by Anita Kugelstadt

“Pack light,” he said, overlooking the fact that I was a university student who had until recently slept on a foam mattress and could move households assisted by a few garbage bags and a friend with a bicycle. I lived light and it never occurred to me to reciprocate with the same command, or define light, or snoop through his luggage before we left. Had I only shown some sort of initiative.

But I hadn’t, so a few days into the trip, I was a woman changed: dishevelled, a bit pongy, displaying a dismaying interest in food stain design. His unending supply of crisp new shirts and command of Spanish left me wondering how he explained my mucky presence at his side to the small-town inhabitants we spoke with while travelling dirt-cheap down the west coast of Mexico.

The room cost us less than one fast food meal at home. At that price, of course, the cucarachas were both included and copious. “They’re vegetarians. They’re vegetarians,” I chant, trying to calm myself and find a bond, if not for friendship, at least for amicable co-existence. I try to picture them as smaller, less hairy cows. I am a farm girl and in my experience, bovines deserve confidence.

My partner has left our room in search of a glass. I turn on the tap to wash my hands and feel a strangely powerful tingle scurry up both my arms into my chest. Travel, I reflect as I look wide-eyed into the cracked mirror, is exciting. Staying at home never sent frissons of energy through me like this.

My partner comes back with a glass. The owner, met with such a simple request, had begun an enthusiastic search, only to come up empty-handed. But when his eyes lit upon his own half-filled glass, he dashed its contents to the floor, gave the inside a quick wipe with his shirttail, and handed it over with a triumphant smile and modest dip of his head. Back home such a report would have left me open-mouthed and aghast. Now I smile gratefully at our host’s creative generosity, and pour myself a liberal shot of Kahlua.

Avoiding the tourist crowds, we press against bodies in teeming streets, buoyed by the lyrical Spanish chatter of people out for the evening. Supper consists of beans, chicken and rice, too many cervezas, and a burgeoning, next-door-to maudlin attachment to a joyful and generous populace.

We make our way back to our economical digs and I engage in one of my favorite fantasies, one that is only possible when I don’t understand a word being spoken around me. Each conversation is a gem of intellectual prowess. People discuss love and beauty and truth. No one is alluding to the size of a woman’s hooters or how they overcharged the dumb sap with the bad brakes. Of course, to make this fantasy work I must carefully look away from nose pickers or men who believe that repositioning their pride and joy is a fundamental right in which they must engage at regular intervals.

Back home, anxious to ensure my best chance to sleep despite the cockroaches that I fully expect to construct major roadways across my face, I decide on a refreshing shower.

I advance gingerly into the shower. Priority one: do not step on a cockroach. I realize that they move fast enough to break the sound barrier, and that I’d probably need steel boots to actually crush one, but I am unwilling to take any chances at harming one of their number. The thought of millions of vengeful family members inspires in me a caution well-suited to space walks or neurosurgery.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about the little beasties. I have, as the saying goes, bigger fish to fry.

Naked, wet, I cannot let go of the taps. I am in every aspect—thought processes, panic level, comically bulging eyes—like a drunken mariner seizing the ship’s rail during a colossal storm, except considerably more undressed. Electrical current courses through my arms down to my feet. “Naaauugh,” I holler, in neither Spanish nor English, reverting to the language of our Neolithic ancestors.

My boyfriend yells helpfully from the other room, “They don’t bite!”

“There’s electricity! In the bathroom!” Clearly the electroshock has diminished what little intellectual capacity the Kahlua and cervezas have left me. Only basic instincts for self-preservation permit me to liberate my hands. Torn between averting possible death and regaining a modest level of hygiene—well, I am a woman—vanity wins the day. My head is not smoking, I reason, and as long as I don’t touch the taps, the current remains safely in the wall.

Clean and pondering my next move, I call out, “There’s a current of electricity when I touch the taps!”

“You’re imagining things.”

Tell me and I shall forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand. A little something I learned while getting an education degree.

