How I Ended Up in the Ditch: Travelling Solo, the Benefits and the Perils.
Anyone who has wandered solo will know that there are times when it can be a lonely, lonely enterprise. The friends you make are often fleeting and no matter how strong the connection, there is a good chance that you will never hear from them again. Of course the ones that stick can be the friends of a lifetime. And even the ones that you never hear from again can mean as much as ones you have known for years.
I remember every single person who has helped me on the road. I like to think that these people will stick in my memory even as the cars, the food and the homes that they shared with me fade irrevocably from my mind. As is to be expected, the kindest strangers are the ones who find you in the worst situations. When you’re picked up freezing blue on the 395 outside Providence where the rain has been lashing you for hours, it’s that guy who will give you a steak, beer and bed for the night. When you’re bummed out in the streets of Munich with no money, it’s then that you’ll be invited to a champagne picnic. When your tent burns down in Freiburg with your bag and all your clothes, it’s then that a couple will buy you a beer and give you a hundred euros.
“You move out into the unknown and for the sake of destination or for the journey itself you relinquish security”
Of course, the world isn’t Disneyland. And help is easier found in first world countries. Sometimes, things go wrong and there really is no one to help. Worse still, the wrong people can come along. The traveller in the Good Samaritan was beaten and robbed before he was given aid and we all know how Jesus Christ ended up in his travels. The moose hunter was too late for Christopher McCandless.
Travelling is by its definition risk. You move out into the unknown and for the sake of destination or for the journey itself you relinquish security. The vulnerability that it brings can be as exhilarating as the freedom. The two go hand in hand. You are safest at home, with a remote control in your hand; you are most free before a cliff face.
“Even though we shared only the most broken phrases for a common language, I had the sense that something in the way he spoke was not quite right about him.”
In my case, I met the wrong person in a small town called Real De Catorce in Mexico. Things went from bad to worse. My wallet had been stolen, leaving me with ninety pesos (roughly £3.50) in change and a bus ticket from Monterrey to Baton Rouge in Louisiana where my brother lived. The bus left at one pm the next day and Monterrey was over 4 hours drive away. It was nine at night and I didn’t speak Spanish. To top it all off I was dehydrated and tired from two days hiking in the desert.
But that was all going to be okay. In the words of Mikhail Bulgakov, “everything will turn out all right, the world is built on that”. And so I hitchhiked.
The only proper road in and out of the ex-mining tourist town known as Real De Catorce is through a single tunnel burrowed through the mountains. I waited by its entrance, receiving from the town nothing but silence broken by the wailing of mules. For an hour there was not a single vehicle either entering or exiting the well of light. Eventually, a kindly female vendor who was closing up for the night pointed out a fat man smoking beside a white minivan a little way from the entrance who might be able to help.
As I got nearer to the smoke blowing out from beneath his moustache, I noticed that the man had only one arm. If I’m being honest this was a good sign for me; in a vulnerable situation, someone more vulnerable than you makes you feel safer. Maybe this, along with my desperation, is why I was so quick to brush over the uneasiness I felt. How easily he accepted the fact that I couldn’t pay him 200 pesos for the journey to the next small town and the fact that he wouldn’t accept any money at all, but waved me on for free.
“The road curled around the mountains and his van rested in the only lay-by that wasn’t a steep descent into nothingness.”
In the back of the van two benches had been installed length ways across the walls of the vehicle. I sat on the right. We drove about half way through the tunnel, to the point where it bends, before my driver pulled over and stopped the car. Even though we shared only the most broken phrases for a common language, I had the sense that something in the way he spoke was not quite right about him. I initially put this down as a mental handicap, but it didn’t seem to affect his driving. Now he asked again for the money. When I didn’t have this he took down his fly. Naturally, I screamed at him, but he said he was just going for a piss.
Perhaps here is where I should have split, but there was nowhere else to go. So I waited for him to finish and we drove on. We weren’t long out of the tunnel before he pulled up and stopped again. We were in pitch darkness. The road curled around the mountains and his van rested in the only lay-by that wasn’t a steep descent into nothingness. Here he talked again. We exchanged names. “Pablo” he called himself. Now I realised what was off in my driver. He was drunk. He took whiskey from the glove compartment and offered me some. I refused. After a short time we drove off again.
