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Life without salt

Updated: Jan 11

Gerry Klein

I was sitting on a park bench in Guatemala City when I spotted a middle-aged American cross the street and enter the square from the far side. He had already spied me and when I glanced his way, his eyes locked on mine and he gave me a small smile that indicated he was coming my way.

I wasn’t looking forward to it. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice him but he sidled up beside me on the bench and watched people passing along the sidewalk. We both sat quietly for a moment then he turned to me. “I’m going to tell you something now that, if you heed my advice, you will thank me for when you get my age,” he said.

I said nothing but looked his way.

“Stop eating salt. Salt will kill you,” he said.

I tried not to laugh.

I had been sitting on that bench across the street from a restaurant where a young American man in his early 20s and a Swiss woman of about the same age sat in deep discussion. I knew very little about the American but the woman and I had some history. About 10 months earlier we had met at a Greyhound station in Washington, D.C.

I had spent part of that afternoon in the American capital chatting with an African American man who was also hanging out waiting for a bus. I intended to catch a bus to a hitchhike zone outside the city. When the African American went to use the facility, this Swiss woman came up to me, pointed at the Canadian flag on my backpack and asked me in French if I spoke French.

I told her I could speak it a little. She asked me how to catch the bus to Nashville. I told her I was hitchhiking that way and she sat quiet, taking that in. Then she asked if she could come with me.

The African American came back, sat on the other side of me, then looked at her. He asked me if I would mind if he tagged along with me for a while.

I looked at him. I looked at her. Then I said: “Sorry man, I think she and I are hitchhiking to Nashville.”

He looked at her then said: “Ya, man. I get it.” He got up and walked away. I had the impression he believed I didn’t want to travel with a Black man but the truth was I would much rather be with a pretty woman.

We cleared the urban area by bus, got out and began to hitch rides. The going in Virginia was slow and we had to find a place to camp before we ever hit Tennessee. After we set up camp, made something to eat and watched the fire go out, she was trying to decide if she should sleep outside or risk coming into my tent.Through words and body language she made it clear she didn’t want to have sex so we stayed in my small pup tent in separate bags staring at opposite walls, both unable to sleep.

The next night we were in Nashville and before we went to bed she told me that it was because one time, when she was travelling home between the French and German sides of Switzerland, she was offered a ride by a man from her school. While they were driving he began to grab at her, tore her clothes and touched her. When she cried and fought he pulled his penis out and rubbed it until it spewed semen across the steering wheel and dash.

Disgusted and frightened she got out of the car and he drove off. She was left to make her own way home, where her elderly mother was angry with her for putting herself in that position.

We each stared at the top of the tent that night.

The next day we walked around Nashville listening to the country music spilling into the streets. We went to the Grand Ole Opry and she took photos from outside the closed building.

The next day we hitched to Memphis where we toured a river boat. She picked out a T-shirt and asked the man selling it: “How do you love this?”

“Love it?” he asked.

“Yes, how do you love it?”

I asked her what she was trying to say and it became clear she wanted to know how to wash the shirt. “Oh,” I said. “She wants to know how to wash the shirt.”

“I thought she said love,” he replied.

“Lave is French for wash,” I said, and we both laughed. She turned red, put the shirt down and left the boat. I went after her and could see she was upset.

“You should leave me,” she said. “I’m sorry,” I said. She stayed quiet but came back to the campsite and stayed in my tent that night.

The next day we were in Tupelo. Then we hitched our way down the Mississippi, catching rides from farmers and rednecks. One man in a beat-up pickup drank moonshine out of a jug and bragged about spending the weekend “Coon hunting.” They would track down a young Black couple, beat up the guy and gang rape the woman in front of him. I couldn’t be sure he was telling the truth because it was so awful. Margarita, who couldn’t understand what he was saying, wondered why I told him we had to get out of his truck so far from where we were hoping to end up.

Another night we got dropped off in a very small, dark town. The only light we could see came from a bus depot. I popped my head in the door and asked the guy behind the counter if he could tell us how to get back to the Mississippi River to camp.

He looked at me, he looked and Margarita, then he said: “You go back the way you came about three miles. Then you take the road to your left about three miles then you go left again until you get to the river.”

“Really?” I asked. “I feel like the river is somewhere down this road.”

