The Great Tuk Tuk War of 2008

Tuk Tuks, you say!? Did I take a wrong turn somewhere and get carried away by the tradewinds to Southeast Asia? No. Rest assured, I am still here just off the southern tip of Baja, where I’m thought to be. This is more an exercise in expository rambling.

Lately I’ve been musing that my style of travel has made me well-versed in exploring the fringe of life. I don’t mean the fringe of the world, but of the many different worlds scattered about the globe that contain within their borders a place, a people, a way of life. I say fringe because I cursorily insinuate myself into these worlds under the false guise that any temporal stay longer than fleeting carries the weight of the permanent. It doesn’t, but it feels good to let it feel like it does. Many of my avenues of world travel over the years–study abroad, “following the wine vintage,” and now, sailboating south have been constructed to usher me into new worlds not only in the physical sense, but with the premise that I carry the weight of a purpose with me. The idea that I may not be a local, but that I’m passing through in the manner of a local, rather than the passing through inherent in being a tourist. As though being a tourist were a font of embarrassment.

And, if I don’t actually have a purpose, a raison d’etre-là, I imitate one. I rebuff the easy commerce of the tourist–often, it should be said, to my own detriment. I don’t know if it is a form of self-scorn or merely a haughty complex but I perform a charade of belonging, of having purpose even when I rightly should plug into the conduit of commerce readily available in every single corner of the world for strangers just like myself.

Years ago, in a decade more aptly describable as my youth (in contrast to the decade of now, which might be categorized by a distressingly juvenile disposition dressed by ageing carrion) I traveled in Southeast Asia with a friend of mine. I’ve referred to this friend by many names throughout the years, but during the this time I called him, Patrick (and he, me: Jack). We wandered around that corner of the world for some two months and if I recall rightly, only had two rules. The first: no Tuk Tuks. It didn’t matter if we had no firm grasp on how to find any given destination, whether it was pouring rain or beating humid sunshine, or even whether we had an entire city to cross. The second rule: no taking the first accommodation we found in a town. Being on a shoestring budget, we would generally travel between cities/towns in overnight coach (allaying the need to purchase accommodation for each night spent on the bus. Each time we descended into a new muddy landscape–heavily laden with overfilled backpacks–we would commence walking. Wandering, really. We would rebuff the inevitable throngs waiting by the bus station to offer rooms here or breakfast there to the weary tourists. We would carve circles through the neighborhoods for at least an hour until we had satisfied some sense of penance, perhaps, for our tourism or until we could pretend that we understood the lay of the land and therefore make an informed decision.

Now, undoubtedly some of this has to do with parsimony. Being a tourist is expensive. Mainly because the systems set up to greet you are remarkably efficient at taking your money. And yes, often shamefully so, but also often not. Many times the touristy thing to do is the thing that the locals would do, if they just hadn’t forgotten not to take it for granted. Also being a tourist requires one to unabashedly gawk, rather than slinking around and casting sidelong glances like a racoon in the shadows of a campsite. It seems, paradoxically, that a tourist can in fact make a more brazen connection to a people and place, because the tourist is encouraged–expected, even–to abandon all pretense of belonging. 

I’m not sure how in all of this I became an advocate for the tourist. Perhaps to preemptively assuage accusations of elitism I’m poking holes in my own boat (figuratively, of course. Shearwater remains seaworthy, as ever). Or, perhaps I’m just feeling jealous (talk about paradoxically!) of the people that I cross paths with in various stops on my long journey who are on a clock, whose “real lives” are waiting for them at the close of the weekend, the week, the month. Those people who can appreciate their environs with abandon because they are on vacation

Am I also on vacation? I mean, yeah, that’s probably the only reasonable way to describe it. But, leaving aside my lame protestations about challenging myself and personal growth and sweeping away the useless rubble of my past self (all of which probably ring more profound to myself than to external onlookers), the extended nature of this trip does demand that economy is always on my brain. Yes, of course I want to enjoy the sights and sounds and flavors of new localities but every time I pull out that wallet a voice inside reminds me that I’m robbing future me and slicing my trip ever-so-slightly shorter. My money is, of course, finite but time is effectively infinite so it becomes a dynamic of oddly temporal transactions. The question in mind isn’t will I enjoy this cafecito and pastel a hundred pesos worth, but am I willing to lose time on the back end for this? Every ordén de carnitas a few hours, the relative luxury of staying in a marina versus at anchor is easily a whole future day disappeared. Taco by taco, chela by chela like sands in an hourglass. 

Conversely, one hazards becoming so spendthrift in the pursuit of endless travel that one never opens up to the awesome consumption of being a tourist. To go a million places but never engage with the experiences therein is to never go anywhere at all. And that might be the most embarrassing possible outcome of all. After all, I imagine a Tuk Tuk ride is probably an awful lot of fun.

I contemplate these matters from a cushy marina in La Paz, Baja. The thousand miles hence from San Diego have been wild and wonderful and have left my vessel in need of many repairs. Rather than continue to push ever down the Mexican coast, I’m left stewing on the notion that I should hole up in these seas for a while, work on my boat, reunite with my dog, focus on my goal of publishing my writings. Perhaps even return to the states for a while this summer to (gasp!) harvest some mangoes (again, figuratively). Surprisingly, it proves a difficult line to walk: “normalizing” a situation, establishing routines and a personal framework (financial, emotional, physical, ect) for sustained existence in a locality while also nourishing the tourist’s insatiability, pushing ever-forward and seeing each wonder with new eyes, as if for the first time.

Hmm, it’s a tough job, but I guess somebody’s gotta do it.

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