“How about a shower?” I offer magnanimously. “I’ll leave it running for you.”

A few days later, an effective truce having been negotiated, we amble along a deserted beach, searching for a place to spend the morning. Moving past tampon applicators, syringes, and other disturbing detritus, we remain hopeful of finding a pristine little corner. Luck is not yet with us and we give a dead dog wide berth.

A bit further along, a dead seal. Long dead. We carry on, confident it cannot get worse.

Two people approach from the other direction. An exchange in Spanish follows. I watch everyone’s mouth, trying to arrange my face to reflect growing comprehension, and convinced—knowing the giving nature of these people—that my partner is gaining knowledge of a secret paradise, not far down the beach.

Grimly, my partner thanks the two men, takes my arm, and turns me back the way we’ve just come. “It’s a dead person. About a hundred yards down.”

We have, throughout our trip, been extolling the wondrous beauties of nature along the Mexican coast. But when nature washes up on the beach in the form of dead bodies, we opt for the security of town. We decide to visit a fish market that some of the locals have told us about.

Our keen sense of direction fails us once more, and we approach the fish market from the rear. We’re still yards from the market but we see—and mama do we smell—tons of fish. Four tons, to be exact. Fish heads and fish guts bursting from the back of a four-ton truck.

Imagine your living room, packed to the ceiling with the parts of fish no one will eat. Now envision a baking sun. Add 500 or so seagulls swirling overhead. Seagulls incapable of exerting any semblance of control over their beaks. Or their anuses.

The deluge of fish, in one form or another, is almost biblical. And you are without a hat.

But looking at our visit from a guidebook point of view, it was free, and I’d never seen anything like it before. Shrimp the size of my forearm. Worth a detour.

We board a bus. There is another bus, constructed after—rather than long before—I was born. This other bus travels a smooth, modern toll highway. But this other bus costs quite a bit more, and it will be full of tourists. We want to travel as the Mexicans do. Of the fifty or so people who will share this adventure with us, only two others are not native.

We exchange proud looks as we find a seat. A look of the virtuous. A look of the staggeringly but blissfully ignorant.

An old woman falters down the aisle, hand out, her collapsed mouth mumbling. Every single person on the bus, other than two athletic looking blonde Americans, drop a bit of change into her palm. “What is she doing?” I ask. “We already paid for our tickets.”

“She’s praying for us,” my partner informs me. “May your souls complete the journey to your destination. May the wheels of this bus stay on the road. May you not perish in a fiery explosion in some deep and forgotten ravine.” I believe that he is only exaggerating slightly. This woman knows how to work a crowd.

Next comes a young girl, handing out candies. I examine mine. Two rewrapped throat lozenges and a green thing I cannot recognize. Gum? A suppository? The two Americans, I notice, are happily consuming their pre-flight extra.

I am still staring at the offering in my palm when the girl walks back up the aisle. She takes the candy out of my hand along with the few coins my partner has given her for his delicacies. The Americans are now gaping at the girl, confused, helpless. My partner explains to them that they are expected to pay. She is not a flight attendant.

“All of our money is on our bikes, tied to the back of the bus!” This particular situation with the young girl aside, leaving all of your money outside the bus just doesn’t seem like a prize-winning idea. My partner pays for them, and we have two new friends.

In an explosion of sound and stench, our bus lurches into traffic. Out on the highway, our driver and the ticket collector carry on a lively conversation which involves much gesticulation and eye contact. Never have two people, people without breasts I might add, had so much to say to each other. The driver commemorates each glance at the road with a merry honk of the horn.

To call the road twisted, or to characterize the ditches as impossibly steep, would be like calling indoor plumbing a development not worth mentioning, or Ebola a trivial nuisance. We seem to be carried ahead by centripetal force, like water at the bottom of a circling bucket. How many bus wheels are actually on the road, I cannot be sure, but I would bet my life—I may, in fact, be doing so—that some fraction would be accurate.

