When I am asked where my stories come from, my frequent answer is, “Before bottled water.”
Most people cannot remember a world without the ease of chugging from a plastic bottle when no other clean water was available. It meant treating whatever came out of the tap—mud and bugs included—with iodine tablets and waiting thirty minutes before brushing your teeth in the “purified” reddish bitter liquid that resulted. Or it meant boiling water on your portable butane burner carried around the world for just such situations, hopefully avoiding starting your room’s drapes on fire; which, alas, I managed to do on one occasion.
Of course, it wouldn’t make much difference to my stories if there had been bottled water or not, it’s simply a metaphor for life before cell phones and the internet. If I had never experienced that life, I couldn’t write my stories, not in the same way.
Take Cooper’s story. He hangs out in a bar-cum-brothel named The Muddy Pan. That’s the bar I hung out in when I was stranded for two weeks in Cape Verde, except there the bar was nicknamed ‘Vietnam’ and instead of going through a beaded curtain you climbed stairs to the “labyrinth of rooms that offered mattresses and little privacy” behind sagging doors. I wouldn’t have been stranded where no one in the world knew where I was; instead, I would have been in the internet café telling people where I was. I wouldn’t have ended up escaping Cape Verde as a stowaway on a barge for a dangerous three-day crossing to Senegal where, upon docking, I was taken away by a policeman as ferret-like as Little Ears and fed a meal of rice and bird fetuses—until I made my smart alecky ‘Catch 22’ comment and was arrested. I wouldn’t have been clinging to the doorframe as I was pulled away crying for help to the docile don’t-involve-me people in the waiting room.
None of that would have happened.
Instead I would’ve been on my iPhone sending SMSes arranging for bribes to get me out of trouble, or I never would have been in trouble in the first place.
I’m not suggesting that it’s a good idea to put yourself in dangerous situations. In fact, I scare myself when I think of some of the extreme things that I’ve done. But I learned how to cope without being in constant instant communication.
In 1978 I decided to go around the world, and while I didn’t make it the whole way, I traveled for eight months. For the last four of them I heard from no one because my letters to family and friends didn’t get to them in time for their letters to reach me at the next American Express letter drop on my route. It was liberating. I felt propelled through time and space with only one resource to rely on: me.
That’s something most people will never experience. It would be hard to now. It would be a conceit to try. But for me it was profoundly important.
Life before bottled water? Those were the adventures that stories are made from, and so am I.
Photo by Michael Honegger. www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com