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Witness to the Wonder

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Witness to the Wonder

Words to live by when traveling with your significant other.

By Beau Flemister

There’s something thrilling about watching someone you love watch a place. Watching them walk through a city, through a valley, down a trail—into the woods. There’s something shared there, something intimate, when a place moves the both of you through geographic black magic. 

There’s something about watching a place reveal itself to you and your companion. Watching a place disrobe. There’s chemical reaction. When you’re rounding a corner on the Amalfi Coast in a Fiat rental, and Positano—a town of pastels that practically drips off a cliff into the sea—flashes you from across the bend, and just takes your breath away. There’s something in the air when that happens. A quickening. A vibration. A love at first sight. And you realize, undeniably, that an experience is better when shared. That traveling is even more fantastic with a companion. When you can watch that other person’s eyes widen as much as yours at the sight of it. You have a witness to the wonder, someone to pinch you—it was real.

I spent the better part of my 20s obsessed with world travel. I’ve had a few co-pilots over the years, but the story kind of went like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My pal in Nepal: much too firm. My pal in Brazil: a bit too soft. But my wife, traveling around the world: just right. She approaches each place with newborn eyes, like yesterday was erased. She says things like, “I’m 27 and a half” without a hint of irony. She literally dances through life (she’s an ex-ballet dancer) and pirouettes at crosswalks, in lines, in kitchens all over the world. She’ll come back to the room with coffee in the morning and exclaim, practically glowing, “Today is going to be magical because a butterfly flew in front of me.” And she believes it. She believes in the hope of each day and, moreover, the infinite potential of a new place. It’s why she’s the perfect travel companion. And perhaps that’s what marriage is: an unyielding belief in the potential of a life with somebody.  

May of last year, we embarked on a trip around the world. She quit the job she’d had for the last six years. I kept mine by promising to work remotely from the road—the only way we’ve been able to keep this gig going. We’re halfway through a malleable itinerary that started in Indonesia and has taken us through Burma and Thailand, up into Mongolia, over into Russia, along the Trans-Siberian railway across half of Asia, through Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean, back into Europe, and down to South Africa. As of December, Cuba’s on deck.

A friend of ours recently told us that if you can survive travelling around the world with your spouse for a few months, you can survive anything. He’s divorced. But honestly, it hasn’t been that hard. I owe that to a few things we’ve learned very quickly along the way. Sure, there have been speed bumps. There was a creepy Balinese guy that gave us a ride on his motorbike one night that certainly shook us up, but we probably shouldn’t have been hitchhiking at night, nor taken a ride from a drunk pervert. I take full blame for that one. 

On a venture like this one, attempting to cram the whole world into a year of travel, you begin to develop a syndrome I like to call AFC.” It’s a sensory overload disorder where new places appear merely as AFC. Like, here’s “another fucking country,” “another fucking city,” “another fucking cathedral.” It means you’re seeing too much too fast. You must slow down. There’s a story about an Amazonian tribe that migrates each year with the rainy season. The way the tribe travels is by walking hard for two or three days, then resting, stationary for one. Then, they walk hard for another few days, rest for another, and so on and so forth. When asked why they travel this way—with that day of rest—they explained that it was to let their souls catch up. We’ve learned this as well. Stop for a couple weeks and let your souls catch up. Because the journey can surely wear on you. 

On that note, forget that regurgitated old travel adage, “The journey is the destination.” If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the destination is the destination, and the journey can be grueling. For instance, on our last day in Mongolia, we woke up at 4 a.m. to drive halfway across the country in the freezing rain to cross the border into Russia. Fourteen hours in a van, four hours at the border, and two strip-searches later, we were whisked to a “guest house” over the border that resembled more of a Russian halfway house. Imagine an American halfway house; now imagine one in Siberia. The guy that appeared to be in charge at the house—a Russian male in a white tracksuit with a white doo-rag—greeted us from a filthy sofa with a white poodle on his lap. He looked like a Russian movie villain, and the four other men around him looked loaded on heroin, one of which was not so covertly filming us from his cell phone. We didn’t get to the hostel (our destination), until 4 a.m. the following morning. In other words, the destination was Ulan-Ude, Russia and the journey was a fucking nightmare.

We’ve also learned that you’ve gotta flip the script from time to time. Rigid itineraries are for fogies. If you want to travel around the world, it’s imperative that your partner is flexible. This is crucial because sometimes you’ve got a week blocked out for Rome, but you then get to Rome and find out that Rome kind of blows. Plus, spontaneity is life’s most potent, natural aphrodisiac.  