He glared at me. “That’s (derogatory term for African Americans)-town. You can’t take that girl through there.”

I told Margarita what he said but suggested I didn’t feel there was danger. It would be up to her. She smiled, hitched up her backpack and started walking into the darkest side of this dark town. I followed and the guy from the bus depot shouted out that we would be sorry. We had no idea what we were getting into.

There were no streetlights on this side of town. We walked past picket fences and could feel more than see the people watching us. Finally, I made out a woman’s figure silhouetted in the light from a coal oil lamp.

“Good evening, Ma’am,” I said. Soon, everyone was coming up to their gates to wish us a good evening.

We found a camping spot by the river and I stayed up all night waiting for the guy from the bus depot and his buddies to come down and make us sorry for cutting through the dark side of town. They never did.

We made our way down to New Orleans where we were offered a sleeping space in the balcony of a hot, humid house in the French Quarter. Before I drifted off to sleep I heard some guy in the house ask: “Do you think they’re screwing yet? Should we go watch?” I heard the curtain get pulled back.

I told Margarita what they were doing and why we were given the cool outside sleeping area. She just laughed.

We made our way to Florida where we had a moonlight dip in the Gulf, then north through Georgia and the Carolinas then across to Kansas City where we met a tipsy 50-something couple at Catfish Charlies. They invited us to their apartment and a swim in their pool the next day. They sat by the pool drinking beer out of a cooler while Margarita and I kept cool in the water.

By day’s end we had to help them back to their studio suite where they slept on a pull-out bed while Margarita and I made do on a sofa. The man went to have a bath but was so drunk he couldn’t get out of the tub without my help. The woman cried and complained he had drunk up all their money and they lost their house — “a very beautiful house.” They finally passed out and Margarita wept all night.

We took in the July 4th fireworks at Leavenworth; met an elderly lady at a small-town museum who was sure Margarita would know the Swiss man she knew, although she wasn’t sure of his name. Margarita tried to explain there were six million people in Switzerland but the woman was convinced Margarita would know her friend.

We saw St. Louis’s skyline from the Cahokia Mounds, witnessed actors shoot it out on the main streets of Dodge City, and were provided with a private air tour of Kansas by a guy from Ulysses who picked us up outside Dodge and used his car phone to tell his wife to pull steaks out of the freezer because they were having company for the weekend. He and I sat up late into the night drinking Canadian whiskey and telling stories about the North, where he had spent a few years and I had earned the money for this trip working oil rigs.

We got picked up by a group of teenagers who drove us off the highway to a small pasture with a large cistern by a windmill. The water going into the cistern was clear, cool and sweet, and we all swam naked while the cows watched.

I don’t remember how long it took before our relationship changed from tent mates to lovers but I remember the night it happened. We had had a few drinks and when we crawled into the tent she was receptive to my kisses. I could tell she was aroused by my touch but after we had sex she wept because it was her first time.

She wept again in the morning and was quiet for most of the day. I felt horrible.

That night she told me there was a professor at her university she used to imagine as her first lover but he was married and had a couple of kids. They had talked about meeting up in North America at the end of the summer but hadn’t made firm plans. She would write him occasionally and pick up mail at general delivery in post offices.

While we were checking out the Pueblo Indian village in Taos our campsite was raided. What wasn’t stolen was vandalized. Our sleeping bags were soaked in urine and her clothes were covered in semen. We threw it all out and bought new at an outfitter and clothing store in Taos. I bought her a new wardrobe and us new camping gear. She looked very happy.

We caught a ride with a hippie couple outside Taos and went to the Four Corners, then to a series of cliff-dwelling ruins, culminating in one we had to walk up a canyon for most of a day to see. When we got there a young Indigenous woman, a ranger, told us we couldn’t enter because there was a Hopi elder there conducting a special ceremony. We camped outside, along the stream that flowed from the deserted village. We were sitting next to the fire smoking dope and talking about the magic of the setting when the Hopi elder stepped out of the darkness. He thanked us for respecting his tradition then joined us, smoking and telling us how he was bringing gifts to his ancestors who had stayed behind to look after the village when everyone else had to leave. “They still wait for us all to come back,” he said.

We drove to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The hippie couple were going north into Utah and Magarita and I were crossing the canyon.

