Only Can Know Those Who Go

Only Can Know Those Who Go

A Tell is best recounted by chronological narrative.  This Tell begins in January 1969, nearly six years after high school ended in 1963, and after I graduated from the University of Texas with a B.S. in geology.

My first employment out of college took me to Louisiana engaged with an independent oil company.  Three years later, on a blind date, I met Karen, and we are still together after almost fifty years.  By then I had become an independent geologist, liberated from the numbing eight-to-five constraints required by the suit-jacketed corporate world.  Immediately Karen and I began to travel.  An extensive road trip to the Darien Gap in Panamá introduced us to Guatemala.  Subsequently, we stored our belongings in New Orleans and moved to Quetzaltenango in the Maya highlands.

At times travelers would stay at our house and share with us their experiences.  Excited by these anecdotes, from Guatemala we returned to Louisiana and prepared to leave the United States.  We liquidated all our property and closed all our accounts, placed our money in the hands of a trusted friend to wire us when needed.  We bought two backpacks and placed inside them the little that we would carry.  We did not know how long we would be gone, or even if we would come back at all.  Come back where?   We just walked away from our past to seek the new.

A friend drove us to the east side of New Orleans and we stepped out beside the Interstate to Miami and stuck out our thumbs.  Good fortune found us a non-stop ride with three fishermen pulling a boat to the Florida Keys.  They dropped us and our backpacks out on a corner.  We attracted two curious University of Miami students who invited us to a party and a place to sleep, with a promise to have us at the airport the next morning, and we did all that.  The jet left Miami bound for Barranquilla, Colombia.  We had no return tickets, and nowhere to go but everywhere.  I was 28 years old.

*

The end of the road is a place that appeals to me.  The Darien Gap in Panamá is the end of the road, where the Pan American highway expires into the jungle.  Los Cabos is the end of the road, as is Key West.  So is Cape Horn.  We headed there.  Travel was overland.  Walk, bus, train, horse, hitchhike.  No planes.  Along the way we lived in Ecuador, El Perú, and Bolivia, and spent considerable time in southern Chile.

We reached the Cape, the end of the road, and even beyond, all the way to the Islas Diego Ramirez, volcanoes in the Drake Passage between the Horn and Antarctica.  Then we returned north through Argentina, crossing into Brazil at the Iguazú waterfalls, the largest in the world.  From the falls we returned to Bolivia, riding across the Mato Grosso on the train made famous by the Grateful Dead’s ballad “Casey Jones.”  We made our way back through the Andes to Colombia, then through Central America toward the United States, reaching Cuidad Juárez by bus, crossing the border into El Paso by foot, having been gone three years.

We stayed several months, but remained restless.  We left for Asia.  Mount Everest is there, the end of the road.  From Kala Patthar, a rocky perch facing the west side of Everest, we watched the moon rise through the South Col.  In Rajasthan, India, at the Bara Bagh temple near Jaisalmer, we realized that wanderlust had been quenched.  We had become travelers, a distinction that can only be earned.  Since that fortuitous blind date, we had been on the road some eight years.

Countless adventures occurred during those travels.  Guatemala is where we learned to walk.  Our explorations there focused on shamanism.  We witnessed many strange ceremonies, including blood sacrifices, and assemblies of hundreds of painted dancers, and cleansings approaching exorcisms.  There we began to collect traditional costumes, a practice that would extend to all our travels.  In Ecuador we climbed volcanos and ventured by canoe into the Amazon to buy art from the Secoya, Cofán, and Siona natives.  From Cuzco in El Perú, we followed the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, finding ourselves totally alone in the ruins, not a single tourist.  From the Shipibo in the Peruvian Amazon we collected capuchino monkey-tooth bracelets and participated in ayahuasca ceremonies.  In Bolivia we trekked into remote villages to collect costumes and we rode horseback through herds of thousands of alpacas to attend dance festivals.  In Chile we bought raw lapis lazuli and carried it to Brazil to trade for faceted gemstones.  We traveled by boat through the straits of Magellan to a Chilean naval base on the Beagle Channel.  From there we got to Cape Horn, where the Chilean sailors afforded me the honor of igniting the flame on the light tower.  Afterwards we resumed our voyage south to the islands beyond.

In Asia we continued our tradition.  Using Kathmandu as our basecamp, we hiked into the remote region of Karnali, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, often walking with Tibetan caravans returning from India with trade goods.  In Kathmandu we searched for traders from Bhutan, a county that allowed no foreigners, and we bought their costumes and jewelry.  We trekked to the basecamp at Mt. Everest.  Two Sherpas and I built a rock shrine to memorialize a climber who had died on the mountain.  We toured the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Agra.  In Rajasthan we traveled by train and camelback into the Thar Desert to collect costumes.  By then we had seen enough. 