Only the two Americans and I watch the road. When we are not lurching left or careening right, we are rigid in white-knuckled horror. The balance of our fellow passengers have paid their insurance to the old woman and rest easy, peacefully surveying the panorama of mangled cars heaped far below and the colorful roadside shrines dedicated to souls lost en route. Some close their eyes and enjoy their throat lozenges.

After 90 minutes or so the bus is half empty and I come the conclusion that it’s tricky to maintain the high alert essential to truly believe in your own immediately pending death. I start to relax. It helps to laugh at our poor new friends. The man—I shall call him Milquetoast to protect his identity—has moved to the driver’s side of the bus by an open window. He explains that he may have time to exit the window if the bus starts going over. He laughs, but he’s not joking.

His girlfriend, Nervous Nellie, sticks with our side of bus, unwilling to tempt fates by moving. She too is laughing by now, in a high-pitched way one usually associates with padded walls.

They yell back and forth across the aisle, mostly making plans to cut short their trip, and cycle through their native Oregon instead, but sometimes crying sharply and pounding a window when they spot the carcass of a bus in the ravines below. When we arrive at the small town which is our goal, our new friends embrace us happily, bonds forged in the face of death. We have told them about the other busses, on the toll highway, and we know where they will be by the end of the day. They have promised themselves to come back, without the bicycles.

Perhaps it was the electricity, or perhaps the bowel-constricting bus ride. I do not know, but the situation is this: I am the only person I know actively courting Montezuma, drinking the water, soliciting his help. My partner, who I believe was conceived on an airplane and delivered straight into a piece of luggage, cannot muster the sympathy I would desire for my circumstances. Forget the beautiful architecture, the generous people, the palms swaying under a friendly sun. What I want is a mixing bowl full of prunes.

Getting around in a larger city means taking a mini-bus, a van converted for public transportation. At the driver’s right hand is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Red velvet is puddled on the console, held in place by statues and pictures of Mary, a rosary, and a few homemade crafts. There is also a big pile of change, to which we add our fare. There are perhaps 15 of us crammed into this van, along with dozens of bags and, although I cannot see them, I can hear chickens.

I am pinned beside the driver. My first thought is to hope that his standards for body odor are lax. But then it occurs to me that in my slovenly state I am a walking metaphor for much of what we have encountered. Grimy, shambolic, perhaps a bit fearsome on the outside; benevolent, optimistic, and, at the risk of sounding immodest, fetching within. I needn’t apologize, for anything. I am doing the best that I can in challenging circumstances. Looking around me, I believe that everyone sharing this van understands.

We stop at a red light. Beside us is a small pick-up truck, whose driver leans over and begins to yell at our driver who throws open his window and hollers back. They exchange heated words I do not understand. Suddenly, our driver grabs a fistful of change from the shrine, and heaves it mightily through the truck window, much of it bouncing to the street below.

The light turns green, and he floors it. Tires squeal, he clutches the steering wheel like a man possessed, or like a woman being quietly electrocuted in a shower, and it slowly dawns on me that we are racing the truck beside us.

We lose, but not without a fight. A couple of passengers beside me smile heartily at the driver, who appears proud of his showing, his honor intact.

I look down at the Virgin Mary, who seems unfazed by this strange turn of events. Then I recognize that given Mary’s background, this would hardly qualify as strange. It also occurs to me that I don’t find this particularly outlandish anymore either. And I realize that this is why I travel—the guidebook highlights are lovely, often breathtaking, and I wouldn’t want to miss them. But it is the smelly, bowel-twisting, wacky experiences that help me widen the narrow parameters of my safe existence. It’s good advice, pack light, and I always will. Doing so gives me a better chance of fitting more into my head and heart for the journey home.

Plus, it really goes without saying, a lighter backpack is more convenient when you need a seagull umbrella.

Anita Kugelstadtis an author living in Canada.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.