Around the World in 18 Days
Why I Quit the World Trek
By Rick Klaus Theis
Without going out his door
A man can know the whole world.
Without looking out his window
He can know the Way of Heaven.
The farther one goes
The less one knows.
So the sage learns without moving;
Names without seeing,
Succeeds without trying.
--Tao Te Ching
I have wonderful memories of many travels throughout the United States; jaunts to Canada and Mexico; and three tours of Europe, including visits to Russia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland during the Cold War. It simply never occurred to me that I might dislike taking a trip around the world - regardless of the circumstances or company. So when I was offered an all-expenses-paid opportunity to circumnavigate the globe over a 22-month period, I jumped at the chance. But this was an obvious mismatch from the beginning. I was in my forties; the other trekkers and the executive director were in their twenties. I was a grounded, though somewhat unconventional, businessman; they were recent college graduates ready for an around-the-world road trip. I was a neat-freak and germophobe (like Howard Hughes, but without the money); they were neo-hippies used to living down and dirty. I was from the Midwest; they were from the West. Most of the others were friends and acquaintances prior to the trek. I was the odd man out.
At some point I should have had a clue that I didn't fit in. Maybe when I noticed that their speech was peppered with phrases like "Right on" and "Rock on, dude." Or when they passed out the Spanish phrase book they had selected for the trip which included translations for such rarely used (in my circle, at least) gems like "I use cocaine occasionally," "I'm stoned" and "My friend has taken an overdose." At least, I should have had second thoughts when Jeff, the Odyssey's founder and executive director, who was from (and obviously still living in his own private) Idaho, announced that we were proceeding with the trip despite the fact that we had raised less than 10% of the necessary budget.
Our meager budget came back again and again to haunt us. Six weeks before departure, I had counseled Jeff to delay the trek (as he had done twice before) until more of the funding was in place. He decided that if we rescheduled again, the whole thing might fall apart. Realizing that the minuscule budget would mean compromises in comfort and safety, two of the chosen trekkers dropped from the team about a month before launch. They were replaced by Jamila who was available on short notice.
None of that mattered. I was mesmerized like the rest of them by the romantic notion of circling the world without benefit of air travel and seeing the Mayan ruins of Mexico, Peru's Machu Pichu, Africa, the Egyptian pyramids, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Teheran, India, Tibet, China and many other amazing places in between. So, I decided to sell my business, my two cars, and nearly all of my other possessions; find someone to take over my apartment lease; say farewell to my girlfriend, family and friends; and set off on what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime.
But circling the planet for nearly two years in a group is much different than a private vacation of two weeks or two months (my previous record). I did not take into account that the rigorous preparations for such a long absence would leave me exhausted and thus ill-suited to an arduous journey. Or that after years of self-employment, I would resent having to sacrifice my autonomy to group decision making. Or that I was so accustomed to my comfortable lifestyle that I would not adapt well to the primitive conditions, some imposed by necessity, but many arising from what I considered "penny wise and pound foolish" judgments.
Indeed, the severe reduction of my possessions and squaring away of my affairs was no easy matter. It's amazing just how many things and how many connections one can accumulate living in the same city for two and a half decades. On top of this, Jeff asked me to help raise funds locally for the Odyssey. I got very little sleep during the 14 weeks I spent preparing and then it was time to go.
1/3/99, 1 pm: It was the end of the world. The world as I had known it for some 25 years. The world of High Street record shops and the Ohio State Fair, OSU Football and the Short North Gallery Hop, Son of Heaven and Ameriflora, the place I lost my virginity and found international celebrity, albeit briefly. It was the end of a quarter century of my life in Columbus, Ohio.
I threw my backpack and two boxes of files into the back of my sister's 1993 Polynesian-Green GEO Tracker and bulled my way down the driveway and onto a street, barely discernible under three-feet of new snow. I was on my way to Warren, Ohio for a brief visit with my family before flying to San Francisco to start the trek.
After literally fighting moment by moment for more than two hours to stay on an icy I-71 North and passing car after car that had slid off the road, I lost control of my vehicle at 65 miles an hour and careened headlong into a six-foot ditch. My first thought was of the irony of my dying in a mass of twisted metal while still in Ohio. My next thought was not worry for my safety or about damage to my sister's car, but that this would throw off my extremely tight schedule. After a long, cold wait, a tow truck pulled me from one ditch as the sun sank into the other.
I stayed in Warren for three days, but I did not have the quality time with my family or the rest I had hoped for. All of my days and most of my nights were spent continuing to arrange my business and personal affairs. I was having difficulty sleeping, as I had for weeks, because I was worried that I wouldn't get everything done. Often I would lie in a state half-awake and half-asleep mulling over unintelligible quandaries I invented.
1/6/99, 9:20 pm: I arrived in San Francisco and was struck immediately at how disorganized and behind The Odyssey was, considering that we were to leave in just over a week. The donated computers, digital cameras, clothing and other items we had been promised were not there. Some of the trekkers had not had their inoculations and many other important matters were yet to be settled.
We had meeting after meeting to try to tie up the loose ends. Many of the discussions were disorganized, about non-essential matters, and a waste of time - time I should have been using to catch up on my sleep. Instead of recharging my batteries, my nine days in San Francisco served to further sap my fast-evaporating energy reserves. I was running on empty and it was the very next day, the first day of the World Trek, that my motor would begin to sputter.
1/15/99, 3 am: I crawled onto the couch at a friend's apartment where I'd been staying and sank into an erratic slumber. I was awakened at 7 am by the horn of my cab. My alarm hadn't gone off, either that or I had slept through it. I hurriedly washed my face and dressed. I was not the last trekker to arrive at the Odyssey office that morning.
We had to travel to San Jose during rush hour to our first of three separate send-offs at two schools - media events planned to increase the visibility of and therefore funding opportunities for the Odyssey. We took off in two separate vehicles with inadequate directions, got separated and lost. Everything was rushed; everyone was panicked - all the result of poor planning. The press consisted of a community access station, a friend of one of the Trekkers with a camcorder (who evidently thought the name Lucas qualified him to make a documentary on the World Trek) and a stray print reporter or two.
After the final "dog and pony show" was over, around 2 pm, we headed back to the rented van which was to take us to San Diego. At this point Jeff's girlfriend showed up with several Sony digital cameras which he'd sent her to purchase because Kodak, despite its logo being on our official T-shirts and the Odyssey web site, had not delivered the ones promised. Talk about cutting it close.
I had high hopes for the World Trek. I thought that traveling on busses and having only a backpack to worry about would be relaxing compared to the last few months of anguish I'd gone through preparing for it. I was wrong. We got off to an inauspicious, but not unrepresentative, start.
Rather than being able to unwind in the van, I was agitated by the constant babbling of my fellow travelers. I tried not to let this bother me. Instead I looked forward to getting a good night's sleep in San Diego at the home of fellow trekker Monica. But instead of getting a quick bite along the interstate as I had suggested, the others decided we should stop to eat in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco.
Despite claims by two of our party that they knew the area and could quickly get us to a restaurant, we were lost in the town for more than an hour. We spent another hour walking up and down the street trying to find an open and mutually acceptable restaurant. As we finished eating, I heard everyone prattling on and on about subjects I had absolutely no interest in. Then it hit me - first on a subconscious level and then on a conscious one: I had somehow signed on to spend the next two years of my life as a part of some Felliniesque, around-the-world, adolescent slumber party. I began to feel dizzy and nauseated.
