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art is a war 1
It shouldn’t have to be a war not to kill yourself, but sometimes it is. The disgrace had been a long time coming and by now there was no way of getting out from under it. It felt like I’d been chased down a dead-end alley and could only run from side to side. Still, I dusted off the credit card and bought a one-way bus ticket to Miami. From there, it would have to be Colombia, or anywhere cheap enough to rent a room and begin the desperate search for funding once again. It certainly wasn’t going to come from art, but that’s where it all would go to if I could manage to find it. For me, by now, there was no other way to live.
As a young man I made my intention clear – to travel the world and write songs for the rest of my life. This only served to amuse my friends, back when I had such a thing, and depress my parents. All I had to do was mention a new song I’d just completed to see the light go out in everyone’s eyes. Was I that bad? I didn’t think so. I listen back to the old recordings now, and concede it’s hard to hear much promise in them, but isn’t persistence the key to life? How many of us come out of the womb fully-formed?
It became clear early on that no one was going to share my enthusiasm for music making, and that was fine. Over the years there would be no greater incentive for carrying on then that very same lack of support. All of my drive was born out of defiance. A greater, and chronic, problem, however, would be the lack of funds, not only to create, but to live. Endowed with a decent work ethic, but no marketable skills, I took whatever job I needed to do to get by at the time. As soon I’d saved enough to buy even the smallest freedom, I’d be off again.
How does one travel without much money? At first, my idea had been to live out of the back of a pickup truck and roll from town to town like a gypsy. What I immediately discovered, was that there was almost nowhere you could park for free. If you weren’t in a designated pay zone, the police might pull up at any time, knocking at the window and asking to see identification. You had to operate with the stealth of a thief, looking for cul-de-sacs or parking lots with other cars where you could try to blend in. If forced to pay for a camp site, there were places where it was almost as expensive as a hotel. Then there was the issue of gas and the endless string of repairs that inevitably came with navigating an unreliable relic across a vast expanse of land.
It was misfortune that led me to discover Greyhound. I’d had a climbing accident at Yosemite and needed to travel to Eugene, Oregon, the place of my last employment, to have surgery done on my foot. No one was available to drive me there, so I took the bus from Southern California to Oregon, my destroyed foot just wrapped in a thin layer of gauze. Through that trip I discovered it was possible to buy a bus pass, for a week, two weeks, a month, however long you wanted, and ride any bus you wanted from city to city during that time. There were a few years where I saw much of the United States that way, sleeping on a bus at night, then jumping out to explore a new city during the day.
After recovering from my surgery, I’d bought my first Greyhound pass and used it to travel to Denver, Georgia, and New Orleans, where a friend of mine was waiting with an apartment we’d agreed to share. I’d never really been to the South and had no idea what to expect in New Orleans. I remember getting off the bus and going in search of the Saint Charles Streetcar, only to get caught in a tropical squall and drenched to the bone, with just my suitcase, guitar, and cane. Now here I was, over thirty years later, back at the Union Passenger Terminal, in many ways worse off than I’d been back in the day, waiting for a bus to Miami, with a one-way ticket in my hand.
art is a war 2
The challenge was no longer to prove that I could do something. It was to prove that I had done something. Songs no longer flowed out of me like they had for many years. Poems didn’t just leap out of my mouth like they once had. In all that time, I’d acquired quite a few of them, however, and had spent the last winter in Guatemala, sorting through over thirty years of travels and writings. The idea was to put together two galleries, one of song lyrics and one of poems, accompanied by images from some of the places I’d been to. I figured if I could get somewhere cheap, probably Colombia, I could spend a few months working on that project while looking for the next gig. If I could find something by Christmas, that might be OK. If not, it was really going to be bad.
The first step was to make it to Miami. What was complicating that was the hurricane that had recently destroyed half the state of Florida. I’d just been traveling around the States on a USA Rail Pass, and the original idea had been to travel to Miami by train, but two times my trip had been cancelled because of the storm.
Now I was traveling there on the Greyhound, but up until the last second still could’ve changed my mind and taken a train to Los Angeles, as my last ride on the Rail Pass, the Sunset Limited, which I’d even tried to cancel but couldn’t, was running five hours late and now leaving the same station at the exact same time as the bus. Although it had already been decided, it was still strange to be there between the two lines forming, faced with two completely different futures, based on my next move. Do you go right, or do you go left? Things are rarely as cut and dry as that.
