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Friends In Strange Places

One of the joys of longterm travel is that you meet so many interesting people along the way. Traveling alone you make friends instantly, and consequently you almost never are alone.

Some of those instant friends become really good friends and you genuinely miss them after you move on to the next stop. Others are there for the moment, never to be seen or heard from again. To me, both the ones that become good friends and the ones that are like that puff of smoke, add value to the journey. For what is this journey if it isn’t about people?

Take Julio Catorce, for instance. I chuckled when he told me his name. Julio 14. Catorce in Spanish is 14.

Julio Catorce is from Guadaloupe. I met him at the entrance to the Equator monument near Quito, Ecuador. Julio Catorce approached me as I made for the exit. In perfect Spanish he asked if I was from Ecuador. No, I said. But your Spanish is so good, he said. Then from there our conversation evolved. Julio Catorce (by now, have you picked up I love saying his name?)  like so many I come across, asked me about President Obama. They all want to know about Obama, how he’s doing, what I think about him, will he be reelected, why Americans seem to dislike him, and how much the rest of the world loves him. For what it’s worth, whenever I traveled outside the United States during the Bush administration, all I got was an earful about how dumb we were as Americans to elect such a man. When you travel outside the U.S., sometimes the people you come across forget that you are not the government, and you can and sometimes do disagree with its policies. But you are perhaps the one chance they get to vent about America. So you politely listen and try to offer some perspective.

Thumbs up from Padre Miguel, who explained the Old Town

Julio Catorce said he wanted really badly to see Obama reelected. Why, I asked. What was at stake for him? Julio, who is of African descent, said everything was at stake, including the pride that black people around the world feel. He said they danced in the streets of Guadaloupe – a French territory in the Caribbean – when Obama was elected. And of course there were similar celebrations around the world. You would think Obama had been elected president of the world, Julio said. He then added, well, he sort of was given decisions made in the United States do impact just about everything in the world.

So enough about U.S. politics, I said to Julio Catorce. I wanted to know what was a young man – about 30 years old – from Guadaloupe doing in Ecuador. How does it even happen that someone from the tiny French island of mostly black people end up in Ecuador. Julio said he had left Guadaloupe in search of work. He and his wife decided to try Ecuador because getting into the country illegally was fairly easy and any job they got would pay in U.S. dollars. Ecuador, I remind you, adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency more than a decade ago in the face of economic crisis and its extremely weakened currency, the sucre. The result has been that thousands have emigrated from their country to Ecuador, including  thousands of Colombians just next door, to get their hands on the mighty dollar. A dollar in hand is a great deal of money, compared to the time it takes to make that amount paid in pesos. The anti-America government of Ecuador President Rafael Correa is said to be studying ditching the dollar and returning to the sucre, a huge mistake say many in Ecuador who at first opposed the switch. Correa, who has decided to pick a fight with the United States by giving the U.S. ambassador “10 minutes to leave the country”, is not a very popular figure, but he knows how to keep poor and uneducated people on his side, borrowing a page from Venezuela President Hugo Chavez’ playbook. But that’s politics.

With El Padre in Plaza de la Independencia, Quito, Ecuador. He was born in the colonial town and used to play in this square as a kid

Julio Catorce said he hadn’t had much luck finding work, especially being illegal in the country, so for now his job handing out fliers for a restaurant at the Equator monument had to do. I asked the obvious question: If you are from Guadaloupe, a French territory and you are considered a subject of France, why didn’t you make for France instead? Not that simple, he said. Citizens of Guadaloupe don’t have the same rights to France as say Puerto Ricans have to the United States. Puerto Ricans are at birth U.S. citizens and have every right to travel to the United States and live there if they so desire. (By the way, why is it  so many Puerto Ricans stay put in Puerto Rico knowing they can live in the U.S. anytime they like? I’ve often wondered why Puerto Ricans choose to stay in Puerto Rico while people in other countries are lining up, paying crazy visa fees they’ll never see again, to live in the U.S. Somebody with better knowledge of Puerto Rico answer that one for me 🙂

So Julio, who speaks French and Spanish, is in limbo in Ecuador, and has been in that state for a good five years, he said. He would love to live in the United States, he said. Money is an object. More dollars in his hands, perhaps his own business, increase his chances, he says. Seeking the American Dream via Ecuador.

Julio talked and talked and laughed and laughed as staffers from the Equator monument shifted closer to listen. Julio Catorce – oh by the way, did I say that was not his real name, just something he made up because he liked the sound of it? – then tried to get me to go eat lunch at the restaurant he was pushing to visitors arriving at the monument. Too late. I had already grabbed food at another restaurant. But if I returned to the monument I would definitely go to the restaurant to make sure he got his commission, I told him.

We talked apples and oranges - literally - then she turned and walked away

I never snapped a picture of Julio Catorce – or Julio 14, as he spells it. I thought of it only after I had long walked away. He became that puff of smoke, one of countless people I’ve already met on this journey. One of countless I’ve met in strange places. But I don’t think I will ever forget him. For that brief moment, he made me laugh. He made me think. He made the solitude of the journey disappear. While I’m alone on this trip, I’m never lonely. I’m always surrounded it seems by people like Julio Catorce who fill the gap between people who open their homes to me as hosts and allow me  dine with them and stay awhile. Those, more often than not, become longtime friends. They are among the people I will see again on this trip. People like Abdou of Paris, who is originally from Morocco, and promises a trip there when we meet again in Paris. We will travel to Morocco to visit his friends and family. He promises he will introduce me to some very cool places unknown to tourists. And certainly I will meet more people, the ones that come and are gone like ships, and the ones that will stick around, even if by Facebook or e-mail to ask “how are you?”  I’m sure I will have a blast with Abdou in Casablanca, because when he stayed at my place in Miami, through couchsurfing hosting Web site, we had a blast. When I drove him and his girlfriend Anja of Switzerland to the airport, I almost shed a tear. They were just such cool people. And I hope to see them again in Europe. Just as I hope to see so many others, such as Adam of London in Bangkok, where he now lives. And Anette of Finland perhaps in Amsterdam, because she doesn’t stay put 🙂 . And Dmitry in Russia. And Martin and Lucia in Slovakia, if they ever quit traveling. And one day return to Quito, Ecuador, to again say hello to Padre Miguel, who emerged from his church in the colonial area of Quito, asked where was I from, and volunteered to give me a walking tour of the Old Town. So many people, some puffs of smoke, but still ingrained in my memory, so many others everlasting friends.

And when I least expect it, sometimes in the strangest of places – such as on the cable car in Medellin, Colombia, where I met Lafonsa of Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A. – I will meet others around the world that make this journey so worthwhile.

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