*

Money and time are the discriminators between a tourist and a traveler.  Tourists are handicapped by enjoying too much money, while travelers are rewarded by having just enough to scrape by.  Tourists travel by planes and taxis, employ guides, take tours, lodge in hotels, and eat at restaurants.  Travelers journey on buses and by foot or thumb, find their own way, lodge in boarding houses, and eat in the market or on the street.  Tourists are burdened by bulky baggage transporting clothing sufficient to keep them clean and fashionable, while travelers carry and wear the rudimentary, consequently appearing to be disheveled and unkempt.  Tourists meet other tourists, service staff, and local guides, while travelers meet the people of the land and their fellows on the road.  Tourists suffer from schedules and short time, while travelers remain independent of agendas and timetables.  A tourist might remark, “I only have a few days left, so I need to see the museum today.”  Travelers say, “Schedules create hassles.  We don’t walk to arrive, and the reason we came is the reason we can’t stay, and only can be found the mystic after the hunt is long and the will is strong.”

As travelers our expenses averaged three dollars a day plus transport.  One dollar for lodging, two dollars to eat.  Five dollars a day for two people was an expensive day, caused often by paying an entry fee into a park or museum. 

We camped a lot.  Early on we bought a small stove and tent from a traveler.  Usually we would depart a town with a fifty-pound backpack, this after storing our unnecessaries at a boarding house.  Inside our packs were dried food, candles, cooking gear, stove fuel, one change of clothes, one tent, two sleeping bags, and carefully selected trade goods.  We always found water along the way.  When available, we bought food from the locals.  Our walks into the wilds lasted from two weeks to a month.  We followed footpaths from village to village.  Our packs never lightened because, even though we ate our food and dispensed our trade goods, we replaced that weight with folk art and traditional costumes we collected.  We had no map or compass, just word of mouth.  We never got lost.  We never got sick.  We were never threatened, rather always welcomed by the curious locals, many of whom had never seen a white person.

Our time in cities included visits to museums, art galleries and markets.  We found lodging in cheap boarding houses frequented by travelers of all nationalities.  We ate in markets patronized by low income locals and adventurous foreigners.  Conversations introduced us to ideas and concepts very different from those of our upbringings.  We discovered that being bilingual strongly impacts one’s point of view.

Exposure to local folk augmented our outlook on life.  Countless times we were invited to people’s homes – thatched huts, tents, rock houses, penthouses, palaces – where we learned that almost all of us share similar values and ambitions, such as the desire to care for one’s children, to become educated, to have worthy work, to be respected in the community, to be gracious hosts and grateful guests.  From those encounters we absorbed the higher values of compassion, acceptance and humility.

Throughout our journeys we sought the spice of the spot – food, drink, culture, and pleasure – and, as our taste for the exotic evolved exponentially, we shed our skins and molted into new people with fresh ideas.  If you want to really know who you are, walk to where not a person knows you or your culture.  A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a lifetime of introspection.  Only can know those who go.

My English name is difficult for Spanish speakers and for those who speak the dialect.  In Guatemala, Marco Aurilio, a Kʼicheʼ speaker and my companion into the world of shamanism, could not pronounce Nugent at all.  Because of the hot chile peppers I always ate, he tagged me Paco, which sounds similar to his word paqon, meaning hot and spicy.  The name stuck.  My wife and sons call me by that name, as do all my friends.

*

After returning to the United States from eight rootless years of wandering, I discovered that my brief geological career had produced a skill that was in demand, and to put it to practice we settled in a small city in Texas for a short spell.  Our plan was to build a basecamp in America, to live and travel from there, and we selected New Mexico for our camp site.  We bought an abandoned historical homestead bordering the mountainous Gila Wilderness, built a house with huge glass windows, decorated it with our art collection, and began to grow our business by incorporating our first oil company.

After only a few years in New Mexico, the company had expanded such that a capital infusion was desirable.  We obtained that funding in Manhattan and a second oil company was established.  Our corporations grew quickly, providing us entrepreneurial enjoyment, monetary largess, and the facility to travel.  Our enterprises continued to enlarge.  We formed a third and fourth oil company, both based in Canada, where we enjoyed lengthy sojourns. 

Along the way, two sons graced our lives, both raised as bilingual and bicultural, both travelers, both blessed with a unique youth. 

Conscious of our affluence, we always attempted to present the face of modesty and humility as opposed to privilege.  Obvious to us is that people need help.  Our support focused on education, building self-esteem, offering self-sustainability, and having a place to live.  Our offers of support most often were extended to strangers.  A waiter in a restaurant attracted our attention and our financial assistance to him stretched from high school graduation to a degree in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University.  A young felon without direction became a trade school graduate and small business owner after we financed his schooling and living expenses in Phoenix.  A lobster fisherman in Punta Abreojos offered us his ram shackled house while he was away for a year, and we rebuilt it for him while we lived there.  Another fisherman in Desemboque needed a boat to expand his fishing waters, so we bought him one.

