Strange encounters at equator’s edge

No camera cord ... pixelated photobooth is the best I can do.

Well, well, well …

It’s a sultry mid-morning here in El Tunco, El Salvador – our eighth morning on the beach, by my calculations – and I’ve finally managed to dredge up the motivation to crawl into a hammock and write up a few notes about the trip so far.

I’ve been a bit surprised by my complete disinterest thus far in capturing our adventures via either pen or camera. Little literary bits pique my interest countless times each day – the thin, scrappy dogs rolling themselves around in the rust-colored dust, mention of a gunpoint mugging at the north end of the beach last Saturday night, passing conversations with taxi drivers and the way the old Dona cruising around with a bucketful of donuts on her head swindled Morgan and I out of a dollar the other day. Usually, I’m sort of compulsive about documenting my time away from home. But this time around, I’m just letting it all slip past me. Just Being isn’t my default modus operandi, to put it lightly, but I suppose it shouldn’t surprise; The Unexpected has materialized as the general theme of this trip hence far.

I wasn’t expecting quiet, timid El Tunco to have been recast as a thumping, bumping surfer enclave in the three short years since I last visited. Business is booming, priced have doubled, and jocky, fratty, orangey-brown-colored surfer boys prowl about the hostel and beach like sleek, rutting silverbacks.

I wasn’t expecting to get knocked flat on my ass with an insidious case of flu the moment we hopped off the chicken bus and checked ourselves into Papaya’s Lodge. This sickness has left me dizzy and feverish, unable to do much so far but sleep and eat and read old Western novels. I’m on the up and up, still struggling to wiggle out from under this sickness. Despite solid nights of sleep and more fizzing vitamin C tablets that I’d care to remember and despite the gallons and gallons of fruit shakes I’ve been sucking down since we arrived, I’m still hacking up yellow-green phlegm and have scheduled a visit with the local naturopath this afternoon in the hopes of a cure.

I wasn’t expecting to forget my camera cord, which has rendered me totally unable to upload pictures. And I wasn’t expecting to care so little about the lack of such an essential journalist’s tool.

There have been plenty of good surprises, too. I’ve reverted with much gusto to the Spanish tongue, and I feel as if I’ve really reached a new level of proficiency. I haven’t been overly tempted to smoke cigarettes, although there was one lamentable incident with a Beedi that mysteriously appeared on the floor of our room the other morning. I’m adjusting well to the heat and the cold showers, and although I’ve been battling mild episodes of the runs, my stomach is holding up quite well in this humid, bacteria-rich clime.

I wasn’t expecting any of this, but I wasn’t really expecting anything at all, I guess. I’ve been too busy working these past few months to spend much time pondering how this trip would be.

If I sound unhappy, I’m not. All of what’s happened here so far makes life feel strangely immediate and insular in a way that is comforting. It also makes home that much further away.

Last night, Morgan and I met up with our friend Stav for Italian food at one of the new restaurants, Tunco Veloz (which means something like Velocity Pig, although I may be overlooking some subtlety of translation).

Stav is Israeli, and she was one of the first people I met during my 2009 trip to Central America. We traveled together awhile through Guatemala and El Salvador, and were indeed in each other’s company when we both first discovered the magical El Tunco. For her part, Stav fell so slam bang in love with the place that she’s spent the better part of the time since living here.

As we reminisced about our first days in Tunco those years ago and the way it has grown since, we got to talking more generally about how places change and will themselves into new iterations over passing time. About how every trip you take is different, and how that can sometimes be disappointing or disorienting if you don’t recognize that, yeah places change, but more significantly and more inevitably, we ourselves change.

There is an old Buddhist saw that says you can’t step in the same river twice. So it is with us humans. We can’t help but recast our own spots, over and over. Even in battling change, we change ourselves irretrievably.

Another Buddhist morality tale describes a man who spends his life wandering endlessly from town to town, eternally disappointed, chasing the thread of hope that, eventually, he’ll find “The Right Place.” One of those proverbial Wise Old Men sees him struggling and, aware that the seeds of dissatisfaction most often sprout from within, proffers this warning: “Wherever you go, there you will also find yourself.”

So true.

The Buddhists have some spot on parables, I guess. In my travels, I’ve found myself in some pretty strange and improbable places. Full disclosure: when I was in El Tunco last, I was in a pretty dark place, mentally. Fresh out of grad school and mostly unhinged by chagrin and loneliness and drinking far too much Cuban run and chain smoking like you’d never believe. Seriously, my habit had gotten so bad that even when I was smoking a cigarette, all I could think about was my next cigarette. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to smoke and watch the geckos and my heart would just rumble. I worried that I’d never, ever find my way. My brain kept resetting itself to Ennui, no matter what I tried, and it became a feedback loop: I chastised myself for being unable to relax, unable to let go, unable to outrun personal ghosts, and then I’d feel worse. I’d managed to get myself far, far from home, yeah, but jumping ship had never been the problem for me. Quite the opposite: I packed my bags and took off over and over, but the past never felt far enough away. Indeed, it crested eternally overhead, a wave that threatened at each moment to break and hurtle me far, far upshore, to even stranger and darker places.

If it sounds dramatic, well, it was. Like I said, encountering myself had proven a discomfiting proposition throughout my 20s, as I made my way across dozens of countries.

As it turned out, no address at all was, for me, the worst address to live at.

Cut to now. It makes my head dizzy to think of all that has happened in the past three years. So many new towns and new faces. A new love, who is at this moment swinging in the hammock to my left. A new career. And my own resolve to cultivate that elusive peace of mind.

To be honest, I don’t really think I’ve succeeded just yet, but I do know that it’s easier this time around for me to sit still without reaching for a smoke or a strong drink or the hand of a stranger. My mind feels quieter. Maybe that’s why I’m so sleepy and feverish this past week. I’ve been plagued by alternating bouts of nightmare and insomnia these past few years. Wanting to change myself but never really having the energy to think about how.

You don’t have to get far from home to gain new perspective, but it certainly does help. Tunco is like a soothing balm for all of the psychological ills my fevered Western brain can cook up. And, believe you me, there are many.

Who was it that said you don’t take a trip so much as a trip takes you? Perhaps the Buddhists again, I’m not sure.

What I do know is that hitting the road means encountering yourself in a way that is unsettlingly immediate. If you can get past the discomfort of that long, inward gaze, if you can stare yourself down without blinking, or maybe just blinking a little, wonderful things are in store.

I’ve gotta go grab lunch, but I’m committing to writing more quite soon. I may find a way to upload a few pictures, as well. Or I may not.

Hasta luego.


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