That night the women went to their respective beds while the guy and I sat up smoking dope and watching the fire die. He told me he had joined the army when he was young and was sent to Germany. He liked it and the army liked him. When his contract was nearly up his commander called him in and told him he should go to Vietnam to get a little combat experience and then he could write his own ticket.

He signed on and next thing he knew they were flying him to Saigon. When he got off the plane with a handful of new recruits he was asked to avoid hanging around the body bags that were being loaded onto the plane for their final flight home. He got to his base and before he could stow his gear he was told to head out on patrol. He grabbed his gun and climbed into a helicopter with a squad that included a new lieutenant.

They flew low over the jungle to avoid anti-aircraft fire then set down hard in a small opening.

They left the craft and it took off immediately, leaving them alone in the dark. The lieutenant read his orders by flashlight with a compass on the map. He said they would have to patrol a circle in the jungle, returning by morning to be picked up.

The sergeant told him: “Sir, you are new here so I’ll tell you we can’t do that. If we go out there we will all be dead in minutes.” The lieutenant responded that the army would not send them out with no hope of survival.

“Come on, hitch up. Let’s go.” The sergeant watched him take a few steps then turned his rifle on him and shot him in the back of the head. He then put the gun in my friend’s mouth and asked him: “Do you have a problem with that?”

“I shook my head no.”

“How about you?” the sergeant asked, turning to the other new recruit.

“We sat out the night smoking dope and when the chopper came in the morning we told them we were ambushed. I decided then and there I was going to do what I had to do to survive Vietnam.”

While he talked he silently opened a can of beans that had been warming by the fire.

“I was in Da Nang when I was told they were shipping me back home. I got in a helicopter with a couple other guys who were being sent back and some Vietnam regulars who were escorting prisoners to Saigon. We were flying over the jungle when I heard shouting from the Vietnamese soldiers. They dragged one of the prisoners to the door, shouting and slapping him, then they just kicked him out and he dropped into the jungle. Then they went back for another prisoner who cried and pleaded but out the door he went. I looked out the other door and swore to myself America was going owe me for the rest of my life.”

I could hear him weep while he recounted the story. I was pretty stoned and woke Margarita up when I got in the tent so I told her what happened. The hippie couple were gone when we got up in the morning.

We descended to the Colorado River in one day. It was 42C at the bottom and I learned Margarita had massive blisters on her feet from the steep drop. We were up at sunrise the next morning to avoid the heat. I took as much of Margarita’s gear as I could to take the weight off her blistered feet. I also carried everything I owned and a four-gallon water container.

I pushed myself to climb the canyon, pausing only when Margarita insisted. I stepped in time: One, Two Three, Four, Who Are We For? One, Two Three Four.

Margarita stopped to show me a snake that was swallowing a still-alive lizard.

One, Two, Three, Four, Who, Are, We, For?

I stopped to laugh at Margarita and she brayed back at a wild donkey.

One, Two, Three, Four, Who, Are, We, For?

We met a young German guy who was travelling the United States in the backseat of one two Cadillacs owned by his American girlfriend’s father. I refused to let him lighten my load but he did carry Margarita’s backpack and the two enjoyed speaking German to each other. We agreed to go dancing with the American’s family but never made it. We crashed soon after we ate and the next day hit the road to Las Vegas.

We found a small casino on the strip that had 15-cent beer and a buck-a-burger. Besides the bartender the only other people in the lounge were two already inebriated men debating whether Delaware was a state or Native Tribe.

I tried to discreetly translate the conversation for Margarita.

“What do you mean Delaware is a state? Blackfoot isn’t a state.”

“Blackfoot are Indians. I wonder why they are called blackfeet.”

“They used to chase buffalo after the grass was burned. I’m Delaware.”

“Did you chase buffalo?”

“No, that’s the Blackfeet.”

A Midwestern couple loudly entered the bar. He was six feet, five inches and weighed maybe 135 pounds. She was five foot 10 and weighed 300. He was loud and excited and wearing a powder-blue leisure suit. She had a fur-lined wrap.

They ordered a couple of beers and dropped their stuff on the stools by the bar. He looked around, checking out Margarita and noticing the drunks — one of whom had slipped onto the floor while Delaware rested his eyes with his head on the table. “I’m going to check out the tables,” he announced to no one who cared. She grabbed a KFC bucket of nickels and headed to the slots.