I collected myself and asked if everyone was ready to leave. They were in no hurry. Apparently they didn't care to get to San Diego at a reasonable hour. In fact, they were talking about going out dancing at some all-night club. Maybe they weren't as exhausted as I was. Or maybe they were young enough to have energy to spare.
I was claustrophobic and queasy for the entire trip to San Diego. My exhaustion and anxiety spiraled upward in a feedback loop. I was exhibiting severe signs of motion sickness. I wondered, how was I going to tolerate riding in ramshackle vehicles across the dirt roads of foreign lands in adverse conditions when I was barely able to handle traveling in a well-equipped, late-model mini-van down a smooth California interstate in mild weather?
We arrived in San Diego after midnight. I was shown to a bed where my body collapsed. But my mind was racing. Did I figure my taxes correctly? Did I pack the right things? Will I be able to continue on with the trek? Will Monica need to get into her room for something and wake me up if I fall asleep? And a million other worries which made less sense.
1/16/99: I woke up better, but still tired. But as soon as the others awoke and started bopping around and yakking, I felt trapped again. I had become supersensitive to any bit of turbulence. The slightest bit of motion or noise made me cringe. I hoped that another day of rest before our 44-hour bus ride from Tijuana to Mexico City would help. Instead my sensitivity grew worse.
That night Monica's parents had invited us for dinner. As I made my way up the walk, an intense blast of light (apparently triggered by a motion detector) shot out from the floodlight over the door and sliced into my eyes. I knocked and was greeted by Monica's father. Inside the home, the low light depressed me. The lights that were on glared in my eyes. The food was unpalatable. The spirited conversation seemed inane. It was as if I could see through everyone. I noticed their every tic and insecurity and it disgusted me. I felt my chest tighten. I could barely breathe. I excused myself and went outside to walk under the calming eternal stars. What was wrong with me? Was I just tired? Was I suffering from the disorientation of giving up my identity to be among strangers in an alien place? Would I be able to leave for Mexico tomorrow? I wondered and worried.
1/17/99: I told the others that I was exhausted and in no shape for a 44-hour bus ride and that I was considering bagging the trek. I told them that I thought with another day or two of rest things might be OK. They agreed that it was better for me to leave a day or two later than not to go. Monica, who wanted another day or two with her boyfriend, decided to stay behind with me. Jamila and Winter took a direct bus to Mexico City, while Kavitha and Abeja went through Baja.
I investigated and found that Aeromexico offered a 5.5-hour flight to Mexico City for $167.20. The others had paid $140 each for the privilege of spending 44-hours on a bus to get there. In essence I paid $27 to avoid 38 hours of bus travel. A great deal by any measure, but against one of the stated tenets of the trek.
The idea was that we were to travel in a way different than typical first world travelers - flying from one tourist location to the next, staying at expensive American hotels, eating in the hotel restaurant, never mixing much with the locals. My thinking was that any local in his right mind would fly if the price was relatively the same. Further, if I had to take the bus, I feared I would either decide not to go at all or go and have to get off the bus and come back if I started to experience the same anxiety I had on the van ride from San Francisco. Or even worse, a long bus ride might reintroduce the fatigue I was trying to cure. An added advantage was that arriving promptly we would not hold up the others in Mexico City, as we had all planned to leave together for Palenque. I checked with the head (Idaho) potato and he accepted my reasoning.
1/18/99: That night I filed my dispatch for the Odyssey web site, a poem called "ready" which explored some of my anticipation and trepidation about the trip I was about to take. I used Monica's parents computer and Internet connection because I was unable to use the laptop I was carrying due to not being trained on it. In fact, I needed help with the computer I used since it was an IBM and I was a Mac person.
Part II (From the August 1999 issue)
1/19/99: After a comfortable flight, Monica and I arrived in Mexico City. We took a VW Beetle cab to the home of some well-off college friends of her parents who had agreed to put us up for a few days. Not only were most of the city's cabs Beetles, but so were a good percentage of the private cars. I was told that this is because they are inexpensive to operate and easy to fix. This, combined with the fact that used ones have been easily obtainable from the U. S., has made them the perfect vehicle for this relatively poor country. Mexico City, the planet's most populous metropolis, is a feast for the eyes - full of colorful, ramshackle buildings peppered with some impressive Spanish-style architecture. That evening Monica and I settled in, then took our host mother and her teenage daughter out to eat.
1/20/99: We hoped to get together with Jamila and Winter who were staying with another host family on the other side of town. So, after breakfast, Monica called them. I asked to speak with Jamila, but she was angry with me for some unspecified reason and refused. Winter and Jamila were sick with food poisoning contracted at one of the restaurants along their bus route, but agreed to meet us later if they felt better. They asked us to check back with them. We called them twice that afternoon as we explored the city, but were told they had gone out. Apparently, they'd forgotten about meeting us. Monica wanted to visit someone she'd met during the Odyssey's pilot trek several months earlier, so at around 5 p.m. we parted ways.
That evening, with Monica still not back, our host mother gave me the card of a family friend who ran a tour company. Knowing I planned to see the Teotihuacán ruins, she had arranged for me to go there on one of his tour busses, rather than taking the city busses on my own. At about 10 p.m., I got a call from Monica who had decided to go out dancing. She invited me to join her, but I decided to try to catch up on my sleep.
1/21/99: Our hosts were worried sick because Monica, who had been out all night without calling, was not back yet. Since there was nothing I could do, I left on the tour my hosts had arranged.
Our preliminary stop was the Plaza of Three Cultures, named for its juxtaposition of Aztec, Spanish and Modern Mestizo (the mixed Aztec and Spanish ancestry of most Mexicans) architecture there. The plaza was also the site of three horrific events in Mexican history. It was here that on 13 August 1521 the Aztecs made their final stand against the Spanish army led by Hernan Cortes. And here on 20 October 1968 that government soldiers fired into a crowd of 14,000 unarmed students who were protesting spending on the Summer Olympics being held in Mexico City, killing more than a hundred. More blood was spilled on 19 September 1985 when a massive early morning earthquake caused a modern building adjacent to the square to collapse. The quake, which affected Mexico City and parts of the surrounding area, left at least 8,000 dead.
To reach the highlight of our tour, we pierced the city limits and passed through the ring of cardboard squatter dwellings that encircles the city. This human moat is composed of unemployed Mexicans drawn by the hope of jobs, but forced instead to live off of the trash disposed of by their luckier counterparts. Our tour guide apologized for the impression of Mexico this sight might have left with us, but soon the suburban squalor gave way to the breathtaking Mexican countryside and then our ultimate destination.
Teotihuacán was discovered in 1272 A.D. by the Aztec civilization which gave it its name, loosely translated "City of the Gods." The city's symmetry and architectural unity make it obvious that this was a well-planned urban area. The beautiful carvings and structural style are evidence of a people with a keen aesthetic sense and ample craftsmanship. It was also a city of many engineering marvels including running water, flush toilets and paved streets. Highlights of the site include the 207-foot high Pyramid of the Sun (which has a base of 242 yards by 246 yards, almost the size of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt), the 151-foot high Pyramid of the Moon, and the Temple of Quetzacotal with its 366 sculptures.
It is believed that, at its fullest flowering, Teotihuacán had a population approaching one-quarter million and covered an area larger than imperial Rome. For the greater part of a millennium it stood as the unquestioned political, military, commercial, religious, and cultural center of the Western Hemisphere. Even so, we have yet to discover the name or the nature of the civilization that built and inhabited it. We do, however, have a good idea of what may have led to its demise - ecological disaster caused by unrestrained growth. A powerful lesson for our world today.