The last time I’d been on Greyhound had been 2019, traveling all the way from Laredo, Texas, to Portland, Maine. What I remember most about that trip was the janitor who’d screamed at me in Dallas for standing in his way and the seatmate who’d begun detoxing on my shoulder as soon as we left the station. By the time we got to Maine my feet were nearly too swollen to stand, and it was only then that I discovered that the ferry I’d planned on taking to Halifax had been suspended and that no buses went that far. Even though this was a shorter trip, it still wasn’t simple as I needed to travel all the way to Atlanta and then transfer from there.
Before we even left New Orleans, the driver was already angry and yelling. He wanted us to get into two lines, those who had already been on the bus, and those who were just boarding. Half of the riders were immigrants, and he went around screaming the same three or four words of Spanish that not one of them could understand. One of them needed help with his ticket and instead got the worst berating of his life, causing him to get back on the bus and ride to Mobile, when he had, in fact, already arrived at his destination. Before we left, there was a kid with an afro who was barely allowed on the bus.
In my days riding the bus I’d encountered my fair share of grouchy drivers, but after you see some of the people who ride the bus you begin to understand why. On this particular trip there was one man talking loudly on his phone. At one point he cussed and the driver wasn’t having it, threatening to pull over and drop him off at the next stop we came to. After that, I began to develop an appreciation for the man. There is no country I’ve been to where people act as loudly and badly on a bus as they will on a Greyhound if they’re allowed to get away with it. That didn’t stop me from feeling bad for the immigrant who came up to me in Mobile with his ticket, wondering if we’d reached New Orleans yet.
When we were getting back on the bus, I asked the kid with the afro what he thought about the trip so far. How did he like getting yelled at all the way to Atlanta? He told me he’d been torn between taking the bus and flying to Columbus. Now he was second-guessing himself a little, but not sorry to be having an adventure. If an adventure is something that you hate to go through, but later look back on with some fondness and pride, then he might’ve been having one.
Seeing that I would be in Miami in less than twenty-four hours, it was probably a good idea to start looking into a room. Fortunately, I found a hostel right on Miami Beach where I could rent a bunk for forty dollars a night. I also looked into flights to Colombia. There were some good deals to Medellin, which intrigued me since I’d never been there before.
The bus stopped at a gas station about halfway to Montgomery. The bus driver made an announcement, and what I think he was trying to say in Spanish was comida, or food, but most people just sat there puzzled. Then, one by one, people began to get out to investigate. The special was either fried chicken or fried catfish. I ordered the chicken, which came with three potato wedges and a biscuit, that between them contained not one drop of moisture.
There were some immigrants behind me who were having problems with their bill, as one of them had been charged for all of their meals and they wanted to pay separately. I helped them settle it the best I could, and when I got back on the bus noticed that one of them, a woman with two kids, was sitting right behind me. For the next hour and a half, the kids screamed at the top of their lungs and the woman coughed loudly, while I sat amidst the carnage of my chicken dinner, covered with grease from head to toe.
In Montgomery, I made it a point to switch my seat, grabbing one across from the toilet that was empty. A few minutes later I was approached by a large young woman who asked if the seat next to me was taken. She was apologetic and conscientious about how much of the space she was taking, even going so far as to sit with her legs in the aisle. I told her not to worry about it. I’d only paid for one seat. She was leaving her boyfriend and going back home. One day he’d just up and disappeared, but she knew he was staying at his dad’s. She then surprised me by asking if I was cold, alluding to the amount of heat we could be generating. I almost told her to scoot on over.
It was almost eleven by the time we pulled into Atlanta. The woman was going in a different direction. So was my friend with the afro. I saw him lining up right away for a bus that was heading to Nashville in a few minutes. I asked him how his adventure was going. He said it wasn’t too bad so far.
art is a war 3
There were some immigrants on the bus I’d done a little translation for. They now wanted to know the value of American coins. One of them had a whole pile of change on a table, and I waited until they’d counted it out and converted it into pesos before taking my leave. When we boarded the bus to Miami, the one with all the change was sitting beside me, like a little bull, with both his elbows thrust out at his sides. It was going to be a long night.
