The Night Rider’s Lament

Family in Europe - 95

(Family Photo, Europe, 1995)

There’s an old country classic that has always resonated with me.  It’s one of my favorites and always touches my soul in a way few songs are able to.  The song, Night Rider’s Lament, is an old cowboy song about a cow hand reading a letter from a friend late at night. The song talks of the things he’s given up or delayed to pursue the lifestyle he’s chosen.  It talks about a wonderful woman passed over, life choices, opting for a road less-traveled, and forgoing many of the things we’re culturally told we should love and define our lives by.  It then follows with a chorus about the beauty of nature, the glory of the seasons, the majesty of the world, and the different types of companionship we might experience.

I like to think that, perhaps, I inherited a sliver of the old cowboy’s soul by way of my folks and had it ingrained in me as a young kid. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my dad’s lap on an old 1940’s Ford tractor grading the road to our house in southwestern Colorado. Despite these slightly more country roots, I’ve spent a majority of my life immersed in big cities. These cities are also where I often view myself as most comfortable and at ease.  This is the opposite of another piece of my core essence, which will always view the rural valleys deep within the San Juan Mountains as the place I think of as home when I close my eyes and let my mind wander before drifting off to sleep.  Despite that strange contrast, I’ve chosen to prioritize travel in my life. Where others invested their time and energies in passionate pursuit of a spouse, a job, a house, and a family, I’ve spent my early life chasing the horizon. To the extent that when I explain my lifestyle over the last few years to people who wonder at the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen, all I can do is shrug, smile, and explain, ‘No mortgage, no dog, no girlfriend’.  It’s not that I don’t value those things or that I don’t want them.  It’s just that for now, they’re not the thing that drives me forward.  It is a sentiment that many serial travelers may understand even though the nature of our relationship with discovery and the unknown is always different from individual to individual.

Earlier tonight as I sat besides one of the lakes here in Copenhagen, enjoying unusually warm weather on a still-crisp March evening, I took in the light of the moon, the stars, and the twinkling reflections of buildings as they cast their light across the still surface of the lake.  Lost in the moment, listening to my music as I sat smoking the tobacco pipe I picked up in southern Turkey several years ago, Night Rider’s Lament came on and it left me reflecting on where my future lies. It’s also likely no coincidence that my 29th birthday is just around the corner and with any birthday comes an added sense of introspection.

The song, combined with decisions about my future which I’ll likely be making in the next few weeks, left me thinking about choices, responsibility, distance, and family. Some might assume that when my brother and I both chose, within three days of each other, to head abroad for three-year periods with few opportunities to return stateside or to be co-present with family, that we lacked close family bonds. Yet, as I sat there staring out at the water through a small cloud of vanilla-scented smoke, I felt reunited with the rest of my loved ones. Where we’ve chosen to pursue paths that have placed us on different continents, thousands of miles apart, we still share one of the closest familial relationships I’ve ever encountered. We communicate with each other regularly, often daily, and when we do have the opportunity to come together – that’s been about once a year – we take to the road and travel together. These collective trips allow us to break free of the monotony of sterile routine and old memories, while forging new experiences which we create and share.

As I sit beneath the stars and a lazy partial moon, the smoke before me isn’t something that leaves me sitting behind a wall of solitude.  It is a connection that leaves me partially in the moment and partially reflecting on similar evenings shared with my brother, father, and mother. Sitting with our pipes, cigars, or guitars while enjoying similarly crisp spring air with views out over the Zambian bush, San Juan Mountain range, and the Scottish Isles. It is a wondrously rich experience which I treasure more than anything I own or the vast majority of my more material accomplishments.  It also puts my spirit at rest, as I wonder if I’m making and have made the right choices and if I should press forward, continuing to pursue the path I’ve chosen.

It’s no easy thing to be far from loved ones without the sense of security and permanence more traditional lifestyles provide.  Especially when we face challenging decisions, new opportunities, or the biting sense of isolation that comes with hearing about the loss of extended family, familial health issues, or in the moments where we discuss, across great distances, our fears, our frustrations, or our failings. In these moments it is tempting to pack it all in and rush back to the security and comfort that a more traditional lifestyle would offer.  Yet, it is also in these same moments that the most self growth, discovery, and realizations are born.

On that note, I’ll finish with an original song my mom gifted my brother and I which mirrors this evening’s musings and always serves as a wonderful reminder to press forward along the path I’ve chosen.  Even when it’s uncertain or uncomfortable.

Christmas in Placencia

Placencia at Sunset

Of all the cities I spent time in during my stay in Belize the city of Placencia was the least captivating. Despite being located on a long peninsula with a beautiful crescent white sand beach.  I’ll admit, that my experience was no doubt colored by what had proceeded it.  It’s hard not to be overshadowed by 3 days and 2 nights exploring pristine white sand beaches and crystal clear waters along the barrier reef.  In comparison Placencia’s mangrove groves, sand beach, small cement boardwalk, and smattering of small restaurant-bars and Chinese markets had a lot to compete with.

Boat docked in Placencia

We arrived in port around 3 or 4PM in the afternoon, said our temporary goodbyes and set off to find accommodation.  It was Christmas eve which made us all a little nervous, but eventually ended up being anything but a problem.  The town and peninsula is divided into two main thoroughfares.  The first is the main road which runs along the inside of the peninsula.  The second is a small 4 foot wide winding cement “boardwalk” that runs about a block back from the beach.  The two are connected by a series of small sand walking paths that cut across the block or so between them.