Later in the day, as I wandered the streets of Mexico City looking for an Internet cafe to file my required twice-weekly Odyssey web site dispatch, I was approached by a man who said he wanted to talk with me because he was trying to improve his English. We walked and chatted for awhile before I found out his real motivation. Without warning and in a flash he dropped to his knees and began giving me a shoe shine against my will. Hunger is a powerful master.
I filed my report, but with much difficulty - as was to become a pattern. Virtually all computers overseas are PC's. Phone lines in poorer countries leave much to be desired and many Internet cafes there have old (read: slow) computers. I had trouble sending the photos I took of The Square of Three Cultures and Teotihuacán because I had only sketchy PC training and no digital photo uploading experience, despite Odyssey promises that we would be fully trained in San Francisco. Add to this human error and what do you get? None of the photos I sent were received and I left my disc in the drive when I was rushed out of the cafe at closing time. I never did retrieve the disc because of a imminent team decision to make a hasty exit from Mexico City.
That evening I was informed by Monica that she was going out again and that Kavitha and Abeja had arrived and would be sharing my room. I put in ear plugs before crashing on the cot our hosts had put out for me, leaving the double bed for them.
1/22/99: When Kavitha and Abeja awoke, I thanked them for being so quiet when they came in the night before. Abeja said, "Oh, we weren't quiet." So much for collegiality.
That afternoon we had a team meeting at the home where Winter and Jamila were staying. I was immediately confronted by various members of the team. First and foremost they were angry because Monica and I had flown in. We explained our reasoning and that Jeff had agreed with it. Secondly, I was denounced for spending the extra money for an organized tour of Teotihuacán and for missing a team meeting in the process. I explained that my hosts arranged the tour without my knowledge and that I thought it impolite to refuse. As for the team meeting, I knew nothing about it. Monica had stayed out all night. Jamila had refused to talk with me. Neither Abeja or Kavitha had mentioned it. I was told that the date for it had been set at our last meeting in San Diego, a meeting I attended only briefly before excusing myself due to illness. So this was how it was going to be. I felt like I had inadvertently boarded a Borg spaceship: "Assimilate! Assimilate! You will be assimilated!"
Everyone, but Winter and I, was ready to leave for Palenque that afternoon. The plan was for Jamila and I to travel together and explore a wide area, while the others made a beeline for Antigua, Guatemala where they would do service work. I expressed my desire to stay in Mexico City a day or two longer to visit the archeological museum, one of the best in the world, and cover the Pope's imminent visit. Plus, I wanted to recover the photo-laden disc I'd left at the Internet cafe the previous day. But many of the others had been to Mexico City before and disliked it, so they were adamant about leaving. I further voiced my objection to taking the 16-hour ride to Palenque over night. Call me crazy, but I prefer a bed to a bus seat when it comes to sleeping. I was alone. In order to show my willingness to be a team player, I agreed to leave that afternoon. Of course, they did not hassle their friend Winter who stayed behind to further romance a young woman he had met during the pilot trek.
On the way to the bus terminal, people were already lining the streets to greet the Pope who was just then arriving at the airport. A fluorescent-green Beetle cab drove by flying a golden Papal flag as large as it was. As we waited to board our bus, TV monitors around the terminal showed the Pope-mobile cruising through the crowds. Many Mexicans I spoke with were excited about the Pontiff's visit, others not much interested, having seen the Pope on his last tour of Mexico or turned off by his regressive policies. In any case, leading up to the event, his image was everywhere: billboards, TV, even collectible trading cards in bags of potato chips. This involved a clever play on words - in Spanish, "El Papa" means "the Pope" while "la papa" means "the potato."
1/23/99, 6 am: The five of us arrived at the town of Palenque in the beautiful Chiapas region of Mexico, an area that came to the world's attention as a result of battles there between the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government. We made our way by taxi van to their chosen campsite which was accurately described in Let's Go: Mexico as a "hippie-haven." Indeed, many of the guests were part of a conference on the hallucinogenic mushrooms indigenous to the area. I favored renting a primitive lodging which would have housed all of us for the night at a cost of just $20. My comrades decided we should save money by sleeping outdoors for $13 even though the night before we had slept uncomfortably and at no cost. In fact, I hadn't yet spent a cent on housing. I again acquiesced.
After eating we walked to the nearby ruins. They are well-preserved and among the most magical of the thirteen or so I ended up visiting - possibly made more so by the misty conditions. Our first stop was the Temple of the Inscriptions, the burial place of King Pacal (603-683 A.D.), so named for the 620 inscriptions carved into its stone walls. We were able to walk down the two musty, narrow stairways into his crypt because this site, unlike more popular ones, is surprisingly unrestricted and unpoliced. Other incredible buildings at the site include the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross, and Temple of the Jaguars. As impressive as the ruins are, the fact that they are spread out across a line of steep cliffs with some of the structures only accessible by narrow trails through the rain forest, accentuates their beauty.
Somehow, Abeja and I ended up heading back to camp without the others. Taking an exit path from the ruins through dense jungle, we came upon a picturesque waterfall. It was an impressive site, swollen from the morning rain and plunging into a small pond. I guess I wasn't the only one inspired. When I looked back after following the flight of a passing bird, a suddenly-nude Abeja was cavorting nymph-like under the rushing water. I appreciated her freeness, but her action seemed to fly in the face of the Odyssey's professed goal of respect for the mores of the countries we were visiting. After attracting an audience of two Mexican men, she donned her clothes and we left.
When I get outside of a major city, which isn't often enough, I am amazed at the multitude of stars that are visible - stars otherwise erased by city lights. This cloudless night was no exception. The celestial canopy overhanging our remote jungle camp was breathtaking. Having been repeatedly unsuccessful in using the only pay phone in miles to reach my girlfriend, my loneliness was acute. With the stars providing a ready metaphor, I wrote the poem "One Special Star" for her. The next day, I e-mailed it to her from the local Internet cafe.
One Special Star Are the stars more precious being out of reach?
Rather, more beautiful as we approach.
And do they seem all the same when away so far?
Never, because I call the name of one special star,
A star which shines in my own heart,
A star which always stands apart
Regardless of distance or circumstance.
And this one star, I will visit soon
And again and again by the grace of chance.
And, though others may fade, this star will remain
For eons without end and beyond time -
A feat not impossible because
This is a star not of light, but of love;
A star of friendship, not of fire;
A star of dreams beyond desire;
A star carried now in my ardent breast
And forever in my soul beyond my death.
No matter the distance or circumstance,
No matter in time or timelessness,
It resides inside me without rest -
Day and night, night and day -
Outshining all others, even the sun.
Among countless stars, I long for just one.
That night it was extremely cold, approaching, if not, freezing. I slept hanging from a borrowed hammock and had to get up twice during the night, walk across the campgrounds to my locker, unload my backpack, and put on more clothes. Soon I was wearing nearly all of them - two t-shirts, two shirts, a fleece jacket, a raincoat, a pullover cap, long johns, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks and shoes. Still I was shivering.
The temperature was not the worst of it. I was repeatedly awakened by the screams of Howler monkeys (which sound like lions roaring). I could hear, also, the mooing of cows from a nearby farm. I had some bizarre and very vivid dreams, one side effect of the Larium I was taking to prevent malaria. I may have risked malaria had I remembered that the pill's side effects are much like the disease itself - including hallucinations. I mean, I was already exhibiting severe exhaustion and mental stress without chemically inducing more. In one of the dreams, we were confronted by jungle bandits who ordered us from our hammocks and robbed us at gun point.