Margarita and I were finishing up our drinks and thinking of heading out, our entertainment having succumbed to the cheap beer and the comfort of the table leg when Leisure Suit came storming back into the lounge and scrambling through their stored gear.

“Has anyone been through our stuff?” he demanded of the bartender. “No sir, no one has come in here,” came the answer. They both looked in our direction but instead of lust in his eyes for Margarita, this time Leisure Suit looked at me with suspicion while the bartender looked for confirmation.

This attracted the attention of his wife, who came back with her bucket and asked what was going on.

“Someone has rifled through our stuff and stole my wallet,” he answered. “I had everything in there. I had more than 800 bucks, all the money for our holiday.”

They both looked at the sleeping drunk, then at us and the bartender, having come around to help search around the stools, said: “No one has been here.”

Without lifting his head or opening his eyes, Delaware said: “The hooker took it.”

Everyone froze and looked at the drunks. The guy on the floor snorted in his sleep. The bartender said: “I better get the manager.”

“Well, if no one has been here my wallet has to be around someplace,” Leisure Suit said while they all pawed through their clothes and moved stools, looking for what they all now knew wasn’t there.

“It was the hooker,” the seemingly sleeping Delaware insisted. “I saw it. You was feelin’ her up and she picked your pocket clean, then slipped out the back door.”

Our eyes all instinctively looked at the Blackjack table and followed an imaginary route out the back exit.

The manager came and asked what happened.

“We left our stuff at the bar here and someone rifled through them and stole my wallet.” The wife looked at Delaware with a deep scowl on her face. The bartender assured the manager he didn’t believe anyone came into the lounge. “It was the hooker,” Delaware insisted.

“I think it was the hippie,” Leisure Suit said. “He was sitting at the table doing all the talking and grabbed it while I was distracted.”

The wife stormed out.

The manager persuaded Leisure Suit to come to his office to cancel any credit cards.

Margarita and I looked at Delaware as we were walking out but it looked like he had slipped off into dreamland.

It was 115F when Margarita and I made our way to the Interstate outside Las Vegas the next day. There was already someone standing in the shade of the one small tree and I took Margarita’s backpack and mine, told her to wait in the shade, and I went as far up the on-ramp as I dared and stuck my thumb out. Before long a sleek, black one-ton truck pulling a matching black trailer pulled up. I popped my head in his window and said my girlfriend was waiting in the shade.

“Bring her up,” the driver said. The other hiker came scrambling up the ramp with her yelling this was his ride because he was there first. I looked at the driver sheepishly and said: “He was there.”

“Well, he can fuck off,” the driver said. “I stopped for you because of your Canada flag and because you had the guts to stand out here in 112 degrees.”

He used to be a semi long-hauler but he sold that rig, bought this truck and trailer and now all he does is haul horses around for John Wayne. “He’s a good guy. Treats me right and I always know where I’ll be come nightfall.”

He found a place off the highway for us to camp in Utah. I set the tent up in the little shade that was there but Margarita was not feeling well. Her temperature was through the roof. I lay her down on top of the sleeping bags, took her clothes off and covered her with soaked bandanas. I sat there sprinkling her with water and fanning her with our maps, hoping her temperature would come back down.

I was pretty worried for her because there was no close place where I could get help and heat stroke can be devastating. It took a long time for her to come around. It felt surreal to be there trying to cool her exquisitely beautiful body clothed in nothing but thin, wet cotton bandanas.

When she felt normal we decided to make our way a mile or so down the highway where we had seen a roadhouse with a conspicuous window air conditioner. When we got there, however, we were greeted with a tumbleweed-strewn parking lot and locked doors. By the time we got back to the tent Margarita was boiling hot again. I continued wetting and fanning her until well past dark.

We hitched through Idaho where we were picked up by a redneck in a ’63 Chevy pickup with a rope holding the passenger door shut and so many empty Coors cans on the floor we couldn’t see our feet. He spoke to me, past Margarita like she was a puppy sitting on the seat. He told me that the night before he had been set upon by some hippies in a bar after he mocked their hair. They beat him up and tossed him out.

“It wasn’t until this morning I remembered …” He began fumbling under the Coors cans. I knew what he was looking for and felt the heavy steel of a handgun with my toe.“Just as well,” I told him while moving the handgun toward the passenger door. “If you would have gone back with that, they’d be dead, you’d be in jail for the rest of your life and we would still be on the side of the road.”

