It was too early to check into my room, but the hostel I was staying at let me put my bags behind the desk. After traveling across America a few times in the past three weeks and then lying on the floor of an airport in Panama all night, I was shot. It is important to remember that when you are traveling, especially the first day of your trip, when you are disoriented and feeling vulnerable. You need to sleep before making any big decisions. Don’t change all your money at once or commit to a package tour you might regret. Rest up, get your bearings, and then figure things out piece by piece.
The boy I’d asked directions from on the bus had mentioned something about the playa, which had confused me, since that means beach in Spanish. What he’d been talking about was the neighborhood, Las Playas, that the hostel was in, which proved to be the historic district after all once I set out on foot to explore it. Calle 51, the street outside the front door, was lined with busts of influential figures, ranging from educators to politicians and poets. It was also lined with homeless men of the most bedraggled and despondent variety. On my recent trip through the States, the plague of homelessness in some of the major cities had disturbed me greatly. Now I could see that the crisis wasn’t reserved for America alone. Some of the figures I came across were black with filth, barely recognizable as humans.
Following the street downhill, I came to a few casinos, and then a pedestrian mall where vendors sat beneath large umbrellas, hawking everything from watches to sunglasses, used books to mangos. In a square outside a cathedral, across from a metro station, a group of four men with guitars sat facing each other playing folk music with a small audience huddled around their shoulders.
As I walked back in the direction of the hostel, the sky was threatening rain. It was still too early to check in, but a new woman working at the desk let me do so anyway, showing me a room with two bunks and its own bathroom. Each bed had a small fan attached to it. When I got into one of the lower beds and turned it on it roared like a little engine. A few minutes later someone came in and began moving into the bed next to me. I was aware of their presence, but floating in a pool of exhaustion.
When I got up, I was sickly anxious, but it was time to begin my big project. On an external drive I had three hundred songs, three hundred poems, and about 20,000 images from my thirty years of traveling. They didn’t represent all of my work, but perhaps the best of it. I’d spent the previous winter in Guatemala, just narrowing it down to that. My goal was to put together one gallery of song lyrics and one of travel poems, with an image to match each piece of writing. My aim was five hundred pieces in total, but was willing to accept less if the quality began to suffer.
I had never had a career in the arts or a reputation as a writer, even though I’d devoted my life to traveling off into the unknown in search of experiences that would make for rare songs. That was fine with me by now, but I still wanted to create some kind of gallery I could direct people to if they ever asked about my work.
Where to even start? Well, there is only one place and that is the beginning. All of my twenties, when I was traveling mostly in America, I made it a point of pride not to take any photos, claiming that all the pictures I needed were the ones in my mind. I was later sorry for that attitude as I have almost no documentation of those wild, lonely years.
In my thirties, I was teaching at an inner-city school in Los Angeles, and went on many long trips with the cheapest 35-millimeter camera you could find. Out of the seven or eight rolls I’d shoot, I’d usually have enough good pictures to fill one little album. I’d scanned all of those, but many of them were washed out or sat crooked on the screen.
When I was in my forties and had begun teaching abroad and living out of a suitcase, I got my first digital camera. From that point on there were way too many pictures, pictures that I’d never even seen until my organization attempt in Guatemala. The challenge now would be to narrow down five hundred of them that fit my words. I wasn’t sure I had the objectivity to do so.
There wasn’t much of a common room at the hostel. A chair across from the reception desk would become my office, so to speak. Someone would later ask me if I was a businessman, seeing me hunched over my laptop night and day. Yes, I would tell them, the worst businessman who has ever existed. All I’d ever wanted was to give my product away for free, and even then, there’d been no takers.