1/24/99: Over breakfast I had a talk with the group. I explained that saving a dollar or two here and there at the expense of our comfort, health and safety was unproductive in the long run. I also pointed out that I was tired of being portrayed as a spendthrift for wanting minimal accommodations versus none, when others were wasteful in their own ways. For example, I drank water with my meals, ate mostly vegetarian and almost never had snacks, while Jamila had sodas and meat at nearly every meal and Monica had a several-candy-bar-a-day habit. The others agreed I had a point, but this did nothing to dampen their desire to cut corners at every opportunity.
It's also interesting to note that saving $7 on our housing cost us a $2000 computer. Because we slept outdoors we had to rent lockers in which to secure our belongings - two trekkers to a locker. Whenever we needed something we had to unload lots of gear. During one such maneuver, Kavitha dropped her laptop from a height of five feet. The concrete below transformed it into a very expensive paperweight
That morning, Jamila, Monica, Abeja and I met with Moises Roberto Morales, one of the foremost experts on the Maya, who lives just outside the Mayan ruins at Palenque. Morales, along with others, was instrumental in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs and matching the Mayan calendar to our own. Mayan culture first appeared in about 2000 B.C. and dominated Central America from 500 B.C. to 1450 A.D. Interestingly, the Maya settlement at Palenque was originally a matriarchal society. Their primary god and creator was female and their first rulers were women. From time immemorial, rule was passed on from mother to daughter. Then somewhere along the line males usurped power and ruled the society until its decline.
The claim that civilizations such as the Mayan were primitive is belied by the evidence of their astronomical, architectural and technological knowledge. For example, the Maya developed a sophisticated calendar that was made up of eighteen 20-day months, plus a five-day period called Uayeb added at year's end to equal 365 days. The Maya also came up with a system of mathematics that uses the concept of zero, something that the Romans never figured out! The Maya also created hundreds of cities comprised of huge temple complexes. Not only were these temples breathtakingly beautiful, but they were also perfectly aligned to the heavens. Most incredible of all, the Maya were able to build their advanced civilization in the midst of a hostile environment (thick plant growth, harsh tropical climate, etc.) without the benefit of metal tools, pack animals, or the wheel (which they used only on children's toys!).
The other trekkers left in the afternoon to meet up with Winter and then head on to Antigua. Jamila and I were the designated rovers, so would take a longer route to the same destination, starting with Merida. Unable to score a seat on the last bus of the evening, we bought a ticket for the next morning and got a hotel room. It was small, but clean, and cost us a whole $10. That would be the most we would spend on any room for the balance of the time I was with the trek.
On the way back to our room from filing our Odyssey reports, we passed a crowd on a street corner. They were gathered around a man playing a synthesizer and a handful of dancing children (in the six or seven age range). We stopped to watch, and feeling ambassadorial, I motioned to a little girl standing nearby to join me on the "dance floor." Despite the encouragement of her parents, she was reluctant. After a few more tries, she gave in.
At first she just timidly swayed to the music, but soon she was all smiles and swirls. When Jamila began dancing, she immediately attracted three partners. One of the little fellows, about half her height, really got down with some moves likely inspired by the movie "Dirty Dancing." I was able to persuade a few more children to participate, but not one of the teens or adults I invited took the bait. That left unfulfilled my fantasy of enticing the entire crowd, then snaking through the sleepy town until every last soul on the streets joined in. We showed the kids photos of themselves dancing, taken with our digital camera, then returned to our room to get some sleep before our early morning bus to Mérida on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Road Man He said, 'I'm a Road Man,' repeating what he'd heard spoken
The night before to a rose on a glowing tube by a hunter of words (like him).
And he could taste it - the asphalt road spooled out in front of him
Like some riled serpent ready to strike and burst the bubble
Of the dominant quotidian trance.
And without hesitation he is instantaneously packed
And ready to depart into the heart of the GENUINE world,
Delayed only by a final check.
All systems go! All engines running!
Ready to release the moorings to the TV Towers of Babble,
To free the dream upon built-up thrust
Into a free-form liftoff of generous trust,
Into kaleidoscopic adventures up, up, up. . . and beyond -
Into the unforeseen and predictable, the splendid and despicable,
The exotic and mundane, the ecstatic and forlorn, the sensible and insane
All sublime within the singular real form
At the core of the pearl we try to ignore at all costs,
Hiding as we do at our roadside rests,
Barricaded against the siren songs
Of our minstrel daughters and madrigal sons.
Time to go! Time to blow! Go, man, go! Blow, man, blow!
Go on the road, into the throes of the Taoist now -
Escaped from the minutes of the Buddhist hell,
Trickling, not ticking, down translucent walls of here
While instantaneously traveling to every there,
Out of the narrow confines of movie set facades,
Around the sides of the false fronts of illusion/security
Exploring the far reaches of our shared inner-cosmic obscurity!
But be cautious in your abandon, for we wait in moldy wombs
For you to return with novel archetypal images and focused emotions
To restock our imaginations.
And maybe, just maybe, the new dictionaries
You extract from the ether will coax us out of our dark caves
To set foot on the cool earth under the warm sun again,
Where we might chew off our umbilical roles to
Allow ourselves the latitude to roam far and wide
Mining pieces of truth, collecting glimpses of beauty
And undergoing transfusions of love.
Rick Klaus Theis
Part III (From the September 1999 Issue)
1/25/99: After a full day of bus riding we arrived in Mérida. Built by the Spanish on the site of the Mayan town of Tiho and using stones from its temples, Mérida is the economic center and capital of the State of Yucatán. We found a cheap, but clean, hotel in between the commercial and industrial districts and crashed for the night.
1/26/99: Trying to buy our tickets for the two-hour bus ride to Chichén Itzá, we found that there was only one seat left. Rather than postpone our trip until the next day, I gave Jamila the last seat and stood in the aisle. It was a bumpy ride and the standing soon got old. I'm not sure why I didn't come right out and ask her to spell me. Maybe I wanted to see just how long it would take her to do it on her own. She never did. Instead, she read and slept.
Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO world culture heritage site for good reason, is a well-preserved Mayan ruin dating from about 450 A.D. At the time of the Spanish conquest in 1533, it was still a site of pilgrimage, though largely uninhabited. Chichén Itzá is home to one of the most-photographed Mayan structures, El Castillo (aka the Pyramid of Kukulkan). This nine-tiered, four-sided building rises 98 feet into the sky. There is a 91-step stairway on each side, a total of 364 steps with the top platform making the 365th.
The pyramid is astronomically aligned in such a way that, on both the Spring and Fall equinoxes, the sun casts along the west wall a serpent-like shadow that is contiguous with the huge snake head sculpture at its foot. This makes it appear that a great snake is undulating down the steps. Although the timing wasn't right for me to witness this, I came face to face with some demons of my own. While contemplating the huge passage of time since the creation of the pyramid and the small amount of time I had left on this earth, I snapped a self-portrait. As if the loss of identity I felt at selling nearly all of my possessions, leaving my family, friends, city, country, culture and profession was not enough, it was now being compounded by a burgeoning mid-life crisis. The seriousness of my thoughts is only hinted at by that photograph.
The cap of El Castillo offers an excellent view of the Temple of Warriors and Group of the Thousand Columns. We also saw the House of the Eagles, the Temple of the Jaguars and a well-preserved ball court on which the Mayans played a game which resembles both basketball and soccer. Opposing teams tried to propel a rubber ball through a stone ring at the center of either side of the stadium using only their elbows, knees or hips. The first team to score won. The losers were beheaded. Ouch!
