Not The Usual Suspects

There came a time when I was travelling, I peg it as being around midway through South America, where I felt I’d reached a breakthrough stage as a traveller. I believed I’d reached the point where I was past getting too attached to people I met on the road, who inevitably I’d be leaving sooner rather than later. 

I thought therefore that I was over that aching heartache that comes with leaving new friends behind. Not, of course, because I wasn’t meeting cool people in South America or in Mexico, but because I’d done enough of these transient goodbyes to have grown a tougher skin, to keep on keeping on, just as before, no matter who I left behind.

Such is the nature of travelling though, that your most certain assurances are sure to be challenged at some point or other.

This post is something a little different to the usual. It’s sort of a biographical introduction to a group of wonderful backpackers who I made my family for the best part of a week, touring round the Riviera Maya of Mexico’s Quintana Roo province; (plus an extra character or two who’s popped up along the way).

I’m hoping this post will not solely serve as a nice reminder for me of kids I wish I’d had so much more time with, but also an interesting insight into some of the more unusual characters this world has to offer. (Unusual in all the right ways).

I haven’t quite decided yet, but I might change a name here or there. Witness protection and all that.

Carlos

I want to start with Carlos, because if I can come close to being anything like Carlos when I’m his age, I’ll die a happy punter.

I met Carlos (as I met a great many of the other characters in this chapter) round the communal table of a small, relaxed hostel in Tulum – a highway town composed of little more than one street, close to gorgeous beaches, ruins, and cenotes (sinkholes exposing a fresh water underground river).

Carlos is from Chihuahua, Mexico, right up there on the border of the States. Somewhere in his late forties, he was taking a short vacation in Tulum, roughing it in the hostel with the rest of us lowlifes, and always happy to share a story.

Indeed many a story we were happy to hear from him. After leaving Mexico in his mid-twenties for the relatively greater stability and promise of the US, he settled in Texas to work the backstage in the rodeo. Arriving in America with not a word of english under his belt, he spent ten years not only becoming fluent with his Texan dialect, but working his way up the ranks as a professional bull rider. Returning to Mexico he set up the business he now continues with – a self-sufficient model of being paid to remove guana (bat shit) from properties all over Mexico, before selling it on to farmers as fertilizer. (Probably the most ingenious idea I’ve ever heard of).

Carlos and I hung out hard, rippin’ billies and sharing story after story. I came to learn a lot from him, and laughed heartily at how long and elaborately detailed his tales became post-the sober stage of the day. The Chihuahuan had brought on the plane with him some home county delicacies and presents for those he met along the way; I carted off with a beer cooler and enough smoking paraphernalia to sink a ship.

I love meeting travellers much older and wiser than I, still kicking it in dorm rooms and shared showers and conversing with young schmucks as they go. And for me Carlos was the perfect example of this kind of backpacker. He never tried to be dumb and goofy in order to fit in, and yet he never acted too mature for us either. He was he, Carlos the Mexican, rocking out at the ruins with us, or sinking mezcal on the night of Mexican Independence Day, never to be seen without his little one-hitter fashioned from an old tire air valve, nor out of his cargo shorts and short-sleeved shirts.

When we all left Tulum to travel together down to Bacalar, we left Carlos behind. He gave us the most genuine and warmest of goodbyes, and I truly think that, be us merely a new story of his for future friends, he’ll remember us as fondly as I’ll remember him.

Cino

Cino! Ay Chino es loco!

Or so became Eddy’s (who you’ll meet soon) and my catchphrase, whenever we thought back to our meeting in Playa del Carmen – my first stop in Mexico outside of the capital.

Cino, with his thick Argentinian accent, was the punk who started off the little chain of events that led to the formation of my wee Mexican family. He was the lad who, my first night in Playa, as I sat by myself on the rooftop, called me across with a “hermano, fumas?” to join the lads.

That Playa del Carmen group was a fun one. A bunch of lads from all over the world, whose common language was spanish (to varying degrees), and who, despite the strain of the language barrier, spent two or three days eating the best fish tacos in the world, cracking through a fair bit of mota, and chilling hard on the beach.

My defining memories of Cino are sweaty, thirty-something degree morning workouts (which killed me) on the hostel rooftop, his insatiable (and incomprehensibly Argentinian) humour, and his appreciation of the simpler things. Cino would stop to have a wee gab with anyone he met, always friendly, always sharing whatever he had on him – even if just a bit of advice on some thing or other.

When he left, he wished me good luck, good travels, and a good life. I wished him the same.

