Sunday, October 16, 2011

An Accidental Tourist

Since I’m a tour guide, people ask me if I ever get tired of going back to the same places. Here’s my answer. The locations to which I take my groups are some of the most beautiful in the world; it’s pretty tough to become indifferent to beauty. Culturally, the places I visit are diverse – from Africa to Asia to South America. Every time I go back, I learn something new and experience the location in a different way. And returning to a country or city is almost like coming home as that location becomes familiar, comfortable, and more hospitable every time I renew the connections that have bonded us.

So a few days ago I started thinking about Cusco, slipping into a South American frame of mind for the next tour I’m guiding to this Andean city, base camp for tackling Machu Picchu and hiking the Inca Trail. As I sat on my deck in the damp coastal cool of a North Carolina evening sipping a homemade Pisco Sour and watching the last of the season’s fireflies, I transported myself to Cusco’s dry high-altitude air. Instead of a line of sea pines near the beach, I saw the rugged cordillera and a hunter’s moon dappling Inca monoliths. And instead of a Carolina train whistle and the rock music of Brother Henry wannabes playing the beach bar down the road, I heard the haunting strains of quenas and the mellow chords of a Charango.

My bags were packed and my girlfriend, Myra, was bracing for my departure and my absence from home for the next few weeks. By midday Friday I’d finished a proposal for a new India tour, thinking I would be out of internet commission for the next few weeks, except for checking email. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, I’d been at my computer for hours, and I craved a bike ride down to Wrightsville Beach, one of my new favorite places in Wilmington.

Initially, everything was going well on the ride, and my mind was clear and calm, the way it is whenever I’m outside doing something physical (well, maybe not mowing the lawn or chasing down the mole tunneling through our back yard). I really did register the pickup truck with the equipment trailer in a driveway, but it wasn’t moving, so I glanced down at my bike’s computer to check my speed. 22 mph. Good. I was on the beach road with its bike lane and light shoulder-season traffic. A couple of fellow cyclists were no more than 100 yards behind me.

Then, a millisecond later, the truck moved and the trailer lurched directly in front of me. I had no chance to slow down. No chance to swerve. I hit the trailer at full speed, an impact that shattered my bike frame and sent me flying over the trailer’s sides in a forward trajectory of at least thirty feet. It landed me face first on the pavement. My helmet and the fact that the trailer was only waist high (so I flew over it rather than into it with the force of my momentum), saved me from death. Sprawled on the street with blood gushing from my broken nose, cut mouth, and facial gashes, I believed that I had just taken a spill and could scramble up, get my bearings, and remount my bike. Fortunately, one of the cyclists behind me was a neurosurgeon who took charge of the accident scene and kept me from trying this. Still, in my mind I was sure I could get up. I’m in shape, I thought. I’m leaving for Peru in a few days. No problem.

No way. I’m paraphrasing the ER doc, who (while he was calmly stitching my face) told me he’d been to Peru with a medical team traveling to remote villages and Indians who would otherwise never see a doctor. Bluntly, he explained I wouldn’t be going anywhere in my condition, certainly not to Peru. I have to admit he’s right. Aside from my other injuries, I look like I’ve been on the receiving end of a few roundhouse punches. It’s not a face to inspire confidence in a tour group coming to South America for the first time. As a fresh air junkie, I’ve experimented with various headgear to keep my battered face protected from the sun and have settled on a hokey, but utilitarian, cap from my last ultra after first trying out an Arab keffiyeh that made me look like Elephant Man and a favorite African safari hat that sat like a beanie on top of my swollen head.

My girlfriend may have to venture down to Cusco in my place – she’s fluent in Spanish and still has family down in Peru. Plus her face looks great, a lot better than mine even at its best. The vagaries of chance have turned her into an accidental tourist, but maybe that’s good, because she won’t have time to build apprehensions or develop preconceptions. She’ll just go with the experience as it is, letting it imprint her sensibilities where it will start creating the bonds that make a strange place familiar and the word “home” resonate the way it does for me.