“Ya, you’re probably right.”I had a habit of not telling Margarita exactly what was going on when we came across similar circumstances until we were in the clear. I could tell by the way she studied my face that she knew something was up.

We continued on to Vancouver ,where I bought an old one-ton cube van that had been roughly camperized. We drove it over the Rogers Pass, where she was amazed at how wild the Canadian mountains looked compared with her Swiss Alps.

I think it was in Calgary where she got out to join The Professor she had fantasized about. It was late August, and he was doing field work in the Canadian Arctic and had asked her to tag along.

I drove the van to my hometown with the intent of fixing it up so I could drive it into Latin America. I ended up instead helping my brother build a massive Quonset hut and then with the harvest. In late September, Margarita contacted me to say she would be in Regina. The Professor was going home to his family and she wanted to visit my family.

I borrowed my father’s car and went to pick her up. We stayed in Lafleche for a few days during which time I showed her the farms and the country. One cold rainy day we went to an auction sale in Assiniboia, where we joined my father and his brother in a truck camper. They had spent the afternoon drinking whiskey and were delighted to practice their German — the language they spoke in their youth — with this pretty woman from Switzerland. When my intoxicated uncle decided it was time to leave, he turned to me and said: “This one is nice but I’m not coming out to see another one of yours until you bring a Black one out of Africa.”

Margarita looked at him, then looked at me, then whispered “Did he say what I think?”

My brother drove us to Glasgow, Montana, where we hitched first to the Little Big Horn then Yellowknife and the Grand Tetons. I don’t know when our conversations evolved from relying primarily on my bad French to mostly her rapidly improving English, but by the time we were heading back south through the States she was able to participate in three-way conversations.

I also don’t recall just when our sex life evolved from my self-conscious and tentative moves followed by guilt and remorse to her clearly enjoying it. When she returned from the stint with her professor she told me he told her I had been good for her, teaching her what to like about her body. She was much more comfortable talking about sex and even initiating it.

It snowed on us in the Grant Tetons. We awoke to the tent sagging barely above our bodies and it was too cold for my small propane stove to work. A kind elderly couple in a motorhome brought over a bundle of wood so we could cook our breakfast. We caught a ride out of the park with another older couple in a large van. He was an engineer for NASA and the seats of the van came from the first-class section of a 747 he had converted to carry the space shuttle.

We picked fruit from the sides of roads in Washington, used a borrowed trap to fish for crab in Coos Bay, Oregon, and spent Halloween in San Fransisco, where we watched kids trick-or-treating along Lombard Street. We went into an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet that had a warning at the door that you would be charged for any food left on your plate. Margarita went for dessert but didn’t know how to work the ice cream machine. She came back to the table with a red face and a foot-high swirl of soft ice cream. Although we were already stuffed we sat there eating ice cream until the bowl was empty while the Asian man tending the till laughed.

We bought tickets to an all-night horror marathon at a cinema around the corner from our hotel but sandwiched between the blood and the gore was a sleazy porn movie with close-ups of sex organs in action and 12-foot shots of orgasmic juices shooting across cheap costumes and naked breasts. Margarita buried her face into my shoulder and let out a disgusted “uhggg.”

“Do we look like that?” she asked.

“Well, you are much more beautiful than she is and that guy has at least eight more inches of penis than I do, so I would say we don’t look much like that,” I responded.

In spite of the promise of an all-night marathon, at midnight the manager stopped the movie mid-sentence and came on stage to announce that the theatre was showing a special presentation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and we would all have to leave. But because we had bought into the marathon, we qualified to be first in line to buy tickets to the special event.

Neither Margarita nor I had heard of the Rocky Horror show so we decided we would go back to our room. When we hit the street, however, we were greeted by the longest queue of cross-dressed humans one can imagine. At the front of the line were two bearded ladies with immaculate make-up holding hands and leading a chorus of what we later learned were songs from the show. They talked us into buying the tickets and while we squeezed into seats among this exuberant crowd of the cross-dressers and self-identified queers, Margarita held my hand, sang along when she could and was clearly happy and at home.

