Traveling "Out There" While Getting Older
Lessons From An Veteran Adventure Writer
By Peter Lourie
There’s a wonderful scene in Gabriel García Márquez’ classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude when José Arcadio Buendía comes home after years of going away with the gypsies and adventuring who knows where. He’s been around the world not once or twice, but no less than 65 times having enlisted in a “crew of sailors without a country.” When he suddenly reappears in his native Colombian jungle town, astonished townsfolk ask where he has been all these years. He responds in a Spanish twinged with sailor slang. “Out there,” he says. Then he hangs his hammock, sleeps for three days solid, wakes to eat sixteen raw eggs and heads to the bar.
“Welcome back,” a writer friend used to say to me when we met at the café in town. “Where have you been?” That’s when I would like to have José’s sailor’s eyes, all those crows feet in a squint focusing on some outcast island or ocean horizon. I would lift my forefinger and point mysteriously at nothing and everything. “Out there,” I’d say cryptically.
I remember when I first noticed my age while traveling “out there.” I’d already written ten photo-adventure books for kids and was sliding through my 40’s still carrying way too much photo equipment. In the beginning, I took up photography so that I wouldn’t have to pay a professional photographer half of my advance and royalties. I quickly fell in love with holding cameras in my hands. Physical notes are important but given the choice, I’d almost always rather be documenting an experience in photographs. But everything has its cost and the price of high fidelity recordings and quality photographs is weight. A weight that, as I get older, has become increasingly tiresome.
It was on a trip to Mexico that I started noticing this problem. I was carrying three camera bodies and multiple lenses for each. Keep in mind that the average SLR camera body and a single lens can clock in between two and eight pounds! I had three times that with an additional five pounds of recording equipment hanging off me. And it was about time to pay the price.
I went to Mexico to write about the Aztecs for one of my four books on New World Civilizations. As part of my research, I shadowed Leonardo López Luján, the director of the Templo Mayor Museum, the Great Temple of the Mexica Peoples. Leonardo wanted to show me the incredible city of Teotihuacán, a place that predated the Aztecs and was used as a model for their own city of Tenochtitlán a thousand years later. To this day, no one knows who built Teotihuacán, but it’s thought to have housed as many as 200,000 people in its prime. To reach it, Leonardo and I drove 30 miles north of Mexico City to the great ruins of the mysterious place.
Leonardo had plans to hike up the Pyramid of the Moon where we would meet Japanese archeologist Dr. Saburo Sugiyama and Mexican colleague Ruben Cabrera. The two archeologists had opened up a tomb in Teotihuacán’s second biggest structure and were busy making major discoveries about the area and its people. Saburo’s excavations had already revealed sacrificial victims, skeletons of wolves, jaguars, pumas, serpents, and birds, alongside obsidian figurines, ceremonial knives and spear points.
At the base of the pyramid, Leonardo pointed up the steep temple wall. “We’re not taking the stairs?” I asked.
“Faster,” he said with a smile.
I looked down at my cameras and mentally braced for the climb. Leonardo, I told myself as I readjusted all the straps, is twelve years younger. And sure enough, he was already scrambling up the face.
I did my best to keep up, but almost immediately hit the wall of my new, limited endurance. It wasn’t that I was out of shape, this was hardly my first rodeo. No, the beast that confronted me now was far simpler: age.
And so I lumbered upward like an overloaded mule. Thank god I held all the cameras that day and no one captured me wheezing after Leonardo. Before I knew it, he was almost to the landing high up on the Pyramid where they’d opened a tunnel into the tomb. I resettled the straps, took a breath, and kept climbing.
At the top, I composed myself near the graduate students sifting through dirt from the tomb and gazed out along the 2-mile Avenue of the Dead to the magnificent Pyramid of the Sun.
Then I turned into the tunnel. Narrow, dim, and packed with people coming and going, it was like a busy mineshaft. Immediately, it was everything I could do to keep 10,000 dollars of equipment from whacking and scraping against the walls as I dodged passing workers.
So worried was I about equipment that I hardly appreciated the string of bare light bulbs illuminating the tight passage or the men coming out with wheelbarrows full of dirt from the excavation inside. It was like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Not wasting any time, Leonardo jumped into the pit with Saburo, and began talking excitedly about what they were finding. When my students at Middlebury begin exploring their adventure projects, they learn quickly not to get in the way of their subjects, but rather to offer to help the experts and mentors they are learning from. It’s a lesson I’ve learned over many years in the field.
Here, I didn’t want to be in anyone’s way as I took photos so I twisted my 6-foot-2 frame like an acrobat, kneeling, standing, and generally moving around in that tiny space as quickly as possible. I snapped as many photos as I could while flicking through cameras and lenses, not knowing whether I was exposing correctly in that dark, dusty space. I was too excited to care and too busy wishing I’d started yoga a few years earlier. Cramped and filthy as I was, I can still remember how good it felt to be there.
Driving back to Mexico City, I started to feel the afterglow of my job that had seemed so precarious up the Pyramid and inside. Already I was looking back on the experience and vowing to reduce my equipment load in the field. But although I was a bit stiff in the back and neck, I felt that same deep satisfaction in the gut that I always feel after a trip is over. Sometimes I don’t get the benefit until I’m back in the States writing at my desk, once a difficult trip has faded a little with time. Other times it’s immediate.
Caught in horrific Mexico City traffic, I bathed in the great good fortune of my life. Even as I get older and more easily tired, there is absolutely nothing that replaces the “out there-ness” of what I do. With any luck, and a spot of hard work, I could now return to my desk in Vermont with photos and impressions to hammer into a book that someone might like to read.
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