Traveling with your spouse, or any companion in such close quarters for that matter, you’re attached at the hip, which is why you should never take score. Everyone’s got their buttons, and if you don’t already know what your partner’s are, get a clue. Sometimes one of us just wakes up on the wrong side of the Airbnb bed, and the way she smacks her lips in the morning, or how I never put the toilet seat back down, is enough to start a war. How many times I’ve left the seat up or how often I find her hair in the sink is unimportant. Life’s too short and the trip’s too long to keep tally. Never discuss the score, never keep score; resentment kills all. 

Often, I’m the one who’s easily jaded. The one to come down with AFC first. But a team can’t have two cynics. Two cynics are repulsive, ask anyone. There should only be two types of travelers: drivers or passengers. Two passengers, and you’re going nowhere. Two drivers, and you’re yanking on one wheel. When traveling with a companion, pick a role, but be OK with switching them. 

Here’s another gem: Get your head out of your ass. By that, I mean compromise. No couple wants to do or see or visit the exact same sights, and that’s only natural, if not healthy. She probably wants to stick it out under a mosquito net waiting for that perfect wave in Sumatra as much as you want to sip Darjeeling in a tearoom in Old Bordeaux. But if she made it, then so can you.  

Keep looking around that corner. Gather no moss. Your time out there—together—is an emulsion of life and dream. Your time out there is a mixture driven by the centrifugal force of curiosity and wonderment; keep them continuously mixing, suspended, spinning. Don’t let the latter of life-and-dream settle to the bottom of the cup. Keep the two blurred in fantastic, sentient suspension. 

Hold her hand while you’re at it. Don’t make her beg. If she’s had a couple glasses, and you can see it in her eyes, rise with her and dance. At a bar. In the kitchen. Even at a stoplight in Paris. Especially at a stoplight in Paris.

as seen in the Companion issue of FLUX Magazine Hawaii

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He Didn’t Say Much

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He Didn’t Say Much

He Didn’t Say Much: A Short Story from Cuba

Ernest Hemingway sat alone in a bar in Havana, Cuba with a stiff drink in front of him, two sips from being empty. Maybe, just one. It could have been his sixth or seventh drink that night but who was counting? He came to this bar often, they called him Papa, he seemed to be in deep thought and above a handsome sun-faded utility shirt, he wore an ambiguous expression that was something between a grin and a smile. But far sadder. His beard covered his wrinkles so it was hard to tell exactly how old he was, but he was indeed aging well. Like most men in Cuba.

A cool, damp wind that blew in off the Strait of Florida wandered into the bar with the opening of a door. A woman followed the breeze and coincidentally sat down beside Ernest Hemingway, telling the bartender, I’ll have what he’s having. It probably wasn’t a coincidence. Ernest looked at the woman with the same expression, his face a little glazed now by the sea mist. A man with a scar on his face sitting in the far corner of the bar strummed a guitar, more to himself, really, than to anyone else in the room. The woman stirred her drink and mumbled something nervously about the weather. She was not sure if Ernest replied with a shrug—or not—but clearly she could tell that he didn’t say much. And perhaps that’s precisely what she wanted. A man who listened. 

She inched closer to him, careful not to give him the eye just yet. His shirt smelled of rum and cigar smoke and the sea. The woman wondered if the great Hemingway could dance. Specifically, salsa. More specifically, with her. Perfect scenario: Upon the concrete seawall that lined the malecon—at dusk—with waves crashing intermittently against it, exploding like fireworks with each spin that Ernest twirled her.

She took another sip and swallowed, audibly. Perhaps he liked to drive. And the two of them would hit the road, floating across the Cuban countryside in his ’55 Fairlane convertible, her hair ablaze in the wind all the way to Trinidad on the southern coast. An old pirate town where the streets sing with accordions and rooster crows and trade-winds rustling the giant palms. In the woman’s mind, the color of his car matched the brilliant bluebird skies. 

Again, Ernest grinned. Or smiled. She couldn’t tell. But perhaps he liked to walk, she thought. Away from the tourists like herself in Old Town, and through the leafy, colonial barrio of Vedado. Perhaps they’d walk together down those streets and they’d pass the dilapidated mansions, glowing with color but crumbling at the touch, and he’d point out which flat he’d composed his masterpiece in. Maybe he’d even take her up to that very room and recite a line of it to her and—

She took another sip, recklessly, and glared at him through the corners of her eyes. It was now or never, she decided and slid her trembling, free hand on to his. It was impossibly cold. Startled, she looked into his eyes and they were vacant, dead. The woman stared at him, slack-jawed, and pulled her hand away, suddenly embarrassed. The man was a statue, but then again, she had always been quite fond of statuesque men. Specifically, ones that listened. 

She stirred her drink again. She had big plans for him and her, big plans. And yet, there was still something about that smile—or was it a grin—that hinted at some kind of sentient spark within him. Somewhere in there.

COMING SOON TO FREENOTE

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