The new driver was a woman who immediately got lost. I think that’s the first time that’s ever happened on one of my trips. It took a couple of awkward U-turns at dodgy intersections to get back on the right highway. Then sometime around morning it happened again. She actually got on the intercom and asked if anyone knew where the pickup point for Osceola was. We were driving down a country road with Spanish moss hanging from the trees. This time someone had to get out and direct her backing up so she didn’t plow over a mailbox or run us off the narrow road. The pickup point ended up being a gas station.
The only ones who got on in Osceola were three women convicts in white T-shirts. A few minutes later the driver got back on the intercom and warned whoever was smoking the weed that she would not hesitate to pull over and call 9-1-1 if it happened again. She might’ve been tripping. I didn’t smell anything. The woman behind me, who hadn’t been accused, was adamant that it hadn’t been any of them. She appeared to be the brains of the operation and did the talking for all three.
The land was flat and swampy on both sides of the road. When we got to Orlando there was an hour layover. I was sorry to see that the tough-talking prison gal was getting off there. I went over to the café and got a breakfast sandwich from the cooler. When I went to pay, however, it took nearly half the break as the guy at the cash register, who made the bus driver from New Orleans look like a linguistic genius, tried to explain to one of the immigrants in Spanish why he couldn’t break a twenty. Either he had a nervous tic, or was in the middle of a seizure. Later, when I lost a dollar in the vending machine, I just let it go, as he’d just been asked to cook a hamburger and that appeared to be the final straw.
For the past three weeks I’d been fixated on making it to Miami, but the closer we got to it the more I realized that Miami wasn’t going to solve anything. In fact, as we approached Fort Lauderdale, it was suddenly getting overcast and soon it began to pour rain. When my train had been cancelled a few weeks earlier, due to Hurricane Ian, my thought at the time had been that I’d ride the train straight into the storm if I could. Now, with just a little rain and hardly any wind, it felt like everything had been ruined. Like Jonah, who’d survived three days in the belly of a whale, only to have God send a worm to kill the shade tree he was living under, I wanted to rend my garment and disown my life. That would’ve been a hasty reaction, however, as by the time we were pulling into the Miami Airport, which was now the stop for Greyhound, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and by the time I found a bus to Miami Beach it had nearly stopped.
There were only a few people on the city bus I’d gotten on at the airport. They all appeared to be Latinos. After crossing the MacArthur Causeway, a homeless couple got on, only to realize after a block they were going the wrong way. When they got off, I got off to, as it looked like I should be able to walk to my hostel from there. By now it wasn’t raining at all. In fact, the sun was out and it was hot. Here I was, a moment ago at the end of my rope, now walking down a sunny street in Miami Beach. Bad moods are like storms. Sometimes you just need to get to the other side.
art is a war 4
There were two young guys in Hawaiian shirts at the desk when I checked into the hostel. I almost had to check the address again to make sure I was at the right place. It seemed too nice for a hostel. There was an adjoining restaurant and heated pool in the back. When I went up to the room, the bottom bunk I’d been assigned was one of those little cubicles with a curtain and a light and fan inside.
There was already someone in the room, a guy with a shaved head perched in the adjacent top bunk, looking like he wasn’t going anywhere for a while. We got to talking and I discovered that he was a refugee from the war in the Ukraine. His occupation in his country was a sommelier, or wine specialist, but he’d just come from working on a fish processor in Alaska and was hoping to get his foot in the door at any restaurant he could.
After relentlessly riding trains all over America for the past two weeks; from the West Coast to the Midwest, to the Northwest, back through the Great Plains, to the Northeast, down to the Deep South, it came as a great shock to be at the beach in Miami. It felt like I was in another country. I walked out of the hostel and crossed Collins Avenue, passing 5-star resorts to get to the ocean. The sky had gone back to being overcast, but rain didn’t appear eminent. Small greenish-gray waves washed up on the cultivated sand.
There was a walking trail that I started following south. The humidity was already causing my shorts to stick to my legs. Not many people were out yet. A few bicyclists passed by. Just following the lifeguard towers, which corresponded to the cross streets, in descending order, I eventually came to South Beach and made my way over to Ocean Drive. The atmosphere was festive. People were sitting on patios enjoying cocktails. The colors were tropical: pink, yellow, orange, aqua, green. The mannequins in the gift shops flashed the same neon themes on bikinis, tank tops, baseball and straw hats, and headbands. Outside of one bar a band of drag queens were getting warmed up for that night’s performance.
