodily harm, and out the door of the bus to retrieve my small suitcase that had been stowed in the luggage bay under the bus.
I found myself standing on the side of a major highway along with about a dozen other passengers simply waiting for some form of transport to come along so we could continue on to our final destinations. NOTE: Don’t be as stupid as I was in this situation and depend on info from a fellow passenger, but please always attempt to ask the bus driver for info regardless of the quality and accuracy of your language skills! As we waited, random taxis would appear now and then and pick up one or more of the passengers that had exited the bus before me. After about twenty minutes, I was the only passenger remaining and I finally managed to flag down a taxi on the opposite side of the highway, requiring the driver to make a U-turn, got into the taxi and conveyed the address of my guesthouse. The taxi driver hit the accelerator and we sped along turning down street after street dodging other cars, trucks, motorbikes and many stray dogs until we screeched to a halt at my guesthouse which, as it turns out, was nowhere near the city center.
I normally do a lot of online research before hitting a new destination which includes consulting maps so I’ll have an overall view of where I’ll be staying in regards to local landmarks, but this time I simply hadn’t had the presence of mind to do this before leaving Quito. I suppose the normal preparation I do is my way of maintaining some degree of control over otherwise uncontrollable situations or maybe it’s simply my love of maps, but I have a basic need to know and understand where I am at any given moment in relation to other places around me. Without this knowledge, I feel quite vulnerable and I’m easily confused, or maybe I’m just developing early on-set dementia. How can I be sure at this point?
At any rate, I made my way into the guesthouse, found out they didn’t accept credit cards, and ended up paying with all the cash I had in my wallet plus the bits I had stashed in various compartments in my backpack. The very smiling folks at the guesthouse didn’t speak any English—and why should they in this Spanish-speaking country, and in a place that receives very few tourists—but I did manage to find out they didn’t have a paper map of the city and that the city center was somewhere ‘over there’. It seems that paper maps are rapidly losing popularity in the travel industry due to the proliferation of mobile phones and programs such as Google maps.
I got the wifi password from the front desk, struggled up the stairs to my room carrying my bags plus the soap, towels, toilet paper and TV remote given to me at the desk downstairs. Welcome to the world of budget travel! By the time I got into my room, I was weak from both hunger and thirst and so reached for my water bottle in my backpack side pocket only to realize it had fallen out somewhere along my route from the bus to the guesthouse. I cursed myself for not being more prepared and for not having purchased a SIM card for my phone so I would be able to more easily navigate my way to an ATM, water and food, all in that order! I do try to carry nuts like almonds and cashews with me when I travel, but my supply had been running low due to the difficulty (and expense) of finding them in this part of the world and on this day my reserves were totally depleted by the time I really needed them.
I pulled myself together, quickly connected to the guesthouse wifi and searched for a route to the city center. Not only was I more likely to find banks (an ATM) and food there, but I was also scheduled to meet a new teacher friend that I’d been chatting with online who had offered to show me around his town. I quickly sent him a message saying I was on my way to the city center ad was in need of an ATM and food ASAP. So, off I went in search of the city center. I’d had the presence of mind a month earlier to download an app that can be used offline called Maps.Me, but as I’d found in other cities, it isn’t always accurate.
I headed in the direction that had been pointed out by the owner of the guesthouse which involved a number of turns, and ended up walking up a steep hill as the area around me became sketchier. It became clear that the street ahead was going to end at some point due to the mountain that lay in front of me so I paused at a bus stop and asked for directions to the city center, again using my less than perfect Spanish but being sure I had a smile on my face which wasn’t easy to muster at this point. I’ve found that a Westerner bearing a frantic expression and mumbling something resembling the local tongue but often completely unintelligible can truly frighten isolated locals and I try to avoid this. One of the females waiting gestured in the direction I’d just come from. It seems it’s often a local woman who seems more comfortable taking control of such situations as women are simply better equipped at handling sudden changes and have more suitable people skills than most men. The news that I had struggled up this hill for nothing didn’t set well in my unstable condition and I’m sure my smile gave way to despair as all the locals suddenly turned away and looked toward the approaching bus. I stopped for a moment, frozen, wondering how much further I could walk without food and water and then it donned on me that I could just hop on the bus since I had just enough coins in my pocket for one ride—35 cents. This may seem like a very elementary decision since the bus was headed in the direction the local woman had pointed, but when my body is in this state of fatigue nothing works properly or comes easily.
Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, the bus began to pass what appeared to be Colonial style buildings, which are often at the heart of old towns in Latin America, so I knew I was finally headed in the right direction and that relief was near. I got off the bus and stopped and asked locals for directions several times in my search for the central square where my new friend was now waiting. I was looking for a bank ATM machine as I walked but none were in sight. After about 30 additional minutes of walking and asking repeatedly for directions, I made it to the central park and was greeting warmly by my new friend. Let’s just say that at this point, I was in no condition to be introducing myself to any new acquaintances. After the standard “hello, nice to meet’ you chit-chat, I began to vent my frustration at all the events of the two preceding hours, indicating just how much I disliked being in this place at this particular time. How can someone who just met you listen to this sort of tirade and not take it personally?
My friend directed me to an ATM machine…check…and then to find a bottle of water…check…after which we walked for another hour checking menus at innumerable restaurants until we finally came upon one that offered a cheese and mushrooms pizza…check! As I ate and drank, energy slowly began to revitalize me and I apologized repeatedly for my earlier rude behavior.
The kindness and patience of my new friend is something for which I am still saying ‘thank you’. I’ve found that people all over the world will rise to the occasion and provide assistance just when a traveler needs it most, regardless of their own personal circumstances at that moment. As Blanche DuBois so famously said in Tennessee William’s “Street Car Named Desire”, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’ and when traveling, they have rarely let me down.