Jamie Simons has spent much of her life traveling and writing about it. Between the ages of 25 and 35, she took an early retirement and hitched around the world. She has experienced first-hand how travel can bring together people of all types, from all backgrounds. In the Grateful Traveler series, she’ll share inspirational stories from her travels.
Long before I was a traveler I went to Guatemala as a tourist. Along with my sister, I visited the Indian villages that dot beautiful Lake Atitlan, stayed on a coffee plantation in the colonial city of Antigua and visited the Mayan ruins in the jungles of Tikal. On our last day there, we hitched across the country, arriving at a tiny border outpost just as the sun was setting.
Our plan was to catch the one bus that left this forlorn and primitive crossing each night bound for Oaxaca, Mexico. Fluent in Spanish, my sister asked the border guard where to catch the bus.
Pointing to the steps outside, he motioned us out and proceeded to close up for the night. It was 9 p.m. The bus was due to leave at 10 p.m.
To pass the time I told my sister a story I’d recently heard.
“A man was sitting in a bar declaring loudly that he didn’t believe in God. “Why not?” the bartender asked.
“I was on my dog sled, crossing the frozen Yukon, when a terrible storm came up. I completely lost my way. The dogs and I huddled together for warmth but soon all our food was gone. Day after day, I begged God to help me but nothing, only silence. I knew I was going to die.”
“But you’re here,” said the bartender. “God must have helped you.”
“What God?” said the man. “Some Eskimo came and showed me the way.”
The whole time I was telling the story, just at the edge of the light, a man paced nervously back and forth. “Psst … psst,” he called. “Psst … psst.”
Now any woman who’s ever traveled knows that the only sane response to a man who psst … pssts you is to totally ignore him. And so we did. But the man kept circling us, his psst … psst becoming louder and more insistent. We looked around. There was no one else. Just this big, agitated man headed straight for us.
He leaned in. We backed up.
“Senoritas,” he said in broken English, “if you’re waiting for the bus, you’re in the wrong place. It leaves from the Mexican side of the border, about a mile from here.”
Jumping up, we grabbed our backpacks, screaming “gracias” as we ran. By some miracle, we actually managed to get onto the bus just as it was pulling away. Settling into our seats for the 10-hour ride, my sister and I looked at one another and smiled. “Eskimo,” we said.
In the next two decades I would spend almost 10 years of my life on the road. And while I got to see the tourist sights of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, North America, Central America and Asia, it was the Eskimos I met along the way who turned me from a tourist to a traveler. For they were the people—of all ages, colors, religions, economic backgrounds, countries and cultures—who taught me that the world is not nearly as scary a place as so many would have us believe. In our day-to-day lives, with its brain-bombarding stresses, worries and obligations, it’s easy to miss the Eskimos.
Out on the road, one can’t deny them. They make this world simpler, gentler and a hell of a lot more fun.
And so what follows is dedicated to them, the Eskimos who come to show us the way. Here are their stories:
In the mid-1980s I visited China as an “independent traveler.” Prior to this, only government-controlled tour groups were allowed into the country. Now for the first time, as backpack toting travelers, we were being allowed to follow our own timetable, provided we went only to officially sanctioned cities, ate at officially sanctioned restaurants and stayed in officially sanctioned hotels.
The only problem was that the government’s desire to control our movements far exceeded its organizational skills. This we learned first hand when we got to Beijing and headed for the office where hotel rooms were assigned.
The office opened at 3 p.m. By 3:05 p.m. all rooms slotted for independent travelers had been filled.
This might have been okay but we were not among the 50 who got room assignments; we were in the group of 50 who did not. In any other place, one might have thought, “I’ll just find a park and throw down my sleeping bag,” or “I’ll go to the local police station and stay there for the night.”
But one did not think this in the China of the early ’80s. Not if you wanted to be heard from again.
So we did the only thing that made any sense. We headed for the Beijing Hotel, the one, and at the time the only luxury hotel in town, to drown our sorrows in a beer. (Hotel rooms might have been hard to come by, but Tsingtao beer never was).
Once I was comfortably ensconced at the bar, my boyfriend announced that he was going to try and call around and find a room for us. Getting a list of hotels in the area from the front desk, he proceeded to spend 45 minutes sitting at the bank of phones in the lobby speaking to people he couldn’t understand through phone lines that sounded like they’d been chewed on by rats.
Finally, a small, dark man sitting near the phone bank came over and told him to hang up; he had a room for him. My boyfriend replied that he wasn’t alone. The man said, “No problem.”
Running to get me, my boyfriend introduced me to Mohammed. As a pilot for Pakistani Airlines, he had a room at the hotel and had graciously offered to bunk with his co-pilot so we could have a place to stay—for free. Then he and the entire airline crew took us out to dinner at the only Pakistani restaurant in Beijing. On the next day, the crew organized a banquet in one of their rooms.
They flew to China so often they were tired of the food, so before they left Pakistan each crew member packed delicacies from home. The crew considered this food all but sacred. But, as their honored guests, they were only too happy to share it with us. Funny, since we had done nothing more to achieve this status than to have been out of luck and accommodations.
As we ate samosas and toasted each others health with more Tsingtao, I had to smile, for once again I was surrounded by Eskimos—this time named Mohammed, Suliman and Ali.
By Jamie Simons for PeterGreenberg.com. Photos by Nancy Casolaro.
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