After passing the Art Deco Welcome Center in Lummus Park, I happened across two women dressed as Caribbean Carnival Queens, getting ready for a photo shoot. Some guy was harassing them and they shouted him down the street. I asked if I could take a picture, and after surmising the situation and concluding that I was harmless, just some passing old grandad, they nodded in assent. That was as close as I was to get to the glamor of the world-famous South Beach.
When I got back to the hostel, I realized that I better move fast if I was going to go anywhere anytime soon. I did a search on my phone and found a cheap roundtrip flight to Medellin leaving in two days, so just went ahead and booked it. It was doubtful I’d use the return, but would probably need evidence of onward travel once I got to the airport.
Someone had locked themselves in the bathroom up in my room, so I grabbed a swimsuit from my suitcase and went down to check out the pool. The colors changed every few minutes, from violet, to green, to blue. Dipping a toe into it, I discovered that the water was warmer than the air. One couple, in each other’s arms in the middle of pool, seemed like they were just getting to know each other. She was doing most of the talking, at one point trying to add up how many times she’d been to rehab.
Back in my room, I saw that the wine steward from the Ukraine had been joined by another roommate in the other top bunk, who peered down at me, like an emu, with a sharp face and black downy hair, and went back to what he was saying. They seemed to be having a great time together practicing their English and laughing out loud. Later, the guy from Ukraine asked me if I understood Portuguese, indicating that he didn’t understand one thing that the other guy was trying to say. I listened to him rattle on for a moment, and shook my head. I had no idea either. It wasn’t English, but didn’t seem to be Portuguese. It was like he was making up a new language as he went along.
art is a war 5
In the morning, the strange bird in the bunk above me spent an hour listening to unintelligible clips on his phone, before getting up and locking himself in the bathroom. I used the respite to fill out the online immigration form that the airline had sent me for my upcoming trip to Colombia. One section required me to list where I’d be staying, so hardly thinking, I went ahead and booked a week at a hostel in Medellin. Because of the prices of hotels in America, you might be excused for staying at a hostel from time to time, but you know you’ve hit hard times when you book yourself a dorm room in Colombia. Since it would all be going on a credit card from here on out, even six dollars a night could be considered exorbitant.
After getting out of the shower, my flightless bird of a roommate, perched at the windowsill right beside my bed for a breakfast of breadsticks and bottled coffee. It was time to get up and face the day anyway. I’d decided to check out downtown Miami, and had gotten the bus information from one of the guys in the Hawaiian shirts at the front desk. All I had to do was cross the street and wait. The S bus would be along shortly.
There were plenty of seats on the bus, but a corrugated mesh over the windows got in the way of any view as we crossed the Causeway and passed Bayfront Park. The last stop was at a smaller park that was also the hub for the Metrorail. Here homeless people sprawled out around a fountain and a sculpture that appeared to represent slices of fruit. If the city seemed largely deserted, it was because, I found out later, it was Columbus Day. At the time, the effect of so many wide streets and large constructions, with nobody out and about, was anxiety-inducing and slightly hallucinatory, like a return of the pandemic.
At one point I went into a 7-Eleven to get a drink and out of all the many, many choices at the soda fountain, only the Doctor Pepper was working. Everything else came out as a clear stream. I wasn’t sure if this was actually happening, or if it was just me, until a construction worker came in and lodged the same complaint with the guy behind the register. Of all the drinks in the universe, it turned out Doctor Pepper was the only one he didn’t like.
Passing some government buildings, I found myself drawn to Bayside Park by the big Ferris wheel I could see at the end of the street. Here there were a few tourists, dining at the restaurants in the marketplace and shopping in the shops. This was no vacation for me. I was just an apparition passing through, like the homeless folks I discovered around the statue of the founding mother of Miami, with nothing to do and all day long to do it. It was a relief when the bus arrived to take me back over the bridge. The stress of being homeless and jobless in America had nearly blown out my last circuit.
Back at the hostel, I put on my swimsuit and headed to the beach across the street, intending to swim in the ocean. Most of the other people there were from the resorts. A father and son skipped a ball to each other across the surface of the sea. One earnest young Olympic hopeful swam laps in the shallow water. I just bobbed.