Alex

Philadelphian cowboy Alex fascinated me as a character. Perhaps in part aided by a fascination with east coasters I was already indulging in, I found him the most interesting guy, despite the fact that he was just a nice, ordinary, normal bloke.

Alex doesn’t drink coffee, smoke, or really drink alcohol. He eats healthily and, having dove since he was eleven, is fit as a fiddle. Compared to the stoner scumbags he was sat round that Tulum table with, he should have been destined to stick out like a sore thumb, or indeed not have hung with us in the first place. And yet there he was, taking a while off work to come and dive off the Caribbean coast, through all the interconnecting tunnels of the various cenotes, and just to relax.

What I loved most about Alex was his sense of humour. It was, and I say this with the kindest of intentions, so harmless, inoffensive, and innocent, as to be as refreshing as the cool breeze of night was after the heat of day in Tulum. I’d be hard pushed to recount any jokes we shared, I wasn’t fully sober for much of Tulum, but his real go-get-em, genuinely lovely attitude, combined with a wickedly sharp sense of humour just did it for me. I wish I had taken a picture of his seaweed wig, or the faces he pulled whenever I mentioned Philly cheesesteaks (fair to say he misses them). Alas, I have only my memories.

Alex is the dude that proves you don’t need to be a junkie ex-con rockstar babe finding your inner yogi on the road in order to be everyone’s favourite, most interesting guy at the party.

Eddy

My task now is to try keep Eddy’s section to a readable slice, versus a dissertation. He is simply one of the most remarkable people I’ve thus far met.

Eddy was the only one of the (not so) usual suspects who I met back in Playa del Carmen, when I started my trip out in the Riviera Maya. He was one of the kids introduced to me by loco Cino, and, though at first it seemed our paths would soon diverge, we actually ended up travelling together for the ensuing week.

Eddy’s from Marseilles, in France, and whilst he speaks a little english, his spanish was far better, and so it was in that language that we communicated. Because of this, Eddy’s and my relationship was a strange one, and yet a comfortable one. Neither of us are fluent in spanish (by any means), and so there should have been a limit to the conversations we could have, and the friendship we could form. Sometimes though, you meet people whom you might call kindred spirits; people who, despite your differences, you understand more fully and with greater ease than you might others. Eddy was my kindred spirit. Whilst a lot of our time together could be spent in silence, peacefully sharing each others company, music, food, mota, or in conversations that branched no further than to comment on how ‘lindo’ or ‘bueno’ the above faculties were, we formed a fast and steady bond. He became something of a brother to me, and I’ll admit I felt protective of the guy, especially in groups of english speakers, where I’d be semi-acting as his translator.

Eddy is travelling for an undisclosed period of time. He flew into Cancun airport not long before I met him, and set off for San Cristobal (some thousand kilometers away)… by foot.

There are few people who I think could make that journey. I certainly couldn’t. His stories of walking in the rain and heatwaves, of pitching his hammock in the forest, of eating tarantulas that crossed his path in the dead of night; his self-identification as a ‘nomad’, kept all and sundry entertained thoroughly for many nights. 

Tragically having lost his dad and sister in the Paris attacks, mi hermano had decided that he wanted to join the French special forces. Firstly though, he was setting out across Mexico by foot, aiming for San Cristobal, where he hopes (and I’m sure he will) find work for a year, before travelling more and then returning for training at some point in the future. He doesn’t travel with a phone, doesn’t have Facebook, is too transient to have a forwarding address for letters; using instead my phone from time to time to call his mum or friends back home. Neither does he stick to a strict plan – he stayed longer in Tulum than he’d planned, so that we could hang more and see the sights, and then decided that he’d join Claire, Hamida and I (more on them in a sec) for a night or two’s jaunt down to the laguna of Bacalar. He’s an intensely easy going individual, and I envy his style of travel – it’s my inflexibility (at least at this point in the trip) which is responsible for the heartwrench I felt in leaving Claire, Hamida, Eddy and the rest, instead of just fucking it and continuing on the road with them.

What I particularly came to admire about Eddy was his capacity for endurance – especially given all he’d already been through – for survival and, above all, for happiness and contentment.

We spent our days together, from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, by and large in some body of water or other: cenote, sea, lake, rarely without una cerveza o un truncho in hand; and our time out of water writing, reading, eating (we did a lot of eating), and having him coach me in MMA (mixed martial arts), which he’s been competing in since he was eleven. Turns out there’s a lot of very simple ways to knock someone (mostly me) for six.