We surfed off Malibu Beach and took in Hollywood and Los Angeles from a cheap downtown hotel. We saw a movie being made with a minor celebrity playing the role of a tough police officer. Every time he would exit his car and start talking tough, someone from the gathered crowd would call out his name and he would turn and smile. The director would yell “Cut!” and then ask us to let the actors do their work. They would retake, he would exit the cruiser and someone would yell his name and he would involuntarily smile and wave.

Before we checked out of the hotel, Margarita paused to write The Professor a postcard to tell him when she thought we’d be in Mexico. She hoped to meet up with him again in Mazatlán after he got things sorted out with his wife and two kids.

I was on the floor stuffing my pack while she stood by the dresser trying to compose the postcard. I crawled under her long skirt and began kissing her thighs. Her pen stopped scratching the paper so I continued. She said nothing but adjusted her legs to accommodate me. After a bit I could feel her whole body tremble then she let out a guttural moan. A moment later I heard the pen scratching and I got up and picked up my backpack.

She looked at her postcard and said: “My handwriting is terrible.” Then she smiled and kissed me.

We took a bus to the “Biggest Truck Stop in the World” just outside Ontario, California. It took us more than 24 hours on the side of the road before, after I estimated well over a million cars had passed, a guy from the air force pulled over to pick us up.

“You could not have chosen a worse place to stop,” he told us. “This is where Charles Manson’s gang hangs out. I only stopped because I recognized the Canadian flag and your Red Cross (a lot of people would confuse Margarita’s Swiss flag for the aid group). Besides, I’m armed.”

He drove us back to Las Vegas where this time we had set aside $20 each to gamble.

Margarita hit the slots and I went to a horse-race video game. I bet on a horse and it won. The second time I noticed it was the same race and I won again. I let it ride on the same horse and it won again. I told a guy who stopped to watch that I thought the game was stuck on the same race. He bet heavily on the same horse and we both won.

When we went to bet again the machine made an odd sound and a sign came up saying it was out of order.

We were staying in a motel across the street and decided we would take some of our winnings to have a good meal with wine. It was very romantic and we had a good night. The next morning, I stashed the cash while we went for breakfast, but when we got back to the room the cleaning cart was outside and there was no one inside. The money was gone.

I went to the front desk to tell the manager and he responded with: “Well, this is the last time. This time I’m going to fire her.”

I asked about the money but he washed his hands of it, saying if I wanted to get it back and was lucky enough to get to her before she bought a bottle, she lived in an apartment in the alley behind the motel.

Feeling aggrieved I decided I would guilt her into returning the money. I rang her bell and the door was answered by a sweet and terrified little girl. I asked if her grandmother was there and she looked back to where I could see a shadow of the woman drinking from the neck of a bottle. “I don’t know,” she said then burst into tears.

I told the woman she can’t put a child at risk like this but she continued to drink and pretend she wasn’t there.

I walked back to the street and flagged down a cop car. He listened to my story while caressing a shotgun he had fixed between the driver and passenger seats.

“You ain’t going to get your money back,” he told me.

“I don’t care about the money. I’m worried for the child.”

“If you pursue charges you will have to stay here to testify and that could take weeks. We’d charge you if you try to leave.”

“I don’t want to press charges and I don’t care about the money. I just want to know the child is safe.”

“I could take you to talk to my sergeant.”

The sergeant seemed to understand and sent me to a social worker who promised they would check on the child and let me know anything they could about the results. “Do you have an address where we could reach you?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied. “I suppose I will be picking up mail at the Canadian embassy in Mexico City.

Miraculously (at least to me) there was a letter waiting for me from the social worker when I arrived at the embassy. He said the woman was the child’s grandmother and the state was intervening to make sure the mother, who had regretted trusting her mother, would be provided with resources so she wouldn’t put her child in such a situation again. The grandmother had also agreed to seek treatment.

When we hitched out of Vegas we were picked up by a hippie couple in a converted cube van. In the middle of the Arizona desert I switched seats with the woman and while she assembled sandwiches I noticed there was a loaded shotgun leaning just inside the driver door. I told the man I had just realized I had a cousin who lived down this side road a couple of miles and we might just stay there the night.

It gets cold in the desert at night and it’s nice to have someone to share your sleeping bag with.

We took the train from Nogales. We had a deadline because The Professor was going to be there over the Christmas break. We found a campground and I knew our hours were numbered.