As Jamila and I joined a tour group and entered a narrow tunnel leading to a secret chamber deep inside El Castillo, she told me that she was feeling claustrophobic and wanted to leave. Trying to be supportive, I left with her and missed my chance to see the stone Chac-Mool god and the jaguar-shaped throne contained within. I might still be with the World Trek if, ten days later, she had shown the same empathy for me.
1/27/99: We filed our Odyssey dispatches then took a bus to explore Progresso, a fishing village on the Gulf.
1/28/99: Mérida is the perfect base from which to see many of the ruins of the Yucatán. Jamila and I set out by bus at 8 am to visit five of the best known: Labna, Xlapah, Sayril, Cabal and Uxmal. Labna's most beautiful structure is its exquisite stone arch. It is known as a corbelled or false arch, to differentiate it from the true arch developed by the Romans. Jamila and I climbed to the top of the adjacent Viewing Tower, also known as the Temple Pyramid or El Mirador (meaning 'look out' in Mayan).
Next we stopped at Xlapah which is dominated by a grand Puuc-style palace and nearby Sayil which has a fine Puuc palace of its own. There we scaled the massive steps on the south side and surveyed the sprawling grounds. Human, animal and more abstract forms are sculpted into many of the buildings' walls. Then it was on to Cabal, a huge site dominated by yet another magnificent palace.
The highlight of the day was our final stop, Uxmal. Uxmal, meaning "thrice built" or "place of abundant harvest" in Mayan, was inhabited for two millennia from 800 B.C. to 1200 A.D. During much of this time it was the seat of political and economic power of an empire which ruled southeast Yucatan. The civic center and administrative zone was surrounded by a wall, outside of which nearly 25,000 people lived. The site contains a plethora of artworks including those which depict people, gods, animals, masks, geometric shapes and symbols of Venus.
The highest and most interesting building at Uxmal is 115-foot high Pyramid of the Soothsayer. Legend has it that a dwarf magician and his sorcerer mother built the skyscraper in a single night. Archeologists have discovered, however, that it consists of five buildings constructed one atop the other over a period of three centuries, the first building dating from 569 A.D. It's circular base, rather than the common rectangular one, makes it a rarity among Mayan pyramids.
Adjacent to the Pyramid of the Soothsayer is the enormous Nun's Quadrangle built between 800 and 1,000 AD. It was misnamed by the Spanish based on the fact that its large number of cells resembled a nun's monastery. One of the four buildings which rims the quadrangle is the Temple of Venus, so named because the content of its frieze relates to that planet. The hall of the temple is formed by four columns, and four sculptures of the rain god Chac are placed on the four towers which rise above the site. This site also contains a ball court.
1/29/99: This morning I had a stack of three pancakes at an outdoor cafe, while a man walked among the tables singing and playing guitar and harmonica for money. As I sat watching the city in motion, I wrote "Cafe Mexican." The rest of the day was spent writing then sending in my Odyssey dispatches and photos.
1/30/99: We took a bus to village of Coba and checked into the cheaper of its two hotels. As always, much to Jamila's consternation, I asked to see the room first. Since it had no screen in the window and we were in a mosquito-infested area, I requested another room. Jamila did not hide her disdain for me. She said that roughing it was all part of the experience, so why not go with the room they gave us. My philosophy was that on this trip we would have no choice but to accept discomfort often enough that we should not seek it out for its own sake.
A quaint outpost in the dense jungle, Coba is adjacent to an archeological site thought once to have been a major Mayan commercial center comprised of 6500 buildings spread out over 6-square miles. Not as accessible as other sites, the government has neglected to fund much excavation. But what has been exposed is magnificent. The Temple of the Churches is a stunning
79-foot high structure of both free-standing and joined corbel-vaulted passages. It was constructed during seven 52-year periods, each one identified with a different high-priest.
At a height of 131-feet, the Nohoch Mul (Mayan for big hill) pyramid is the tallest Mayan building on the Yucatan Peninsula. 108 steps later we appreciated the great view it offered of the tangled sea of vegetation surrounding us. There are hundreds of large stelae (carved upright stones) grouped around the Coba ruins. One in particular is emblazoned with the date December 21, 2011, a winter solstice less than 13 years from now. Its significance to the Maya is not clear, but some have speculated that this is when they expected the world to come to an end.
There was no nightlife in Coba, so we went to bed just after dark. It's a good thing we did because the neighbors kept roosters who arose just before dawn and were not at all shy about proclaiming the new day.
1/31/99: I accompanied Jamila, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, to a local grade school where we introduced ourselves, explained the Odyssey project and answered questions. Jamila, who is fluent in Spanish, handled the translation for me. I made a big hit with the kids when I described snow, something they had never seen. Their eyes grew large as I acted out scooping it up, forming it into a ball, and throwing it at a friend during a snowball fight.
One of the villagers told us about an alligator who lived in the lake. He said that we might be able to coax it onto land with raw meat, which we promptly bought from a nearby restaurant. I allowed Jamila to stand at lake's edge tossing the bloody carnage into the water, while I bravely waited several yards behind next to a climbable tree with our digital camera at the ready. Unfortunately for my Pulitzer Prize ambitions (but fortunately for Jamila) the alligator wasn't much interested.
2/1/99: We visited the ruins at Tulum (Mayan for "fortification"), originally thought to have been named Zama (Mayan for "dawn"), which are special for many reasons, not the least of which is their striking location. They sit atop a steep cliff rising from the clear aqua waters of the Caribbean Sea. Also, unique is their compactness. A stone wall (originally 10-16 feet high) encloses the area which measures only 416 yards from north to south and 181 yards from east to west.
The largest building at the site is also the most impressive. Called El Castillo, it sits on the eastern edge of the cliff overlooking the surf below. It is comprised of two rooms and was built during three separate periods. In front of the temple is a huge stone slab, probably once an altar used for human sacrifice. North of the Castillo is the one-room Temple of the God Descending. It is different looking than many of the previous Mayan structures we'd seen because its walls taper downward, a method of construction supposed to give a building added stability. Above the temple entrance is a niche holding a stucco sculpture of the God Descending. He has the tail of a bird and wings on its arms and shoulders. This image showing the god diving, or swooping, down is repeated at many locations throughout the ruins. For archeologists, the most important structure at the site is the Temple of the Frescoes. The building contains many bas-relief masks, stucco sculptures and reliefs, and codex-like paintings that with study are yielding more and more information about Mayan culture and history.
This is the closest major Mayan ruin to Cancun, and it was obvious by the greater concentration of tourists as compared to all of the other sites we toured. It was obvious also by the prices. The cost of everything from crafts to cola were nearly twice that of some of the less-visited ruins. Its popularity also necessitated that the main buildings on the site be off limits to the stampeding feet of visitors. Although we had hiked for miles to reach other sites, this one had a paved road with little trams that carried tourists to and from the site for a fee. They looked a lot like the ones I'd seen at Disneyland as a child. Perhaps, they were the very same ones, sold to Mexico when Disney updated its equipment. I hope I never return to find the site even more commercial - with people dressed in the costumes of mascots named "Tulum Toucan" and "Maya Mouse" waving to Cancun tourists as the trams glide by.
We went back to our hotel to prepare for our next bus ride, which would take us across two borders to the beautiful town of Flores, Guatemala.
Cafe Mexican A lion roars under the hood of every car
As a Mexican Bob Dylan wails on harp and strums guitar.
