I caught Jessica’s eye. She nodded. She remembered the rule: never ask a Santo Domingo cab driver how much the ride will cost. Just wait till you get there and pay him what you think is right. It’s 170 pesos to go anywhere in the city, 150 if it’s very close. (The airport is more.)
This one was busy scribbling his personal cell number on someone else’s business card, telling Jess in Spanish that we should call him for all of our taxi needs. She added the card to four others in our collection. We’d been in the city all week, adding paved streets and outdoor cafes to our otherwise backpack-and-bus style trek across Hispaniola. We had escaped here for two months, to explore villages, beaches and our fledgling love while dodging deberes at home.
The problem was those two months were over.
We had spent the first half of our time mostly in one town, Las Galeras, doing our work in the mornings and taking afternoons in the sun. “Galera,” as you’d say in cotton-mouthed Dominican Spanish, was not exactly a cute little fishing hamlet, but it also wasn’t a thumping resort destination, and that’s why we stayed.
By our second month we were ready to strike out. We crossed the DR end to end (some of it more than once) and we went to Haiti. It’s hard to describe everything that’s wrong with Haiti, but I can say that getting up in the morning and leaving the house feels like being hit in the face with a plank. I told Jessica it was the roughest trip I’d ever taken.
“It’s not my roughest ever,” she said. “But I’m the oldest that I’ve ever been.”
Returning from Haiti instilled in me a new sense of adoration for the Spanish side of the island, home of a laid back people who add sugar even to fruit juice and lift their shirts over their bellies when they need to cool off. I had come to feel at home here, to feel happier than I do in most US towns, and now it was time to leave.
Before I began my travels I had the idea that travel changes the mind. I pictured that traveling far and wide would, on its own, be some kind of transformative practice—that the adventures I’d find myself in would refine who I was. That’s essentially true, but I don’t think I could have imagined how it actually works.
Travel is not an adventure game where overcoming challenges develops new skills, or where mentors and allies appear to help you through the toughest times. Travel breaks you down. Most of the new skills you gain are developed during the many, many times you fail to overcome challenges, and more often you feel like you’re gambling your way forward with a skill set that’s far from sufficient. Mentors and allies can be found, but you generally have to create those relationships yourself—you have to take a lot of social risks.
The result is that travel does change you, deeply, but not by simply powering you up to some kind of super-talented globetrotter. If anything, travel changes you most effectively by undermining your sense of self, your certainty. It forces you to rethink things you believe.
Such as your purpose in life.
This is a pillar of heroic philosophy, the idea that simply going out and adventuring will bring you in contact with your calling, whatever that might be. For me, that has meant not only discovering new truths about myself, but also letting go—sometimes painfully—of things I was convinced I wanted.
Having shed so many of my old beliefs on the 1,800 mile bike ride, I didn’t expect another shakeup, not anytime soon. I felt a renewed sense of purpose during my stay in New Orleans, a certainty of my next steps: bike to Texas. Now, on buses and beaches and completely off-track, I would slip into daydreams and wonder what I could do instead.
Our last days in Santo Domingo were filled with exploratory strolls down old colonial streets, hand in hand, talking about anything besides what next. In the evenings we went to the hidden Cuban restaurant, where Serge would bring us mojitos and picaderas, a rocks glass of rum in his hand like he was our uncle at a family dinner. No one but us came in; “Dominicans don’t like anything different,” Serge said.
It was a sentiment I could relate to. Our life had become an idyllic one, traveling the Caribbean with just enough money, our Spanish on the mend, our love getting cozy. Why would I want anything to change?
The truth is, I didn’t.
As we walked I would think about the busy, hard life of writing while bicycling. I would think about how I imagine Texas and rural Louisiana, about camping in a small hammock illegally by the side of the road, about dodging semi-trucks and eating at gas stations. I found it hard to stir up any flavor of zeal for returning to that life.
It really wasn’t about my relationship with Jessica. We figured that out with relative ease (eventually): she’s going to come visit me in Texas when I reach it, and we’ll take it one step at a time. My crisis of the last few weeks was really, it turns out, about my own future.
We went to the Plaza de la Cultura, a cluster of national museums tucked somewhere between a university, the US Embassy and Santo Domingo’s only real freeway. We had just a few hours, so we chose in advance to see (only) the Museo de Arte Moderno. Had we known what we’d find, we would have gone for a whole day.
The Plaza is more like a campus or a private park. We strolled among fountains, massive trees and oh-so-rare green space. At first we couldn’t understand the peculiar sense of enchantment we found there, until we realized: it’s the only place in Santo Domingo that’s quiet.
That silence and magic stuck with me. Latin America takes art and scholarship seriously in a way that my home culture simply doesn’t. There’s a special reverence for education, and in turn for academics who devote their lives to study. Philosophic questions are fare for casual conversation. In the United States a PhD is a “piece of paper”; in the Latin world it is proof of real knowledge, knowledge that can change the world.
Inside, I clicked into my museum mode. I overflowed with questions about technique and meaning and artist intent. I had sudden ideas for new works of art. At closing time the docent had to kick us out, me fighting to snap pictures of artist names so I wouldn’t forget them.
It was there, strolling at sunset through a temple of culture, that I glimpsed a life I could be happy with. Not working in a museum; I had done that already. Not becoming an academic, necessarily, though I’ve long considered the option of grad school once I finish my journey.
But I could see myself in that world, somewhere in the intersection of culture, education, creating art as a writer, and connecting people as a traveler.
In other words, I’m not so sure my purpose involves less adventurer in “philosopher-adventurer,” but it does likely involve more philosopher.
Jess and I flew back. She’s in New York, on business, but she left me her apartment. For a few short days I have the bliss of sunny windows, good wi-fi and no distractions: the perfect place to write.
Then I need to leave.
New Orleans is my favorite American city—our least American city—but what I love is Latin America, every part of it I’ve been to. I don’t want to be in the United States, not temporarily and certainly no longer than needed. That means I need to rethink whether I want to spend many months training in Texas so I can kayak south.
I thought my purpose in life was to be an adventurer, to set great and near-impossible tasks and then push myself till I complete them. That 8,000 mile trek to Brazil still appeals to me.
But my journey makes me question that purpose (that is, after all, what journeys do). It makes me wonder: would I be happier getting there faster, living longer in fewer places, writing all day instead of biking all day?
And if I would be happier with that, why delay it another four years with this great trek?
I will at least go as far as Texas on the bike—and maybe keep going. By this time next week I will, indeed, be camping illegally by the side of the road. I will almost certainly be eating at gas stations. I will be following a dream I’m not sure is possible. And I won’t know why.
Some part of me says: because it’s what you’re meant to do. I’m just not sure I can trust that part of me.