There was nothing to do the rest of the day but kill time, so I walked back down to South Beach again. By now dark clouds had begun to form, and when it started to rain it didn’t hold back. I cut over to Washington Avenue and dashed from awning to awning. When I got back to my room, I saw that the guy from Ukraine had moved out and a new girl, who didn’t turn around when I said hello, was taking his place. I grabbed my trunks and headed down to the pool to float in the rain. I was already as wet as could be. What more damage could be done?
art is a war 6
In the morning, the girl in the top bunk who’d replaced the refugee from Ukraine, got up and went into the bathroom, flushing the toilet at least six times before finally reemerging to collect her things and leave. The bird man above me had also mysteriously vanished sometime during the night.
It was the first time I’d had the room to myself. What luxury. I walked around in my underwear. Shaved. Showered until all the hot water was gone. Just as I was getting ready to retrieve my things from the locker beneath the bed, a new guy showed up and inserted himself right into the space I needed to pack. He started to do an inventory of all of his possessions, laying them out one by one. It was hard to keep from throwing my hands in the air. Or around his neck.
My flight didn’t leave until 2:30. One of the reasons it had been so cheap was the fifteen-hour layover in Panama City. After that it was just a few more hours to Medellin. At eleven I checked out and walked across the street to wait for the express bus to the airport. It took a long time to arrive, but once it did, only took a half hour to get there.
The airport was spacious and futuristic. I had to take a tram to get to the terminal and it felt like my true destination might be the Kennedy Space Center. After arriving at the terminal there were miles of moving walkways to traverse.
Copa Airlines is a Panamanian carrier. Part of their old school service included a complimentary meal, which I wished I would’ve known about before coughing up twelve dollars for a tuna sandwich right before we boarded, and a movie on a big screen, which was Doctor Doolittle. I tried to remember if I’d seen a review that had accused it of being Doctor Do-nothing. If not, it was a strange memory to invent. At that point I kept falling in and out of sleep. I was in that beautiful pocket between leaving and arriving where nothing can touch you, as long as you don’t land.
When we arrived in Panama my flight was leaving from the same terminal, only fifteen hours later. I found a coffee shop where I could plug in my laptop and nursed an empanada and small coffee until they were finally closing and had to sweep around me. Then I returned to the gate I’d arrived from and found the area mostly deserted. One woman was sleeping on top of three benches. Another one was stretching on the floor. I went to a gate on the opposite side of where they were and laid down on the floor with my head on my backpack.
That went on for the next eight hours, just lying there, not sleeping, on a tailbone that had recently been diagnosed as fractured and a hip that gone arthritic, for some reason needing to get up and use the bathroom almost every twenty minutes. At one point I saw my reflection in one of the windows, and it appeared to be that of an old man on his death bed. I had to get up then and do a lap around the terminal, just to fight back the fear.
Right before dawn, voices began to fill the hall. The gates began to open, one by one. My flight was one of the first to board. There was no need to check in with anyone. I already had my boarding pass in my pocket. The flight was short, but dramatic. We flew over high mountains and rivers. It looked like remote wilderness below us, rebel territory. Medellin had once held the distinction of being the most dangerous city in the world. I’d been told that it was peaceful now, however, a good place to chill if you get tired of the bustle of Bogota.
It took a long time to get through immigration. It seemed there were only two agents for over three hundred passengers. One old woman played the age card to go waltzing to the front of the line, only to not have her paperwork in order and tie up both agents for the next half hour. All the sympathy she’d garnered turned to cries of exasperation.
I’d read that the airport was a long way from the city center, and was tired enough to be paranoid of the taxi drivers who approached me out front, not looking official and giving me quotes that seemed outlandish. There was a bus that someone said went to the Centro, so I went over and hopped on it. I’d lost my phone service after leaving the States, and just had some directions to the hostel scribbled in a notebook. My hope was that the bus would drop me off close enough to walk to it. As we reached the outskirts of Medellin, however, I saw that it was no quiet little hamlet in the hills, rather, it was an intimidating metropolis in its own right. We came around a bend and a nearly naked homeless man was fanning a fire ten feet high beside the road. Going through an underpass, another one was squatting there taking a dump.
I asked the kid sitting next to me to help make sense of my directions, but when he began to explain my Spanish failed me. I understood something about the north terminal, but that was it. It was obvious I was not going to find the hostel on foot. Once the bus stopped by the side of the road, I got out and threw myself at the mercy of a taxi driver. It took him about fifteen minutes, passing through a series of curves, like a sketchy Monte Carlo Grand Prix, to reach the hostel. The neighborhood looked like a bit of a slum, but was actually the historic district. Either way, I’d arrived.