When it came to my leaving Bacalar, Eddy was one of the people it sucked most to say goodbye to, especially given, him being a nomad and all, that I really don’t know when or indeed if I’ll ever see him again.

There was an uncharacteristic (aided by the douchiest dude from Miami you’ve ever met) bit of immaturity that happened on my last morning with the group. Just a dumb photo Eddy took, but which seemed out of place. It was at that moment that it reocurred to me, with a wave of admiration for the kid, that after all, he was only nineteen.

Nineteen. Nineteen. At nineteen I struggled to find my way around Glasgow, to talk with strangers at house parties, I’d not have survived a week of camping in the woods by my house.

I’m unsure whether Eddy is man or machine, but either way, I’ll miss him dearly. Buen suerte y buen viaje hermanito.

Hamida

I was originally gonna chat about these New Yorker girls as a pair, given that they’re travelling together. But in a blog dominated by lads being dumb immature lads, it would be just another slathering of patriarchy to confine these very very cool cats to a shared section.

I met the pair in Tulum, my first night there, as they lazed at the far end of the table to me, drinking wine and chatting amongst themselves, Hamida keeping more or less quiet when the rest of the group conversed.

Since it’s the byproduct of hostelling to form opinions of people quite quickly (helps to work out the good guys fae the wankers), it took I think till later on the next day for me to see that Hamida wasn’t a quiet girl uninterested in my chat, instead just quite content to do her own thing, and chat when she felt like it. Soon enough then I got on cracking with her.

She, Claire and I spent a fair bit of time together over the four or five days we travelled the same road. I came to envy the drop dead coolness of them both. For one, Hamida, like Claire, had brought her skateboard with her (and people who skate are cool, infallability of life). Thing the second, she’s loaded up with rad tattoos, some jokey, some arty, and as we all know: people with tattoos are also cool, fact. Skaters with tattoos; New York style skaters with tattoos, are the coolest of the cool. I’ll not lie, hanging with Hamida and Claire with my scruffy travel kicks, farmers’ tan and goofy conversation made me feel simultaneously very cool (’cause they let me hang with them), and very uncool (’cause there’s no way they should’ve let me hang with them).

From swimming in underground pools and at the beach, sweating balls at the Cobá and Tulum ruins, and lazy days reading or chatting by laguna Bakalar, I hope I can now count Hamida a pal.

She leaves Claire to head back to Brooklyn in a few weeks time in order to start school for midwifery (dude if I’ve got that wrong I’m sorry – my head was kinda cloudy a lot at Bacalar, eh), and I wish her all the best. Sure she’ll nail it.

Empty skin’s for empty heads. Ride or die.

Claire

There are those who, so to speak, have it all going for them: intelligent, funny, cool, friendly, tattooed (can you tell this ranks highly with me?), pretty or handsome, and adventurous, who would never think to hang with a punk like this guy, and then there’s Claire, who’s all of the above and still chose to hang with me.

Claire, like Hamida, like in fact all of those mentioned above, is incredibly easy to get along with. She, like many people you meet on the road, like me too, is unsure what the future holds for her. Unlike most however, she’s truly committed herself to the cause. Back when she and Hamida left to start their Mexican adventures, she packed up all her belongings from her life in New York, and left the place that she’d called home for the past several years (originally being from São Paulo, Brazil), and has hit the road for a year. Once Hamida leaves, she’ll be flying solo, with the US west coast, south east Asia, and Hawaii all still to go. She’s hoping to find somewhere along the way to call her new home.

That takes a lot of fucking guts, man. And I get it. I left home knowing I’d be returning at the end, but also knowing that there’s more out there I want to see, and that maybe Scotland (though it will always, always be home to me) is not where I want to spend the next six or sixty years. I set out looking for a place I might could move to, given the chance, and have now set my sights on Japan.

However, I’m freaking excited as shit to get home. (Actually had a hilariously nostalgic and excited “I’m going home soon” realisation with Ben the Aussie (again, more on him soon) inebriated to a fair extent the other night). Whilst I might well fly the Scottish nest sometime over the next few years, I’m not quite ready to do what Claire’s doing. And in her I deeply admired that bravery.

We spent a lot of our time together talking about travelling, the tables weirdly turned on me as now I was acting the experienced backpacker, dishing out advice, and she the rabbit in headlights, wondering how scary travelling on your own is. How things have changed since that first few months in Asia. I think the conclusion we came to was: it can be scary as fuck, but it’s also probably one of the best things you will ever, ever do.