Above, sun and clouds float free in tranquil, ancient sky.
Below, a choppy sea of people in unlimited supply.
Then some old song condenses in my eyes,
A reminder of far-off places and times gone by,
And the seconds slow to a crawl,
Each one there, then gone -
Like the bubbles in my agua mineral.
A crushing cascade of death falls in each moment
And in each moment creation's fireworks explode.
Just how many years has that gray-haired woman
Been at that same corner sitting on that old crate?
But a bus lumbers through my wonder,
Spewing smoke and noise and doubtful fate.
Interesting story after story walks by -
Sagas in progress, tragedies and ecstasies,
The dramas of our lives -
Each one as peculiar in shape and size
As the bodies and faces which cover
The ill-read pages bound inside.
- Rick Klaus Theis
Part IV (From the October 1999 Issue)
2/2/99: Another day, another bus ride. But this time the road was rough and the conveyance was crowded and hot. Because the shortest distance to our goal, the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala, took us briefly through the country of Belize, we had to cross two borders. Curiously, we had to pay to leave Belize even though we'd been there only a couple of hours - and been on a bus the entire time. Then there was the customs post in Guatemala. It looked uncannily like a set for a Saturday Night Live skit, and the pace was slow. Information from our passports was entered onto a piece of paper by a functionary using an antique manual typewriter. After dealing with lines, passport inspections, fee payments, visa acquisitions and swarming currency exchange black marketeers we arrived in Flores, Guatemala, a pictur-esque city that fills a small island in Petén-Itza lake.
2/3/99: To avoid the afternoon heat and humidity which, although it was only February, was already in the Ohio-August realm, we left by bus early for the 40-mile trip to Tikal. The ruins there are concentrated near the center of the Tikal National Park, 222-square miles of protected rain forest. Our driver warned us that it was dangerous to stray from the marked trails, giving as an example the lost Canadian tourist who was found barely alive after wandering the labyrinthine jungle for eleven days.
Upon entering Tikal, I struck up a conversation with a young female sculptor from Costa Rica. Her name was Itati, but she preferred the nickname Negra. We ended up exploring the site together, eventually joined by Jamila. Although many artifacts have been carted away to the world's museums over the years, the site still abounds with well-preserved altars and stelae carved with hieroglyphs and depictions of Mayan gods.
More than 3,000 separate structures and 200 stone monuments have been mapped in just the six square miles of central Tikal alone. These include pyramidal temples, palaces, shrines, ceremonial platforms, plazas, acropolises, residences, ball courts, terraces and causeways. At the heart of Tikal are Temples I and II which face each other and rise 170 feet and 125 feet (originally 140 feet) respectively over the Great Plaza adjacent to an intricate acropolis. The 180-foot tall Temple III would be most impressive were it not for Temple IV which soars a full 212 feet, making it the tallest aboriginal structure in the Western Hemisphere.
After visiting so many ruins, some of the simpler structures begin to look alike. Yet, certain of the buildings have such awesome grandeur that they remain fixed in my mind like any great work of art might: The Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan; the Temple of the Inscriptions and the Temple of the Exfoliated Cross at Palenque; El Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza; the Arch at Labna; the Palace at Sayil; the Pyramid of the Soothsayer; the Nun's Quadrangle and the Great Pyramid at Uxmal; the Temple of the Churches at Coba; the Temple of the Frescos and El Castillo at Tulum; Temples I, II and IV at Tikal. The novelty may be lost, but it is replaced by a profound respect for Mayan and pre-Mayan builders and culture &endash; a respect that is sure to remain with me for a lifetime.
While sitting with Negra on the bus back to Flores, I wrote her a poem entitled "La poesia para Itati." After meeting her later for dinner, I saw her off on a bus to Guatemala City, but not before receiving from her an art construction inscribed to me and a kindly kiss. Jamila and I sent off our dispatches, and I visited the Odyssey Web site only to discover that my dispatches were being increasingly butchered - everything from adding puerile phrases (meant to appeal, I guess, to our student audience) to making fallacious "corrections." For example, they had Jamila and me taking a "westbound" bus from Mérida to Tulum. I had written that we traveled east, which any accurate map will confirm.
2/4/99, 5 am: With four hours sleep, we hopped the only bus to San Ignacio, Belize. Sadly, the bright morning sun conspired with the holes in the road to guarantee that I would be granted no additional slumber. After going through Guatemalan and Belizean check-points at the border, we arrived in San Ignacio before 10 am.
As usual, Jamila wanted to check into the first hotel we stumbled upon. Being dead tired, I went along. This "hotel" was a private, ramshackle, three-story home. When I noticed that there was no lock for the hasp on our room door, I decided to ask for one. I mean, we were carrying some $8-10,000 worth of stuff including two laptop computers, two digital cameras, expensive backpacks, special gear and one-of-a-kind personal items. Jamila derided me: "Klaus, this is someone's house! We don't need a lock." That our room was next to the bathroom which would be used by an indeterminate number of unknown boarders didn't seem to matter. Nor did the fact that our room was just off the back porch which had an open stairway to the alley below. The management happily complied with my request.
My first priority was to get some sleep, but I let Jamila talk me into hiring a truck and guide to see the Panti Medicine Trail on the grounds of Ix Chel Farm bordering the Chaa Creek. The medicine trail showcases scores of native plants whose medicinal uses were learned from Belizean Mayan medicine man Don Eligio Panti. The site also features a traditional shaman's healing shack. After the tour, Jamila and I paddled a rented canoe for the two hours back to San Ignacio. For the first leg of the trip, we gave a ride to a 92-year-old local. In answer to my queries, he told us stories about growing up around the river. Unfortunately, his thick accent obscured much of the detail.
After dinner we spent some time with Ramon M. Silva, the director of the tour company which had provided us with a truck, canoe and guide earlier in the day. Ramon told us that he used to lead unauthorized midnight tours through the Palenque ruins for those who wanted a more mystical, often drug-laced, experience. To enhance the effect for his charges, he would sneak in ahead of time to place lighted candles in the temples that topped the pyramids. On one such occasion, as he was leading a group of twelve to the site through the overgrown rain forest, a loose bulb caused his flashlight to flicker. When one of the party asked what was happening, he replied in jest: "There must be some bad vibes here tonight." That was enough to induce a panic. After at least one bug-eyed, long-hair uttered, "Whoa, heavy, dude!," a dozen spooked hippies turned tail and bolted willy nilly through the jungle back to their campsite.
We filed our Internet reports and ended the night at a reggae club where the house band asked me to fill in for their AWOL bass player. He arrived just before they were to go on, saving me from likely embarrassment.
When the band started playing, I began to feel isolated and adrift. Jamila and Ramon, although sitting on barstools just inches away, seemed like planets in another solar system. I walked out on the balcony and looked up at the half-eaten moon surrounded by crumbs of stars. The big Dipper was situated horizontally so that it formed an immense question mark in the night sky, and I wondered just how long I'd be able to stick things out with the trek. I never guessed that the answer would come so soon.
When we returned to our room and turned on the light, several small and two very large roaches scurried for cover. I told Jamila that I suspected roaches when we checked in. She said, "Why didn't you tell me? I hate roaches." "Because I thought you'd say, 'That's all part of roughing it, Klaus'," I honestly replied.