I had hoped that we were driving to the town of Matehuala. It was here that I thought I might somehow be able to argue my way on to a bus, or at least find a truck driver who was headed to Monterrey. But something was wrong. There were no cars driving in either direction. The streetlights disappeared and didn’t come back as ten, twenty, thirty minutes died away. I began to pay attention to my surroundings; on the floor lay a stained deck chair. Beside this a tool kit. Most disconcerting were two pairs of girls shoes: high heels and trainers. They had obviously been there for a long time.
“…he switched off all the lights in the van. The world was now in complete darkness.”
There was nothing other than blackness in every direction when we pulled over again. What happened was reasonably predictable. The driver changed his name to “Ricardo” and we exchanged animated arguments as he asked for my bag, 1000 dollars and oral sex. All conveyed with fantastic one-hand, one-tongue mimicry. Eventually he asked me to walk and I made the questionable decision of refusing, since we were in the middle of the desert. “Just drop me off near a road”, I tried to tell him. So he asked for sex again and then when I screamed “no,” he switched off all the lights in the van. The world was now in complete darkness. I heard his door open and slam and his footsteps coming round. I reached blindly for the toolkit and pulled free a heavy spanner.
“Don’t come in or I’ll kill you!” I screamed fruitlessly into the night. The back door opened. His footstep sounded in the car. I couldn’t hit him. I tapped the spanner against the window. I counted aloud to three. Another footstep against the floor of the car. I broke the window.
He moved out of the car and marched round to the side of the van to see the broken glass. He opened the driver’s door. I fumbled for the light switch above it. I clicked on the light.
Just in time to see him pulling free a machete.
Now I bolted out the back and he followed hot. I ran from the road until the ground gave way. I landed on a dried up river bed and grazed my knee. I lost the spanner and kept running like I’ve never run before or since.
The rest of the night and the early hours of the morning were spent running and trekking through the rock, sand, cacti and thorny vines. An hour into my escape I switched to the other side of the road to throw him off. I headed up the hill of the desert hoping that there would be a road, or something, on the other side. Meanwhile his car continued back and forth along the road behind me, the lights switching steadily high-beam, low-beam, high-beam, low-beam. I’ll never forget the nightmarish sound of the engine.
There was no road on the other side of the hill. Below, I could see his van stopping beside a small hamlet several miles away. It would then drive off into the other direction towards the shimmering lights of Matehuala. Even watching him drive away, I was sure that I was going to die. That he would have friends in the hamlet and they would initiate a manhunt. In any case there was nowhere else to go, so shakily I made my way round and down towards the collection of houses.
I must have been a sight to the three young men I came across at about eight in the morning. Not only white and blonde, but covered in dirt and blood with my clothes in tatters. I yelled hoarsely “assassino!” and tried to indicate that I wanted a telephone. They pointed me, very amused, to a bus instead which took me back to Real De Catorce.
It was after this ordeal that I got very lucky. A long day at the police station was followed by a journey round each hotel in the town trying to explain my situation. If they accepted my parents’ card details over the phone then I would have a place to sleep. At the third hotel, the Hotel Real, I came into luck.
“Wherever you travel next, push yourself a little and the rewards may be incalculable.”
It was here that a couple not only let me stay until money was wired to a nearby town, but also gave me food and new clothes since I had dropped the small bag I had with me in the chase and was now not only penniless but also possessionless. The next day they drove me to a hospital so that my knee could be treated and they even helped with the transferral of my witness rights. Finally, after three days stay, they drove me into Matehuala so that I could buy a bus ticket back to the United States. I will never forget what they did for me.
So, whilst I am not recommending that you go hitchhiking at night, let alone on your own in Mexico, it is worth remembering that the most incredible stories are waiting for you. Adventures like these introduce you to the most incredible people. Wherever you travel next, push yourself a little and the rewards may be incalculable. And in turn the greatest prize is that you might one day grow to become like the Good Samaritan yourself. In this society such people are needed more than ever. I am a long way from the hospitality of my Mexican saviours. Their kindness and altruism are pinnacles of everything I often feel I lack. We can only hope that with expanded horizons we may push ourselves to more gracious ground.