When we weren’t talking travelling, we were in the lake at sunset, talking her idea for a feminist comic series called Bloody Nipple, or Mags Atwood and all things bookish, or she would be indulging my intoxicated observations about how wonderful everything around us was, most of all the moon. (Though cut me some slack, our group managed to spend three consecutive nights in the water as harvest and super moons eclipsed and rose above us, it was pretty decent).

As with Eddy and Hamida, it really really sucked saying goodbye to Claire. Whilst it was by no means the longest I’ve travelled with one group (my thoughts fly to Matt, Marieke and Kat in Korea), whilst it was but a short week, we are at the end of it all ruled by emotions over which we can excert very little control. By which coded words I mean that the bus I took on my own back from Bacalar to Tulum, and then on to Valladolid, was a very lonely ride; the entire duration of which I spent in rom-com mode, gazing out a drizzly window, music in, heartbroken for having left some really awesome people.

I hope Claire and my paths cross again, maybe I can help write script for Bloody Nipple. Yo voy a falta ella mucha.

Charlie & the Aussies

My last entry here is not about kids I hung with during that aforementioned week, but I feel Charlie, Ben and Mick deserve an honourable mention, for being the people to help cure me of my post-Bacalar blues.

I had just two days in the swelteringly hot and often rainy Valladolid before heading back to Mexico City (I’m in the airport in Merida as I write this). Thankfully, although my hostel was the cheapest and smallest I could find in town, my room happened to be occupied by a cool bunch of kids: Charlotte (or Charlie) from down south ae England, and crazy Aussie duo Ben and Mick, from Adelaide and Sydney respectively.

Friends from home, the Aussies had collectively two and change years of travelling already under their belts, just from this trip. They were heading in seperate directions, hitchiking their way along wherever they could, but able to catch up in Valladolid whilst I was there.

Charlie on the other hand was on a two month trip of Central America, having just about finished her masters in Global Politics. She spoke fluent Chilean spanish, having studied languages for her undergrad and taken her year abroad in Chile. I completely dug watching her dominate conversations with the locals (especially the oftentimes abrasive guys), and take no shit in her bid to find the best food or get the best price. I envied the ease with which she did it.

The four of us spent a really nice day and couple of nights together, not to mention Charlie and my visit to the stunning archaeological sight (and one of the seven wonders of the world) Chichen Itza. We spent a lazy afternoon cycling out to the most stunning cenotes, swimming round and getting along quite comfortably – somewhere in between the reality of being complete strangers, and old friends.

Our last night saw Welsh couple Ieuan and Eluned join, making the group a veritable cluster fuck of heavy drinkers. A six pack each, un truncho muy gordo, and several tequilas (or was it beers? or was I on water by then?) later, I was way past decent; yet still revelling in Ben and my shared sense of humour, Mick’s inability to function, Ieuan’s determination to keep drinking, Eluned’s slurring and Charlie’s (quite frankly amazing) ability to continue fully fledged conversations with waiters regarding the haggling of a bottle of tequila.

Whilst I haven’t gone into quite as much detail describing these guys to you, given they weren’t part of the original clique, as I did the others, I wanted to include them to show that travelling isn’t an endless heartbreak of constantly losing new friends. There are always gonna be those random kids you hang out with, and have a really great time with, for just a few filler days. These are the kids who, unknowingly, pick you up from the floor, dust you off, and get you ready for your next adventure.

In other words, as much as I’ll miss the Tulum group, I’ll remember the other night, Chichen Itza and cycling to the cenotes with Charlie, with nothing but fondness.

Hopefully this has been a little less self-involved than the usual hey guys look at this cool shit i just did, and has given you a small insight into the kind of wonderful, wonderful people you will, if you’re lucky, meet along the way.

I still feel a wee punch in the gut when I’m writing about these guys, thinking of where they are now and yes, selfishly, how unfair it is I can’t still be with them.

With all my love to los locos, mi familia, and a special shout out to my hero of a sister who still manages to look out for me day after day, even thouh she just entered the hell that is fourth year university.

Stay cool fuckers, C x

Sorry mum, I’m not coming home. I’m a mafia man now.

And so the intrepid hero of our story sits down to write his last blog post from the Land of the Rising Sun. Beside him, a soft-pack of Lucky Strike, a bottle of milk tea (how I’ll miss milk tea, he thinks), and a stack of postcards waiting to be posted to family and friends, full of poetry and all the wonders to be found in this most unique of places. Continue reading “Sorry mum, I’m not coming home. I’m a mafia man now.”

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