We left the light on to discourage their return. Wrapped tightly in a blanket with a mosquito net over her head in case of a roach assault, Jamila was knocked out, but I had trouble relaxing. This was not the first time on the trip, but it was the worst. The walls of this private-dwelling-turned-hotel were paper thin, and I heard a wide assortment of noises - an electronic door chime which played synthesized versions of one of several songs including "Home on the Range" each time someone wanted back into the house, a stray wrist watch chime here, a blasting car stereo there and the stray cock crowing well before sunrise.
Rather than speeding my slumber, my fatigue interfered with it. As I would enter that amorphous state between wakefulness and sleep, nonsensical problems would pose themselves and I would try to solve them until I would wake up realizing none of it made any sense. Then I would worry that I wasn't getting enough sleep. I felt like I had in San Diego, severely fatigued and anxious.
And what did I have to look forward to? More bus rides to take; more Odyssey dispatches to write; more computer problems to solve; more Internet cafes to find; more compromises to safety, comfort and health due to lack of budget; more disagreements with my fellow trekkers; more dirty, noisy rooms and sleepless nights leading to more bus rides. No time to answer my personal e-mail, no days off, no time to keep my journal, no time to write poetry or make friends.
I wondered, was this trip really allowing me to experience other cultures. I barely had time to write about my experiences, let alone digest them. Often I was writing about one ruin the day after visiting another. I needed some down time - something at odds with the World Trek timetable, Jamila's desire to keep moving, and the express wishes of the rest of the team at our last meeting in Mexico City. After some intermittent bouts of shallow sleep it would be time for another bus ride - the last one I would take as a part of the World Trek.
La poesia para Itati Senorita Itati, Negra bonita,
You are the savior of God
Who left me doubting Him
Because of His indifference
To the world which He created
(Fine art gone awry),
To their own devices,
A foolish mistake,
To ruin His paradise.
Yet, finally, after endless failure
He has redeemed himself completely -
Present, past and future &endash;
In a sculpture named Itati,
Both elegant and sublime.
Having you near
The bluest skies pour over me
Like sweetest, flowing honey
And the passing clouds
Become the shapes
Which you create
With lovely hands,
Leaving me wishing only
That you would lay your head
Upon my shoulder
And slumber there
- Rick Klaus Theis
Part V (From the November 1999 Issue)
2/5/99: We took an early bus to the Belizean capital of Belmopan in order to make connections to Dangriga, a sleepy fishing village and the cultural center of the Garifuna people - a mixed race of African and native Caribbean blood who are the descendants of rebels who fled Honduras after a failed uprising in 1823. The ride to Belmopan, on a rickety American school bus long since declared unfit for service to U.S. schoolchildren, was our most uncomfortable yet. The seats were torn and hard, many of the windows didn't open. It was crowded and hot. The bus driver continually blasted Latin love songs through big stereo speakers. My exhaustion and fatigue were back with a vengeance and this was no way to assuage them.
We reached Belmopan before midday and purchased two $3 tickets for the four-hour ride to Dangriga. There was no shade anywhere around, so we waited for our 1:30 pm departure in the hot sun. When the appointed bus arrived a swarm of people pressed to the door to enter. After twenty minutes in the crush, Jamila and I boarded and chose from among the only vacant seats - far in the back of the sweltering school bus. A boom box roared a few seats away. People were handing packages and food in through the windows. I was hot and tired; I began to feel queasy. When all of the seats and overhead racks were full, I momentarily relaxed, assuming we'd soon be on our way. That was not to be.
Our previous bus hadn't had any people standing in the aisles when we'd departed and only a few (who we'd picked up along the way) when we arrived. But this bus began to add additional riders and cargo. Soon I felt penned in by the people standing in the aisles and the packages they carried or balanced on the seats. I turned to Jamila and shared: "I'm beginning to feel claustrophobic." "You'd better get used to it, Klaus. This is how all of the busses will be from now on," she coldly replied. Jamila, unlike Bill Clinton, apparently didn't feel my pain.
I went to the front of the bus and asked if anyone would exchange seats with me. A German tourist sensitive to my distress graciously offered me a third row seat next to a pile of boxes. A bit of air from the door, light from the front window and the fact that all of the standing patrons were in the back of the bus helped, as did the hope that soon we'd be on our way. Instead, the bus took on more passengers and cargo - and it got hotter.
When the aisles were full I was relieved. Surely we'd depart now. Yet a seemingly endless stream of people and packages flowed in as the metal bus was further baked by the sun. Packages that were piled up on the seat next to me and in front of me stole the light and blocked the scant air entering from the few windows that would open. Adult passengers were packed in two abreast in aisles made for a single kid to pass. I was literally walled in by people and packages. No light. No air. No space. Only stifling heat.
This is what it must feel like to be interred in a grave while still alive, I thought. My chest tightened and I couldn't get a breath, not that one would contain much oxygen in any case. I felt out-of-control, other-worldly, like one giant raw nerve overloaded with sensations of noise, heat, and the crush of human beings. As a severe vertigo swept over me, I was horrified by the thought of riding for one hour, let alone four, under these condi-tions. I made a decision to leave the bus. I repeatedly apologized as I crawled over and through the glut of people between me and the school bus door. I went around the bus to Jamila's window, told her I would be finding other means of transportation, and had her hand me my day pack. Then, through the emergency exit, I removed my backpack from the rear of the bus.
Jamila got off the bus, too. We discussed the situation, and she assured me that such cramped conditions were the norm, not the exception in Central America. I trusted the sincerity of her statement since she had traveled here before. But what of Africa, India, China? Could the conditions there be much better? Armed with that information and the matter of my continuing disagreements over accommodations with the other trekkers, I thought hard about my future with the World Trek.
I'd had only one-half day off in the previous two weeks of trekking and very little down time during my six-month preparation for the trek. A few days rest after my exhaustion-fueled bout of claustrophobia and motion sickness on the trip from San Francisco to San Diego had allowed me to take dozens of bus rides, including one of sixteen hours, with no ill effects. But now those horrors were back and, based on the schedule ahead of us, I felt certain that they would return to haunt me again and again.
This wasn't just your run-of-the-mill car sickness. This wasn't just being cranky from missing a night's sleep. This was a kind of madness. I felt absolutely isolated and disoriented. I was uncomfortable in my own skin - what I would imagine someone goes through during delirium tremens or drug withdrawal. Everything in the world was inexplicably skewed, as if I had stepped out of time. I could no longer relate to it, connect with it, make much sense of it.
All foods were unappetizing to the thought, the smell, and the taste. More like revolting. I had to force myself, cajole myself to eat. Eat slowly. Treat myself gently. Sounds were magnified to the nth degree. I was shell shocked. People became grotesque caricatures of themselves, their preoccupations insane compulsions, their comments inane ramblings. There were too many things in the world and they were all too close to me. In any room the noises were jarring, the people were swarming, the walls constricting. The only place I felt less anxious was outdoors walking - preferably as far as possible from people, buildings and vehicles. I was like an animal, long-caged and yearning for a return to the wild. I felt at home only under the open sky.
It was only natural that my situation would disconcert me. I had left behind everything and everyone familiar to me and immersed myself in strange new cultures. But this was not a simple case of xenophobia. I had had the exact same sensations in San Diego - a city as mainstream American as apple pie or Columbus, Ohio. Instead, this was a return to my state of clinical exhaustion. My extreme fatigue inordinately intensified my feelings of alienation and discomfort to the point that my nerves were taut and frayed. I feared complete physical or mental collapse at worst, recurring torment at best.