We had an intense night during which I marked the bottom of one of her breasts with a hickey. The next morning she sadly packed her bag, kissed me passionately, then walked down the road. I hung around the campsite, cleaning my clothes and planning my next step.

The next morning before I went to check out I saw her coming back down the road. This time without a bag. She came into the campground and said The Professor was going to be busy that day and she wanted to be with me a little longer. It was a sad, quiet day and slow night. She told me she didn’t know about the hickey until The Professor pointed it out to her and told her. She wasn’t angry but very sweet to me that night.

She went back to The Professor in the morning.

Even in Mazatlán it gets cold when you don’t have someone to share your sleeping bag with.

I spent Christmas in Mexico City and felt my first earthquake in Oaxaca. I took a train across the isthmus from Tehuantepec to Coatzacoalcos, where I saw a tiny peasant child try to flog coffee to crowded passenger cars. She sang “Café negro y café con lecheeee,” dragging out the last syllable. She was too intent on her song to notice when people asked to buy the coffee but everyone smiled as she passed. I couldn’t help to think of the tragedy of someone so small and precocious being trapped so young in the servitude of poverty.

I snorkelled off Belize’s barrier reef and tagged up with a guy from Guernsey who shared my humour and equally didn’t care if we got out of this alive. On a beach south of Belize City he convinced a young Miskito Indian that I was Terence Hill from My Name is Nobody and that we wanted to camp incognito in his coconut grove.

“It’s the blue eyes and leather hat,” Guernsey told me. “I didn’t even have to say who you were. He started to ask and I just asked him to be quiet. He said we could stay here as long as we wanted.”

The sandflies also enjoyed our company so we moved on. In Punta Gorda there was a British army garrison stationed there to discourage claims over Belize made by Guatemala. There was also an MI6 agent who tried to be inconspicuous when he asked us who we were, where we had come from, what we saw along the way, and where we were going.

When Guernsey replied with a simple “MI6?” he sighed and admitted his job was tedious, lonely and uncomfortable. He lived in a small sailboat, pretending to be a tourist, and questioned every new person in town. All but one.

There was a young woman from Ann Arbor who had showed up with no money and almost no clothes. She was sure her boyfriend, who had taken everything in a tiff, would come for her. She was left wearing coverall shorts and a well-supplied bikini top. We told MI6 that she seemed like someone who needed the assistance of the British foreign office. He spent a lot of time interrogating her and in return let Guernsey and me stay on his sailboat.

The soldiers of the garrison tried to kill us with booze after a Trooping of Colours celebration. Guernsey and I were the last two standing before the MPs came to literally mop up the remains of the regiment, no small thanks to our ability to secretly dump the vile green liquid they gave us by the mug full.

When we caught a ride in a dugout canoe into Guatemala, we got lost at sea and were rescued by a pod of dolphins.

We witnessed drunken Guatemalan police beat two small Mayan Indians to death, apparently out of spite. We made our way to Tikal, which was then very remote and with only sporadic service. To be safe we bought a net bag of large, delicious grapefruits we spotted in the market to satisfy our hunger and thirst.

We rode on a crowded bus to the ruins, set up camp in the late afternoon and by the time we got the fire going it was dark. We feasted on grapefruit before hitting the sack.

In the morning when we cracked open grapefruit for breakfast, every section had a large, juicy maggot.

“You know what this means?” Guernsey asked me. I thought he was going to say we didn’t have any food for the week but he continued: “We have to eat these after dark. I didn’t see any maggots in the ones we had last night, did you?”

About four days later a crew from France showed up at the campsite and came over to ask where they could get water and food. “There is no place,” we said. “Here you eat and drink what you brought.”

“We didn’t bring anything. Do you have any you can share?”

“We have grapefruit but you can only eat them at night,” I told them.

“Why at night?”

“If you try to eat them during the day they have maggots in them. At night, no maggots.”

“That can’t be,” one young woman said, assuming it was my bad French that made me say things they didn’t understand. “If there are maggots in them during the day they will be there at night, you just can’t see them.”

“Are there maggots in the grapefruit at night?” I asked Guernsey. “I didn’t see any,” he replied.

“No maggots.” I said. “You are welcome to help yourself.”

