When you travel alone, and have been traveling alone for a long time, you can get hungry for an audience. You have been remarkable places, a lot of them, and have had some wonderful and harrowing experiences along the way. Blogging is one way to tell the tale, and it is so helpful, but you want to tell it to someone who is sitting across from you, mouth agape, keeping your glass full, in a tavern full of laughing people. You long to wow an audience. I always say of my near misses and close to death experiences, ‘if it doesn’t kill me, it will make for a good story.’ A tale needs an audience, and at the end of the road in a lonely hostel with the rain falling, there is only you and, if lucky, some young ‘uns who only look at you askance, but are happy to share your pasta.
No, this is only partly autobiographical, but it is the story of a man I met in a cafe in Bogota. He was enough older than me to be bit wobbly with his coffee cup, and have tales of adventures that took place while I was in high school. I really really hoped he wasn’t my ghost of Christmases future.
After he started to chat me up with a few stock pleasantries: “Where are you from?,” Why are you traveling?,” “Are you alone?,” I of course reciprocated.
“I’m from Canada, but I live here in Bogota. I have an apartment on the corner. I had a wife long ago. I will go back to Canada in a month or so, but I won’t stay. I don’t know where I’ll go next.” He went into much more detail, and if he had collapsed there and then, I could have told the medics his blood type.
He told me tales of Goa in the 60’s, jumping trains when broke (I tried then to share my story of such times in Nime in the 90’s, but he cut me off), getting robbed on another train. He told me about hiking to the top of mountain to meet a famous guru, and getting stopped by the police and helped out by a beautiful young acolyte.
He told me he had been to Vietnam many years before and didn’t like the coffee (now his general mental status was in question for me) so when he came to Colombia, he searched for seeds for good Colombian Arabica to take back, as a sort of caffeine missionary, to convert the Vietnamese. There was a convoluted tale of getting the seeds from a young man who had to bring them to him in New York so he could get them to Vietnam. Which he did, and that is why you can now buy quality Arabica coffee in Vietnam. Several times I tried to convert his monologue into a conversation, as I had lived in Vietnam for over 3 years, but again my contributions were not welcome or pertinent to his tale.
When I started to visibly lose interest, becoming greatly fascinated with my toast and eggs, he got up to leave.
I did listen for way longer than I wanted. I felt bad for the old man alone on a rather dive street in Bogota, going back to Canada, and then going where he doesn’t know. It was a bit too close to the bone. He was starving for an audience, for people to care about him and his stories.
I have felt frustrated with the exquisite lack of interest my family has in my stories and travels. Sometimes I wonder if my friends are humouring me as they listen and ask questions. But then there are times when I can tell genuine engagement. I love encountering other travelers who want to exchange stories and fill each others glasses. My encounter with the old man reminded me to pay close attention to my audience and know when it is time to wrap up the story. I think a good sign is when your cup runs dry and stays that way.