Add to this the fact that I hadn't had time to absorb what I was experiencing, let alone e-mail friends. I felt like a rat on a treadmill - a beautiful, interesting treadmill to be sure, but also one that was dirty, dangerous, bumpy and exhausting. I realized that this was no way to see the world. The bottom line for me was that I was not willing to endanger my physical and mental health as a result of an inadequate budget and incompatible traveling partners.
I went across the street to a phone company office to call Jeff and inform him of my decision. My claustro-phobia was yet so great that I had to escape the office several times while the call was being placed to San Francisco. I told Jeff that I was quitting the trek. Sensing my resoluteness, he acquiesced. We agreed that I would go on to Belize City and there investigate available transportation back to the States.
Jamila decided to return to San Ignacio to meet up with Ramon. Ironically, despite her earlier assertion, I saw her off on a nearly empty bus. I negotiated a good price for a compact, but seemingly spacious, cab to Belize City and at dusk was dropped off at an inexpensive hotel. Unfortunately it was fully booked. Rather than allow me to wander the streets of Belize City - a dangerous place, especially after dark - an employee called a nearby hotel. When I walked there, I found that the room had been quoted in American, not Belizean, dollars making it twice as expensive. When I complained, they told me that I was actually getting a bargain: They were charging me only the regular room rate for the most expensive suite in the hotel because it was the only vacancy.
The hotel was a three-story, 19th-century mansion. My room spanned the entire top floor. I had spent the night before in a noisy, cramped, roach-infested hovel. Now, I was in an immaculate and well-appointed penthouse suite with living room, dining area, deluxe bathroom, and cable-TV. The only sound was the gentle wash of waves lapping the shore. I swung open the double doors of the huge balcony and filled my lungs with fresh ocean air, then took in the exquisite view of ocean liners gently rocking on the moonlit Caribbean Sea. Still I had lingering claustrophobia and several times felt the need to stroll along the sidewalk in front of the hotel. I called my girlfriend who had moved to Charleston, South Carolina to see if it would be all right with her if I flew there instead of back to frigid Ohio. Thankfully, she agreed.
slipping i feel myself slipping
into another world.
old one fading fast,
a spent booster rocket
separating, operating with only
ossified memories of me -
spindly, spectral horrors,
no flesh, no breath, dead.
handless, i clutch at that womb
from which i've come.
no way to reenter
at the same coordinates.
without my participation
or even opinion.
i am alienated, erased
from its day to day operation.
my former possessions
scattered, attached to
persons i do not know,
taken to places i will never go.
i am eradicated,
reduced to thought,
an occasional story,
an echo only,
a vapor trail disintegrating,
obscured under knotted evolution,
a minor legend
trapped in one dimension,
a major obscurity drowning
in the deluge of emotions,
spent fuel buried
under shovels full
- Rick Klaus Theis
2/6/99: After hurriedly picking up some souvenirs for family and friends at the airport, I left on a flight to Charleston via Miami just after noon. I had to fight back two bouts of claustrophobia on the flight. The touch-down in Miami was smooth. It felt good to be the master of my own destiny again. Upon re-entering the United States, a customs official asked what I had been doing in Central America. "Visiting Mayan ruins," I replied. Had I ever been to the Serpent Mound in Ohio, he asked. In fact, I had visited there and several other Ohio mounds just after being selected for the trek. How could I go around the world looking at famous archeological sites and ignore ones in my own back yard, I'd reasoned. As it turned out, my Ohio mound explorations may have been time well spent, giving me the credibility needed to escape a lengthy customs inspection and a dreaded body cavity search. I arrived in Charleston in the late evening to balmy weather and a warm greeting, utterly convinced that I had made the right decision. Sure I wanted to see the world, but I didn't need to do it all at one time; as a part of a group I didn't see eye to eye with; in a way which would take two years from my life; and at great risk to my health, happiness, safety, security, and very sanity. I plan to see all of the things I had hoped to see on the trek, but in shorter trips spaced out over a longer period of time.
Epilogue: My life regained some degree of normalcy while living and working as a journalist in South Carolina. I finally returned to Columbus for a visit in July. It was an emotional homecoming - seeing again the people and places I'd grown to love and rely upon for over twenty-five years. The Odyssey anticipated this event five months early when it erroneously posted a website report that asserted I'd flown from Belize back to Ohio in February. Not so.
The correctness of my decision to jump ship has been reinforced time and time again. Before they'd heard I had left the trek, my fellow trekkers (minus Jamila) met in Antigua, Guatemala and made what I consider bad decisions concerning the future conduct of the trek (including inviting the previously mentioned Lucas, an amateur videographer and a friend of several of the trekkers, down to South America to make a documentary on the World Trek). When they did hear about my leaving, I received a flurry of e-mails criticizing me for not first consulting with them in person, and asking me to send them my Odyssey gear and medicines I personally purchased. I had intended to and have done so, but I did not answer their insulting e-mails.
I later left messages with Jamila by e-mail and phone asking for copies of photos she had taken with her film camera during the trek - photos she had promised to send me, photos taken with film I had helped pay for. She has yet to reply or send the photos. I also contacted Jeff for copies of the digital photos I'd taken and uploaded to the Odyssey from the field. Only a few were sent and there was an absence of photos from several major sites. I brought this to his attention to no avail. Incompetence? Reprisal? Indifference? Who knows?
Within days of my departure Jamila e-mailed Jeff telling him that, because the roads were in such bad shape, she was considering flying in order to get from Dangriga to Punta Gorda, Honduras. Her e-mail said in part: "I was the one so upset about Klaus flying and here I am considering taking a plane!" Apparently all of the others have subsequently flown at least part of the way. Since my departure, one other original trekker has dropped from the team &endash; Shawn (aka Winter). Not surprisingly, this was due to fatigue and health problems.
Despite my complaints, I am grateful for my participation in the World Trek. I was able to spend several weeks in San Francisco. I had a short stay in San Diego and Mexico City, the most populous city on the planet. I saw a good deal of the Mexican countryside, which is strikingly beautiful. I was able to experience life in small villages and major cities in other cultures, and I met many interesting people in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. I explored more than a dozen major Mayan ruins and learned much about that amazing civilization.
The trek was also a good excuse to finally get rid of the huge load of possessions I had accumulated, but knew I didn't really need. I am very happy with the small amount I have now and relish the idea that I do not own a car. One friend, who was contemplating drastically reducing the amount of her possessions, e-mailed me to ask if I had any regrets after getting rid of so much. I wrote back, "Yes, I have one major regret - that I didn't get rid of more!" It's true. I miss very little, if any, and I am often burdened by that which I have left.
I also credit the trek with breaking the spell of my complacency. Columbus is a nice place to live - too nice in some ways. It became very easy to allow my inertia to prevent me from exploring other domicile options. I've now logged about eight months living and working outside of Ohio, something I'd not done before, and it has opened my eyes to new perspectives and spurred my creativity. I'm now living and working in New York City. A new beginning? Yes. A happy ending? We'll see.
Framed by the New York skyline, Theis relaxes at the Brooklyn Heights Premenade
(Photo by Glen Schauer)
The writing of Rick Klaus Theis has appeared in numerous periodicals and is featured in two textbooks, Breaking Through: College Reading and Before Brass Tacks: Basic Skills in English. His collection of poetry, Recycled Words, and his spoken word/music CD Lorca's Grave (recorded with Columbus band V-3 including the late Jim Shepard) are available in local shops and by mail order at $15 each postpaid from MediaWorksPress, P.O. Box 82282, Columbus, OH 43202-2282. For more information on Theis and his work, visit the Media Works Press Web site (http://members.aol.com/mwpress).
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