Hostel room in Placencia

Sweating in the humid afternoon sun, I quickly made my way down along the boardwalk inquiring at several hotels along the way.  There were two main budget hotels, one of which – Omar’s – had a decidedly ramshackle appearance. After a quick look inside I opted to continue looking, eventually finding a room for $40 BZD a night or about $20 USD.  To my surprise the private room I had paid for came with 2 single beds and a double.  A fan in the middle of the room and a bathroom with toilet and shower.  The shower, like most I’d encountered in Belize lacked hot water.  The shower head was a PVC pipe that hung about a foot out of the wall with a nozzle near the tip. The water was a bit bisque but refreshing and a welcome opportunity to wash the saltwater off.  I washed up, and struck out for food – ending up at a local restaurant on the main street.  The food was sub par, bland and expensive.  Unfortunate.

Feeling socialized out after the close quarters I’d been sharing for the last 3 days I headed back to my room, settled in with a book and enjoyed an easy night to myself.   Laughing from time to time as small explosions echoed through the walls of the flimsy two story structure my room was in.  Fireworks, you see, are a major part of Christmas in Placencia – not only are they a major part, but a major part in celebrations that stretch through the night.

Lunch in Placencia

Christmas Day I got a lazy start to the morning.  Found internet and let the world know I was ok, and then bumped into a bunch of other members from the Raggamuffin tour.  We explored the town, hung out, ate, and generally enjoyed a relaxing day.  From what I can tell the majority of Placencia was wiped out in a major hurricane in 2006 or so.  Since then a lot of internationals (predominantly Americans and Canadians) have immigrated and purchased property.  Rebuilding, opening restaurants and hotels and generally setting the city’s price structure at a level comparable to what you’d find in the US or Canada. The end result?  In my opinion a fairly beautiful, highly over rated, expensive tourist trap.

That said, I enjoyed myself – spending time with my friends from the Sailing trip, exploring the island and generally recharging.  It was a wonderful opportunity to refresh myself a bit before what ended up being a major push to the north. I ended up splitting off from the others with Steve to grab Christmas dinner at one of the local venues – an overflowing plate with ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and more – a meal that easily made up for the disappointing food I’d run into the night before.

Christmas Abroad

It’s important to note that when I told people about the dates for my trip – the most common reaction was surprise. People found it hard to believe that I was willing to spend Christmas abroad, especially as a solo trip. I have to admit that when I was gearing up for my December 08′ trip to Spain the year previous, I’d harbored a lot of the same concerns.  Even as someone who’s not religious and who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, it is a very social time in the U.S. – one where a lot of time is spent with family, friends and a time of the year most of us would prefer not to be alone.

My decision to travel over Christmas two years in a row definitely confused a few friends. I’m VERY close with my parents and brother.  To the point where I typically have a daily 20-50 minute phone conversation with my Mother and Father when stateside.  I suppose that’s part of what makes these holiday trips more viable for me. I try and live life in a way where I don’t need an excuse to spend time with loved ones, but rather integrate it into my day to day routine.  To that end, Christmas just becomes another day with a little extra pomp and hype.

And was I lonely?  Not really.  I’ll admit, this year’s Christmas paled in comparison to the amazing time I had in Cadiz Spain in 2008. The food wasn’t as good, I was in a private room instead of a fantastic hostel, and I didn’t especially care for the town I was in – but despite that, was I lonely?  Not at all. Was I happy and enjoying myself?  You better believe it!  I spent Christmas with friends, in an amazing part of the world listening to music, sharing stories, and eating good food.  It’s an experience I definitely recommend!

The Trip to San Ignacio

The following morning I woke up early, nervous that the bus and water taxi to the mainland would be running on a holiday schedule.  My goal?  Head inland. Where? Well, to be honest – I hadn’t really gotten that far.  I’d heard good things about San Ignacio and knew that I wanted to try and make for Tikal/Flores in Guatemala. I’d also heard good things about Antigua to the south in Guatemala and figured that between the three destinations, I’d be able to find a bus/route that would get me to one of them.

As I waited for the water taxi I met older Canadian couple who were making their way to San Ignacio.  We got to talking bus schedules, cities, and towns and still undecided I took a quick look at their Lonely Planet guide.  San Ignacio looked good – why not? Besides, this way I had traveling companions.

We caught the water taxi through the mangrove groves to the city of Independence on the mainland.  From there we took a quick taxi ride to the bus stop and waited some 5-10 minutes for a bus to Belize’s tiny capital: Belmopan.

The trip started out well, the bus wasn’t overly packed and I found a seat where the seat-back in front of me was broken and collapsed forward without support. This gave me a little extra knee room – a very welcome change of pace on a regional bus. Unfortunately, I underestimated their willingness to use a broken seat and over sell the bus.  Some hour or so into the bus ride the bus’s ticket man walked back – pointed at a guy, pointed at the chair, fiddled with it a bit, stood the chair up – which fell back against my knees…and considered that “good enough”.   Needless to say the remaining hour of the bus ride to Belmopan was less than enjoyable, especially on the occasions that the man in front of me leaned back, decided to doze off, or adjust in his seat. On the upside, the fabric pattern imprinted into the skin of my knees looked cool.

Glad to be done with the adventure, we disembarked in Belmopan, only to be greeted by a Bus terminal which was completely swamped.  The buses were overloaded, and after watching one fill up like a subway car during rushhour the Canadians and I teamed up with a Philippino woman who lived in San Ignacio, a Spaniard and several others to split two taxi cabs to San Ignacio.  Eventually we ended up with 8 people split between the two cabs – mostly other travelers. Between us the taxi ride, split as it was, ended up costing us some $15 BZD a piece, which was less than the overflowing bus would have.   A brief 15-20 minute ride later we arrived in San Ignacio.  Said our good byes and set off to find accommodation.

More on that in my next post – as well as one of the trips greatest adventures! Stay tuned!