Local Or Tourist? Case study #1: Alex
We met Alex after we got off the plane. I grabbed my bag that I checked because I haven’t traveled as much as Jason and apparently haven’t figured out a way to travel with every needed item in a backpack like he did. I’m not even talking about one of those bloated camping backpacks with the straps stretched across
achatdoudounepascher canvas and holding on for dear life. I mean a backpack that says “I just rode my bike to the grocery store and picked up a loaf of bread.” He has some magic I don’t understand. Or he just doesn’t need as many clothes because he doesn’t sweat through multiple t-shirts per day, like I do. I used “t-shirt” as my garment of choice in the previous sentence for the sake of civility, but know that I could give far more effective examples of the way my body contaminates all things cotton, no matter how “breathable” their marketing material says they are.
Anyway, I picked up my bag and we got a taxi to Hostel Luego, which is am admittedly clever name for a hostel. The driver waited till he could get no more people into his truck, then he assured me he could get me a boat tomorrow, and “whatever I need.” We then started driving down the incredibly flat roads. There was a
femme doudoune canada goose very good looking American couple who looked a little nervous.
We asked them where they were going.
“Red Frog beach,” the girl said. “Our friend is paying for a week’s stay down here and he invited us down.”
“How about you guys?” the dude asked.
Before we could answer the driver pulled up to Hostel Luego. The ride was maybe thirty seconds long. It was two blocks from the airport. We ended up giving him three dollars, which was absurd in the context of what we paid to get around Panama City, but whatever. Our driver told us to call him.
Alex met us at the door. He’s a tall skinny kid of about 25 with shoulder length hair. He looks like he surfs, and by that I mean he is doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him. But the difference between the surfers there and Alex is that Alex, in the limited interactions I had with him, always had a purpose. I don’t mean that he had an agenda, of that he was devious at all. He was decidedly genuine and friendly, but not overly so, and he gave off the vibe that although he was perfectly ready to shoot the shit with you for a minute or two he wasn’t going to chill with you around the hostel. He ran this hostel and he clearly took it seriously. He lead us into the hostel and every wall was freshly painted and every angle, seam, and doorframe boasted the clean-cut, protractor straight steadiness of the newly and professionally renovated.
“You guys need a room?” he asked.
We told him we did. He broke down the prices quickly and gave us our options. It was cheap, like fifteen a night, and we didn’t have to sleep in dorm rooms. The AC was broken on the bottom floor at the moment. As he was telling us I found myself pulling out my passport to write down my passport number before he had gotten through his very quick and pointed description of the place. He didn’t waste time. I appreciated that. It’s never fun to stand in the lobby at a hostel wearing a sixty pound backpack across one shoulder as a hostel employee lists every attribute, rule, and policy of the place you are staying, knowing ahead of time that you are going to remember none of it with any kind of accuracy.
He signed us in and opened the door for us. If we had any questions he’d be happy to help us out. Simple, to the point.
The hostel itself was comfortable and welcoming, with an outside TV and couches that more than a couple people seemed to be glued to. There was a guy from Alabama with a great southern drawl, a friendly guy who I easily talked about all sports with (except soccer). He had traveled down through Central America, and it was not the first time he had made the trip. He was obviously burnt
out on traveling, and more than one day he seemed to just lie on the couch, drinking beer or rum, and then go to bed before people really started to go out. He wasn’t awkward at all; he just really seemed to be burnt out on traveling, as was the Israeli who was often on the couch next to him. The Israeli at least had the energy to laugh and joke loudly, demonstrating a capacity for mirth that the Alabamian (is that right?) didn’t seem to have, outside of the rolling chuckle he sometimes let get away from him. Maybe it’s just a southern thing. Either way, I liked both of them a lot, and Jason and I watched my Celtics play his Sixers in the NBA playoffs at that hostel on a couple of different nights while passing around rum with those guys. I’ve seen travelers like that, the ones that are wearing stained clothes over burnt skin, the ones who have been drinking at the same types of bars along a thousand mile trail, the ones who have run out of momentum to keep traveling with any real purpose, the ones who are just making it from couch to couch, watching Two and Half Men (always on in Latin America) and Frasier with Spanish subtitles. I’m not ripping on these guys. I usually really like them, as I did with these two. They weren’t trying to impress anybody, they weren’t monopolizing the space, and they gladly shot the shit with you in a perfectly congenial way. They were quick with a joke, although the Alabamian’s humor was dryer and darker. We all wish we could seize the day, everyday, and travel with a manic energy and purpose. To see the world and conquer it, and breathe every inch of it, and get your hands dirty in every corner of it, that’s what travel is supposed to be about, right? We all wish we could travel like conquerors, expanding our own personal territory while slaying one experience after another, and making foreign customs and monuments bow in familiarity to our wordliness. God bless those people who can do it, the ones who make the most out of every day. But give me those weary travelers on the couch over the ones who need to go see another cookie cutter Spanish church any day. (They really are all the same. You think the inquisition really allowed a lot individual expression? Spanish churches are like the McDonalds of the colonial era.)
