Outside magazine, December 1997
As I write this I am four beers into a nine-hour layover at Los Angeles International Airport, which is where the travel agent who booked this goat-fest should be clove-hitched shoeless right in the middle of Concourse Two — a vast, acridly-lit portal crowded with new arrivals from Phnom Penh, New Delhi, and other cauldrons of Asia — and left to spend long, meaningless hours amid the chaos and melting-pot aesthetics of what is little more than a pretentious bus station.
Have I mentioned that I am just a tad grumpy? Yes, indeed — grumpy and severely jet-lagged after another whirlwind visit to the far side of the earth. In the many years I've written this column, how many times have I crossed the Pacific? Dozens of times? Scores? But of all those flights, this trip has been the dead-rump hell tour from Planet Dumbo, put together by a travel agency in Missouri that appears to have less foresight than roadkill in Amish country. On every leg of every flight, I was booked into a center seat. Not an aisle or bulkhead seat on the whole rotten journey, and that includes both 14-hour legs between LAX and Sydney. Spend three full working days sandwiched between fat men who stink of curry and fat women who smell of their curry-bloated men and it's the rare mood ring that won't turn black.
There's another reason I might be a tad grumpy. Over the 100 months that I've been writing this column for this great magazine, I've undoubtedly had the best gig in the business. I've traveled several hundred thousand miles to dozens of countries on assignments that just about any writer would have died for — but that were assigned to me instead. And now, as I write what will be my very last Out There column, I find it especially irksome to have to do so against the backdrop of this sad place.
So, no, I'm not in the best of humors. But these four beers have helped. Really cold beer, too, served up by my new buddy Mark, the bartender. As this wise little man has already pointed out, I'm on an expense account, so why not have a little fun.
"Another?" he asks.
"I'll sail again," I tell him with a nod, and then return my attention to the blue-gray illumination of my PowerBook.
I like that line: "I'll sail again." In The Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne's corporal, Forrest Tucker, always uses it to order another round. The phrase has a certain 1940s last-flight-out charm that's happily at odds with the sterile nineties decor of the place where I now sit.
Where I now sit is the plush, members-only Admirals Club of American Airlines. Since I'm not a member, the less said about how I gained entrance, the better. Mark doesn't know, nor do the two women guarding the front desk. It shouldn't have been so easy to finesse, especially considering that I'm dressed in my standard travel kit: khaki fishing shorts, T-shirt, and ball cap. But here I am, with the run of the place.
The LAX Admirals Club isn't nearly as nice as the Qantas upper deck lounges I've crashed over the years, but it's OK, functionally impressive with its burgundy faux-leather seats and carpeted enclaves equipped with computers and fax machines. Spending nine hours here is much better than sitting downstairs in Concourse Two. Even so, I can't stand the boredom and the waste of time. Hanging around in airports is the thing I hate most about travel.
Wait a minute ... Is that true? Let me think about this a little more. It's an interesting question, an aspect of my work I've never before tried to pin to the floor. What do I dislike most about travel? In my present mood, the notion of zeroing in on this matter appeals to a certain perversity of spirit, one that has been exacerbated by all this delicious beer. Let me inspect the larger canvas. Let me review all the years, all the trips, all the disturbing, vexing encounters, and make some quick, cryptic notes. Those Peruvian goons who stabbed me ... Lost and near tears on Old Baldy ... A spider, a broom, and that bastard honey bucket ... The oldest orangutan trick in the book ... Rats and mefloquine demons in Hanoi ... The garbage children of Guatemala ... Dope smuggling tarpon fiends in Singapore ... You're not drunk, you're in Borneo ... The crappiest airplane terminal in the world ...
Hmmm. It's a list that could go on and on, but here is what I've just noticed: Instead of filling me with angst, or dread, or revulsion, a quick review of even my worst trips brings a little smile to my face. It's the kind of smile that indicates a slight thoracic pressure, as if one's heart is being squeezed, but it's a smile all the same. There's a reason: I can't dredge up an unhappy event without remembering the country in which it took place and more important, the people who, without fail, befriended me.
"You just think about something funny?" Mark the bartender pauses to inquire. I don't answer.
Mark clears his throat nervously. Rote ceremony is the scaffolding upon which all uneasy alliances rely. "More pretzels, sir?" he asks, already moving away.
Nope. No more of those pretzels, and no more of those shiny pea-looking whatchamacallits, either. No thanks. But I will have another beer.
The point is, in every country I've visited, whether it's Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Ireland, the Philippines, Sumatra, Nicaragua, or wherever, there were good men and women who recognized me for the absentminded goof I am and who gladly took me under their wings. And so, ironically enough, here's my answer: The thing I dislike most about travel is meeting people. You heard me right. It's interacting with other fine souls in far-off, isolated places, usually under intimate and intense circumstances, and then having to say good-bye.
Le Hui Vu comes immediately to mind. Vu was my guide when I visited Vietnam in January of 1992. Because this was before the U.S. embargo had been lifted, I had to enter the country illegally, but Vu didn't much care. In terms of life experiences, dealing with minor illegalities was small potatoes to Vu. He'd spent 15 years in the jungle fighting with the Communist Vietcong San, 320 Division, Seventh Frontier Guerrillas.