While money is a good gift, one’s time is a special contribution.  Karen served as a teacher for two Mexican junior high girls.  English was her class language, and both learned it from scratch.  At the end of the year, each student scored well above average on a standardized test given to American students.  For over a year, Karen tutored a seven-year old handicapped boy, confined in a wheelchair, teaching him to read and giving him hope and a wide smile. 

For my part, I stumbled into a rewarding contribution by accident – I handed an instruction book to a young man and asked him to read me a part while I fiddled with an instrument.  He could not read, and he was in the eighth grade.  My astonishment provoked curiosity leading to research that introduced me to dyslexia and to the Lindamood Bell program to mitigate the disability.  Colored flash cards are used in the program and with those I taught the young man to read and do math.  It was a wonder to behold the transformation of that person.  He just clicked on!  What had been a silent, sloven shell lacking confidence, self-esteem and motivation became a vibrant, fashionable, extroverted, disciplined individual exuding purposeful power.  Along with this renovation came A’s not F’s, and a seat in the front row instead of one hidden in the back. 

Our romance with travel never diminished.  Even while growing our oil companies, we roamed about, often for stretches of multiple years. Desiring a change from western New Mexico, we preferred Latin American seaside basecamps that offered access to coastal mountains and rain forests.  Our friends included latinos and indigenous locals.  Most were fishermen, farmers and ranchers, but also a sprinkling of urban elites to insert extravagance.  We, including our sons, went to sea with the fishermen, into the rain forest with farmers, to rodeos and animal markets with ranchers, and to the country clubs with the adinerados.  Our sons immersed themselves into several social classes of foreign cultures by attending public schools, indigenous family gatherings, resort socials, and civil ceremonies.

Financial success quickly exposed time as more valuable than wealth, enforcing the axiom that time cannot be purchased, so I monetized our interests in our oil companies and escaped the land of suits and conspicuous consumption.

That year I was approached by some professors to search for the Coronado Trail, a request that surprised me since I thought that the trail was known.  My search lasted on and off for nearly fifteen years.  I found four Coronado camps and published eight scholarly reports in the New Mexico Historical Review and the University of New Mexico Press.  The section of my website with photographs of places mentioned in this Tell is:

 http://chichilticale.com/2017.htm. & http://chichilticale.com/index.htm.

During my hunt for Coronado, we continued to live and travel in Latin America and the Caribbean, and, along the way, we decided to make a permanent change in latitude and attitude.  Paramount to our consideration of places to park included a friendly, welcoming population with a high percentage of costumed locals to ensure continuous festivals, a tropical highland climate, historic architecture, exotic food and drink, abundant art and music, comfort and safety, and obtainability of a permanent resident visa.  Secondary considerations included ease and time to reach the United States, and availability of modern communication.

Our deliberations of spots to live included the Americas south of the United States, the Iberian Peninsula, central Asia, and South Africa.  Several factors, most deleterious being time and distance, eliminated Africa and Asia as potential destinations.  These same issues disqualified Iberia.  The Caribbean was rejected primarily because of the climate, but also because of the lack of colorful locals and the poor food quality.  The Yucatán Peninsula was excluded because of the climate.  Mexico north of Mexico City was eliminated because of the climate, the lack of color, art, and music, the bland food, and the danger.  Central Mexico, including the capital and Puebla, failed principally because of the dense population and the air quality.  Western Mexico was too dangerous.

Popayán, Colombia, Ibarra, Ecuador, Xelajú, Guatemala, and San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico all deserved and received favor, but were outranked by the eventual preference.  In the end we left our New Mexico basecamp and settled in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico, where life is tranquilo y tropical, and where we are contented legal permanent residents at the time of this telling in July 2020.

Now I am living my seventy-sixth year, healthy and happy, wrinkle-free, a vegetarian for almost fifty years, all my body parts functioning, medication-free, not seeing a doctor since 1969.  I have never owned a watch or a wallet.  Only within the last few years have I owned a cell phone.  My first twenty-eight years were the product of my upbringing in western Texas.  That discipline aimed at mandatory college and mandatory respectable employment.  I hit both those targets.  I wondered what I had missed.  The only way to find out was to go on the road, and that’s what I did.

One thought on “Only Can Know Those Who Go

  1. Anonymous December 14, 2020 / 3:22 pm

    What a great life you have lead Paco (Nugent) . You have done what alot of people would want to do with there Life. Would love to see you again and find out more about your travels. What I have read so far is very interesting.
    Thanks for sharing,
    John Nobles

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