Of course, there was a crazy person at Hostel Luego for the simple reason that there is always one crazy person (no more, no less) at every hostel I’ve ever been to. I didn’t even catch his name, but he did three things that were weird and awkward, which by themselves would not make one crazy. I have lots of weird and awkward friends, and I wouldn’t be that offended if someone turned those adjectives on me. But to have supreme confidence in your weird and awkward ways is the sign of a serial killer. Of course, he was American.
Insane thing #1: On his first night there we were all lounging around on the couches, drinking, and watching TV. It was me, Jason, the Alabamian, the Israeli, and the tall, gregarious Swedish guy who was traveling with his very attractive and predictably cold Swedish girlfriend and an almost as attractive and even colder Norwegian girl, who were also both present. We were all sort of talking, drinking, and making fun of the movie that was on and ourselves for watching it. It was decidedly unfunny and not at all appropriate to drink to. It was the film “Brothers,” in which Toby Maguire is captured in Afghanistan, pronounced dead, then released back to his family after the pronouncement, which produces a lot of shock and a lot of Tobey Maguire looking creepy and uncomfortable. Needless to say he returns with serious case of PTSD and not a tiny case of the crazies.
Somehow this came on and nobody turned the channel. Again, we were talking through most of it. The American guy sat down and then proceeded to ask us to be quiet. We were an hour into the movie before he walked in and tried to turn the whole room silent. I kept trying to tactfully refuse him with comments like “you don’t need to hear it. There are subtitles,” and “do you really need to know what’s going on? It’s Jake Gyllenhal and Natalie Portman alone. Body language says it all.” He clearly was getting really irritated by everyone who dared to talk over a Tobey Maguire movie. Eventually he left, but not before doing insane thing#2, which was to declare to the room that he really wanted to go to Afghanistan.
“Why?” asked everyone present.
“Because it’s beautiful there. It’s a beautiful culture. I really want to go.”
“Might want to wait a few years on that one,” I said.
The next morning I heard crazy thing #3, which consisted of me hearing the following exchange through the door of my room as I lay in bed, covered in sweat from the lack of AC.
“Ah, hello,” in a heavily (probably German) accented English.
“Say thank you,” stated firmly. I was intimidated in my bed. I recognized the voice as our future Afghani tourist. Crazy serial killers like him that can make murder look like a travel accident is just one of many reasons to look into something like Debenhams Multi trip travel insurance.
“ah…sorry, what?” this was said, again, in heavily, heavily accented English.
“Say thank you! I just walked all the way down the hall to open the door for you. Say thank you!” his voice was not at all firm. It was sharp, angry, crazy.
“oh…yes…sorry…I mean…uh…thank you?”
Silence and then footsteps. No “you’re welcome.” What a dick.
One night, while I was sitting on the roof deck and sipping on a coffee mug of rum, Alex and a two of his friends came to the roof. There is no light up there, so strangely enough I never really saw either of his two friends’ faces. I also had to make sure I gave a friendly “what’s up?” before they got too far onto the deck because I knew if I waited more than a second or two to say something I would’ve scared the bejesus out of them because they couldn’t see me at all.
“Oh, hey man…” Alex said. Clearly couldn’t see who I was. I mentioned that I was the hideously deformed backpacker that he checked in earlier that day, hiding in the shadows where no one could see me. Also, did he have an organ I could play?
His friends were both American, and both lived in Bocas. They rolled up a joint and passed it around, and included me in their conversation. One of them who owned a bar in town and couldn’t’ have been any older than me told me all about the different beaches. “Everyone’s going to try and take you to Red Frog,” he declared. “Don’t go there. It’s not bad, but don’t go there.
Go to Wizard Beach. “
We talked NBA and I then I asked what they were doing there. The friend who owned the bar said that he opened a bar with a friend their six years ago and that he had an open mic night on Tuesday.
Alex said he had been there for four years managing the hostel. I never was quite clear on whether he was the owner or the manager, but given the way he talked about it as if it was his own, and talked about all the plans he had for it and the improvements he had already made, I assumed it must be his baby.
They told me all about the place, mentioned friends with names that were both Spanish and Anglo sounding. Alex wanted to know what I did, and I told him I worked online. When I mentioned that I also occasionally wrote people’s resumes he suddenly declared, “I need a resume, if I ever leave here.”
“When are you going to leave here?” his friend asked.
“I don’t know, soon, maybe,” he laughed, as did they. I gathered that leaving was promised often. “If I do, I’m gonna need a resume. “
“What would you even put on it?” asked the second friend, who was there doing something vague for his parents that lived in Bocas as well.
“Are you kidding? I’ve been managing a hostel since I was 22. Five years management experience. That’s something. I could get a job with that.”
“You could,” I said “but it depends what kind of job you want.”
“Who knows?” he said, and that was the last of it. We watched the moon over the water, and the trees sway behind the row of hostels, bed and breakfasts, and bicycle rental shops that lined the water.
“You play any instruments?” his friend with the bar asked me.
“I strum on a guitar really badly,” I said. “I can jam out on three chords though.”
“Dude, you gotta come to open mic on Tuesday. Everyone gets up. Nobody can really play.”
“I don’t have a guitar here,” I said. “I can barely play anything.”
“We’ll have a guitar for you. You come, get drunk, and go up there. You have to. Everyone here does. “
I never went to that open mic. I should’ve. I guess seizing the day is about more than visiting Spanish churches.