"Ve-ly famous to Americans!" he told me. "And ve-ly dangerous."
Vu had tiny brown pit-bull eyes but the demeanor of a boy who'd aged into adulthood without being ingested by it. He was small and round and genial, but possessed a depth of character and experience not implied by his appearance.
For instance, Vu had been with the main contingent of Vietcong that, on the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, captured the Citadel at Hue and held off the U.S. Marines for nearly a month before retreating under darkness — and after executing more than 3,000 civilians, whose bodies they left behind in shallow graves.
That was something else he told me, but only after we had progressed from acquaintances to close friends. And Vu and I became close friends very, very quickly. Aside from the fact that we were both dedicated fathers, our only link was generational, but it's my experience that friendship has more to do with alchemy than anything else, so there's no explaining it. I liked and trusted Vu; he liked and trusted me. When we were off by ourselves, we'd joke around and giggle like kids. I called him Mr. Vu. He called me Mr. Wandy.
In Hue, he escorted me around the sacred temple where he and the other Vietcong had fought, showed me old bullet scars, and explained various fields of fire. He also showed me how they escaped under cover of darkness and where they had buried the civilians they had killed. It was an eerie, odd experience, part expository, part confession. A profound sadness washed over his face. More than once we got teary-eyed together.
But Vu's favorite pastime was getting me lost in the rainforest, sneaking around close behind, and surprising me by whispering, "Bang, bang, you dead."
To which I would promptly reply, "Fuck you, Vu."
A response that made him giggle some more. "No thank you," he'd answer. "Ve-ly kind, but not intah-lested."
When I left Vietnam, I thought that was the end of my relationship with Vu, but it wasn't. He wrote and sent pictures. I wrote back. In the earliest hours of the morning, I've been awakened more than once to hear the faint echo of his voice: "Hello, Mr. Wandy! Hello!"
Stranger still is the number of people, American and Vietnamese, whom through one extraordinary coincidence or another I have met because we are all friends of Vu. This is another oddity I've noticed about certain rare friendships that evolve on the road: They happen so quickly and are so intense that they seem to generate an energy of their own, one so potent that time and distance are inconsequential.
My friend Dean Fallsdown is a good example. I met Dean at a diner while writing about the crystal-huggers of Sedona, Arizona. "How do you deal with all these New Agers?" I asked this decidedly ungroovy American Indian man.
"I tell them I'm Jewish," he replied.
We became friends immediately, and I soon learned that he was a medicine man at the nearby Yavapai Apache reservation. Dean invited me to a tribal sweat ceremony — a very sociable, nonmystical experience in which I thought I would faint, but didn't. Thereafter Dean would call me every few months to talk. In one conversation, he told me that the members of his tribe believed that a sacred artifact, stolen back in the 1950s, was somewhere in my home state of Florida. "We'd like you to find it," he said.
I explained to Dean that Florida is a big place and that 40 years is a long time, but that I'd try to make a few calls to artifact collectors. And I did place some calls, though I turned up nothing.
Not long after that, Dean called me again. "Hey," he said. "Randy, we want to thank you. We got the artifact back."
It turned out that an Orlando collector I'd called — a man who claimed to have no knowledge of the artifact — had suddenly suffered a bout of conscience and returned the artifact to Dean's tribe.
"Amazing," I said.
Dean didn't think so. He was underwhelmed, in fact, by the several coincidences and freak encounters that we experienced during our friendship. I found such coincidences both heartening and a little troubling, perhaps because I'm a linear person, a man who's not even tempted to read his own horoscope in the paper. Yet last year, when I was going through some interesting romantic problems, it was Dean I called on for advice.
"We'll get together in December," he said. "That's when I'll be able to help you." December? I had no plans to be in Arizona in December. Was Dean coming to Florida? "You'll see," he said. "There's going to be a ceremony. After December, you'll be OK."
All of which turned out to be pretty much the truth. Later that winter, when I called to tell him about my strong recovery, Dean wasn't around. He'd died, of natural causes. In December.
And that is the very worst thing about travel. You befriend people on far-off continents and maybe even fall in love with the idea of staying there and living the disconnected life. It's not because you're unhappy with your old life back home. No, that has nothing to do with it. You project yourself onto this new place, fantasize about an existence there, mostly because the people you've met are so dear that you don't want to leave. But you always do leave. Which is why it squeezes the heart to see a map or spin a globe. Because the more places you go, the more people you end up missing.
It's the same with writing this column. The energy that drives the weird beast, Out There, is really generated by you, its readers. You don't know it. Hell, you probably wouldn't admit it if you did, and I don't blame you. But it's true, and I want to thank you for helping me validate a stray-dog approach to travel that seems to infuriate more orderly, tight-sphinctered types. It's been the best gig in the business, and I'm going to miss it.
What I won't miss is hellishly long layovers like this nine-hour marathon in LAX. But sometimes you've got to suck it up and make the best of things. It's like I just told Mark: I'll sail again.
Illustration by Rick Sealock