They took one, cracked it open and shuddered upon seeing the maggots. “Just at night.” I admonished them.

They left the next morning when a bus unexpectedly turned up, but not before one woman was showered with Howler monkey faeces when she stopped on her way into the ruins to tease the creatures.

In Flores I went to the roof of our hotel to wash my clothes and there hanging on the line was the wardrobe I had bought for Margarita. I was suffering my first bout of malaria and wasn’t sure that I wasn’t hallucinating but they were all there: the white jump suit, the T-shirts, even the underwear.

I waited on the roof until she came to retrieve them. She looked at me like I has a spectre, then came over and awkwardly kissed me.

“I was looking for you,” she said.

We went to her room, which she was obviously sharing with someone else who wasn’t there. We cuddled on the bed, in part because I was feeling quite poorly. She told me The Professor stayed with her in Mazatlán then, after an argument, stormed out and went back to his wife who was also in Mazatlán. She determined she would fly home but, on the way, decided she would try to catch up to me, following the Gringo Trail.

It was complete serendipity that brought her to Flores.

While we talked a young American man came into the room and she introduced us. He had been helping her navigate the trail but was still surprised to have met with success.

Then he looked at her and said: “Voulez-vous parler avec moi outside?”

“What?” she said.

Slower, he repeated “Voulez-vous parler avec moi?” then pointed out the door.


“Il veut vous parler à l’extérieur,” I said, while he looked confused and she looked at me with apprehension.

They went outside and spoke for a time and she came back in. “He is going to let you sleep here and he will find someplace else for the night,” she said. “We’ve been travelling together but we haven’t had sex.”

I stayed the night but the next day I was already booked on a trip into the jungle to a point on the Río La Pasión. We arranged to meet again in Guatemala City. I lent her my Seiko watch my buddy had given me years earlier after I gave him the money to fly from London to Gran Canaria to see a woman he had fallen for who, unbeknown to him, was in the final stages of lung cancer.

I also gave her my leather hat because her fair skin was suffering under the tropical sun and she looked way better in it than either I or Terence Hill.

That’s how I got to that bench in the park across from the restaurant where she and the American were deciding my future. Since I had met them in Flores their relationship had advanced and Margarita wasn’t sure what was the right thing to do.

They decided to go back to the States and I told her she could keep the hat and watch. After all, there was no chance to mark the bottom of her breast.

I don’t remember thinking much about her after that. I had already planned to make my way through the war zones in El Salvador and Nicaragua and was pretty sure I could walk my way through the Darien Gap, all of which would be easier alone.

I received a letter from her when I was in Peru a year or two later. She had sent it to my parents’ home in Lafleche and they had forwarded it. She didn’t stay with the American for long, deciding to go back to Mexico City and fly to Switzerland to start a life. She had a degree in art restoration and worked on old religious work. One day she fell from a steeple while working on a statue and was badly injured but she wanted to reassure me it wasn’t my fault.

Her mother wasn’t so sure. At some point she phoned my father, yelling at him in German for what I had done to her daughter. I learned of this when I phoned my father to have the bank transfer my money to me. He told me I was out of cash and he would send me the money to fly home. I told him I was sure I still had plenty of money in the bank but I would make my way back on my own.

In a freezing hotel room in a small town near Arequipa, Peru, I sat at a table illuminated by candlelight to reply to Margarita’s letter. My then girlfriend was cuddled up on the single bed in our room with a young American woman. She knew I liked it when she was with another woman and I could hear the American occasionally whisper: “Don’t. I don’t want to.” But the sound of clothes and hands moving and soft kisses continued.

I can’t for the life of me remember what I wrote to Margarita that night but I had the vague feeling they were words she would never read. Still, I hope I was kind.

In spite of this long dissertation, I don’t remember thinking of Margarita very often since that night under candlelight. When I think of her it is usually while remembering something particularly American, a city or a country song. Even now I can’t conjure up an image of her face, just shadows indicating a hidden beauty — just like the photos accompanying this article (the only two that survived shipwrecks and basement floods).

Sometimes I think of her when I take my daily Ramipril pill. Perhaps had I listened to that old guy who sat beside me on the bench in Guatemala City, I would have cut out salt and wouldn’t be struggling with moderately high blood pressure.

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Amazing. There’s a movie in there. Or maybe a few.

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