Recent stories of travel in the News Journal have evoked several of my own. My parents traveled quite a bit with their two children due to my father’s employment with the National Cash Register Company, which transferred him every six or eight years.
I was born in Yonkers, New York, spent most grade school years in Indianapolis and high school in Bloomington, Indiana. My wanderlust, however, was primarily evoked by my year-and-a-half in the Army in Germany which enabled me to travel to 12 countries.
I had volunteered for the draft in order to receive the GI Bill, which mostly paid for four years of college tuition. That opened up innumerable options and I ultimately attended 13 colleges, universities and graduate schools – some for years and others ‘til I dropped out.
I completed my undergraduate degree at a summer school at Mexico City College in Mexico City. I had been invited there by two friends with whom I had traveled in Germany. They had rented a room in a private house occupied by a German woman and her son.
I never learned much about the woman, but it was obvious that she was a Nazi as the house was decorated with small Nazi flags. Mexico had served as a Mecca for expatriates from around the world which results in unexpected surprises.
I will mention just two — first, the home of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky – he was murdered in his family compound in 1940 by communist Ramon Mercader who was presumably acting under orders from Russian dictator Stalin. Second, the restaurant where Fidel Castro met with friends and planned the invasion of Mexico.
Getting to Mexico was quite simple as I had become acquainted and comfortable with hitch-hiking. I simply got a ride to old US 40 east of Indianapolis and put my thumb out — and two days later I was in Laredo, Texas.
I had spelled out MEXICO with white tape on my suitcase so potential rides would know I was a long-distance traveler and not just local.
My first night on the road was spent in a car belonging to a filling station attendant somewhere in Missouri (I think). The second night was in a cockroach-infested room at the San Antonio YMCA. I propped up my suitcase on a chair, which seemed to discourage international roach travelers.
Crossing to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico I boarded a bus for the 700-mile ride to Mexico City. It is funny what one remembers about such experiences, but at a stop on the way I exited the bus and ordered a drink of milk (not a very typical drink in Mexico).
After drinking it, a man approached me and asked what I thought of it. I told him it was fine. He proceeded to explain that he was a government health official and that Mexico had been having trouble with undulant fever and this bottled drink was a new government-approved product!
From the bus station I walked several blocks with the suitcase on my shoulder in order to convince any taxi driver that I was not a new arrival (I should have known that we North-Americans can be spotted anywhere.) I did, however, find a very helpful taxi driver who took 45 minutes to locate my destination. The charge was about 35 cents.
The two months in the Mexican capital were interesting and very informative. Mexico City College was simply full of ex-Gls and some assignments for my four classes necessitated going to the Benjamin Franklin Library in the center of the city, which necessitated acquaintance with the bus system and city locations.
I have never become fluent in the Spanish language, but I don’t hesitate to ask questions in my elementary Spanish – people always seemed to be anxious to help.
A problem in Mexico, however, is that the people are so committed to helping you that they will give you an answer and directions even if they don’t have a clue – so much for cultural differences!
Returning to the U.S. was also interesting. I got a ride to the border with another ex-GI. While waiting at the 12-mile mark where all vehicles must register, I was awakened from my half-sleep in the back seat when I heard over the loud speaker the name Ned Bowman – this was a close friend’s brother who was returning to the U.S. with his father and they were next in line for clearance to cross the border. (Just another coincidence that I have often experienced in travel.)
On the U.S. side I proceeded to hitch-hike, and the first ride was with a Mexican student on his was to a university in Louisiana. The ride was long and congenial in a VW Bug. Then we stopped for the night at a motel I asked If I could sleep in his car for the night.
He said no, but he would order a cot in his room for me. That was fine, but when he was getting ready for bed, he took a very large roll of money out of his pocket and laid it on the table next to his bed — and then a pistol! I found that there was no reason for concern; the next day we were in Louisiana.
The next ride was short, but in a convertible Thunderbird, so I didn’t complain. Ride number three took me all the way to Terre Haute, Indiana. The driver had just graduated from the law school at the University of Chicago – number one in his class so he said and I have no reason to doubt!
The final ride was to Dayton, where my parents lived. The driver was a sailor and he was in a hurry!
So, it took me four rides to cover the 1,700 miles in less than two days. It included one free overnight and I spent a total of three dollars — drivers often would pick up the bill at restaurants, I think they appreciated the company. Only in the ride through Mexico did a driver ask me to drive, then he complained that I too often used the brakes going down mountains.
I can’t think of a better way to spend one’s time and life than traveling — not going to a resort or laying on the beach.
For me, travel should be educational and liberating from the narrow perceptions that seem to naturally emerge when unexposed to the variety of locations and fellow humans this wonderful world provides.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.